More directions came from the Raj who wanted to host a full banquet for his visitor. That’s when I knew this Dark One was more than a healer. The Raj had a healthy respect for yoga instructor’s skills, but he would’ve fed them more simply and humbly.
“Since there will be a banquet in the audience chamber we’ll have one in the zenana too,” the Rani said.
Meerani clapped her hands together. She’d already seen the Dark One but wouldn’t mind seeing him again. I had to admit I was curious about him as well and wanted to see if he was worth all this effort. Besides that a banquet meant we’d be dressed up for the occasion. This was something I always enjoyed.
The shutters were opened in the hope of a breeze. No one actually expected it to make much of a difference in this summer weather. Yet, a cool, soft wind blew in through the window. The other girls gave a sigh of pleasure, but I shuddered as Princess Meerani smiled. She walked away from the clothes spread on her bed and looked at her window to the courtyard. There was a loud bleat.
“It’s just the servants preparing the goat for tonight’s dinner,” I said.
That should’ve been enough to get her away from the window. Meerani accepted the need for the yearly sacrifice, but she didn’t like to watch it. However, her eyes were fastened on the courtyard. I gasped. There was the goat surrounded by the Raj, the priest and the Dark One.
Meerani had a good view of the Dark One from her bedroom window. Her eyes shone, and she sighed. Some people see beauty in snakes. Their sleek, sinuous curves. Their too-intense gaze on their prey.
He stood silently in the courtyard. Poised like a cobra. If he were a prince, his father must’ve been proud of him. The same pride any warrior takes in owning a well forged sword honed to a razor’s edge.
The priest’s eyes were so round you’d think he was the one being sacrificed, and he stumbled over his words. He tried to saw a ritual chant, but after he stumbled over the words kept muttering “Om, Om, Om.”
The black goat bleated in unison either to engage in the ritual or in unconscious mockery of it.
The Dark One looked upon the goat and the priest and his brow furrowed.
“This doesn’t please you?” the Raj asked.
I couldn’t understand it but I felt fear grip my heart. Sacrifices were supposed to please the suras not the human performing the ritual. Why should he care if the Dark One were pleased or not?
“It’ll do,” the Dark One nodded.
The priest sobbed in relief and the goat bleated. He pulled on the rope around the goat’s neck, and it screeched. The Dark One placed a finger on its forehead and it gave off a soft bleat that grew fainter and fainter.
“Uh,” the priest said.
The Raj frowned at the motionless goat. He glanced at the Dark One, “Do what you need to do.”
The Dark One had a sword in his hand. The priest pulled on the leash and it dug into the animal’s neck.
“I thought I was to cut off its head?” the Dark One asked.
“We strangle the sacrifice first so it doesn’t suffer,” the priest said.
“There’s a simpler way if that’s what concerns you,” the Dark One said.
He touched the goat in the middle of its forehead. It gave a startled “bah,” that grew more languid and then stopped. It became motionless as if a cobra’s eyes fascinated it.
A quick movement too fast for my eyes, and the goat’s head rolled down to the ground while its body slumped. Blood spurted out from its neck.
I won’t say either Meerani or I were so delicate that seeing a goat sacrifice was a shock to us. It was performed at least once a year for the sake of the kingdom. What I found so disconcerting was the efficiency of it. The Dark One was so lean that I didn’t think he was capable of such brute force even if he were “wiry.” He made the whole thing look effortless, while it sometimes took a regular man more than one chop to do the job.
The Dark One was too much of a warrior to be frightened by the consequences of spilled blood. Its flow neither attracted nor repelled him. Royals drank to incite passion and bloodlust before they went battle. The Dark One was cold and deliberate. Maybe the goat was beneath his notice. However, I thought it likely that he would’ve had the same reaction if the goat were a human prisoner.
The Raj waited until the blood was done spilling out of the goat’s neck before he spoke. “This will be our dinner tonight.”
“Does this p-please you?” the priest asked.
The Dark One nodded at this, “I see no need for more sacrifices today.”
The Raj and the Dark One walked away from view. The priest called for the kitchen servants who took the goat into the kitchen to dress and cook it. He asked for a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his brow with a shaking hand. I knew he preferred to leave the killing of sacrificial animals to the Raj. It was a practice meant to maintain his own ritual purity. He viewed the sacrifice as distasteful but necessary. He and the Raj were performing the duties of their caste. However, the Dark One’s casual attitude to bloodshed unnerved him
It was my duty to attend to the Princess at the feast that night, so I could observe the palace women’s reaction to him. Everyone was dressed in simple silk with minimal embroidery and jewelry. We were in semi-darkness behind a screen above the audience chamber. This allowed us to observe the men’s banquet unnoticed.
We saw that the Raj and his courtiers wore their finest court costumes. The Dark One came into the chamber wearing a long, flowing black silk robe. On anyone else such garb would’ve been humble, but he carried it with the gravity of royalty. His figure should’ve struck people as slight, but he still felt as coiled and dangerous as a cobra. I suspected he kept himself slim because he was at his most dangerous when he was hungry.
The palace women had been muttering to themselves until they saw our visitor.
“Hmm,” Ananda said slowly. There was a long pause before she said, “His father must be very proud of him.”
He was too young looking to be a Raj yet had the dignity and finesse of a skilled warrior and diplomat. I thought his schooling must’ve been intensive. He’d gathered enough experience at such arts to handle himself with such aplomb.
He sat on a cushion next to the Raj. The Raj motioned for his bard to perform for the guest. “You need to be fully informed about the particulars of the region. That’s why I’ll have my bards sing of the Rathouds’ history. Hopefully, you’ll find it more entertaining than a dry lecture,” the Raj murmured.
The Dark One maintained a pose of polite interest. A slight smile broke over his face when the bard began with the sun sura who founded the Rathoud line.
“This amuses you?” the Raj asked.
The women tensed expecting to see the Raj order the execution of his guest. However, the Dark One made a quick recovery, “That explains a few things about your people. Solar deities are known to be hot headed.”
“Whereas, your line of descent is known for consuming all that is in their path,” the Raj said. “You come from the Destroyers do you not?”
The Dark One nodded, “Yes, I was born into a line of Destroyers.”
“I’m sure the bards could spin quite a tale about your family’s history,” the Raj said.
“Aye, but Father isn’t used to having bards around him,” the Dark One said. “Neither will he answer my questions. I’d have to look things up in forbidden tomes to know my family’s history. Even then it’s distorted and exaggerated,” the Dark One said.
“By your family’s enemies no doubt,” the Raj shrugged. “The bards of other Rajs tell horror stories about me and the other Rathouds.”
The Dark One nodded at this. A rich, red wine was poured out in an ornate goblet for him. “This is our best vintage,” the Raj said.
Our guest ripped off a piece of naan flatbread and dipped it in the wine. He nibbled on the piece then took a sip from the goblet. The palacewomen watched this, “Is this a ritual in his land?” Ananda asked. The Rani held a finger to her lips and Ananda fell silent.
The breaking of the bread had some especial import to the Dark One. Even if it wasn’t understood by the people at court. The men at the banquet exchanged looks, but no one dared question the Dark One. The Raj continued acting the gracious host and ignored the Dark One’s act.
They presented a woven basket of fruit to the Dark One, “A gift from our vineyards.”
There were fresh grapes in the basket as well as a long black ribbon—that moved. The women screamed at the sight of a black cobra that slithered up from the basket. The Dark One held up his hand for its inspection. It flicked its tongue at him and then slithered up his hand and wrapped itself around his wrist.
The men at the banquet gasped, and the Raj groaned.
“It’s a fitting gift,” the Dark One said as he studied the black cobra on his arm. It cleaved to him as if it were in love.
“M-my apologies!” the Raj gasped.
“Guard!” He pointed to the server who looked pale. “We will find out who put the cobra in the fruit basket.”
The guards muttered when the Raj pointed to the cobra that was around the Dark One’s wrist. A servant paled when they realized it was a living snake and not an ornament, “We need a snake charmer to get it off him!”
The Dark One stroked the head of the snake. It stretched its neck to enjoy the caress with a soft hiss. He placed his long slender finger between its eyes. The hiss grew fainter and fainter until it stopped. The head, neck and body went limp, becoming a loose piece of rope the Dark One unwound from himself.
Ajat muttered, “Asura!”
“Do not insult our honored guest,” the Raj said to his brother.
“Is it dead?” the guard gestured to the snake.
“Dead?” the Dark One asked.
“Its venom is deadly,” the guard said.
“Um, we can’t have it putting the rest of the guests in jeopardy.” A spike slid out from the Dark One’s sleeve and severed the snake’s head. He took a white, linen napkin from his table setting and placed the snake’s head and body into it. He wrapped the snake inside the napkin as if it were a shroud.
“Assassin,” Prince Ajat muttered all the while the Dark One worked.
“I have been that at times, but it’s not my only skill,” the Dark One agreed.
Beads of sweat appeared on the other banqueters’ faces, and it had nothing to do with the heat. The guard gripped his sword tight.
“How have I offended your hospitality? By carrying a weapon into your banqueting hall or in concealing my chosen weapon?” the Dark One asked. He gestured to the ceremonial daggers and scimitars on the courtiers’ belts.
“Only an assassin conceals his weapons,” Ajat began.
The Vizier’s voice broke. “Our weaponry is mostly family heirlooms or past gifts from the Raj and only meant for display.”
“Yet they have cutting edges?” the Dark One’s brows rose. “It’s one thing to be unarmed as a sign of good faith. It’s another to demand I disarm myself while you’re allowed you carry weaponry.”
Prince Ajat sputtered at this.
“I’d prefer your weapon be in the open if you are to carry one into my audience chamber,” the Raj said.
He kept his voice mild to salvage the situation. The Dark One’s oddity stopped this from turning into a diplomatic incident. I wondered if he was naïve enough to think that the black cobra he had charmed was a gift to him? I didn’t see him as a wicked man then, but it was odd to think that he should have any innocence.
He placed the spike on the table in the open in front of the other guests. After a long pause, the Raj followed suit with his own dagger and this caused his courtiers to do the same. I’d seen banquets for hostile dignitaries before. This strange civility chilled me more than open insults.
“Ugh!” It sounded like the Rani were spitting out something unsavory in a napkin. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
She snapped her fingers at the maid servants. “Take this food to the zanana’s main dining hall for those who are still hungry. I wish to retire.”
She placed a hand to her temple, “This has got to be the worst banquet I’ve ever seen!”
Meerani was starting at the Dark One below her. Everyone in the Raj’s audience chamber looked upon him with horror. Meerani’s eyes were wide and unblinking.
The Rani gasped, “Meerani!”
She snapped her fingers under Meerani’s chin. When that got no reaction she waved her hands frantically under Meerani’s eyes. “Uh,” Meerani said.
Her gaze shifted from the Dark One to her mother. The Rani clutched her “Don’t worry we’ll keep that dreadful man away from you!”
“Momma?” Meerani’s brows furrowed at this.
“I don’t care how strong his army is. We’ll never accept a proposal from that man,” the Rani shuddered.
“He makes the Gurkans look civilized in comparison. The Raj has already promised me he’ll never give you to a Gurkani prince,” the Rani sniffed.
I looked at the Dark One myself. The guards hadn’t drawn their swords, but remained close to the Raj, ready to defend him. They gave some luckless servant the task of carrying away what was left of the black cobra. The Dark One reached into a pocket from his voluminous robes. The guards hissed at this, but the Raj refused to issue the order that would’ve set them on him.
He took a black velvet bag out. Its drawstring was unloosed. The napkin shrouded black cobra was placed in the bag. Its drawstring was drawn and knotted twice. The Dark One handed the bag and its contents to the servant. They grabbed it by its drawstrings but refused to touch the pouch. “Give it a burial in a garden spot,” the Dark One said.
The servant glanced at the Raj who nodded “yes”, “It will be as you wish, my Lord.”
“Are snakes sacred to your family?” the Raj asked.
“They’ve been valuable allies in the past,” the Dark One said.
The Raj laughed, “I don’t know if your regard for a creature used as a pawn is a comfort or a bad omen.”
“Perhaps your priest could tell you how to read these events?” the Dark One said.
“All of us rajs would be figureheads if priests had their way. He already told me his opinion of my plan. However, he leaves the difficult parts of ruling and defending the kingdom to me. That’s why I’ll be the one to make the final decision here,” the Raj said.
The Dark One nodded at this, “Whatever decision you make will be honored.”
Devoted to the Dark One
Copyright © 2019 by Cathy Smith
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