On the Monday Questions post, I was talking about fanfic, and how I think it’s especially common with Bahubali because this world is so rich. There are so many characters who just show up for a scene or two and their story isn’t fully finished or ended, so many settings that we don’t explore entirely, so many possibilities for the future that are left unknown. Anyway, that’s what it is for me. And one of those possibilities that I explored in both of my original fanfics was “Anushka 2”, the daughter of Anushka 1 and Prabhas 1, if Prabhas 1 had lived after Prabhas 2 had been born. And now I have become obsessed with her love story with Rana 2 (Rana’s illegitimate nephew by way of his father’s mistress’ daughter) (full index of all Bahubali posts, including fanfics, here)
(Anushka 2, Queen of Mahishmati, has sworn an oath only to marry the man who can defeat her in combat. She has just met the man who could do that, Rana 2, in a village fair combat ring in Kuntala, both of them masked to hide their true identities. Rana 2 is the illegitimate grandson of Nassar, prince of Mahishmati. He swore an oath to his mother to destroy the royal family of Mahishmati before leaving home 4 years ago to travel as apprentice/foster son to Sudeep. In the fight right, Anushka barely managed to defeat him, by revealing her face for a moment and stunning him with her beauty, and now she is rushing from the ring without looking back, afraid of her own feelings)
Back in the ring, Rana lies on the ground still, unable to move. All he can see is a vision of full cheeks, brown lips, round eyes. Growing up around prostitutes and courtesans, he had always thought of women’s beauty as something artificial, put on with paint and perfume, drawn on like a costume. But now, now he can see another way. Beauty like the waterfall the passed on the way to the fair, natural and magnificent and glorious. The face he saw just now, it will be burned into his brain for the rest of his life, he can’t even see his hand in front of his eyes as clearly as he can see that one tiny flash of eyes and flutter of eyelids.
It isn’t until he feels his foster-father’s hand on his shoulder that he awakes from his trance. The crowd is still cheering, it has only been a moment, but it felt like a lifetime. He struggles back to reality, like a drowning man pulling himself back to the surface. His father’s hand guides him, and his voice, until suddenly it all clicks into place and he can understand the words he is saying, “there is a horse waiting for you at the gate. Her carriage left from the west exit 2 minutes ago.”
His body leaps into action before his brain can fully process it, running across the sand towards the waiting horse, some part of his brain alert and noticing the empty saddle, the stable boy he recognizes from the inn where they are staying, mapping out the possible paths from the fighting ring through the city, which road is mostly likely to contain his goal. But overlayed over all of this is the image of her face in his mind, her scent, her feel, an obsession with having that again, being near her.
Anushka, in the carriage riding away, has no problem thinking. It is her body that will not move. She is unaware of Tamannah’s worried pats, unaware of the dusty dirty white clothe being gently pulled from her body and her colorful silk sari being revealed. Instead, her mind is going in circles. Questioning her decision just now, trapped in that moment when she could have given in, could have been happy.
But is that real happiness? Love, companionship, a strong partner to share the burden? What is that against duty, responsibility, feeling you have done your best and your most at all times to help your people? No, it would have been an empty happiness.
Like when she was a little girl and her parents gave her the wooden horse for her birthday. At first she was happy, but then she noticed that her classmates and the other children did not have such a fine toy. The happiness went away, she put the horse aside. It was not until her father found it, hidden away in her clothes, and asked what had happened, that she began to feel better. He showed her a different way, that true lasting happiness is not in what you have for yourself, but in what you do for others. He told her she would be able to enjoy her toys, and all the good things she had in life, if she also worked towards getting those things for others. And from then on, when her father took his evening tours of the village (it was still a village then, before the craftsman’s hall was built and the fighting schools), he would bring Anushka along with him, sitting on his saddle, to watch as he comforted the sick, celebrated with the happy, repaired walls and chopped firewood, found lost cattle, gave food to the hungry, shelter to the shelterless, and did the most he could for as many as he could. It was less “fun” than her schoolmates, who spent their evenings playing with dolls or singing songs, but even when she was tired and sore at the end of it, she was always glad she had done it and slept with a clear conscious at night.
But would she sleep well tonight? Her conscious was clear, but was her heart? Had she just given up something that she would always miss?
Tamannah knew the thoughts that were going through Anushka’s head. She had faced this decision herself. Whether to marry where her heart lead or where her duty to her kingdom told her. Luckily, in her case she had not had to choose. It had turned out that her heart and her duty lead to the same place, that carefree young fighter she met and loved was the same as the cousin she was promised to. But not every queen could be so lucky. More than anything, she wished for her beloved sister to find happiness. But it could not be at the cost of the happiness of others. The Mahishmati people must come first, always, and it was Tamannah’s place to support Anushka in this decision she had made, to ease the way for her so she would have the least pain.
The coachman interrupted her thoughts, there was a double knock on the door, the signal for a follower. Tamannah left Anushka to her internal agony, grabbed her bow from the seat, and swung out through side door, arrow already aimed and ready. It took her a half breath to find her target, a masked man riding behind them down the empty road, and then the arrow was released.
Her first arrow was aimed for the arm, to disable not kill. He ducked it easily and rode on. Something about the way he slide to the side at the last moment made her recognize him, that man who has caused this torment in her sister’s heart. She pulled out a second arrow and aimed again, this time straight for the neck.
Rana was frustrated. This angry woman was shooting arrows at him, but where was Anushka? He could sense her presence, feel that she was close to him, but she was not appearing. Another arrow came his way, he slid to the side and let it hit his shoulder this time, rather than slow down. The pain was another distraction, he had to adjust his hold on the reins to allow for it. If that woman would just stop shooting him, so he could concentrate, he thought he could pull alongside and get a glimpse through the window.
Another arrow. They were getting harder to duck. He didn’t even bother this time, it was aimed at his chest, he moved so it nicked a rib rather than his heart. But the pain was acute, soon he may not be able to ride any more. Time to put an end to this before it stopped him from reaching Her.
Tamannah didn’t even see the throwing knife. She was lining up her next shot, and suddenly her wrist ceased to work, and there was a thin red line along it that kept growing and growing. She ignored the pain, and the sense of her blood dripping away, but she couldn’t ignore the way her hand could not grip the bow, with a cry of frustration, she fell back inside.
Anushka had not moved from the still posture she had kept since she first entered the carriage, the fight outside made no impression on her. But Tamannah’s cry of pain roused her, and she turned, slowly, and let the words drag themselves out of her, “Sister, what is happening? Am I needed?” Tamannah spat out the bandage she was tying round her wrist with her teeth long enough to declare, “It is nothing sister. Lend me your sword and I will take care of it. We will be home soon. Do not worry about these small problems.”
Anushka still spoke slowly, like each word cost enormous effort, but firmly, “No, I will lend my sword to no one. Sister, you are injured. If there is danger, I must take it on.” Tamannah opened her mouth to argue, but Anushka gave her one look, and she fell silent. And perhaps this was best, for Anushka to confront and defeat her own demon.
Anushka felt like her mind had suddenly turned into a horse, obsessed scenting water. She kept pulling the reins, reminding her mind that her sister was injured, they were in some kind of danger, she had to fight back. And she had to consider how putting herself in danger here might effect her kingdom and her people, what was her higher duty, what she would do next if the Queen of Mahishmati ended up killing a highwayman in close combat. Cover-up or reveal all? Throw the body in a ditch or bring it in triumph to her kingdom to make political points?
And yet, her mind kept leaving these boring considerations to think about the hardness of muscles, the softness of eyes, and feel of a rough cheek on her forehead. No! She had no time for that! She must find control. The feel of her sword in her hand, that was real and certain and firm. And now the feel of wind on her face and she climbed out the side of the carriage and smoothly swung up to the top of the roof, sword at the ready, prepared for a quick slice to the side, or a leap onto a galloping horse, or a faint with the sword to block a throwing knife. Her ears had told her where to look for the enemy before her eyes had focused, there he was, on a horse, the head coming even with the back of the carriage. He was riding with one arm loose, one of Tammanah’s arrows had found it’s mark, but the way he held the other arm told her he was still a threat. All of this flashed through her mind before she was consciously aware of it. And as quick as she saw it all, it changed. His second hand lifted, but not in attack, in…..greeting? Could that be right? A complicated gesture towards his head and chest, followed by a bow of his head. His head stayed bowed, his one hand on his chest, the horse so perfectly controlled by his legs alone that it continued to stay level with the carriage, shift side to side as the carriage rocketed back and forth on the track.
Anushka stood on top of the carriage like a statue. Sword raised, hair flying in the wind, bright silk sari trailing behind her, legs spread head up. For one long moment, the two of them were perfectly aligned, moving through time and space, but staying in the same position relative to each other, like the earth and the moon.
And then Rana’s face lifted, and his hand snapped forward. Anushka reached out to grab the knife he had thrown, bracing herself for the pain of a bare blade sliding between her fingers, and was surprised to instead feel the soft leather of a sheath. This was not a throwing knife, this was a personal weapon, with a scabbard worn by use, and elegant scroll work along the handle.
Rana’s head was still raised, his face covered by a scarf but his eyes visible. Anushka looked away from the knife and was captured by his eyes. They stared into her, fearlessly meeting her gaze in a way no man had since she took the throne. Even before then, her whole life, one direct look from her had been enough to make most men turn away, grow suddenly flustered. But this man, he would not look away. Not until she broke the gaze, turning her head to the side and looking down, just like a silly girl at her engagement. She thought she heard a laugh, but couldn’t be sure, and then the sound of the horse changed, and he was riding away.
Anushka stuck her sword in her waist band, but kept hold of the knife as she climbed back inside the carriage. Tamannah was waiting. She was afraid to ask what had happened, just as she had been too cowardly to look out and watch. But she had heard no sound of a fight, and then the horse had galloped away. She looked a question at Anushka. Anushka didn’t meet her gaze, instead let her eyes linger on the knife she was caressing in her hand. Tamannah looked down too, and frowned in puzzlement, “I have not seen that before, where did you get it?” Anushka didn’t look up, letting her thumb softly massage the handle, as she answered “He gave it to me. He will not bother us again.”
Rana let the horse find its own way home, he was in no hurry any more. But he felt a moment of guilt when he finally strolled into the inn where they were staying to find Sudeep pacing the length, before suddenly stopping in the middle of a stride and rushing to grab him in a firm embrace, before standing back to examine his face with anxious eyes.
Rana spoke, “I am ashamed Father. In this new love, I have forgotten my devotion to you.” Sudeep shook his head, “no matter, no matter. You seem changed, my son. Did you achieve your goal?” Rana could not help allowing a smile to burst out, one of his rare small smiles, “I did, father. I have seen her, seen her in all her glory, sworn to her my devotion, and given her my blade. There is nothing more I need from this world. If I am very lucky perhaps, someday, I may be able to serve her in some fashion. Or perhaps my knife might prove useful to her for a momentary task.”
Sudeep frowned, “Son, most men in love, they would like to spend time with the object of their affection. I am afraid that one glimpse, and giving her your knife rather than your person, may not be the end of your desires.”
Rana let his small smile disappear, his face returning to the blankness and calm that his mother had taught him, to keep his emotions his own rather than letting the world take them from him. His face was calm, but his voice shook slightly, “I do not know about most men or most love. But my love does not need sustenance to grow stronger. It is a mountain, which will not erode or change one iota for the rest of my life, even were I never to see her again. I know that know, I didn’t before. Before I saw her again. And now she knows it too, she knows that my life is hers if she demands it, and so is my ability to take a life.”
Sudeep looked at his face, and knew the truth of what he said. And felt his heart break a little as he saw his duty before him, “Son, your love is a glorious thing, a holy thing. But your life is not your own. Do not forget, you have sworn it to your mother, and to myself. If your love comes before your honor, which will you choose?’