Veerata rushed to the queen’s side and knelt at her feet. His eyes betrayed the torment in his mind. I failed, he thought in disbelief. I failed Samrat Padmapani.
Padmapani had insisted that Nandini be brought back to Satayu alive. Instead, the last queen of Amritambu lay dying on the floor before him now. She was sprawled on her back, clutching the arrow on her chest. Blood spurted continuously from the wound. Her breathing had already grown erratic. Sensing his presence near her, she opened her eyes to look at him.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out, unable to say anything more.
The corners of her mouth twitched into a sly smile. “What for?” she coughed. “You have done your duty. A warrior must not feel remorse for the enemy.”
“Where is the princess? Please, let me help her!”
Nandini’s eyes grew hazy, as though she was remembering something. “Our most trusted servants are with her,” Nandini’s voice grew fainter with every word. “She doesn’t need your help.”
“She’s not in the palace?”
“No! We sent her away the day after the white stallion was captured.”
“What?” Veerata gasped in astonishment. Nandini had sent her younger sister away the very day that he and his troops arrived, laying siege to the city kingdom.
Did she already know that she was going to lose the battle when her soldiers captured the horse?
To his great dismay, he remembered seeing a lone chariot escaping into the southern forest that day just as he led his troops towards the rear of Amritam palace, to seize all exits. The vision of a little girl in messy copper-coloured pigtails, her face stained with tears, standing at the back of the chariot, came to his mind. On instinct, he ordered his soldiers to capture the lone chariot. They pursued it deep into the forest in vain. They returned not long after having failed in their quest. He had thought no more about the incident, turning all his focus on the siege of Amritambu. A week had passed since then. He would never be able to find the princess now.
“Why?” he questioned the dying queen. “Why did you not surrender?”
Her breathing grew more shallow. Her speech slurred. Veerata could barely make out her answer. “Our family’s powers are sacred. We cannot give them away to anyone. Not even your Samrat.”
With a heavy heart, Veerata realised that she was right. The royal family of Amritambu was renowned for their mystical powers. Nandini could not accept the Satayu stallion on her territory under any circumstances. Pledging allegiance to Satayu meant that she would be called upon to give away the secret of her powers to her enemy. She knew that war was the only way forward to protect her ancient legacy.
Suddenly, Nandini’s mouth started to move feverishly. To his dismay, Veerata heard her chanting an ancient mantra. Her hands were raised once more. The light swirled between her palms again.
“Senapati, look out,” Mayura shrieked, rushing forward with arms outstretched. A deafening bang resounded through the room.
The impact threw Veerata off his feet, and flying to the other end of the room. He clutched his head with both his hands in the nick of time as he dropped to the floor. For a long time, he could see nothing around him. The entire room was covered in smoke and dust. All the men were coughing again. When the view cleared and he looked up, the top half of the tower was gone, revealing enormous columns of smoke rising into the open sky. Feeling lucky to be alive, he tried to get up. A stinging pain shot through his left thigh. The flesh had split open and burnt through to the bone. Curbing his own cries of shock and agony, Veerata looked at the spot where Mayura had tried to push him to safety a moment ago. His loyal archer was blown to dust along with the last queen of Amritambu. The only item remaining on the stone floor from Nandini’s person was a single gold ring studded with a lustrous yellow sapphire.