The Vishakanya’s Choice by Roshani Chokshi
Published 8/25/2015 | 4,162 Words
“Did we have a choice? An honest one. A real Choice.”
Who would you be if you had a choice? What would you do?
Early in her life, Sudha’s fate was divined to be a lonely, fruitless future of young widowhood. So, it was considered a blessing when she was brought to the Hastinapur harem to become a vishakanya–a weapon, an assassin, a poison maiden whose very touch is toxic.
Sudha has never had a choice, has never known anything except the cold beauty of the harem’s stone walls.
After years of living in isolation with her vishakanya sisters, Sudha is given her first mission: to end the life of a great man. Someone who, unlike her, leads a life full of glittering Choices fit for an emperor.
In their fateful encounter, a vishakanya meets a conqueror and a weapon creates a legend.
“Do you have an assignment today?” Sudha swallowed nervously.
Urvashi shook her head, “No. Today, I wear red in honor of your virgin kill.”
There was no blood on her hands, but Sudha’s mind wasn’t convinced. Unless they were on assignment, all vishakanyas wore white. But today, Urvashi wore an oxblood lehnga and a choker of rubies sat at the hollow of her throat.
Sudha shuddered. “Do you have to call it that?”
“You should be proud,” said Urvashi, gliding across the moonlit room to stroke Sudha’s hair. “There are so many girls with bad fortune who never had this choice.”
Sudha bit her lip. She remembered the day the village soothsayer entered her father’s shop and deciphered the vague language of her stars. They said her fate was nothing but young widowhood. They called it a blessing when they brought her to the Hastinapur Harem, told her she’d avoided a terrible fate and fed her enough poison to make her touch toxic.
“Did we have a choice? An honest one. A real Choice.”
The smile slipped off Urvashi’s face.
“Sudha, our horoscopes were all the same—widowed early, no children, no prospects. Would anyone choose that? Don’t be flippant. The kind of Choice you’re talking about belongs only to kings.”
Sudha shrugged. Maybe her husband would’ve been a kind man with a warm touch. Maybe he would’ve fed her salty corn and rose lassi instead of poisoned bread and toxic treacle. Maybe she would’ve accepted the consequences of widowhood— forced invisibility, windows shut tight to her shadow, a lifetime of isolation—just to know what it meant to live.
Urvashi bound her in red silk and Sudha grimaced when she caught her reflection. Red magnified her bones, widened her girth, flecked her skin with garnets, and swelled her with bloodlust. It made her look demonic, not beautiful.
“When you get there, the red sari will guide you to the assignment. And when you’ve finished, the red sari will take you back to us.”
“How do you know they won’t kill me on the spot for showing up?”
Urvashi looked shocked. “Do you think I’d send you to your death?”
Sudha said nothing.
“You are a peace offering in disguise,” said Urvashi. “They are expecting you. Other conquered countries have also sent their courtesans as tributes. It has all been arranged.”
Sudha nodded, resigned. Already she felt the silk jostling against her, as though it was anxious to get on with the assignment. Together they walked into the courtyard. Concentric circles of clay diyas gleamed around them like a thousand luminous eyes. Like everything in the Hastinapur Harem, the courtyard abided the Rule; no breathing creature broke its microcosm of uncut rubies and stoic marble. From the first time Sudha stepped foot inside its walls, the sisters pressed the Rule in the hollow of her mouth and lay the poison treacle on the grainy papillae of her tongue.
“Swallow it, remember it,” they said.
Riddles started as a distraction. The first time she ate poison, she thought the world had pinched and convulsed around her. The sisters knew they could give her no sweet treat or cool water to relieve the pain. So they fed her a riddle.
“Kings won’t see it, but perhaps it is there. The heavens will never know it, for no one goes there. What is it?”
Sudha choked on the poison. Her eyes burned. Nausea coiled in her gut. But her mind worked fiendishly, distractingly. When she looked into the grinning faces of her sisters, she said her answer around a mouthful of bitterness:
Her first taste of the Rule came a year later. She had spent the day sitting by the fountain when a stray kitten appeared beside her. It should have been a harmless caress. All she wanted was to feel the silky underside of its tummy, but the moment she did—it was dead.
Her scream bounced off the Harem’s stone walls, summoning the sisters who covered her, sheathed her, licked the tears from her jaw and spat them into her hair.
“Don’t waste the poison,” said Rupa, forcing her tears back down her throat.
“If you want to kiss something, kiss us,” said Tara, brushing her lips across her temples.
“If you want to hold something, hold us,” said Veena, bringing Sudha’s head to her bosom.
“But never touch a living thing,” said Ashini, slapping her face.
“Not until your time has come,” said Urvashi, pushing a burning coal, plucked from thin air, into her palms.
Sudha kicked against their ministrations, her eyes wide. “Are we not living things?”
Urvashi shook her head as she sucked her burned finger. “We’re weapons. We can’t afford to live.”
That was the first and last day Sudha forgot the Rule. It was the last day of her life as a girl and the first day of her consummate life as a weapon. Like any other weapon, deployment depended on the kingdom. The Kalinga kingdom hoarded their weapons, letting them rust and rest. The Odra kingdom hid their weapons beneath the floors, letting them listen and lurk. But the Hastinapur kingdom cultivated their armaments with silk and song.
Every day the sisters fed her poison. The only thing that changed was the riddles. Even when she became accustomed to the taste, even when she did not need the distraction, she played with the riddles.
To her, they were like mirrors tilted to refract the light and seek out hidden corners. A different way of seeing. Sometimes when Sudha looked in the mirror, she saw a girl on the cusp of a murderess. But perhaps if she tilted her head, flipping the image in her mind like the words of a riddle, she could transform too.
Kneeling by her feet, Urvashi dipped Sudha’s toes in henna and drew whorls of mango blossoms, trellises of jasmine and intricate paisleys along her calves. Sudha shivered from the mehndi’s cold touch, but she never spoke a word.
“Dance like an apsara. Mesmerize him with the rhythm of his own blood,” whispered Ashini.
“Sing as though you’re summoning the heavens: silver your voice and bare your throat,” commanded Veena.
“Speak sparingly,” warned Urvashi. “The longer you talk, the harder it will be.”
“When you speak, be witty,” added Rupa. “And never arouse his emotion, only his—”
“—enough!” hissed Urvashi.
The sari guided Sudha’s footsteps, tugging her out of the Hastinapur Harem and into the damp jungle. From the corner of her eye, an inky panther slid into the embrace of a banyan tree. Pearlescent moths fluttered past her, drawn to the torches her sisters held high above their heads. Sudha’s chest tightened. She wanted to sink her elbows into the ground, feel its slick microcosms. She wanted the rough roots to blur the henna, rob her limbs of their ornaments, strip the incense from her skin. But she stood still and watched her sisters throw fiery torches into the river, summoning the makara.
In the past, Sudha had never stepped outside to bid her sisters farewell, so all she ever saw of the makara was a silver silhouette in the water. She knew it was a monster of metal, impervious to the vishakanya’s touch, and the only transportation they could use without revealing their nature. Now, to see the creature up close, it felt alien and dangerous. Two luminous eyes broke the water’s surface and out trundled the makara, its silvery back shining like corrugated metal.
“Another assignment?” it said, eyeing them. “Your Emperor is bloodthirsty these days.”
Without a word, Sudha boarded the makara’s back. The makara rolled its lantern eyes, and water frothed around its nostrils. As Sudha watched her sisters glittering on the banks, she curled her toes.
The makara wiggled beneath her. “You’re trembling, vishakanya.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“A poison maiden? But that’s what you are.”
A school of silver fish swam past them and before she could wonder where they were headed, the makara guzzled them. She shivered and rubbed her arms. Even now, she could feel the fish’s desperate flapping through the makara’s skin. They were drowning, all their silver scales dissolving into opalescent gastric juice. Her stomach flipped. Was that how all prey felt?
“You picked a bad trade to have a conscience,” said the makara.
Sudha steeled her nerves. “I don’t have a conscience.”
“Yes, you do. Silly girl. Silly choice.”
“I never had one,” Sudha said tightly.
As if in response, the red sari constricted. Her hand flew to her stomach as she sucked in a deep breath, challenging the scarlet. She held onto the breath until she felt lightheaded, until she felt the threads panicking and unraveling. This was her breath and no one could take it. But perhaps she’d gone too far. Within seconds, the red gathered into a knot, pummeling against her stomach and releasing her lungs.
Up ahead, the river converged at an ivory port strewn with golden marigolds, pink carnations and wreathes of jasmine. Unlike the stony beauty of the Hastinapur Harem bedecked in cold gemstones and silks, the city before her seemed burgeoning with all living things.
“I hope those slippers are thick. A trail of withered flowers is rather obvious. I’ll be here when your deed is done, vishakanya,” it said, flipping onto its back and floating in the water.
She pulled the crimson veil over her face. “My name is Sudha.”
Double-checking for holes in her slippers, Sudha slipped into the crowd. Past the port, glittering amber tents sprawled across the valley. Silver reflection pools filled with ambrosia and wine dotted the shores of the river, while tables piled high with savory dal, crispy paratha and creamy kir lay near a group of musicians. The city was celebrating the victories of a man who would soon be dead. Sudha walked past the feast, her eyes demurely fixed on the ground.
Beside her, an emerald seahorse whinnied into the neck of a buxom apsara. Across from them, a host of gandharvas played the lute, and the horned asuras swayed in dance. Sudha wanted to stay and hear the music, but already the sari was pulling her past the crowds and into an amber tent. Any attempt she made to dig her heels into the ground was immediately rewarded by a constricting sensation. In the back of her mind, she heard Urvashi scolding her. Before her was a glorious opportunity to bring honor to the Hastinapur Kingdom and fully embrace her sisters’ legacy. But Sudha bristled and dug her nails into her arms. Just a moment longer amongst the trees. One more second of music. Of life.
The moment she fulfilled her assignment, the damp walls of the Hastinapur Harem would swallow, quarantine and hide her. When she grew old within its marble courtyard, when her veins stooped under the weight of poison, what then? Would they give her a poison her body couldn’t metabolize? What memories would she tuck under her tongue other than a snatch of light, a half-chorus of music and the smell of the jungle?
The sari didn’t care for her reflections. It yanked her along, pulling her through the opening of an amber tent so quickly she could only glimpse the name in a blur:
Tributes to the Emperor Alexander.
When she emerged on the other side, her skin crawled. Alexander was not a handsome man. His skin was extremely pale. Only the broken blood vessels along his nose and knuckles broke the expanse of greying skin. He sat on a throne of bleached bones, a conquered soldier’s helmet beneath each foot and under each arm. Above him, a thousand ribcages bolstered the tent, dampening the silk and staining it with marrow.
Sudha wanted to leave this hollow tent, but the sari immobilized her and her arms stiffened. The other tributes queued in front of Alexander’s throne, forming a bizarre menagerie. There was a man covered head-to-toe in gold, a man with coins along his spine and a man wrapped in thorns. There were feathers of metal, diadems of glass and outfits of flowers. There were people impossibly tall, impossibly short and impossibly average. And then there was Sudha.
Alexander braced his elbows on his knees, surveying them.
“Today, I celebrate the win of yet another war campaign. And because nothing staves off boredom like company, I intend to choose one from among you,” he said.
Alexander’s voice was worn and weighed. He rose, pushing on his waxen knees as he surveyed them.
“I could filter you out by beauty or age or color, but I don’t care for that. You see, after my wound was infected,” he drew aside his tunic, revealing a curdled stretch of skin the color of an eggplant, “I don’t have much time left anyway. And perhaps it is my impending mortality or my own boredom that made me realize that only the mind can give me pleasure. All else pales, withers or rots.”
The scribe-beetle nodded beside him, clicked its pincers and scribbled something on a leaf. As Alexander walked toward the line, elation swelled through Sudha and she tugged at her sari. If Alexander was going to die anyway, why did she need to be here? Sudha grit her teeth and tried to fall forward or back, but the silk held fast, binding her to the spot. It would not accept terminal infection as completion of the assignment.
Alexander stood in front of the gold-painted man, “Tell me, what is my worth?”
The gold-painted man balked, “Sire?”
Alexander leaned in, his hawkish nose bumping against the man’s. “What-is-my-worth?” When he drew away, the man’s paint had smudged.
Rivulets of sweat stripped away the gold man’s paint, revealing kaleidoscopic skin that shimmered and glittered.
“All the gold in the world?”
Alexander shrugged, “Boring.”
He pushed the man away and wiped his hands on the front of his tunic. Next, he came to the man with coins along his back.
“What’s my worth?”
“You are worth your weight in salt, your majesty.”
Alexander snorted. “Boring.”
He moved to the man in thorns. “What do you think?”
“You’re worth your weight in a man’s blood, sire.”
Alexander swiped the sternum of the man wrapped in thorns, piercing his flesh. A weird smile slipped onto his face as he leaned forward and sucked the man’s broken skin. For a moment, Sudha thought she was saved, but then Alexander backed away, “I have seen all the blood in a man and it weighs far less than me.”
Her heart fell as he walked towards her.
“What is my worth?”
Sudha stopped struggling against the sari and squared her shoulders. She did not want to answer him, but the question intrigued her. In the Hastinapur Harem, riddles were her only solace. She thought about the revelers outside the tent, the bones along the walls and the patient regard in his eyes. She thought about his military campaigns, conquests and inevitable end. She knew the answer, but didn’t want to say it. She tried something obviously wrong, like “light” or “happiness.” But the sari wouldn’t let her.
“Well?” pressed Alexander.
She fought the sari as long as she could, but in the end—
“Legends,” she gulped, her voice barely above a whisper.
Sudha swallowed. “Legends. You’re worth your weight in legends.”
Alexander grinned and he clapped his hands together. “I shall interview this one personally.”
The beetle nodded, clicked its pincers and dismissed the room. Alexander leaned against his throne and rubbed his distended stomach.
“What is, my lord?”
“No need to bother with the formalities of title. But what do I call you? Do toxins even have names?”
Sudha’s head snapped up. He knew what she was. Her heart fluttered.
“Monkshood, hellebore and oleander beg to differ,” she said. “Sudha also disagrees with you.”
Alexander laughed. “Very interesting.”
Her gaze darted around the room. Any minute now, someone would barrel through the room and kill her. An assassin had no place in an Emperor’s company.
“No one will harm you,” said Alexander, following her gaze. “In fact, I believe your Emperor and I want the same thing.”
Alexander cleared his throat, kneading the heels of his palms into his sunken eyes.
“I’m very tired. But I want more than rest,” he said, peering at her from the lattice of his fingers. “You see, I am already a legend. Already, they call me Alexander the Great. I lived unlike any man, and I shall die unlike any man.”
He yawned, and Sudha stared at him. Alexander’s body seemed engorged with other people’s blood, and he pooled out of his throne of bones like thinned milk. Life clung to him in wisps.
“I was planning on framing my companion of the evening. Everybody likes a good murder,” he said with a shrug, “but this is a much better option.”
Sudha clenched her fingers. Even now, she was just a weapon. The only difference was that her task had switched allegiance. She walked in a circle around the tent, toeing its amber edges and stroking its fractured femurs and metatarsals. With each stroke, Alexander shivered. He had absorbed his conquests and sat at their core. Finally, she glanced up and what she saw rooted her to the spot.
All around Alexander, glowing Choices lined his walls. They were signs of his importance, a currency of power. They were bottled and distilled, shimmering or inky, reflecting all that he could do: a Choice for decisions, a Choice for food, a Choice for listening. Sudha’s heart constricted in envy.
“I will not last through the night,” he said, wheezing.
Her eyes widened and a smile slipped onto her face. All she had to do was wait him out. She would never need to touch him, never need to kill.
“Then I’m not needed,” she said, speaking more to the sari than to Alexander.
“But you make all the difference.”
Alexander gave a brittle laugh. “When this disease has its way, my bowels will spill out and stain this throne black and red with my own shit. I’ll wear a death mask of constipation. Hardly fitting for a legendary conqueror. Dying in a puddle of his own shit.” He paused and stared at Sudha. “But if you would only kiss me once, my death would be different. It would have dignity. I would be frozen the way I am now. Alas, still ugly as shit, but at least not covered in it. So, poison-girl, you shall make me into myth and fuse me into legend.”
If she did nothing, the Emperor of Hastinapur could celebrate his enemy’s humiliating end. If she did something, Alexander could celebrate a death with dignity. And Sudha? No matter what she did, she had no option but to return to the Hastinapur Harem, her poison intact, her sari unbroken and her deadliness tested. But what about a Choice? A real one, not the kind watered down to a word. But a glittering Choice, the kind you could hold in your hand, the kind you could taste, the kind that could free you. The kind that lined the walls of Alexander’s grand tent.
“What will you give me in return?”
Alexander laughed and the silk tent trembled. “A murderess that makes bargains? I didn’t count on that.”
“My-name-is-Sudha,” she bit out, her eyes narrowing to slits.
At once, Alexander stopped laughing. He braced his elbows on his knees, his chin resting on his wasted wrists.
“Vishakanyas don’t have names.”
“Then what do you want?” he said, raising his arms. Sagging pearly skin stretched far beyond his elbows, exposing the indigo seams of his life. “Shall I make you my wife with my dying breath? Bequeath you an empire? Give you your weight in gold?”
Sudha did not want to belong to him. She did not want to govern an empire. She did not want riches. Even now, the red sari was compressing her, pulling her towards Alexander. And in that moment, Sudha knew what she wanted.
“I want a Choice,” said Sudha in a clear voice.
The amber tent shrank, as though its shoulders had fallen or its bones felt sympathy for her. Alexander considered her.
“My mother was like that too,” he said fondly. “Full of bite. She always wanted things out of her reach.”
“Why shouldn’t she?” countered Sudha. “You have so many Choices, you could spare some.”
Alexander steepled his fingers. His gaze fell on his wound.
“I did not deny you.”
Sudha tried, and failed, to steady the frantic thump of her heart. Was he considering giving one to her?
“Perhaps these—” he combed his fingers through his hair, withdrawing something glimmering and pulsing, “—cannot be bought. Perhaps Choices,” he gestured at the glittering gift in his hand, “spring up when history makes way for them. Perhaps they will grow, like legends upon dead conquerors.”
He laughed, the glowing Choice illuminating his face . “I have many, but this one is most precious. It is from my—” he stopped, swallowing his sentence, “—from a friend. He…well. We had a thousand Choices between us. But not the one we wanted.”
“And I may have it?” asked Sudha.
“It is yours in return for your services,” said Alexander heavily.
He clambered off his throne until he was kneeling before her. He bowed his head, revealing the alabaster flesh of his neck and cupped his palms, extending them to her in an invisible oblation.
“Dear Sudha, will you make me into myth? Will you fuse me into legend?”
Sudha took a deep breath, staring at his hands. It angered her that something so precious could be given away so easily.
For a moment, she didn’t hear the revels. Before her was a universe, an irreversible moment of before and after. What would become of her if she took the Choice? The thought left her weightless. But what would happen if she didn’t take it? That, she knew with perfect clarity: nothing. A life of stone and poison.
She reached out, fingers trembling as she stole the Choice from his palm. “Yes,” she whispered, and kissed him.
She watched his last smile ossify before pulling him onto his throne. She arranged his hands across his lap, straightened his tunic and smoothed his thin hair. She considered snatching the Choices from the walls, but in the end chose not to. The one in her hands was the one she had earned. Anything else would have been false.
Sudha stole out of the tent. Creeping past the ivory port, the emerald hippocampus and the voluptuous apsaras, she stood on the shore of the river, her hands cupped tightly around the Choice.
The makara swam into view, blinking its luminous eyes.
“Time to go back already? That was fast.”
“I’m not going back,” she breathed.
It laughed before coughing up half a fish spine.
“Silly girl, you don’t have a choice.”
“I do now,” whispered Sudha.
The makara slid onto the banks, tilting its head and staring at her cupped hands. “What’ve you got there? Is it edible? I ate all the river fish.”
“It’s a Choice.”
The makara blinked at her. “A real one?”
Sudha took off her slippers and toed the grass. Immediately, the ground became a black and acrid halo. She took one look at the charred ground before popping the Choice in her mouth. It lolled fatly on her tongue before she swallowed—honeysuckle, pomegranate and pear.
Instantly, something in the pith of red fought in a paroxysm of confusion. She could feel it extinguishing against her, lifting off her skin, plumping her cheeks, narrowing her girth and softening the unsettling black of her hair. When she touched the sari, it felt dull and inanimate beneath her fingers. She didn’t feel it pulse against her, beckoning her home. It was just an ordinary skein of silk.
The makara inhaled sharply. “You took it.” His eyes widened. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Accept it,” she said with a grin.
She sucked in her breath, staring at the blackened halo around her. It was like the time she first understood the Rule. The time when she stopped being a girl and became a weapon. If she stepped out of this ring, what then? She was too old to be a girl. Too independent to be a weapon. What would she be next? What would she do next? She could lift her arms and try to scrape a star off the sky. She could luxuriate in stillness and silence and silk. She could eat things other than poison—rose petal candies rolled in silver flakes, guavas with sunset flesh. She could taste what had long been denied—monsoon rain, the soft violet of evening air, or even…a kiss.
All that mattered was that it didn’t matter. Whatever she did, it would be her choice. Still holding her breath, Sudha walked out of the circle.
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