Chapter 21 – Dancing Shadows
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Just outside the wind howled aloud, rattling the flickering flames of the nearby torches that illuminated the halls. Param rushed past, carrying a report in his hand and sending the candles into a frenzy, their echoing light shaking wildly in the darkness of the halls.

Only a few more steps. His muscles tensed as he stared the door ahead. Only a few more and then I can get my answers.

He stood in front, holding the knob in his hand. He took in a few breaths, trying to calm the array of thoughts circling in his mind. The rushed sentencing announced publicly a day in advance. The attempted assassination that followed. Aabna, in some way, knowing what was happening. The sidelining of his council and placing his own men in danger. There wasn’t any way in his mind that the events that unfolded happened without her knowing.

He opened the door, finding Aabna in an indigo dress and another familiar face clad in grey. Sitting in a seat on the other end of the table was the Sudhist priest of Oodpur, glancing back for a moment to catch Param’s face before turning away indifferently.

“Warrior Param,” she said, motioning to a corner. “It seems you have something urgent to report, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.”

What? Param opened his mouth for a moment but closed it shut as a flash of lightning revealed Aabna’s annoyed look. Damn. He gave a begrudging nod, moving to a nearby corner.

“Lady Aabna, you have our support. What they did on the top of our peoples’ havelis… do they not have shame? They’re only plunging this city into an unwanted crisis and it’ll only allow those warlords to take advantage of us.”

What are they talking about? Param closed the door behind him and stationed himself to an adjacent corner. Warlords? Did they mean the Havanamakapta brothers?

They both rose from their seats and clasped their hands. The priest took his leave, nodding towards Param before closing the door shut to the thunder howling outside.

“Aabna, we need to talk.”

“Yes,” she replied, motioning him towards a seat. “Sit.”

Param shook his head. “No, I’d rather stand.”

Their eyes locked for a brief moment. A flash of lightning revealed her cold face as she folded her hands on the desk.

“What is it that you wish to learn, Param?”

“You…” He gripped at the report in his hands. “Why’d you do all of this?”

“All of what?” She replied, her voice distant. A low echo resonated as she tapped on the wooden desk. “I did it all because it had to be done for Oodpur’s safety and Bhagat’s authority.”

“What?” Param furrowed his brows. “And how is sidelining my men, providing me with short notice in regards to those rioters’ sentencing and that assassination attempt tie in with any of this?” He slammed the report onto the table, cursing under his breath. “This isn’t right Aabna! You shouldn’t even had sentenced them because you had promised those priests!”

“Para—

He dug his finger into the report. “This here even tells the tensions persisting in the city! None of the Sudhists are going near the markets close to the upper-caste quarters! And the upper-castes aren’t socializing anywhere but within their quarters! Hell, a few Sudhists beat an upper-caste man for saying the assassins were doing justice! What the hell is this! This isn’t for the security of Oodpur, instead it’s only driving our people apart! How do you explain this!”

Param drew in a cold breath and curled his fingers. Sweat flowed down the side of his cheek as the heat flushed his skin red. A thunder crackled just above them, the sudden scream sending chills down the back of his spine.

“Are you done?”

Those three words hit like an arrow through his chest. He recoiled back, plaing his hands on the ears of the chair.

He narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean ‘am I done?’ I have more grievances than this Aabna.”

“Fine then.” She leaned in, the flickering candle light illuminated half her face. “You know why I had rushed their sentencing? It was to provoke them into a rushed attack. If I hadn’t done it then it would’ve given them ample time to prepare, leading to more casualties among your warriors. Yes, it was planned without your awareness, because you wouldn’t have gone along with the idea in the first place.”

“But why Aabna… why?” Param lowered his head. “This violence could’ve been avoided with dialog!”

“No it couldn’t have you fool!” She slammed her hands on the desk, Param watching as the papers around the table jumped in an unnatural shock. Aabna clenched her two hands and gave him an angered look. “That letter that we failed to catch was sent to the warlord up north! That’s what my spy reported and that’s what we extracted from one of the men we caught. Do you know what this means? They were planning on ousting us from power and they already have the weapons stored in their quarters to pose a credible challenge to our rule! Need I remind you of the bows and their swords? We had to take decisive action and I did just that.”

“But endangering the lives of the Sudhists there —your servant included— wasn’t what you should’ve done!”

“My servant volunteered to take my place in that palanquin and she’s alive because of your men’s actions. And what? You had a better idea to accomplish the same goals?”

“What? Well… we could’ve done it without escalating to—

“It wouldn’t work. Our peoples’ attitudes then are different from what they are now, after seeing that sight from that yesterday.” She rose from her seat and folded her arms, staring coldly at him. “I needed them to attack prematurely in the Sudhist quarters. Why? It was so that our people could accept our crackdown on the upper-castes after repeatedly protesting against doing it. I did it do buy us the political ammunition Param. Otherwise, we’d barely live if one of the warlords up north attacked at the same time as the upper-castes rebelled.”

“Yes, but now it’s all devolving into petty poli—

“I don’t want to hear this from you, Param.” She sat back down on her seat. “You’re a warrior, not a ruler. You don’t understand the stakes, nor do you understand politics. You speak of dialog, yet your a warrior, not a priest. If you speak of dialog so highly then why have you killed so many Afraaris till now?”

Param shook his head. “Why? Aabna, it was so that we could save our people. Not just our people, but every Lohaani living in our occupied lands! Those Afraaris know nothing of behaving righteously nor of civilized dialog. They butcher, they decapitate and they boil anyone who stand to challenge them—

“Good. Now realize that these upper-castes don’t want dialog either. I’ve sent them three summons already and yet none of their priests have come before me in the Hall of Public Audience. Instead they spread lies and feed on dissatisfaction. I’ve sent them their last summons a few hours ago related to this assassination attempt. If they don’t answer, I want you to use the new weaponry Bhagat sent us. I want you to tear down their walls.”

“What?” Param stumbled back, feeling his face go pale. A white flash blinded his eyes, the suddenness making him grip at the ears of the chair. “Aabna, they are our peo—

“When they have the weapons meant for killing their leader and lack any will to present themselves before me, they don’t remain our citizens Param. They become our enemies. They are a society separate of Oodpur’s. Within their walls they feel safe and strong. Invincible in a way. And we have to change that.”

“What?”

A chill ran down his spine. Their own upper-caste brethren, were now enemies? People who shared in the struggle were now their opponents on the streets? In what World would anyone with a shred of decency accept that? Param gripped at his hands, staring at Aabna’s half-illuminated face. She was right in a way. Perhaps he just didn’t want to acknowledge the fact staring in front of his face.

“I—”

The door slammed open and a boy rushed into the room, his breaths shallow as he placed his hands on his knees, tired. It was the same boy from the time Aabna and Param traveled to Oodpur to take over it’s administration.

“What was their response child?”

Param’s heart raced. Surely they would have accepted? Surely, in some World, they wouldn’t take the next step and reject everything that the people in this city strove for?

“They rejected your summons.”

Param blinked his eyes, processing what the boy had said. But the runner boy’s eyes reinforced the message, his shallow breaths reflecting the tragedy of their situation.

“Understood.” replied Aabna, her voice again distant. “You may leave.”

“No…” Param’s voice shook as the door softly shut. “We can’t do this. We can’t. If we do, it’ll hurt Bhagat’s reputation and open a box we won’t be able to close. We can’t do this. We can’t.”

“Param.”

His gaze turned towards hers.

“Blast their walls and seize their rebels and equipment. Ensure that, from now on, Taal guards are placed in the upper-caste quarters along with Sudhist warriors. Not one rebel with escape from my palms and we will integrate their quarters into the main city. That way they can learn to live amongst the honorable and hard-working, instead of sniveling at their status.”

Param wiped his face with a spare handkerchief, his eyes stumbling towards the dark, cold floor.

“This… this is wrong…”

“No it isn’t,” she said. “I’m doing this to save people, Param. Our people. The bodies of the dead lining the Sudhist temple —with their intestines ripped and eyes gouged— I’ll never forget that sight. The bloody streets before the monsoons arrived? I’ll never forget those too, for they were made with Taal and Haraan entrails. Those sights left an indelible mark in my mind and I will strive to avoid that scene so long as I live. But understand that it’s a minority of the upper-castes that have grown unruly and it’s because of their priests. Arrest their priests and help their people towards a more honorable path. Only then can we suppress this unchecked dissent.”

“But…” Param sat down in the chair and glanced at the edge of his table. “We’d be directly attacking their faith. No one will ever forgive us.”

The candle between them flickered, casting dancing shadows on the wall.

“Do you know why I sentenced those men to harsh labor in the stone and salt mines? It’s because I wanted them to struggle in the boots of a Taal or Haraan and understand that they have no right to push their distorted beliefs, fueled by those priests, onto hard workers. Those priests themselves are committing treason.”

“But Aabna, this would be the first time in all of Lohaani history where a lord removed a few priests from their position. It’d be unprecedented! It’s even taboo!”

“And? The only thing we need to do is amplify our reasoning for removing them.”

Param recoiled. “What?”

Aabna leaned in, revealing a sly smile. “Param, words are a power weapon. They can be used to hurt, to love, even to spread falsities and sow discord.”

Param gripped his knees. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about spreading rumors across Lohaan. If the action is considered to be taboo, then we’ll change peoples minds and make them see that what we do is right. And I find that removing people who are driving this animosity are in no position to gain any meaningful sympathy, thereby securing our heads.”

“And you think Bhagat will like this? This is his city after all!”

“Bhagat will understand that, given the circumstances, there was no choice in the matter. To avoid bloodshed, I have to do this.”

Param felt a bitter sensation hang in his mouth. He took in deep breaths, controlling his pulsing heart. He faced the gloomy scene outside the window, feeling the pelting on the glass create a rushed, arrhythmic tune that crept to his ears, reinforcing his unease.

“Well? Are you going to help me?” He turned, facing Aabna’s cold eyes yet again. “Because if you don’t help, I’ll just command the men myself. And I won’t guarantee the enemy’s health nor safety. Not after that botched assassination.”

Param loosened his hands and lowered his head. “We have to do something, I know that to be true. But I don’t want it to boil down to a needless slaughter, it’d only break with our traditions.” He felt a sweat draw down to his chin as he faced Aabna. “I’ll only arrest the priests and any of the rebels I find mounting a resistance. I will not kill them. I’ll also destroy the walls to their quarters to prevent them from using it to their advantage later on. But I am not going to kill any innocents and I will hang any of my men who do.”

“Fine.” Aabna arose from her seat and walked towards the window, placing her hand on the cold glass. “Go then. See to it that they are told their place.”

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