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 for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
INTERLUDE: KARNA II
Karna grasped Prince Duryodhana's arms as the crowd roared around them, as Prince Arjuna was led out of the arena to the accompaniment of equal parts cheering and jeering, and said, "Thank you."
Duryodhana shook his head. "I deserve no thanks--"
"No," Karna said, vehemently, "you do. What can I ever do to repay you?"
Prince Duryodhana smiled at him, a lovely, perfect, self-effacing, and obviously well-rehearsed smile that Karna could tell was often used to soften foreign dignitaries and make ladies go weak in the knees. Just because it was well-rehearsed, however, did not mean that it wasn't genuine. "All I could ask for," Duryodhana said, "is your friendship."
Karna nodded. "It is done."
"We're almost done cleaning out the west wing," Yuyutsu said, slipping a stylus behind his ear as he used his finger to check off another item on the electronic reader he was holding. "There's a children's nursery there that would be perfect for Vrishasena."
Shrutakiirti bounced Vrishasena absently on her hip and looked at her husband and said again, "Do you ever wake up in the morning and think that all of this is insane?"
"Yes," Karna said, tilting his head to look up at the mural covering the ceiling above him, which was crawling with uniformed servants who were laboriously scrubbing it back into its previous luster. This mansion, which hundreds of years ago had been occupied by Anga's dukes and duchesses but had been abandoned for decades, was now his. It sat like a resplendent jewel in the midst of its own dome, surrounded by carefully cultivated lawns and woodlands, complete with an artificial river cutting through the middle of it.
And now it belonged to Karna.
"We're having linens and towels and curtains shipped up from Hastinapura this afternoon," Yuyutsu went on, leading Karna and Shrutakiirti through the opulent hallways of the mansion and towards the outdoor courtyard in the center of the complex. "They'll be arriving for your inspection in three hours," Yuyutsu said, turning toward Shrutakiirti.
"You are the lady of the house, Your Highness."
"And yet I want to laugh every time you call me that."
They stepped through a glass door and into the courtyard, lined with fragrant flowers and trees heavy with fruit. Karna looked up at the black sky beyond the dome above him, and sighed. He already missed the sunlight that had touched his bare skin and tickled his hair when he had been on Kuru's surface.
"If there's anything you need," Yuyutsu said, "you have my personal comm number. I am at your service." He bowed low to Karna and Shrutakiirti. Vrishasena, held in his mother's arms, drooled and wiped his lip with his sticky hands.
Karna wasn't sure that he would ever get used to people bowing to him like that. Not merely as a gesture of politeness, but as a gesture of true subservience.
Yuyutsu straightened up. He frowned, listening to something coming from the comm unit he wore over one of his ears. "The silver dining set," he sighed, to nobody in particular, and then quickly stepped back into the house and vanished.
Shrutakiirti looked at her husband and said again, "This is insane."
Karna shook his head. "No, it's..." He trailed off, as if unsure how to continue. "It's good for my father. He can finally retire, now. My mother, too."
"But look at you and me," Shrutakiirti said, clutching her son tightly and walking over toward a stone bench in the middle of the courtyard. She sat down upon it, wearily. "We're not a king and queen." Her neck moles stood out against her dark skin, tinted odd colors beneath the artificial lighting that created Anga's artificial days. "At least, I'm not a queen." She looked up at Karna and said, "I always knew that you were born for something great, though."
Karna sat down beside her and touched the back of her neck. "You were always a queen to me," he said. "Is it wrong that the rest of the world should see you as such?"
Shrutakiirti shook her head, and looked down at Vrishasena, who was sitting in her lap, his face scrunched up in a frown of effort. "Your son," she said, "the prince, has, I believe, just made a royal mess inside his royal undergarments. He needs a change."
Karna reached out for Vrishasena, then paused. "Wait a minute," he said.
"Karna, he's about three seconds away from bawling--"
"No, I mean..." Karna pulled his comm out of his shirt pocket and said, "You and I have servants to do these sorts of things for us now."
Shrutakiirti hesitated. "I'm not sure I like the idea of some stranger's hands all over my son's--"
"You and I will never have to change another diaper again."
Shrutakiirti looked down at her son, and then said, "All right. I'm sold."
Karna found his father lying in a bed covered in silk sheets, a contented smile on his face. A pair of nurses were clearing away the remains of his lunch from the table beside his bed. "Much better than a public hospital," Karna's father said, a smile on his trembling lips. "I could get used to this." He looked up at Karna and asked, "Where are Shrutakiirti and Vrishasena?"
"Shrutakiirti is inspecting linens," Karna said, his voice mirroring the distaste that Shrutakiirti had shown toward the task, "and Vrishasena is napping." He knelt down beside his father's bed and said, "You aren't shaking as badly today."
"The amazing healing powers of luxury." Karna's father reached out and touched Karna's hair, then the golden earring dangling from his right ear, slowly. "You did this old man proud, boy. Although you know," he added, solemnly, "I would have been proud of you even if you had not won yourself a palace and a crown."
Karna's father shook his trembling head, cutting Karna off. "I always knew that you were born a king," he said. "This is your birthright, Karna. Your real parents, whoever they were--"
"You are my father."
"Yes." Karna's father stroked his hair, gently. "Forgive an old man, Karna. You have been the greatest joy in my life ever since the moment when I first held you in my arms. You told me many times that you don't think that you deserve any of this." Karna's father gestured, indicating the mansion around them. "But there are times when I wake up in the morning and fear that I never deserved you."
Karna closed his eyes for a moment, silently thanking the gods above that this man was his father. Then he opened his eyes and said, solemnly, "It's not just that I don't deserve a palace, it's that I don't need it." He sighed. "No one person needs all of this... stuff."
"If you don't want it," Karna's father laughed, "then give it away." Then he paused when he saw his son's eyes suddenly light up. "I was joking, Karna."
"Many good ideas seem like jokes at the time." Karna stood up quickly. "Excuse me a moment."
Adiratha sighed as he watched his son go.
Karna rolled up the cuffs of his trousers, slipped off his boots, and waded out into the cold artificial river which cut through the middle of a green field in the center of his property. The crowd of servants that had followed him out to the river stood watching silently, waiting to see what their new king was up to, watching to see what he would do next.
Karna waded farther and farther out, until the clear, rushing water was soaking his trousers up to his knees. He closed his eyes and remembered the years he had spent on Kuru's surface, waking up each morning early enough to shed his clothes and swim nude in the deep river that bordered the dwelling that he had shared with Parashurama, turning his face toward the rising sun and whispering ecstatic prayers as its warm rays bathed his body.
Karna opened his eyes to the dark dome above him. There was no real sun on Anga, at least not in the sense of a sun that could make the sky turn from black to blue. Because there was no sky. There was only a distant white glow sometimes visible through the glass and steel domes that blocked its dangerous rays from ever reaching the fragile humans living beneath them. But there was still the river, at least, and there were still mornings...
Karna whispered a prayer to the sun beneath his breath, then turned to face the crowd of servants lining the edge of the river, watching him expectantly. Right, then. It was time to be a king.
"Listen well!" Karna proclaimed, as the river swirled around his knees. "This will be my first act as your king. With Kuru's sun as my witness, I make this vow!" He held out his arms. "Every morning, at six hundred hours, I will bathe in this river and offer worship to the sun. At that time, should any of my subjects approach me with a request, I will grant it. Whether you ask for my wealth or my power as a man, I will grant it. I will never refuse anyone anything, should they approach me at this time. That is my vow."
The servants on the edge of the river murmured and look at each other nervously, as if unsure whether to believe Karna, or as if unsure if their new king had just lost his mind.
"That is my vow," Karna said, wading up out of the river. He walked, barefoot, across the grassy expanse of his land and back toward the mansion that was his new home, with his servants following silently behind him, one of them carrying his boots.
Karna returned to the mansion to find Shrutakiirti waiting for him, with a length of blue silk held in her hands. She looked down at Karna's bare wet feet and said, "Dare I ask?"
Karna walked up toward her as servants scurried to mop up the puddles he was leaving behind him. He took Shrutakiirti in his arms and said, "I made a vow to the sun."
"Good for you, darling." She touched his cheek with one hand wrapped in blue silk. "Like it?" she asked.
"Good, because it's for our bed."
"I vowed to give away anything anyone requested of me," Karna blurted out. "When I pray in the river every morning."
Shrutakiirti kissed him on the cheek. "I knew you were crazy when I married you."
"I know you are." She laughed. "That's why I love you."
On the first morning, two maids approached Karna as he stood in the river and prayed to the distant sun. They seemed unsure of whether Karna was serious about his vow, or whether they were about to make fools of themselves. "Your Highness," one said, bowing low, "I would only ask of you to raise my hourly wage so that I may be paid equally as my sisters."
The second maid looked slightly aghast at this, as if she hadn't expected her friend's request to be granted. So she swallowed, and said, "Your Highness..."
"The silver chandelier hanging in the banquet hall," she said, with a daring challenge in her voice, knowing full well that she was making a ridiculous request. "I wish to have it hanging above the dining table in my home."
For a moment, the second maid was silent, shocked. "I don't think my ceiling will even support that thing," she said in a small voice.
"Then I shall give you a new roof," Karna said, wading up out of the river. "Or perhaps even a new house, if it turns out that your current home will be unable to support a stronger roof."
On the second morning, a small crowd of servants had gathered at the river bank, as well as a crowd of citizens from Anga's main domes. An old man asked for medicine. A young married couple asked for a new home. A ten-year-old boy asked for a remote-controlled model of a spaceship.
On the third morning, an even larger crowd had gathered at the river bank. There were even more on the fourth morning.
On the fifth morning, when the next-to-last member of the crowd on the riverbank had had his request granted, Karna turned his head and saw Shrutakiirti standing at the edge of the river. "I have a request," she said.
Karna smiled up at her. "Anything," he said. By now the last of his supplicants had left, leaving Shrutakiirti standing alone on the river bank.
Shrutakiirti looked down at him, her forehead wrinkling as she frowned thoughtfully. "You'll really do anything that I ask of you? Anything?"
"Anything. Such is my vow."
"Good." Shrutakiirti pulled a folded piece of paper from a pocket in her skirts and unfolded it slowly. It was a list - a long list. "Number one," she said. "When my mother comes to visit next week, I want you to tell her that her new hairstyle is lovely."
Karna groaned. "A king isn't supposed to lie--"
"But I'm asking you to lie anyway. Convincingly." Shrutakiirti pointed at the distant sun in the black sky above her. "Sacred vow, remember?"
"All right, all right."
"And," Shrutakiirti said, scanning down at her list, "numbers two through eleven are things I've always dreamed of doing in bed with you."
Karna laughed. "Let me see the list, before I agree to anything."
Shrutakiirti slipped off her sandals, held up her skirts, and waded out into the river toward Karna. She handed him the list and said, "You have to agree anyway, right?"
Karna scanned the list quickly, then looked up at Shrutakiirti and asked, "Can we negotiate about number seven?"
Shrutakiirti crossed her arms over her chest, letting her skirts slip down into the river. "No way, Your Highness. Sacred vow, remember?"
Karna looked down at the list again, then back up at his wife. "Where did you even get these ideas?" he asked.
"You're stalling." Shrutakiirti placed one finger on Karna's lips. "Just say yes."
Karna still hesitated.
"Look," she said, pointing to number five on her list. "If you do that for me, then I'll do the same for you."
Karna finally nodded.
On the sixth morning, Karna waded into the river, sore and stiff from having accomplished items eight and nine on Shrutakiirti's list the previous night, and granted the requests of a new crowd of supplicants. Then he waded out of the river and returned to his mansion as he did every morning, barefoot and dripping, as servants scrambled to clean up behind him.
When Karna strode into the front entrance of his mansion, however, Prince Duryodhana was waiting for him with an entourage of brothers and bodyguards and servants standing at his back, crossing his arms and glowering. Yuyutsu hovered nervously at Duryodhana's shoulder.
"What in the five hells is wrong with you?!" Duryodhana demanded, before Karna could even register that Kuru's crown prince was standing in front of him. "You can't just give away anything to anybody who asks it!"
Karna stood for a moment, still surprised to see Duryodhana standing in front of him. For a moment, his reflex was to bow - but then he decided not to. Instead, he set his jaw and asked Duryodhana, "Why not?"
"Wh-Why not?!" Duryodhana spluttered, unused to being questioned in such a straightforward manner. "Because... Because of the, uh, the economy!" Duryodhana jabbed one finger angrily at Karna. "If you just give away money then it completely screws up the economy!"
"How?" Karna asked.
"How?!" Duryodhana maintained his rage for a moment, then seemed to hesitate. "Because... Because it does!" He threw up his arms in the air. "I'm not the Minister of Economics, I don't have to understand it. But it does!"
Karna looked to his left, where a lamp stood on a marble table, and to his right, where a painting hung in a gilded frame, and said, "I don't know, the economy looks fine to me."
"But why," Duryodhana asked, holding out his hands, "would you ever make such an insane vow in the first place?!"
"Because it seemed like the right thing to do," Karna answered solemnly.
For a moment, Duryodhana stared at Karna, looking at him as if Karna had just told him that the sky were green. Then he frowned and turned toward his brothers, his servants, his bodyguards, and Yuyutsu. "Leave us," he said. "I wish to speak to Karna alone."
They left, and Duryodhana stepped closer to Karna. "I trusted you with a kingdom," he said. "I wouldn't have done so if I had known at the time that you were insane."
"I'm fairly sure that I am quite sane, Your Highness." Karna bowed low to Duryodhana. "Although if I have offended you in any way--"
"You haven't offended me," Duryodhana said, cutting off Karna with an impatient wave of his hand. "It's not that." He sighed through his nose. "I just wonder how much longer you will be able to keep up with this vow of yours, before you end up homeless and dressed in rags--"
"I trained with and lived as a renunciant for many years, Your Highness," Karna pointed out. "I have no need for material wealth or luxury."
"Maybe not you," Duryodhana said, "But what about your family?"
"What if someone were to ask you for your father's medicine, or for all of your mother's gowns?"
Karna pondered this. "I don't think anybody would ask for that, Your Highness. You'd be surprised how humble these people are. You can trust them not to be greedy."
"No you can't!" Duryodhana burst out. "Maybe you haven't figured this out yet because you're new to the game, but - listen! People are greedy and narrow-minded and cruel. As a king, you're supposed to be the one ruling these people, not giving in to their every whim. It's your job to protect them from themselves, for their own benefit. The last thing you should be doing is giving them anything that they want!"
Karna stood, staring at Duryodhana, unsure of what to say in the face of his outburst.
Finally Duryodhana looked Karna in the eye and said, "Answer me one question."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"If I came down to the river while you were praying tomorrow, and requested that you to give up this vow of yours, would you?"
Karna looked at Duryodhana for a long, long time. Then he said, slowly, "Your Highness, I somehow doubt that royalty such as yourself would be able to get out of bed at such an early hour."
For a moment, Duryodhana's eyes widened with shock. Karna held his breath, bracing for the worst. Then, slowly, Duryodhana's face began to soften. He looked up and down at Karna, and then, unbelievably, he laughed. Duryodhana brought his hand to his mouth to stifle a small laugh, then he looked back at Karna with a smile in his eyes and said, "Karna, you have just about the biggest set of balls of anyone I've ever met."
"Thank you," Karna said, unsure of what else to say.
"You're determined to keep your word. I like that." Duryodhana reached out and grasped Karna's hand. "But you also made a vow to me, remember?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"So, I'm asking you as a friend. Will you reconsider this vow you made to the sun?"
Karna held Duryodhana's hand tightly, and remembered the prince's brave words that he had spoken on Karna's behalf on the arena floor, taking a stand against the angry crowd, the fascist priest, and his son. Duryodhana was a good man, Karna knew in his heart. A good man, and a good friend. Karna owed him a great debt, for it was Duryodhana who had protected Karna's family, and his honor, on the arena floor. Even when he hadn't had to. Even when it probably would have been safer and less controversial for the prince to not say anything, to not risk his reputation for the sake of a commoner whom he had never met before. Karna looked up at Duryodhana and said, "For you, yes."
"Thank you," Duryodhana said, this time bowing his head to Karna.
"I will reconsider my vow," Karna said, "but not forsake it. Instead, I will lessen its scope. Only one person may approach me with a request each morning." Karna drew his hands away from Duryodhana and clasped them in front of his chest, closing his eyes and saying, "I will pray that the sun understands."
"Karna," Duryodhana said.
Karna opened his eyes.
"Come with me back to the surface," Duryodhana commanded. "I wish to have you in my court. I have need of an advisor who isn't afraid to speak the truth to me."
Karna bowed low. "But, Your Highness, my family--"
"You will see them several days each week," Duryodhana said, quickly. "Your wife seems quite capable of handling affairs in your absence."
"Thank you, Your Highness."
"Come. Now." Duryodhana turned and began striding away. "There's already a shuttle waiting for us."
Karna jogged a few steps to keep up with the prince. "Your Highness--"
"Think nothing of it," Duryodhana said, waving his hand dismissively. "I only wish to have an honest soul standing beside me. That, and a genuine friend. Such are always a rarity for kings."
Karna nodded at this, but Duryodhana did not see him. Karna thought that it was a shame, that such a good man had been born into a life where he could expect so little in the way of honest friends.
To be continued.