The bells in the watchtower tolled twelve times and the final toll reverberated slowly into their usual grim silence. The night was so cold that even the moon preferred to hide behind a thick blanket of clouds. All the residents of Trishnapur were sleeping soundly in their warm beds. Well, almost all. Ranjit Singh, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Army of Trishnapur, meditatively paced about his private chambers as the thick candles in his room dutifully burned overtime.
That afternoon, Maharaja Devendra Pratap had summoned him and ordered him to immediately begin preparations for an invasion of Suvarnanagar. The Maharaja also wanted to know by the next day how long it would take the army to be ready for the attack. Annexing Suvarnanagar had been Maharaja's coveted dream for a long time. It was a small kingdom on the northern border of Trishnapur with a formidable army of highly trained men. But it was not that fact that vexed Ranjit Singh the most, for he had fought and won against much stronger battalions in his fifteen years of blemishless service. The seeds of his anxiety were rooted elsewhere.
A few days back Ranjit Singh had gone hunting with some of his close friends and associates. While returning they had passed through some of the villages dotting the expansive kingdom. He was utterly shocked by the plight of the villagers, struggling to make both ends meet. The farmers had been relegated to a state of starvation, although the land of Trishnapur yielded rich harvests year after year. Some children, on their way to 'work' at a nearby small-scale factory, had stared at their retinue with a hollow gaze, their eyes searching for a childhood each life deserves. The only trusted companions of the peasants seemed to be death and disease. Ranjit Singh discovered that the high taxes required to sustain the exorbitant expenses of the army, perpetually busy with warfare, were responsible for this condition. He also learned that similar situations existed throughout most of the countryside, and most of the people were highly dissatisfied with the decadent administration.
Since his return, Ranjit Singh had been extremely restless. The revelation of the other side of the picture had triggered a disturbing thought process. Until this awakening, he had been immensely proud of his achievements and services to his motherland. His belief that the wealth generated from the innumerable conquests was bringing prosperity to the land had been struck down in a swift, cruel motion. As a member of the elite, he took life for granted, and had never questioned how the society he existed in operated. Now he had realised the evils of his society, and even more horrifying, the evil in his complicity to promote it. To add to his woes, Ranjit Singh had also heard alarming news from his informants that word of rebellion against the empire was brewing in the capital.
Ranjit Singh paused, and gazed for a moment upon his chambers. The sight of the expensive chandelier, the dagger and shield studded with select precious stones proudly adorning the wall (a gift from the defeated Maharaja of Mahaur given after the collapse of his army), the decorative table carved entirely out of elephant tusks (a trophy from their historic win over the Pururvas) sickened him - his mind was filled only with the images of the sub-human conditions his fellow countrymen struggled in. Even the priceless necklace of true pearls, which had been gifted to him by Maharaja Devendra Pratap himself, seemed to suffocate him.
He resumed pacing across the hall as his mind desperately groped for a fitting reply to the Maharaja. There was no doubt that the army needed no more than a fortnight to regroup and prepare for an attack that would overwhelm their opposition. The military man in him took over, as his mind fell into the familiar rhythm of devising an invincible strategy. First he would have a small fraction of the army launch a boisterous attack from the southern border of Suvarnanagar, drawing out and engaging a large part of their eager army. Then the real muscle of Trishnapur's forces would cross the huge lake on the western border of Suvarnanagar, regarded as a natural moat by the Suvarnanagar army, and strike an unexpected, lethal blow from that front. Ranjit Singh was confident that the second battalion would decimate the remnant defences in the capital of Suvarnanagar, and their king and senior ministers would be sitting ducks. "But what is all of it really worth?" pondered Ranjit Singh, returning to the issue at hand. "Another victory that would undoubtedly harvest an abundance of extravagant treasures, all of it to be hoarded by the Maharaja in order to gratify his lust for grand palaces and colossal temples in his name. And any surplus would be greedily lapped up by his sycophant courtiers or carelessly gifted away to dandy musicians or nubile dancers. Not even the smallest portion would find its way back to the common men who kept the wheels of the economy going with their sweat and blood."
"Should I acquiesce with the Maharaja's wishes, in accordance with the oath I had taken, an oath to be loyal to the Maharaja till the last drop of blood in my body? Or should I stand up boldly for the cause of my countrymen and persuade him to abandon his destructive plans, and concentrate on the welfare of the people? I can also warn him of the discontentment brewing in the kingdom and a possible rebellion. The real dilemma is whether I should attach my loyalties with my motherland or with the king who rules her. Will my ancestors who have served the throne with total submission of their body and soul ever forgive me for defying the authority of my leader?" reflected Ranjit Singh with a heavy heart. The larger-than-life portraits of his great-grandfathers loomed silently over him, as if observing him and awaiting a decision.
Ranjit Singh sighed and slowly walked up to the window. The closed quarters of his mind seemed to open up as he inhaled the fresh, cool breeze. He had finally reached a decision. He decided that his duty to the nation was foremost. He would explain the situation to the Maharaja and try his best to convince him to put the interests of the ruled ranks above everything else. Devendra Pratap had to understand that there was no option but to provide the citizens a life of peace, prosperity and contentment. But if he chose to ignore this viewpoint, Ranjit Singh would refuse to continue as the main instrument of suffering of the people. And even if it scorched his conscience beyond recognition, he would overthrow the Maharaja from the position he had dishonoured for so long! "At least I can count on the army's fierce loyalty to me, and can be certain that the generals would not shirk from even opposing the crown, if the need arose", thought Ranjit Singh with a wry smile. He would then usher in a new era in Trishnapur, aimed at repairing the badly damaged social fibre of the state.
With a light heart, he blew out the candles and stretched out on his bed. Soon he was asleep and snoring soundly. It wasn't long when a shadow emerged from the window and stealthily walked up to the bed. The intruder sneered on seeing a contented smile on the commander-in-chief's face. He covered Ranjit Singh's face with a pillow to stifle any sounds, and stabbed him repeatedly till his body stopped convulsing.
The assassin, pleased with the success of his assignment, tiptoed to the window. Before jumping out, he looked back and thought, "Long live the revolution!! One of the biggest traitors of the country is dead. And other traitors will be felled just like he has been. Our struggle has begun, and we will not stop till our dream of offering justice to all people and providing them a life of peace, prosperity and contentment materialises."