The pale red sun glowed, painting the gradually darkening sky with feeble strokes of orange and pink. Soft golden light spilled onto the gleaming white floor of the palace and curved around the muscular form that stood at the massive gilded window. The view showed the ramparts of the palace where a navy blue flag fluttered in the wind with the sole focus of the man's attention centered on it.
“Father!” A young voice broke the stillness of the room. “Father, make them let go! Akka! The ropes hurt, akka. It hurts.”
The muscular silhouette at the window flinched minutely. Without taking his eyes away from the view, he gestured with his hand.
At once, the boy’s cries were muffled.
“My Lord-” Someone began but trailed off when their Commander straightened abruptly.
Trumpets blared abruptly, making their breath catch. Soldiers stood to attention, taking their eyes off the securely tied prisoners in their midst in favor of looking out of the window.
As they watched, the navy blue flag fluttering at the top of the ramparts started its downward descent, fighting all the way down. A proud yellow flag replaced it instantly and the soldiers, as one, folded their fisted right hands across their chest and bowed their heads.
“Jai Mahishmathi!” roared the figure at the window, finally turning around to face the prisoners.
Prince Bhallaladeva of Mahishmathi wore a victorious smirk as he took a single step into the room, his red and gold robes flashing in the light. His soldiers stood rigid and alert as they watched him- the man who had single-handedly led them to a victory unlike any other. The bountiful kingdom of Anga had been conquered within two measly days under the leadership of a man very few loved but most respected.
“I must say,” Bhallaladeva began, strolling over to his prisoners who had been forced to their knees. “The suvarna dwaja of Mahishmathi is much better suited to represent such a wealthy kingdom. Blue…was never my colour.”
He got no answer but he had not expected one. His expression was neutral, almost pleasant but his eyes betrayed him. The weakened rays of the sun did nothing to dim the ferocious glint in them. Neither did it soften his hulking form. Rather, it made him look more menacing- the sharp planes of his face accentuated with slivers of shadows and the red orb of the sun framed behind his head like a halo.
“Don’t you agree, Shatayadhu?” Bhalla asked with mock curiosity, stooping slightly to look at the dazed old man. “Maharaja Shatayadhu? But you are not a maharaja anymore, are you?”
His generals, his servants really, laughed as they should at his words. But those midnight black eyes were not on them. They roved over the family of three on their knees before him, their lives at his mercy. It was a heady feeling, one that never got old. Bhalla made sure to savour every moment of it.
“You will concede to the authority of Mahishmathi.” The words were delivered with a solemn air of finality. “Anga will henceforth be a vassal-”
“Never!” The fallen king abruptly roused himself from his stupor to spit in defiance. “I would rather die that surrender my kingdom to barbarians and beasts of Mahishmathi.”
Bhalla allowed a dangerous smirk to flit over his features.
Finally, a hint of challenge.
The conquest of Anga had been easy, too easy. There was simply no fun in defeating a prey that rolled over and showed you its belly. He hungered for a chance to toy with his prey, to really play, to really fight. To let out the frustration and rage boiling within him.
“That can be easily arranged,” he hissed silky before slanting his eyes to the twelve year old boy tied up beside his father. Someone had stuffed a gag into his mouth which muffled his continuous crying. “Careful, Shatayadhu. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your lad, would you?”
Something flashed through the fallen king’s eyes, something that resembled fear but not exactly and Bhalla's smile slipped.
Did the man not fear for his son?
To test the theory, Bhalla placed a hand on the boy’s head and ruffled his hair, all the while smirking dangerously.
“Let him go!” That voice…did not belong to the old man.
No, it had come from Bhalla’s third prisoner, a young woman who sat with her head bowed and her face hidden behind a curtain of midnight black hair. The tone had been far from timid, unlike her confusing posture.
“And who might you be?”
“Indira,” came the answer, voice raspy but proud. “Princess Indira of Anga.”
Any reply that Bhalla might have had died in his throat when the maiden lifted her head to look at him.
The moment their eyes met, hers catching the last flickers of sunlight and glowing, Bhalla’s world titled and came to a standstill.
Those eyes, those honey brown eyes, burned with defiance and a careful fearlessness that told him that he was seeing only what she wanted him to see. It wasn’t the lack of fear, oh no. She was scared.
She was afraid, she was confused, she was desperate. But she was resolute. Her eyes shone with strength that promised to overcome any and every obstacle thrown at her.
Perhaps that was what drew Bhalla in. He’d seen fear in men before, had put it there himself. He’d seen utter fearlessness in the face of danger- like his brother and his wife- but rarely had he seen fear mixed with resolve to overcome it. It wasn’t foolish bravado but realistic bravery and that…was confusing.
“Princess Indira, was it?” Bhalla tried for a blase tone, unhappy with the direction of his thoughts. “You want me to let him go?”
She nodded sharply, eyes unwavering from his.
“Make me,” he challenged, both to distract himself and because he was truly curious to see what she would do.
He gestured for a soldier to free her of her binds and the next second- the very next second- the princess had a dagger to his throat. Her breath come out in pants, her form slightly shivered wehn it pressed against his but her hand holding the dagger remained steady, the other gripping his hair to maintain her position.
Despite the danger- or perhaps because of it- Bhalla laughed.
He laughed and laughed, unmindful of the dagger pressing deeper. Waving away his tensed soldiers, he freed himself in one smooth motion and removed the dagger from her hand, holding it against the boy’s - her brother’s- throat.
Indira glared at him through a curtain of fear. Real fear. “Let him go, you vitharka.”
Bhalla growled deeply, red tinting his vision.
Vitharka, she called him.
The son of a monster.
Unbidden, the image of his own father swam before his eyes. His father locked in the deepest dungeon of Mahishmathi. His father, the traitor. His father, the monster who had tried to murder a babe in his mother’s womb. His father, the only one who had loved him, supported him, had been there for him. Always.
The sound of choking brought him back to his senses. Angry eyes widened, fingers going slack around the pale column of delicate throat. Indira coughed, clutching at her throat but when her eyes met his, he saw validation.
He’d just confirmed her assessment of him.
And that…that made him sick.
Bhalla stumbled back a step before schooling his features hurriedly. If she’d already drawn her judgement, he wasn’t going to try and convince her otherwise. Turning his back to the prisoners, he barked, “Imprison the old man. Do whatever it takes to get him to sign the accords”
“What of his children, my prince?”
Bhalla took slow and measured steps towards the door, his thoughts and feelings carefully locked away. “Do not allow them to leave the palace,” he called over his shoulder. “Until the accords are signed, we will take advantage of Anga’s hospitality.”