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‘I serve the throne,’ said Prime Minister Chitragandan. He meant that in a literal sense. The prime minister had served the previous king, Pari’s father, and the prince regent, Pari’s uncle, and now he served Pari.

Chitragandan always wore a white wraparound held up by a silver waist belt. An elaborate diamond studded silver necklace and a garland of lotus and jasmine hid his bare body and faded muscles. His white attire complemented his silver hair and beard. He looked like a sage. He did not relish visiting the morgue for he deemed the place unclean; a place that drew wandering demons of the undead; and spirits of the nether worlds. But as Pari had summoned him, the poor fellow swallowed his misgivings and visited the graveyard clan. That was the man, he would do anything for the throne but his loyalty did not stop him from voicing his opinion in matters of state.

The smell of pungent herbs and scented-joss smoke filled the passageway and reached us long before we stood before the door leading into the cheerless chamber. We entered the cold stone walled room in the mortuary. Even in the day, the small windows high on the wall let in little light and kept the place in perpetual gloom. A shaft of dull light sliced from one window to the floor. Dust and lint danced in the light.

The slain brigand, drained of body fluids and grown smaller than the well-built people of his clan, lay naked on the stone slab. The man had suffered a horrendous gash to his throat, inflicted by a sword that had robbed him of his life. Oils and herbal plants had arrested decomposition but faint whiffs of putrefaction reached my nose. Or perhaps I imagined it.

‘He is not a Kalavar, my king,’ said sagacious Jaga-Puthirar. His waist cloth a cotton fabric, the skeletal man also had a thin shawl, cut from the same cloth, thrown over one bony shoulder. It was the only piece of attire that distinguished him from his rough assistants. He said,

‘See this. The balls of his feet are round, as one used to wearing footwear. He is a soldier.’

The royal physician was right. The peoples of the desert regions, and most labouring classes even in the towns, went about in their bare feet. Over the years their soles flattened, spread and formed a thick fleshy skirt that fringed the feet.

‘The markings look Kalavar,’ said Pari. He referred to the tattoos on the man’s torso, arms, and face. ‘His left ear is missing. An old wound.’

‘Yes, and the stitches are the work of one trained in surgery. This is no desert remedy. And he has disguised himself to look Kallan,’ said Jaga-Puthirar. He gestured to an assistant who fetched a lighted oil lamp. The royal physician held the wavering light a hand’s width above the body. He pointed as he spoke.

‘The pictograms are Kallan. The ink, dyed in rock dust. Not herbal based. But the tattoos are fresh, only a few months old. From his teeth and muscle compactness, this man is about thirty-five years of age.’

‘If not Kalavar, could he be one of us, a Velir?’ said Prime Minister Chitragandan.

‘It is possible,’ said the man of medicine.

Is he Cholan?’ I said. The room went silent. I had spoken the unmentionable; the dreaded thought in Pari’s and the prime minister’s mind.

‘I cannot say with conviction, Guru Kabilar,’ said the royal physician. ‘This man could be a Velir or a Cholan, but he is no Kallan.’

‘Thank you, Sir Jaga-Puthirar. Whether Velir or Cholan, the truth regarding the man’s identity will remain a state secret. The perpetrators wish for us to suspect the Kalavars, and your report to the Council shall state that the ambushers were Kalavar.’

‘As you wish, my king,’ said the royal physician.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued Monday 26 August 2019