As agreed, Karna reached the Kurukshetra plains. Several large contingents of coolies from the Kaurava and Pandava sides had already arrived. The Pandava servants had occupied the highest hills and were going about erecting palatial tentage of various grandeur for their masters.

The Angaraj dispatched his mounted skirmishers and chased away the coolies. Some workers foolishly offered resistance. Karna’s cavalrymen ordered the labourers, who were armed with hoes and pikes, to put down their weapons and retire. The workers refused.

“You dare challenge an order from a kshatriyan?”

When the labourers did not budge, the cavalry captain ordered his cohort to remove the squatters. It was a bloody affair.

Karna had drawn first blood.

News of the massacre reached Hastinapura and Upaplavya. The elders and nobles on both sides condemned Karna.

“We have not set the rules of war, so why blame Karna for defending himself?” said Sakuni. “According to our laws, coolies must obey rightful orders from kshatriyans. We cannot tolerate the unwashed to disobey us or what will come of our civilization, our culture, and our laws and institutions of governance? Is this not what Grandsire Bhishma himself lectured us?”

“That was excessive force. He could have arrested or even herded away the coolies,” said Shalya.

“Who are these coolies if not people from Matsya? Virata had sent his army officers disguised as supervisors and they were erecting military structures,” said Sakuni.

“They were building tentage for the Pandavas, nobles, people like us. Even as we speak, we have our people building field tents,” said Shalya.

“The Madhra king ignores two truths. One, the Pandava tents had defensive works; ramparts and moats. Why? Do the Pandavas plan to attack our camps? Are they building defences around their camps to guard against our expected reprisals? Two, the workers were countrymen of Matsya who had invaded our lands. As Kurukshetra lies deep within our kingdom, Virata must seek our permission before sending an army of men across our border.”

“He claims he sent an embassy for that very reason; to announce his intentions and seek our permission. But bandits waylaid and murdered his ambassador,” said Shalya.

“How very convenient for him,” said Sakuni. “And he sent his petition to you and not to King Dhristarashtra.”

“I had an embassy visiting Virata-Nagari and in view of the unsafe roads, my ambassador carried the scroll back to Hastinapura for me. Here, it arrived but moments ago,” said Shalya, and produced a silk scroll.

“Again, how timely,” said Sakuni. “And why was your ambassador visiting the enemy?”

“If you must know, I’ll tell, but only to shut your mouth,” said Shalya. “My daughter-in-law, Virata’s daughter, was visiting her mother who had taken ill. We all have families in one another’s kingdoms, do we not?”

“Not all of us,” said Sakuni.

“That’s because none wants to take your daughters or accept your sons in marriage.”

“That’s enough, great nobles,” said Duryodhana.

“Duryodhana, I’ll not be questioned like a common criminal. Keep Sakuni on leash,” said Shalya.

“How dare you?” said Sakuni. He stood up; hand on his sword handle.

“Why do we even bother to fight the Pandavas, when we can all slit one another’s throats right here?” Duryodhana stood up; with one flick, he twirled his shawl over an arm and strode out of the meeting hall.

“Dear nobles, please,” said Bhishma with a sigh. “Let’s rein in our emotions and seek common ground.”

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

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