Betrayal

(This short story was written originally as part of a larger composition but found to be better as a stand-alone.)

It was the twelfth year of the reign of Suri and the time of the festival of renewal was at its height. Already the monsoon-laden clouds were rolling in from the east and the winds spoke of the magic of the old gods who rode the storms across the mountain ranges of the Indian Ghats to cleanse and water the waiting earth. Their goodwill was propitiated by the blood of the king or Samorin, every twelfth year, as the Aryan overlords who called themselves priests watched with complacent irony. The cyclical death of the Samorin meant that their own power never diminished and each new Samorin had to curry their favor to solidify his control.

But the old gods were being replaced.

The current Samorin, Suri, had been raised from birth as a child of a God who demanded no sacrifice except obedience, indeed had Himself paid the ultimate sacrifice for the good of His children. Of this God the priest John Mathias had been preaching for many years. He had come from a kingdom to the south and the gods of the old priests had not been successful in driving him out. More and more the people of the small, rich kingdom of Kozhikode were turning to John Mathias’s God after the example of their Samorin.

But the Aryan overlords disapproved. No longer did their shadows afflict the untouchables with death; no longer was the Samorin receptive to their self-serving counsel. But their mutterings were like the dry leaves that raced across the marble floor of the Samorin’s palace verandas and there was not tinder to light them, save one.

I stood on the palace veranda overlooking the front courtyard where Suri stood talking to the priest Mathias and the servants bustled in frenetic activity with covered trays laden with every gastronomical offering that a Samorin’s kitchens could contrive. Beyond the courtyard, men were placing fireworks on high scaffolds that rested against a few well-chosen coconut trees. Soon the entire kingdom, from nobles to paupers would assemble around the palace and rub shoulders in celebration of the Samorin. May his reign never end until God’s Son comes for him in a peaceful death! the people had shouted the night before at Mathias’s instigation. May the reign of the Samorin last a dozen of dozen years by the will of the God of Mathias and Suri!

But I was troubled. The Aryan overlords had held power for too many centuries for them to give it up so easily. And a new Brahmin priest was in the kingdom preaching to revive the old gods and strengthen the hand of his Aryan brothers: a man who called himself the Hungarian, a votive of the goddess Sena-Apsara, a man said to be behind the brutal murders of ten of Mathias’s newly appointed priests.

But Mathias’s voice was still stronger than the fear of the Hungarian and the people would rally around the Christian priest’s urging to re-crown the Samorin for the remainder of his life and abandon the customs of the old gods. Everything rested on Mathias’s word tonight.

A pair of strong arms slipped around me at the same time that childish hands circled my legs.

“Darling,” Suri’s voice murmured possessively against my ear.

“Amma! Amma! Amma!” his son chanted possessively against the folds of my sari, watching in delight as I turned in Suri’s arms to let him take my mouth in his fiery kiss.

I swam out of the smoky haze of our combined passion to look into his gold-flecked brown eyes when a cold chill swept over me. “Oh God!” I murmured. “No, it can’t be true!”

“What is it, my love? What troubles you?” Suri asked sharply.

I shut my eyes against his concern, suddenly seeing a pair of grey eyes and the same man reborn as another. “NO!”

“Saroja, you must tell me what’s wrong! Now, before you frighten your husband out of the remaining years of his life!”

“Amma?” The uncertain, tremulous voice of my son pulled me out of my trance and I knelt unsteadily before him.

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong, mohnay” I said. I forced the tears back as I looked at the five-year-old face of Suri. “Raju. Run to your nurse now and tell her I said you can have your supper early so you can get dressed for the festival. Then find Matthias and stay with him until I come for you. He’ll be in one of the guest bedrooms.”

He nodded slowly. “Amma,” he said, wrapping his arms around my neck. “Come soon. I don’t want to miss anything tonight. From start to finish.”

“You won’t,” I whispered, kissing his soft cheek. “I promise.”

He ran out and I stood up, afraid to let Suri read the dread in my heart. This was his day and I was letting the fears of a future time cloud my judgment. What could go wrong today? The people were united behind the Samorin. Matthias’s word would be followed to the letter.

“I’ve put off dressing too long,” I said, moving quickly away from him but he caught my arm before I had reached the center of the room.

“Saroja,” he said quietly, turning me to face him. “Tell me.”

I smiled, ready to dissemble, until he reached out a hand and ran the back of one finger slowly down my cheek, and the tears coursed down before his finger had reached my chin, the liquid drops falling into his hand.

“Suri! Don’t go to the coronation! Why be a Samorin when your family has houses and lands in their own right? Let’s be ordinary people with ordinary lives doing ordinary things and ….”

He cupped my face with his hands, his thumb resting lightly against my mouth. “Saroja! If these were ordinary times, I would agree a thousand times just so I wouldn’t see the tears wet your face. But these aren’t ordinary times. If I am not Samorin, the old cruel ways of the Brahmin priests will return, the Christian God will be abandoned, and Matthias and his priests will no longer have my protection to continue their work of changing people’s hearts to a way of brotherhood.”

I pulled his hand away, but he turned it securely into mine and held it. I closed my eyes for a moment against the lump that rose in my throat at that familiar gesture.

“The people have been shown the right way,” I said, my voice hoarse with tears. “If they have the courage of their faith, nothing, not even fear of the Hungarian, will make them renounce God.”

Suri shook his head. “You’re the strongest person I know and you’re letting your own fear of the Hungarian and his priests rule you. Will the ordinary people fare better?”

“They have Matthias’s example. Why do they need yours?”

His hands fell away. “Because I am the Samorin they chose. I won’t let them down.” He paused. “Saroja, don’t ask me to. Because if you do, I fear I will do as you ask to my shame and dishonor.”

His eyes looked into mine with the same earnestness of the man he would be again in my future. For better or for worse, I could not deny him.

“Then you must be Samorin,” I said, blinking away my tears and smiling as took me in his arms. “But don’t ask me to cheer with the crowd, because I won’t.”

“Won’t you?” he asked, his lips against mine. “Then maybe I can make you cheer elsewhere, my wife. Somewhere only I can hear.”

#

The sun was sinking fast below the line of trees and the oil lamps smoked as the monsoon winds blew wildly about them. I stood by Matthias in the twilight shadows, gripping Raju’s hand, as we waited to take our place beside a newly crowned Samorin. But the coronation had been delayed by a familiar, charismatic Hindu sage who had arisen from the ranks of onlookers and now stood addressing the spell-bound people in his flowing sannyasi robe, one hand holding a staff, the other gesturing the crowd into submission, flashing a luminous gold ring, Lilith’s ring.

“Why is the Hungarian here?” I asked Matthias. “Who gave him permission to speak?”

Suri was standing atop a lavish platform in the center of the palace courtyard, behind him the golden throne of the Samorin. On either side of him were arrayed the ranking nobles of the kingdom. The crowd of onlookers, landowners and traders, merchants and paupers, stood silently as the Hungarian spoke of the old ways and angering the old gods by not returning to them.

“Matthias? Why are you not responding to the Hungarian? The people will listen to you. You are the only one who can break his evil spell. Speak your words! Speak the Word, Matthias! I beg of you!”

He turned to look at me and in his sweating brown face and dark eyes, I saw the haggard lines of Father Columbanus’s face and haunted eyes.

“I had to do it, Saroja. I made a deal with the Hungarian that no more priests or Christian converts would be killed if I stopped preaching and the Samorin ….”

“But Suri trusted you!” I cried in fear. “He called you not only his priest but his friend!”

He shook his head and turned away.

Holding Raju’s hand, I climbed the steps of the platform and made my way past the Hungarian who had hypnotized his audience into a chanting call for the Samorin’s ritual slaughter of renewal. Before I could speak, a knife was placed before the Samorin’s throne and in my desperation, I let go of Raju’s hand and ran towards Suri, but the strong arms of the encircling nobles stopped me.

They stepped back slowly, dragging me with them, and my eyes met Suri’s for an instant before he bent down and picked up the knife.

“Suri! No!” I cried, sobbing.

“The people have chosen,” he said, his eyes holding mine as if we were the only two in the world. “Raise our son to choose rightly in all things. Saroja, he must be their example now.”

He took the blade and in one swift movement cut his throat, the blood rushing like a fount from below either side of his ears. He fell backward against the Samorin’s throne and I ran to cradle his slumped, bleeding head in my arms. His eyes were still on me when I turned to see the tall frame of the saffron-robed Hungarian place the limp body of Raju at my feet.

“A gift for the Sena-Apsara,” he said, bowing, his ageless face with its disarmingly rounded nose alive with a fiend’s mockery.

I saw Matthias rush forward in horror, only to be stopped by the swords of the nobles.

In silence, I reached for the still warm hand of my lifeless son when I heard Suri breathe out my name. I turned to look down at him.

“I’m … sorry,” he said.

I shook my head and took his hand in mine, the knife still clutched in his fist, and with a twist of my hand, plunged it into my breast.

“Remember me,” I whispered to the Hungarian who had stepped forward in impotent fury, his countenance a boyish burst of red. “Because God will have his vengeance through me. Remember … me.”

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