“Rama, there is a secret mission I have been working on for the past thirty four years. My son, the time has come to hand over this project to you,” Kaikeyi said as soon as Rama entered the hall, with her characteristic disregard for opening pleasantries.

“It will be my immense pleasure to follow you, mother!” Rama said, bowing to her with folded hands, and waited for her to speak further.

Kaikeyi didn’t know where to start. She looked around the hall waiting for a suitable opening to come to her. And she took her time, knowing full well that Rama would wait patiently even if it took her the whole of the afternoon to find inspiration.

The hall was huge, radiant and magnificent, quite befitting the Most Favourite Queen of the Greatest King in the whole of Aryavarta. Its white marble walls were intricately carved with emerald twining vines bearing flowers of rubies, amethysts and opals, with hair-perfect realism after the style of Kaikeya, her native kingdom. Once, Yudhajit had tried to pluck a morning glory flower from one of the vines, either to praise the artistic beauty of her hall or to make her laugh on his stupidity. And she had badly needed that laugh, having spent a frustrated afternoon waiting for crucial information regarding the whereabouts and the strength of Khara asura who was stretching his reign of evil somewhere along the banks of the Godavari.

There were no pillars to support the massive structure above her head. Richly carved elephants were standing in pairs in the corners with their raised trunks bearing all the weight of the cupola. It was quite literally the height of architectural excellence. The dome-shaped roof was intricately carved and inlaid in octagonal sections. It had the almost aasuri power to catch and hold the gaze of the viewers—in fact, every single one of her dasis suffered from neck pain, having spent too long with their necks bent backwards during their first week in her service, admiring the view with their mouths wide-open.

The gold lamps hanging from the centre of the dome had crescent moon and star shaped perforations that turned the hall into a starry sky even on a cloudy night. Just below it revolved a stone young woman with a stone pitcher, pouring water in a circular path all around the central dais where she and Rama were seated. A gust of wind splashed tiny droplets of water on her face. She made no effort to wipe them, enjoying the coolness they provided against the scorching Ayodhya summer.

She looked in the direction of the wind. Wooden sashes of all the windows had been thrown open. Having equidistant windows on opposite walls allowed for cross-ventilation, catching a breeze of wind even on sultry afternoons like this one. Manthara had done well to choose this hall for their meeting—no need of eavesdropping dasis to fan them!

The window panes had larger-than life peacocks modeled in coloured glass, hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of glass. The arches above the windows bore engraved designs of lotus-buds, lotus petals and whole blooming lotus flowers. A bright blue kingfisher sat on the sill of the window closest to her.

Its bright color seemed unnatural to her. How long has it sat here? What if it’s a demon sent out to spy on her! She shook her head. Manthara had taken enough time with her mantras to ensure that whatever was spoken on the dais traveled no farther than the circular pool of splashing water around them. Still, when she spoke the words came out no louder than a whisper. “The project I am working on is extremely confidential, Rama. You will only be the third person to know about it!”

She had turned towards Rama to speak to him, but her eyes wandered towards the window again, her distracted mind wondering what the blue bird was up to. The bird’s eyes were fixated on the baby lizard slithering on the window sash. She chided herself for being so jumpy and continued, “So far only I and my faithful helper Manthara know about it. I have neither shared it with my husband whom I love the most in this world, nor my sisters Kaushalya and Sumitra for whom I care the most, nor my father Kaika whom I respect the most, nor my brother Yudhajit whom I trust the most! The very success of this project depends on secrecy! I have had to conceal it in my heart, unable to share it even with my other half, my spouse!” She stole another glance at the window. The bird had disappeared, and so had the baby lizard, probably food for the kingfisher’s hatchlings. She sighed. “Regardless of the problems, hindrances and obstacles I faced, I had to be patient, calm, and above all, silent about the project.”

“It is a great honour for me, mother, that you consider me the right person to share such valuable information.” Rama said it calmly, with only a hint of curiosity in his voice.

Kaikeyi knew Rama well since childhood. Even then she was surprised every time to see Rama as calm and composed as early morning dew on a soft lotus petal. His serene face was glowing with the radiance of the Sun, his ancestor, offering warmth and light to anyone and everyone looking at him. She let herself forget the project for a moment and looked at her step-son, basking in the serenity and examining him anew.

The breeze blew his curly raven-black hair gently across his face, a sheer curtain futilely attempting to hide the beauty behind. A small gold crown with delicate gems was resting on his head, barely holding the hair against the wind, now getting stronger. He was dressed in indigo-coloured cotton dhoti with a tiny golden border, contrasting yellow patta, a cotton shawl, draped around his torso. His earrings were bare circlets of gold, and his baju bandh, a piece of jewellery tied on arms, was not of royal taste, only a pair of swans tied with indigo colored string. It seemed he didn’t like heavy jewellery with fine carvings and elaborate designs, unlike his father, Dasharatha, King of Ayodhaya, who had a whole Royal Department of Fine Jewellery working day and night for him. No fancy shoes to cover his feet either, rather jootis, simple footwear worn by the commoners, with only a bit of golden work to mark royalty. His simplicity and warm smile were addictive for her. She wished to think about him, only and only him till she took her last breath.

When Kaikeyi did not respond, Rama told her, “I give you my promise that I will conceal this secret deeply in my heart, and let none know it, whatever might be the circumstances!” Kaikeyi reluctantly left the reverie to return back to conscious mundane. She took a brief moment, and decided to start with the immediate past.

To be continued ……

Secret Mission -2 is here