“Commander, it is time we thought about inducting the naga warriors into our military.” Vikram spoke with a tone of urgency.

“Did the sinners dare to ask the hand of the princess? I I would like to strangle that Anuvinda with my bare hands!” Veerabahu’s words shook with rage.

“I feel equally enraged Veerabahu. The princess shall never accept this proposal. Accepting shall also result in the end of our autonomy. Now it is high time we defend our land, our King and our princess.” Vikram continued. The sudden outburst of the young commander startled him.

“Veerabahu, rage is not the solution when we are faced with the enemy who boasts of greater muscle.” Vikram moved closer to lay a pacifying hand on Veerabahu’s shoulder. “Commander, we should start inducting the naga warriors into our mainstream military. Even the combined strength in my calculations might fall short of matching the numbers of Avanthi, not to speak of their allies. But then what are the war strategies for?”

“Vikram, it is impossible to induct the uncouth Nagas into the disciplined Kshatriya military.” Veerabahu spoke in exasperation. He had nursed hatred towards the Naga youth since childhood. Vikram’s excellence only made him more jealous and insecure. He found himself in a hateful position now. The princess adored Vikram. Veerabahu had thanked his stars that the princess considered his rival as her brother. His hatred for Vikram only distanced her from him. No, he was wrong in carrying on this impulsive rivalry. But fate had been always partial to Vikram. All chances pointed out to Vikram becoming the Yuvaraj. Only contender would be the husband of the princess. In that case, would Vikram revolt or support the Kingdom as he does it at the moment?

Veerabahu looked at Vikram trying to sound apologetic. “Forgive me, Vikram, I did not mean to demean the tribe of your birth. You are an excellent warrior. But that is because of the 15 years of training under Uncle Vajrabahu. Do you think the Nagas who have undergone a training of hardly two years can match that? Thanks to your trust or the lack of it on me, you and the princess have never shared it or else I would have supported in any kind to make your project more effective.”

Vikram controlled the urge to laugh at Veerabahu’s miserably failed attempts to sound diplomatic. “It does not suit you commander. This diplomacy” Vikram replied with a small chuckle. “Yes, It would have been wiser to have kept you in loop. But it just started out as a long term plan to garner the allegiance of Nagas. Neither I nor the princess foresaw that it would have become the need of the hour like it has now.”

Veerabahu observed the expressions on Vikram’s face. He seemed genuinely regretful about treating the military expansion lighter than required. But then, he did something on his own. “What did I do at all?” Veerabahu questioned himself.

“Vikram, would we be able to stop that evil prince of Avanthi from laying his hands on Her Highness? I prefer dying than seeing her in his hands, the wily treacherous rat of a man he is.” Veerabahu’s words started to falter. He wondered why, hating himself for giving in before his rival since childhood. All his dreams seemed to have fallen apart with the turn of events. Around two years back, he had mingled with the twin princes of Avanthi and they pampered him back with praises and fed his pride. Now, he realized they were only trying to win an insider. And he provided them a wonderful target, a sullen officer whose loyalties were for sale.

Thw world around seemed to go hazy and things around appeared to shake and abominable noises echoed in his ears as he dropped to his knees. A loud grunt of frustration escaped his lips as he barely felt Vikram move up to him hurriedly in concern. After a moment or so, the world seemed to stabilize on its own.

“Listen, you tribal, mingle the nagas with the military or drown them all in Mahi. Or better mingle Mahi and Narmada to drown Avanthi. Do anything you want and stop that abominable apparition in the guise of a prince from laying his hands on Abhaya.”

“Princess Abhaya.” He corrected himself noticing the pity in Vikram’s eyes. Turning back to his defiant self, he smiled.

“I am with you in this adopted prince. We’ll do all under the sun to stop those twins. But don’t assume that it changes things between us. I still am not ready to serve you as the Yuvaraja.”

“Like I want to be one.” Vikram retorted partly in amusement and partly in sympathy over the apparent immaturity of the commander.

“Oh what would stop you from being the Yuvaraja and of course the Maharaja in due course?” Veerabahu blurted out in sarcastic exasperation.

“Myself,” was the laughing reply. “And I could count on you anytime, my brother.” Veerabahu hated the casual but clear manner in which Vikram announced his interest on the throne. He hated the Naga youth all the more now for showing him the newer low.

A crisis faced the province and Vikram could casually approach his all time rival to face it together, cheerful, motivated and ready to bury the personal differences. He, Veerabahu would have never done the same in similar circumstances.

“Commander, one good way to stop me from becoming the future King is to protect the present King for all you are worth. For all we are worth. I shall await you at dawn in the western towers to discuss the future course.” Vikram concluded the conversation and turned to leave.

He stopped midway as a thought struck him. In a low voice, Vikram asked. “If I promise to keep it a secret for you, Veerabahu, what would you answer if as I asked you whether you … you intend to marry the princess?”

Veerabahu’s eyes glowed with an unknown hope. He looked stupefied at Vikram. “How did this tribal son of a ___  come to know his innermost desire. That too, a desire which he himself was fighting against, given the situation. And to top it all he offers to keep it a secret. So does he know that I don’t consider myself worthy enough, the wily mind reader?”

A lump in the throat blocked his voice from replying. Veerabahu thought he needed a superhuman effort to suppress it. He looked at Vikram with a quick desicive impulse. “No. I don’t intend so, Vikram.”

Moments after an unsure Vikram left, Veerabahu felt the words escape his lips. “Not anymore.”

The End

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