Chokkanatha's eyes roved lazily on the damsel standing by the window, her back to him. This woman can drive me crazy, he mused. Annam stood still, her face devoid of any expressions, lips tightly pursed and hands trembling. Chokkanatha climbed down his bed and came near her. She seemed lost in her thoughts. He gently held her shoulders and turned her toward him. She turned with such a speed that Chokkanatha was startled. Her eyes a fiery red and face writ with anger, she hissed- " Don't you lay your hands on me!" Chokkanatha stood awestruck a moment and broke into laughter. Ah! This was a ploy to get to him, wasn't it, he thought. He tried again to hug her and only then did he feel the cool blade of her short knife on his chest. A tiny droplet of blood trickled where the knife was pressed and his temper flared. Twisting her hand behind her, he overpowered her and the knife fell to the floor with a metallic clang. He looked at her face- the face of a wounded tigress.
And suddenly, hot tears started pouring from her eyes. That woman, that spitfire was wailing her heart out. Chokkanatha could not understand what was happening to her, to them. All he could gather was, he had married Annam against her wish. Was she forced, coerced? He had to know. But for now, he couldn't bear the hiccups. " Listen, Annam. I don't know what makes you unhappy. Your father Lingama accepted the alliance immediately and i thought you gave your consent free. I know, it takes time to adjust to the Palace and the culture here. And i wouldn't force myself on a fragile woman. Go to sleep now. And be assured, Chokkanatha never forces women. Trust me, i can wait." With that, he turned his heel and left the room in long, confident strides, befitting a King. Tired and confused, Annam lay on the bed and closed her eyes warily. When would Achaiya come and save her from this hell?
Mangamma spent her days in the Meenakshi Amman temple, praying and watching the Royal Durbar proceedings everyday religiously. She was astounded by the wisdom and intelligence of Chokkanatha Naik. Her evenings were spent in the Royal garden amid the deer and tamed lions, tigers. She loved playing her harp, sadness pouring out as soul stirring music. Both Chokkanatha and Annam enjoyed a companionable silence during the daytime, listening to the Tamil poems recited by poets, took part in religious discussions and at times, she surprised herself by offering to help ailing poets and scholars. Chokkanatha was amazed by her knowledge of language and her love for religion. At times, Annam caught him staring at her, his eyes definitely speaking volumes of his love for her. And that was really unnerving her. He never came again to her Chamber at nights, nor did he go to any of his women in the harem. He seemed besotted with her and was sure a man of his word, waiting for her to give up. Annam was losing hope that Achaiya might turn up one day. Her aides gathered news that he had left the city gates the day her wedding was announced and has never returned. As days grew to months, Annam was losing hope...And Chokkanatha was growing impatient too.
Annam was stunned to learn the King had ordered all the women of his harem be sent back to their homes with gold and silver, being asked to abstain from the Palace forever. He had converted his harem to a huge 'madapalli' ( community kitchen) where the poor were fed free everyday. And Annam received gifts everyday from the King- temple jewelry, silk wraps from visiting travelers and surprisingly, arranged for her a secluded courtyard to practice sword fighting. It was those rigorous fights that provided her a relief. His furtive glances, longing in his eyes and the gifts he sent her religiously every morning moved her. She knew he was trying to woo her and God help her, she was falling for him, hard.
It was a humid and hot afternoon that the emissary from Thajavur returned with message from King Vijayaraghava Naik. Chokkanatha glanced sideways at Annam who showed no expression and sat stone faced and slowly it dawned on him why she refused him. He had foolishly believed her pride was hurt as she wasn't asked consent for the wedding. But one look at her now, told him the whole story. He had hurt her deeply, by saying he was waiting for Malarkodi to marry him. Chokkanatha was worried sick. He did not want the emissary to break the news in Annam's presence. Or even better, he did not want the hand of Malarkodi, however strategic the alliance might be- the two Naik Kings of Madurai and Thanjavur united against the Mysore Nawab and Mughal Empire. As he waited with bated breath for the news to unravel, Annam looked down at him from the Royal Womens' Arena. He could read the pain and anguish in her eyes and he felt sick for her...Only when the emissary read out aloud that Vijayaraghava refused to offer his daughter's hand to Chokkanatha due to his 'lowly' Naik roots, did he let out his breath. Though the tone of Vijayaraghava's message angered him, sense did prevail. He was now free- to woo Annam, to make her the Principal and perhaps the Only Queen of Madurai.
It had been almost a year since she came to this Chamber as one of Chokkanatha's women, a wry smile escaped Annam's lips. And Chokkanatha was a man of his word, he had never returned to this Chamber again. Few days back, he had announced in his beaming voice that Mangamma was the Queen of Madurai and she would be crowned the coming Pournami. ( Full moon day). As Annam splashed water from the small but elegant bathing pool adjacent to the Palace and bathed in the tranquil moonlight, her heart was brimming with love for Chokkanatha Naik, the King of Madurai. Of course, he had fulfilled her every wish, her every dream and was still waiting...She summoned Alarmelamma, her trusted aide and sent word that she wanted to meet the King, in the Queen's Chamber. When Chokkanatha arrived, his eyes were riveted on what he saw, Annam, waiting for him...fully clad in the best clothes and bedecked with the finest jewelry and he knew he would come here to her...every night till his death. He had finally conquered her heart- The Heart of His Queen. The night bells of Meenakshiamman temple chimed by and the lamps glowed, spreading their light and warmth around the Chamber, as the King and Queen of Madurai were lost in a hot embrace...Will Mangamma be crowned as Queen???
TO BE CONTINUED...