By Ashok K. Banker
Published by Aspect
August 2003; 0-446-53092-1; 400 pages
The blow-heat of rancid breath against his face, guttural whisper in his ear. He snapped awake. Sweat-drenched, fever-hot, bone-chilled, springing from his satin bed, barefoot on the cool redstone floor. Sword, now. A yard and a half of gleaming Kosala steel, never out of reach, a bolt of lightning in his fist. Soft rustle of the silken gold-embroidered loincloth around his tight abs. Naked feline grace. Taut young muscles, supple limbs, senses instantly attuned to the slightest hint of threat.
He scanned the moonlit expanse of his bedchamber with the sharpness of a panther with the scent of stag in its nostrils. Barely three seconds after rising from deep, dreamless sleep, he was ready to take on a dozen armed men. Or worse.
But the bedchamber was empty. The moon was full tonight, and the room was caught in a silvery net, more than sufficient for his trained eyes to scan the princely apartment. Jeweled ornaments and regal furnishings gleamed richly in the silvered dimness. The far wall, some twenty yards from where he stood, showed him a pale imitation of his own reflection in an oval mirror framed in solid gold. He had heard enough descriptions of his appearance in kavyas composed by the royal bards to know what the mirror would have shown had the light been sufficient. A distinct dynastic resemblance, unmistakably related to one of those towering portraits of his illustrious ancestors adorning the walls of Suryavansha Hall. Classically handsome (the bards would sing), a fitting heir to the dynasty of the Sun: The reality was harder, leaner, and more austere. His piercing brown eyes, as sharp and all-seeing as a kite-hawk's thousand-yojana gaze, scoured every square inch as he traversed the apartment with quick military precision, his movements graceful and flowing. Bedchamber, clear. Diwan-khaas, clear. Gymnasium, clear. Bathing chambers, clear. Enemy not sighted, repeat, not sighted.
Circuit complete. Return to bedchamber.
Breathing in the pranayam style, he executed a martial asana that was part attack and part spiritual discipline. In three breathtakingly graceful leaps, it took him to the verandah that ringed one side of the circular chamber. Sword slashing through the gossamer folds of the translucent drapes that could conceal an assassin. Turn, turn, breathe, slice, follow through, recover, resume stance. Guru Vashishta had trained him superbly. A quad of assassins striking with two weapons apiece would have been hard-pressed to put a scratch on his lithe body.
The verandah was empty.
He checked his perimeter in a sweeping 360-degree arc that put him back precisely in his original position, and scanned over the ornately carved redwood balustrade, first checking topside then below. Above, the complex vaulting architecture of the mahal rose up in an ingeniously layered design that allowed efficient guard watches without the royal residents' ever seeing their vigilant protectors. But he had to be sure; the sense of mortal dread was too real, too powerful. He vaulted out onto the lip of the ledge that encircled the verandah, flicked the sword from one hand to the other, gripped the sculpted corner of the balustrade, then leaned out over a twenty-yard fall into darkness. In the bright wash of the purnima moon, he could see the helmeted heads and spear tips of the night watch patrolling the south grounds, moving in perfect unison in the regular, rhythmic four-count pattern of a normal chowkidari sweep. Ground level, clear. Topside, clear, all the way to the roof. Silvery gleam of the tip of a lance and helmet held in defensive position: Roof watch on guard and alert.
Leap down to the verandah. Turn, arc sword in a sweeping action to clear the first circle of personal safety. Circle clear.
Hold stance. Sword blade flat on shoulder right. Cold steel on sleep-warm skin. Breathe. Exhale. Scan down. Move to the far end of the long verandah, twenty yards running the length of the princely chambers, covering the distance in a cheetah-swift instant. From here, he could see down to the western grounds, the distant front gates of the palace, and the darkened length of Raghuvamsha Avenue beyond. Again, deserted, except for the night watch, patrolling alertly even at this silent hour. Armor and sandaled feet clinking and tramping in precisely coordinated rhythms. Quads of armed and armored royal guards scouring every square yard in an endlessly overlapping pattern. Squares interwoven with squares interwoven with more squares, in a grid extending outward in every direction. The grid extending to the seventh wall, the outermost defense of the greatest fortress city ever built by the Arya nations. Ayodhya the Unconquerable.
From the south, a gentle wind. Carrying the scent of battle elephants, horses, camels, buffaloes, boar, deer, cattle, fowl-a thick, murky soup of animal odors. Source: the royal stables and stockyards behind the palace.
Somewhere in the still, silent night, a domesticated wolf-hound baying uneasily, as if feeling the same sense of not-quite-rightness that stirred Rama's hackles. An elephant trumpeting sleepily in response. A rooster clearing its throat, croaking once irritably, then lapsing into silence, stealing a last few moments of sleep before the imminent dawn.
He forced himself to stand down from the martial asana of full alertness, changing the pattern of his pranayam breathing, dialing down his heartbeat using yoga techniques. From battle readiness to mere watchfulness. There was no danger anywhere to be seen.
The night breeze was cool on his sweat-limned body, the air damp with the sweet mist of the river, barely thirty yards from where he stood. As eldest prince-by mere weeks, but eldest all the same-he had the corner suite in the maharaja's palace, giving him a view of his beloved Sarayu. Even though she was coyly concealed by the maharaja's palace, he could smell her. That invigorating mineral tang of glacial flow, a smell that brought back memories of a childhood spent on its banks. The gentle murmur of the river helped him calm himself. His body released its tension in carefully graded stages. Warming down. Sweat cooling on his heated skin. Odor of the royal stables fading away as the wind changed, coming now from the north, carrying the frosty bite of the distant lofty, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.
The aphrodisiacal fragrance of nightqueen blossom, raat ki rani, came to him with the seductiveness of a royal courtesan walking delicately with silver payal bells ringing at her ankles. He felt a stirring response in his groin. That last mujra dance performance in the kala kendra tonight had been tantalizing to the point of-
Your women ravished, your children enslaved, your city sacked and razed to ashes.
His eyes widened. Full alert instantly. Turn, turn, slash, clear first circle, second, third, turn, turn, slice, jab, breathe, always breathe. In moments, he had covered the seven circles of personal safety. If this had been a battlefield, a dozen men would lie dead or dying around him. Nothing could survive the seven-circle asana. Nothing human, at least.
But still, there was nobody here. Not man, beast, or Asura. What was going on here?
Then he felt it.
A foul presence, like the nostril-clogging stink of wild Southwoods boar five days rotted and worm-infested. Maggots seeping out of blood-encrusted orifices. Mulch and mildew. The raw, fetid stench of deep jungle.
He felt the heat of a living breath on his face, heard the rasping gravel of a voice in his ear. A voice like rock scraping across glass. It isn't my imagination. Someone-something-is here with me. Invisible, unseen, venomous as a stepped-on cobra.
You will watch your birth-mother savaged beyond recognition, your clan-mothers and sisters impregnated by my rakshasas, your father and brothers eaten while still alive, your race massacred, your proud cities pillaged and razed-
"Who's there? Show yourself, you coward! Face me and fight!"
?and when you think you can endure no more, when the horror is over and every living mortal is enslaved or converted to my cause, when you have suffered as much torture as any of your kind can endure and still live, then I shall snuff you out and start all over again. The samay chakra, your sacred wheel of time, will repeat the cycle of birth and suffering infinitely. You will wish you were in hell then, for even the underworld of Narak will seem a blessed escape from the living nightmare of mortal existence.
"Damn you! Show your face!"
Boy. You still do not understand. See for yourself, then. See the future and tremble.
And in a flash of blinding light, Rama was transported.Copyright © 2003 Ashok Banker
Reprinted with permission.
In the high-towered capital city of Ayodhya, a legendary seer-mage casts a dire warning: Ravana, the great demon of the netherworld, is plotting to conquer the mortal plane. Amassing the largest and most vicious army of demons ever assembled, the dark lord is poised to unleash his forces upon the Arya nations.
Humankind's only salvation lies in one pure soul: Prince Rama, the heir to the throne of Ayodhya. Called on to be the world's champion, Rama sets off with his younger brother and the seer-mage Vishwamitra on a dangerous quest. But to seize his destiny and defeat Ravana, the fearless prince must be altered by extraordinary magic.
Author Ashok K. Banker takes you from a haunted wilderness where the prince will battle a host of mutant monsters to the cavernous halls of the palace where a ring of spies plots the kingdom's downfall to the private chambers of the royal family where the king's wives clash over their sons' rights to the throne. Powerful and riveting, PRINCE OF AYODHYA is a saga of heroism and magic in the eternal struggle of good against evil. The Ramayana has begun...(back to top)