It was a bright, cloudless morning and Darshini woke up feeling strangely light-hearted, as if all that the day promised was only a poetry reading and the usual public adulation that followed Kalidas’ every outing. She was thankful that the event was not being held at court. She could never get used to the idea of publicly kowtowing to Ramagupta, and given a choice she wouldn’t attend at all. But the instructions from Deva were clear – every single member of the core group had to attend the reading. Without exception.

At least I will get to see Dhruvaswamini in person, she thought. Finally.

There had been no word at all, from either Vira or Kalidas, since the announcement of the date for the reading. Darshini knew the entire city elite were invited to the public auditorium that afternoon, including the council members and the imperial family. Deva, so the rumour went, was incapacitated and would therefore be the only person from the imperial family who would not attend the event. Even his wife Kubernaga and daughter Prabhavati were going to be there as would the Queen Empress Dattadevi and the entire court.

Nanda burst into the room carrying an arm load of saris. “What do you want to wear today, my lady? The purple silk? The red brocade? The yellow muslin?”

“Something simple, please – a plain white sari and some flowers in my hair, that’s all.”

The answer did not please Nanda, who liked to show off her skills. “But why? It’s a grand occasion, is it not?”

“It is, but not quite in the way you imagine,” said Darshini.

She knew Deva’s women – his wife and his love – would both be there and she had no desire to attract attention to herself with an elaborate costume. Nanda tried to convince her to change her mind but finally gave up, muttering something about “the Shakuntala effect” under her breath.

As she dressed, Darshini caught the melancholy strains of the veena wafting out of the palace compound. She imagined Deva’s long, nimble fingers working up a frenzy on the strings, their tips callused with years of practice and play. But the image triggered other memories – the sensation of those fingertips on her skin, rough and soft at the same time, searching, finding, yielding. She tried not to think about their time together but, every once in a while, the memories stole up on her, leaving her aching and alone.

She closed her eyes to shut out the images and muttered a quick prayer. “O Gautama, O Enlightened One, thy will be done.”

Pataliputra’s main auditorium had been decorated for the occasion, its lower galleries teeming with people. Vira took a quick look around and caught Darshini sitting to the left of the dais flanked by her maid, Nanda. She looked tense and tired. Her plain white sari, sandalwood paste bindi and jasmine garlands in her hair marked her out amidst a sea of silk and muslin. The city folk were in a celebratory mood and had dressed up for the occasion.

Virasena was excited. The night before, Charan the spy had informed him that the crown prince had had a showdown with his council of elders and was now tailing even his own men. Vira instructed Charan to leave the capital immediately. He did not want the poor man tortured in case things didn’t go as planned.

But looking around him, Vira felt more confident than ever before that things would finally work out. The council of elders were already seated and the audience was waiting for the imperial family to take their seats before the proceedings could begin. Kalidas was seated on the dais, his serene face not betraying the adrenalin rush that he must be feeling, thought Vira. His own men, Ahirul and the others, were in position. He had instructed them to take their seats as close to the doors as possible. If need be, they could quickly block the exits and hold the audience inside hostage.

But that would be the last resort. Vira did not want any shenanigans in the auditorium. The resultant stampede could cost innocent lives and give the imperial guards enough reason to storm the place. No, it wouldn’t do to have a face-off in the auditorium. Besides, his men were not armed; they had been searched before allowed into the auditorium. And with the royal family in attendance, the auditorium was swarming with imperial guards – it would be a bloodbath.

Vira’s thoughts were interrupted by loud cheering and the clash of cymbals which announced the arrival of the imperial family. The Queen Empress Dattadevi entered first, followed by the crown prince and princess and finally, by Deva’s wife Kubernaga and her daughter. Ramagupta looked resplendent in a peacock blue antariya, sheer gold uttariya and a pearl tiara on his turban. His luxurious moustache was oiled and his hair fell to his shoulders in tightly coiled locks. His chest and forearms were beautifully tattooed with sandalwood paste, vermillion and turmeric. Around his neck he wore Samudragupta’s famed vijayantika necklace, strung with the largest gems in Jambudweep. Curiously, the men-at-arms dwarfs were carrying the imperial Garuda Dhwaja pennant over his head instead of the queen empress, in an apparent show of public bravado.

“What’s he trying to do, showing off like that?” whispered Vira.

“The emperor isn’t dead yet and he is already wearing the vijayantika necklace and carrying the Garuda Dhwaja,” muttered Ahirul. “How long do we have to put up with this travesty?”

“Not long, I hope,” said Vira. “Let us pray it ends today.”

Kalidas cleared his throat and began to read. His deep voice filled the auditorium and the buzz died down, leaving in its wake an expectant hush.

“God Shiva and his mountain bride,
Like word and meaning unified,
The world’s great parents,
I beseech To join fit meaning to my speech.

How great is Raghu’s solar line!

How feebly small are powers of mine!
As if upon the ocean’s swell

I launched a puny cockle shell.

The fool who seeks a poet’s fame
Must look for ridicule and blame,
Like tiptoe dwarf who fain would try
To pluck the fruit for giants high.

Yet I may enter through the door
That mightier poets pierced of yore;
A thread may pierce a jewel, but
Must follow where the diamond cut.

Of kings who lived as saints from birth,

Who ruled to ocean shore on earth,

Who toiled until success was given,

Whose chariots stormed the gates of heaven...”

As the prahar gong struck three, Deva stopped playing. It was time. Kalidas would have reached the end of the first canto and the audience would be mesmerised by now, held captive by the magic of his words. For the rest of the city, this was the late afternoon hour when shops closed and business stopped to take a brief breather. Deva walked over to the window and looked out. He was in the west wing and his windows overlooked the palace bathing ghat. He hoped that Aello’s ladies corps would remember their instructions and adhere to the schedule.

The guards manning his own quarters, as well as the rest of the palace, were also lulled by the afternoon heat and the fact that the imperial family was at the auditorium. But they were still the emperor’s elite personal guards and Aello’s unit would need every bit of courage and agility to win against them. Deva knew their only hope lay in surprising the guards. If the guards managed to ring the palace gong, they would fetch the rest of the platoon and the city police and Aello’s ladies corps would be outnumbered.

Deva wished he had his favourite sword and dagger with him but he had been carefully disarmed before the house arrest began. I can still take a couple of them on in hand-to-hand combat, he thought. All I need to do is to create a diversion that would give Aello time enough to regroup and strike.

When he looked up, his eyes caught a speck on the horizon – the boats. Aello and her team were on their way. He had to wait for nearly an hour before kicking off his diversionary move. It had to be timed perfectly, or it wouldn’t work. So he held his breath and waited.

Excerpted with permission from The King Within, Nandini Sengupta, Harper Collins India.