The sun, at last, was dead. Ravenous wolves of winter emerged from their dark pits and raced across the fey fields of men, eager to devour what remained of a ripe summer. The last warriors of warmth and bounty went down with their guts tangled around the spears of fog-wraiths. A season of cold winds and whispering shadows was upon the world. Mothers held babes to their breasts and retreated behind the walls of their homes, tillers gathered what they could from the harvest and joined their wives. Fires would be kindled, prayers murmured, songs sung to keep darkness from the hearth. Weak eyed mages would dandle children on their knees and regale them with tales of witches and wargs, dragons and kraken, wars fought between harsh northern kings and lizard-headed corsairs from across the sea.
But the mists enclosed within the ancient crystal balls of desert fortune tellers were swirling. And swirling fast. For something extraordinary had happened in a nation of serpent men living in the southern forests. As the last rays of a valiantly fighting sun had set finally over Panchavati, the fabled Naga capital, their fading brilliance had illuminated the wasted features of its once mighty king. Vasuki Veersen was dead…dead after battling the flesh-eating poison of an assassin’s dart for nine nights and ten morns. His ministers wept false tears as they watched grim faced hakims wrap the sore ridden body of their master in a black shroud. His three wives hugged each other, tore at their attires and beat their breasts, but more out of custom than love. A great king had drawn his last breath.
But that was not the extraordinary incident which shook the world. For three days after the serpent king’s corpse had been set aflame and his ashes scattered to the four winds, the kingdom of Panchavati found itself staring in shock at the person who sat upon the Pearl Throne now. It was no man, for Vasuki had fathered no sons. His ministers were too busy stabbing each other in the back to vie for kingship.
She descended upon the southern state like a storm in spring, burning with malevolent rage. The stench of her ambition assaulted noses both highborn and common as she arrived, garbed not in the silken black saree expected of Naga women, but a warskin. Five hundred soldiers followed her, mercenaries from the five kingdoms and corsairs who had been lured by the promises of gold and whores. Deserters from foreign armies thronged her army too, along with horned rakshasas from faraway Tamas Nagri and giants riding massive rams.
Standing before the hastily barred gates, the woman threw back her head and shouted a challenge to the grim watchers. “Panchavati is mine by blood and birth!” Her voice belonged to one who was used to commanding. Strong and harsh, a touch of the north, and yet the tongue she spoke was that of the Nagas. “I have come to take it!”
The three queens, peeping from behind a wall of strong backed bodyguards, saw what lay beyond the lone figure at their gates. They looked down the maws of fanged rakshasas roaring for blood, glanced at the three beady eyes of a giant seated upon his beast, each as large as the moon. They stared in awe and fear at the rows of armoured soldiers who stood ready to make war upon them. Yakshas from Alakapuri, Gandharvas from Indraprastha, fair skinned hire blades from the western islands. The queens clutched their hands, looked to their impassive ministers for support, found none and having lived a life of luxury and excesses without any thought of politics, decided to relent.
The gates of Panchavati were opened to the marauders. The woman entered with slow, steady steps, sword drawn and ready for trouble. The sentries bowed their heads lest they felt the touch of cold iron and backed away. The assembled common folk merely whispered among themselves and squinted curiously at the people entering their city. The queens prepared to descend and receive this strange pretender to the Pearl Throne. But once again, the winds of fate unspooled everything.
Breaking through the ranks of Naga house guards standing in attention came the Minister of Coin, corpulent and swaddled in tasteful silks. On his face was an expression of anger and disdain, eyes nearly closed as contortions raged across the folds of his face. The woman halted, watching him with amusement.
“This is a bloody farce!” He choked and spluttered, shaking his fist at the woman’s face. “King Veersen had no children! You are a false pretender!”
“Look closely into my eyes and tell me, did they not once belong to the Serpent King? I am very much his daughter, sprung from the seed that he planted in my mother’s belly. A whore he bedded, piss drunk and half mad during a raid into some errant lord’s lands,” the woman replied, one hand resting upon the carved ivory hilt of her sword.
So the Minister of Coin looked, and he was aghast when indeed, he saw his former master in the woman’s eyes. But he was a greedy, venal man who saw his opportunity at acquiring the nation’s riches for himself slipping away fast. And he was loth to admit that Vasuki had left heirs behind.
“Preposterous,” he snarled, inventing wildly. “The king was impotent!”
The bastard princess inclined her head to the side and smirked. “Aye, my lord. And so are you.”
She snapped her fingers and an arrow came flying out of the masses at her back, shot by one of the Yaksha bowmen famed for their skills in archery. The winged shaft ploughed deep into the Minister’s manhood, thoroughly ravaging it. Rivulets of blood came spiralling out of it as the man clutched his groin and collapsed to the ground, wheezing and dripping snot from the nose. There were horrified shrieks from the onlookers. Casting a wicked glance around, the woman unsheathed her sword, a crescent moon shaped blade favoured by Dosethi tribesmen and hacked off his head. The crowd hushed as if some sorcery had robbed them all of their tongues.
“Men and women of Panchavati, hear me and hear well,” she spoke in a loud, stern voice. “I am Karuna Veersen, the daughter of your departed king Vasuki Veersen. The Pearl Throne is mine by blood and birth, and I have come to take it. I am your queen, your ruler, the provider of grain, coin and roof. And yet I am one of you as my mother’s lowborn blood runs through my veins still.” Karuna clapped her hands and a tall, well-built man stepped forward. He was one of the Gandharvas who inhabited lands north of Roop Raga, riding magnificent peacocks and residing within floating palaces. The man, dressed in gold and white robes, bowed low and held up his hand to the assembled crowd, smiling.
“I have just slain your Minister of Coin for raising questions upon my legitimacy. But I am no wanton plunderer. I am your queen, and thus I have brought another to take his place. This man here, is Dastak Hapuram, former bookkeeper and gold giver to the seven merchant princes of Tyronia. He is your new Minister of Coin,” Karuna continued as Dastak folded his hands and saluted the new queen thrice. She walked a few paces forward, taking care to step over the blood and gore. “And as his first duty to the Nagas, I command Minister Hapuram to throw open the doors of the imperial treasury to the masses. Each man, woman and child shall come, and depart laden with as much gold as he or she may carry!”
What began as a murmur soon transformed into a gigantic roar, a cacophony of hundreds of voices cheering as one. Nagas who had been standing grim and fearful just moments ago now rushed through the labyrinthine streets of their kingdom, praising the name of the woman who had erased their vicious cycle of poverty.
Thus, with one genius stroke of magnanimity, Karuna Veersen became the queen of Panchavati. Vyalarani they called her, the Ruler of Serpents and Mistress of All that Slither Beneath. The old, tottering royal priest garbed in a giant python’s skin anointed her with the viscous poisons of five snakes and set the Toothed Crown upon her raven black head. Upon the Pearl Throne she sat, the first woman and a bastard besides, to do so.
Karuna was ruthless as she was brave, and full of black cunning. Within the very first week of her rule, she had the three widowed queens killed to weed out even the slightest spark of rebellion. One she fed to the mighty hooded cobras the Nagas rode to war, having her thrown into their nests and watching as she was devoured whole. The second queen was put in a gibbet and slowly starved to death. The last one, defiant and sullen, was told to run as fast as she could from Panchavati. As she began laboring in the heavy brocade saree, a rakshasa bowman sent an arrow through her neck. Vasuki’s old commander Takshak tried to incite his other comrades to mutiny, but another young aspirant thwarted the conspiracy in a bid to impress Karuna.
“I only ask that you allow me to serve you, Your Majesty,” Adishesha said, holding the bloody sword out towards her even as half a dozen old soldiers bled to death behind him. The queen fondled her precious rings and gazed at the warrior. He lusted for her; she could read that clearly in his eyes. His lust had a pleasant fragrance, much like fresh cheese and apples, and his sword arm was good.
“Rise,” she intoned. “You shall lead my armies in battle.”