Chapter 1 – Meera
A noise startled me awake, and I reached out to make sure baby Amar was fine. He slept next to me under the woolen blanket. As my eyes got used to the darkness, I observed his chest rising and falling. I gazed at him in tenderness as he stirred in his sleep, then I pulled the blanket up towards his chin.
As my mind cleared of haze, I realized my husband, Atul, no longer lay next to me. I scanned the room in the dim light emanating from the dying embers in the fireplace. Before I discerned him, he saw me.
“Meera,” he whispered and stepped closer. “A messenger from my brother, Parth, just arrived. Go back to sleep. I will see you at our morning meal,” he said while tying his upper garment. He leaned in to kiss my cheek and left.
We had been waiting for news from Parth. The King of Sunda had requested Magadha’s help in fighting off invaders in his land. My brother, Jay, and Parth had set sail across the Tunga sea to aid him. They had been waging a fierce battle in the jungle for many months. I fervently hoped for their safe return.
Amar put his thumb into his mouth and started sucking it. A sign of his hunger. In a few moments, I knew howling would erupt. I gently picked him up to nurse him before this could happen.
The day dawned with the sun hiding behind the clouds. I placed pillows around Amar on my enormous bed of rosewood and approached my window. Snow-clad mountains glistened in the morning rays in the distance. Even after all these years, the view filled me with awe.
Kantha and another maid arrived. While the maid helped me get ready, Kantha gladly took over Amar. She changed his clothes and bounced the now clean baby on her lap, eliciting giggles from him. Kantha had been with me since I was a child myself. Now she helped me raise my three kids. Childless herself, she showered her love on us. A decade older than me, she had changed very little in the ensuing years. No lines marred her face, and her hair remained black. She had come to Padi with me and often anchored me when I drifted in loneliness or longed for Akash, my beloved home in Malla.
I draped a sari across my body in the color of the morning sun, eager to greet the world after a night apart. As I slipped on my bangles, my daughter, five-year-old Priya, skipped into my bedroom, dressed in a sunflower color cotton skirt and blouse embroidered with flowers. Giving me a quick hug, she then ran to play with her baby brother.
“Let me hold him,” she begged Kantha, and Kantha relented, gently placing the baby on the child’s lap while supporting his back. Priya tickled him under his chin while he reached to touch her nose. Her long hair flowed down in waves. Picking up a silver comb, I gently untangled her knots. Her locks felt soft, like finely woven silk.
“Look at his smile, Mother,” she implored me with her big brown eyes, and a warmth spread through me as I gazed at them both.
Nala, my eldest son, strode in as I finished braiding his sister’s tresses. His hair appeared unruly.
“Nala, watch him hold my fingers,” Priya beckoned, and he approached them with mild interest.
I tried to comb his hair, and he stepped back. “Mother!”
Since the birth of his brother, eight-year-old Nala had been resisting my attempts to mother him. I held back the urge to pull him into an embrace. I did not want him to grow up so fast.
I herded the children to the family dining room. A large marble top table that seated ten stood in the center. My hand-picked paintings covered the walls. One side held portraits of our family: Nala riding a horse, Priya on my lap, and Atul on the throne. Another contained scenes from Malla: a temple on the hill, boat races on the Chambal river, and the majestic Akash fort.
As we sat at the dining table, the servants fetched our morning meal. I held Amar on my lap and fed him rice porridge mashed with ripe bananas from a silver bowl. He bounced gleefully, unaware of the connection I had with his uncle of the same name. It had felt strange, at first, having to call this sweet baby the name of a man I’d despised once. I’d named my daughter after my grandmother, a Padi princess. Atul had named the boys, our oldest for a great Padi king and our youngest after his dead brother. While the name Amar would not have been my choice, I could not object. My husband still had no knowledge of my hand in his brother’s death, so how could I deny the name for our child?
Rumors floated about what had really happened that night, but without any proof, time dullened any past pain.
Nala attacked his millet porridge sweetened with jaggery and spoke with his mouth full. “Mother, Uncle Rish promised to teach me to fight with a real sword today.”
Before I could respond, Priya wondered, “When is Uncle Rish coming? I have a new game to play with Rima.” She tore a small piece of bread stuffed with spicy lentils and dipped it into some yogurt before putting it in her mouth.
“Eat slowly, Nala. Uncle Rish is not going to come any faster if you gulp your food. And you have lessons this morning.” Rish, my guard, and loyal friend now, had been much more a lifetime ago. We had dreamed of getting married at an age when the future brimmed with possibilities. My duty had required me to abandon that fantasy. Instead, Rish had accompanied a young bride to Padi. In the following years, he had become part of our family.
Atul strode in, and the children yelled at the same time.
“Father, can you come and watch me fight with a real sword?”
“I have a new outfit for my doll,” said Priya standing on her chair.
Atul engulfed her in his arms and kissed her cheek. “Finish your food, and then show me your doll.”
“I may even pick up my sword and challenge you,” he said, tousling his son’s hair.
Nala beamed at his father. Atul caught my eyes and smiled conspiratorially about our son. A shared secret between two gratified parents. Since our wedding a decade ago, life with Atul flowed like a snow-melted river. He made no demands I could not keep. The passing years had been good to him. When I had first seen him, I thought his nose was too big for his face. The rest of his body had since caught up. On the rare mornings we stayed in bed, and he leaned on his elbow to talk to me, I even considered him handsome. And the crown of Padi rested very well on his head. He was still the same gentle person with a generous spirit.
Atul sat down and related to me. “Parth wrote that they are in the final leg of the conflict. He expects to return soon.”
“Father will be glad to have Jay back,” I replied. My brother had been gone for many moon months. Aranya and Sudha, his wives, would be eager for his return as well.
As the servants cleared up our meals, Rish walked in with Rima on his shoulders. “Your Majesty! Queen Meera!” he greeted us and lifted Rima down. His four-year-old daughter ran to join Priya. Rish had spurned matrimony for many years, but his Uncle Kasu wore him down. His wife had turned ill after Rima’s birth and passed away two years ago. Rish had refused to remarry and seemed content to spend his days with us. I had taken Rima under my wings and raised her along with my girl.
I acknowledged him with a nod. Having to be in each other’s company almost daily, I’d locked my feelings for him in a corner of my mind I seldom visited. I could now greet him as a friend without my heart going into flutters.
Nala ran to him, “Uncle Rish, are we fighting with a real sword today?”
He grinned at the boy. “Yes, Prince Nala. You are ready for a real blade.”
Nala’s eyes lit up at these words. Out of his earshot, Rish whispered to Atul. “Not a sharpened one.”
Atul nodded imperceptibly. “Parth and Jay are in their final push,” he narrated to Rish.
I turned to my oldest. “Nala, your guru is waiting for you. Finish your morning lessons, and then you can head to the training yard.” He dragged his feet, reluctant to leave.
Atul glanced at him. “Learning history is as important as learning to fight. More important, some might say, to become a wise king. Go on.”
Once Nala left the room, I tried to get up from my chair, but Amar’s little fingers were entangled in my hair, and his legs caught in my sari. I attempted to pry his chubby baby fingers as he held onto me tighter.
Rish noticed my struggle and took a step forward. I assumed he would aid me. Instead, he cleared his throat and said, “Your Majesty, the queen needs your help.”
Atul glanced up and came to my rescue. Soon, he held the baby in his arms and threw him in the air, eliciting a sound like falling raindrops. Rish, as my guard, kept his watchful eyes on me. That’s why he had discerned my need. But why did he not assist me? Feelings that existed for a young girl do not carry over to a woman of almost thirty and mother of three children. Not that I craved such attention. Troubled about the path my musing took, I abandoned it.
I fetched the girls and sat down on the cotton rug made in Malla, with two plates of rice colored with turmeric in front of them. Under my instruction, they drew the alphabet on the rice.
A palace guard stepped in. “Your Majesty, a messenger from Malla.”
“Send him in,” Atul ordered. He handed Amar to me and headed to the sitting room.
I stopped the lessons and asked Kantha to take the girls to Priya’s chamber. Both Nala and Priya’s rooms were in the same hallways as mine. I proceeded to the sitting room, and Rish followed me. I placed Amar on the large woolen rug depicting a wingspread peacock and put a rattle in front of him. He crawled to the rattle and picked it up, and promptly put it in his mouth.
In strode a young man of medium height and noble bearing. Rish raised his eyebrows and exclaimed, “Dayan, what are you doing here?”
Dayan Vindhya, Jay’s brother-in-law, scanned the room and greeted us. “Uncle Rish, King Atul, Queen Meera, I bring bad news from Akash.”
Atul glanced at me before asking him, “What is it?” Dayan tightened his grip on his sword handle. “King Vikram is dead. We suspect foul play,” he said.