‘What if he is dead?’
The question invited a smart slap across his sun-darkened face. His eyes smarted with tears. He blinked a couple of times, partly to clear his vision and partly in disbelief that she had actually dared slap him. He rubbed the soreness of his cheek with a callused hand.
‘Fourteen years is a long time.’ He tried to sound gentle. ‘And the forests down south are anything but gentle.’
‘What makes you so sure he travelled south?’
‘He is…was…young and naïve and full of bravado when he left. He and that hotheaded brother of his. I can bet the last coin I ever earn on this. The two of them must have thought that ramming their heads with the savages of the Lost Kingdom would be a fantastic way to spend the endless hours of their fourteen-year vacation.’
‘He never was and never will be naïve!’
‘Fine. But he can be, and most probably is – dead!’
‘What is with you? Why can’t you be like everybody else? Every single person, even the little baby boy born this morning, is getting ready for the grand celebration. Why can’t you just participate? For once, do something nice!’
‘Because this entire charade is ridiculous, darling sister,’ he lashed out at her. ‘This absurd celebration for the return of the banished prince. Krityaka is smart. Think about it. She has forever wanted her son on the throne. That’s why she had Raghava thrown out of the land. Why do you think she didn’t ask Raghava to return in ten years…or maybe twenty? Why fourteen years?’
For a heartbeat the two of them stared at each other.
‘If he does not return by the midnight of the eighteenth day of Ashrasha, the law will declare him dead. Dead to this kingdom.’
‘He will come before then,’ she said forcefully.
‘If he was anywhere even close to the kingdom, don’t you think we would have heard at least a whisper of it by now?’
‘He. Will. Come.’
She turned her back on him and picked up the cloth streamer she had woven. Resolutely she walked to the door and started pinning it to the doorframe.
He rushed after her and ripped her hard work in half. ‘What in God’s name is there to celebrate? If he has survived the beasts in the forests, if he has managed to stay hidden from the thousand enemies of this kingdom, if he did not, in fact, go chasing the savages of Mahameru, then why is he NOT here today? Why is he not as eager to reach home as the stupid people of this kingdom want him to? Why is he not standing at the borders waiting for the forsaken midnight hour so that he can return home? Stop this absolutely pathetic display of neediness for a man who left you…who left all of us!’
‘What would you rather have me do?’ She challenged him. ‘Should I resign myself to our kingdom forever being governed by a heartbroken king who never sets foot in his own land? To the fact that the dead king will be mourned forever? Do the people of this kingdom not deserve a celebration?’
He opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. He looked at the tattered streamer in his hands and sighed heavily.
‘Gareev!’ The man landed heavily on their porch. Sweat dotted his dark forehead. ‘Gareev…’ he panted. ‘He is dead.’ He sobbed.
‘Raghava is dead…’
‘I am not sure this was the wisest move.’ Krityaka wrung her fingers in a mix of anticipation and anxiety.
‘Do you want Kshitij to rule this kingdom?’ Yatu asked bluntly.
‘Then focus on that. Weak hearts did not make great strategists. Ever.’
‘But what if Raghava returns?’ She was getting agitated. ‘I want him to return. Everything I have brought upon him cannot change the fact that he was once dear to me!’
‘If he is alive he will return. All we need to do is make sure that he does not set foot in this kingdom before the eighteenth midnight from today.’
‘Make sure?’ Krityaka frowned at him. ‘What have you done, Yatu?’ she demanded.
‘Just made sure that when the nineteenth day of Ashrasha dawns, Kshitij will be the incontestable king of Saket.’
‘What did you do?’ Krityaka sounded angry.
‘The lesser you know, the better,’ Yatu cautioned. ‘That way you can claim you had nothing to do with any of this. Should it come to that.’
‘What did you do, Yatu?’ Kshitij’s deep baritone echoed through the high ceilings of the chamber.
‘Lord,’ Yatu bowed his head.
‘Cut the drama. What have you done to Raghava?’
‘I have done nothing, sire! On the contrary, I have asked to be notified the minute there is even a glimpse of his shadow at Saket’s borders,’ Yatu assured him.
‘I don’t believe you, Yatu. Should news of any kind of obstruction to Raghava’s return reach me, consider yourself banned from this kingdom forever.’ Kshitij stared at Yatu for a long moment. ‘Leave.’
‘Mother,’ Kshitij interrupted Krityaka. ‘I thought you should know I am back in the palace. I will be staying in the guest wing till Raghava returns.’
‘Why?’ Krityaka pleaded. ‘This is your home! Please stay here, where you rightfully belong!’
‘It ceased to be home the day Raghava left. You made sure of that.’
‘I am your mother, for better or worse. I raised you! Stop treating me like I don’t exist! You have punished me every single day for the past fourteen years by refusing to even acknowledge me!’
‘You have punished Raghava every single day for the past fourteen years. The day his punishment ends…so does yours. I don’t know what Yatu and you are up to this time, but for everybody’s sake this world would be happier if Raghava returned. Do you understand me?’
‘Do you understand me?’
The seven men nodded in unison. Yatu flicked his chin in the direction of the forests and the men dispersed, leaving behind a trail of unintelligible murmurs.
‘Do you think they will do it?’
‘Money can be a strong motivating force.’
‘Do you think you should do it?’
Yatu turned around to frown at his second-in-command.
‘Look at the bigger picture. Kshitij is back and has, for lack of a humbler word, ordered you to make sure Raghava returns safely. Krityaka will not go against her son. And yet here you are.’
‘We are looking at two different pictures. The one you see is painted in the colours of your worries and fears, the one I see is coloured with my optimism. When Raghava does not return, Kshitij will have no choice but to ascend the throne. Once he does that, he will be forced to acknowledge my keen foresight. I took the steps necessary to ensure that the people of this kingdom suffer no more.’
‘While you are busy spreading rumours about Raghava’s death, what if he is alive and on his way back here?’
‘Then he will not make it past the borders.’
The Return of Raghava by Hitesha is exclusively available on the Juggernaut app