King Dhristarashtra gained sovereignty over the Pandavas’ empire but ruled from Hastinapura. His realms had grown tenfold; wealth a hundred-fold; but he remained distraught.

The reconciliation and peace he had hoped to establish between his sons and the Pandavas was unfulfilled. Before their departure, the Pandavas had promised to exact vengeance upon their return from exile. Their words rang in the king’s ears.

“For having laid hands on Panchali, I will cut off Dushasana’s hands, tear him apart and drink his blood.” Bheema had bellowed. “And, Duryodhana, you dared to invite Panchali to sit on your thigh. I swear I will shatter your thighs and render you a cripple before I kill you.”

“Until that good day dawns, I will leave my hair undone and only braid it with the lifeblood of Duryodhana,” said Panchali.

Arjuna swore to kill Karna. Nakula and Sahadeva took similar vows to kill and root the last of the Kaurava clan. Even Yudhishthira, the king who had no enemies, promised to drench the Bharata lands with blood. The eldest Pandava’s vow shattered King Dhristarashtra.

“It’s all your fault, father,” said Duryodhana. “We had them in our hands but you bent to the will of those Pandava-lovers, Bhishma, Vidura and the preceptors.”

Dhristarashtra dropped his chin to his chest and admonished himself. “I took my dear departed brother’s sons into my home and treated them as my sons. This is their measure of gratitude. I’ve not done enough to bring my sons and their cousins together.”

“Dear brother-in-law, I wish not to stoke your anguish,” said Sakuni. “What good to lament now?”

“You even agreed to return their weapons, father.” Duryodhana snorted and his chest heaved.

“Blame not your father, dear nephew. You agreed too.” Sakuni placed his hand on Duryodhana’s shoulder.

“Did I have a choice? All of you descended on me.”

“We should never have agreed to return their weapons,” said Karna.

“What good to lament now?” said Duryodhana. “We’ll hunt down the Pandavas and destroy them before the twelve years is up.”

“No, my friend,” said Karna. “You hold the high ground. Sully it not with such acts of adharma. We promised them twelve years of exile and should not molest them.”

“Karna, my shield, is this you speaking,” said Duryodhana, and he held his friend by his arms.

“But in the thirteenth year, if they’re recognised, they’re game to our aim,” said the angaraj.

“Karna is right, my dear nephew,” said Sakuni. “We’ve twelve years to prepare ourselves for the war that is to come. Twelve years to win over the loyalty of the kings who dither.”

“We already possess the wealth, Pandava wealth, to accomplish our task,” said Karna. “But can we trust the army? Many commanders are partial to the Pandavas.”

“Well observed, dear angaraj,” said Sakuni. “We’ll raise a new army; start with the lads who have yet to reach maturity. We’ll raise special regiments dedicated to one end and only one end: to destroy the Pandavas.”

“We’ll appoint Dronacharya and Kripacharya to train the boys and turn them into warriors,” said Duryodhana. “This will keep the acharyas busy and not scheme mischief. Time will also give us a free hand to move our nobles into positions of power throughout the empire.”

“No, not those two preceptors,” said Karna.

“Karna, I know the two acharyas have belittled and humiliated you,” said Duryodhana. “But we need them, we need their skills.”

“We need their prowess as warriors, yes, but not their preaching,” said Karna. “Think of the outcome if you appointed them to inculcate knowledge to the new army we propose.”

“Karna, my dear Karna, you’re so much wiser than I imagined,” said Sakuni. “Duryodhana, he is right. The acharyas love the Pandavas and will influence our recruits with tales of the Pandu whelps’ righteousness. When the time is upon us, can we trust such an army? There is no better warrior than Karna to train your new army.”

“I’ll employ brahmanas who know the truth of our dispute with the Pandavas,” said Karna. “These selected gurus will guide our soldiers with the accurate history of Kuru Pradesh and the Pandavas’ betrayal. When the day is upon us, our soldiers will know they fight on the side of righteousness. That knowledge will invigorate our warriors to excel in the field.”

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