Bheema returned with good news from the Chedi Kingdom. Sisupala, King of Chedi, had welcomed him with the respects due to an embassy sent on behalf of a sovereign.

“He swore loyalty to King Yudhishthira and expressed immeasurable satisfaction upon receiving our invitation to celebrate the Rajasuya,” said Bheema.

“Thank all the gods, my sons,” said Kunti Devi. “Sisupala is your cousin and blood always finds its way to the heart.”

“Dear mother, I concede I was wrong,” said Bheema.

“Sahadeva too has returned from Hastinapura with good news,” said Yudhishthira.

“How fairs Grandsire Bhishma and the mahatma, Minister Vidura?” said Bheema.

“They fair well, and so too the preceptors, Dronacharya and Kripacharya. The unblemished protectors of the Kuru race gave us their blessings and will grace the Rajasuya,” said Sahadeva.

“What new mischief is your black-hearted friend, Duryodhana, up to?”

“Bheema!”

“It’s okay, mother. I’ve grown too big for Bheem to bully; therefore, he spews words to prick me instead,” said Sahadeva, and he jumped aside just as his elder brother made a feint to grab him. “I’m too fast for you, you overgrown bull elephant.” The youngest Pandava chuckled.

In a flash, Bheema sprang, caught Sahadeva in a bear hug and smothered him with wet kisses. Kunti and her sons laughed.

“Don’t overdo it, Bheema,” said Nakula, the elder twin to Sahadeva. “Lest his wives become envious.”

“You’re next,” said Bheema.

“Oh no, you don’t.” Nakula took shelter behind his mother.

“Don’t you wish to hear Sahadeva’s good news from Hastinapura?” said Arjuna.

“Oh gods, thank you for the one brother who is sane,” said Yudhishthira. The family roared with laughter. A stoic man, Yudhishthira was not given to humour, but on the rare occasions when he succumbed, his words gave an added punch.

“What is the good news?” said Bheema.

“Release me and I’ll tell you,” said Sahadeva.

“Tell me first.”

“Bheemasena,” said Yudhishthira. That was command enough. Bheema released Sahadeva. The latter wiped his cheeks and stepped away, beyond the former’s reach.

“Duryodhana has agreed to steward and record the gifts from well-wishers,” said Sahadeva. The Rajasuya was an auspicious ceremony of the first order and conducted only once in a millennium. Yudhishthira wished for every prince and elder in the Kuru dynasty to play important parts and gain merit from their contributions.

“Is it prudent to put the Kaurava in charge of treasures?” said Bheema. “By the end of the ceremony, the Kauravas will be wealthier than us.”

“Bheem, big brother, I agree with most of what you say about Duryodhana but not this,” said Arjuna. “He is a shrewd and formidable antagonist, true, but not a dishonest man. I will trust him with all the material wealth in the world.”

“Then you are a fool, Arjun. Have you forgotten that he and his brothers drugged and threw me to the crocodiles?”

“We were children. Should we recount how you bullied the Kauravas to insanity? Was that not some childish exuberance on your part? Perhaps they went a little overboard, I concede, but they were children too.”

“What has got into you, Arjun? What about the wax palace? Have you forgotten Duryodhana attempted to burn us to death, including our dear mother?”

“We know the governor of Varanavata built the palace. But we do not know whether Duryodhana was behind that ill-scheme. Do we trust the word of the harlot who perished?”

“Who else could it be, Arjun?” said Bheema.

“Sakuni,” said Arjuna. “The ever-smiling Uncle Sakuni, who looks after the Kauravas’ interests even more than their own father, King Dhristarashtra.”

“Isn’t that snake, Sakuni, coiled around Duryodhana’s neck and always whispering into his ears?” said Bheema.

“Perhaps,” said Yudhishthira. His involvement in the discussion drew his family’s attention. “Bheem, you have sat in court and heard my verdicts. You, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva have also presided over petitions and passed judgements. Did we ever convict an accused person on mere suspicion?”

“We’re different. We’re better men.”

“Are we? How did Jarasandha die?” Yudhishthira caught himself, but the words had already escaped his lips. A long, cold silence wrapped the Pandavas. Yudhishthira cleared his throat and said, “Forgive me. That was an unjust remark directed at Krishna, who wishes us well.”

“Unjust or not, you spoke our thoughts,” said Arjuna.

“Speak for yourself,” said Bheema. The atmosphere turned serious, and a gloom enveloped the family. The Ashwini twins sensed one another’s thoughts. Nakula broke the silence. He said,

“Perhaps we should put Duryodhana in-charge of the banquets.”

“Oh no,” said Sahadeva. “Brother Bheem will wither and lose weight.”

“What?” said Bheema. His brothers laughed. It took several moments before Bheema understood Sahadeva’s words, and he too guffawed.

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