Life or Death
Life or Death20 mins 176 20 mins 176
Puneet's heart beat wildly as he made his way to the tent where Fahim had summoned him. Fahim was the head of internal affairs and he reported directly to the king. On the other hand, Puneet was a common spy who mostly ran errands for Shakti who remained an outsider even after a year of working with the spies. Puneet could never bring himself to respect Shakti. It was not only about how Shakti was parachuted as the head of the local chapter of the spies bypassing more eligible people. It was also about Shakti's callousness towards the workers coupled with his incompetency on all matters of security. Within a week everyone could see that Shakti was totally at sea when he had to select people to get jobs done. He had a knack of choosing wrong people for wrong jobs and inevitably disaster struck every time.
Puneet had been sent on an errand some days back by Shakti. The instructions were quite clear. Puneet had to travel to the border town of Narwhal, establish contact with their agent over there and collect a parchment. On paper it appeared to be a simple job but the fact that Narwhal was a border town where agents of both kingdoms frequent complicated things. The two kingdoms Tribhanga and Abitsar shared a huge forest as their border. Needless to say, people from both kingdoms crossed the forest to visit their neighbouring kingdoms. Smugglers used the forest route to move the contraband safely and quickly. The bandits kidnapped travellers and sometimes soldiers for ransom. There was a river meandering right in the middle of the forest and it has been accepted as a natural border by the two kingdoms. It was a disastrous decision but as the kingdoms had been fighting a brutal war for close to three years, the solution was accepted by both the parties. On the day of the agreement, both the kingdoms celebrated their magnificent victory over their neighbour. The dead were quickly forgotten. Within days, the skirmishes between the two armies began anew and hostilities were resumed.
The town of Narwhal lay on the outskirts of the forest in Tribhanga kingdom. Ideally only the citizens of Tribhanga should have lived there but the constant influx of artisans and persecuted people from Abitsar kingdom had changed the demography of the region. The spies from both the kingdoms roamed the town. It was impossible to maintain law and order in such a place and the current incumbent of the guardian of the town (a post that was made on the spot by the king of Tribhanga) had taken to meting out very harsh measures to curb crime and to keep up the semblance of normalcy. Capital punishment was handed on a whim. The condemned were dragged out and a spectacle was made of their deaths, no doubt to inculcate fear of death amidst the criminally minded people. Sometimes the prisoners were hung, sometimes drawn and quartered but most of the time the soldiers and the citizens stoned the prisoner to death. The administration had piled up stones near the city square so that the citizens wouldn't have to bring their stones and miss the fun of killing the condemned person.
There was not much use in appealing to the compassion of the guardian of the town for he was an arrogant fool. He was also related to Shakti though the nature of their relationship baffled the minds of so called intellectuals but come to think of it, how could someone be termed an intellectual who indulged in such stupid pastimes. In fact, the king and his council of ministers took great exception to such ilde gossip. The king's nephew was also his cousin. It was scandulous to say the least and any mention of the lineage of king's nephew in public was treated as a crime and treated on par with sedition.
When Puneet had learnt that someone was to be chosen to travel to Narwhal, he had believed that it would be either Sneh or Prem for they had developed and maintained contacts in the minefield of Narwhal but Shakti had ignored those two experienced war veterans and he chose Puneet to do his bidding. Puneet had swooned when he learnt about it. His friends had commisserated with him and they gave him a farewell for none expected him to make it back alive. He had somehow managed to return alive and he even managed to obtain the parchment that he was sent to obtain but his visit had not been uneventful. He believed that the circumstances of his obtaining the parchment were going to be discussed in the meeting with Fahim. He had no inkling of why the great man had himself deigned to speak with him.
When Puneet approached the tent, he found two guards stationed outside. One of them escorted him inside. Puneet's eyes were automatically dragged to the corpulent figure who reclined on the diwan. He had heard that Fahim was fat but the rumours did no justice to the fat man whose rotundness belied his comfortable life. Shakti had to clear his throat to draw Puneet's attention. He was seated five steps away from where Puneet stood. Next to him was a middle aged woman who seemed to be chewing 'paan'. Her reputation preceded her. She was Rasika, the head of the female division of the spies. Puneet was given the silent treatment till the guard accompanying him went away.
Fahim confirmed from Shakti that it was indeed Puneet who went to Narwhal.
"Tell us what you saw there!" Fahim asked Puneet directly.
"Sir, I reached Narwhal six days back. No one should have known about my visit and I was not expecting anyone to receive me at the shuttle point but when I alighted from the horse cart, I was immediately accosted by two men who knew my name and who knew about the parchment. I was very suspicious of them so when I reached the market, I shook them off and ran helter-skelter."
"Helter-sketer?" Rasika interrupted him. "So you had no plan? You just ran!"
Puneet nodded in agreement. He told them that at that point of time he believed that he was being led by the men to a secluded corner where he would be robbed and killed. Fahim gestured to him to continue his story.
"I ran blindly for some time and when I finally stopped to catch my breath, I found myself in a slum. The streets were narrow and dirty. In fact, it looked like no one swept the streets. There were cows and goats tied to the front posts of most of the houses and their dungs covered the streets. The stench was terrible so I took some turns without even seeing where I was heading to when suddenly I ran upon three men who were abducting a young girl. The girl appealed to me to help her and I did not want to help her but..."
He stopped speaking in confusion. It had been drilled into him that as a spy he was to focus only on his current task and to not meddle with other people's affairs. When he jumped to the rescue of Leela, he jeopardized his own mission.
"You jeopardized your own mission!" Shakti hissed at him and then glanced at Fahim to see if his comment made any sort of impression on the great man. Fahim ignored him.
"I did not...", protested Puneet. Once again Fahim gestured to him to continue his story but now his brows were furrowed. Puneet had made the gravest mistake a spy could make.
"Her name was Leena," Puneet spoke quickly now. "When I knocked down all three men, she thanked me and then uttered the phrase 'looking into your eyes'. I know that it is a phrase that the female spies use to check other spies. I knew the correct answer to her phrase. When I replied 'i see waves' she recognized me as a spy. She told me that she reported directly to Rasika and that she was in Narwhal for a super secret mission. I told her that I was glad that I was able to help her and then I accompanied her to the outhouse where she was putting up. She did not ask me about my mission and I made no further enquiries on her. When she reached the outhouse, she found that her safe house had been raided by enemy spies. She panicked and asked me to take her to a safe house. As it was my first visit, I expressed my inability to do so for I did not know of any safe house. She then told me that she knew of another safe house but it was on the other side of the town and it was getting very late but we could not sleep out there in the open so I decided to accompany her."
Fahim raised his hand and Puneet stopped speaking.
"What was she doing there?" Fahim asked Rasika who instead of responding made a slient gesture pointing at Puneet to warn Fahim that Puneet would hear her response. Fahim grimaced and gestured to her unhappily.
"She had visited Abitsar," she replied, "and sought an audience with Sriveli."
Puneet knew that Sriveli was the princess of Abitsar. He kept his face impassive though.
"What for?" Fahim finally spoke.
"We had heard that a plot to harm Prince Durjay was being hatched," the unhappy woman added, "and we needed to get some information from Sriveli."
"Our prince is in love with their princess!" Fahim smirked. "But there are so many enemies to their love story. But do tell me what did your spy learn from Sriveli?"
"The date of her next meeting with Prince!"
"Right! Right! Our prince does not trust us enough to let us know of when and where he goes to meet Sriveli," remarked Fahim, "but he is still our prince so we need to keep him safe. So did you get the information?"
"Yes sir!" Rasika nodded her head. "I shared it with Bhanu and he told me he would take care of it."
"Bhanu has become the new captain of the palace guards, right? I liked the old man though. Bishu is a war horse. Very crafty, very principled. But Omar never liked him. Eventually he got Bhanu to replace Bishu. Well, what can we say of these palace intrigues?"
Fahim's habit of speaking so frankly about the so called palace intrigues did not sit well with Rasika though Shakti seemed to be listening to Fahim intently. He was kept out of the loop so it was only through rumours that he heard about the conflicts between the queen's group and Fahim's group. To hear of these stories of conflicts from Fahim himself was very satisfying for him.
"So back to our story," Fahim picked up some grapes from a plate and forced them all inside his mouth. A little bit of grape juice trickled out of the corners of his mouth but he ignored it.
"It took us about an hour to walk through the deserted streets. We kept a sharp lookout for thugs and bandits and whenever we would spot some people moving about in groups we would hide and wait for them to move on. That is why it took us so much time. Eventually we reached the safe house. Leela whispered something with the owner of the house and he invited us in. I was very tired so I slept like a log. The next morning when I woke up I found that the house was deserted. Leela and the owner of the house were not to be seen. I got ready and left the house hurriedly. I made my way to the drinking house where I was to wait.
I sat there for about two hours but no one approached me. My instructions stated clearly that I had to get out of the city by the afternoon shuttle so I decided to head back. Till then I had believed that the mission had failed. When I stepped out of the drinking house, two men ran into me deliberately. They were drunk and they began to shout and scream that I had stolen their money. Pretty soon a crowd of gawkers surrounded us. I tried my hardest to break free from their grip but they were strong and they held on to me. The city guards were called for and they arrested me for disorderly conduct. I was dragged to a cell near the city square and pushed into it. They had already kept a person locked in there. The cell was small so when I was pushed into it I stumbled and crashed on the prisoner. He grabbed me by my neck and whispered the phrase 'jackpot pays'. It was the phrase my contact was supposed to know. When I replied with 'and brings misery', he hugged me tight and told me that he had the parchment with him. It was all his plan. He had arranged for me to be arrested and brought to the cell. He handed me the parchment and then knocked on the bars of the window. The guards soon appeared and let us both out. The moment we stepped out in the city square, we were run over by five or six people who were hell bent on killing us. My cell mate, my contact, screamed at me that we were compromised and that I should make my way out of the city at the earliest. He ensured that I was able to break their hold and I ran as hard as I could to the spot to take the afternoon shuttle. I managed to reach there and was able to board the shuttle that brought me here."
For some moments there was silence in the tent. Fahim kept eating grapes and the trickle of the juice stained his chin. Rasika spat out the 'paan' and the expectoration made Fahim sit up and take notice of them.
"I saw the parchment," Fahim spoke to Puneet, "and it was disappointing. It was not what I had expected."
Puneet did not have the courage to ask Fahim about how the parchment failed his expectations.
"One of our spies died in Abitsar," Fahim continued, "and Halim is out of his mind with grief."
Halim was the man in charge of the spies stationed in adjoining kingdoms. He chose his men very carefully and treated each one of them as his own family. A loss of his man would have been devastating to him.
"And the spy who was to contact this guy was killed too!"
"So we lost two people for a parchment?" Rasika was shocked.
"The parchment was important," Fahim shook his head, "very important. It is imperative that we know who is the man who helped the chief of bandits escape."
Puneet knew about the scandulous and miraculous escape of the chief of the bandits from the underground prison of Alkagiri. No one had ever escaped from that prison but the bandits had attacked the prison and whisked away their leader. No other prisoner was able to escape from the underground maze. Everyone knew that there was an insider who helped the bandits raid the prison but no one was able to even provide a clue to the man or to the woman who must have been very high up in the hierarchy of government staff to enable the bandits to pull this feat. The bandits had escaped to the forest of Narwhal and had stayed large. The royal army had dispatched twenty elites to recapture the chief of bandits but all of them had failed to even find his location.
"What did the parchment say?" Shakti could not stop himself.
"There were eleven code words to identify the eleven people we suspected. The parchment should have mentioned only one word to help us zero on the saboteur but the parchment contained a word that was not there in our original list. We could not make any heads or tails of it. The entire mission failed."
He then looked strangely at Puneet.
"When I looked at the parchment, I was quite shocked," Fahim shook his head once to express his shock and displeasure. "All our efforts to understand the word failed. So then I got the parchment checked. You see, the materials used in making those parchments are a little bit different in Abitsar and our kingdom. The parchment passed the test. It was indeed from Abitsar. So we checked the ink that was used to trace the name. The spy in Abitsar who risked his life to obtain the name of the traitor was in the habit of writing with a pencil first and then he would run the ink over the pencilled text. Just his unique way of letting us know of how to check for sanctity of his report! He was an intelligent man and a very brave man. Halim would be hard pressed to find such a man again. Truly an irreparable loss. So coming back to the wonderful story of the parchment, we checked the ink on the parchment."
He glared at Puneet who felt faint now.
"There was no pencilled text under the ink. The report was a fake one. So what happened to the original parchment?" He asked Puneet.
"I swear on my mother," Puneet cried out in alarm, "I have deposited the parchment that I received from the prisoner in the cell."
"How dumb can he be?" Fahim exclaimed.
"And a poor liar to boot!" Rasika said. It was enough to make Puneet's heart sink.
"Tell us the correct order of the events now!" Fahim ordered Puneet.
"You met my spy after you had obtained the parchment, right?" Rasika approached the spy.
Puneet fell on his knees.
"After I got the parchment, we were attacked in the city square. The men attacked us with stones. I was hit on my shoulder and on my back but I managed to run away. The attackers were busy targetting my partner. I ran for I was scared. I wanted to save my life. Before boarding the shuttle, I was approached by two men who knew my name and who dragged me to the marketplace where I once again managed to give them the slip. That was when I ran into the three men harassing Leela."
Rasika slapped Puneet. The blow was so hard that he was knocked sideways and fell on the ground.
"You did no such thing!" She snarled at him. She gestured to him to get up and when Puneet got on his feet, Rasika slapped him again, the blow cutting his lips open.
"You ran into her in panic and you were the one who sought her help. She sent a detailed report about it. She did take you to a safe house but she left you there and went away to fulfill her mission. She never returned for her life was in grave danger from the spies of Abitsar." She leaned down, grabbed Puneet by his neck and asked him to tell the truth.
It took some time to get the correct story out of Puneet. Rasika and Shakti beat him brutally whenever they doubted a part of his story. Fahim sat on his diwan and watched the grisly drama with unfeigned glee.
That night when Puneet was dropped in the safe house by Leela, he got scared of the empty house and could not sleep the whole night. When dawn broke, he made a run to the shuttle point again. He hopped in the very first shuttle leaving the town but the men looking for him the previous evening were in the shuttle and they dragged him out. He was blindfolded and taken to a house where he was thrashed brutally. The men kept claiming that he had stolen money from one of their men in the drinking house and he kept professing his innocence. The parchment must have been replaced then but he never saw anyone trifling with his possession. Puneet was told about the practice of stoning a thief and the men boasted that they had managed to prolong the death of the two thieves. The trick was to not hit the thief on his head with the stones. The stories were gory and embellished with lies but they did their job. Puneet was left scared for his life. He was then made the offer of choosing death or choosing to work as a spy for Abitsar. He chose life and was then allowed to leave. In fact, the men escorted him to the shuttle point and ensured that he caught the right shuttle. When Puneet was left alone, he checked for the parchment and when he saw that it was still there he felt relieved.
"So you are scared of death, are you?" Fahim asked Puneet who could not meet the scornful gaze of the chief of internal affairs. "Well, then we don't have any use for you. But you will still get a chance to live if you can tell us what was there in that original parchment."
Puneet had not opened the parchment but he had heard his contact person in the prison cell mutter a word that he could not make any sense of. The word was 'MACE'. His cell mate kept saying 'the mace is hard' and 'the mace kills men'.
Fahim was so shocked that he jumped to his feet. The incredible sight made Rasika let out a whistle. Fahim made Puneet repeat the word then clapped his hands in delight.
"The mission was a spectacular success then!" He laughed. "Halim would be proud of his men."
"What do we do with this wretch?" Shakti asked him.
"Well, Halim needs a man to replace his fallen comrade. Send him to Halim's training compound. Let him know that this guy is as slippery as an eel."
Shakti had never seen an eel before and he had no idea of how slippery an eel can get but he had heard Puneet's account and the alacrity that Puneet had shown in giving slip to his pursuers time and again was nothing but most remarkable. He dragged Puneet up and left the tent.
"Shall I take my leave?" Rasika asked him.
"Yes! Yes!" Fahim walked around excitedly. "But would you do another job for me?"
"Your wish is my command!"
"There is a prisoner I want you to contact but take all the precautions. He was caught alive during the attempt to kidnap Sujoy, our young prince. I have seen that he had stayed alive all these days. Some days back an elite soldier made contact with him. I was not aware of any such meeting."
Rasika was stunned into silence. She could not believe her ears that something happened in Tribhanga without Fahim's prior knowledge of it when it involved an elite soldier and a prisoner. She wondered who could it be who dared challenge Fahim.
"The elite soldier died soon after the meeting but the prisoner is still alive. You need to meet him but take all precautions." He approched her and whispered the details in her ears. Rasika took her leave shortly.
Fahim was the only person in the tent who knew the significance of the word 'MACE'. He was thrilled to the core as he recollected the name of the person to be identified by the word mace. It was the queen's personal aide. Fahim rubbed his hands in delight. Could the involvement of the queen's personal aide mean that the queen was in the know of the daring attack on the underground prison? What else did the frail woman know? Fahim hated the queen for she was the one who propped Omar up and he knew that if the queen had her way he would have been sacked long time back. He needed to play his cards well. If he knew that Rasika was sending one of her best spies to the palace to meet the queen's aide, he might have been rushed to make his move. But he didn't know about it and he kept walking around in circles in his tent as he plotted the downfall of the queen.
Puneet was taken to the gate of the training compound maintained by Halim but Shakti turned around and took Puneet along with him. For some moments Puneet walked in daze, unsure of what was happening around him. Shakti released him some distance away.
"You did the right thing!" Shakti whispered to him. "You chose life! Take the first shuttle to Alkagiri and go to the drinking house near the city square. Seek the man with the iron jowl there. Stay safe." He walked away without looking back at him. He was in a hurry to send a report to Omar to let him know that the word 'MACE' has found its way to Fahim.
Puneet wondered if he did the right thing by choosing life. He was now embroiled in a drama where Fahim and Omar were at loggerheads. Fahim would soon find out about him and then he would be killed. He could be tortured for days too. Would he have the strength to save his benefactor Shakti? He turned around and went back to Halim's training compound and let the guard know about his arrival. He chose life at Narwhal and he almost got killed. He now chose death and felt a great peace descend on him.
-- Author's note -- this story is set in the same universe as the stories An Elite Problem and The Prisoner's Secret though this story is meant to be a stand alone entry.