He frowned as he approached the shrine.
Something was not quite right. He tensed. The shrine was usually lit, even at night, but the torches were out.
Perhaps Madhavi had arranged for that in an effort to ensure privacy?
He exhaled and relaxed. That had to be it. Cautiously, he threaded his way by the shrine and out behind to the grove.
The clouds completely obscured the moon. Blackness everywhere. All Uthiyan could make out were the heavy black shades of tree trunks and the merest white shimmer of jasmine. Carefully, he edged forward. There was a twitch between two trees, he thought. He squinted, and crept closer.
The sky shifted and the moon, now free, shone brightly. Uthiyan saw a figure, swathed in cloth, back towards him, a slender arm, bracelets glinting in the moonlight, resting against a tree.
“Madhavi?” he whispered.
The figure spun around at the sound of his voice. Uthiyan, shocked, jerked back – this was not Madhavi, this was not even a woman, this was a man clad in the robes and jewels of a woman.
Startled, he stepped back, into another hard body behind him.
He felt hands reach to grab his feet, and hold his arms fast.
And before he could even scream –
A gag was slipped over his face and tied roughly over his mouth.
What was happening?
Panic gripped Uthiyan and he pulled at the hands at his throat. When that failed he swung his heel back. There was a low grunt, as his foot connected with something soft, and the hold on him was released.
Uthiyan took his chance, and spun around to face his attackers – but another body barrelled into him from behind, and Uthiyan shrieked as, pushed to the ground, a knee ground into the small of his back.
“I watched your grandfather die on the battlefield, blood pouring from a million wounds, his back broken. He did not even make a sound once!” His assailant, scornful, pressed harder down.
Uthiyan screamed again. This time, goaded by the pain, Uthiyan squirmed and reached out to grab a fistful of cloth. Fabric ripped, and Uthiyan, still holding on desperately, rolled over, and sinking one hand into the earth around him, flung a fistful of mud into his assailant’s face.
The man grunted again, blinded, and Uthiyan used his advantage to push him away, and rose to his feet. But there were three others waiting for him, and they all bore down on him at once. One grabbed his legs, the other his arms, and the third punched him in the face.
Uthiyan was dragged through the grass and mud, and then found himself held, spreadeagled over a tree stump.
As he struggled, a glimmer caught his eye – the silver edge of a dagger, held close to his throat.
And then, as he watched, the hand that held the dagger drifted down to the parting in Uthiyan’s dhoti, holding the blade over his groin.
“Shall we kill you or geld you?”
Uthiyan inhaled sharply.
Another man spoke up, the one holding his arms down. “He’s scared. I can feel him tremble.”
“Kill him.” This was another man. “He’ll talk if we just geld him.”
“We can cut his tongue too,” the first man protested, sounding like he was pleading.
“No, Neelakantan! Just kill him, and make it quick and clean. There is no reason to make him suffer.” Uthiyan almost felt a strange rush of gratitude for this man.
The dagger swept up again, towards his throat.
Uthiyan looked up at the face of the man who held the dagger, into a pair of feverish eyes and a sinister, crooked smile.
And everything turned black.
Uthiyan woke up, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, bandaged and sore, in the palace infirmary. The commander of the night watch told Uthiyan that they had found him, unconscious, buried underneath the bloodied corpse of one of his assailants.
They took him to see the corpse, spread on the ground between two trees. A bloodied, mangled thing, mauled beyond recognition. An eye had been gouged out, a piece of a ear torn off. A finger severed completely.
Uthiyan had shuddered and retched, while the commander had pulled aside the man’s mangled uniform to reveal bloody lacerations. “His name was Neelakantan.”
“Who did this?” Uthiyan asked.
The commander sighed. “We were hoping you would know. Can you remember anything?”
Uthiyan shook his head. The last thing he remembered was the edge of the knife, glinting in the darkness. And only darkness after that.
“It must be the goddess Kuttuvai,” a younger solider, by the commander’s side, piped up.
“She must have come to protect the prince.”
The commander shrugged. “It must be that, whoever it was, praise be to them, for saving the life of our Komahan.”
There it was. That word. Komahan. Uthiyan shivered, and turned to the corpse again. “Who was he?”
“A soldier,” the commander of the night watch replied, shamefaced. “One of my own company.”
Uthiyan digested this. “There were two others apart from him.”
“Ah. That will explain the other footprints.” The commander shifted uneasily from foot to foot. “The other two might be soldiers as well. I will dispatch men to check the barracks against the rosters, and find out if any men are missing.”
Uthiyan pursed his lips. “So you think this may have been an assassination plotted by soldiers of my father’s army?”
The commander fidgeted. Uthiyan’s voice rose. “Why?”
The commander reverted to calling Uthiyan by his correct title. “Ilango, there are men...” He stopped, cleared his throat, and began again. “Forgive me for saying this, Ilango, I say this not as treason...”
“But there are those who claim that you seek the ouster of your brother.” The commander paused. “This is just a rumour, I merely repeat it. I have punished all those I have caught speaking such.”
Uthiyan nodded. Unbidden, a memory uncoiled – of a man screaming like a gutted pig, blood spurting from an open throat. A horrible sound. He shuddered.
“What is it, Ilango?”
“Nothing, just a passing faintness. Has my mother been here?”
“The Perumdevi visited when you were unconscious, and I have already dispatched messengers to her and the Ko with news that you are well.”
“I will go see her myself. Did my father come?”
“No, Ilango, he did not.”
Excerpted with permission from The Prince, Samhita Arni, Juggernaut.