I’m lying spreadeagled on a rock, naked in the sun. It’s a broad flat rock with a smooth face that extends beyond my extremities. My knees shine. Susima and Prayagraj and Uday are paddling in the shallows. None of us can swim. The river is not one of those purling streams that flow through the palace grounds. It is the Ganges. It is said to have crocodiles twice the length of a man.

Fishermen are casting their nets from the steps on the far bank, little stick figures, while others work from boats. Out of the corner of my eye I watch a lone boatman steady himself like a spider and spit his web fully formed into the sky.

We’re not supposed to be here. The river is out of bounds. We pretended we were going to the infirmary and doubled back at the watergate where we scaled the palisade, dropped onto sand, and ran down to the river’s edge without looking back. The palisade is visible from here, its wall of sal trunks stained municipal brown, but we don’t look that way.

We could be any boys playing by the river. This bank is the sluggish inner curve where the current drops and silt gathers, and rushes grow. The rock I’m lying on is a rare outcrop, surrounded by pooled water that holds a reflection. Reeds stick up though white scum, and herons stalk fearlessly just out of reach. Where the reeds end the river flows with unknown force. “That was clever of you telling Gurungji we were wanted for inoculation!”

Prayagraj has the makings of a court smoothie. At nine he already has the receding hairline that will leave him bald at thirty. Gurung is our drill sergeant who also teaches swordsmanship. Weapon drill is the one time when our angels slack off: the sessions can stretch into the afternoon, so they wander off for lunch.

Prayagraj is Gurung’s favourite, an earnest swordsman inclined to fence; Susima, eleven, and the oldest, gets impatient and longs for the bow and arrows to appear, when he can shine; Uday favours the bludgeon. I can manage a spear, though I tell them I prefer the scything discus – pick out your man, pick him off. But the truth is I trust only my sling. The inoculation was no brainwave: there’s pox in town.

A corpse floats by on the current, face down. Some poor creature whose family couldn’t afford cremation, offered up to the river whole. I don’t believe any of us has seen a dead body before, but we know instantly what it is. We watch in horror as it strikes some hidden obstacle and slowly turns over. It travels on without slackening its speed and we watch it out of sight in silence. Susima fires an imaginary arrow after it.

“What’s fermentation?” Prayagraj wants to know. He’s looking a little sick, but even in that state can’t help answering his own question. “It has something to do with gas, like when your stomach swells up.”

“Gasbag!” Rightly or wrongly, I feel I’m the resident expert on explosions. Susima finds his tongue. “Mother says you now have beauty spots!” I join in the laughter, but I feel betrayed, as by a lover. It’s not the barb that hurts, any more than the spikes did when the jam jar exploded: fright made me cry that day. What hurts is the way they say things.

They talk fruity, like their mothers, they say A-sho-ka and Su-shi-ma. Mother was a country girl Father spotted on a tour. I have her sibilant s, her tender glottal c. A-so-ca, A-so-ca, she croons in my ear when sleep won’t come. I lie back and doze. My blood warms to rock heat and I feel my body melt into that unforgiving surface.

I would like to punish Susima, even though I know he was just reporting. But my thoughts scatter like seed corn. They need to settle in furrows, like lettering. Letters I’m good at, the discus just a fantasy. Our scriptor has a special tone he uses with me. He alone doesn’t want my writing hand tied behind me simply because it’s my left. Uday spins an imaginary discus on his left forefinger. He knows I’m watching, so the discus wobbles and falls and he mimes an awkward scramble for it.

The rock sends up waves of heat. I feel their passage through me like anybody else, perhaps better. When you come with a coarse hide, you work twice as hard at sorting impressions. You think fast too, to outdo normals, you enlist words. Nowadays I parade rubric for column, ferule for ruler. But I’m sick of speech: I want to do.

I used to wonder what our father did, as king. A teacher teaches, a potter pots, a hunter hunts. A king kings it? Rules, Susima was quick to correct me, a year older, but that was no better, in fact, more vague. What is it to rule? And why just one ruler? Why couldn’t they take turns being it? Or join together, ruling?

But now I begin to understand why Uncle K is always at Father’s side, borne along on his special litter, and why Father listens and nods. Uncle K talks like a book, and I can see Father’s a little afraid of him. Lately they look especially grim. The word famine tolls like a bell, ministers frown, and priests scratch their heads. Until the other day I thought famine a disease, like the pox that stipples your cheeks. Susima laughed and said: “Then you must have a bad case of famine.”

“We should be going back,” Prayagraj says.

“What’s the big rush?” Uday wants to know and does a belly flop. Next I look he’s pleasuring himself in six inches of warm water. It’s about then that I begin to have my hallucination. My eyes are half open but also half shut. I have a sense of floating on stone. The sun beats down on the rock and strikes sparks off the mesh of my eyelashes.

I roll my stricken head from side to side and the world rocks like a boat. On one side is Uday fooling about in the water, on the other is Susima firing arrows into the sky; in between is something that wasn’t there before. It’s as if the riverbank has shifted and come nearer. I’ve watched lizards on the wall at home, the way they can hold still forever, longer than a yogi, then when you look again, they’re still frozen, but in a new place. This is like that. As if a reptile were about to gobble up the hunter Susima.

Under the hammer of the sun my revenge has taken the shape of a crocodile that will rid me forever of his taunts. It happens very quickly. Susima begins to scream but it’s me Uday is staring at. My eyes open wide. The river has risen from its bed and is travelling at speed towards the rock. I roll over to one side, away from the sword of water and as I fall off the rock, I hear a sound like the lid of our camphor chest falling.

I scramble to my feet and run. The rest are already running. We are all screaming. We don’t stop till we get to the palisade. Still not looking back we scale it and drop to the grass on the other side. We lie there staring wide-eyed at one another. Prayagraj would like to run on home but Uday grabs him.

“First,” he says, “we make a pact.” He looks fiercely at us. He’s no older but he’s a bruiser, and we’re all a little afraid of him. “We tell nobody we were here. We went raiding, okay?” Prayagraj starts bawling again; he wants to tell his mother the truth. But we form a square and lay our hands one upon the other. “We went raiding,” I say when Mother asks. “Plums.”

I don’t often lie to her and I want to own up. But I remember the pact. When I see Susima’s mother, I repeat the plum story. “Liar!” she whispers, bending down to me. “You went to the river. Susima told me about the crocodile.” But she crushes my cheeks and slips her thumb into my mouth. Was that when I first saw Susima was unfit to rule? A king can’t go back on his word. Not even in the service of truth.


Excerpted with permission from Asoca: A Sutra, Irwin Allan Sealy, Penguin Viking.