I’m back! A little interval in Jab Harry Met Sejal week for an experiment with my own imagination. I feel like I’ve earned that with all the nice posts I’ve given you lately. (all Bahubali posts, including the rest of this fanfic, are indexed here)
Just a reminder, in this universe, Prabhas 1 survived and raised Prabhas 2 with Anushka in the workers’ village. And they had a second child, Anushka 2. After the children grew up, Prabhas 2 fell in love with his cousin, the adopted princess of Kuntala Tamannah. And Anushka accidentally started a war with the Mahishmati empire (which had been struggling under mismanagement since rebels killed the Queen mother shortly after Rana 1 was crowned king leading Rana 1 and Nassar to become paranoid and spend all time and treasure on weeding out imagined “enemies). The weak prince of the empire came to the workers’ village while the rest of the family was away and misbehaved with some village women, leading Anushka 2 to behead him. And then defeat the army sent to attack in revenge. When the news reached Rana 1, now bloated and tired, he died of a heart attack. Making Anushka 2 and Prabhas 2 the only living heirs in the royal family. But Prabhas 2 could not rule and still marry Tamannah who had sworn to serve Kuntala. So Anushka 2 took the throne while Prabhas 2 lived happily as royal consort to Tamannah, and Prabhas and Anushka 1 continued to live their small happy life in the worker’s village. However, Anushka 2 knew she still had enemies (Nassar for one, who had already tried to assassinate her once and was now in the royal dungeon), and so to protect her vulnerable position as a single woman, she took a great vow, that she would only marry the man who could defeat her in combat. Knowing that such a man did not exist.
Meanwhile, in Singapurum, Rana 2 was being raised, Rana 1’s illegitimate nephew by way of Nassar’s maidservant mistress. Rana 2’s mother, the village midwife, had been raised in a small cottage on the palace grounds, privy to all kinds of secret information by listening to her father brag to her mother. As an adult, she had married a decent farmer and was living a happy life when her husband was arrested in one of Rana’s paranoid raids. She begged for his life, and instead Rana killed him in front of her, along with her mother. And so she fled with her baby child to Singapurum, raised him in the brothels, and made sure he learned everything that every traveling fighter could teach him. Until, 4 years ago, Sudeep came through Singapurum and proved to be a different kind of fighter than they had ever seen before. He agreed to take on Rana 2 as his apprentice/foster son, but before they left, Rana 2 swore to his mother he would take vengeance on the royal family of Mahishmati and place their blood on the throne within 5 years.
And then of course he fell in love with Anushka 2 and vice versa. Only, Anushka 2 thinks he is merely a traveling fighter, doesn’t realize he is her illegitimate cousin. And she only told him that she was a princess of Kuntala who serves Mahishmati, bending the truth a little in her caution. Which brings us to here, with Rana having successfully sneaked into the royal chambers and preparing to stab the sleeping Queen through her neck, thereby freeing his beloved from her service (as he thinks) and fulfilling his vow.
Rana finds himself strangely hesitant to lower the knife. Something about the way her hair is tangled over her face, her body sprawled on the bed, the gentle sound of her snores, it softened his heart in a way that surprised him. This was the evil queen of Mahishmati, after all. The one who kept his poor beloved in bondage, who profited by the torments his mother had suffered. He raised his arm and began again to lower it on the exact point where it could slip into her neck, when a breeze came through the window and blew a faint scent towards him. In a moment he was thrown back to the dusty fight ring in Kuntala, holding her close against him, to the tunnel under the moat two nights back, feeling her body leaning against him, and that intoxicating musty scent of her. The light through the window was faint, but he leaned closer and traced the unforgettable shape of her mouth, the curve of her cheek, through the obscuring hair.
(Huh. She doesn’t have as much hair as I thought)
Fantastic! This Queen of Mahishmati was cleverer than he expected! Anticipating assassination, she must have made her serving girl sleep in the royal chamber. No doubt she was sleeping in some maidservant’s bed nearby. His murder plans would have to be changed. But it was not a wasted night, he weighed the knife in his hand. It was the mate to the knife he had given her earlier, the matched set his mother had given him on his 12th birthday, the knives he had used to kill his first man. Fate was punishing him, pointing out his selfishness in keeping one knife for herself instead of giving her both. He gently brushed her hair from the pillow, and then laid the knife down on it, where she would be sure to see it as soon as she awoke. Her hair was so soft, for a moment he was tempted to go farther, to brush it from her face and drop a kiss on her cheek. But no, that might disturb her rest. Poor thing, he should let her enjoy this night of luxury in the royal chambers. Soon she would have a soft bed every night, he would give her whatever luxury she desired once he took the thrown of Mahishmati, but for now her life of service couldn’t allow for such luxuries. He would not take it away from her for even a moment. He took one last long look at her sleeping form, and then moved silently towards the window, and dropped from sight.
Anushka waited until the faint gust of air told her he had left through the curtains, and then let her hand relax from the sword hilt she had clutched when she first felt the presence in the room. He had come through the window, the windows that should have been unreachable, she would have words with the palace architect tomorrow. And then he had stood over her bed, a swords length away. One sudden movement and she would have sliced through his neck. But no movement had come. There had been an inhale of breath, and then she had felt her hair gently moved aside, something set on the pillow next to her, another inhale, and he had left.
Anushka waited for three more breaths before moving, just in case, and then slowly raised herself and looked on the pillow next to her head. And blinked in surprise, there was her knife back again! Or, not quite her knife. She ran her fingers over the handle, felt the familiar design, but the little notches and scratches she had become used to over the past few weeks were missing. This was a different knife, equally old and used, but a matched pair, not the original.
That must have been why he came! To re-affirm his devotion, now that he knew her true identity. Anushka let her hand linger over the blade, and gently pierced her finger with the point, then smiled at her fancies, that somehow her blood spilled by his knife was bringing them closer. Because of course that could never be. He had signified it again by leaving her his knife, he would be here to serve her but would not and could not expect anything more. Love and marriage was not something that could be for the Queen of Mahishmati. Anushka let a tear fall on the blade and mix with her blood, and then angrily wiped it away and forced herself to sleep again. Tomorrow would be another long hard day of Queening, she couldn’t afford more than a few minutes of self-pity to take away from her sleep.
The next day, Rana moved through the surging crowd in the bleachers trying to maintain his patience. Now that his first plan (incite a rebellion and be brought to power through acclaim) and his second plan (a quick easy assassination followed by a seizing of power in the chaos following) were both foiled, he had to move on to the very messy third plan. A public attack, taking power through fear and shock. And, based on what his foster father had told him about some plan that involved bringing in an outside fighter, there was already a plot in motion. He would have to move fast to foil it. And so here he was, attending the Queens first public appearance of the day, the first time he would see his enemy in the flesh, looking for any possible opening to make his attack. It would have to be bloody and cruel, something to scare off any potential defenders or other pretenders to the throne, and to attract allies.
This might be as good a time as any. An exhibition fight in the blazing midday son. The Queen was volunteering to take on every member of the graduating class of the royal academy, unarmed, in a series of exhibition fights. Rana was too high in the stands so far to get a good look at the fighting ring, but based on the cheers he was hearing from the crowd, so far she hadn’t had much of a challenge. But she was also coming up on her 127 out of 152 matches. By the end, even a Queen fighting a bunch of half-grown children would be exhausted. That might be the best time for him to strike, in front of this large mixed crowd of nobles and commoners. But not yet, for now he would do best to hide in the upper reaches of the stands, dressed as a common traveler, and only slowly make his way down towards the ground.
In the fighting ring, Anushka gave a smiling salute to her latest opponent. As she had with all of them so far, he had had the opportunity to mark her, to feel like his mandatory fighting training had made some results. It was exhausting slowing herself down long enough so each of these children had the chance to feel like a successful fighter, not to mention the fine collection of bruises she was acquiring. And she hadn’t felt quite like herself for most of the day. Maybe it was her interrupted sleep the night before, but she felt strangely slow and muddle headed, and at the same time had an over-powering urge to laugh. She didn’t, of course, because that wouldn’t have been Queenly, but the effort to resist was making her head ache, even more than the bright sun. If this is what being in love felt like, it wasn’t very pleasant. A lot more aching head and wobbly muscles than the poets sang about.
And here was another timid teenager, coming out to wave a sword at her until she disarmed them. No! She forced that thought down, this was a sweet young girl who was having her first face to face interaction with the Queen, a young woman on the edge of adulthood who desperately needed a shot of confidence in herself. Anushka pulled up another gracious friendly smile and braced herself for another awkwardly landed blow from a training sword. She wasn’t quite fast enough, it hit her own the head instead of the shoulder as she planned and for a moment she actually lost sight. And then her vision cleared to see the scared face of this poor little girl, she hid her gritted teeth behind a reassuring smile, and quickly grabbed her wrist to twist the sword free and end this match. Her “opponent” went off with a half proud smile at having almost bested the Queen, which almost made it all worth it. Anushka held onto that smile as she turned to face her next half-grown duelist, and reminded herself “only 24 left”.
Rana heard a shocked murmur through the stands, followed immediately by light chuckles, and picked up that once again the Queen had “appeared” to lose, only to win. All the better for him. These sorts of childish matches, allowing your opponent to win, were so much harder than a straight fight. He remembered when he had spent those 4 weeks infiltrating the guards’ quarters of that corrupt lord with the expensive tapestries Sudeep had wanted. 4 weeks of acting as the sparring partner and punching bag for bloated drunken soldiers. Of course, it had all be worth it for the moment when he had been able to throw off his disguise and defeat all 42 of them in one glorious battle. He had spent two weeks in bed afterwards, listening to his father scold him for over-exerting himself instead of waiting for their paid mercenaries to arrive, but he still didn’t regret it.
Another cry from the crowd, he heard a murmur next to him “pity to take a blow like that, ruins the fine line of her nose”. Once again, it was followed by cheerful applause and shouts, she had apparently won against another stripling. But while the crowd may think it was no different than before, he was not so sure. A blow to the nose is something any fighter would avoid if possible. Painful, slow to fix, makes it harder to breath and move while you have to keep fighting. Yes, this was the day and this was the time. Rana sped up slightly ducking and weaving through the crowd, only 19 fighters left, he had to be ready to leap in once the last one left the field.
Anushka was breathing hard through her mouth and squinting through her one good eye. Her muscles felt like rubber, her head was aching, she was increasingly sure that this was not love but poison. Something had been added to her breakfast, her extra large breakfast to get her through this horrible day. She ducked and grabbed with half her mind, sending her latest opponent into the dirt and she began to put it together. This event had been suggested by a coalition of businessman, one of whom supplied the fruit to the royal kitchens. There was a plot in place of some kind, involving something put in her food undetectable to the royal taster, so not lethal. But harmful, something to slow her down, followed by this difficult exposition match until….
She put it together just as her last opponent entered the ring. And knew it was too late. This was no young student. He was small, but the way he moved told her he was all muscle. On a better day, she would have welcomed the opportunity to test her skills, but this would not be a test, this would be a fight to the death. With one eye, gasping for breath through a broken nose, bruises up and down her shoulders, and something that seemed to be clogging her head from thinking straight. She summoned up her father’s voice yelling at her as he used to when she was a child in her sparring matches with her brother “look alive Anushka! Move fast! You are better than that!” He came at her with one direct blow and she rolled away and behind him, grabbing his legs and managing to throw him off balance for a moment, long enough for her to roll back up and dash for the edge of the ring where she could put her back to the wall.
(Why not make it Allu Arjun in a surprise cameo?)
Something was wrong. Rana could hear it. There was that same gasp, but it wasn’t followed by laughter and cheers, instead murmurs and confusion, people didn’t know what to think. He stopped his easy amble through the stands and took off in a dead run, knocking past other spectators, leaping over railings and down stairs. He caught glimpses of the fight between gaps in the crowd, not enough to see details but enough to see that this was no half-trained child fighting her.
As he ran, he started putting it together. The meeting his father had taken, the merchants looking for an unknown fighter, the stories of the Queen’s vow. Disgusting! To force a woman into marriage against her will, that was no clean way to win a battle. He would do her a favor and kill her himself before she could lose the battle, then take his revenge on this cowardly fighter facing her.
Anushka could feel the breath burning in her chest now and welcomed the pain, it kept her grounded, burned away some of the cobwebs in her mind. The worst thing now was the ringing in her ears. He had landed a glancing blow to her head which had landed next to her ear. With one eye, she had relied on her hearing to find him, and now that was gone as well. He was moving too fast for her to follow, she had no hope of a direct defeat, just surviving long enough for Kattappa or another of the guards to realize what was happening and rescue her. Another blow, slicing her arm. Good! They most see that this wasn’t a dull practice sword, but a sharpened fighting sword. Surely someone would act.
Rana heard the gasp and shoved through the two men in front of him to get a glimpse of the field, and saw the red of blood. Yes, this was no practice fight any more. Where were the guards? When would someone realize this? No matter, he was almost close enough now, one more dash down an aisle, and he was within feet of the barrier.
And that’s when he saw her. Half her face was swollen, her nose was a bloody mess, but he could tell from the way she held her head, the swing of her hips, it was her! His love! For a moment he felt blackness in front of his eyes as his mind rebelled, this was the woman he had to kill and the one woman he could never kill. And then his vision cleared and he saw her stumble and fall, saw a spear raised, and there was no more thought, his feet hit the dust in the ring before he remembered leaping over the wall, and he was already diving for the fighters.
Anushka felt herself fall, and saw his face above her, and knew what she had to do. She’d always known, ever since she took that vow, she had just run from the knowledge. It wasn’t a vow to avoid marriage, it was a vow to avoid defeat. She could not let this grinning monster control her kingdom, and there was only one way out. She forced her body into stillness, not one more dodge to the side, now was the moment. She said a silent prayer for forgiveness directed towards her baby nephew who she was dooming to a cold hard life of duty and then used her last moments to think of her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, and then at last the man who could have been her future. And as his face flashed before her eyes she felt the blow land.