It was a cloud covered night; past the second watch; and the daytime bustle petered and settled to hum in Hastinapura. A cloaked figure carrying an oil lamp picked his way along a narrow tunnel. Tree roots hung from the tunnel ceiling, and a brackish stream of water snaked on the floor. The man reached the end of the tunnel and climbed the winding steps. He tapped on the trapdoor built into the ceiling. The door opened and a bright torch momentarily blinded the cloaked man. He heaved himself through the trapdoor.

“Greetings, Your Highness.” The man, dressed in the garbs of a priest, fell to his knees.

“You’ve gown fat,” said Sakuni.

“Give me but a week to shed the excess weight, Your Highness,” said the man, who was Sakuni’s former spymaster.

“How is retirement treating you, Thripthi??” said Karna. He held out a cup of honeyed water.

“Thank you, O Angaraj. Retirement is boring,” said Thripthi.

“Three wives and already bored?” said Duryodhana with a laugh. Thripthi bowed to the imperial prince and said,

“It’s easier to manage three wildcats than three wives.”

“You keep them all under the same roof?” said Dushasana.

“Yes, my lord.”

“You’re a brave fellow, Thripthi. Even I dare not keep all my women under the same roof,” said Dushasana with a smirk. “Karna is even smarter. He keeps his wives in two different cities. One here and the other in Anga.” Karna did not find the remark amusing, and neither did Duryodhana.

“I’ve a solution for your boredom; a solution to escape your three wives,” said Sakuni. “What can you tell about Shalya of Madhra?”

“He intends to join the Pandavas. Even as we speak, he is making preparations to gather his army and chart to Upaplavya.”

“Truly, you’re my spymaster. Even in retirement, you’ve kept your sources fed and they feed you with information.”

“I’ve learned from the best,” said Thripthi. “There is no better guru in spy craft than you, Your Highness.” But Sakuni waved away the flattery and said,

“Keep the art of flattery for others, such as Shalya. Intercept him and convince him to join the righteous cause; our cause.” He picked up a heavy leather bag. “Here is a bag of the finest jewels; worth more than ten cartloads of gold. It will pay for the tasks you have in hand.”

“What tasks do you wish me to accomplish, Your Highness, that require so much money?”

Sakuni revealed his plan but also took suggestions from Duryodhana, Karna and Dushasana and completed the details.

“I trust you will employ your usual initiative to adapt to changing conditions.”

“I’m humbled by your trust, Your Highness. My only concern is Alambusha, who had sworn loyalty to the Pandavas.”

“Take this message to him from me,” said Duryodhana. “You’ll receive a warm welcome.”

The rakshasa, Alambusha, was lord of a tract of mountainous forest land that Shalya would pass to reach Upaplavya in the Matsya kingdom. More than a decade ago, the rakshasas used to raid the villages of the settled people. The villagers beseeched the Pandavas for help. This was during the time when Pandu’s sons lived in Hastinapura and their fame and flags flew high. Bheema had led a punitive expedition into the jungles. In the ensuing battles, he slew the rakshasa king, Bakasura, and installed the young rakshasa prince, Alambusha, on the throne. Since that time, the latter had owed allegiance to the Pandavas.

*** Copyright @ 2021, Eric Alagan ***

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