Welcome back to my fanfic! I am having way more fun writing this than my “real” posts, the bread and butter ones that keep my viewership up. Oh well, I might as well treat myself, what does it hurt? (my loyal readers who want analysis! that’s who. Sorry! I will try to do better) (full index of Bahubali posts here)
Okay, on the last post I did a whole massive summary of all previous events. I’m not doing that again! That was exhausting. But I will give you a little recap of the most recent events and important characters.
Anushka 2 is the empress of Mahishmati, a private woman who puts duty above all. Only her brother Prabhas 2 and sister-in-law Tamannah can even get close to breaking through her reserve. While visiting their tiny kingdom of Kuntala, she can’t resist masking herself and appearing as a fighter in their tiny fair fighting ring, when she discovers that a once in a lifetime brilliant fighter (also masked) is competing. Over the course of the fight, they fall in love all of a sudden. But, Anushka remembers that she has sworn to marry any man who can defeat her in combat (a clever trick to avoid marriage, since no man will ever be good enough to defeat her), and so she manages to win in order to protect her kingdom from this stranger, by briefly revealing her face and distracting him with her beauty. Following the fight, Anushka 2 flees in a carriage and is chased by the other fighter (Rana 2). He throws her his knife and bows to her, signifying his lifelong pledge of service, and then rides away.
Meanwhile, back in Mahishmati, Anushka’s evil great uncle Nassar is plotting in the dungeons to set up an elaborate plan to destroy Anushka. The first step is to slip extract of Bhang into the mangos at the state dinner that night, knowing Anushka’s love of them, in order to see how she will react to the drug. Anushka, high, stumbles away from the table, drops her jewelry off the side of the palace into the moat, and then accidentally drops the tray of mangoes, followed by her knife from Rana (which she has been holding and obsessing over ever since he gave it to her). Without thinking, she jumps off the wall after it.
But, and this is the important part, Rana 2 still doesn’t know that the masked fighter he saw was the Empress of Mahishmati, head of the family he has sworn to kill as vengeance for how his mother was mistreated by them. And Anushka 2 doesn’t know that Rana 2 is her second cousin, illegitimate grandson of her evil great-uncle, and nephew of her dead evil uncle, Rana 1. Rana has seen her unmasked, but her face means nothing to him. Anushka 2, even were she to see Rana unmasked, might not relate him back to the younger portraits of her uncle, who he strikingly resembles.
Rana 2 is puzzled. He has been working towards this day for 4 years, gaining experience, gaining knowledge. He infiltrated the city with no issues, passing through the gates almost unnoticed as a humble worker, using the accent he’d picked up while working for 3 months in the mines of Blah Blah. Once inside, he’d quickly found a bolt hole and put on a new outfit and a new accent to start familiarizing himself with the city. In the past week he had been in the merchant halls as a potential new elect member, in the workers’ taverns as a recently arrived laborer, in the temples as a family man looking for a teacher for his children, in the marketplaces as a foreign merchant trying to make a fair bargain. In every place, a new character, a new accent, new clothing, new questions. But in each place, he heard the same things.
(Sometimes, he is in disguise as a naval officer….)
Under this new Queen, put in place following a violent coupe (not unusual in Mahishmati), the taxes were higher. But the merchants were happy with the trade laws and contract enforcements, the workers were happy with the schools available to their children and protection for themselves, and in the temples the women laughed and talked freely, with no fear for their persons. Was this the “evil” Mahishmati royal family Rana had been told about his entire life?
It changed his plans. His initial idea was to incite a rebellion, let the people do the work for him. They would better know the weaknesses of their own rulers. He had watched a rebellion, from a distance, in two different villages and one city. They followed a similar pattern. Rumblings of discontent, one unpredictable moment of triggering action as catalyst, and then once the tide turns and the wave rushes upward, that is when a new leader can appear to harness the power. Rana knew he could orchestrate that one triggering action, and arrange for himself to be the new leader. But he couldn’t create those rumblings, and he couldn’t make the tide appear out of nowhere. And so, he needed a new plan.
Instead of a mass revolt, he was now considering an assassination. He had long ago memorized the map his mother gave him showing the hidden passageways throughout the palace grounds. Infiltration was easy. He had already seen most of the palace from top to bottom. Dungeons, kitchens, everything but the royal chambers. He had found those passageways blocked. Someone, somewhere, had been smart enough to know that just because passages were only known to family members, that didn’t make them safe.
Even without that access, he still had options. He was considering those options now, standing hidden in the water in the moat outside the palace walls. The moat was one possibility, use it to gain access to the waterway inside, from there crawl through the airshafts, it would get him close to the royal chambers, but still blocked by a barred window. But closer than any other route. The simplest killing, his foster father had taught him, is usually the best. He knew the Queen slept in the highest tower, simply go there and kill her. The alternative, sneaking into kitchens, trusting allies to help him, none of it seemed sure.
Rana’s thoughts were briefly interrupted by a flashing star which reminded him of the flashing eyes of his love. He paused to wonder for a moment at this great gift he had received, something he never thought he would have. Not love, he had always had that in his life. Calm steady sustaining love, from his mother. And the aunties who had helped raise him, the beautiful women who went downstairs to dance for clients, and then came upstairs cuddled him to sleep, or told him fairy stories, he loved them too. And his foster father Sudeep, he loved him too, a special kind of love, with someone who understood him and tried to make him into the best he could be. He hadn’t had that before, even from his mother.
But his unknown woman, she had given him beauty, she had given him passion. Even as a young child, he had never cried. Never felt the need to cry. Or to laugh. His mother told him that was because he was a rock. Rocks were special, they lasted through fires and floods that washed away lesser objects. That had made sense to Rana, and he had looked at the people around him with their tears and their smiles and felt a pity for them, a need to protect them.
But now it was different! He knew what his foster-father had feared, that She had broken through his outer covering, left him vulnerable and weak. But he knew that wasn’t the case. No, she had broken him open and revealed a diamond inside. His will was unbending, his goals as sure. But now there was a whole part of him that had woken up, he felt like he could move mountains, anything was possible, he was never tired, never worried, and he was constantly strengthened by these little moments, beauty that felt like it reached right into his soul and pulled out new reserves of power.
Rana looked at the star for one long moment. And then sighed as it passed, his sense of awe slowly left him, and he was back to being just a man standing in water. He went back to looking at the palace walls, counting windows and looping for an alternative route into the royal chambers. He moved slowly to the left, tracing the path of a vine. Would it hold him?
(Looks like this, but in a moat not a swimming pool and maybe shirtless)
Something flashed in the corner of his eye, falling from a platform high above, he dived into the water and moved towards it with firm strokes of his arms. He lifted his head for a breath of air and saw something else fall and increased his speed.
In the water in front of him, he saw something golden sink. A mango? He pushed himself up out of the water and looked up. Good God! A woman was falling! He only had a moment to brace himself and then they were both thrown down into water. His eyes closed automatically, to open a moment later and look up into a sea of floating hair are silk sari. Another one of those blessed visions, his reward no doubt for saving this strange woman, the face of his love was in his eyes rather than hers. No doubt it would pass in a moment, but in the meantime he allowed himself to trace the curve of her lips, the line of her nose, the beauty mark on her cheek, the shadow of her closed eyelids. Closed eyelids? This poor woman, whoever she really was, was unconscious! Needed his help, no time for dreaming.
Reluctantly, Rana let go of his vision of love and looked up towards the surface of the water, kicking hard and bringing them both up into the air with a gasp. But, his burden was still slack! No breath in her. The palace guards would be by in a moment, he couldn’t risk being scene, but there was no time to waste in getting her to dry land. One more quick dive, her body dragged along behind his, and they were in a passageway, one of many under the moat, which he had explored already. Rana quickly lit the torch he had left there, read for emergencies, and turned back to the woman. His madness must be wearing off slowly, her face still looked like his love, but it was no longer so beautiful. In the flickering light, he could see that the color was draining out, her hair was wet and plastered around her face. Still the same lines of the face that he loved, but not the beautiful vision he was used to. This was good, it made it easier for him to help this woman, less distracted by beauty.
(I hate the trope that women coming out of the water are always sexy and perfect. I’m spitting out water, and scraping hair off my face, and generally a mess)
In only took a moment for him to put her over his knees, hit her back and chest as he had been taught by the ship captain those 6 months he and his foster-father had worked as smugglers. With a painful gasp, she came back to life. Followed by a hacking sound as the water left her lungs, and then rasping breathing. Good! Now this woman was alive again, she could talk to him, and his hallucination would end.
Rana pulled her up and set her against the wall, instructing “Breath slowly, sit up straight. Give yourself time to recover.” And he gave those same instructions to himself because, by God, he was still seeing his love! Wiping her mouth and spitting, wet hair tangled sticking to her neck, sari disordered. Perhaps this was a test? To make sure his love would last through visions that were less beautiful and more real? If so, it was an easy test to pass. Who would want a beautiful vision of perfection? A real woman, with a real body, was much more interesting.
But this was unfair to this, also very real, woman sitting in front of him. He should stop staring like a fool and instead try to reassure her, “Don’t worry, you are safe. You must have fallen off the wall into the water. I caught you and brought you here. My name is Rana, once you are recovered, I will take you wherever you need to go.”
Anushka took another deep rasping breath. She hated this! Hated being helpless, unable to talk. Her head felt fuzzy, her lungs burned, and if this man in front of her, who she could not see clearly through the flickering light and the haze in front of her eyes, had not been there to save her, she might have drowned. Even now, where he to attack her, to carry her off, to try anything, she knew she did not have the strength to stop him. She had not felt this out of control since she was 4 years old and her mother had locked her in her room without supper as punishment for staying out too late playing in the rain. One more breath and she could speak. Take control again, through choosing what to say. One more, and, “My name is Anushka. I am….” A fit of coughing stopped her, the man moved closer and took hold of her neck, she flinched away at his touch but couldn’t break it. And then his other hand came up holding a flask and water poured down into her throat. She closed her eyes in pleasure at the sensation.
The feel of the water on her throat made her suddenly aware of other feelings. A rough hand on her neck. The smell of water and smoke and underneath it something familiar. The water went away, she spoke quickly while her throat was still better, “I am a maid of the palace, I was walking away from the royal banquet, and…” She opened her eyes to find two dark deep black eyes staring into hers. She must be mad! He could not be here. Had she died? Was she still drowning? Was this an hallucination?
Rana suddenly came to himself. He must be scaring this poor woman, staring at her that way, letting his hand linger on her neck, buried in her hair, “I am sorry, madam, if I stare. I am a man in love, and I am seeing my sweetheart in your face, just as I see her in the stars and the trees and the water.”
Anushka’s heart stopped beating. It was him. Really him. She could reveal her identity, keep him with her always, as an advisor, a captain of the guards, something! No more loneliness, no more questioning, she deserved this! One part of her life that was a selfish pleasure. And then that other part of her brain, the part she always thought of as “Queen Anushka” instead of “woman Anushka”, started arguing back. To reveal herself, that would leave her open for attack. Even if he was harmless, to bring him upstairs with her, to give in to this obsession, that was dangerous. It would not take long for the people to learn their Queen had taken a lover, and they would lose respect for her. Her ministers might hold it over her head, blackmail her with his safety.
But, woman Anushka argued, this was clearly fate. For the same man to appear before her, to save her life, the universe was telling her she must be with him. Everything inside of her was telling her the same thing. And who is she to go against both the universe and her own desires?
Queen Anushka, always the reasonable one, suggested a compromise. Woman Anushka, quick as thought, leaped at it, opened her eyes, looked into his, and told him, “I am a princess of Kuntala,” her breath gave out for a moment, she took the time to look at his face, trying to read it. His expression was blank, but she could feel his hand tighten slightly on her neck, “I am in service here to the Queen of Mahishmati. My queen gave me leave to visit my family and my kingdom two weeks ago.” Anushka paused again for breath, closed her eyes, and suddenly noticed that his breathing had become ragged as well, she opened her eyes and looked straight at him as she said, “I fought a man there, at the fair, and he gave me his knife.”
Rana thought for a moment that his heart would explode out of his chest. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears so loudly he could barely understand the words she was saying to him. The blood was pumping so fast through his body that his finger tips were tingling. But he mustn’t scare her, mustn’t move too fast, mustn’t put her off by making demands. He looked at her face, so close to his, her real face, really there, eyes, brow, cheeks, lips… The blood rushed in his head and he suddenly felt like he was drowning again, being pulled under by forces beyond his control, only this time he didn’t have the strength to break free.
His kiss was rough, unpracticed. She liked it that way. She had no practice herself, she didn’t want a man who had, wouldn’t trust him. She wanted a man who was all hers. And she knew he was, she could taste it on his lips, he wanted only her and no one else before her or after her. Such power if gave her! Tingling through her fingers and toes, her body was still too weak to move so much as a finger, and yet she felt like she was a goddess, with her god to serve her.