Excerpt: Empire by Devi Yesodharan | books$excerpts | Hindustan Times
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Excerpt: Empire by Devi Yesodharan

An excerpt from a gripping new historical novel on the mightiest king of 11th century India and his female bodyguard

books Updated: Sep 01, 2017 20:26 IST
Devi Yesodharan

Prologue

He doesn’t have much time. Soon, the wind will carry the stink of the dead in the battlefield into town, and some unlucky women will wake up in half-empty beds. Anantha has a few hours before dawn to clear the beach of the bodies, have the attackers count their dead and leave in their remaining ships.

The two commanders stand on opposite ends of the stone table, the winner facing east as is Chola custom. The Greek Pelias, known through his Cyclades islands as The Undefeated, stands on the other side, looking at no one, his eyes on the paper leaf on the table. The heat of the fight still burns his lungs. He is sore of muscle, bleeding from the scratches of blades that got too close.

He is experiencing none of the usual after-battle high, when he’d be surrounded by wine and women and singing. Instead, there is silence and the eyes of strange men on him, the men he had come to ransack.

He is young enough that losing is unfamiliar; his spine is stiff with the shock of it. He has thrived so far on the admiration and hero worship of the men he leads. Ever since they played with wooden swords they had egged, dared and cajoled each other to this present moment, to this spot where he is no longer invincible and most of his men are dead, on their backs in the beach, their eyes unseeing and filled with the sky.

He works hard now to be cautious and not put any more of his men in danger. He steps forward when beckoned and presses his seal on the wet wax at the base of the paper.

Anantha does the same. The Chola tiger of the seal gleams red for a moment before the wax turns the colour of rust.

Pelias takes off his helmet. Anantha is bareheaded, as he always is – he finds metal against his shaved skull uncomfortable. He unsheathes his sword and places it on the table, a sign that peace has been reached.

Pelias observes the weapon. ‘May I?’ he asks.

Anantha nods and the Greek lifts up the sword. ‘This is Song steel?’

‘Yes.’

‘I notice you have the metal beaten thinner and the tip more pointed than ours. Why does the blade curve like this?’

‘Our swords are shaped like the Lord’s trident, to add his strength to our arms.’

Pelias puts the sword back on the table. ‘We were foolhardy to come at your city with ten ships and five hundred men. I trusted the words of the oracles too much, and my captains’ warnings too little.’

Anantha shrugs. He dislikes postmortems. The fight is done, he has lost twenty of his own men in this midnight battle and he is tired.

Besides, this fellow talks big about his oracles, but is an idiot. Everyone knows the Lanka island is Chola land now. The pirate ships had crossed the island’s shore days ago on their way here, and the new Chola envoy had sent three small dinghies to warn them that the ships were coming. Of course they were idiots: five hundred men strutting over to ransack a port with a standing navy. Idiots who came sailing in on the words of overpaid priests high on hallucinogenic leaves to attack warriors who had spent their afternoons sharpening their knives for want of something to do.

Anantha had ordered ships to be loaded with hooked ropes and oil-soaked linen. His men fired burning arrows that set the enemy sails ablaze, and three of the ten ships were torched before they even touched the shore, men dying before they could pick up their weapons. The Cholas threw their ropes over the remaining ships, the hooks catching easily, and clambered on to the enemy docks as archers gave them cover with a cloud of arrows. Chola divers stood by with spears, ready to swim underwater and break the foreign hulls if necessary.

‘The terms,’ Anantha now says, ‘are as we have laid them out – fifty years of peace or until the death of your present lord, whichever is longer. A hundred gold coins, and three of your undamaged ships. Sixty of your able-bodied young men below the age of fourteen.’

Pelias nods. ‘Many of our men are wounded. It will be hard to find ones who fought in the battle and didn’t get at least an arrow in the shoulder.’

Anantha shakes his head. ‘We don’t want men wearing the scars we gave them like medals. Only boys we did not wound.’

‘I mean you no dishonour, but I must ask this. Are these men going to be slaves?’

‘We do not keep slaves, Pelias. We will train your warriors, make them ours and place them in our services depending on their skills.’

Pelias’s face is impassive. ‘It’s not easy to turn one of us into a Chola.’

Anantha smiles. His scar helps in moments like this. ‘If you are ever again in these parts, Pelias, remind me to give you a tour of our training grounds. The Persians, Ruhunas, Chams – they train under the Chola sun with our men, become brown like us. They grow their hair long, pierce their ears, drink the water of the Kaveri. They speak our tongue. We become their mothers, their fathers, their family.’ He points to the terms. ‘So you can give us these boys, and forget them.’

He had thrust his sword into one of Pelias’s men a few hours ago. It had slid through the first three inches of flesh like butter, and Anantha, knowing from experience when it would meet the resistance of the man’s spine, had pushed it through, impaling him and breaking his back. Still, he is willing to let Pelias go. It is a sort of kindness.

‘Bring me sixty boys who meet the conditions before the sun is past the horizon,’ he says. ‘We will choose among them.’

As it turns out, there aren’t enough warriors. There aren’t even thirty fighters young enough and without injuries. After Pelias sends his scouts and then goes himself, what they manage to rustle up are twenty young fellows in their first battle, two cooks and one eleven-year-old girl.

He returns once again to the hut they are negotiating in, removing his sandals a few feet outside.

Inside he can barely stand still from the ants crawling up his toes, ankles and shins. But stand still he must. He had arrived here intoxicated with the idea of bringing down a great city at midnight. It had been his father’s dream to ransack Nagapattinam, the jewel of the Indian Ocean. The promise of it had loomed out of the sea, like one of those tottering cakes made of flour and sugar served in his village at weddings.

Anantha looks at the sorry crew gathered outside the hut, turns to Pelias. ‘Are you trying to insult me?’

‘If you mean the young girl Aremis, she is already a skilled sword-fighter and I will be sorry to see her go. The only reason she is here is that we don’t have the numbers you want from us. She is a tribute from us – my second in command’s daughter.

‘The defeated cannot bargain,’ Pelias continues, ‘we can only offer what we have and hope for mercy.’

Anantha goes down the crowd of boys – skulking, morose teenagers, all of them likely nursing the belief that this battle would have ended differently if they had been in charge. Some of them, he can tell, have never held a weapon in their hands unless it was to sharpen a sword against a stone. Cooks, masons, blacksmiths. No matter. The Cholas build warriors: it is what they are good at.

They have placed the girl near the end of the line, and he walks past her just like the others. He notices that her face is streaked with mud and tears, her hands are clasped tightly to keep them from trembling and she has a small dagger in her belt that looks freshly sharpened, the tip gleaming. Something she could have done only after she knew they had lost.

She looks at him as if she would like to put the blade through his eye.

He gives Pelias a nod, and watches the man sag in relief and disappointment. Perhaps he had been hoping for a respectable death over heading back home in disgrace.

Anantha departs the grounds, leaving Shankara and the other captains to oversee the handover of the ships and the departure. ‘I will walk home alone,’ he tells his servant Ammani. ‘Make arrangements for quarters near the stables for the prisoners, a separate one of course for the girl. Confiscate all their weapons. And station guards at every door so they don’t try to sneak back into the ships before they leave.’

His men have work to do. Peace is an elaborate fiction that kings tell their people, and to preserve it soldiers must die in skirmishes in the dead of night, and fields must be cleared of their bodies before the jackals turn up.

He walks home, the leaf with the seals in his hand. The night is in its last moments, the leftovers clinging to the dew-licked world. He can hear the sea from here, the sound of its raging, undeniable mouth, which spits these curses constantly at them: shipwrecks, dead sailors, fleets of invaders with outlandish dreams.

The sea comes at them from one end, the forest from the other. The path to his home inclines upwards and, as he walks, the walls of the city fall away and he can gaze at the forest beyond, the slender chariot paths snaking through the trees.

The forest is something the Cholas constantly battle, hacking at its encroaching edges again and again so that it does not overwhelm the city. The long-clawed bears in this part of the jungle are big enough to knock a man down with a nudge and break his back with a dance on his chest. Every once in a while, a soldier turns up dead, mauled by a tiger while on guard, not quick enough with his spear. There used to be a grove of marula fruit trees on one end of the forest, and the elephants and buffaloes would get drunk on the fermented fruit, wander to the fort gates and scare the passing merchants for amusement. They had to send men with pickaxes to cut the trees down.

It has been only one summer since their last war, and it won’t be long before the next one. The king has expanded his reach to the south in Anuradhapura and Ruhuna of Lanka, to the west towards Manyaketha, and now he is heading north, to Pala. Much of this is to defend his control of the coasts and the naval trade. Anantha has begun to realize that it is easier to build things than to keep them from collapsing. From the moment of creation, decay begins.

If Anantha had the wings of a Periyar kite he could soar over the forests and see the extent of the king’s power: the thousand arterial canals leading from the river and feeding the hungry land, the jewelled string of port towns, their lamps burning through the night and lighting the way for the ships, the size and spread of the impressive new temples. And yet, all of it feels vulnerable: every once in a while ragtag bandits with homemade weapons take over the canal routes and capture the land around them. Standing troops must protect each Chola town from invaders that keep coming, men who have heard of the world’s wealth stored in the Chola warehouses. The light of the king’s empire burns bright, and many are drawn to it, uninvited, dangerous and filled with malice.