Krishna greeted the nagas. An enormous man with round muscles and a barrel stomach bent down and touched Krishna’s feet.

“Please bless this wretched asuran, O Blue One,” said Mayasura.

“Asuran, not naga.” For Bheema, like all the civilized people of Khandava Prastha, the asuras, nagas and rakshasas looked alike.

“Rise, Mayasura, the Gifted One,” said Krishna. “How fares your friend, King Takshaka?” Again, the Pandavas expressed private surprise.

“He has taken refuge with Duryodhana, All-Knowing One, and his people had departed too. These few standing behind me, enlightened and saved by your grace, have come into the light.” The nagas who adorned themselves with the bones of their human victims had discarded the grisly trophies. But several men wore necklaces of animal claws.

“What of the young princes, Aswasena and Brihadbala?”

“The boys departed with the father.”

“Boys?” Krishna smiled. He harboured another question but restrained himself. “I see you remain loyal to Takshaka, your sworn friend. Loyalty is an admirable quality, asura, but misplace it not on soiled ground.”

“You’ve spared my life and for this, I owe you, Krishna. I’ve come to repay my debt with deeds rather than words. It’s for you to decide which of my qualities will redeem my debt: my loyalty or my skills as an architect and builder. If the former, take my head now and with a happy heart, I’ll join my forefathers. If the latter, charge me and I shall perform to your satisfaction.”

Krishna threw back his head and laughed; a long body-shaking laugh, instead of his customary smile which vacillated between pleasure, amusement and derision. He said,

“Mayasura, pay your respects to the Pandava heroes, Bheemasena and Arjuna, who unshackled you and the nagas.”

Mayasura and the band of nagas went down on their knees. Arjuna gave the vanquished his blessings, but not Bheema. He said,

“Do you acknowledge my elder brother, Yudhishthira, head of the Pandava clan, as your sovereign?”

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