Veerata bid goodnight to Vidyuta, and entered his designated bedroom hoping to get some rest after the long day’s journey. The pain in his wound had soared with the mounting fatigue. On stepping inside, the presence of an unknown, attractive, semi-naked woman in the middle of his room completely caught him off guard. His first instinct was that she was an assassin. He had already drawn his sword before reason came to his rescue. Something was off. Her lowered head and cowering form made the young general hesitate. Being a seasoned warrior, he decided to confirm her purpose before lowering his sword. "Who are you? What are you doing in my room?"
Instead of replying to his inquiry, her moist eyes opened once and stared wildly back at him. "Speak girl! Don't test my patience!"
She flinched at his words and closed her eyes again, shaking feverishly from head to toe. In that same instant, he was conscious of the quiver of her plump, pink lips, her tiny, exposed navel above the folds of her antariya, the rise and fall of her bare chest, and the shivering of her tightly crossed arms, barely concealing the bulges of her breasts over the top of her white bodice. A quick glance at the two lewd paintings, on the walls next to the bed, made him even more painfully aware of the young maiden’s state of undress and her overpowering fear. A familiar sensation crept down his spine. Finally, he realised why she was here in his room.
Veerata was no stranger to the pleasures of a woman’s warmth. Had she willingly offered herself to him - and his wound had not been aching all day - he had no doubt that he would have succumbed to her seduction. But the young maiden before him was visibly terrified. Possibly, she thought the worst was about to happen. Veerata despised men who forced themselves upon defenseless and frightened young girls like this. To top it all, she looked no older than a child. Yet, there were bruises visible on her arms and a telltale red mark on the left side of her face.
How could anyone be this brutal?
There was nothing more to do than to correct his prior mistake. Quietly, he sheathed his sword, shrugged off his own uttariya, and flung it over her shoulders in a few quick movements. Pity loomed in his mind as he watched her discover the cloth and tie it hastily over her upper body. As she sighed in relief, he clutched his forehead. He had almost killed an innocent maiden.
"What's your name?" his tone was gentler this time.
The young maiden looked up at him again. Fully dressed, she looked much more at ease than before. Her shining, almond-shaped eyes made a deep impression on his heart. He felt like he had seen those eyes before but he couldn’t remember where or when.
“My name is Satya,” she answered, eyeing him carefully.
It was a common name for girls in Satayu.
He nodded. “Satya,” he asked. “Do you live in this town?”
“In the village.”
“I see! Can you tell me who sent you to my room?"
Haltingly, she narrated the events of the day. Veerata listened, checking his rising fury and clenching his fists, of how Brahmadatta's men were abducting girls from the village. Human trafficking? Slave trade? What was that dastardly mayor thinking?
When she finished, he cursed under his breath. On an impulse, he stepped closer, studying her again. Tilting her chin upwards with two fingers, he raised her face towards him. Ignoring her evident discomfort at his proximity, he frowned at the red mark on her left cheek. “Who did this to you?” he asked, unable to disguise the dangerous undertone that had crept into his voice.
“I don't remember,” she replied, slowly. “They blindfolded me and dragged me here. When I fell down, one of them slapped me. I never saw his face.”
Veerata released her chin. He turned away from her and walked straight to his luggage that stood at one end of the room. Rummaging through the contents of a leather sling-bag, he returned to her with a scroll made of papyrus. "Take this," he held it out to her. "Show it to the guards at the gate. They will not stop you from leaving this place when they see this." She hesitated, still staring at him in confusion. He continued. “I'm sorry for everything that happened today. I'm sorry I couldn't stop them from hurting you.” He shook his head, exasperated when she still had not moved. “Go home! You don't have to stay here any longer.”
Satya took a deep breath. With a few short words of gratitude, she took the scroll but she didn't move from her spot.
He frowned. "Do you have something to say?"
“The girls,” she replied. “They’re still somewhere in this mansion. I can't leave them.”
He snapped. “If you get caught again, you can't help them either.” She bit her lip. He sighed again. “Don't worry! I will make sure those girls return home unharmed. Trust me!”
She seemed convinced. Her beautiful, deep-brown eyes glowed in gratitude and wonder, as she skirted around him and made for the door. A sudden bolt of pain shot through his wound. He closed his eyes and bit his lower lip from screaming out loud. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow. He didn’t want to alarm the young maiden.
If only he could sit down on the bed...
He tried to take a step forward and lost his balance. As he fell to the floor, his consciousness drifted in and out of a paralyzing stupor.
“Senapati, are you alright?”
A strange sense of comfort enveloped him, hearing her soothing voice. He opened his eyes, briefly, becoming aware of the young maiden kneeling beside him. A fleeting memory came to his dazed mind.
Queen Nandini lying on the cold stone floor with an arrow through her heart. Her deep-brown eyes raised to Veerata in defiance. Why did he remember her? Was his mind playing tricks in his weakened condition?
Pushing away the unsettling vision, Veerata summoned his remaining strength and beckoned Satya to come closer. She lowered her ear to his lips. He tried to tell her about the medication in his luggage. The words remained stuck in his throat. Exhausted beyond his limit, Veerata sunk into a dreamless coma.