Excerpt – Burden of the Crown

Spoiler Warning for the War of the Three Kings

Anna Bushi

Chapter 1 – Jay

Salty air wafted in through the tiny window and touched my skin like a coarse fabric. The sea crashed against the ship, drowning the faint noise of sailors shouting on the deck above me. Picking up a scroll, I noticed the swirls in the honey-colored table revealed by the morning light. I traced the markings on the wood with my finger, marveling at the craftsmanship of Malla carpenters. From outside my door came a thud of footsteps and a knock. I glanced up as my son strode in with my nephew on his heels. My son, Vikram, resembled my younger self, captured in a portrait in Akash. 

“Father, there are beautiful coral reefs around here, and Atul and I want to take a boat to explore,” he said. The waves rocked the vessel gently like I had rocked these boys when they fit in my palm. Vikram swayed on his feet, brimming with energy. He exuded easy confidence that I had not possessed at sixteen.

“Uncle Jay, the Sunda siblings want to join us too,” my nephew, Atul, added. Meera had asked me to foster her son seventeen years ago, and I had raised him ever since. Born just a few months apart, my son and my nephew had grown inseparable and caused a lot of trouble with their boyish antics.  

I raised my eyebrows. “Atul, Princess Ratnavali is betrothed to your brother. I don’t want any mischief before the wedding,” I warned them. King of Sunda had also agreed to a marriage alliance between his son, Prince Uday, and my daughter. We were on our way back to Malla with the Sunda royals. I had planned to hold the two weddings in Akash and unite the Magadha and Sunda kingdoms for another generation.

Vikram grinned, assured of his ability to convince me. “Father, we would not dream of it. And her brother will be coming along.” His curly hair bounced as his gaze darted between his cousin and me.

Before I could reply, Rish marched in. Water glistened on his short grey hair as his alert eyes scanned the room.   

“They want to take a boat to the reef,” I told him.

“It is drizzling now. A preamble to a storm headed our way, King Jay. Getting caught in it would not be wise.”

Vikram continued to smile while Atul crossed his arms and turned away from Rish. I wondered what caused this hostility I sensed in my nephew towards Rish. Born out of wedlock, we had kept their father-son relationship hidden from Atul. The world only knew him as a Padi prince, though his birth father could never bestow such a title on him. Rish watched his son guardedly, keeping his emotions in check.  

“Uncle Rish, we will be back in a short while before the storm crosses our path,” Vikram answered readily. Rish glanced at me, signaling his deferral to me on this matter.

“Does Ratnavali know how to swim?” I asked. 

“She swims like a fish,” said Vikram. 

“Or so she claims,” Atul added with a wide grin. 

The boys were good swimmers, and the storm might yet miss us. I could not deny them this harmless excursion. “Use your head and stay safe,” I waved them away, and they departed, talking excitedly. 

“I indulge them too much, Meera will say. Not reining them in or disciplining them,” I said.

Rish’s lips curled up a tiny grain. “I am no expert, my Majesty. Queen Meera raised my daughter along with hers.”

“Do you have any matters to discuss with me?” I asked. 

Rish pushed his hair back out of habit. He must have cut it short to avoid any likeness to Atul. Though Atul resembled his mother, the boy had grown tall like him, unlike his half-brothers. 

“Yes, my Majesty. King Nala wanted to discuss trading Padi wool,” he answered. We spent an hour going over them.

“Nala is a tough negotiator,” I remarked on his astute demands for using Malla seas to sell Padi carpets. Rish had served as his regent till my nephew came of age. 

“He has inherited his mother’s qualities and rules with a wisdom beyond his age,” he answered. His eyes shone with pride. For Nala or his mother, I couldn’t tell.

“I am eating my midday meal with Kanva. Why don’t you join us?” I invited him. Rish acquiesced. 

Kanva ambled in. The Sunda King, the youngest of us, had aged the most in the past two decades. He took a seat, pushing his chair farther from the table to allow room for his sedentary potbelly. His laborious breathing from his walk to my room matched the sound of the wind outside.

“Uday and Ratnavali have left with the princes on some expedition,” he stated. My servant fetched our food, and the aroma of sesame rice filled the air. Our conversation then focused on the weddings set to take place in Akash.

“Vasant has departed Saral to attend the wedding,” I said. As the son of my older brother, the Malla throne rightfully belonged to Vasant. However, my brother grew up as the Saral prince and never learned the truth about his birth. After his death, Vasant ascended the Saral throne. And I harbored hopes of seeing my son on the Malla throne. 

“Queen Meera and her sons are making their way to Akash as well,” added Rish. It would be good to see my family gathered in one place. And talk to Meera about my inner turmoil. I wanted to let the past stay buried and crown my only son as the Heir to Malla, a desire that had grown like a wild forest.

“After their marriage, I will head back to Sunda. Uday wanted to spend some time traveling around Malla. He will come back later with his bride,” said Kanva.

Later that day, many matters demanded my attention. I had been away for more than a moon month from Akash, and I read Kapil Biha’s last scroll to me. Kapil, a childhood friend, and sworn guard, now served as the Chief Guard of Akash. He had cautioned me about an uprising in the kingdom to our west. Rebels appeared to have overthrown the royal family ruling Kashgar. Kapil mentioned that half a dozen boats had landed on Malla shores with Buddhist monks who’d fled this upheaval. The head monk wanted to meet with me to seek refuge in Malla.  

The wind blew through the window facing the sea, causing my scrolls to flutter.

“It is picking up,” observed Rish, walking in. 

Looking up from the parchment, I remarked, “Kings are not faring well.”

Rish looked puzzled. “Here in Magadha?” 

“No, to our west in Kashgar,” I replied. 

My guard strode in. “My Majesty, the boats are not back yet,” he exclaimed, and our eyes turned towards him.

“The one with the princes?” I asked. 

“And Princess Ratnavali,” he replied.

A large wave rocked our boat, and thunder pierced the sky. “Find them and haul them in,” I ordered. 

The guard ran out. 

“I will check on them as well,” Rish said and left. I lasted in the room till the next big wave.      

Dark clouds gathered, and the sea tossed our ships like leaves on a flowing river. Rain pounded the wooden deck. Feet rushed on the slippery floor to furl the sails, faces a blur in the wind and deluge. Men raised their voices to be heard above the din of the roaring waves and thundering skies. I joined Rish on the deck, my wet clothes sticking to my skin. 

“Any news?” I asked, peering at the water.

“No, my Majesty,” Rish said, not taking his eyes off the sea.

The captain approached us and said, “Three other boats left with them, my Majesty. The sea is turbulent, but my men are good sailors. They would ensure the safety of the princes.”

Still, dread filled my heart as I clutched the boat. They were mere boys out on the water in the midst of a storm. A twenty-foot wave rose to pound us. Would their tiny boat handle these peaks and valleys? Lightning struck the sky, splitting it apart. In the blaze, I saw the huge waves rocking our ships.

Rish cursed under his breath as he squinted into the darkness. I stood beside him, two fathers anxious for the safe return of their sons. Why had I agreed to their idiotic expedition?

Deep in my thoughts, I was startled to hear Rish speak. “I have been part of King Nala and Prince Amar’s lives since their births, and they welcome me readily. I had hoped to find similar acceptance with Prince Atul.” Meera wished for it too. She had felt guilty depriving the boy of his father, though it best served Atul’s interest. 

Suddenly, men yelled and pointed. Hands lifted lanterns and tried to shed some light into the darkness. A cloud departed, and moonlight shone through. I caught a brief glimpse of a boat. 

“Do you see it?” I yelled, running along the deck for a better view. Other footsteps followed, and I arrived at the bow.  

“Two boats,” someone shouted, and my knuckles clutching the boat turned pale. Four vessels had left earlier. I heard Rish’s sharp intake. 

“Fools,” I heard the captain swear. “It is too choppy for the boats to approach the ships. The waves will smash them. I hope they stay away till the storm passes.”

I had fought in many battles with little consideration for my life. My heart had never pounded then as it did on that deck. 

“The boats are coming closer,” a sailor remarked.

“Maybe someone is hurt,” Rish ventured. 

The captain heard him. “Drop the ladder, boys,” he ordered. He pointed to four men and barked, “Take long ropes with you, swim to the boats and bring them in slowly.”

A man appeared behind me, gasping for breath. Kanva.

“Are they back?” he asked. 

“No,” I replied.

“Uday and Ratnavali are poor swimmers. They cannot handle these waves,” he wailed, and the cold crept into my limbs. I had raised two imbeciles who believed the Sunda siblings’ lies. And I claimed the title of the biggest idiot among them for letting them go before a storm.

“Three boats filled with experienced sailors escorted them, Kanva. They will be safe,” I muttered. I wanted to believe it as well.

We waited for what seemed an eternity in the rain that changed from a waterfall to a trickle. A faint light appeared on the horizon, and the wind slowed to a breeze. I caught sight of two boats drawing near with wet rags of bodies. Vikram and Atul, my heart whispered. 

A commotion erupted as men crowded around the ladder to pull them up. In a haze, I heard the words “hurt” and “missing.” Without awareness, I walked towards the noise.

A sailor handed over a body, and Rish rushed forward. 

“Atul,” he exclaimed and took the limp body into his arms. A faint moaning arose from the boy. He was alive.

Rish staggered, and I steadied him. “Take him to the physician,” I ordered, and he clutched his son to his chest and left. My eyes turned to the ladder as Ratnavali appeared in the arms of a sailor. Her father shuffled to her as the sailor gently lowered her. “Father,” she exclaimed and hugged Kanva. Sobbing, she said, “Uday is missing.” I heard those words as if I stood in a deep well and she at the surface.

I eyed the men who rescued Atul and Ratnavali and asked, “Where is Vikram?”

They shook their heads. “His boat capsized, and both Prince Vikram and Prince Uday got caught in a current.”“Send men to search for them,” I commanded, trying hard to keep the desperation out of my voice. Find my son.