Queen's Tragedy19 mins 326 19 mins 326
The Queen of Abitsar stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes automatically were drawn to her graying hairs. The sight used to leave her in a bad mood but today she did not feel upset. Some hours back, the king had denounced her as a crone. The insult had stung her but she bit her tongue and avoided a shouting, slanging match with her husband. The fact that even her husband viewed her as an old maid made her accept the truth that age had finally caught up with her. Some years back, she used to be the most beautiful woman in both the kingdoms of Abitsar and Tribhanga, the neighbouring kingdom. The poets dedicated verses to her beauty and the trabadours went around singing paens in her praise. She smiled sadly at her reflection and wondered about her fate.
"Oh, well!" She muttered to herself. "I can always retire to my palace and spend the rest of my life in peace over there."
She had built a small palace on the top of the hills of Nandigiri. It was far from the capital of Abitsar, some 200 kms away and not much favoured by the tourists or merchants. The sleepy towns and villages that had come up around the hills had stayed the same more or less for the past five hundred years. The king of Abitsar, the great Pranjaldeva, had never cared much for the development of his kingdom. He was content with the work done by his council of ministers or so he was fond of saying. The council of ministers comprised of three ministers who maintained an iron hand over all the departments. Nothing happened in the kingdom without their knowledge. The absolute power had corrupted them absolutely. It was true that they could have deposed the king any day they wanted to but it was also true that the citizens of the kingdom loved their king and the three ministers knew that removing the king would spell a death sentence for them too. The king needed them to keep things running smoothly and they needed the king so that they could stay in power. They wanted to control every aspect of the king's life but they were also scared of his evil temper and tried to keep the king in good humour. When the king decided to marry Jamini, they were left appalled for even though Jamini was the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom, her lineage left a lot to be desired. They had wanted their king to marry a royal person from the kingdom of Tribhanga but things did not turn out well. In the end, Pranjaldeva married Jamini and made her the queen of Abitsar. The council of ministers had to bow down to a woman of a lowly family and it left a festering wound in their collective psyche.
Jamini had soon learnt that her husband was a womanizer and a drunkard to boot. The king spent his days hunting or playing 'chaucer' in his palace. The nights were spent in debauchery. Twice or thrice in a month, the king would remember his wife and then would come to visit the queen. The king was always intoxicated during his stays. There were only two instances when the king was found to be sober by his queen. The first time was when the king was setting out to battle with the army of Tribhanga and the second time was when the king fell sick and was told to not consume any drinks or drugs for a fortnight.
She was lost in her thoughts as she looked at her reflection when a maid entered the room looking agitated. She brought the news that Sriveli had returned via the underground cave and that the princess had returned with a stranger who saved her life from the enemy soldiers of Tribhanga. Jamini was shocked at the turn of the events.
"The princess is a meeting with the most revered king," the maid informed the queen. "Someone has been sent to fetch the acharya. He would be with us soon."
The queen could not even move from her seat. There was no use going to the king's meeting room. She knew that she would not be invited in. It was the revenge that the council of ministers had inflicted on her. She was barred from attending any meeting that held security implications. An attempt on Sriveli's life would most definitely come under that category. In utter helplessness, the queen looked on at the maid who stood rooted at her spot, unsure of whether to stay or to leave.
It was the tragedy of the queen of Abitsar. She was a queen but only in name. She should have held great power but she had been made toothless by the council of ministers and by the sheer apathy of her husband. She dismissed the maid with a tired gesture of her hands and then went back to staring at her reflection. Her pain and humiliation were writ large on her face lending an overall shade of misery to her reflection that made her look far more aged than she actually was.
There was no one in her chamber. She alone sat still in front of the mirror. Apart from the gently fluttering of the curtains, nothing moved in the room. It was still as a crypt. For some moments the great Time itself seemed to stand still in the lonely room, perhaps to pity the queen who could have held an entire kingdom at her feet but who now sat alone with the rest of the world hell bent on avoiding her.
When her reflection moved in the mirror, it did not even register to the queen. When her reflection stood up, the sudden movement made the queen wake up from her reverie. The queen got up hurriedly and staggered back with a cry of exclamation. She stood stooped with a most surprised look while her reflection stood haughtily with a sneer on her lips. Jamini could only stare at the strange sight and wonder if she were hallucinating.
"Do you regret your deal now?" Her reflection spoke. The queen suddenly realized that her thoracic region had turned hollow and that the words spoken by her reflection echoed in the hollow just now created.
"Don't tell me now that you have forgotten me?" The words evoked a long lost memory. It was a rainy day and she was returning from her dance class. She was forced to take shelter under a tree when a sudden downpour caught up with her. She stood shivering under the tree with water drops glistening on her face. Something had approached her stealthily that day, taking care to always be behind her so that she could not steal a glance of it. She could sense a shadow behind her but she knew better than to look behind her. Her grandmother had told her the stories of how shadows approach beautiful girls, of the deals that were offered to the girls and on the most awful price that a girl had to pay if she accepted the deal from the shadowy beings. It was not the first time that a shadow had approached her. That happened when she was just 15 years old. It was a fleeting encounter. That day the shadow had moved behind her and she had run away, screaming at the top of her lungs. This time around, she was 22 years old. Her admirers had begun to throng the dance academy to stare at her. She was far more confident in her manners and she was very interested in knowing more about the deals being offered to pretty girls. The shadow had spoken to her in a similar fashion. The suddenly hollowed out chest region echoed the words spoken to her. The first words were about how beautiful she was and how she should rule the world instead of wasting her life. Jamini had boldly asked the shadow about the deal and it had made the shadow chuckle. The deal offered to her was pretty good.
She was to surrender her most loved child to the deity of the shadows. When Jamini wanted to know when she would have to sacrifice her child, the shadow whispered to her that the time and place would be intimated to her at an opportune time. If Jamini chose to accept the deal, she was to become the queen of Abitsar. When she asked how the shadow would manipulate the king to marry her, it had laughed out loud. A long lecture on the finiteness of luck was then delivered. It did not make much sense to her but she did not protest. After all, the prospect of becoming a queen was more than enough for her to feign interest in the drivel that the shadow was spewing. It was very easy for Jamini to accept the deal. She was young and impulsive and a child to be born to her in future held no emotional attachment for her at that time. The shadow disappeared. Within one year of the deal, Jamini was spotted by the king at one of her dance performances and he was left besotted with her. His frantic, almost wild, wooing soon led to a hurried marriage.
"I have not forgotten you," Jamini's voice trembled.
"Good," Her reflection said. "So who will it be?"
Jamini staggered to her bed and sat down heavily on it. The reflection stood frozen in the mirror. Jamini's thoughts went to Sriveli, her eldest daughter. Sriveli was young and beautiful and possessed a mind of her own. Jamini and Sriveli had not spoken properly for years now. Jamini's second child was born deformed. Jainil was a hunchback and was the apple of his mother's eyes who loved her to the bits. Jamini's youngest child was Vani, a child of 12 years. She looked upto Sriveli but she was still very attached to her mother.
"Jainil!" The queen whispered.
The moment she whispered the name, her reflection disappeared in the mirror. A shadow manifested itself behind her. She dared not look behind.
"A smart choice, isn't it?" The shadow's tone suddenly became taunting. "A hunchback who would never become the king. So why not sacrifice him?"
"But you don't love him the most, do you?" The shadow whispered angrily.
"No," Jamini protested weakly. "I love him the most. I really do."
"No, you don't. You love your first child the most, don't you?"
"Do you think we are morons?"
Jamini froze. In her wildest dreams, she had not considered the possibility of someone knowing about her eldest child. When she got married with the king, she had wanted to love him but his behaviour put her off. She was suddenly cut off from her friends and her admirers. Her dance rehearsals were done in an empty auditorium now. She longed for her carefree days, for her admirers to throng the streets as she walked past them, for her friends to plan outings with her. As a queen, her life was boring, to say the least. During those despairing times, she met Martand. He was a warrior and a poet. He was strong and very skillful with his sword. He was equally proficient with his words. She had never met a person like him before. She could see in his eyes that he was attracted to her but he kept his distance from her out of respect for her position. It took her about six months to even make him agree to become a friend and then another three months before she could pull him close. The forbidden nature of their romance added to the pleasure she derived from her torrid love affair. One spring day, she realized that she was hopelessly in love with Martand, that the king was a lout and held no virtue as compared to Martand, that she could not live without her lover. The next day she realized that she was carrying Martand's baby. The king had not sought her company for about three months. The moment he would learn about her pregnancy, he was going to figure it out as to who the father of the child was. Martand would have been killed and most likely she would have shared her lover's fate. She was at her wit's end when an old maid approached her surreptitiously. She advised the queen to ask the king to build her a new palace at some far off place and then to stay in that palace till the time her child was born. The queen followed her advice and was able to carry her pregnancy to term at her own palace in the hills of Nandgiri. The child was taken away by the old maid one night when the queen was fast asleep. The maid or the child was never seen again. The queen could not even ask the king to help her in looking for the child. She had returned back to the king in low spirits. She went into full blown depression when she learnt that Martand shifted to another city and that he was now married with some girl his family chose. The two loves of her life had been brutally snatched away from her.
"But, but..." Jamini could not even complete her sentence.
"He is no longer with you," the shadow whispered. "But we know where he is. We also know that you never forgot him, that your love for him has increased considerably ever since you gave birth to a deformed child. You miss him a lot, don't you? Not a day goes by when you don't think of that child. Is that not true?"
Jamini could not react. She could feel goosebumps on her skin. The shadow knew where her son was. She had to find out about him. She had to meet him once.
"You will be allowed to meet him once," the shadow whispered gently, "but you will have to sacrifice him in the same hour. If you don't kill him by your own hands, the deal would be considered off. Trust me when I tell you this that you will rue the moment you tried to break the deal. You will die a painful death in the most excruciating manner possible. The last time someone tried to renege on us, we made sure that every bit of his skin was torn off by knives and he was then left to rot under the baleful gaze of the sun. Similar fate will await not only you but to all of your three children."
"And what if I kill him?"
"Then everything would be just fine. You will continue as a queen. Your children will stay safe."
Jamini sighed. She had to keep her end of the deal.
"My poor son!" She shook her head. "How unlucky he has to be to die by my own hands? And I will be an accursed mother, killing my own child."
"Luck? Unlucky? You have forgotten what I told you about luck, haven't you?"
"Luck is made by us, right? I committed to this turn of events, didn't I? You are right about everything but I still feel bad for my son."
"Luck is a finite amount in this world," the shadow muttered. "For you to become lucky, we all had to find and steal luck from others. At any moment of time, when you needed luck to be on your side, we had to find a person enjoying the tides of luck at that very moment and to steal it from him so that we can force it to be in your favour. So many unfortunates have realized that the winds of luck in their favour suddenly died out and that they were left to struggle again. All that work was done so that the king would marry you and then again to keep your secret safe and then again to keep you and your children safe. Now we are going to be compensated for our efforts and we are going to make sure that we get our compensation."
"But killing my child? How is that a compensation for you? Unless it is the tears of a mother that you seek as compensation?" Jamini wailed.
"I can try to explain it to you but I believe you won't understand it all. A sudden death unleashes energy but when it is mixed with some emotion, the energy takes on a distinct flavour. Suppose a murder takes place in a fit of fury, then the energy takes on a reddish colour and a violent aftermath. It is difficult to explain it to you in your language for you don't get to experience energy the way we do. In your case, we can see that you already grieve for your son. A murder committed with grief in the killer's heart unleashes energy with a rare flavour."
Jamini did not want to listen to the shadow hold forth on the treat that it was going to enjoy at the cost of her son's life.
"Who is he?" She interjected.
"He will come to meet you tonight. Midnight. Right here."
"Will I be able to speak with him?"
"You can try!"
On that ominous note, the shadow disappeared. The queen sat alone and felt a nameless dread drag its clammy fingers up her spine. She went to pay a visit to Sriveli who was not happy on meeting her mother. After some time, Jamini left her daughter alone and went for a walk in the garden but the flowers and the birds did not give her peace. She wondered how her son would come to meet her. A sense of foreboding sat upon her mind that made her uncomfortable and sick. On the dinner table, she found herself alone. Her husband and her children seemed to conspire with the shadow to add to her misery.
She retired to her chamber soon after and dismissed the maids as soon as she could. Then she retrieved her favourite dagger, the one that had its hilt made of silver, and put it under her pillow. Then she waited for her midnight visitor.
Time crept slowly that night as if its feet were leaden. The crescent moon made its appearance in the starry skies. Wisps of white cloud floated about. The night grew more and more silent as the hours passed by. At midnight, the guard in the watch tower was supposed to ring a bell to let anyone awake know about the time. The bell rang somewhere far off. The moment the gong was hit, a shadow crept through the open window and stepped inside the queen's chamber.
Even though Jamini was expecting her midnight visitor, her heart skipped a beat. The intruder had finally made his way to her room. Was he really her son? The shadow had never lied to her before. She let out a gasp and the intruder, now fully alert, jumped towards the bed and placed the tip of his sword on her neck.
"Shhh!" He whispered. He had wrapped his lower face with a stole. There was a turban on his head. The moment Jamini looked in his eyes, she knew that the intruder was his son. His eyes were remarkably similar to the eyes of Martand.
"Can I look at you once?" She asked in a tremulous voice.
"What for?" The intruder snarled at her. "So that you can get me imprisoned too? Like my father?"
A shadow passed over Jamini's face. She was not yet aware of Martand's fate. Ever since she returned from her palace after giving birth to her son and then losing him, she had never met Martand again.
"Where is he? Where is Martand?" She asked breathlessly.
The intruder was surprised by her sudden question. "Oh! So you know my father's name? Tell me, pray, why did you send him to prison for the past eighteen years?"
"Why would he be in prison?" Jamini was no longer scared of the naked sword that was being held too close to her neck.
"I was told that you hated him," the intruder said.
"Hate him? I loved him!"
The queen's proclamation made the intruder stagger.
"Yes!" The queen was no longer afraid of proclaiming her love for Martand. "I loved him. Nay, scratch that! I still love him." Jamini then broke down.
"So then why is he in prison?" The intruder was taken aback at the sudden confession and the sight of sobbing queen terrified him.
"In prison!" The queen sobbed. "All this time I thought he ditched me. I believed that he fell out of love for me. I should have told him about his son, our son." The queen suddenly lurched forward and grabbed the intruder by his arm. "You, my son, have finally been reunited with me."
The shocking statement made her son drop the sword on the floor.
"Surely you lie," he whispered but he knew that the queen was not lying. He could see her love for him through her tears. He did not stop her when she removed the stole from his face or when she cupped his face with her hands.
"I finally see you," the queen tried to smile through her tears. "When you were stolen from my bed side, I could not forgive myself for years. You were my most prized possession and someone stole you from my side."
She broke down again but this time her son comforted her. His name was Chaitanya. The queen shared her story with him and then learnt how the old woman carried Chaitanya to her village in the forest where the villagers raised him with love and respect. He was always told that he was the son of a famous warrior but he was never told about his parents. Two days back, he was told that he was Martand's son and that his father had been held captive by the orders of the evil queen Jamini for she wanted Martand to be her slave but Martand had refused to accept it and had paid a terrible price for his insubordination. Chaitanya was asked to avenge the injustice meted out to his father and he was led to the queen's garden and then directed to the queen's chamber. His mission was to kill the queen and then to return to the garden where his comrades waited for him.
"But they lied to me," Chaitanya sighed. "They told me that you were evil but you are my mother and it is very clear that you have suffered a lot ever since I was taken away from you. I can sense your pain even as I sit beside you. You are my mother! There is no doubt about it. But why do they want you dead? Why did they want me to kill my own mother?"
"I will find your father," Jamini promised her son. "I had no idea about his incarceration. Give me some time and he will be freed."
Chaitanya got on to his feet. He was loathe to leave his mother again but he needed answers and for that he had to return to the village to question his 'family'. Jamini watched him wistfully. She did not want to kill him. He was in the prime of his youth. He looked handsome and he carried himself well. She stifled her sobs as her hand slid under the pillow to grab the hilt of the dagger.
Chaitanya saw the dagger glinting as it made its way towards his heart but he could do nothing to save himself. The dagger plunged in his heart and his legs gave in. Before his slumped figure hit the floor, Jamini rushed forward and held him gently. She wept copious tears over her son's corpse. The shadow whispered its admiration for her steely resolve and promised her that the deal would stay in place till her death.
The queen called out to the guards to let them know about the intruder. They were left amazed at the sight of a dead man in the queen's chamber. The queen told them to hunt the man's accomplice who were still hidden in the garden. A hue and cry was raised and the two hidden men were dragged out and killed. The king learnt of the incident the next morning and was left pleasantly surprised at his wife's bravery. He paid his queen a visit after many months and found that his wife was still very pretty. Their three children found new respect for their mother and their relationships improved steadily. No one around the queen could sense her pain for that was her burden to carry. The queen's most tragic role was to gloat over her own son's murder and she performed her role with panache.
Author's note - this story is set in the same world as the stories "An Elite Problem, Prisoner's Secret, Life or Death, Monsters and the Night of Chameleon. However this story can be enjoyed on its own too.