The journey was about to come to an end , just a few more hours and it’ll be over. Reva sat , along with her clanmates on the ox cart, with Mayank riding it . They were wearing hoods to keep their identity hidden .
So 2 days ago they had started the journey from the Sangama kingdom . Stopping at inns , hotels and small openings on the path in the forest road. According to the Sangama’s minister , troops had already reached the Mauryan kingdom in groups of 3 or 4 , leaving at different times on different paths . And to avoid suspicion , they had become traders , landlords , merchants , thugs and even slaves .
They avoided the main road as much as possible , because according to the spies , the alliance had been informed that the new Mauryan queen had escaped , and chose the forest road instead. The path was easy to follow in the beginning , but now it was worse than walking .
“Bloody hell , i’ll puke!” Pranay said holding a hand over his mouth and trying not to drop his eye-patch.
“You’re not a kid ! Just hang on for some time.” Megha said , slowly rubbing her hand over his back.
“There’s no age for travel sickness .” Pranay said , and jumped out of the cart to retch.
“Gross..” Megha muttered , “Hey , cheer up Reva ! We’ll all be fine.”
“Yeah , right ! Its all my business and you people ended up falling in it for no reason at all. How is that fair?” She was feeling remorse for her friends . It was her cause , and she should be the one sacrificing . Not Megha, Pranay or Mayank! She’d already lost 2 loved ones , and she couldn’t afford , or to say live of any of the people close to her got hurt.
“Listen Reva , accept it or not , but you’re our queen ! Even before that, you’re my best friend . And its not your business, that’s my home too , so its not only our business but our responsibility to protect it! So stop acting like a scared cat and cheer up. Reva, your people need their home back , and for that you need to stay strong!”
That’s right , I need to stay strong ! I’m the queen and my people need me.
Pranay climbed back , and in less than an hour they were in the kingdom . The whole capital was empty now since the alliance was controlling the kingdom .And that could mean only one thing , all the soldiers that had penetrated the capital were in the undergrounds . And since many of the citizens itself were unaware of the underground system , it was clearly understandable that the alliance had no clue about it , but they had to predict the worst.
“Where are we headed?” Pranay asked.
“ The Underground.” Megha answered . Since she had been here for almost 2 years , she had connections as high as any smuggler or thug had. “Just stay hidden and keep your heads low. Try not to look anyone in the eye , especially women.” She said looking at Pranay.
“But why ?” Mayank asked.
“We can’t take control of the palace by just a quarter of the Sangama army . So we need more allies who are willing to support our cause.” Reva answered. “In easy words , we need criminals to do the job, but don’t be an idiot and call them a criminal right on their face.”
“I know that!” Pranay protested.
They never went deeper into the city . Just around the 3rd street after the eastern entrance , they turned and walked to reach a creepy looking bar with wooden walls , and no perfect foundation , but large enough . Megha looked at her , and rubbed her hands and placed them on her eyes , took a long breath .
“Are you alright?” Reva asked her. She never usually had seen Megha this nervous.
“Yeah.” Megha slowly knocked on the door and before it could open , she turned to them and said ,
“Try not to piss anyone .”
The door opened , only partly , and an old man peeped at them with one eye .
“What do you want?” He asked with a rough voice that stank highly of alcohol. He took a glance at Reva , gave a quizzical look , then saw Megha and exclaimed. “Oh! The nun! Come in..”
And he pulled the door open .
“Nun?” Pranay asked adjusting his eye-patch.
“That’s what they call me.” Megha answered.
“How lon’ has it been? “ asked the drunk old man as he led them through the over crowded bar , with all the big and heavy men and women giving glances at them. Reva saw many of them inch away at the sight of Megha.
“5 years.” Megha answered.
“So what brin’s ya’ here?” he asked.
“Nothing much , just some business with an old friend. “ Megha said glancing at Reva.
What is she upto ? Reva thought.
“Ah! I see . Good , good . Ya’ wait here in the parlour , i’ll send 'im in.” He said pointing at a small counter.
“No gramps , i’ll go to him . “ Megha answered.
“Well , if ya’ suggest . Parlour number 8, he’s there . I’ll be sending in the drinks.” He said turning to the drinks counter.
“Megha , who do you want to meet?” Pranay asked . “Is it safe?”
“No need to worry . “ she just said and rapped on the door of parlour number 8 . A heavy voice answered from inside.
“Bloody ol’ man ! You know i don’t like to be disturbed , you old arse!”
“Shagga, open up . Its me!” Megha said.
“Tha’ voice ..” The parlour door opened and facing them was a huge man , sitting on a chair too small for him . He was on a jacket , left unbuttoned to reveal his hairy chest . Big fat arms , a brownish beard and balding head , holding a huge bottle of a drink , and 3 more empty ones on the table.
And his appearance was just as Reva had expected to be for the boss of the criminal underworld of the kingdom . He was no ordinary man , a simple thug from some long forgotten tribe , in a decade rose to the post of the strongest man in the underworld . But she was wondering how Megha knew him.
“What do you want?” He asked turning to no one in particular as he sat.
“Shagga , its important , just listen .” Megha said , and Reva could see the uneasiness in her eyes.
“There’s nothin’ to listen. Just get los’ .”
“Hey ! Mind you’re-“ Pranay was about to say , but the man named Shagga turned his head and glared at him.
“Bloody eye patch !”
“Pranay , shut it . There’s no need. Shagga, first let us talk , then decide. “Megha told him.
Reva observed that the man never met Megha’s eyes . He kept his eyes down as much as he could . And that , was something she had rarely seen in people , especially thugs and criminals.
“Alrigh’ , sit and talk . But the eye patch and the big guy gets out .” He said. “Or not , only eye-patch gets lost .”
“What’s the big idea?!” Pranay said.
“Pranay , just do what he says will you?” Reva told him , cursing and muttering under his breath , Pranay walked out of the parlour and stood there.
“So wha’ do you wanna talk?” Shagga asked , and motioned to sit in front of him. Reva looked at Megha , who nodded and sat.
“You do know what the situation of the capital is . Trade is down , people are dying of-“ Reva was cut off by Shagga.
“So what! “ he spat , “ The hell should i do ’bout that? Should i distribute food ? Or shall i go and bring the traders back ? or even better , how ’bout I wipe every citizen’s ass clean? Come to the bloody point little queen !”
“Shagga, calm down will you?” Megha asked , and immediately he fell silent and gulped down the bottle of drink.
Reva took the chance and started,
“I need your people to raid the palace .”
“An’ why exactly would i do that? Just ta’ lose my men? You think you can order us around just ’cz you’re the queen now ? huh?”
“I’m not ordering , its a request . The capital is in its worst condition ever seen in a century . And to bring it back , we need to make it strong as it was when it was under the previous queen . Already the supplies are at lose , and riots can break out any moment “.
“What’s for me in that? Why should I help you ? just ’cz you’re the queen ? Or ’cz you’re the best buddies with someone I once trusted?” He said looking at Megha for the first time .
“Because this is your home . And mine too , and everybody whose suffering now due to the ignorance of the traitor alliance !” Reva said.
Shagga looked at her face , scratched his beard . And for a moment Reva thought she saw a smile. He folded his hands and leaned his back on the chair. He thought for a while and finally said,
“S’pose you take back the kingdom, what then ? Its not like there weren’t any riots or poverty or hunger problems when you’re dear late mother was the queen!”
“My mother tried-“ But again he cut her off.
“No sense in talking ’bout the mistakes of the previous queen . Tell me what will you do ? Will you ignore this side of the capital just like all the others rulers did? Will you be ’ble to feed every person in your kingdom ? And don’t start ‘i’ll try ma’ best’ crap . I need clear answers.” He said looking at her straight in the eye.
Reva thought .
Think and say . What you will say , will decide the future of the kingdom.
“Its not possible to feed everyone , i know that . And neither can I avoid mistakes . It won’t be easy for me to rule the capital without anyone talking against me. But if I don’t do mistakes , i can’t learn how to correct them . My mother ignored this side of the kingdom , i know that . And that’s why i need your help . If you just believe in us , i assure you it won’t be the same as it was with the previous rulers.” She said , and finally , “ That’s all i want to say . Now it’s up to you to decide whether to help us and get our home back , or to make it a dead kingdom with no hope at all.”
This time , Reva clearly saw the side of his face twitch in a smile . He said,
“Well , how should we help our young queen get her castle back ?”
According to the plan , first they had to infiltrate the palace without getting noticed , which was completely easy . As there was a way through the back gate of the palace that goes down to the dungeons . From there , all they had to do was capture the Hoysala king who was currently in the palace , and using him as a hostage. But it wasn’t easy .
Once that was done , they had to somehow contact Shagga , who with his immensely huge gang , supported by commoners would tag along with the army of the Sangamas and take the whole castle under control.
And that’s why Reva , Megha and Pranay were headed to the back door of the palace , while Mayank was helping Shagga out.
“So Megha , how do know that guy?”Reva asked.
She thought for a while , and finally breaking the silence , she said.
“I was 9 , and a runaway , an afraid little girl despised for being a girl by my own father . My brother wouldn’t be at home those days , so they were hell for me . So i ran away , and came to these parts. Hungry and thirsty , i robbed , got beaten up for that . Tried selling my things i had brought from home , but got robbed . Then , one day , a huge scary man came and took me to his little cottage . I was afraid of him , he was.. after all monstrous , but inside he had a kind heart . He taught me , kept me alive , fed me . He became a father to me , and one day i decided to go back to my brother who had become the lord commander . So i just couldn’t say good-bye to Shagga , so i ran again . And before i knew i was a clan member , and never got the chance to thank or say good-bye to Shagga. You remember i had come here just when ..you know ...Aarav ...” She said , and Reva nodded so Megha didn’t complete the sentence .
“..that’s when i met Shagga after 5 years , arrested actually . But i ended up letting him go free to pay just a fraction of countless debts i owe to him, but i couldn’t talk to him . And here I am..”
“Megha , you keep no secrets at all.” Pranay said gave a quick peck on her forehead.
For so many years Reva had known Megha , but she never even thought she had this much in her.
They finally reached the back gate of the palace . She remembered when she had been here last time . It was roughly 8 months ago when they were headed to bring Shiba back . And Aarav was with her , but she hadn’t known it was him. Yet , when he had joined them on their journey , she had felt his presence.
That’s when she remembered ,
“Where’s Shiba?” All of them came to a sudden halt , Megha almost bumping into Pranay.
“I didn’t even think about her for a second! Holy hell !” Pranay said.
“She was in one of the guest rooms . For sure she’s a prisoner now . We need to hurry Reva ! We don’t have time.” Megha said.
Reva nodded and broke into a run. They reached the place where there was the underground door to the dungeons . Pranay waved his hand in the air , and all the mud and leaves above it moved away to reveal the wooden black coloured door.
“You ready?” He turned to Reva and asked.
“Yes.” And he jumped , and a thump of him landing on the damp floor . Following him , Reva jumped , then finally Megha after her closing the door shut . It was pitch dark all around them . So Reva snapped her fingers and a red coloured fire was in her hand . Beside her Megha used her rune stone to light up one of Pranay’s sword. And they started walking towards the door that connected the dungeons to the palace.
“Listen , the dungeon huge , twisted like a maze." Reva told them.
“What about the prisoners?”Pranay asked.
“Mother never imprisoned anyone in here , whatever the crime . ‘They’re human too’ she used to say. So i doubt we’ll find-“ She was about to say when a loud shriek echoed through the dungeons .
“The hell?! “ Megha said. “Are you sure about that?”
“I don’t know ! Maybe the alliance has someone in here , let’s go.” Reva said , and following the loud wails of whoever it was , they came to the exact cell , and when she saw the little girl lying on the dungeon’s wet floor , her heart beat skipped.
Without thinking , Pranay kicked open the cellar door , and Reva followed.
Shiba was crying in pain , and Reva’s hatred towards the alliance increased exponentially .
“Shiba ! Shiba hold on , just a minute longer! Please!” Pranay said. “Megha do something ! Her hand’s broken !”
She whispered something that Reva couldn’t hear , so bent down to listen . It was the faintest of the whispers , but Reva knew what Shiba was saying ,
“Aarav...” she whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“No! No! Shiba , hold on .” Reva said trying hard not to freak out. Pranay quickly cut the ropes that were tied to her wrists and ankles , and Megha slowly made her drink water . She was barely alive , there was no mass of flesh in her body . All they could see was the skeleton of a 15 year old girl with a thin layer of skin over her.
“Shiba ! Come on , stay with us!!” She was mumbling stupidly , and after every second word she would say Aarav’s name . Finally struggling for an hour or more , letting their precious hours of taking back her birth right go to vain , Reva and her friends helped out the person who she despised the most , to bring her back from the brink of death.
She opened her eyes , and looked straight in Reva’s eyes ,
“Why did you save me? WHY?!” She cried.
I didn’t want to , but i had no choice , Reva wanted to say , but instead she said,
“Because ...You’re someone he gave his life for “. Shiba closed her eyes again , and a tear rolled down her cheek .
Only then did Reva understand how difficult it is to forgive . She would have let her die , let her rot in this very cell . But then , a kind face came to her mind’s eye and smiled his kind smile that she had tried to forget but failed.
“What do we do now?”Pranay asked . “Where should we take her ? “
“There’s no need to go anywhere , this is my home as well as her's. She’ll stay in the palace , but for that , we need to take it back , fare and square!”