The Architect rose as the King entered the empty tent that was erected for visitors, inside the fort. Though the Architect had constructed special reception centers decorated with frescos, the King had decided against entertaining guests there until he deemed fit. The Architect’s own camp was almost empty. His men had started leaving the camp some days ago, slowly, one group after the other, looking forward to, and at the same time despising the long journey back to their homes and their wives.
“I am pleased with your design and construction of the fortress, Architect!”
“I am honoured, Majesty”, the Architect murmured, bowing low to the king.
“The Chief Minister and General take care of these things. However, I hear that you insistently requested to speak with me?”
“I care very little for such impudence, young man. What is it?”
The Architect lifted his averted eyes, a quiet smile played around his mouth. “I waited many days to meet you. Because what I want to share with you cannot be spoken, only shown. And what I show must be for your eyes only, else it would be futile.”
Intrigued, the King sat himself down on the diwan.
“I have built fortresses for many a Southern King. Their mighty armies do not discount their fears- and those are rightful fears. In most cases, the enemy lies within, not beyond, for the greatest of kings have been murdered, not in the battlefield but in their beds.”
A shadow crossed the King’s impassive face.
“What is your point?”
“The value of a Kingdom is measured by the life that beats in its King’s chest.”
The King gave the briefest of nods, which caused his body guards to exit the tent.
“I have created two escape routes for you from within this fortress, and it is my duty to show these to you, before I leave. They are for your use, should your life be in peril, because of an unfaithful friend or a greater foe, which is very unlikely under your powerful reign” said the Architect.
The King’s eyes gleamed.
“You will show them to me now”
“I am delighted with your work, young man!” the King exclaimed, as the Architect showed him the second escape route. He removed a large diamond studded ring from his forefinger and handed it to the Architect, “I want you to keep this, and you will construct every fort that I commission from today!”
“You are very generous, Majesty” the Architect bowed low again.
The Architect and the King were now by the well, within the fort. It was large, empty and deep, with stone steps leading to the bottom.
“I see you have timed the construction well. The rains approach and the well will fill in a few days”
“Yes, and the well is at considerable distance from the third darwaza and I have given it watch guards, should anybody try to poison the source of water for the fortress.”
The Architect took a step closer to the King. Before the Architect knew it, the King had unsheathed his sword.
The Architect’s passive face betrayed no emotion.
“Lord, here is the last route you should take, should all else fail”
The King was taken aback.
“There is one more?”
“Yes, Lord. My men know the escapes I showed you. They created those. These are not mere escapes. These are two entry points into the castle as well, hidden though they are. My men are trustworthy, but are men after all. But this last one- this one was designed by me. And the man who laboured for this particular route sleeps beneath the floor of the well. I killed him with my own hands and buried him”
The King’s sharp, kohl lined eyes looked at the Architect’s own with appreciation.
“Lead me to it”
The men climbed down the steps to the floor of the well. The Architect felt the blocks of stone with his hands, one at a time, as he walked around the perimeter. He gestured to the King when he found the right rock. When the King touched it, the ingenuity amazed him- it was cold granite, unlike the other warm, sun soaked stones, yet it looked pale brown like the others.
The Architect effortlessly pushed the rock inside a few inches until he heard a click, and then he moved it to the right. There were discreet abrasions that enabled him to claw his fingers and pull or move the rock.
The men lunged themselves up. The King saw steep steps leading into the darkness above.
“There are 162 such steps. They lead into the palace of your concubines, by the river”
“The last place a King would expect to be found during war”
“Where arrangements can be made should there be need for escape” concluded the Architect
“What about the water from the well? Would it not rise?”
“It will rise, but it will not beyond the seventh step.” They had reached the seventh step where the wall had provision to hold a flame-torch, a bowl of oil and some matches.
The men walked through the tunnel, and after a few minutes they could smell and hear the river. The Architect released a trap door and saw the King’s triumphant face in the sliver of sunlight that entered the tunnel.
“We will return now” announced the King, and the Architect shut the trap door enveloping them both in darkness once again.
(To be Continued)