The night lay silent, blanketing the landscape in a dark shroud. The moon was a sickle in the sky, not giving enough light to illuminate the earth. The shadowy outline of a large building was barely discernible. The faint light of the moon shimmered over the surface of the river nearby. The night was cold though Sharad had not yet given way to Hemanta.
The sound of an oar splashing broke the silence, and a boat came gliding by, a small lantern bobbing on its prow. It was a small boat, similar to the ones used to transport passengers and goods from one bank to the other. But unlike such ferry boats, this one was covered, almost like one of the pleasure boats used by the nobility.
“Halt here,” a gruff voice spoke and the boatman paddled the boat close to the bank. A man jumped out. Another man threw him a rope which he used to pull the boat closer to the shore and tied it to a tree. The second man too jumped ashore.
“Where are they?” whispered the second man. His voice was soft.
“They’ll be here,” said the first man.
“It is cold,” shivered the second man. “I don’t like this waiting, Ruchika.”
“You’re being paid for it,” replied Ruchika.
“I don’t like dealing with Kshatriyas,” grumbled the other man. “They pay, but they make us do things that are beneath us.”
“You’re a hired assassin, Madana,” said Ruchika. “What is that which is beneath you?”
“Exactly. I am an assassin, not a priest. If they want someone threatened or blackmailed, they should find a Brahmana!”
“I prefer the blackmail to strangling women and poisoning children,” said Ruchika.
“We are assassins. We are supposed to kill.”
“Not women and children. Not through poison and deceit.”
“Bah! You are too squeamish. What does it matter how they die?”
“Well, this job is a kill. That I can assure you.” There was some distaste in Ruchika’s voice.”
“You don’t seem too happy about it,” said Madana.
“There are some things that I do not like,” said Ruchika.
“Where are they?” Repeated Madana. “If the guards see us…”
“Guards?” Ruchika snorted. “No guards will bother us. It is the King’s own daughter who has hired us.”
“A Princess?” Madana was surprised. “Why?”
“You’ll see,” was Ruchika’s enigmatic reply.
A faint scraping sound was heard and both men stood alert. An aperture opened at the side of the building, large enough for a person and out of it emerged two women, followed by one man. The woman in front was small, almost a child, and was carrying a lamp.
“I think it is them,” muttered Ruchika.
They stood their ground as the woman walked up to them, followed by the other woman, who was carrying a small bundle and the man who was carrying a small chest. The chest appeared to be heavy.
The woman halted a few feet away from them. She made a gesture to the man with her and he laid the chest in front of them with some difficulty.
“Payment in full, in advance, as agreed,” she said. Her voice was low and cultured. And she seemed but a girl.
She gestured to the man who opened the chest which was full of gold coins. The two hired killers looked at each other and nodded.
“Who’s the target?” Asked Ruchika.
The woman made another gesture, this time to the other woman who laid the bundle she was carrying on top of the coins. They could now see that the bundle contained a baby, barely a week old, fast asleep.
“Drown it!” Said the girl viciously. “But do it only after the sun has risen. It won’t wake till then.”
She turned around and went back into the building followed by her retinue, leaving the two men gaping after her. They looked at the chest full of coins, now obscured by the sleeping form of their target.
“A baby?” Asked Madana in a horrified voice. “She wants us to kill a baby? Who is she anyway?”
“She’s the princess who hired us,” said Ruchika, picking up the sleeping infant. “And if you don’t want her men to hound you for the rest of your life, you’ll do exactly as she said.”
“Why did she want us to do it after sunrise?” Asked Madana as he picked up the chest with some difficulty and followed Ruchika to the boat.
Ruchika shrugged. “Whims of royalty, maybe. Or maybe she does not want it drowned within her kingdom.”
The two men clambered on to the boat with some difficulty, Madana untying the rope. The boatman picked up the long pole he used to push away from the bank.
“If we are to drown it, we better do it now, while it is still asleep,” said Madana.
“The princess said after sunrise,” said Ruchika.
“I thought you didn’t like killing children,” said Madana.
“I don’t,” said Ruchika. “But I have to live.”
“What is the name of that princess?”
“They call her Kunti. But her real name is something else.”
“Hers, if rumour is to be believed.”
Madana shivered. “And I thought I was cold blooded.” He paused. “If it wakes, it could start crying and that is going to attract attention. Drown it now, I say! What difference would it make? How’s she going to know?”
“This river isn’t deep enough,” hissed Ruchika. “The body will wash ashore in her own lands. Some servant from the palace will recognize it! How long do you think we’ll live once that has happened?”
“The fish will eat it. It won’t be recognizable!”
“Are you prepared to take that chance?”
“We would reach the Ganga soon. I am not drowning an infant in the Ganga!”
Ruchika considered and then nodded reluctantly. “We better drown him here, then. Here, I’ve an idea.”
He spread a blanket on the bottom and emptied the chest’s contents on to it. Then he put another blanket inside the chest and put the infant on top. He took a few handful of coins and scattered them on top.
“For extra weight,” he explained.
Madana nodded. Once Ruchika closed the chest, he picked it up. It seemed curiously weightless now that it held only a sleeping infant. He threw the chest onto the dark waters of Aswanadi where it sank.
“There, the body won’t wash ashore now,” said Madana.
“Let’s hope not,” said Ruchika.
“Let’s go away to the north for a while,” said Madana as he sat down.
“All right,” said Ruchika.
Madana shivered again. “This job gives me the goosebumps.”
Ruchika chuckled as he brought out a small flask.
“How about something to keep us warm?”
The two men drank deeply. The boat drifted away from the shores of Kunti, towards the wide expanses of the Ganga.
In the darkness, they did not see the chest bobbing in the waves, in their wake.