There was an uproar in the Kaurava camp. Angry words and accusations flew across a new divide; Karna and his sons and Duryodhana on one side and Shalya and the other kings on the opposite. Sakuni, Kripacharya and Ashwatthama found themselves wedged in the middle ground.

The common theme in the fiery exchange was Karna’s loyalty.

“Every warrior in this tent has lost a son or a brother or a father, or a grandfather, or a nephew,” said Shalya, jabbing his finger in the Angaraj’s direction at the mention of each family member. Then, he turned on the crown prince. “Most times, we have lost more. Understand our anger, Duryodhana. Your bosom friend allowed not one but four Pandavas to go free; escape with their lives. The Pandavas have never, not once,” he swept a finger from left to right, “spared any of our kith and kin.”

“Karna has proven we have a hero among us who can defeat the Pandavas,” said Duryodhana. “He did not promise to kill all the Pandavas. He promised to kill Arjuna. I put my trust in his words, skills and determination.”

“Duryodhana.” Karna grasped his friend’s arms. “My friend; my saviour. I will kill Arjuna or die trying; and remain resolute in my promise. I go to my tent now, and leave you to bring word.”

He and his family members vacated the tent. After a moment’s silence, the arguments started, but Sakuni took the floor.

“Remember, O indomitable stalwarts who fight for our just cause,” he said. “When Arjuna falls tomorrow, the kings who support the Pandavas will embark on one of two routes: flee from the field or come over to our side.”

“Bheema will fight on; but we can and will defeat him,” said Duryodhana. “Karna has proven it. As for Yudhishthira, I doubt he will continue to fight.”

“If he took the gamble, he will perish too,” said Sakuni.

 “And Nakula and Sahadeva will abide by their eldest brother’s wishes,” added Duryodhana.

“Even if the twins took the field,” said Sakuni, in perfect sequence that felt like a pre-planned debate, “any of the heroes gathered here can better them.”

“What of Krishna?” said Shalya.

“What of him?” said Duryodhana. “The cowherd has already promised not to use his magical powers. Outwardly, he has not done so, but the discerning among us knows he had taken refuge behind the Pandavas and works his magic. When the Pandavas are dead, without them, there is no reason for him to be even here.”

“Who among you will invite him to your court, knowing full well he will not hesitate to steal your spoken-for if she pleases him, just as he stole Rukmini who was to wed Sisupala? Bharata will pluck Krishna from her flesh like the leech he is and be done with him,” said Sakuni.

His words sent a ripple of discomfort among the kings; and Duryodhana quickly stepped in and smoothened and deflected the more unsavoury aspects of his maternal uncle’s thrust. He said,

“O kings, endowed with mighty arms and wrought iron minds, you have eyes to see and the wisdom to discern. You know Krishna is an adept in manipulating feeble minds, but he cannot sway any of us unless we allow him.”

“Will you allow him?” added Sakuni.

One by one, Duryodhana and Sakuni convinced the kings to put their trust in Karna. But Shalya and a small coterie held fast, and the kings argued late into the night.

To break the impasse, Sakuni and Duryodhana took Shalya aside and thrashed out a private agreement. If Karna dies, Shalya becomes generalissimo. That satisfied the Madhra king.

The three men returned to the war tent and resumed discussions. Time came to decide whether they should relieve Karna of his leadership. Shalya remained silent; did not support the Angaraj, but neither did he oppose. When the few remaining opponents to Karna pressed him, the Madhra king said,

“I’ve nothing to add to what I’ve already said.”

His reply confused and caused dissension within the rebel ranks. Shalya went one step further; agreed to drive Karna’s chariot for one more day. That proved to be a face-saving compromise; and all opposition to Karna evaporated.

***

After the kings left, Sakuni and Duryodhana went to Karna’s tent. Along the way, Sakuni said,

“Shalya’s ego knows no bounds. If Arjuna dies, the world will recognise the Madhra as superior to Krishna in charioteering and in military strategy. If Karna falls, he gets to be generalissimo. No matter which direction the wind blows, his ship will sail.”

“There you have it; alliances forged with hyenas and jackals; and all are kshatriyans of the first order,” said Duryodhana with a smirk. The Kaurava heir got what he wished: Karna to continue as generalissimo of the army and Shalya to remain as his chariot driver.

They found Karna pacing back and forth. Sakuni quickly briefed the Angaraj.

“I had to give Shalya the promise,” said Duryodhana. “But I know you will prevail.”

“You’ve done well, my dear friend. Tomorrow, I will defeat Arjuna; and Shalya will not get his wish. He will never hold the generalissimo’s sceptre.” Karna held the command baton and turned it in his hand as he inspected its detailed engravings. “Never!”

*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***

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