Senjam Singh arrived at the plantation just as the sun was retreating behind the stone bulwark of Mount Muhundyana. Neat ranks of emerald-hued brush marched up the rolling foothills to disappear in a heavy mist descending from the mountain’s slopes. Were Senjam a poet he might have spared a moment to appraise Muhundyana’s stark profile against the failing light. But he had a singular task set before him, and he hurried among the plantation’s whitewashed buildings to find their owner.
A sun-browned man came hobbling up, bearing the ochre mark of the Vaishya caste on his forehead. “There you are! I received word you’d be traveling all the way from Prashkatvi, by foot.”
Senjam bowed. He had similar markings, though in truth he belonged to a caste so low that to utter its name required ritual purification afterwards. “You are Bhejit, owner of the famous Muhundyana Plantation?”
“I am he. Come, and we’ll share a cup of my best.”
“It would be my honor to sample the famous tea of your plantation.”
They retired to a portico at the rear of Behjit’s grand house, Senjam pausing first to wash the dust from his feet and hand his baggage to a servant. Freshly-cured leaves were steeped in steaming water and the resulting pale green brew poured into cups. A few sips, and Senjam felt the dull ache in his muscles vanish.
“You like it?” Bhejit asked. “Wait until the monsoons are over. We harvest peony flowers then, and mix the petals with a special combination of young leaves....” Servants brought in flatbread and pickled vegetables as he went on about the intricacies of tea production.
“I do not wish to seem forward,” Senjam said, after his host had finished speaking, “but I represent a buyer who compresses tea into bricks, and thereby conveys them to the steppe-lands. This buyer has expressed an interest in your leaves.”
He did not lie overmuch. There was such a buyer in Prashkatvi, though that buyer would not have known Senjam from a stranger.
“We have plenty of time to talk business,” Bhejit said. “For now, consider yourself at leisure. I’ll take you on a tour of the grounds tomorrow. Tonight, you’ll sleep on a real pallet, in a house next to my own.”
“Your kindness exceeds your reputation.” Senjam feigned a look of mild fear as he gestured at the darkening fields. “I’ve been told many snakes roam this place....”
“Worry not. Few are actually dangerous.”
“Still, workers must be bitten from time to time.”
Bhejit shrugged narrow shoulders beneath his linen robe. “What are the lives of a few lowborn Shudras, when there’s profit to be cultivated? Eh, to keep morale up I’ve hired an old snake-charmer. He traps the little wrigglers, and I’ve seen him successfully draw poison from a wound.”
“A charmer?” Senjam had to bite down to keep the eagerness from his voice. “I’d like to see him at work.”
Bhejit’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “I’d imagine there must be plenty of such charlatans in the streets of Prashkatvi.”
“Oh, there are,” Senjam agreed, inwardly cursing his lack of subtlety, “but the serpents they perform with have all been de-fanged, or had their mouths sewn shut. Just once, I’d like to see the charmer’s art practiced on a real snake.”
The answer seemed to mollify Bhejit’s suspicions. They finished the tea and flatbread as darkness settled around the portico. Bhejit rose, took up a clay lamp, and led Senjam a short distance to the neighboring house. “I’ll have the servants bring over a fresh change of clothes,” he said, fumbling with the door. “In the morning....”
His voice trailed off as two women came stepping out of the shadows. They passed by without a word; a young high-caste wearing a checkered sarong of green and gold, guided by an older Shudra in humble clothing. The former walked with head downcast, unusual for someone of her station. Both women clutched a handkerchief between them, so the lowborn’s touch would not contaminate her better’s.
“She’s blind, the poor thing,” Bhejit whispered, after the pair were out of earshot.
“A Brahmin. Arrived an hour just before you did. Perhaps you’ll meet her tomorrow.”
The timing fired Senjam’s curiosity, but he felt he had already let too much slip in asking about the snake-charmer. Where was his restraint? His courtly training? He kept his face an impassive mask as Bhejit opened the door to the guest house.
Most unworthy Grandsire, debased Taker of Lives, you are charged to travel to Mount Muhundyana and there obtain that rarest poison, the venom of the Gopti Serpent. No great quantity is required. Be aware that agents of the Raj may have already been dispatched to thwart you in this matter.
Within the privacy of his room, Senjam contemplated the message he’d read and then hastily destroyed five days earlier. As usual, the Grandfathers had given him little information to work with. What was the purpose of obtaining this poison? Would he be required to use it at some point? And above all, what in the Nineteen Hells was a ‘Gopti Serpent?’ He had studied toxins for most his life and had never come across mention of such a creature.
With teeth grit in frustration he rose and went to the open window. A hunter’s moon spilled out over the terraced rows of tea-plants, now gray and heavy with shadows. He could’ve sworn someone had been following him on the road to Muhundyana, drawing closer with each nightfall. Only near-constant movement had kept him feeling safe. Now....
He drew the shutters and lit a taper before returning to his table. Bhejit had left him a pot of yellow tea, alongside which Senjam placed a small paper packet. Duty to the Grandfathers brought many stringent obligations, but this one he loathed most. Muttering, he shook a few grains of crimson powder from the packet into a cup, followed by a splash of tea. This he swirled until the powder had dissolved completely. A sip brought bitter reeling pain.
He gripped the table’s edge to steady himself. As his blood seethed just below his skin, he drew a deep breath and repeated a mantra taught to him since childhood. The pain lessened by fractions. He pared his concentration to a dagger’s point and allowed his mind to expand, breaking the restraints of the cruder senses. With supreme effort, his inner eyelid opened a crack—no more, but enough to turn his perceptions outward, beyond the walls of the house.
There were two hunched shapes just outside, silhouettes approaching on wary feet. With his physical eyes still closed, Senjam drew a razor-edged chakram, or throwing hoop, hidden within his sash. A sharp movement of the wrist sent the steel ring twirling around his index finger, building momentum.
The shuttered window crashed inwards as a black-garbed body hurtled through.
Senjam threw the chakram overhand, to bury the circular blade in the soft flesh of the intruder’s throat. A knotted strangling-cloth dropped from the man’s grasp as he fell.
Without pause, Senjam vaulted atop the table and leapt upwards, all four limbs shooting out when he was inches from the ceiling. His hands and feet made contact with the rafters to either side, spaced closely enough that with muscles straining to the utmost he could pinion himself between them. Suspended thus, he waited. The door rattled faintly. From his spider’s vantage, Senjam watched as the wavy blade of a kris emerged between door and frame, sliding upwards until it struck the bar. A muffled grunt, and the short blade flipped the heavy bar from its holdings.
The door swung open, kicked by a burly figure swathed in black hillman’s robes. He held the kris low in a pale-knuckled grip. His gaze traveled from the dead man on the floor to the flickering taper, and thence to the empty sleeping pallet.
Too late he looked up. Senjam dropped from the rafters and planted a knee in the man’s broad back. One arm reached from behind to seize the knife-bearing wrist; the other snaked around the muscled neck in a chokehold.
Senjam squeezed with all his strength, but the larger man fought like a bull. Their locked bodies collided with the table. By sheer force the kris came wrenching backwards towards Senjam’s face. He abandoned his chokehold and groped along the table’s surface until his fingers touched the packet of crimson powder. Blindly, he flung the contents in the direction of his assailant’s mouth. A cough, a sputter, and he knew the man had breathed some of it in.
Scant moments later he could feel the straining muscles beneath him begin to spasm. The man uttered a retching sound and pitched forward face-first. Senjam threw himself off the body, then stooped to snatch up the kris where it had fallen. A quick stab beneath the left shoulder blade spared his would-be assassin further pain.
For the space of ten heartbeats, Senjam waited. No sound carried through the open doorway, and there was no flicker of approaching light to indicate that anyone had heard the fighting. He re-barred the door and took up the still-burning taper.
By the feeble glow he examined both bodies. They were dressed as simple hillmen, but hillmen did not use such weapons as the kris or strangling-cloth. He stripped their clothing and found a tattoo beneath the armpit of the larger man: a stylized flame, before which danced a six-armed figure. The mark of thuggee.
Could they have been paid agents of the Raj? Very likely. If so, he may have dispatched the immediate threat. But there was the matter of two corpses, and their abundant blood; on his hands, his clothes, and seeping into the clay floor. He would need to remove all traces before dawn. Discovery would be considered failure. And failure, among the Grandfathers, exacted only one price.
“You did not sleep well? The pallet was not to your liking?”
Bhejit had arranged a light breakfast on the portico as the Shudra laborers filed out among the fields to stoop and pick.
“I’m always restless in unfamiliar places,” Senjam said. He had been up the length of the night finding a remote spot to bury the thuggee corpses. His disciplined mind could function for days without sleep, but he couldn’t hide the dark hollows beneath his eyes.
“I know a hibiscus blend that’s good for the nerves. Remind me again this evening, and I’ll have my servants brew you a pot.”
“That’s gracious of you.”
They finished eating while the golden chariot of Shuryu, the sun, rose steaming over verdant hills and burned away the morning fog. As pledged, Bhejit conducted a tour of the plantation, including the stone courtyard where fresh-cut leaves were spread to dry. Senjam felt disappointed to not glimpse any snakes. Towards noon, his host complained of gout pain and retired to the grand house, leaving Senjam to wander the fields alone.
A wheezing, high-pitched noise drifted over on the breeze. He recognized the characteristic notes of a gourd pipe, or pungi. Hoping this was Bhejit’s snake-charmer, he followed the droning music to the base of a knoll shaded by tall tea trees. There, a shriveled man squatted in the dirt, playing his double-necked pipe. Coiled next to his toes lay a hooded cobra.
Unlike street performances Senjam had witnessed, the charmer did not wave his pungi from side to side as he blew. Neither did the cobra sway. With eyes fixed on the old man, its only movement was an occasional flicking of the tongue. As Senjam watched, the charmer’s left hand blurred out and seized the snake behind the head. He thrust the creature into a wicker basket and placed a lid over it, all the while continuing to play with his other hand.
“Impressive,” Senjam said, when the music had ceased. “What do you do with them after they’re caught?”
The charmer’s lips twitched back in a toothless smile. He wore only a turban and ragged breechclout. “When I’ve gathered enough of the little brothers, I release them far over there—” He gestured with his skinny brown arm, “—and tell them never to return.”
“You talk with snakes?”
“If they’re in a mood to listen.”
Someone cleared their throat nearby. Senjam had not seen the woman sitting with her back against a stump; his attention must have been focused solely on the charmer. She was the Brahmin he’d glimpsed from the night before, dressed in a silk shawl despite the heat. Taut across her eyes stretched a blindfold made of like material.
“The Pavandra Texts make mention of those who can commune with animals,” she said in a flat voice. “It’s a mark of spiritual advancement.”
“I did not mean to offend, Lady....”
“My name is Rhadma Cholee.”
“I’m called Senjam, if it pleases you. I’m a merchant, traveling from—”
“I’m sure you are.” She swayed to her feet, reaching out to seize a cane of polished rattan leaning against a trunk. With brisk, sideways-sweeping movements, she tapped her way along the path leading back to the plantation.
“A proud woman,” the charmer said, after she had paced a fair distance.
“What was she doing here?”
“She told me she liked the music of the pungi.” The charmer rose on stiff legs. “If it’s not too much to ask, do you have something to eat? I’ve not had my rice this morning.”
“Ah. . .” Senjam fumbled through his clothing and offered a fennel bulb he’d intended for lunch. The charmer swallowed it whole without any pretense of chewing. A slight bulge slid down his wrinkled throat.
“Many thanks.” He balanced the wicker basket atop one shoulder. “Now to find the rest of my errant little brothers.”
“A moment. In your travels, have you ever heard of a snake called the Gopti Serpent?”
“The Gopti, eh? A rarity, if I remember correctly.”
“Could you show me where to find them? I can pay you.”
“‘Them?’” The charmer shook his wizened head. “There is only one Gopti Serpent.”
Senjam managed to keep his own features blank, though inside he fought confusion. Had the Grandfathers sent him to look for some mythological beast? A legend?
“It’s none of my affair,” the charmer went on, “but why would a Vaishya merchant be interested in such a thing?”
“Just a curiosity of mine. Nothing more.”
“I see.” The charmer slid the pipe into his breechclout, tight against slat ribs.
“Will you not help me?” If he had to, Senjam could force information from the man. He knew hundreds of ways to induce compliance, through pain and fear, though it was not in his nature to practice such arts on the elderly.
“You did show me a kindness, just now,” the charmer said. “When I’ve finished with my work, we can discuss the matter further. Look for me after Shuryu has driven his chariot beyond the rim of the world.”
“How will I find you?”
The charmer gestured at his gourd pipe. “Use your ears.”
Over a dinner of saffron-tinged rice, Senjam asked his host about the Lady Cholee.
“She came here on pilgrimage, she told me. There’s supposed to be an ancient shrine atop Mount Muhundyana, somewhere.”
“Where is her entourage?”
“She said they’re still several days behind, on the road.”
Senjam set aside his bowl. “She arrived alone? A blind woman of high caste traveling the countryside?”
“I thought it extraordinary as well. The poor creature. You see why I couldn’t refuse her my hospitality.”
Senjam excused himself and went looking for Rhadma. He searched through the outbuildings, then the Shudra’s quarters. No trace. The woman’s arrival, he thought grimly, was far too ‘extraordinary’ to be coincidence. Likely she was another agent of the Raj. Her sightlessness could be an asset; it provided a ready excuse to wander anywhere, her ears pricked. Assuming she truly was blind.
He gave up his search as the sun descended. Remembering the old charmer’s invitation, he slipped back to his room and took a punch-dagger, or katar, from its hiding place beneath the pallet. Whatever other dangers were waiting among the darkened fields, having the dagger snug beneath his sash brought a measure of comfort.
The moon had tracked a quarter-length across the night sky when he again heard the discordant notes of the pungi. His wanderings had taken him to the very edge of the plantation, where a wall of wild banyan trees stood like a dark barrier, alive with whirring cicadas. The pipe-music was coming from somewhere beyond the trees. After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped into the foliage. The pungi’s notes grew louder as he pushed his way through. Gnarled banyans yielded to the spreading blooms of sacred ashoka trees, which in turn thinned to form a small clearing. Here he halted, his senses in revolt at what he saw.
The old charmer sat cross-legged in the clearing’s center, surrounded by at least a dozen prostrate Shudra workers. They wriggled against the dirt and each other as he played his pipe, emulating entwined serpents. Senjam’s vision blurred for a moment; when it cleared, the branches of the ashoka now dripped with sinuous, dark-banded snakes, so thick the trees appeared to be swaying. He let out a gasp and leapt backwards, his hand reaching for the hilt of the katar. Not two feet in front of him a serpent came undulating down a branch, to rear up and bare fangs.
Senjam’s vision blurred again, before the hissing creature could strike. The serpent vanished, and the limbs of the ashoka were empty as before.
A trick of the moonlight, his mind warned. That’s all it was.
But something bright glimmered out of the darkness. His trained hand acted on its own accord, drawing the dagger from his sash and deflecting the object with a shower of sparks. It lodged in a nearby tree; the sharp-edged ring of a chakram.
“The Grandfathers sent you,” said a familiar voice.
Rhadma Cholee stepped from the shadows of a giant banyan. Her left hand twirled a second chakram, ready to fling. Given the accuracy of her throw, he would’ve judged she had been feigning her blindness. But the silk ribbon was still tight across her eyes. How...? Then he saw the ochre-painted bindi on her forehead, and understood. She could sense him using her third eye, just as he had sensed the two thuggee the night before.
“I know who you are, Senjam Singh. I know why you’re here, though I doubt if you truly understand, yourself.”
Senjam gauged the distance between them. Not quite close enough to leap and stab, but if he could keep her talking.... “You’re with the Raj, I surmise.”
“I have that honor.”
“There’s precious little honor in what we do, woman.” He edged closer; she glided back just as smoothly.
“Did they tell you why they want the venom of the Gopti Serpent?” she asked. “Did they tell you what it does?”
He lowered the katar by a finger’s breadth. “Are you trying to spin words around me?”
“I thought you might want to know what you’re about to lose your life for.”
“This is no ordinary venom we seek. The Gopti’s poison is so virulent, it travels across the invisible threads linking blood relations. Poison an uncle and his nephews die, as do his siblings, his mother, his father. Whole lineages are wiped out. Do you understand the implications?”
Senjam shook his head. “If such a poison existed, which it does not... the Grandfathers could kill the Raj, and all his potential heirs, by striking at a less-protected member of the family.”
“You do understand.”
He’d crept forward half a pace, and this time she did not move back. One more step would put him within striking distance. But he hesitated. “The Raj wants the venom as well. Does that make him less monstrous than the Grandfathers?”
“He wants it for protection. Out of the hands of people like your masters.”
Senjam laughed, marveling at her naiveté. “More likely, he would use it to slay the royal families of rival kingdoms. Or his enemies in court.”
Her lips drew back, as if in defiance of the idea. But she twirled the chakram slower than before.
“Enough!” The old charmer’s voice rattled off the ashoka branches. He stalked into the space between them, arms outstretched. “There is no bloodshed in this sacred place. As you both came seeking the Gopti Serpent, I will show you to Him. But draw no blood in His presence, unless you would like to sample the venom you speak of so covetously.”
Senjam glanced behind the charmer into the clearing; his congregation of Shudra had dispersed. “I’ll put my weapon aside if she does hers,” he said.
“Agreed.” Rhadma made the chakram disappear between the folds of her clothing. Senjam did likewise with his katar, and together they followed the charmer across the clearing.
“Quiet, on your lives,” he said, “and show the utmost respect.” He drew aside branches to indicate an ancient banyan. Senjam saw only shadowed outlines at first. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the dimness, and fear iced the back of his neck. A fat cobra curled around the banyan’s trunk, easily as long as two tall men. But it wasn’t the serpent’s size that made Senjam doubt his perceptions. The Gopti’s sinuous neck split off like the branches of a tree to accommodate five separate heads, all with hoods flared.
How, in the Nineteen Hells, was he supposed to harvest venom from such a creature?
He took a tentative step forward, just as the tip of Rhadma’s cane appeared between his feet and wrenched with sudden force. He stumbled. Rattan smacked the top of his head, so hard it brought scarlet flashes of pain.
“I promised no bloodshed,” Rhadma said. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t strike you.”
She shifted and struck again, her curled toes slamming beneath his chin, knocking him backwards. As he tried to rise, she came hurtling down on his chest with all her weight, pinning him beneath two slender knees. His head lolled forward; she bent and brushed her lips against his own. For the briefest moment he felt her tongue slide between his teeth, then retreat.
Too late, he realized the significance. Searing fire spread across his throat. He rolled to one side and spat, trying to clear his mouth of all saliva.
“Vish Kanya,” he choked. “Poison woman.”
There was no pleasure in Rhadma’s cold smile as she pushed herself off and regained her feet.
Senjam had heard legends during his training with the Grandfathers; stories of girls selected at youth to ingest ever-greater quantities of poison. Those who survived into womanhood were able to slay with their own bodily fluids. A century before, the Raj of Thanjavir had been killed by one of his concubines in this way.
Now Rhadma’s poison was clawing through his veins, seeking to still his heart. But he, too, had been taking doses of toxins over the years, with the intention of building an immunity. The crimson powder he sipped with his evening tea mixed several of the deadliest types. He forced his mind to calm and let his body’s acquired defenses take over. At the same time, he thrashed and coughed as if near death. Rhadma paid little notice. She stood poised before the Gopti Serpent, her head cocked to one side as if contemplating how to best obtain the venom.
Another few heartbeats and he felt his pain lessening. Yes, the counter-toxins were doing their work.
He crept closer to where Rhadma stood, taking advantage of her attention on the serpent. He kicked from his prone position, sweeping Rhadma’s ankles out beneath her. He pounced as she fell, his limbs still feverish with poison, and managed to slide an arm around her wiry neck. She wriggled and tried to bite his forearm, but he simply increased the pressure against her throat. No amount of esoteric training could circumvent the need for air.
After several long moments she went limp beneath him. He maintained the hold until he felt satisfied her unconsciousness was genuine, then drew the katar and cut several strips from her sarong. These he used to bind her, using a series of intricate knots as proof against the double-jointed.
“You’re sparing her life?” the charmer said, watching with raised eyebrows.
“I intend to question her later.” Senjam again regarded the Gopti Serpent. He still faced the quandary of extracting venom from a five-headed snake. Killing it seemed like the safest option, though such an act would likely enrage the charmer. He started to reach under his sash for his own chakram... and stopped. The serpent held the same position as from before, motionless, not even flicking its various tongues. And there was something odd about the sheen of its scales in the moonlight. Too flat.
On impulse, he reached out to touch a coil. Wooden. He started with the realization: the monstrous serpent had been carved from the banyan’s exposed roots.
Behind him came soft laughter.
“Deception breeds deception,” said the charmer’s voice. Something in his timbre had changed, and Senjam felt a sudden loathing to turn around. “Look at me, oh Taker of Lives.” There was compulsion in that voice. Senjam’s head turned as if forced by invisible pressure. A humble brown snake lay coiled where the charmer had stood.
“Neither you, nor the woman are worthy of my venom,” the snake said. “It was intended to kill gods and asuras, not to be used in the petty squabbles of humanity. Still, you have both impressed me with your qualities, which are akin to my own brethren. For this reason I will spare your intrusion. Now observe.”
The snake spread its hood as it raised up from the ground. Senjam felt a falling sensation in his stomach as the serpent kept rising, looming over him in an eye-blink, then towering above the ashoka grove. Now it appeared to dwarf Mount Muhundyana itself. Calm ophidian eyes, larger than the moon, gazed down at him with serene patience. The distance from one end of its flared hood to the other seemed to encompass all Creation.
Senjam, no longer able to doubt the reality of his own senses, gazed back. He did not feel small in relation to the snake, or to the universe itself.
He felt part of it.
When he woke, it was with the dull ache of Rhadma’s poison still in his joints. Sunlight flickered down through the banyan leaves, making a pattern of crescent-shaped shadows on the forest floor. There was no disorientation, no momentary panic as he recalled the events of the previous night, though he could not remember falling asleep.
How long had it been since he slept like that? So deep and dreamless, without startling awake at the faintest sound?
He rose, muscles pleasantly stiff, and wiped warm dew from his neck and shoulders. Rhadma lay half-trussed a short distance away, engaged in the act of chewing through her bindings with nimble teeth. She stopped when she heard him draw close. Behind her, the carving of the five-headed serpent kept its quiet vigil.
“If you’re going to kill me,” she said, “do it now. You’ll find torture a waste of effort.”
“I’m not going to kill you.” Senjam drew the katar and cut away the rest of her bindings.
She did not spring to attack. “You’re setting me free?”
“The snake-charmer said we were unworthy of the Gopti Serpent’s venom. He’s gone, and I doubt if we’ll see him again.”
“But....” Rhadma scrambled over to the carving. After a moment’s hesitation her hands reached out and touched the wooden scales. “I thought something seemed wrong. I could sense no movement; only the spirit of an old tree.”
“A trick. The charmer was testing us.”
The painted skin of her brow furrowed. “Perhaps you’re trying to trick me now. Perhaps you’ve already obtained the venom and left me alive so that I’ll return to the Raj and tell him all is safe.”
“Believe what you want.” Senjam turned his back to her and began walking from the grove. He felt the stab of old fears, knowing any moment she might decide to hurl a chakram into his spine. But subterfuge suddenly started to weary him. And worldly concerns seemed smaller against the grandeur of the mist-shrouded morning. Strange, that he could have come to this beautiful place and not truly seen any of it.
“Where are you going?” she called.
“Not back to the Grandfathers. Failure equates to only one thing with them. I suspect it is the same among agents of the Raj.”
“But can you forget all your obligations? Your years of training?”
He stopped. She couldn’t see the modest smile he knew was on his face, but perhaps she could hear it in his voice. “The old charmer showed me the larger scheme of things. I came here seeking poison, but instead I have found....”
“Enlightenment, I think. I will contemplate further.”
His feet began walking again, away from the banyan forest, the plantation, following an unseen path towards the white peaks of Muhundyana.