AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti beta-ing this chapter! Please note that this chapter will likely be revised later; but I wanted to break the far-too-long stretch between new chapters, so here's a temporary upload. Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
CHAPTER FIVE: THE CONTEST
Duryodhana had never really bothered to notice birthdays before, either his own or anybody else's; he had a brother having a birthday almost every day of the year, after all, so a birthday was never much of anything special, unless someone insisted on making a big deal out of it. Or unless a particular birthday was particularly depressing. Duryodhana thought this was the case the morning that he woke up, realized that he was thirty years old, and still not a king.
"This is getting ridiculous," he complained, hauling himself over the edge of the swimming pool where he swam laps with Arjuna every morning. He stood up and pulled a robe around himself, much to the disappointment of the serving girls he could see watching him discreetly from the wings. "Your father was the king by the time that he was ten years old."
Arjuna treaded water at the edge of the pool, pondering this. Duryodhana thought that Arjuna looked ridiculous in his swimming goggles, but if the boy had eye problems, then the boy had eye problems. "That was because Grandpa died early," Arjuna finally pointed out.
"But I mean, come on. Don't tell me that your brother isn't getting impatient, either."
"If he is, he doesn't show it." Arjuna also climbed up out of the pool. Duryodhana watched him carefully, wondering to himself just when exactly Arjuna had gone from being the pale, skinny, useless little boy that he remembered to the tall, sun-darkened, well-muscled young man standing in front of him. Perhaps the influence of that crazy priest had been good for something, after all.
"Besides," Arjuna continued, also slipping a robe around his shoulders, "it kind of seems to be a good deal, having both of you running everything."
Duryodhana snorted. "You can't have two kings. Grandpa Bhisma should have made a choice years ago. He should make a choice now. Somebody should tell him to make a choice now." Duryodhana looked at Arjuna carefully. "You'll come with me, won't you?"
"To talk to Grandpa Bhisma. If he won't listen to me, then he'll listen to you."
"He doesn't listen to me--"
"He let you keep that crazy priest as your pet, didn't he?"
Arjuna's face darkened for a moment. "That's not..." Then he shook his head. "What, go now?"
"It's four in the morning. He won't even be awake yet. And..." Arjuna suddenly looked embarrassed. "There's something else I have to do this morning." He scratched the back of his neck. "Mr. Drona told me to start standing on one leg this morning--"
"So? How long do you have to do that?"
"Um, about three weeks."
Duryodhana rolled his eyes. "Arjuna, why in the five hells...?"
"Well, sometimes, if I hold the position long enough, Ican reach a higher state of consciousness."
"You're sure that you're really reaching a 'higher state of consciousness' and not just... hallucinating?"
"Pretty sure," said Arjuna. "And then I can enter a higher plane of existence and become one with the universe. Supposedly."
"And how's that going for you?"
"Listen, that's priest stuff. You're a prince. You can't spend all of your time standing on one leg and becoming one with the universe. Besides, you don't need to understand the fundamental truths of the Gods or anything like that." Duryodhana waved his hand dismissively. "You're a prince, you can have your own priest to do that for you."
"But maybe I want to--!" Arjuna suddenly burst out, then abruptly bit his lip, as if ashamed of his outburst.
"Want to what?" Duryodhana asked, his arms crossed impatiently across his chest.
But Arjuna looked away from him, unable to answer. "I thought so," Duryodhana huffed, and turned and strode away, wet feet slapping the tiles beneath him as he went.
Duryodhana endured his attendants dressing and cleaning him, then wandered off to find Grandpa Bhisma. Perhaps sensing the mood he was in, nobody within the palace bothered to accost him with any official business. At one point, Duryodhana paused in front of a hanging mirror and admired himself for a moment - just a moment. Thirty years old, still heartbreakingly handsome, still unwed, still not a king. Not bothering to hide the few gray hairs that had begun to speckle his locks. Also not bothering to hide the dark circles under his eyes, either. Those resulted from a lack of a sleep - and Duryodhana could easily blame that on the stress of his job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he was often woken in the middle of the night by whispering voices around his ears, speaking in a language he could not recognize, belonging to speakers he could not see.
Duryodhana shook his head and moved on. By this time his bodyguards were following him. He duly ignored them. Down another hallway, around a corner, and Duryodhana paused when he saw someone bent over and furiously polishing a golden railing trailing off the end of a staircase.
"Yuyutsu?" Duryodhana sounded aghast.
Yuyutsu looked up, a smudge of polish on his cheek. "Your Highness," he mumbled, falling into an embarrassed bow.
"Get up," Duryodhana said testily, reaching over to slap the polishing rag out of Yuyutsu's hand, "and stop that. What do you think you're doing?!"
Yuyutsu looked from the railing to Duryodhana and back to the railing again. "It needed to be done, and nobody else would do it," he said simply, not looking Duryodhana in the eyes.
"This is ridiculous. You're my brother. I can't believe that Father would let you--" Duryodhana gestured sharply. "Follow me. You and I both have something to talk to Grandpa Bhisma about."
Yuyutsu hurried to rub the polish off his cheek. "Your Highness, I only have half an hour before breakfast service begins--"
Duryodhana's step faltered for a moment, as he remembered how Yuyutsu had been bringing him and Dusshasana their breakfast during their morning debriefings every day for the past two years. "You can skip that today," Duryodhana finally declared, haughtily. "I want to have you with me."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Duryodhana took two more steps, then turned and glared at the bodyguard closest to him. "And I want you to go away," he hissed.
The bodyguards began floating away from him. Duryodhana was within the inner heart of the palace now, and knew that he was safe, even without his entourage of guards. Yuyutsu followed him dutifully, until Duryodhana slowed down and paused, two doors away from his destination. He glanced around - the hallway around him was empty of bodyguards or servants. He was alone, save for Yuyutsu. But he could hear voices coming from nearby.
"Your Highness...?" Yuyutsu whispered.
Duryodhana held a finger up to his lips. "You and I are going to talk to Grandpa Bhisma," he said, although he began tiptoeing forward, toward the closed door of his grandfather's study, in a manner which indicated that he had absolutely no intention of betraying his presence until he was ready. Yuyutsu followed suit, quietly following his brother.
Duryodhana pressed his ear against the door of the study, listening for the voices within. "Mustn't interrupt until the right moment," he mumbled quietly, when he sensed Yuyutsu shooting him a curious look from behind his back. So Duryodhana breathed quietly, and listened. The door beneath his ear was blocking out most sound, but with a whispered prayer and a twist of the ice inside of him, Duryodhana found that he could easily hear through the door as if it were not even there at all. This was another useful trick that he had perfected during his many long, sleepless nights.
And what Duryodhana heard was his Grandpa Bhisma, sounding angry. "Years ago," Bhisma said, his voice impatient, "I did my part years ago! It's high time you stopped delaying--"
"And I still insist," Duryodhana's father said calmly, "that your decision may have been premature."
Duryodhana's breath caught in his throat. He had not expected his father to be with Grandpa Bhisma. He also recognized the tone of voice that his father was using - that calm, stubborn, unmoving tone of voice that he only used when he had his heart completely set on one thing and would not be persuaded away from it by anything or anyone.
"You made a promise to your brother," Bhisma retorted, "and Pandu trusted you to protect that promise, even after he was gone. The decision was left to me and the High Council. We have decided. Now if you would just do your part and carry out your duty as a king--"
"Correct. I am the king. And you have no right to ask me to do this - not to my son."
"You can't keep delaying this forever," Bhisma hissed, sounding like an angry snake. "Yudhisthira--"
"Yudhisthira has many weaknesses unbefitting a ruler."
"As does Duryodhana!" Bhisma snapped. "The High Council and I know these things! We debated and we deliberated, and we made the decision that Yudhisthira will be the next king."
Duryodhana sank down to his knees, his legs turning to pudding. His hands flopped down into the soft carpet beneath him. Something in his brain snapped, blanked - something refused to process. What? he thought, numbly. What?! WHAT?!
Duryodhana heard his father start to say something else, but Yuyutsu suddenly tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, in a strange, strangled voice, "Your Highness!"
Duryodhana looked down and saw the curls of ice radiating out from his hands, meandering their way across the carpet up and down the hallway.
Duryodhana looked up at Yuyutsu, who was slowly backing away from him, his normally dark face curiously drained of color, his eyes large and wet. "You..." Duryodhana croaked. "You saw..."
"No, no!" Yuyutsu shook his head. "I didn't see anything - I didn't hear anything!" He took another step backward, trembling. "I didn't...!"
But then Duryodhana looked down, and saw the icy footprints that Yuyutsu was leaving on the carpet in front of him. "I can't control it either!" Yuyutsu moaned, clutching his face with his hands.
Duryodhana stood up quickly, grabbing Yuyutsu's cold hand in his. "Come on," he whispered, quickly, urgently. "We have to get out of here before they hear us." Before they see us, Duryodhana added, as he dragged Yuyutsu down the hallway. Duryodhana wished that the ice they had left on the carpet would just vanish, and a moment later, a glance over his shoulder told him that it had.
Arjuna found that it was hard to concentrate on the sound of his own breathing, when he had so many other things to think about. The pain in his one standing leg, for one thing. His conversation with Duryodhana that morning, for another.
Drona, who was sitting next to Arjuna, folded up his newspaper and glanced up at his standing charge. "You're wobbling," he pointed out.
"I'm thinking," Arjuna admitted.
"An entirely foolish enterprise." Drona stood up briskly. The two of them were in a deliberately empty room behind the quarters where Drona's family lived, where Arjuna was often left for days and weeks to practice his yogic skills.
Arjuna sighed. It was his brother's birthday and he hadn't been able to see Yudhisthira that morning. Ashwatthama hadn't been around for weeks, busy shadowing Mr. Dhaumya on his daily errands. And Duryodhana thought that Arjuna was wasting his time trying to achieve a higher state of consciousness, and Arjuna was halfway beginning to believe that he was right--
"Mm?" Drona was suddenly standing alert, his ears pricked, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He slowly set down his newspaper, and his hand began sliding inside his coat, where Arjuna knew he kept a small Ayoguda-class firearm.
Arjuna set down his other leg. "What is it?" he whispered.
"Something that should not be here." Drona pulled out his gun and slowly began edging toward one of the bare walls of the room. "Asura. Or rakshasa. Or perhaps an assassin come for you." Drona lowered the firearm and aimed. "One must always be vigilant, even within the walls of one's own home."
Arjuna listened to the skittering, scratching sounds coming from behind the wall. He suddenly thought that it would be nice if it really were an asura back there, just so that he could finally see one and stop having all of these nagging doubts about whether his teacher really was insane or not.
"Get behind me," Drona hissed. "And draw your bow."
Arjuna knelt behind his teacher, Gandiva coming alive in his hands - a taught and deadly weapon of woven thunder and lightning. Arjuna drew an arrow and aimed at the sounds behind the wall. Then he held himself at ready, waiting. Mr. Drona did, too. They were waiting for whatever it was to make the first move.
And it did.
There! Arjuna thought, and the arrow flew from his bow and pierced the small gray thing that came bursting out of a crack where the wall meet the floor. There was an explosion of crackling electricity and flying raindrops when the arrow hit its target.
Drona pulled back his firearm. "A drone?" he asked, stepping toward whatever-it-was, now impaled by Arjuna's arrow. "Did somebody send an assassin drone after you?"
"No," Arjuna said, reaching down to pick up his own arrow and the tiny metal ball, sparking and sputtering and shivering, pierced on the end of it. "My little brothers made this thing last week. Nakula said that it was a toy for Sama's cat." He laughed. "I think it was probably trying to get away from the cat. Maybe it got lost."
Drona held out his hand, and Arjuna handed over the arrow to him. Drona held it up carefully, turning it over and over in his hands, peering at the small machine slowly dying on the end of the arrow. "This thing is agile," he said, "and intelligent." He pressed a button on the bottom of the machine, and a half-hearted splutter of laser-fire fizzled out toward the wall. Drona looked up at Arjuna, raising one eyebrow. "Your brother gave this cat toy a laser?"
"Yeah, that... That does sound like something Nakula would do."
Drona looked down at the cat toy again, then back up at Arjuna. "I would like to speak with your brother," he said, in his heavy Panchalan accent.
Arjuna blinked up at him. "Why?"
"Because I have an interesting idea."
Arjuna suddenly felt as if he were being left out of some sort of joke. "I thought you said thinking was a foolish enterprise," he pointed out, petulantly.
"For those who are not priests, yes." Drona turned away from his student, striding out of the room.
The two of them were alone in Duryodhana's private quarters when Duryodhana threw a stunned and trembling Yuyutsu down on his bed, standing over him and glowering, "How long?!"
"As long as I can remember," Yuyutsu gasped, red-eyed and watery-voiced. "Ice and fire and everything else, too. It comes out of me, sometimes, when I'm scared or when I'm sick."
Duryodhana listened to this, his brain racing in a dozen different directions at once. Grandpa Bhisma decided years ago. Father refused to tell anyone. He still refuses. Yudhisthira. YUDHISTHIRA! How in the hell could anybody ever choose--?!
"They talk to me at night, too," Yuyutsu moaned.
"Who?!" Duryodhana demanded, his attention suddenly snapping back to Yuyutsu.
"The asuras." Yuyutsu looked up at Duryodhana, his eyes pleading. "They're not just inside my head, are they? You can hear them too? I'm not crazy, am I?!"
"There's no such thing as asuras," Duryodhana insisted. "Not anymore." Father won't let this happen. He won't let anyone take my throne away from me. But Grandpa Bhisma, how could he--?!
Yuyutsu was standing up slowly, shaking his head. "No, they're real. They come to me at night. They taught me how to speak their language."
Duryodhana breathed in and out, slowly. "No, Yuyutsu. That's crazy. You and I don't hear voices at night. Whatever we have, it didn't come from asuras - this is a gift from the Gods--"
"Are there more like us?" Yuyutsu asked. "If I'm not the only one, and if you're not the only one, then--"
"None of my brothers have this," Duryodhana said, reaching out to touch Yuyutsu's hand. Ice crackled between their fingertips. "I know. Because none of them can keep a secret from me."
"I practice at night," Yuyutsu said, beginning to calm down a bit. "When Mother is asleep, that's when the asuras come to me. I was afraid of them at first, but then I learned to listen to them. Their language is beautiful. They taught me how to use my maya."
"It's not maya. It can't be. Only asuras can use maya." Duryodhana gripped Yuyutsu by the shoulders, suddenly panicked. "You and I are humans!" he insisted. Then he abruptly let go of Yuyutsu, causing him to stumble backward. "It's a gift from the Gods," Duryodhana mumbled, pacing back and forth. "It's a gift to Father's line. It's a sign. You and I, Yuyutsu--" Duryodhana turned to his brother, his eyes wild, blazing with the frightening inner fire of conviction. "We will be kings, Yuyutsu. We were meant to be. When I am the king, I will give you half the kingdom. You won't have to be a servant anymore!"
"We don't have much time." Duryodhana gripped Yuyutsu's shoulders again. "Yudhisthira will get the throne if we don't do something. You heard what they said back there."
Yuyutsu looked up at his brother, his mouth opening and closing, struggling to say something.
"But nobody can know!" Duryodhana suddenly shouted, shaking Yuyutsu angrily. "If anybody knew about what we could do, it would be the end of us! The High Council would destroy us--"
"Perhaps we are asuras," Yuyutsu said, slowly. "Perhaps we should be destroyed--"
"No!" Duryodhana shook his head vigorously. "Don't ever say that! You and I, Yuyutsu - we're human - we're kings - we're the good guys. Even if our gift did come from asuras--" Duryodhana gripped Yuyutsu's hands in his own. "You and I will use it for good. You and I can use this thing for Kuru's sake."
It was late in the day on Yudhisthira's otherwise unspectacular birthday. He had been sitting through a meeting with his Prime Ministers for four hours, and his eyes were constantly in danger of glazing over or even worse, closing, when Sanjaya appeared out of nowhere, tapped him on the shoulder, and mouthed, "Dinner. Now."
Yudhisthira had never been more grateful to be interrupted in the midst of something important for something as trivial as food.
But Yudhisthira was more than a little surprised when Sanjaya led him down into the formal dining hall, where all of his cousins and brothers were milling and slowly taking their seats, dressed in their evening best. "What's going on tonight?" Yudhisthira asked as he took a seat beside his mother.
"Your uncle has an announcement to make," Yudhisthira's mother said, glancing sideways at Arjuna, who was attempting to stop Sahadeva from building an elaborate tower with his twenty pieces of silverware, "but not the announcement, or so I've heard. Something else, rather."
Yudhisthira began looking around the table, searching for Duryodhana. He really ought to wish Duryodhana a merry birthday, Yudhisthira thought. Then he spotted Duryodhana standing toward the opposite head of the long table, leaning over and whispering urgently into Yuyutsu's ear. Yudhisthira pushed back his seat and stood up, heading toward them. He thought that surely their conversation would be finished by the time Yudhisthira reached them. But as Yudhisthira drew closer to the both of them, he began to notice how drained of color Yuyutsu looked, how drawn and pinched. Yuyutsu was listening intently to Duryodhana and nodding occasionally, but he looked fearful, and worried.
Suddenly Yuyutsu's eyes flickered toward Yudhisthira, he opened his mouth and said something, and Duryodhana abruptly drew away from him. Duryodhana headed toward his cousin, smiling warmly. "One more year!" he said, embracing Yudhisthira's shoulders. "Now, I won't make any old age jokes if you won't."
"Hardly." Yudhisthira kissed his cousin's cheek. "Do you have any idea what's going on tonight?"
"Not a clue, save for the fact that it will be unimportant." Duryodhana pulled his arms away from Yudhisthira. "Father seems to have something harmless up his sleeve. I hope it's not another gala. Maybe he'll be taking us all to that resort in Agna. Something nice."
Yudhisthira opened his mouth to say something else, but Duryodhana suddenly turned his head and glanced over his shoulder, where Yuyutsu was still hovering, unsure and nervous. "You have to go," Duryodhana said, authoritatively, but not unkindly. "My mother will be here soon - you can't stay here. Tonight, remember?"
"Tonight," Yuyutsu mumbled, and vanished.
"That Yuyutsu," Duryodhana laughed, clapping Yudhisthira on his shoulder. "You know how Mother gets around him. Not a good idea to have them sitting at the same banquet table together."
Yudhisthira did not think that this was very funny, but he did not say as much. He left Duryodhana and returned to his seat, between Bhima and his mother, across from Arjuna and Nakula and Sahadeva.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Nakula was saying, waving one finger smugly in front of Arjuna's face. "Mr. Drona and I have all of the details worked out already."
"About what?!" Arjuna fumed.
"Hmmmm, that's a secret."
"You can't keep secrets from your brother!"
"Yes I can!" Nakula stuck out his tongue.
"Nakula!" Yudhisthira's mother was shocked. "Is that... When did you do that?!"
"Thith?" Nakula pointed at the metal stud embedded in his tongue. "Last week."
"Sahadeva!" Yudhisthira's mother admonished, pre-emptively.
"No, Mother," Sahadeva said, shaking his head. "I didn't pierce my tongue."
But she was not fooled. "Then what else did you get pierced?"
"I can't show you at the dinner table."
By this time, Bhima was pouring his mother a drink and mouthing, "His girlfriend will make him take it out."
"One can only hope."
Yudhisthira tried to hold his glass out to Bhima to receive his drink, but Bhima pulled back the pitcher of wine he was holding and said, "No."
"What do you mean, no?!"
"I mean no because I was with you last night, I saw how much you drank, and I feel like I owe a favor to your liver."
"Bhima," Yudhisthira hissed.
"He's right," Yudhisthira's mother said, placing her hand on his shoulder. "Drinking and smoking, what's next? Gambling?"
"Oh, that's sinful," Arjuna proclaimed from across the table. "Gambling, that is."
Yudhisthira glowered at his brother. The last thing he needed was Arjuna to start spouting off all of the strange religious dogma that he was absorbing from that crazy Panchalan priest. But mostly, Yudhisthira glowered because he was angry at himself, and grateful that neither Arjuna nor his mother knew about all of the gold and jewelry he had lost in a game of cards with Dusshasana the previous week.
"You must be under a lot of stress," Yudhisthira's mother said, softly.
Yudhisthira felt at least a little mollified by this. "Yes," he said, content to let that explain everything.
"Your father used to deal with stress in more constructive ways," Yudhisthira's mother went on. "For one thing, he would go hunting. For another thing, he had two wives." She gave Yudhisthira a pointed look. "You need a woman."
Yudhisthira groaned. Not this again.
"One that you marry this time," Yudhisthira's mother added.
Yudhisthira buried his face in his hands, which was his normal reaction when the world around him suddenly became too embarrassing to bear. Yudhisthira sensed that his mother was about to say something else, but fortunately, at that moment, the table fell quiet, a last few stragglers scrambled to their seats, and Dhritarashtra began speaking.
Yudhisthira partially tuned out his uncle as he spoke at some length about something or other, and then Mr. Dhaumya offered a sacrifice and said a prayer before the meal. Yudhisthira's thoughts focused instinctively, however, when the blind king said the words special announcement. Then he looked expectantly at Drona, whom Yudhisthira had not even been aware had been invited to the table.
Drona stood up and said, "In one month's time, Hastinapura will be host to the first inter-planetary martial championship held in the last two hundred years."
The table fell silent. And all eyes tried, at once, to discreetly glance at Arjuna, whose sun-darkened face suddenly somehow managed to flush scarlet. From nearly the opposite end of the table, Duryodhana caught Arjuna's eye and gave him an encouraging wink. Arjuna looked as if he would have gladly vanished from the face of the planet at that very moment. Yudhisthira could sympathize with the feeling.
"All of the great warriors and expert marksmen from Kuru's neighboring planets will be invited," Drona went on grandiosely, "to compete in contests of skills, including wrestling, fencing, archery, riflery, and races on foot and in water." He seemed to be the only one at the table pointedly not looking at Arjuna. "Although I have no doubt," he added, simply and without any flattery, "that the princes of Kuru will undoubtedly be crowned champions in any event they choose to enter."
Drona sat down, and the table erupted in an uproar. Yudhisthira could hear Duryodhana and his brothers already chattering about who would enter in what competitions. But Arjuna turned to Nakula and angrily demanded, "How did you know about this?!"
Nakula took a sip of his wine, nonchalantly. "The archers and marksmen are going to need targets. Moving targets. Intelligent targets. Possibly equipped with microwave lasers, although Mr. Drona wasn't too keen on that idea."
"This is wonderful," Yudhisthira forced himself to say, looking Arjuna squarely in the eye. "Now royalty from all the nearest planets will see you crowned champion of the archery competition."
Arjuna's cheeks flushed even redder.
"And it will be good for us, too," Yudhisthira rambled on, in the way that he was prone to ramble when he was trying to placate someone but aware that he was doing a poor job of it, "hosting something like this. Hastinapura will be shown off before the entire galaxy. Panchalans might even be there, can you believe that?"
Bhima snorted, at the idea of Panchalans in general.
"Will you compete?" Yudhisthira asked, suddenly turning to Bhima. "With your sword, that is."
"Only if Duryodhana also enters," Bhima said, with a small and not entirely pleasant smile on his lips.
It was hours after dinner, and Duryodhana was alone in his private study, when Arjuna suddenly stomped angrily out of nowhere and right up to him. "At dinner," he railed, "everybody was staring at me, and everybody was talking about me even if they were pretending like they weren't!" Duryodhana was startled by Arjuna, and nearly dropped the glass of wine he had been nursing. Arjuna seemed not to notice. "I'm tired of not being in on the joke!" he snarled. "I'm tired of being a joke!"
Duryodhana sighed, impatiently. He had had just about enough of Arjuna coming to him with every little whine and complaint. "Arjuna, I don't know if you were too dense to notice this, but tonight you were about as far from a joke as a person could be. You were the toast of the dinner."
"Isn't it obvious?" Duryodhana offered Arjuna a seat, but the young prince remained standing, fuming. "You're our Great Warrior. I've seen you break planetary records just practicing with your bow in the back gardens. Drona wants to show you off. And take some of the credit, of course. Plus it will be to our dynasty's credit if any of the guests at all feel impressed or even intimidated by you--"
"But this isn't just about me! Mr. Drona said that there would be more than just archery --"
"Oh, come off it, Arjuna. Of course this is about you. Do you think that Mr. Drona cares about any of the other events? They're just being included for tradition's sake. We all know that the real reason for all of this is so that you can show your skill with Gandiva to the rest of the universe."
Arjuna finally sat down, heavily. "He didn't ask me if I wanted to do that," Arjuna said, softly.
"Then he's giving you a gift." Duryodhana poured Arjuna a glass of wine, which Arjuna took but held limply in his hand. "Have you ever thought," Duryodhana said carefully, "that maybe you deserve to have a moment in the sun?"
Arjuna looked up sharply. "Pride is a sin," he said.
Duryodhana snorted. "Please."
"It is," Arjuna insisted, petulantly, childishly.
"All right, then. If you refuse to enjoy it, then this will be Mr. Drona's moment in the sun, at least."
Arjuna was silent for a long moment, starting at his reflection in the wine glass in his hand. "No," he finally said, softly. "Mr. Drona would never use me like that."
"Oh, please," Duryodhana said again.
Arjuna stood up angrily, sloshing his wine on his shirt, not even noticing. "Mr. Drona loves me," he said.
"That's likely true, but that doesn't mean that he would never use you. Everyone's a user, Arjuna. You're a prince, you should know that better than anyone." Duryodhana poured himself some more wine. "Because of you, Mr. Drona can live a life of luxury inside a royal palace, instead of the miserable life of an impoverished fugitive. Because of you, Mr. Drona's son is positioned to step right into the plushest and most stable position that a priest could possibly hold on Kuru. Because of you winning this upcoming archery contest, Mr. Drona will finally be able to publicly and conspicuously receive all of the glory and recognition that he thinks he - and he probably does, honestly - deserve. And it will all be done in front of Drupada, too. Don't think that Drupada and his children won't be there. You'll win against them in anything that they try, though. Don't think that you won't."
Arjuna stood staring at Duryodhana, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
"And it's not as if you've never used Mr. Drona," Duryodhana went on, waving his hand dismissively at Arjuna's shock. "If I remember correctly, you bought that man from Drupada. You wanted him to teach you and bring you glory. You wanted him to help you fulfill that silly Great Warrior prophecy. And now he has, so I don't understand where you think that you have the right to complain about it." Duryodhana frowned at his cousin. "If you would just get over yourself, maybe you might actually enjoy this entire contest that's being arranged almost entirely for your benefit, anyway."
That was when Arjuna turned and angrily stomped out of the room, without saying another word.
Duryodhana was not unrelieved to see him go. Not only had he had enough of Arjuna's existential whining to last a lifetime, but he was expecting Yuyutsu to show up at any moment, and he didn't want anyone around to see what the two of them were going to do next.
"It will be here, on the thirty-first day of the month," Nakula said, leaning over Yudhisthira's shoulder and pointing at the corresponding square on Yudhisthira's desktop calendar helpfully. "That gives Sahadeva and I enough time to build the drones for the archery targets."
For a moment, just a moment, Yudhisthira relished the feeling of his younger brother leaning over his shoulder, resting his weight on a hand he had placed on the back of Yudhisthira's neck. It was rare for Nakula to spend more than a few moments in Yudhisthira's presence without saying something calculated to raise his blood pressure, and it was rarer even still for there to be any sort of physical contact between them. Yudhisthira could not remember a time when Nakula had ever let himself be held or touched, at least not past when he had been four years old.
But then, of course, Nakula had to break the moment. He pulled his hand away from Yudhisthira, stood up straight, and said, "I really don't think that you should enter any of the competitions, though. You're too old."
Yudhisthira bristled. "I may have just had a birthday, Nakula, but I'm certainly not old."
"It's because you're getting gray hair," Nakula said. "It's a shame, really. Only fifty-something years old, and already getting gray hair."
"I'm twenty-nine years old, at least until twenty-one hundred hours tonight."
"Well, you look fifty-something." Nakula turned away from his brother. "It's stress. It will do that to a person. You ought to take after Arjuna, and try meditating sometimes."
Yudhisthira stood up angrily, following Nakula out of his study, trying to come up with a suitably witty retort to put his younger brother in his place. "Nakula, you--"
"Comm for you," Sahadeva suddenly said, popping up out of nowhere in front of Nakula. "It's Uncle Shalya."
Nakula seemed to cheer up instantly. "Do you think he heard about the contest? Is he coming? Is he entering anything?"
Sahadeva shrugged. "I don't know. He just asked to speak to you." Sahadeva held out the comm receiver to his brother. "Here he is."
Nakula took the receiver and began chattering away excitedly, gracefully stepping into another room to give himself some privacy. Sahadeva sat down beside Yudhisthira on a silk-covered couch that Yudhisthira was just settling into. "Maybe I am getting old," Yudhisthira moaned as his joints creaked into place. Then he looked sideways at Sahadeva, who was staring at a spot on the wall and smiling dreamily. "So, Sahadeva..."
"What exactly did you get pierced?"
Sahadeva turned toward his brother and pulled up part of his shirt, revealing the diamond stud embedded in his belly button.
Yudhisthira looked at it, and sighed. He couldn't understand why someone so unearthly beautiful would be so determined to mutilate his own body.
"It's not mutilation," Sahadeva explained. "It's decoration. It's enhancement."
Yudhisthira gave his brother another sideways look.
"What?" Sahadeva asked, confused. Then he suddenly turned his head toward the door behind which Nakula had disappeared a few moments ago, and mouthed sadly, "Uh-oh."
Nakula suddenly came storming out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He hung up the comm receiver with a dramatic click of a button, and then threw it down on the floor in disgust. "Damn," he hissed, "dammit!" His lower lip trembled.
Yudhisthira stood and watched this, but knew better than to say anything.
Nakula turned his angry glare toward Sahadeva and said, "He brought that up again. I told him not to. He wouldn't shut up, so I said no. And then he said he wasn't coming. To the contest."
Yudhisthira had no idea what that was, but figured that now would be a bad time to ask. Instead he and Sahadeva sat still and silent, watching Nakula stand with tears in his golden eyes and his shoulders shaking in a violent way, threatening to blow or blubber at any moment.
But Nakula took a deep breath, and seemed to steady himself. He bent over and picked up the receiver unit that he had thrown to the ground. "It's not fair," he said to nobody in particular as he straightened up. "People shouldn't keep asking you to have to choose." He suddenly fixed his unsettling golden eyes squarely upon Yudhisthira. "I chose you, okay?! I chose you, so now you'd better not let me down. Got it?!"
Yudhisthira didn't understand a word of what Nakula was saying. He thought that on some level he had just been paid a profound a compliment, yet he could not help but shiver at what he saw in Nakula's eyes.
Arjuna was a storm cloud brooding beneath the shadow of a tree blending into a black, starless night sky. Drona approached him with caution.
"Well," Drona said, sitting himself down in the grass beside Arjuna, "I would have thought that you would be excited tonight."
Arjuna grunted but said nothing. The palace gardens were quiet around him, echoing his obstinate silence. But still Drona sat and waited for a response. Arjuna knew that his teacher had the patience to sit there for years if he had to. The silent treatment was a lost cause. But still, Arjuna bit his lip and said nothing, determined to wait at least until he had properly decided what to say to his teacher.
"I didn't ask for this silly contest thing," Arjuna finally said.
"I know." Drona folded his hands in his lap. "But I thought that you needed a challenge."
"You thought that you wanted to show me off," Arjuna said, angrily.
Drona was taken aback. "Is that such a terrible thing?"
"You told me that pride and vanity were sins." Arjuna buried his face in his arms and thought of jealousy, which was also a sin. He thought of all the times he had seen Mr. Drona give Ashwatthama a smile or a look or a pat on the shoulder or some whispered joke in Panchalan that they both laughed at, and had felt jealousy stirring inside him. Everyone's a user, Arjuna.
"This is not about pride or vanity," Drona said slowly, with his usual musical accent, but hurt in his voice. "I think that you are an amazing young man, Your Highness."
Arjuna finally lifted his head out of his arms, staring up at his teacher.
"And you deserve glory," Drona said, suddenly vehement.
Arjuna bit his lip again, and looked away from his teacher.
"And if you try to tell me that you don't like the attention," Drona said, impatiently, "I'll know exactly how much you're lying." Drona tapped his head. "Never lie to a priest, Arjuna."
Arjuna finally laughed.
"If you will not do this for yourself," Drona said, standing up and brushing the grass brusquely off his robes, "then do this for your family. You will bring glory and honor upon your dynasty."
Arjuna stood up slowly, remembering a time when he had been much younger and dreaming of some way to bring glory to his brothers, some way to make Bhima and Yudhisthira be proud of him. "All right," Arjuna said. Then he pouted again, "But you and Nakula shouldn't have planned this behind my back."
Drona sighed wearily. "It had seemed like a good idea to involve your brother, before I actually met and spoke with him."
Arjuna laughed again. "Yeah, most people can only take Nakula in small doses--"
"He was very enthusiastic about the project," Drona said. "Perhaps too much so. I did not want him to build target drones with self-defense capabilities."
"He was probably just joking about fitting them with lasers."
"Never lie to a priest, Arjuna."
"Okay... He really wasn't joking."
Arjuna stood close to Drona for a moment, and then something wondrous happened. Drona reached out and gently touched Arjuna's shoulder. "I am sorry," he said. "I had thought that this announcement would make you very happy. I did not mean to make you upset."
Arjuna closed his eyes, savoring the sensation of Drona's hand against his shoulder. But he didn't say anything, suddenly deathly afraid that if he spoke, his voice would break.
"I wanted to do this as a gift for you," Drona went on. "In return for all that you have given me and my son."
Arjuna opened his eyes and stared at his teacher, inquisitively. "Ashwatthama?" He shook his head. "What have I ever done for Ashwatthama?"
"You are his friend, are you not?" When Arjuna nodded his head, Drona said solemnly, "Ashwatthama never had a friend before he met you."
Arjuna was silent for a moment, digesting this. Then he said quietly, "Can I ask you a question?"
"What's an agrapani?"
For the second time that night, Drona looked taken aback. Then he said, "You do not know?"
"No. When I spoke to Drupada that one time, he told me ask someone when I was older."
Drona threw back his head and laughed. "Arjuna, you could have looked that up in the library or on the diginet."
Arjuna felt his cheeks flush with heat, but pressed on anyway. "I wanted you to tell me," he said softly.
Drona stopped laughing. His face grew serious. He nodded at Arjuna, solemnly. "I understand," he said. He sat back down on the grass, and gestured for Arjuna to sit beside him. "Agrapani means 'right hand.' It is a word that describes a sacred bond between a king and his most loyal love. An agrapani is someone who has been bonded to a king in this way. I chose to be bonded to Drupada, once, a long time ago. So I am his agrapani. I will be forever. There is only one way for the agrapani bond to be broken, and that is if one of the bonded pair dies."
Arjuna didn't know what to think of that. "A sacred bond, meaning…?"
"It is a bond formed with maya." Drona did not seem to mind the look of shock on Arjuna's face. "That is why, in the past, only the asura kings would claim agrapani. Because only the asura kings had the power to make an agrapani bond. But Drupada is… He is different from other human kings. He was destined to rule not just one world, but many worlds. The same as the asura kings of the past. So he needed an agrapani. He chose me, and I agreed. That is the important thing about the agrapani bond – it can only be born out of a deep and pure love. It can never be forced upon an unwilling party." Drona sounded strangely clinical, almost detached, as he related this information to Arjuna. "Drupada and I could not complete the agrapani bond by ourselves. We were mere humans, we could not use maya. So we traveled the dark places in space, until we found an asura willing to bind us."
Arjuna regarded Drona carefully. "I thought that you hated asuras."
"Asuras are evil, Arjuna. But that does not mean that I am unwilling to employ their powers for a greater purpose." He looked up at the starry night sky above them. "Drupada's rule over these planets would have been peaceful and just. We all knew that. And so we all were willing to go to any length for his sake."
Arjuna was no sure who we referred to. But he asked, "So why did Drupada tell me to ask you when I was older?"
"Oh, that is probably because, among the asura, it was tradition for the king to take his agrapani as a lover."
Arjuna's jaw dropped.
From the look on Drona's face, Arjuna could tell that Drona was amused – but not surprised – at his reaction. But Arjuna could still not keep his mouth from hanging open like an idiot. Drona continued, "That was not a requirement, of course, but it was a tradition. An asura tradition, of course – one that Drupada and I did not feel obligated to uphold."
"Wait." Arjuna's brain was still three steps behind the conversation. "Agrapani – a-and kings, they—together?!"
Drona sighed wearily. "Arjuna, are you even listening to me?"
"Then I will tell you what kind of relationship Drupada and I actually had. An agrapani must be completely loyal to his master, and willing to do anything in order to protect his master's throne. Which sounds exciting and romantic. But that was often not true for me. Most of the time, I merely stayed by Drupada's side and protected him as a bodyguard. Sometimes I eliminated his enemies. Sometimes I did so covertly. Sometimes not. One time he ordered me to protect a Kuru diplomat who had turned spy. That was how I met Kripi. We were married not long after that."
Arjuna spluttered. "You were married but you--?! But how—how?! With another man, I mean, how do you even--?!"
Drona sighed again. "Arjuna, did I ever say that Drupada and I shared a bed? No? No, I did not. Many, like you, assumed that we were lovers. But we were not. I am thinking that you are not yet mature enough to handle this topic of conversation."
Arjuna bit his lip and looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry."
"You seem awfully… what is the term… hung up on the sexual mechanics here."
Arjuna scratched his head. "I've just, uh, I've never heard of something like that before."
"Oh, it happens all the time. To be honest, with the way that you Kurus insist on keeping men and women separate in so many ways, I am surprised that we do not see more of it around here."
Arjuna's jaw dropped again.
Drona laughed. "I was right. This is not an appropriate topic of conversation for you. And I may be overstepping the boundaries of propriety as well, I fear. It is my job to teach you to master Gandiva, not to provide you with sexual education. Also, please do me a favor Arjuna, and do not tell your grandfather Bhisma that we spoke about this. I think he might very well behead me if he knew that I was explaining to you about--"
"We're Kuru. We don't behead," Arjuna said proudly. "But I still don't understand. How can two men…?" Unable to finish the question verbally, Arjuna instead made a gesture with his fingers to illustrate. The gesture was probably more obscene than his words would have been, but he still couldn't quite bring himself to speak the name of the taboo deed.
Drona laughed again. "Now that you may research yourself, Your Highness. I believe that there are quite informational books about this subject in your palace library. Many of which have illustrative diagrams."
Arjuna fell silent. His brain was still trying to digest what he had heard – trying to reconcile this new information with his old impressions of his teacher. Finally he asked, in a quiet voice, "Did you really love him?"
"Not did. I do."
Arjuna looked down at his hands. "Then it must have been very painful for you to leave him."
"It was. But I had to."
Drona opened his mouth as if he were about to answer, but then stopped. He looked away from Arjuna, frowning at nothing in particular. Finally he asked, "Arjuna, what level of security clearance do you have?"
"Uh… Yellow? I think."
Drona shook his head sadly. "I am sorry," he said. "I promised your great-uncle Bhisma that I would obey his security restrictions… I am truly sorry."
Arjuna sat in silence for a moment. Then he said, "That's all right." He stood up, brushing grass off his legs. "Um, thank you. For answering my questions."
"Well, you are an adult. I do not feel that I should hide things from you." Drona remained sitting as he spoke.
Arjuna scratched his head. "Okay. I've got one more question."
"Please, go ahead."
"So the asura that you and Drupada met… Did it just… Did it just help you? Just like that?"
Drona laughed. He seemed to be doing that a lot that evening. "Oh, that is a long story! To sum, though, I will say this; it was serendipity. Drupada and I encountered a stupid asura who had gotten himself into some trouble. We helped him. In return, he promised to grant us a boon. So we asked him to bond us."
"A 'stupid asura'?"
"Remember the name Mayasura, Arjuna. He is both the most brilliant and the most inexplicably foolish asura ever born." Drona turned his gaze up toward the night sky. "Mm. This makes me remember. Things were different, then. Drupada and I made so many promises, to each other, to the gods, to the worlds that we planned to conquer. But things changed. Drupada and I will pay for those broken promises in our next lives. Or perhaps in the hells of the afterlife."
"Wh--? No!" Arjuna shook his head vehemently. "You're not going to hell! That's stupid – don't say that!"
Drona looked surprised at Arjuna's protest. Then his face softened. "You are still innocent, Your Highness." He looked up at the stars again. "And you do not understand the types of deeds that I have done in my past."
"You were meant to walk on Heaven's path," Drona suddenly said, his voice solemn, and oddly heavy. "But the rest of us, Arjuna? The rest of us mere humans? We all burn in hell when our time comes. This is not something to despair over. It is the inevitable price of our sins." Finally he looked up at Arjuna, his eyes seeming to pierce straight through Arjuna's heart. "I can only pray, Your Highness, that you are never sullied as such by the sins of this world. You are already so far above us… If you fall, you can only fall faster, farther, more painfully than the rest of us. You and all of your brothers."
Duryodhana switched off the last lamp in his bed chambers, plunging the room into complete darkness.
"Yes," Yuyutsu said, "they only come when it's dark."
"Bloody creepy lot of ghosts," Duryodhana mumbled, although he had to agree that this was true. During his own sleepless nights when he had listened to the ghosts whispering around him, whenever he had tried to turn on a light, the whispering voices - and the sensation of something else in the room with him - had vanished.
Duryodhana folded his legs beneath himself, seating himself on the floor across from Yuyutsu and reaching out to hold Yuyutsu's hands. "And suppose they don't come tonight?" Duryodhana asked.
"They'll come." Yuyutsu squeezed his brother's hands nervously. "They taught me. Whenever I want to call them, I can. All I need to do is remember them and pray."
Duryodhana shivered. He had always tried to ignore the whispering things in his bedroom at night. He had always preferred to think of them as figments of his overworked and overstressed imagination. Finding out that they were real, and that meek little Yuyutsu had learned how to summon and speak to them, both terrified and thrilled Duryodhana. This meant that he was not crazy. This meant that he was potentially involved in something very dangerous. But it also meant that he was special - that he was marked - that he had been given power by a force greater than he could understand. Perhaps Yudhisthira was not the only one blessed by the gods, after all.
"They're here," Yuyutsu suddenly said, in a very soft voice.
Duryodhana sucked in his breath. That feeling was back, that feeling that there was something else in the room with him. But for the first time in years, Duryodhana was not tired or half-asleep or lying tangled in his crumpled bedsheets, folding a pillow over his head, trying to block out the shadows. This time he was awake. This time he was ready.
Duryodhana suddenly stood up, pulling himself up to his full, intimidating height. "You there!" he cried out, while Yuyutsu gave a startled gasp from his seat on the floor, and the crowding shadows pulled back in surprise. "Ghosts! Here me and listen to me! I demand to know what manner of beasts you are!"
In response, the shadows in the room hissed and whispered.
Duryodhana glared down impatiently at Yuyutsu. "Well, what are they saying?!"
Yuyutsu stood up quickly, then hesitated. He turned to a deep shadow to his left. "Are you sure?" he asked the shadow, hesitantly. The shadow buzzed and clicked in response, so Yuyutsu took a deep breath, and reached for his brother's hand. "All right," he said.
Yuyutsu grasped Duryodhana's hand and squeezed it tightly. Duryodhana's hand tickled for a moment - and the ice inside of him creaked and groaned in response - and then Duryodhana realized that he could understand what the shadows around him were saying.
((Yuyutsu has become very skilled at using maya,)) the deepest, darkest shadow in the back of the room said. ((Although we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of his true potential. You too, O King, have much to learn from us,)) the shadow said. Its voice was rough and gravely, yet somehow slick and oily at the same time. It was not a human voice. ((We have been waiting for decades for the moment when you would finally decide to listen to us.))
"Maya?!" Duryodhana shook his head angrily. "No way. Only asuras can use maya. This isn't maya."
((But it is.)) The shadows crowded around Duryodhana and Yuyutsu, moaning in protest at Duryodhana's statement. ((But you are not an asura. Nor are you a human. You are something else entirely - something new. Something miraculous.))
Duryodhana clutched at Yuyutsu's shoulders. "No," he said, simply.
((Yes. Did you never wonder about the circumstances of your birth?))
"Of course. But Grandpa Bhisma had me tested when I was born. He told me so. I have one hundred percent human DNA."
((Yes, but you are still not a human.))
"Obviously you ghosts are not much in the way of biologists."
((We are not ghosts.))
"Then what manner of shadows are you?!" Duryodhana snapped, angrily. "Why do you torment me at night?! What do you know about me?! What are you monsters?!"
((We are your servants, O King.))
Yuyutsu made a nervous, strangled sound in his throat. The shadows were pouring around and over his feet, rushing to bow before Duryodhana. They moved like black liquid, darkness moving through darkness. Duryodhana could more sense than see what they were doing.
"Tell me who you are," Duryodhana demanded again.
((We are memories,)) the shadows chorused in their unearthly, inhuman warble. ((We have been sent to teach you to use your maya, and to advise you to ensure that you achieve the throne and the crown that is your birthright. That is all.))
"My throne and crown?!" Duryodhana pushed Yuyutsu away from him, freeing up his arms for appropriate angry gestures. "My birthright has already been stolen by Yudhisthira! Some servants you lot are."
The shadows swirled around Duryodhana. ((Not yet, not yet,)) they sighed. ((Your honorable father will not let that come to pass. But he alone cannot resist Bhisma, pawn of the devas, forever. The day will come when you will have to fight your cousin for what is rightfully yours.))
Duryodhana threw back his head and laughed, bitterly. "Fight Yudhisthira! I couldn't do that. He's so... He's my cousin. And he's such a terminal wimp." Duryodhana shook his head. "Yudhisthira is harmless."
((And yet he stands to steal everything that is rightfully yours.))
The smirk on Duryodhana's face faltered.
((You must build, O King.)) The shadows slithered and hissed. ((You must cultivate your own power.))
"Oh please. If this is about having people on my side, then I have plenty. Everybody likes me," Duryodhana said.
((Not like. Might. You must cultivate your own army.))
"I have one hundred loyal brothers at my command," Duryodhana said, then cast a meaningful glance at Yuyutsu, who was standing humbly among the shadows, his head bowed. "And I have a servant skilled in the craft of maya, whether he is human or not."
((You must cultivate your own court.))
"I have Grandpa Bhisma, I have Uncle Vidura, I have my father and mother, and I have Mr. Dhaumya, and that crazy priest's son, what's-his-name, Aswatito."
The shadows hissed. ((Not Bhisma. Not Ashwatthama.))
((They are devakin. They are your enemies.))
Duryodhana snorted dismissively. "Please."
((Most importantly, you must have the one thing that all the great kings of the past have had.))
"What's that?" Duryodhana tapped his foot thoughtfully. "A crown?"
((No. An agrapani. A servant who will personally smite your enemies and enforce your laws. A servant devoted to you body and soul.))
Duryodhana shook his head again. "Nah, I don't think so. Grandpa Bhisma only mentioned agrapani once, and he said that only asura kings had agrapani. Human kings aren't allowed to take agrapani. Except for Drupada, but he only gave himself one because he's an arrogant old dirtfox, certifiably crazy, and according to Grandpa Bhisma probably a queer too."
((You, O King, who are neither human nor inhuman, will rule in a new era. You will rule not just this world, but many worlds, with your agrapani at your side. You must choose your agrapani carefully, though--))
"Hells, that's easy." Duryodhana waved his hand dismissively at the shadows. "If it's so important, then Arjuna can be my agrapani. He's completely loyal to me. And he's the most powerful warrior on this or any world."
The shadows hissed again, this time angrily. ((No devakin!)) they shrieked. ((You think that Arjuna will choose to betray his own brother for your sake?))
Duryodhana paused for a moment, then answered slowly, "Likely. Arjuna is easy to manipulate. He is hungry for affection. He trusts me. He confides in me. He's always felt that Yudhisthira was never much of a brother to him. His own words. I told you he confides in me. Besides," Duryodhana said proudly, "He's my guy."
The shadows were silent for a moment, then chorused again, ((No devakin!))
"Every time you say that, it makes me less inclined to trust you." Duryodhana paced around his room angrily, pushing aside wisps of shadow-matter as he did. "Any creatures that are the enemies of the gods and their devakin children are surely enemies of mine."
((You are mistaken, O King. The devas - what you call the gods, whether they are or not - are indeed your enemies. They created Yudhisthira simply to take away what is yours. They will resist your attempts to fulfill your destiny, to rule the many human worlds beneath one throne--))
"Enough," Duryodhana suddenly said, throwing out his hands, "I will not stand here and listen to delusional ghosts lying to me and defaming the gods and my own cousin!"
((We speak the truth. You must choose your agrapani soon and wisely, before Yudhisthira can strengthen his position.))
"Oh, all right!" Duryodhana huffed impatiently. "How's this for a criterion? I'll just take whoever is crowned champion of the weapons contest next month as my agrapani. There. Happy now?"
((We think, O King, that you are only saying as much so that you may still choose Arjuna.))
"Enough!" Duryodhana repeated. "I grow weary of listening to the advice of a lot of dead ghosts. Be gone with you!"
When the shadows did not leave, Duryodhana tried to throw his hands out more dramatically. "Be gone with you!" he repeated, as imperially as he could.
The shadows still slithered and hissed.
"Be gone with you!" Duryodhana shouted, one last time. This time the ice twisted inside of him, and all of the lamps in his room suddenly flared into life.
For a moment, Duryodhana saw the shadow-things bathed in light - thin, ghostly, floating things, tatters of black and gray matter hanging in filthy swirls in the air around. Then the shadow things shrieked and hissed and chattered angrily, vanishing as if they had never been in the first place.
Duryodhana turned and looked slowly at Yuyutsu, who was standing on the other side of the room now, his mouth hanging open, his face pinched and drawn. "Did you see them?" he asked Yuyutsu.
Yuyutsu nodded slowly.
"Yuyutsu, I don't think those things..." Duryodhana desperately tried to prevent his hands from shaking. "I don't think those things are our friends. I don't think they're on our side."
Yuyutsu nodded miserably. "I never heard them say anything about devakin being our enemies, before." He looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know. Lord Bhisma is a devakin, but he has always been kind to me. I think you're right, Your Highness. I think those things may not be on our side."
"Yeah, and that means that we can't trust what they say." Duryodhana stepped over to his brother, and gently took Yuyutsu by the shoulders. "I don't want to talk to them again," he said, "and I don't want you to, either."
Yuyutsu looked up at Duryodhana. "But I think, Your Highness, I think that those ghosts might have answers. They might be able to tell us why you and I can use maya. They taught me how to use my maya, so I think that they might be--"
"It's not maya," Durydhana repeated for what felt like the millionth time that day. "They said that it was maya, but we can't trust what they say, remember?" Duryodhana tilted Yuyutsu's chin up toward him. "Isn't it obvious? You and I have been given a gift from the gods. Those dark things are just trying to confuse and manipulate us. They want us to use our gifts to work for them."
"Perhaps." Yuyutsu shifted his gaze away from Duryodhana's eyes. "I wish I knew for sure, though. I wish I knew why you and I, and only you and I, were born with these gifts. I wish I knew why the shadows were helping me for all these years. I wish I knew what they were." Yuyutsu took a deep breath. "I wish I knew for sure that they wouldn't be back."
"Who cares if they come back or not?" Duryodhana stepped away from Yuyutsu. "A little light is enough to send them running away with their tails between their legs."
"I hope you're right, Your Highness."
"Of course I'm right." Duryodhana stretched his arms over his head and yawned. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've had just about enough of ghosts and monsters for one night. I don't think that your friends will be back to bother us tonight or for many nights to come, Yuyutsu. I have to admit, they were interesting to talk to. But. I have more important things to worry about, tomorrow."
Yuyutsu blinked at him. "What could possibly be more important than--?"
"Than ice and ghosts and monsters and this business about me being the rightful ruler of all the human worlds and having to get myself an agrapani?" Duryodhana grinned at his brother. "My sword, that's what. I'm going to have to get back in shape if I'm going to challenge Bhima at this weapons contest thing."
"Oh," said Yuyutsu in a small voice. "Of course."
The month preceding the contest passed quickly. Arjuna spent every day training with Drona, and listening to Ashwatthama rehearse the hymns he would sing at the opening ceremonies, and listening each day as more news of guests from far-off planets filtered into the palace. Arjuna ate dinner with his family each night, when Nakula and Sahadeva always showed up at the dinner table smeared with grease and occasionally sporting fresh burn calluses on their fingertips, and Bhima was often largely absent, since evenings were the only time that he had free to practice his fencing.
One night, Grandpa Bhisma ate dinner with Arjuna's family. Arjuna listened to him speaking to Arjuna's mother.
"If they can handle themselves as adults, then of course," Bhisma was saying, waving his hand at Bhima's empty seat. "I don't see why both he and Duryodhana shouldn't both enter the fencing competition. It will be interesting to see them both competing together..."
Arjuna's mother coughed.
"I wouldn't dream of letting those two practice together, though." Bhisma gave a pointed look to Yudhisthira, who was busy pretending to concentrate on his food and pretending to ignore the conversation going on at the table. "And I expect both Bhima and Duryodhana to conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner at the competition," Bhisma said darkly. "Our family cannot afford to have an ugly public incident in front of foreign dignitaries."
Yudhisthira swallowed nervously.
Three days later, Nakula was trailing Arjuna during his morning training, a small video camera strapped to his palm.
"Nakula," Arjuna said warningly, as he pulled back Gandiva's string while Nakula crouched conspicuously behind Arjuna.
"Arjuna," Drona said, echoing Arjuna's tone of voice. "You must not let distractions distract you."
"Besides, I need this data," Nakula said, peering through the lens of the camera as Arjuna unleashed a flurry of arrows that split the center of a straw target hundreds of yards away. "How else am I going to build a machine that can beat you?"
"There is no machine that can beat Arjuna," Drona said, proudly.
"Yeah, well, I like a challenge." Nakula fiddled with the settings on his camera, then said, "Can you do that thing where you shoot the arrows made of water? I need to catch that on film."
Arjuna sighed. "You're not supposed to be working against me," he sulked.
Nakula looked shocked at the accusation. "I'm not working against you, I'm working for you." He stood up quickly. "But I'm not going to hold back on my end of the project, okay? I promised Mr. Drona that I wouldn't hold back." He tapped his foot impatiently and glared at Arjuna. "It's not fair that you've got enchanted arrows, though. I can't make a drone that's water-proof and lightning-proof."
"I can also do wind and fire, in case you're interested."
"Well," said Nakula thoughtfully, "then that's settled. The drones are going to have to have lasers, or else it just won't be fair."
In the remaining days before the competition, royalty from faraway stars began to arrive in and around Hastinapura. Arjuna endured what felt like endless bouts of handshaking and ceremonial greeting. He had precious little time to practice with his bow, let alone to practice inside the arena that had quickly been constructed for the contest.
On the final night before the competition, Drupada arrived, with his sons and his entourage of warriors in tow.
And for the first time that Arjuna could remember, Drona appeared nervous. "I should not be here," he said aloud for the fifteenth time in the past five minutes. Kripi squeezed his hand, but that did not seem to calm him. "This will be awkward," he said. "At best."
Arjuna and Ashwatthama stood in front of Drona and Kripi, waiting nervously in the small but ornate waiting room that had been set aside for them. Ashwatthama turned to his father and said, "Be still. We have no reason to be afraid of him. Not here."
"Being afraid of having my head lopped off is one thing," Drona huffed. "Being afraid of the social awkwardness is quite another."
Arjuna said nothing. Drupada had requested to greet Drona privately, but Drona had insisted on bringing his family, and Arjuna had insisted on accompanying him. Now they were all watching a closed door and waiting as nervously as they could.
Arjuna reflected silently that he still did not understand what exactly had happened between Drona and Drupada so many years ago. Neither Drona nor Ashwatthama had ever told him about it. Arjuna had theories, of course, but he doubted how accurate any of them were.
Suddenly, the door in front of them creaked open, and Arjuna tensed his shoulders. But it was not Drupada who stepped through. Rather, it was a young man with bluish-black hair curled behind his ears and a warm smile in his voice. "Ashwatthama!" the cried, throwing out his arms.
"Your Highness!" Ashwatthama ran forward to meet the prince, and the two of them embraced tightly. Ashwatthama pulled back for a moment, then reached up and put his hands on the prince's face. "You look wonderful," he said. "I'd heard the rumors, but... You really look great!"
"Thanks." The prince laughed brightly, then looked up at Drona and Kripi. "Mr. Drona, I don't suppose you even remember me?"
"Of course I remember you, Sikhandhi." Drona stepped forward, looking relieved. "Although you were hardly taller than my knee..." Ashwatthama stood aside as the two of them hugged. Sikhandi pulled back and said something in Panchalan, Drona nodded, and Sikhandi laughed again.
Someone else came through the door again, and before Arjuna knew what was going on, Kripi had cried out and rushed forward to embrace this man. She kissed his cheeks and said, with tears in her eyes, "I missed you so much! I didn't think you would be--"
"Of course I came." The new man had Kripi's dark skin and dark hair and an identical beauty mark beneath his left eye, the same as hers. He and Drona clasped hands affectionately, then the strange man threw his arm easily around Ashwatthama's shoulders. "Look at you!" he exclaimed. "You still have those freckles."
"I think they're permanent, Uncle Kripa."
Arjuna stood aside, watching all of this, feeling like an awkward spectator at this family reunion. He had not known that Kripi had a twin brother named Kripa or that she had left him behind on Panchala. Although he was proud of himself for being able to deduce as much without being told. Which meant, hopefully, that he wasn't actually as stupid as Nakula kept saying that he was.
"Kripa taught me how to fence and wrestle," Sikhandi explained to Drona, "after you left."
"As well as I could," Kripa said, his arm still around Ashwatthama's shoulders. "We both missed you all terribly--"
"Kripa, we had to--"
"I understand why you did what you did," Kripa said, solemnly. "Both Sikhandi and I do. But My Lord would never let either of us--"
"Sikhandi!" someone shouted, angrily. Arjuna turned, and his breath caught in his throat. Striding through the open doorway, white hair flying and ice-blue eyes blazing, came Drupada, flanked by a prince and a princess dressed in identical gowns of gold and silver and white.
For a moment, Arjuna's eyes lingered on Drupada's imposing form. He was old, as old as Grandpa Bhisma, but also every bit as straight-backed and strong-chinned. Drupada had a sharp nose and sharper eyes, and his face was lined with deep wrinkles. He radiated a kind of cold, barely restrained rage. Arjuna swallowed nervously. He had spoken with this man once before - this man, who was the oldest and most dangerous enemy of Arjuna's family - but this was his first time actually seeing Drupada's face. Arjuna was suddenly aware of how short and unimposing he himself looked.
Fortunately, Drupada did not waste a single glance in Arjuna's direction. His eyes were fixed squarely on Drona, who stood with his face carefully blank. "Did I give you permission to speak to this traitor, Sikhandi?" he asked. His voice was the same low, gravelly voice that Arjuna remembered from their audio conference years before.
"No, Father," Sikhandi murmured, stepping away from Drona and Ashwatthama. Kripa reluctantly let go of Ashwatthama's shoulder and stepped aside.
Drupada's eyes flickered toward Ashwatthama, who stood his ground gamely under the king's withering glare. "I see that you brought your misbegotten son," Drupada said.
"Yes." Drona stepped calmly toward Ashwatthama, and then slowly placed his hand on Ashwatthama's shoulder. He stared back at Drupada, proudly and defiantly. "I wanted you to see him. I wanted you to look him in the eyes and to remember how you asked me to abandon him."
"Abandoned?!" the prince behind Drupada suddenly spat angrily, stepping around his father. "You abandoned us! You destroyed everything that Father had worked for--"
"Dhristadumnya," Drupada said, calming his son. Dhristadumnya, who had the same bluish-black curled hair as Sikhandi but none of the kindness in his eyes, bit his lip and seethed silently. Drupada looked back at Drona and said, "Yes, you did abandon us. And I brought Sikhandi and Dhristadumnya today, so that you might see what you had left behind. Sikhandi and Dhristadumnya, sons of Lord Shiva himself, could have been your pupils and your champions," he went on, finally casting a glance over at Arjuna, "instead of that sniveling Kuru prince that you now serve like a faithful dog."
"Don't you dare insult Arjuna!" Ashwatthama suddenly blurted out, angrily.
"Don't you dare speak to my father like that!" Dhristadumnya countered, his eyes blazing. "How dare you! You're a priest - learn your place!"
Arjuna glanced back and forth between the two of them, too embarrassed to say anything. Now that he looked, he could see the devakin markings curling up the back of Sikhandi's and Dhristadumya's necks, and along the bare shoulder of the princess standing silently behind Drupada. Arjuna's eyes lingered on the princess, who was watching her brothers with a taught expression on her face, her lips pursed in disapproval. Her dark, bluish-black hair fell in waves down her back, woven throughout with ribbons of gold and red. The fact that she was dressed identically to Dhristadumnya made Arjuna think that she was surely his twin. Great, more twins, Arjuna thought. Arjuna's eyes helplessly traveled down the front of the princess's soft chest, down to the curve of her waist. He tried to concentrate on what Drona and Drupada were saying, but he kept wondering what the princess's name was, or what her voice sounded like, or what the back of her neck would smell like.
"Dhristadumnya has something to tell you," Drupada said, looking back at Drona.
"Yes." Dhristadumya took one step toward Drona, who did not flinch, but whose hand tightened on Ashwatthama's shoulder. "When I turned thirteen years old and became a man," Dhristadumnya said, his chin in the air, "I forfeited my devakin Gift in exchange for a boon from Lord Shiva." Dhristadumnya threw back his shoulders angrily. "I will be the one to end your life, Drona," he said. "For the honor of my father and that of our family, I swear I will destroy you."
Dhristadumnya turned on his heel. "That is all," he said. Then he, his father, and his sister left the room. Arjuna stared at the princess as she left, watching the muscles in her shoulders work and her hips sway beneath her gown as she walked. Sikhandi followed them, his head hung low. Finally, that left only Kripa in the room with Drona and Arjuna and Drona's family.
"Father...?" Ashwatthama asked, fearfully.
Drona clutched at Ashwatthama's shoulder, his face white. "I told you that would be awkward," he said.
The sun was still an hour from rising when Duryodhana headed down to the contest arena. He figured that he had less than an hour to practice, and he had to make the most of it. He could see that the arena was lit up and could hear the sounds of other competitors already there; of course, he had known ahead of time that he wouldn't be the only one with the idea to practice on the morning of the competition. Oh well. As long as Bhima wasn't there, he didn't care who was watching.
As it turned out, however, there was someone watching the arena floor, from an observation deck high above the audience stands for commoners. "Who is that?" Duryodhana asked, squinting up at the stands, and effortlessly parrying a thrust from Vikata. "Can you see from here?"
"No," Vikata said, thrusting again, and clearly vexed that Duryodhana was able to defend himself without even having to concentrate on his opponent. "But I saw them go up there earlier. A group of women. I think they might be Panchalan."
Duryodhana's interest was piqued. "Interesting," he said. Then he swiftly ended his duel with Vikata with one thrust. "Since I'm the host for this event, I should probably go speak with them," he said, already stripping off his protective gear and heading away from his brother.
Duryodhana showered faster than he ever had before, snapped his fingers impatiently to hurry the servants who appeared to dry and fix his hair, and then dressed himself as casually as a crown prince possibly could. Then he headed up toward the observation decks. He didn't go immediately toward the level where the women were watching from, but instead stealthily slipped into the glass-fronted deck immediately below them. He looked around to make sure that he was alone, then pressed his hand against the ceiling above him. He felt ice tingling beneath his fingertips, and then he listened.
He could hear voices, as clearly as if the speakers were standing at his ear instead of a floor above him. The voices were speaking a dialect of High Panchalan. Duryodhana smile to himself, smugly. The many years of studying the language that Bhisma had inflicted upon him had paid off – he was nearly as fluent as Yudhisthira was. Duryodhana did not think that Bhisma would be very pleased to learn that his grandson was applying his hard-earned language skills to eavesdropping, though. Oh well. Bhisma didn't have to know.
"Are you sure they're going to do that here? The arena ground doesn't look wide enough," one voice said.
"It doesn't look it, but it is," another voice answered smoothly. "Here. Specs." The sound of buttons tapping. Was she holding an electronic reader? Probably.
"Still, I wouldn't want to be sitting in the lower rows during the riflery competition," a third voice answered. "Particularly not during the long-range microwave sustained-burst--"
"You won't be. You'll be sitting with me."
"But Your Highness, I still don't understand why your father insisted on being seated in the stands instead of in an observation deck."
"Mm. You know Father. He wants to be down close to the sweat and blood. Besides, it's not like we'll be sitting with the commoners. We'll still be high up, among the seats of honor."
"Do you think there will be blood?"
"Likely," the woman who had been addressed as 'Your Highness' answered again. Duryodhana realized that she could only be one person. "I'm here for the blood, at least. And for the homoeroticism of the wrestling tournament. Also, to watch the Kurus embarrass themselves. These princes hate each other so much. If we're lucky, there will be an incident."
"Oh, and I suppose you have no interest whatsoever in the bratty little prince with the magical bow who stole your priest?" the first woman asked.
Duryodhana was beginning to figure things out, now. There were three women above him. One was obviously Drupada's daughter, Princess Whatshername, Dhristadumnyita or something or whatever. The two other women were likely either her attendants, or perhaps friends from among the noble families of Panchala.
Drupada's daughter – Duryodhana could not remember her name for the life of him - laughed. "No interest whatsoever." She snorted derisively. "I've seen devaweapons on film. They're not so spectacular." Then she paused and said, a bit more thoughtfully, "Still, if he is Drona's student, he will be good. Very good. So there's that to look forward to, at least. I wonder how good, though."
"You saw him last night, didn't you, Your Highness?"
She laughed again. "Hmm. I'll say 'strapping.' Typical archer's body, though – overdeveloped on top. Unfortunately he never opened his mouth to say a single word. He also didn't do anything to indicate that he doesn't have the personality of a spoiled over-entitled toddler."
"But 'strapping.' "
"Yes. Strapping. But he just stood there like an idiot when Dhristadumnya told Drona about his vow. Not impressed by that."
"You could very well best him in a contest of skills, Your Highness."
"No, actually. Probably not. Not if he's Drona's student. Archery is just a hobby, it's not my life. And I didn't bring my bow anyway." Drupada's daughter made a disapproving click with her tongue. "Kurus don't allow women to handle weapons. We're not allowed to compete here today, either."
"They're so backwards here."
"Gods, so primitive."
"And now they have two Crown Princes, too. No wonder their civilization is falling apart at the seams." Drupada's daughter sighed. "At least they're keeping the traditions alive, though."
"Traditions like mostly-naked wrestling?"
"That's the reason that I brought my binocular goggles," one of the other women said.
More laughter, from all three of the women. Duryodhana didn't quite catch what they said next. Then he decided that he was done listening, and pulled his hand off the ceiling. He wasn't sure whether to be bemused or angry about their contemptuous attitude toward Kuru. He decided to settle on bemused. Silly stupid empty-headed women, what did they know? If Drupada's daughter was really so arrogant that she thought she could compete against Kuru's princes in an archery competition, then she was four times the fool that he had thought she was. Well, all Panchalans were fools. Crazy fool, apparently, if they actually let their women run around shamelessly like that, dabbling in archery and Lord-knows-what-else. Letting women handle weapons – and even worse, letting them compete in the weapons contest?! The idea was absurd. What next – letting commoners take up arms and compete, too?! Duryodhana chuckled at the thought.
Duryodhana shook his head, still chuckling. He swiftly rejected his original idea of approaching the women to talk to them. He had no time to deal with fools, after all. And he needed to get back to the palace anyway, and start fulfilling his duties as a host of the day's festivities. He could waste his time thinking of Drupada's beautiful but arrogant daughter – and how much he would relish putting her in her place – later.
On the morning of the competition, Arjuna donned his father's ceremonial armor and his finest gold and jewels, which did not so much make him feel like a champion as it did make him feel like a ridiculous living bauble.
Arjuna stared at himself in the mirror in his bedroom, frowning. A servant finished securing a gold coronet to his head, then stood back and said proudly, "You look splendid, Your Highness."
Arjuna looked down at the gold gauntlets on his arms and thought, Father wore this once. Probably for some ridiculous ceremony, and never for a real war. But still... Father wore this once.
Arjuna turned and strode out of his bedroom, out of his private chambers, and into the common area that all of his brothers and his mother shared between their apartments. Nakula and Sahadeva were waiting for him, seated on a couch on either side of Drona. Drona's eyes lit up when he saw Arjuna, but Arjuna started when he saw Nakula and Sahadeva's hair. "You two--!" he gasped.
"Like it?" Nakula ruffled the blue-and-gray spikes that he had transformed his formerly red hair into. "Sahadeva and I decided that we should dye our hair Arjuna-colors. Since we're rooting for you, you know."
Arjuna sighed. "Arjuna-colors?"
"Yeah, only we had to decide on which colors would be your official theme colors."
Arjuna looked at Drona, who mouthed, Not my idea, then shook his head in disapproval.
Sahadeva pointed at his head, which was topped with blue and gray spikes identical to Nakula's. "It took hours," he pointed out.
"What, and I don't get theme colors?" Bhima joked, striding up behind Arjuna, his fencing gear clanking around him.
"You don't need us to cheer for you," Nakula pointed out. "Arjuna does. His real competition isn't the other archers. His real competition is what we've designed." There was a sly look in Nakula's eyes. "Believe me, Arjuna will need all of the cheering he can get."
"At least it's an improvement over the last dye job," Arjuna's mother pointed out. Yudhisthira led her out into the room, holding her hand. Both of them were dressed in their ceremonial best, and Yudhisthira's hair had been swept behind the golden crown that only Kuru's crown prince was allowed to wear. Arjuna looked at his brother and tried not to remember that Duryodhana also had an identical crown. "I think the blue looks lovely on you, Nakula," Arjuna's mother said.
Nakula gave his mother a sideways look. "Thanks," he said, hesitantly. Arjuna could tell that his mother's approval had just robbed the stunt of some of its appeal for Nakula.
"Mother and I will be in the stands for the opening ceremony," Yudhisthira said, leading his mother down and across the room. "Bhima, Mr. Drona, will you take the rest of them to the competitor's area?"
Arjuna watched his mother's eyes linger over him for a moment. She looked both proud and sad at the same time. Arjuna wondered if she was thinking about his father. Then the moment passed, and she turned back to Yudhisthira, and said something softly to him, which caused him to hunch his shoulders in embarrassment.
Arjuna thought that it did not take much for his brother Yudhisthira to get embarrassed.
"You two will wait here with the other competitors," Drona said, leading Bhima and Arjuna into the noisy, crowded waiting area beneath the contest arena. Arjuna could already hear the roar of the gathering crowd above him. "Wait until your events are called." Then he jerked his thumb toward Nakula and Sahadeva. "Your brothers will be with me at the back of the arena for most of the day. Understood?"
Bhima had already wandered off to talk to someone he recognized, which left Arjuna alone to nod and say "Yes."
"Right." Drona looked down at the watch around his wrist, and hissed. "I have to go," he said quickly.
"I know." Arjuna wished that Drona would stay with him as he prepared for the archery competition, but he knew that Drona did not want to miss Ashwatthama performing the opening ceremony and ritual sacrifice, which was set to begin in a few moments.
" 'Bye, Arjuna!" Sahadeva said, waving as he and Nakula followed Drona out through the crowd of gathering competitors.
Arjuna raised his hand and waved at his brother. Then he stood and watched Nakula and Sahadeva's spiky, colorful hair bobbing through the crowd for a few moments. Arjuna's eyes shifted upward, to the back of Mr. Drona's head. He remembered Drupada's icy eyes, and Dhristadumnya's angry curse.
"If I win this thing," Arjuna whispered to the back of Drona's receding head, "it will be for you."
Then Arjuna turned, and decided to look for Bhima. Or Duryodhana. Or whoever he could find first. He thought that it might be a good idea to avoid Dhristadumnya if he was already down in the waiting area, though.
Fortunately, Duryodhana and his crowd of brothers were hard to miss. They had taken up a large area and several benches with their bodies and their equipment. Duryodhana was there, stretching his thick legs behind his head. So were Durmada and Vikata and Durmukha and Duryodhana's three dozen other brothers who had entered the competition in various events, and Gandhari and Dusshala, Duryodhana's only sister.
Dusshala was fussing with Duryodhana's hair as he stretched. "Hold still!" she huffed, "If you go out there with your hair looking like a bird's nest--"
"I'll be wearing a helmet--"
"You're such a guy. That's gross. You're worse than my boyfriend."
Duryodhana paused. "Jayadratha? You're still dating that creep?"
"He's not a creep. You're just saying that because you're my brother and you're supposed to think that all of my boyfriends are creeps."
"Is he here today?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, he entered the fencing competition--"
"Good, then I'll be able to kick his--" Duryodhana paused again when he saw Arjuna striding proudly toward him. His eyes lit up. "Arjuna!"
Arjuna stood, unable to wipe the happy smile off his face. Drona was right - he did love the attention. Duryodhana's brothers crowded around him, gazing in wonder at the sight of Arjuna. "Is that our champion?" Gandhari asked, temporarily abandoning Durmukha's gloves that she had been fiddling with, and turning her blindfolded eyes toward Arjuna.
"I'm not a champion yet," Arjuna said, with what he hoped sounded like genuine modesty.
"Nonsense," Gandhari insisted, reaching out to touch Arjuna's chin with her slender fingers. "This is your day and your day alone."
"Mother!" Duryodhana's brothers protested, in a chorus. Dusshala and Gandhari laughed in unison in response. "A mother can only speak the truth," Gandhari said, fanning herself with a fan she pulled out of nowhere. "I am but a vessel through which truth flows. Sorry, darlings."
"Mother," Dusshala pointed out, "you're so weird."
"So says my daughter, who willingly dates that disgusting Prince Jayadratha." Gandhari sighed. "You may have inherited my good looks, Dusshala, but none of my excellent taste in men."
"She inherited all of your stubborness, too," Duryodhana said, standing up and ignoring the glower that Dusshala shot him in retort. "Arjuna, we'll all be cheering for you during the archery contest."
"Thanks," Arjuna said, grasping Duryodhana's thick, strong arm gratefully.
"I need to be in the stands," Gandhari said, turning one last time toward her sons. "You lot will be fine without your mother for a few hours, won't you?"
"Yes, Mother," they chorused.
"Come, Dusshala," Gandhari said, taking her daughter by the hand. "And don't think that I won't hear it if you so much as look at or try to wave to that awful Jayadratha."
Dusshala rolled her eyes dramatically. "I heard that, young lady," Gandhari said.
Arjuna found a row of benches where the other archers were waiting, and decided to sit himself down and wait as well. He sized up his competition as he waited. There were many princes from many worlds, none of whom Arjuna truly recognized, although he vaguely recalled having met and greeted some of them in the previous few days. They had all brought their own bows, their own quivers of arrows. Arjuna sat empty-handed, for his bow and his arrows were in his heart. Other princes wandered in and out of the waiting area as their events began and concluded, chatting with each other. Nobody spoke to Arjuna.
Nobody, that is, until Sikhandi strode up to Arjuna, a grin on his face and nothing on his body save for a modest lioncloth at his waist and smears of grease and dirt. "Arjuna!" he cried out, jovially. Kripa was hurrying behind him, desperately trying to hand the prince a towel, which he largely ignored. "How are you doing?" Sikhandi asked, cheerfully. "Nervous?"
"No," Arjuna answered, his eyes traveling up and down Sikhandi's dark, muscular, and very oily body. The devakin markings on his shoulder glistened with sweat and grease. "Wrestling match?"
"Yeah. I'm still in, if I can make it past the next round." Sikhandi sat down with an audible squelch next to Arjuna. "Although the talk in the stands and down here is all about you. Most of the audience only seems to care about the archery competition. And you're the leading favorite so far. No pressure, though," Sikhandi said with a grin. Then he glanced over Arjuna's shoulder, and his eyes lit up as he spotted someone else that he knew. "Hey!" he called out, standing up quickly and trotting away from Arjuna.
Arjuna watched Sikhandi go, then turned to see Kripa, who was still standing in front of him, having apparently given up hope of catching Sikhandin long enough to towel him down, at least for the moment. "My prince has always been friendly," Kripa explained, slightly embarrassed on Sikhandi's behalf. "He's a kind soul. He doesn't believe in making enemies."
"Is Prince Sikhandi supposed to be my enemy?" Arjuna asked.
Kripa shook his head, slowly. Then he sat down beside Arjuna, pausing only a moment to avoid the grease splatter that Sikhandi's buttocks had left behind, and said in a low voice, "Prince Arjuna, I just wanted to thank you. For looking after my sister and her family, all these years."
Now it was Arjuna's turn to shake his head. "Don't, please." Then he looked up at Kripa and said, "I didn't know that Ms. Kripi had a twin brother. She never told me."
Kripa sighed. "I'm not surprised." He gazed off into space for a moment, the towel on his lap and the grease on the bench beneath him momentarily forgotten. "My sister and I were both originally from Kuru. She was a diplomat in the foreign service and I was a school teacher. When she was assigned to Drupada's court on Panchala, I packed up my things and followed her to Kampilya. I thought that it would be an adventure, teaching on a foreign planet." He laughed, somewhat bitterly. "Those were our glory days. It was Drupada who introduced Kripi and Drona to each other. He was always wily and clever, even when it came to matchmaking. At the time, I had simply thought that he was kind king. Stern, but protective and loving. He provided for me and my sister. But he was also an ambitious king. It was no secret that he yearned to have not just one world but many worlds beneath his feet. And we all thought, with Drona as the king's agrapani, that such would truly come to pass. Soon."
Arjuna looked up at Kripa, his eyes wide. "Drupada was planning to invade Kuru, wasn't he?"
"Yes. Kuru and Madra and all the surrounding inhabited planets."
"But you're from Kuru. Didn't you think...?" Arjuna trailed off, unsure how to finish his angry question.
Kripa smiled wearily at Arjuna. "I thought many things. But none of that matters now. After his agrapanileft him, Drupada became a changed man. It was if his legs had been cut out from under him. Where he once had ambition, now he only had rage. Where once his drive had been to bring many worlds under one peaceful rule, now his only drive was for revenge." Kripa closed his eyes. "I feared for my sister. I knew that I would know if she was ever hurt, or killed. And she never was. I also knew that she could not contact me, perhaps never again. I imagined that she was living happily with her husband and her son, somewhere where Drupada would never find her. For many years, I suppose that is actually what happened." Kripa opened his eyes again. "Then you came along, and changed all that." Kripa looked over Arjuna's shoulder, toward the direction where Sikhandi had disappeared. "Sikhandi was Drona's pupil, of course, before Drona left. She was ten years old when Drona left. She was hurt, of course, but forgiving. Always forgiving."
"He," Arjuna corrected Kripa.
Kripa blinked at Arjuna.
"You said 'she' when you were talking about Sikhandi."
Kripa coughed, then said, "Dhristadumnya was five years old. Not old enough to remember how close he was to Drona before that, but old enough to remember the hurt. His father cultivated his grief and his hatred." Kripa's mouth tightened. "All three of Drupada's children became my charges after my sister left. I knew why Drupada was keeping me close. I knew that Drupada was hoping that perhaps my sister would attempt to contact me, and that he would be able to find her and Drona through me..." Kripa trailed off, and then looked at Arjuna again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know why I'm telling all of this to you. It's entirely inappropriate. You should be concentrating on preparing for the competition."
Arjuna shook his head. "No. I thank you for speaking with me. It's helped me understand a lot of things."
Kripa opened his mouth to say something else, but instead suddenly spotted Sikhandi, laughing and joking with a group of foreign princes. "Your Highness!" he cried out, jumping up and jogging after his elusive charge.
Arjuna turned his head and watched Kripa leave. Arjuna decided that he liked Kripa and Sikhandi, even if they were kin to Arjuna's enemies.
And so Arjuna sat and waited, for many more hours. Slowly, other competitors filed out of the waiting area, as their events were called. Arjuna listened to the roar and the cheers of the crowd above him. He imagined his mother and Yudhisthira and Aunt Gandhari and Uncle Dhritarashtra sitting in the stands, presiding over it all. He could imagine Uncle Vidura and Grandpa Bhisma sitting next to the blind king, narrating descriptions of all that occurred on the arena floor below.
Lost in thought, Arjuna only slowly became aware of a commotion in the waiting area. The remaining competitors were rushing forward around Arjuna, crowding around the entrance where they normally would have entered the arena, fighting for a spot to view something that was happening on the arena floor.
Arjuna jostled for a place among the crowd. "What's going on?" he asked a prince that he didn't recognize.
"The final match in the fencing competition," the prince said, excitedly. "It's Prince Bhima verus Prince Duryodhana," he went on, a hungry look in his eyes. "This will be good. I've heard that they hate each other."
"I'm afraid that they do," Arjuna said. He took advantage of his short height to wiggle his way to the front of the crowd of princes. Then Arjuna suddenly found himself standing on the threshold of the arena, the deafening roar of the crowd, many of them clapping their hands and stomping their feet, thundering in his ears. Arjuna looked out across the vast arena floor, which was empty save for the helmeted and masked figures dueling furiously in its center. Arjuna recognized Bhima's enormous height, and Duryodhana's quick, darting footwork. Their swords crashed and clanked, and their chests heaved. They thrust and lunged, aiming for each other's necks, each other's hearts. The bloodthirsty crowd screamed and roared. Arjuna's breath caught in his throat. He could tell instantly that there was nothing at all sportsmanlike about the way that his brother and Duryodhana were dueling. There was something desperate in Duryodhana's thrusts, and something taunting in Bhima's dodges.
Bhima threw back his enormous head and laughed. His helmet and faceplate did not stifle his roaring voice in the slightest. "Come on, come on!" he roared, the ground thundering with his footsteps. "Surely you can parry better than that! Or are you as blind as your father?"
Duryodhana screamed with rage and rammed his sword toward Bhima's stomach. Bhima dodged, but just barely. Some in the crowd booed at Bhima's insult, others at Duryodhana's response. But mostly the crowd screamed and shouted and clapped, egging the two of them on.
Bhima sliced his sword toward Duryodhana's neck - a move that was a clear violation of the rules. Duryodhana defended himself, then dodged and thrust, aiming to cleave through Bhima's knees. Also against the rules. Arjuna brought his hands to his mouth. They weren't playing anymore. They were trying to kill each other.
Arjuna looked away from the duelers and into the crowd, desperately searching for Yudhisthira and his mother. There they were. Arjuna's mother was up out of her seat and clutching at Gandhari's shoulder. Gandhari was shouting something angrily at her son, but her voice was being drowned out by the thundering crowd. Yudhisthira looked wide-eyed and horrified and paralyzed. No help there. Arjuna glanced over toward Bhisma, who was also up out of his seat and already stomping down toward the arena floor--
Then the crowd fell silent, and the sound of the two swords clanking abruptly ceased. Arjuna looked, and saw a tiny, red-headed figure standing between Duryodhana and Bhima, his arms outstretched, his jaw set. "Cease," Ashwatthama said, angrily. His voice echoed throughout the silent arena.
Bhima stood, with his sword still raised, his chest heaving. Duryodhana also stood in a ready stance. He flipped up his protective faceplate and breathed heavily, glaring at Bhima. His ragged breathing was all too audible in the now-silent arena. "Never," Duryodhana hissed. "This beast insulted my father and flaunted the rules of the competition! I won't cease until I've put him in his place!"
" 'Flaunted the rules'?" Bhima laughed his least pleasant laugh. "It was Duryodhana who attempted to cut out my heart first!"
"I was defending myself! This is hardly fair, Bhima ought to be disqualified because of his Gift--"
"Ah, of course, Duryodhana invokes a claim of injustice only when he is finally losing--!"
"SILENCE." Ashwatthama glared at Duryodhana, then at Bhima. Both of them fell silent, but neither showed any sign of lowering his sword. Finally, Ashwatthama raised both of his hands above his head, his fingers spread. He began chanting, then slowly brought down both of his hands. Duryodhana's arms trembled, but suddenly, he began to lower his sword. Bhima followed suit.
"For clear and mutual violation of the rules of the fencing competition," Ashwatthama said, after he finished his chant and clasped his hands in front of him, "both of you are disqualified from seeking the title. A championship match between the two runners-up will be held instead. May the two of them restore the spirit of sportsmanship that has been grievously disregarded by these two arrogant princes."
The crowd erupted in an uproar, some jeering loudly, others cheering Ashwatthama's decision. Arjuna looked up, and saw Yudhisthira shaking his head, sadly. Then Arjuna saw Bhima stomping angrily toward the exit of the arena, Duryodhana following him in an equal rage.
Some time later, while Arjuna was still waiting on his bench with the last remaining archers, Ashwatthama wandered into the waiting area, saw Arjuna, and smiled. "Must be hard," he said, "having to go last."
Arjuna laughed. "Yes."
"I believe the expression for this is, 'saving the best for last.'" Ashwatthama's face suddenly turned serious. "Bhima shamed your family today. It's up to you to restore their honor."
Arjuna looked away from Ashwatthama, then said quietly, "I know." Then even quieter, "It took a lot of courage to do what you did. Not many people would risk stepping in front of Bhima when he's angry."
"I only did my job," Ashwatthama said. Then he managed to smile at Arjuna again. "I came back here to wish you luck," he said. "You might actually need it."
Arjuna was about to ask what Ashwatthama meant by that, but he was cut short by the sound of screaming coming from the arena. A moment later, one of the archers who had entered the arena a minute ago came running back into the waiting area, his right arm smoking, its flesh turning red and bubbly. "Lasers!" he screamed as his attendants rushed after him, "Those damn things are shooting lasers!"
Ashwatthama calmly watched the burnt archer rushing past him, then turned and smiled at Arjuna again. "Your little brothers are evil," he pointed out, cheerfully.
"Yeah. I know."
Ashwatthama sighed. "I suppose I should go back out there. Good thing Nakula gave me this. I didn't think I would actually need it, but..." Ashwatthama shrugged on a coat of dark fabric that Arjuna recognized as laser-retardant. "I'll see you out there in a few minutes," Ashwatthama said.
Arjuna heard a small explosion and another scream of pain from the arena floor, and gulped.
Arjuna took three deep breaths, and stepped out into the arena. The crowd was already roaring and stomping. The arena floor was empty, save for Ashwatthama, who was standing in the center and announcing into a microphone.
"...third son of Pandu, prince of Kuru..." Ashwatthama announced, rattling off a list of Arjuna's titles.
Arjuna strode toward him, listening to his own gold ornaments clanking, trying not to notice the blast marks and charred spots now dotting the arena floor. He looked around, but saw no drones in the arena. Where were they?
"...son of Lord Indra himself, wielder of the legendary Gandiva bow..."
Arjuna looked around at the crowd above him. He saw Yudhisthira and his mother, leading their section in a standing ovation. Yudhisthira waved cheerfully at Arjuna, and Arjuna raised one hand to wave back nervously. Then Arjuna looked up and saw Bhisma and Vidura also chanting his name and clapping, and he raised his arm higher to wave at them. Then the whole crowd was stomping and chanting his name, and Arjuna raised both his arms to wave at all of them, soaking in their praise and their energy, unable to wipe the idiot, joyful grin off his face.
"And a man," Ashwatthama said, grasping one of Arjuna's arms and holding it high above his head, "who has always been as a brother to me." He turned his head and looked Arjuna in the eye, and Arjuna squeezed his hand tightly and nodded. Ashwatthama let go of Arjuna's hand, then, and began backing away. Quickly. "Good luck!" Ashwatthama called out as he sped away from the arena floor. Arjuna looked around one last time, and then he saw them - Nakula and Sahadeva and Drona, crouched beneath a shelter on the far end of the arena. There was a small keyboard in Nakula's hands. Nakula met Arjuna's eyes for a moment, then gave Arjuna his best evil smile. Arjuna saw Drona putting earplugs in his ears and Sahadeva pulling goggles over his eyes.
The first drone came at Arjuna almost before he realized what was happening. It shot out of the sky and toward his head, metal wings whirring, blades buzzing around its body. Fast as it was, Gandiva was faster. Arjuna ducked and Gandiva flared into life in his hands, arcs of lightning and thunder weaving together to create bow and string in less than a second. Arjuna was not aware of the way that the crowd gasped and cheered when they witnessed the birth of the miraculous bow. All he could see or hear was the drone shooting toward him. Arjuna let loose a volley of arrows which turned out to be completely unnecessary - the very fist arrow to leave his bow cleaved the drone clean in half. But by then there were more drones flying at Arjuna, from behind and the side.
Arjuna ducked and rolled, firing at the drones that were now coming at him from all directions. He fired arrows made of water and lightning, which soaked and short-circuited the drones, exploding some, merely dropping others dead and still out of the sky.
Now they were coming at him in droves, whirring and buzzing. A dozen, three dozen, a hundred, swarming at him like insects, blades and wings buzzing. Arjuna blanketed the sky around him with arrows, which stopped the drones from approaching him closely, but now it was different game - now the drones were firing back. A blast of laser fire singed Arjuna's hair. He ducked and dodged, his bow winking in and out of his hands, never hampering his movements. Arrows flashed from his bowstring, not a single one failing to find its mark. Arjuna was silently thankful that at least the drones were staying relatively low to the ground, preventing him from having to send his arrows up in the direction of the lowest level of the audience stands, several stories above the arena floor.
Arjuna fired more arrows, picking the drones out of the sky as soon as they appeared. But although his arrows never missed, he simply couldn't fire enough of them in time. Laser fire plucked at Arjuna's shoulders, and he took a blast to his knee. So Arjuna closed his eyes, dropped his bow, stood, and turned his thoughts inward. The drones flew toward him and some in the audience screamed, but Arjuna didn't hear them. He summoned the words that Drona had taught him, in his mind, and on his lips. He raised his bow and fired straight in front of him. And then there was a wall of lightning-charged water around him, deflecting the laser fire and expanding outward to engulf hundreds of drones before dissipating into thin air.
The crowd gasped and fell silent. Many of them had never seen an astra, a celestial weapon, invoked before.
Arjuna willed another arrow to appear on his bow, sensing that Nakula was nowhere near finished. He was right. Without warning, the ground around Arjuna's feet erupted in showers of dirt and mud. A hoard of spindly-legged mechanical monstrosities came swarming out of the ground, pincers clicking, barb-tipped tails lashing. Arjuna leapt and hopped out of range of their pincers, firing dozens of arrows into them as he did so, sometimes taking out two or three monsters with a single shot. The crowd clapped and cheered, but Arjuna still ignored them - the very ground beneath his feet was popping open at every step, as a new monster crawled out. They came up beneath his feet, in front of him, behind him, all around him. Arjuna jumped up again, and quickly invoked his second astra. He fired directly into the ground at his feet, and this time the ground beneath him froze and hardened, trapping the robots in a sheet of frozen mud.
Arjuna slid down onto the ice he had created, pausing for a moment to take a breath. But the drones would not give him a pause. More laser fire screamed past his cheek; Arjuna dodged and turned toward the source of the fire. A group of three tiny drones were whirling around each other, high up in the air above him. Arjuna grinned and took aim. The drones shot farther up into the air, but not before unleashing another volley of laser fire. Arjuna shot up missiles of lightning, covering himself in a shield of electricity that dispelled the lasers before they could touch him. Then Arjuna aimed and shot straight up into the air. The drones, still receding, were hundreds of stepclicks into the air by now, and invisible to the spectators watching around the arena. But not to Arjuna. Two explosions above the arena indicated that two of Arjuna's arrows had found their mark.
But the third explosion didn't happen.
Another blast of laser fire that Arjuna barely managed to dodge, and the third drone was still screaming around and above him. Arjuna aimed, then cursed and pulled back his arrow, lowering his bow. The drone had taken refuge in the stands around the arena, whirling amongst rows of screaming, panicked spectators. Arjuna tracked the drone with his eyes, waiting for a moment when it would move away from the audience and--
No such luck. The drone still shot blasts of laser fire at Arjuna; Arjuna countered with the lightning-shield astra again, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to keep up this defensive position forever. If the drone didn't move away from the audience, then Arjuna might have to risk shooting into the stands.
Suddenly the drone hovered, whirred, and then landed right on top of somebody's head.
The crowd gasped. The drone had landed right on top of the head of Drupada's dark-haired daughter.
A few in the stands screamed, and Drupada himself stood up quickly and drew his sword, making as if to strike the thing. But his daughter calmly reached up with her slender hands and, before the drone seemed to realize what was happening, seized it, grasping at both its sides, crushing its folding wings in her hands, and holding it down to her head before it could get away again.
The people sitting in the stands behind Drupada's daughter ducked.
Drupada's daughter held the drone, which was now desperately struggling to break free of her grip, above her head calmly. She fixed her dark eyes upon Arjuna's and commanded him, in a voice that rang out through the arena, "Shoot it."
Arjuna loaded an arrow and drew his bowstring.
"Don't you dare!" Drupada shouted, angrily.
But his daughter smiled calmly at Arjuna. "I know you can do it. But I can't hold it forever. Please destroy this poor thing now, O Prince."
Arjuna saw Drupada moving to intervene, to block the arrow with his sword. So Arjuna had no more time to think. He aimed, and he fired. His arrow went screaming across the arena, up through the stands, and right through the princess's hands. The drone she had been holding shuddered, sparked, and split in two. It did not explode, but rather fell neatly in two halves into the princess's hands. She brought the two halves of the dead drone down into her lap, and nodded at Arjuna, gratefully. "Thank you," she said.
The crowd immediately erupted into a thunderous standing ovation, applauding Arjuna's incredible feat. Arjuna waved at the crowd and grinned. But his grin was a mask; his nerves were still on edge, his senses sharp and alert. He knew that Nakula surely must have had something worse up his sleeve--
Arjuna heard a roar from the far side of the arena. He turned, and saw something out of his worst nightmares charging toward him. It was a mechanical boar, all razor-sharp edges and gleaming metal joints, fire breathing out of its mouth.
Gods damn you, Nakula. I mean it. Really.
Arjuna calmly lifted his bow and fired five arrows into the boar's mouth. The back of the boar's neck exploded in a shower of sparks and twisted, burnt metal. It fell down, lifeless and still, at Arjuna's feet.
Arjuna set down Gandiva and sighed. It had better be over now.
It was. In an instant, the crowd was on its feet, applauding and stomping and roaring; Ashwatthama was at Arjuna's side, holding up his arm triumphantly; Nakula and Sahadeva were hugging him, and then the crowd was streaming down out of the stands and onto the arena floor, and Arjuna was being lifted up, carried by the crowd chanting his name over and over again toward the far end of the arena--
Drona was standing there on a dias, waiting for him. Arjuna reached up toward his teacher, but Drona grabbed him by the arms, and in one smooth motion pulled him into a tight embrace. For a moment, Arjuna could no longer hear the crowd or the applause or even the sound of his own labored breathing. For one beautiful moment, there was only him and Drona and Drona holding him so deliciously close that Arjuna was afraid he would tear up with joy. Then Drona broke the embrace, but gazed down into Arjuna's eyes and whispered, I'm proud of you.
Arjuna thought that he would likely die of joy at that very moment.
Then Ashwatthama was there beside him, hushing the delirious crowd with one simple wave of his hand. "The judges have unanimously decided," he said, "that, in honor of the skill and prowess he displayed during the archery competition--"
The rest of Ashwatthama's speech was drowned out as the crowd erupted into thunderous cheering. Drona slipped a garland of flowers around Arjuna's neck, and the crowd went even wilder. Arjuna grinned and raised his arms to the sky, soaking in their cheers. So this was what glory felt like, Arjuna thought. It felt glorious. Arjuna didn't even care how stupid his armor looked anymore. He looked up and saw his mother and Yudhisthira still in the stands, watching him. Arjuna's mother was crying tears of joy and clutching at Yudhisthira's shoulder; Yudhisthira held her and returned Arjuna's dopey grin helplessly.
Somehow Ashwatthama managed to silence the crowd again, although this time it took several waves of his hands. "It has therefore been decided that Prince Arjuna will be recognized as the champion of the archery competition. If there are any challengers left who wish to test their skill against our prince, let them speak now, or be forever silent."
And for a moment, the crowd was silent. Until the sound of someone loudly slapping his forearm suddenly echoed throughout the arena, as sudden and sharp as a crack of thunder.
"I will challenge the prince," a voice said.
Every head in the crowd turned toward the entrance to the arena, where a tall, dark-skinned man stood. His hair was wrapped in a scarf and a pair of golden earrings hung from his earlobes. He was dressed in a simple jacket, trouser, and boots. He looked, Arjuna thought, like a commoner. Not at all like the handsome, ornamented princes who had been competing in the arena all day.
Someone in the crowd laughed. But everybody else seemed too stunned at the audacity of this commoner to say anything.
Ashwatthama looked the challenger up and down. "Where is your weapon?" Ashwatthama asked.
"Here," the challenger said, and a bow woven from arcs of white-hot fire suddenly sprang into existence in his hands.
The crowd fell back and gasped. It was a devaweapon, which meant that its wielder was a devakin. Which meant that he must not have been a commoner after all, since devakin were never born to commoners.
Arjuna looked to Drona, who was glowering at the newcomer with his lips tightly pursed. But Ashwatthama, with shadows from the fire of the challenger's bow flickering over his face, nodded solemnly. "Very well," he said. Then he turned to the crowd and commanded, "Clear the arena floor! Make way for the challenger!" He quickly looked down at Nakula and Sahadeva, who were standing just below the dias upon which Arjuna stood. "Do you have enough drones left for a second round?"
The twins looked at each other. "Yes," Nakula said. "But we can't guarantee that they'll behave the same way. We programmed them with an evolving intelligence. It will be even more difficult for this guy, the second time around."
"It's a good thing we built more than one Mister Piggy, though," Sahadeva said.
The crowd dispersed from the arena floor and back into the stands. Attendants rushed out to the arena, smoothing out the dirt that had been disturbed by Arjuna's battle, thawing the frozen ground with heat-dryers, freeing the trapped ground-monsters so that they could burrow back into their dwellings. Drona and Arjuna and Ashwatthama stepped back, but did not step down, from the victory dias. Arjuna watched the newcomer take his place in the center of the arena as the stage around him was reset. Arjuna swallowed and fingered the flowers around his neck, nervously. Suddenly, the bright sunlight pouring down upon him, which he had so successfully ignored during the previous battle, seemed hot and stiffling. Arjuna fought against the nausea rising in his throat.
Nakula and Sahadeva took their places in the shelter at the opposite end of the arena. Nakula gave Ashwatthama a signal with his raised fist, and Ashwatthama turned to the challenger and said, "Are you ready?"
"Yes." The challenger turned his eyes toward Arjuna and said, "Anything that this prince could do, I will do quicker, better, and more gracefully."
Arjuna felt his nervousness slowly being replaced by something new. It was anger.
"Watch me," the challenger said, his golden earrings gleaming in the bright sunlight. And then the drones were upon him.
They were faster this time, and there were more of them, moving in complicated patterns; but the challenger stood his ground, cutting them all down with a hail of fiery arrows, never once needing to dodge or duck from a single blast of laser fire. The challenger whispered a mantra under his breath, and a hundred drones combusted in a flash of ash and dust. The ground-robots erupted from beneath the challenger's feet, but he burned them all instantly with walls of flame formed by his hundreds of fiery arrows.
Arjuna stared at him, his fists clenched, his shoulders tensing. The crowd around him was silent, in awe. This can't be happening, Arjuna thought, watching as the challenger effortlessly cut down another hoard of drones, without taking the laser blasts to the knee and shoulder that Arjuna had suffered. But - But I'm the greatest archer in the world! ME! Arjuna could begin to feel panic clutching at his chest as he watched the challenger shoot down the three whirling drones that had shot hundreds of stepclicks up into the air, without missing the one that Arjuna had missed. I'm the Great Warrior! I'm the champion of Kuru! Mr. Drona PROMISED me that nobody would ever beat me!
The mechanical boar roared as it rumbled out of the back of the arena.
This was supposed to me MY moment! MY day!
The challenger dropped to one knee and took aim with his bow.
I was going to prove to everyone that I was the best! Arjuna looked over at Drona, whose lips were still pursed, a frown wrinkling his forehead. To prove that my teacher was the greatest teacher! To bring honor to my family!
The mechanical boar breathed a burst of fire. The challenger shot his arrows into the boar's mouth. The first arrow erupted through the back of the boar's neck; the second arrow split clean through the center of the first; the third arrow split the second; the fourth arrow split the third; and the fifth arrow split the fourth clean in half. The boar shivered, shuddered, and fell dead.
And then the crowd was on its feet, wild with applause and joyous cheers.
Neither Yudhisthira nor his mother stood up as the crowd around them erupted into a standing ovation. Yudhisthira glanced over at his mother, who looked pale and drawn. Then Yudhisthira glanced down at Arjuna, still standing on the champion's dias and clutching at the flowers around his neck, an ugly look on his face. Yudhisthira shuddered. He had seen that same look on Duryodhana's face, once many years ago, the day that Bhima had challenged him to a duel in the palace gardens – and had won .
"Oh, my," Gandhari said, clutching her hands tightly in her lap. "Who is that man down there, anyway?"
"I think," Yudhisthira said, watching Ashwatthama wave his hand for silence, "that we're about to find out."
Ashwatthama waved the crowd to silence. Arjuna watched Ashwatthama's back as he stood and addressed the challenger standing below him. "You have indeed completed all of the tasks that Prince Arjuna completed," he said calmly, "and have done so in a... a superior fashion."
Arjuna looked down to the far end of the arena, where Nakula was staring at the stranger with his jaw hanging open, and Sahadeva was frowning into space and digging his nails into the ground beneath him.
"Which means," Ashwatthama said slowly, "that since you have indeed challenged and surpassed our champion, you are..." Ashwatthama trailed off, as if unable to continue. He turned his head, and gave Arjuna a long, sorrowful look. Arjuna shook his head and mouthed No, but Ashwatthama turned away from him and told the stranger, "You are our new champion."
"But first!" Drona cut in quickly, stepping forward and pushing his son aside before the crowd could erupt into either applause or jeering, "Before you rob our prince of his champion title, you must at least tell us who you are, Stranger."
The challenger nodded slowly, and his bow vanished from his hands. "I am Karna," he said. "I come from Anga."
Arjuna clutched at the flowers around his neck more tightly. He knew that there was no royalty on Anga.
Drona scoffed. "I care not for your name," he said. "I demand to know who you are, Karna. Of what is your family?"
For a moment, Karna's severe face broke into a small smile. "My family is here," he said. A young woman stepped out of the crowd and walked toward him, a wide-eyed toddler held in her arms. She strode happily toward Karna, who held out his arms to receive her. Karna wrapped his arms around his wife and took the toddler in his arms, looking up at Drona and saying, "This is my wife and son."
Arjuna eyed them carefully. Karna's wife was wearing a summer dress and a scarf around her neck, but she had no jewels on her arms or neck and no ornamentation in her hair; surely she could not be royalty. Karna's son was wearing overalls and a summer jacket and was busy staring at the world around him with wide, silent eyes; but he had none of the rings or fine clothes that marked a prince.
Drona shook his head. "No," he said, "I care not for your wife or your son. Who are your parents, Karna? Where do you come from? It is our right to know the lineage of our new champion."
Karna fell silent, biting his lip and frowning.
"Who are your parents?" Drona demanded again.
Karna trembled and clutched his son, but did not answer.
This time Bhisma rose from his seat across the arena and demanded in a booming voice, "If you will not tell us your origins, Challenger, then we will not deprive our prince of his rightful title. We cannot crown an unknown man as our champion."
The crowd began whispering among itself. Karna looked down at his feet for a long time, while his wife placed her hand on his shoulder and seemed to be imploring him silently. Finally, Karna nodded, slowly. Then he looked up at Drona and said, "My parents are here."
Slowly, a portion of the crowd in the stands began to stir. And then emerging from the bottom of the stands came an elderly woman, standing tall and proud with her long gray hair swept behind her neck, leading a stooped, shivering old man by the hand. Karna gently handed his son back over to his wife, then strode toward his parents. He took his trembling father's hand gently, leading him slowly across the arena floor. "These are my parents," Karna said proudly, wrapping one arm affectionately around his father's shoulders as his mother stood beside him, her chin raised defiantly toward Drona. "This is my father, Adiratha, and my mother--"
"Adiratha?" Bhisma interrupted, from across the arena. "The weaponsmith from Anga?!"
"Yes," Karna said.
"You," Drona said angrily, pointing one accusing finger at Karna, "are the son of a weaponsmith?!"
"Yes," Karna said again.
"Outrageous!" Drona snarled. "It is a sin for a weaponsmith to ever use a weapon!"
Karna opened his mouth to say something else, but his voice was drowned out in a wave of jeering and booing that erupted from the crowd. Arjuna stood back and watched as the crowd began calling names and throwing crumpled programs and food wrappers onto the arena floor. "Sinner!" they called out. "Liar! Cheater!"
Karna's wife cried out in fear and she clutched her crying son to her chest. Karna tried to shield his parents, but crumpled programs and other pieces of trash kept striking at them. "Stop it," Ashwatthama cried out frantically, pushing himself out in front of Drona, "Stop it!" The crowd slowly stopped hissing and throwing things. However, Ashwatthama glared down at Karna and said, "I am sorry, but it is unacceptable for a weaponsmith to use a weapon, and for a commoner to challenge a prince. You have sinned today, Karna, and for that, you must not be crowned as our champion."
"Sinned?!" Karna challenged Ashwatthama, angrily. "You asked if there was any person with skill great enough to challenge your prince, and I proved - through fair means - that there is. What, then was my sin?!"
"You are a weaponsmith and must never--"
"Enough!" Karna cried out. "What does it matter to whom I was born?!"
"Yes," Duryodhana said, striding across the arena floor toward Karna, "what does it matter?"
Everyone turned toward Duryodhana, who looked royal and resplendent in his ceremonial armor. Arjuna blinked. He had not been aware that Duryodhana had been among the crowd, or even that Duryodhana had ever changed out of his fencing uniform. Duryodhana strode up to Karna, shot his usual charismatic grin at Karna's parents, then quickly made his face grow solemn as he turned to stare up toward Ashwatthama. "You are asking foolish questions," he reprimanded Ashwatthama. "What does it matter where Karna came from, or to whom he was born? A man is like a river. His origins may be obscured or difficult to determine, but that does not prevent him from flowing clear and strong as you know him now. Yes," Duryodhana said, nodding to himself, "how a man is born is not what matters. What matters is the type of man that he becomes, no matter what the circumstances of his birth. This man," he went on, turning toward Karna, "has challenged and defeated Arjuna today. Should he not then be our champion?"
Arjuna silently wondered which book or poem Duryodhana had cribbed that river metaphor from.
"He didn't challenge the prince," Drona said, quickly. "This Karna only completed a test identical to the one that Arjuna completed. This does not prove that he is a superior archer to Arjuna. The only way to determine as such would be to have both of them compete against each other directly. In a duel, with their bows."
"Then let us duel!" Karna shouted. "I hereby challenge Prince Arjuna to a duel!"
Arjuna set his jaw and stepped forward, Gandiva tingling unseen beneath his fingertips. But Drona stayed him with a hand on his shoulder, and shook his head, saying, "No. Only a prince may ever challenge another prince to a duel. But you, Karna, are no prince."
Arjuna watched Karna clench his fists and seethe with fury at this humiliation. But Duryodhana nodded to himself and said, "Very well, then." He turned to Karna, and placed his hands upon Karna's head. "I crown you, Karna," he said, "as the King of Agna, as it is my authority as Kuru's Crown Prince to do so. You will rule Anga as a regent beneath my throne." He pulled his hands away from Karna's head and turned toward Drona. "There. Karna is a king now. He is royalty of an equal rank to Arjuna. This makes it acceptable for them to duel, doesn't it?"
Drona seemed about to retort, but he was cut off by a booming, thunderous laugh from among the stands. Arjuna turned and saw Bhima standing among the crowd, sneering down at Karna. "That man is no king!" he called out. "Even if you call a fish a stallion, it's still just a damn fish." He looked squarely down at Drona. "This arrogant son of a weaponsmith is not fit to challenge Arjuna. He is in no way Arjuna's equal."
"No," Duryodhana retorted angrily, "Karna has just proven that he is in every way Arjuna's superior!"
The crowd began to murmur loudly among itself, debating. Ashwatthama looked up at his father, helplessly. Drona looked to the left, then to the right, then back at Arjuna. Arjuna stood, unsure of what to say or do. But then Drona set his jaw and turned back toward Karna and said, with one finger pointing at the sun setting over the lip of the arena, "Look! The sun is setting." He lowered his hand slowly, a grim smile on his face. "The traditional rules of this contest are clear. All competition is to cease when the sun sets. Since the contest is now over and Karna has not yet proven himself superior to Arjuna in a duel, then Prince Arjuna remains our champion."
The crowd erupted, but this time not in entirely in cheers. Some cheered and called Arjuna's name, but others jeered, others hissed, and others stomped their feet and chanted Karna's name. Arjuna swallowed. Whatever Duryodhana had done, he had certainly managed to divide the crowd. Drona took Arjuna's shoulder and silently steered him off the dias. "Come," he said. "You've won."
But Arjuna turned and glanced over his shoulder, at Duryodhana and Karna standing below the dias. Karna had grasped Duryodhana's arms and was smiling warmly at him, saying something or other. Arjuna couldn't hear them. But his gaze wondered over to Duryodhana, who was grinning back at Karna and not paying any attention to Arjuna whatsoever.
Everyone's a user, Arjuna.
Arjuna clutched at the flowers around his neck and hunched his shoulders, walking as close to Drona as he possibly could. He tasted bitterness in his mouth, and something else, too - a new something. An ugly something. Arjuna shuddered. It was hatred. He wasn't entirely sure, however, who exactly his hatred was meant for.
To be continued.