The crown grew heavier with each passing year. When the Venerable Bodhidharma Mahanayake Thero had – so reluctantly! – first placed it upon his head, Prince Kalidasa was surprised by its lightness. Now, twenty years later, King Kalidasa gladly relinquished the jewel-encrusted band of gold, whenever court etiquette allowed.
There was little of that here, upon the windswept summit of the rock fortress; few envoys or petitioners sought audience on its forbidding heights. Many of those who made the journey to Yakkagala turned back at the final ascent, through the very jaws of the crouching lion, that seemed always about to spring from the face of the rock. An old king could never sit upon this heaven-aspiring throne. One day, Kalidasa might be too feeble to reach his own palace. But he doubted if that day would ever come; his many enemies would spare him the humiliations of age.
These enemies were gathering now. He glanced towards the north, as if he could already see the armies of his half-brother, returning to claim the blood-stained throne of Taprobane. But that threat was still far off, across monsoon-riven seas; although Kalidasa put more trust in his spies than his astrologers, it was comforting to know that they agreed on this.
Malgara had waited almost twenty years, making his plans and gathering the support of foreign kings. A still more patient and subtle enemy lay much nearer at hand, forever watching from the southern sky. The perfect cone of Sri Kanda, the Sacred Mountain, looked very close today, as it towered above the central plain. Since the beginning of history, it had struck awe into the heart of every man who saw it. Always, Kalidasa was aware of its brooding presence, and of the power that it symbolised.
And yet the Mahanayake Thero had no armies, no screaming war elephants tossing brazen tusks as they charged into battle. The High Priest was only an old man in an orange robe, whose sole material possessions were a begging bowl and a palm leaf to shield him from the sun. While the lesser monks and acolytes chanted the scriptures around him, he merely sat in cross-legged silence – and somehow tampered with the destinies of kings. It was very strange…
The air was so clear today that Kalidasa could see the temple, dwarfed by distance to a tiny white arrowhead on the very summit of Sri Kanda. It did not look like any work of man, and it reminded the king of the still greater mountains he had glimpsed in his youth, when he had been half-guest, half-hostage at the court of Mahinda the Great. All the giants that guarded Mahinda's empire bore such Crests, formed of a dazzling, crystalline substance for which there was no word in the language of Taprobane. The Hindus believed that it was a kind of water, magically transformed, but Kalidasa laughed at such superstitions.
That ivory gleam was only three days' march away – one along the royal road, through forests and paddy-fields, two more up the winding stairway which he could never climb again, because at its end was the only enemy he feared, and could not conquer. Sometimes he envied the pilgrims, when he saw their torches marking a thin line of fire up the face of the mountain. The humblest beggar could greet that holy dawn and receive the blessings of the gods; the ruler of all this land could not.
But he had his consolations, if only for a little while. There, guarded by moat and rampart, lay the pools and fountains and Pleasure Gardens on which he had lavished the wealth of his kingdom. And when he was tired of these, there were the ladies of the rock-the ones of flesh and blood, whom he summoned less and less frequently-and the two hundred changeless immortals with whom he often shared his thoughts, because there were no others he could trust.
Thunder boomed along the western sky. Kalidasa turned away from the brooding menace of the mountain, towards the distant hope of rain. The monsoon was late this season; the artificial lakes that fed the island's complex irrigation system were almost empty. By this time of year he should have seen the glint of water in the mightiest of them al l– which, as he well knew, his subjects still dared to call by his father's name: Paravana Samudra, the Sea of Paravana. It had been completed only thirty years ago, after generations of toil. In happier days, young Prince Kalidasa had stood proudly beside his father, when the great sluice-gates were opened and the life-giving waters had poured out across the thirsty land. In all the kingdom there was no lovelier sight than the gently rippling mirror of that immense, man-made lake, when it reflected the domes and spires of Ranapura, City of Gold-the ancient capital which he had abandoned for his dream.
Once more the thunder rolled, but Kalidasa knew that its promise was false. Even here, on the summit of Demon Rock, the air hung still and lifeless; there were none of the sudden, random gusts that heralded the onset of the monsoon. Before the rains came at last, famine might be added to his troubles.
“Your Majesty,” said the patient voice of the court Adigar, “the envoys are about to leave. They wish to pay their respects.”
Ah yes, those two pale ambassadors from across the western ocean! He would be sorry to see them go, for they had brought news, in their abominable Taprobani, of many wonders-though none, they were willing to admit, that equalled this fortress-palace in the sky.
Kalidasa turned his back upon the white-capped mountain and the parched, shimmering landscape, and began to descend the granite steps to the audience chamber. Behind him, the chamberlain and his aides bore gifts of ivory and gems for the tall, proud men who were waiting to say farewell. Soon they would carry the treasures of Taprobane across the sea, to a city younger by centuries than Ranapura; and perhaps, for a little while, divert the brooding thoughts of the Emperor Hadrian.
His robes a flare of orange against the white plaster of the temple walls, the Mahanayake Thero walked slowly to the northern parapet. Far below lay the chequer-board of paddy-fields stretching from horizon to horizon, the dark lines of irrigation channels, the blue gleam of the Paravana Samudra-and, beyond that inland sea, the sacred domes of Ranapura floating like ghostly bubbles, impossibly huge when one realised their true distance. For thirty years he had watched that ever-changing panorama, but he knew that he would never grasp all the details of its fleeting complexity, colours, boundaries altered with every season – indeed, with every passing cloud. On the day that he too passed, thought Bodhidharma, he would still see something new.
Only one thing jarred in all this exquisitely patterned landscape. Tiny though it appeared from this altitude, the grey boulder of Demon Rock seemed an alien intruder. Indeed, legend had it that Yakkagala was a fragment of the herb-bearing Himalayan peak that the monkey god Hanuman had dropped, as he hastily carried both medicine and mountain to his injured comrades, when the battles of the Ramayana were over.
From this distance, of course, it was impossible to see any details of Kalidasa's folly, except for a faint line that hinted at the outer rampart of the Pleasure Gardens. Yet once it had been experienced, such was the impact of Demon Rock that it was impossible to forget. The Mahanayake Thero could see in imagination, as clearly as if he stood between them, the immense lion's claws protruding from the sheer face of the cliff – while overhead loomed the battlements upon which, it was easy to believe, the accursed King still walked.
Thunder crashed down from above, rising swiftly to such a crescendo of power that it seemed to shake the mountain itself. In a continuous, sustained concussion it raced across the sky, dwindling away into the east. For long seconds, echoes rolled around the rim of the horizon. No-one could mistake this as any herald of the coming rains; they were not scheduled for another three weeks, and Monsoon Control was never in error by more than twenty-four hours. When the reverberations had died away, the Mahanayake turned to his companion.
“So much for dedicated re-entry corridors,” he said, with slightly more annoyance than an exponent of the Dharma should permit himself. “Did we get a meter reading?”
The younger monk spoke briefly into his wrist microphone, and waited for a reply.
“Yes-it peaked at a hundred and twenty. That's five db above the previous record.”
“Send the usual protest to Kennedy or Gagarin Control, whichever it is. On second thoughts, complain to them both. Not that it will make any difference, of course.”
As his eye traced the slowly dissolving vapour trail across the sky, Bodhidharma Mahanayake Thero – eighty-fifth of his name – had a sudden and most un-monkish fantasy. Kalidasa would have had a suitable treatment for space-line operators who thought only of dollars per kilo to orbit… something that probably involved impalement, or metal-shod elephants, or boiling oil.
But life, of course, had been so much simpler, two thousand years ago.