“You were named after one of our Lord Buddha’s most pious female disciples. If she could live to a hundred and twenty, so can you, madam. So can you.” At this she would always laugh at the old maid’s sweet stupidity.
“By the way, how many have you invited?”
“I don’t like making a show of things, Ran Ethana. Just five, not fifty. I’m doing it…for him. It’s what he wanted; it’s what I promised him before he left for the war,” she answered softly with a sigh, fighting a few tears that tried to escape the grasp of her eyes. Vishaka bit her lip immediately. The other servants had heard it, and she flounced out of the kitchen.
“First that damned Rudran, and now this…”
Vishaka could not cry.
Instead she sat silently in her bedroom. She gazed at the glassy-eyed stare of the little Buddha image that sat on a small shelf nailed to the wall. It was the smallest of altars, but here he had prayed so much for luck, for hope that he would survive the war. The statue itself was made of bronze, but had not been polished in years; thus its luster had been ripped away by the wind. Those eyes, however, pierced into her soul.
Eyes that saw, but yet were not meant to see.
Eyes that had witnessed the purest of truths, the one he had shown her, and which she had begun to believe for a while. Yet like the once-radiant patina, it had gently slipped away from the reaches of her heart. His aura was still warm in their room, and she felt him breathing against her skin, pulses rushing across her neck like amber against straw. The soft down of black stubbly on his cheeks and the thin mustache that he, somehow, always kept so well groomed, felt as perfect to her senses as the softness of his lips. Her youngest son’s own beauty, the boy’s lotus-soft lips and wonderful mass of curls, were drawn from his blood alone.
He had never said a word when he left her that day. He had merely left, and had been away ever since. Her body ached and trembled when the dreams of his death-the gods forbid-flashed through her mind.
“You damned fool,” she muttered under her breath as his voice haunted her being, “why did you have to be away for so long? You shouldn’t have gone! Just because it’s your…family heirloom, well who cares? You took three of our children with you, and I know that Jayampati will follow you! Are all you bloody men so cruel? My dear Anuruddha, I love you, but you, you are such a fool!” Her hands flew to the mirror, and her whole body became clearer.
Visions of a beautiful girl, her lean body slick and aglow with fragrant oil, floated past its shiny surface. The girl who invited him into her being with her soft thighs and high, large breasts…her pain as he first broke into her, clashing with the gentleness of his lips against hers, exploring the innocent young body before him. Visions of children appeared, yet died away just as quickly, sinking back into the mirror’s glassy depths…
“May I come in?”
The rough voice of Rudran shook Vishaka out of her dream. Her kasisalu ventured slowly to her eyes to conceal her tears from this strange man.
He had no smile on his face as he looked at her. Yet the light streaking into the bedroom made his unshaven, perfectly kempt visage seem so wonderfully godlike, as did the taught muscles of his back and chest. “I wanted to apologize for this morning. It’s not so easy, living out here for two weeks, knowing that, well”-he cleared his throat, but always stayed at the doorway-“my comrades are away, fighting…and I’m in enemy territory. And in a noble household, no less. They would hate me for this.” She gave him a small smile, from which he turned with slight embarrassment.
“And look,” he continued, “none of us common soldiers even wanted this war. Our leaders just want the world for themselves these days, I guess. So many new mandalams in foreign lands, Choladesha growing fat at the expense of everyone else. And we have to pay for it.”
“So is that why you’re in pain?” Vishaka’s eyes looked deep into his; they were two dark globes clouded by a strong fog to her. Hers were clear and beautiful, black as polished onyx, tearing through the obscuring mist. “There has to be more, Rudran, I know there is”-she placed a slender hand on his arm-“so tell me.”
He shied away for an instant, a look of uncertainty on his face.
Vishaka smiled, “It’s alright. You’ve been here for two weeks now, and I don’t exactly have many friends. I mean, certainly not like you”-she turned her face away, but still bearing the same smile-“and I, I mean, we…no, sorry, but you’re not at all what I expected, I have to say.”
“So polite, well-bred, and just plain chivalrous, that’s what I mean. Anuruddha is certainly not the best source when it comes to…the enemy. I’m sorry, but he, he’s just strange. A little…prejudiced, I think. You could sit down if you like. Don’t be shy.”
Rudran cleared his throat loudly, and continued, “Madam, would you ask me to sit on your bed if your husband Anuruddha were still here? And there’s your son.” His tone grew slightly bitter. “He’s, he’s a good boy. Looks out for his mother. That is, at the expense of getting to know me. Not that I need his acquaintance. But anyway Vishaka, I’m sorry. Maybe some other time? I”-his tone quickened as he turned to leave-“I’m sorry, so sorry.”