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Chapter 28 — An empty throne
Year 63, Kali yuga
Kumudhan’s blood-stained silk angavastram lay draped over the large golden throne, and his gem-studded crown on the seat. Aranvendhan took his place at the side, with the rest of the War Council. He gripped the dagger on his waistband tightly, his knuckles drained of colour. Anger and grief filled his chest, but his face betrayed none of it as he watched the nobles and citizens slowly filter into the courtroom. News of the Emperor’s murder had spread, and people had thronged to the capital to witness the trial of those accused in this brazen act of treason.
On his right sat the rest of the War Council, save two. Nerivānan stood in the centre, and patiently waited for the courtroom to fill up. He looked around the hall, and clapped his hands once. The great doors opened, and a small retinue of soldiers entered, with two chained men in tow. The first, Thiruvāsagan shuffled forward slowly, unwilling to look up. Behind him, Pulithēvan walked with his head held high, heedless of the jeering cries of the onlookers. They reached the first set of steps, and the soldiers made the prisoners kneel before Nerivānan. The Chancellor continued to look down, but the bandit looked around with the curiosity of a small child. The courtroom filled with the noise of murmur, and scattered shouts of insults aimed at the two prisoners.
Nerivānan cleared his throat, addressed the room: “O people of this great land Nākalam! A dark day rises! Here lies our throne, empty! Chakravarthi Kumudhan, dead, at the hands of Thiruvāsagan and Pulithēvan!”
At the mention of his father’s name, Aranvēndhan looked up and glowered at the two men in chains. One knelt in shame, but the other met his gaze. Pulithēvan’s expression was not one of defiance or submission, but rather the stoic visage of empathic understanding. He nodded slightly, as if to offer his condolences, and Aranvēndhan found himself nodding back, and the rage inside seemed to ebb a little.
Nerivānan continued: “Thiruvāsagan, a trusted chancellor, and Pulithēvan, a bandit—you have been accused of treason and treachery against the state. By your actions, the Emperor is dead.” He turned to look back at the throne, and his voice caught in his throat. “Nā—Nākalam...Nākalam has lost her beloved monarch, and I...a dear friend.” He paused for a moment. The murmurs in the hall grew louder. Nerivānan took a deep breath, and continued: “You stand accused of conspiring with the enemy, causing the death of the Emperor, and the good soldiers of this blessed land! The punishment is death.”
“Dhrōgi! Vaṅcakan!” The crowd chanted. “Betrayer! Traitor!”
Nerivānan put his hand up to silence the crowd. “Have you anything to say, Thiruvāsagā?”
Thiruvāsagan looked up for the first time. Tears streamed down his dishevelled face. “I...Forgive me, my lords! I...I was coerced! Semmaḷvarāyan, he—he gave me no choice! I was powerless to oppose him!”
“Coerced? Did you not welcome Semmaḷvarāyan with open arms into the palace? And I remember your emphatic reasoning for your actions.”
“My lords! I merely intended to do what was best for this land—my land! Nākalam is my mother, as she is yours!” Thiruvāsagan pleaded. “Believe me, sire!”
“By any measure, this was no solution to your imagined financial crisis of this state.” Nerivānan replied, anger in his voice. “And, this is no simple case of back stabbing, such a course of action would have been planned for months, and only with your knowledge!”
“Sire, no! I...I was forced to comply with Semmaḷvarāyan’s designs! He forced me put up this facade, sire!” Thiruvāsagan put his shackled hands up.
“A facade?” Vagaimāran asked.
“Yes, General! I was forced to feign this false alliance, for this very reason I am in chains! He threatened to kill the royal family if I did not act by his instructions—I merely looked to save their lives, my lords!”
“An incredible tale you tell, Thiruvāsagā.” Nerivānan replied. The people began to murmur amongst themselves.
Thiruvāsagan turned to Aranvēndhan. “My prince!” He pleaded. “Surely you must believe me! I have been nothing but loyal!”
Aranvēndhan did not reply, he glared back silently.
Nerivānan challenged Thiruvāsagan. “Do enlighten us, how did Semmaḷvarāyan manage to carry out such a well-executed scheme, all by himself? He stole from our tax caravans—the routes of which only you are familiar with—enter our borders, set fire to the outposts, kill many of our soldiers in the barracks, and take control of the palace virtually unopposed. This would require significant help from our side, one would wager.”
“My lord, I told him naught! No, it was him!” Thiruvāsagan wagged an accusing finger at the man beside him. “He—Pulithevan had a small army at his disposal—it was all his doing! And, I think, there...there must be another spy in the court! Semmaḷvarāyan has spies everywhere! He—”
With a loud cry, Pulithēvan pounced on Thiruvāsagan, and had his chains around the man’s neck in a flash. The soldiers around them lunged forward, and tried to pull the bandit away, but Pulithēvan did not relent. The chains tightened, and Thiruvāsagan eyes bulged. One of the soldiers pulled out a dagger, but Pulithēvan shoved him away. With a sickening crack, the Thiruvāsagan’s neck snapped, and Pulithēvan kicked the lifeless body to the floor. Silence descended on the hall.
“Liar.” Pulithēvan spat. He looked up at Nerivānan, and bowed mockingly, his chest heaving. “Apologies, O mantriyārē. I could not hear his lies and accusations any more. I saved your executioner a day’s work.” He allowed himself to be subdued by the soldiers. They produced a roll of black fabric, and blindfolded Pulithēvan with it. Pulithēvan did not fight them, but he slid his hands into his waistband, and pulled out something in his closed fist, and tossed it at Nerivānan. The minister looked down. A small, crumpled piece of parchment rolled to a stop by his feet. He picked it up, and smoothed out the creases.
“I do not know what it says, Minister.” Pulithēvan called aloud, as the soldiers bound his hands, but behind his back this time. “But I think it should give you proof that your chancellor and Semmaḷvarāyan were communicating with each other for long. It is not the only message he sent, there were others, many others.”
Nerivānan glanced at the rest of the Council members. Mārthāndan got up, and walked up to the Minister. Nerivānan handed the parchment to him. Mārthāndan allowed himself a small smile at the message’s reference to him, and nodded in affirmation to the rest of the Council.
Mārthāndan turned to Nerivānan. “Let us keep him imprisoned, he knows more about Semmaḷvarāyan than any of us here.” he said in a low tone.
Nerivānan thought for a moment, and nodded. Mārthāndan gestured to the soldiers, and they removed Pulithēvan’s blindfold. Mārthāndan held the parchment up. “No death for you, Pulithevā. Not yet, at least. Take him away.”
The soldiers began to lead Pulithēvan away, but he stopped, and turned back towards the dais. “Oh, that boy Nithilan. He is dead. Semmaḷvarāyan killed him.”
A collective gasp rose from the crowd.
“You speak the truth?” Nerivānan asked the bandit. “Our reports told us it was by your hands he was captured.”
Pulithēvan smiled. “I may be unscrupulous, but a liar I am not, Minister. I have never even seen that boy.”
Nerivānan looked at Mārthāndan, and shook his head, dejected. “I had hoped Semmaḷvarāyan was not that cruel.”
“And I, foolish.” Mārthāndan sighed, staring at the ground.
Aranvēndhan and Vagaimāran walked up to the duo on the dais. Aranvēndhan put his hands on Mārthāndan’s shoulder. “Find Semmaḷvarāyan, Mārthāndā. Bring him here. I shall show him no mercy.”
The crowd in the hall began to disperse, murmuring amongst themselves. Malasāra remained in the corner, still in his hunter form. People shuffled past him as he stood in the shadows, eyes fixed on the blood-stained shawl of Kumudhan. Aranvēndhan will be Emperor now. A Thattān remains on the throne. Twenty-five years of work undone, because of Semmaḷvarāyan’s reckless act. Twenty-five years of patience. Maybe I should have not trusted him.