MAHABHARATA STORY

by Nenena

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!


CHAPTER SIX: DAKSHINA


Arjuna heard the crash of glass shattering and a woman's scream from all the way across the courtyard. He winced and lowered his bow.

Drona squinted and peered into the distance. "I do not believe that you hit the target," he pointed out, dryly.

"No kidding." Arjuna's bow vanished from his hands.

Drona turned toward him sharply. "We're not finished yet."

"Yes we are." Arjuna glowered across the long courtyard, at the target barely visible in the distance. He couldn't hit it. After a month, he still couldn't hit it. And that commoner who had challenged Arjuna in the weapons contest could. "I do not wish to do more today," Arjuna commanded in what he hoped came across as a princely voice.

"But you must do more today. If you would perhaps just concentrate and not let a certain someone get beneath your skin--"

"What's the point?!" Arjuna fumed, stamping his foot angrily. "You promised me that you would make me the greatest archer ever--"

"And I have not fulfilled my promise yet." Drona returned Arjuna's glower, utterly unintimidated. "If you are so obsessed with comparing yourself to that son of a weaponsmith, then remember this: you are half his age. Your training is not finished yet. You have a teacher, and he has none. You will surpass him surely and swiftly, if you would just stop acting like a..." Drona paused, and pursed his lips. He frowned for a moment, choosing his words. Then he said, "Like a spoiled teenager."

"You're my priest!" Arjuna hissed. "Show some respect for your prince or so help me I'll--"

"Come this way," Drona interrupted, completely ignoring Arjuna's threat. He was already crossing the courtyard, toward an entrance into the palace hallways. "There is something that I wish to show you."

Arjuna swallowed his princely anger and reluctantly followed. This had better be good, he thought, glaring at Drona's back. Because I own you. Then Arjuna shook his head and remembered that Drupada had once thought the same.

Drona led Arjuna through the lower levels of the palace and out into another garden, where Mr. Dhaumya and Ashwatthama were sitting side-by-side, naked from the waist up, eyes closed and hands resting on their legs, meditating silently on the bank of an artificial creek.

Mr. Dhaumya did not stir, but Ashwatthama turned his head the moment that his father stepped into the courtyard, opened his eyes slowly, and smiled. He stood up and jogged toward them. Arjuna wondered how his friend, who spent all day every day either studying religious texts or sitting still and meditating, could appear so lean and muscular and wiry. Ashwatthama's skin was still pale and unblemished, despite the fact that he had probably been broiling himself beneath the glaring sun for hours. His freckles stood out on his pale cheeks. "Father!" he cried out.

Drona halted himself a step in front of his son. "Have I interrupted something?" he asked.

"No. I knew that you were coming and I was told to answer you." Ashwatthama bowed low in front of his father. The strange blue mark on his forehead gleamed in the morning sunlight. The devakin markings on his back and neck shined beneath a thin layer of sweat. "You have a favor to ask me?"

"Yes." Drona returned his son's bow. "I would like Arjuna to attempt to strike you down."

Arjuna's jaw dropped open when he heard this, but Ashwatthama merely nodded his head and said, "All right." He jogged a distance away from them, down the length of the creek bed away from Mr. Dhaumya, who was still sitting as if oblivious to the world around him. "Is this far enough away?" he called out.

"Farther." Drona turned to Arjuna as his son continued to jog away from them. "Summon your bow," he ordered. "Use any arrow, any astra, that you wish. Aim for his heart, though. There is no other way to harm my son."

Arjuna just stared up at his teacher. Finally, he found his voice. "Are you crazy?!" he croaked. "I can't--"

"I do not think that you can, either," Drona said, a sly twinkle in his eye. "My son is more than a match for your bow."

"Is this far enough away?" Ashwatthama called from far down the river bank.

"You want me to shoot at him?!" Arjuna shouted, angry and baffled. "Look at him! He's unarmed and totally defenseless. He's not even wearing a shirt!"

"More than that," Drona continued cheerfully. "My son is sworn never to touch a weapon, and to never commit an act of violence against another human being. And yet," Drona added, smugly, "I believe that you will find that he is far from defenseless. Did you think that I would leave my own son unable to defend himself?"

Arjuna gave Drona a long, long look.

"Do you not trust me?" Drona asked.

Arjuna thought about this. He looked down the length of the creek, to where Ashwatthama was standing, hands dangling at his sides, watching Arjuna expectantly. Arjuna remembered all of the times that he had watched Ashwatthama and his father standing together or speaking together or laughing together, all of the times that he had watched the two of them and felt that familiar stab of jealousy in his heart. Mr. Drona would never care about Arjuna the way that he cared about his own son. And Arjuna knew that Mr. Drona would never, ever do anything to willingly put Ashwatthama in danger.

"All right," Arjuna said in a small voice, as Gandiva flared to life with a crackle of lightning and a spray of rain in his hands. He raised his bow, notching an arrow and squinting down the length of the creek bed. He sighted the deadly point of his arrow between Ashwatthama's left nipple and the center of his chest. "Here goes," he whispered, more as a prayer to Shiva and Indra above than as a warning.

Gandiva's string twanged melodiously, and the arrow went screaming down the length of the creek.

Ashwatthama closed his eyes and serenely folded his hands in front of his chest. The arrow sputtered, flashed, and then winked out of existence before it could strike him.

Arjuna lowered his bow for a moment, startled. "How'd he do that?!"

Drona laughed and said, "Try again."

Arjuna set his chin and raised his bow again. This time an arrow of lightning crackled against his bow string. He let it fly, and Ashwatthama calmly raised one hand and stopped the arrow a mere hair's-breadth in front of his palm. The arrow hovered for a moment in mid-air, then crackled and flashed, dispersing itself harmlessly.

"Try again," Drona repeated. "Do not hold back."

Arjuna let loose three arrows in rapid succession. They seemed to bounce off the air in front of Ashwatthama. Arjuna shot one arrow that became many as it flew down the creek - again, not a single arrow managed to strike Ashwatthama.

Arrows weren't doing any good, so Arjuna grit his teeth and summoned an astra. He whispered the words beneath his breath, and aimed his bow at the ground. He shot an arrow at his feet, and when it struck the ground, the earth beneath him trembled. Ashwatthama finally opened his eyes, showing a bit of surprise - just a bit - as the ground beneath him bucked and heaved. He leapt out of the way moments before sharp, rocky spikes erupted from the ground. But a moment later, the spikes were gone, washed away by a torrent of water that Ashwatthama summoned with his own whispered astra. A weaponless astra, apparently.

Ashwatthama turned his head and said to Arjuna, "You are not the only one with astras."

Arjuna finally lowered his bow, with a sigh of defeat. It vanished from his hands. "All right. I concede." He looked up at Ashwatthama, who was walking back up the creek toward them. "Did you learn that last water-astra from Mr. Dhaumya?"

"No," Drona answered for his son, "he learned it from me." Drona looked down at Arjuna somberly. "We priests know many arts that even royal warriors do not, and we of the Ajagava order know even more. We know every way that there is to defend ourselves - and others - from asuras."

Ashwatthama paused in front of his father, bowed, and then without a word passed by them both, returned to Mr. Dhaumya's side, sat down, and resumed whatever he had been doing previously. Arjuna watched Mr. Drona's eyes following his son for a moment, and tried not to wish that Mr. Drona would sometimes look at him with that same warmth in his eyes.

Finally Mr. Drona turned back to Arjuna, and said, "My own father taught me all of the Ajagava order's secrets. I, in turn, was to pass those secrets on to my own son. But Ashwatthama..." Drona's eyes grew heavy, and sad. He fell silent for a moment, and Arjuna didn't know what to say. He was afraid to try to say anything. Then Mr. Drona continued, "Things did not work out as I had planned. The Lord Shiva gave me a son, but my son was forbidden from becoming one of the Ajagava order. Thus I had no one to pass on my father's secrets to." Mr. Drona turned away from Arjuna, gazing off in no direction in particular. "For many years I did not understand the Lord Shiva's designs, I did not understand why... But now I am beginning to." He smiled to himself. "I still have many secrets to teach my son that do not violate his vows of non-violence. You saw some of those today. But I have many more that..." Drona trailed off, opened his eyes, and gazed at Arjuna solemnly. "I will teach them to you," he said.

Arjuna swallowed, nervously.

"All of them," Mr. Drona whispered, his words heavy with promise, heavy with sin. "All of the secrets forbidden to ever pass beyond the Ajagava order's lineage. I will give them all to you, even if you are not my son. Even if my own father has forbidden me from ever committing such a sinful act--"

"No!" Arjuna said, quickly. "You don't have to!"

"I must," Drona countered, calmly. "It is the only way that you will ever surpass that commoner - that commoner sent here by devils to undermine you," he hissed. "I will give you what he does not have. That is all and what I must do for you."

Arjuna was quiet for a long time, unsure of what to say. Finally he looked up at his teacher and said, "Thank you." Although he wasn't entirely sure, yet, whether he meant it or not.


II.

It was late in the day when Arjuna returned to his own quarters, exhausted. Or rather, he had already taken his leave of Mr. Drona and was in the process of returning to his own quarters - stumbling through the palace hallways, trailed by a handful of bodyguards, rubbing his sore arms and callused hands - when he was rudely interrupted in the middle of his walk.

In fact, he was interrupted by Duryodhana, who suddenly rounded a corner and almost walked right into his cousin. "Arjuna!" he exclaimed, then added impatiently, "Why aren't you watching where you're going?"

Arjuna raised his head angrily toward his cousin, his eyes blazing. He had still not forgiven Duryodhana for turning the crowd against him during the weapons contest over a month ago. He opened his mouth to make a retort which he hoped would be appropriately nasty, but then he hesitated. Arjuna's gaze slid behind Duryodhana's shoulder, his eyes widened, and he turned pale, although two red blooms of anger began to show up on his cheeks. "What," hissed Arjuna in a strangled voice, "is he doing here?!"

"Karna is a member of my court," Duryodhana said, stepping around the corner completely to reveal Karna hovering over his shoulder, his face carefully respectful and blank. Arjuna was forced to back up a step. "He has as much a right to be here as you do," Duryodhana said.

For a moment, Arjuna stood with his fists clenched and his throat working silently, like an enraged serpent coiled to strike. Duryodhana sniffed at him. "Really, Arjuna, must you be so childish? I think that you should apologize for insulting both me and a valuable member of my court."

"You son of a--"

Karna suddenly stepped in front of Duryodhana, his bow blazing to life with a flash of fire in his eyes. "You arrogant child!" he snarled. "How dare you insult His Highness?!"

"Easily," Arjuna answered, which he knew was a lame answer, but it was hard to concentrate on witty banter when it required most of his concentration to bring Gandiva to life in his hands. It blazed, blue-black thunder-shadow, trying to drown out the white heat of Karna's bow with its dark storm. "If you--"

And then Duryodhana was between both of them. "Drop your bow, you idiot," he hissed at Arjuna. Then he turned to Karna and said gently, placing one hand on Karna's shoulder, "Stand down. This isn't worth a confrontation."

Karna nodded slowly, and his bow vanished. But Arjuna didn't let go of Gandiva. He grit his teeth and stormed wordlessly past Duryodhana and Karna, gripping his bow between his white knuckles the whole while. His bodyguards scrambled to catch up with him.


III.

Duryodhana bent down and plucked one of the rainbow-colored flowers out of the pond at his feet. He held it up in the evening sunlight, marveling at its colors, its scent, the silky feel of its petals against his hands. "It feels completely real," he said.

"Thank you, Your Highness." Yuyutsu bowed low in gratitude.

"Everything, I mean," Duryodhana said, turning his head to take in the garden around him - the crystalline pond teeming with fish and covered in floating flowers, the bushes heavy with fruit all around him, the clear sky and setting sun above. Birds sang in the distance, and insects buzzed lazily over the pond, carrying pollen from flower to flower. "This is your best work yet."

"Thank you," Yuyutsu repeated again. The two of them were alone in what, moments before, had been Duryodhana's private study - but had now been transformed into an unearthly beautiful outdoor garden. "It is just an illusion," Yuyutsu repeated, humbly.

"I wouldn't be entirely sure of that," Duryodhana said. He bent down and plucked a fruit from a bush. It was like no fruit that he had ever seen before, red and round and covered in a thin translucent skin that he could probably bite right through. He did. "See me right now?" he asked, wiping fruit juice from his mouth. "I should be standing in the middle of my computer desk. But I'm not." He paused, then commented aloud, "I wouldn't want to find out what would happen if you dropped the illusion right now, though."

Yuyutsu made a small, worried sound in the back of the throat. "This is dangerous," he said. He looked at the fruit in Duryodhana's hand and said, "I don't even know what that is or where it came from. I've never seen anything like it before. But I made it." He shivered.

Duryodhana took another bite of the strange fruit non-chalantly. It tasted sweet and rich. He liked it. "What are you worried about?" he asked around a mouthful of skin and pulp. "We're protected by the gods. They gave us this gift, they wouldn't let anything happen to us."

"With all due respect, Your Highness, I have been--"

"--Flying blind?" Duryodhana smirked at Yuyutsu. "So, what?"

Yuyutsu bit his lip nervously, although he seemed unaware that he was doing so. "I have not heard or seen any trace of those shadow-people that you banished, Your Highness, since the night you did so. And I agree with you that they are not to be trusted. But at the same time... I did feel safer when they were there to instruct me--"

"Yuyutsu." Duryodhana popped the last bit of fruit into his mouth. "Don't be such a coward," he snapped. "That's how they want you to be."

Yuyutsu winced, stung.

Duryodhana watched him for a moment, then sighed. "Look, I'm sorry. You're not a coward, you just... Just keep working on it, all right?"

"Of course, Your Highness."

"This is a gift from the gods. It's nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of. It's just like… It's just like the astras that some of the Council members can use. That's all. It's not unheard of for humans like us to wield power like this."

But Yuyutsu shook his head. "Astras require the knowledge and recital of sacred words," he said. "Mantras. Spells. But you and I can do things without words. And I know for a fact that a mere astra could never do anything like--"

Duryodhana stepped closer to Yuyutsu and said, "That's enough."

"Right." Yuyutsu closed his eyes, and the illusion vanished. They were once again standing in the center of Duryodhana's study.

Duryodhana glanced over at his computer, and noticed briefly that it had just begun to reboot itself, even though it had been on and running fine when Yuyutsu had activated the illusion. Interesting. Duryodhana stretched his arms above his head and walked over to a chair, where he sat down gratefully. He licked his lips, and tasted Yuyutsu's mystery fruit. Duryodhana rubbed his forehead and wondered if he was yet able to generate such wonders. He would have to try when he was alone, after Yuyutsu had left, he supposed. Duryodhana sometimes resented the fact that Yuyutsu was more advanced than he was in the use of their mutual gift, but then he remembered that Yuyutsu was his in the end, so he didn't worry too much about it.

"Your Highness?" Yuyutsu asked.

"Yes. Here." Duryodhana shook his head and sat up. "I have a favor to ask of you."

"Anything."

"Karna," Duryodhana said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "I want you to find out who taught him how to use his bow, and whether that person is still around."

"Your Highness?" Yuyutsu asked again.

"That crazy Panchalan priest is already strengthening Arjuna against me. I can see how his mind works." Duryodhana frowned. "I do not want Karna to grow complacent." Duryodhana also didn't want Karna to keep spending an hour talking on the comm with his father every evening, or bathing naked in the river behind the palace every morning, either. But Duryodhana was beginning to figure out that there was only so much that he could ask Karna to do or not do.

Yuyutsu looked down, and would not meet Duryodhana's eyes. "I do not think that you should speak as if Prince Arjuna were your enemy," Yuyutsu said, quietly.

Duryodhana rose from his seat, quickly. "What was that?" he asked, sharply.

"I--"

"I gave you an order, Yuyutsu. Do you have something to say to me?"

Yuyutsu was quiet for a moment. Then, still not meeting Duryodhana's eyes, he took a deep breath, and said, "No."

"Good. Now leave me."

Yuyutsu left hurriedly, and Duryodhana sank back down in his chair and groaned. His feet hurt. He had been up and about all day, and he had far too much to think about. He was sure that Grandpa Bhisma was still intent on giving Duryodhana's throne to Yudhisthira, and he was sure that his own father was still trying to stop that. But Duryodhana knew that his father and Grandpa Bhisma couldn't play a tug-of-war of wills forever. Duryodhana had to strengthen his own position. He had to...

He had to do what, exactly? Prepare to take it by force?

Duryodhana tapped his nose and thought. On his side he had his ice, but that was somewhat useless in the sense that he could never let anyone know that he had it. He had Yuyutsu, but Yuyutsu was still too soft-hearted and hesitant to be trusted completely. Yuyutsu would not disobey Duryodhana, but at the same time he was too cowardly to do the real dirty work that needed to be done. And Duryodhana had Karna, but he was beginning to think that he might have made a mistake in crowning Karna a king in the weapons arena. He had ensured that Karna was not only loyal but indebted to him, sure. But in doing so, he had also lost Arjuna's trust. That was troublesome. Even more troublesome, Duryodhana had also insulted the insane Panchalan priest and his son. That had been a mistake. Duryodhana had eyed the priest's son carefully on more than one occasion. He would have been a powerful ally, and he seemed easy to order around. But he was too enamored of Arjuna...

Duryodhana rubbed his forehead and groaned. What exactly am I plotting, here?

He wished he knew.


IV.

For Arjuna, the following few months passed quickly. Mr. Drona was no longer holding back what he chose to teach Arjuna. Arjuna fell asleep every night with his arms sore from bending his bow and new spells on his lips. Arjuna knew that Mr. Drona was breaking some sort of sacred rule by passing these things on to one who was not his own son, but Arjuna liked to think about that, as guilty as it made him feel. It meant that Mr. Drona loved him very much. It meant that he was like Mr. Drona's son.

And the months finally bled into years. Arjuna studied and trained, relentlessly. He learned how to fight with his hands and feet, and also with fire, and water, and wind, and lightning.

It was before sunrise the morning that Arjuna and Ashwatthama were sitting on top of a cliff overlooking the Ganga River behind the palace, when Arjuna tried out the river astra for the first time. He whispered the right words - what he remembered as the right words – and shot an arrow into the ground in front of him. The ground opened up beneath his feet, and a stream of gurgling, brown water erupted from beneath the dirt and grass, slopped over the edge of the cliff, and splashed down into the river below.

"Close," Ashwatthama said, watching the stream running in front of them, vanishing over the edge of the cliff. "The water's supposed to be pure, though."

Arjuna watched the brackish water gurgling past his feet and said, "I'll get it right next time."

"I think--" Ashwatthama began, then cut himself off when he heard the sound of yelling below. He and Arjuna leaned over the edge of the cliff, and Arjuna immediately clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle his own laughter.

Karna was glaring up at them both, as he stood naked and waist-deep in the river. A group of maids and servants come to ask him for his morning favor stood horrified on the river-bank, watching him as he stared up at the edge of the cliff above. The rising sun gleamed off his gold earrings. He wiped a handful of filthy water from his face and snarled up at the cliff, "You two--"

"Sorry!" Ashwatthama said quickly, nearly tripping over himself to apologize, as beside him, Arjuna doubled over and clapped both hands over his mouth to keep from bursting into laughter. "We're sorry! We forgot--"

"Children," Karna spat out the word. He turned away from the cliff, and splashed clear river-water over his soiled hair and shoulders. "I don't have time to deal with the small-minded bullying of a pair of children--"

"I'm not a child!" Arjuna suddenly shouted, clutching the edge of the cliff, all traces of laughter gone from his voice.

But Karna did not respond. He had turned his back to the cliff, and was facing the rising sun, his hands clasped in prayer. On the river-bank, his entourage was likewise bowing before the sun and turning their backs to Arjuna.

Arjuna fumed silently. Ashwatthama grasped Arjuna's arm and pulled him away from the edge of the cliff. "Come on," Ashwatthama said. "Father is waiting for us."

"I can't stand it," Arjuna hissed as he allowed Ashwatthama to lead him back toward the palace. "I can't stand having him around. He thinks he's so much better than me--"

"Your Highness," Ashwatthama said, carefully, "according to the results of the archery competition, he is the better archer."

"No he's not!" Arjuna shouted, pulling his arm angrily away from Ashwatthama. "Not, um, not anymore! We just need a re-match!"

Ashwatthama looked at Arjuna sadly. "Your Highness, rage and jealousy are unbefitting a soul such as yours."

Arjuna stared at Ashwatthama. "Why are you getting all mystical on me all of a sudden?"

"It's not mysticism," Ashwatthama said patiently, folding his hands in front of him. "It's called me getting tired of listening to you pout all the time and wishing that you would act your age." He closed his eyes serenely. "That's all."

"I could have you beheaded for giving me lip."

Ashwatthama opened one eye and peered at Arjuna slyly. "Some friend you are."

Arjuna tapped his foot on the grass beneath him and frowned. "It doesn't matter anymore," he said, finally. "I know I'm stronger than that Karna. I'm stronger than anybody."

"And how do you know that?" Ashwatthama asked, curiously.

"Because I have the strongest astra now," Arjuna bragged. "The one so strong that only members of the Ajagava order are supposed to know it."

A shadow crossed Ashwatthama's face. Then his eyes widened. "You--"

"Mmm-hmm. I know the brahmastra. I've known it for a month now. Nobody can ever beat me in a match again." Arjuna threw back his head and laughed. "I'd like to see the look on that Karna's face when he--"

"I didn't know that Father taught you the brahmastra," Ashwatthama suddenly said.

Arjuna turned and looked quickly at his friend, but Ashwatthama's face was kept carefully blank. "Nobody is really supposed to know," Arjuna said quickly, "Because it's so, um, so forbidden, I guess. But I would have thought that..." Arjuna trailed off, unsure how to finish.

Ashwatthama said nothing for a long, long moment. Then he turned his head away from Arjuna and said, "Then I'm sure that Father warned you not to go around broadcasting the fact that you know the brahmastra."

"He did..."

"Then you should be more careful."

Arjuna was taken aback for a moment, then he said cheerfully, "But just now, that was all right. It's all right for you to know because you already--"

"I don't."

Arjuna fell silent again, then asked, "What?"

"I don't know the brahmastra," Ashwatthama said. He was still looking away from Arjuna, keeping his voice neutral. "I can't. The brahmastra is a weapon, and I am forbidden to know or touch weapons."

Arjuna fell silent. He didn't understand why Ashwatthama was suddenly so upset. The brahmastra didn't seem like that big of a deal to Arjuna. Mr. Drona had taught him the words, and then had told him that the brahmastra was so powerful that he was never supposed to even use it in the first place. Which meant that in the end, the whole thing amounted to nothing more than whole lot of silliness, in Arjuna's opinion. What was the point of a mantra so powerful that he could never even use it? Mr. Drona had told him that the brahmastra was a deterrent, but then again, not much of a deterrent if he wasn't supposed to tell anybody that he knew it in the first place. Doubly silly. Absolutely nothing worth getting upset about.

"It's just words," Arjuna said, trying to cheer Ashwatthama up.

"The brahmastra is not just words," Ashwatthama said, solemnly. His eyes were sorrowful, for some reason that Arjuna could not fathom. Finally, Ashwatthama shook his head, and smiled again. "Sorry," he said. "Forget I said anything. Should we go find Father?"

Arjuna thought that Ashwatthama's smile seemed forced, but didn't say anything about it. "Sure," he said. He took Ashwatthama's hand, and the two of them headed back toward the palace.


V.

Mr. Dhaumya found them first. "Thank the gods I found you," he said as soon as he spotted Ashwatthama inside a palace hallway. "Take these," he said, dumping an armful of sacred sticks and several packs of firestarting gel into Ashwatthama's arms. "Prince Sama is demanding a sacrifice to Varuna now so that he can go windsurfing this afternoon--"

"Without you?" Ashwatthama asked, nervously. "I've never done one of these alone--"

"You'll be fine. Lord Bhisma has summoned me and I have to go." Dhaumya pulled a comm unit out of his robes and dropped it on top of the pile in Ashwatthama's arms. "For some reason, this thing shorted out when I had an audience with Prince Duryodhana last night. Would you mind running it to the smiths--?"

"Of course not." Ashwatthama turned and grinned at Arjuna. "No indignity is too great for the apprentice of the royal priest."

Mr. Dhaumya didn't hear this, for he was already gone. "My brother Nakula," Arjuna said, pulling the comm unit off the top of Ashwatthama's pile, "could fix this for you."

"Thanks, but I don't think Mr. Dhaumya wants a comm unit that shoot lasers or is dangerously radioactive. Besides, you're a prince. You shouldn't be running errands."

Arjuna returned the comm to its precarious position, balanced between two sacred sticks. "Just trying to help," he said.

"Thank you," Ashwatthama repeated, and then he was off in another direction. That left Arjuna alone to go find Mr. Drona.

When Arjuna did find Mr. Drona, however, Mr. Drona had some travel luggage packed and waiting for him. "This is yours," he said, handing the luggage handle over to Arjuna. "And these," he said, reaching into his coat to produce a small envelope. Arjuna took the envelope and opened it, pulling out two printed slips of paper. "What...?" he asked, bewildered.

"Those are commercial spaceflight tickets," Mr. Drona whispered, pulling Arjuna aside. He glanced to the left and to the right, making sure that nobody was around or listening, then lowered his face to Arjuna's eye-level. "Your ship leaves at midnight tonight. I have a transport arranged, waiting for you in the sublevels here."

"What?"

"You have to leave right away. I told your mother that I was sending you on a pilgrimage into the woods. You have sixteen days before she misses you."

"What?"

"It is time," Drona said, placing his hands on Arjuna's shoulders, "for you to pay your dakshina to me."


VI.

"We're not supposed to be doing this in a temple, of all places," Duryodhana pointed out, smearing more sunblock onto Sama's back.

"The gods wouldn't want me to get skin cancer, you know," Sama pointed out. Duryodhana finished, and Sama slipped back on his shirt as a servant scurried forward to wash off Duryodhana's hands. "It's my sacrifice, though. You don't have to be here."

"I make it a habit not to miss out on any sacrifice made by my family," Duryodhana said. Plus, the more of these damn things I attend, the more likely that one of these days some god or another is going to pop on down and maybe explain to me why in the five hells I can use maya. Or whatever it is. "Where is Mr. Dhaumya? He's late--"

"Mr. Dhaumya commed ten minutes ago, he sent Ashwatthama in his place."

Duryodhana raised his eyebrows. Finally, an opportunity to see Ashwatthama without his father or Mr. Dhaumya hanging around and getting in the way. This would be interesting.

As if on cue, Ashwatthama suddenly appeared, struggling to hold on to the sacred sticks and firestarting gel piled in his arms. "Sorry I'm late," he mumbled as he handed his supplies off to another of Mr. Dhaumya's younger aides, and began setting up the temple space for a sacrifice. He paused briefly to bow to Duryodhana and Sama. "Your Highnesses," he said.

"Be at peace, Ashwatthama," Duryodhana said importantly. Ashwatthama straightened out of his bow, nodded, and then went back to work.

Duryodhana watched Ashwatthama building the base of the sacred fire, watched the way that his devakin markings curled up the back of his neck, the way that his freckles stood out in sharp contrast to his pale skin, the way that said freckles somehow managed to accent and compliment his dark priestly robes. The curious blue mark on his forehead shone brilliantly in the strange light of the temple.

He was hiding it well, but something was troubling Ashwatthama's heart. Duryodhana could tell. He could smell it.

Curiouser and curiouser. Duryodhana grinned to himself as he watched Ashwatthama work.


VII.

"Dakshina?" Arjuna asked, tasting the unfamiliar word in his mouth.

Drona stared at him. "You do know what your dakshina is, don't you?"

Arjuna shook his head, slowly.

Drona sighed melodramatically. "Your payment, Arjuna. When a student accepts a priest for a teacher, that priest has the right to demand a dakshina after he has taught the student everything that he can." Drona tapped Arjuna's nose. "We are not finished," he said, his usual accent thick on his words. "I have more to teach you, but due to the nature of your mission and the timing, this is the only time that--"

"I don't think that's how it works on Kuru," Arjuna pointed out. "I've never heard of a dakshina before."

"But such is the custom on Panchala," Drona pushed forward, stubbornly. "It is not my fault if you and your entire civilization were ignorant of this. I assumed that you knew."

"So..." Arjuna looked up at his teacher carefully. "That time that I saved your life? That doesn't count as payment?"

Drona laughed. "You are adorable, little prince," he said, pinching Arjuna's cheek. "But in all seriousness, you are not getting out of this."

Arjuna looked down at the tickets in his hand. "Kampilya?" he gasped. "You're sending me to Kampilya?! That's Panchala's capital!"

"Yes," Drona said. "Listen carefully. There is someone that I trust waiting to transport you to the hangars beyond Hastinapura. Once there, you will be in public, and must take precautions. Wear as much clothing as you can. Do not let your devakin markings show. Cover your face and head as much as possible. Use the mantra I taught you, the one that makes you inconspicuous. You must not be recognized." He pulled more documents out of his coat - a plastic laminated card, some official-looking documents printed in a script used nowhere on Kuru, and some money, the likes of which Arjuna had never seen before. "These are yours," he said. "Even though counterfeit, they will stand up to inspection."

Arjuna looked down at the laminated card. It was an identity marker, with his picture on it, but a name that was not his. "Where did you get this?!" he asked.

"I know the right people."

"But when people see this picture, they'll recognize me--"

"Not if you cloud their senses. Use your mantra." Drona reached into his coat one last time. "Almost forgot," he said, pulling out a long, sharp-looking needle. "Give me your wrist--"

Arjuna swallowed, but held out his wrist. Drona slid the needle into the soft flesh on top of the back of Arjuna's hand. Arjuna winced but said nothing. "This," Drona said as he pulled out the needle, "will get you past the bioscanners ringing Drupada's palace--"

"Palace?!" Arjuna clutched at the piles of papers in his hands. "You're sending me to Drupada's palace?! What do you want me to do?!"

Drona looked at Arjuna solemnly. "I wish for you to bring Drupada here, so that I may speak to him. I wish for you to accomplish this without harming him. That is the dakshina that I ask of you."

For a moment, Arjuna had no idea what to say. His throat worked, but no words came out. Finally, he squeaked, "But the guards--"

"You are more than a match for them."

"Drupada's sons--"

"Are on a diplomatic mission to Madra, both of them. Hence this is the only time that I may send you."

"If you want to talk to him so badly, why not just ask him--"

"I did," Drona said, sharply. "Many times. While he was here for the tournament. He refused to listen to me even for a moment. He refused to even look at me." For a moment, Drona fell silent, and Arjuna could not read his face. Then he grasped Arjuna's shoulders and whispered fiercely, "Please. All I want is to speak to him again. This is the only way. I would not ask such a thing of you if I didn't..." He trailed off, and Arjuna felt his hands tremble ever so slightly.

Arjuna was frightened. He had never seen Drona like this before. For a moment, he looked as old as he truly was, and frail. Then Arjuna realized that he couldn't stand to see Drona looking like that, not for another moment. So Arjuna nodded, hoping that he looked braver than he felt. "I will," he said, grasping Drona's hands that were in turn his own shoulders. "I will do this, for you." Even if it were not my dakshina, I would do this for you. You know that, right? Please know that.

"Thank you," Drona said, having recovered himself. He slowly let of Arjuna's shoulders. He paused for a moment, gazing into Arjuna's face, but again, Arjuna couldn't tell what he was thinking, what he was searching for. Then, apparently satisfied, Drona straightened up and whispered again, "Remember, I told your mother you are on a pilgrimage in the forest. You have sixteen days. Do not attempt to contact me or anyone on Kuru during that time." He handed the handle of the luggage over to Arjuna again, then took his other hand. "Quickly," he said, pulling Arjuna back into a deserted hallway. "Your ride is waiting for you."

Arjuna set his jaw and followed Mr. Drona, squeezing his hand tightly.


VIII.

Sama was already gone, and Ashwatthama's aides were cleaning up the remains of the sacrifice, when Duryodhana was finally able to pull Ashwatthama aside. "I need you this afternoon," he said.

Ashwatthama bowed to Duryodhana and said, "Your Highness, Mr. Dhaumya has given me an important errand--"

"I'll get someone else to do it for you." Duryodhana grasped Ashwatthama's arm and began pulling him toward where he knew his chauffer and hoverer were waiting. "This is important."

"What is it?" Ashwatthama asked, stumbling along.

"Just tea," Duryodhana said quickly, "but that's important." He turned his head and eyed Ashwatthama carefully. "Since you're going to become my family's priest sooner rather than later, I figured it was about time you and I sat down and talked."

Ashwatthama was giving Duryodhana a funny look. Duryodhana could guess what he was thinking. Mr. Dhaumya was Duryodhana's priest right now, but Duryodhana would never sit down just to tea and talk with him.

"Just for a few moments," Duryodhana said, maneuvering Ashwatthama into the back seat of his hoverer. "I have some, ah... Some spiritual matters that I want to discuss with you."

"Oh. That's all right, then." Ashwatthama folded his hands in his lap and sat serenely in the back of the hoverer. Duryodhana knew that if there was one thing that Ashwatthama thought that he excelled at, it was giving advice.

Duryodhana took his place beside Ashwatthama, and his chauffer closed the door behind them. "Your sacrifice for Sama..." Duryodhana began, trailing off deliberately as the engines of the hoverer rumbled to life beneath them.

"Did it please you, Your Highness?" Ashwatthama asked hopefully.

Duryodhana ignored the slight dip in his stomach as the hoverer lifted into the air. "Yes," he said, slowly. "Although I have to admit, watching you sing the hymns... I could have sworn that your mind was on something else entirely."

Ashwatthama started. "My apologies, Your Highness." He bowed his head in shame.

Duryodhana laughed. "Why are you apologizing? When you're worried, you're worried. It's only natural." He watched Ashwatthama turn and look out the window of the hoverer, trying to avoid Duryodhana's gaze. "Then something was on your mind," he said. "Is there anything that I can do for you?"

Ashwatthama looked down at his hands. "It would be inappropriate of me to burden Your Highness with my small problems," Ashwatthama said carefully. Inappropriate was a polite euphemism. A king came to a priest for spiritual advice; never the other way around.

Which meant that Ashwatthama was telling Duryodhana to drop the subject. Duryodhana frowned. Ashwatthama's shoulders were tense, and his hands were clenched in his lap. He was sitting with his back a bit too straight. Ashwatthama was clearly feeling uncomfortable, and clearly being guarded. That was no good. It was too warm inside the hoverer, too close. Duryodhana glanced out his window and frowned even more darkly. Lately, he only seemed able to concentrate when he felt cold.

Ashwatthama shivered. "Is a window open?" he asked, breathing out and watching his own breath puff in a cloud.

"I don't think so," Duryodhana said, banishing the cold feeling around them with a thought. "These old hoverers, you know, sometimes the windows warp and don't fit well into the door casings, they get drafty--"

"Pardon me, Your Highness," Ashwatthama mumbled quickly, reaching into his robes and pulling out his comm unit, which was buzzing and vibrating. "Who's calling me now?" he asked it, impatiently. He shook it, pushed a few buttons, and frowned. "Nobody's calling me now," he answered himself. But the comm unit kept vibrating and buzzing in his hand. "Silly thing must be broken--"

"Short-circuited. I've seen a lot of them do that lately," Duryodhana commented.

"It won't turn off." Ashwatthama glowered at his raucous comm unit, then sighed and turned toward Duryodhana, chagrined. "This is rather embarrassing, I'm afraid."

"It's not your fault." Duryodhana leaned back in his seat. "Those things are so outdated and unreliable. Somebody ought to start a class-action lawsuit or something--"

"Ah ha," Ashwatthama said, as his comm unit finally fell silent. He pushed a few more buttons, then frowned again. "Well, now it's completely dead." He frowned and slipped it back into his robes. He turned back toward Duryodhana. "I'm sorry, Your Highness, you were saying something...?"

"You were going to tell me what's troubling you so much today."

"Oh." Ashwatthama fell silent for a moment, and Duryodhana was afraid that he might have brought his guard up again. But then Ashwatthama drummed his fingers nervously on his legs and said, "It's silly, really."

"I wouldn't think so," Duryodhana said.

"Mmm." Ashwatthama looked down at his hands again and quietly began to speak.


IX.

Arjuna had never been to a public spaceport before.

A large hat on his head, shades covering his eyes, and a mantra on his lips, he shuffled through the long line of people waiting to have their luggage inspected. He kept glancing out the tall glass windows lining the area where he and what felt like thousands of others were corralled, gazing at the distant view of Hastinapura proper and his father's majestic palace towering on a cliff high above it all. He wouldn't be allowed to talk to his mother or his brothers or Mr. Drona or Ashwatthama for sixteen days. That already felt like an eternity.

Someone suddenly shoved Arjuna forward. He stumbled and struggled to hold onto the handle of his luggage. "Move it," an enormous man with a long dark beard and beady, angry eyes snapped at him. "The line's moving, you idiot!"

Arjuna bit back a retort and took a few quick steps forward. I wish I could tell him that I was a prince and that he'd better watch his tongue or I'll-- Arjuna sighed when he remembered that his brother Yudhisthira would never let him actually behead anyone.

This was going to be a long trip, Arjuna could tell.


X.

"It makes perfect sense," Ashwatthama said, his hands still resting loosely around teacup, which he had not once lifted to his lips. "I mean, I should have anticipated that this would happen. But I didn't want to, I suppose."

Duryodhana nodded, solemnly. He and Ashwatthama were alone with untouched tea and fruit and cakes between them. Duryodhana had banished his servants nearly thirty minutes ago. He had found Ashwatthama a willing speaker, once he was prodded a few times. At least, thought Duryodhana, he really is as trusting and naive as he looks.

"I know why Papa wanted to have a son in the first place," Ashwatthama went on, quietly, staring at his tea as he was wont to do, rather than meeting Duryodhana's eyes. "Because that was the only way to pass on the teachings of the Ajagava order. I know he was hurt when I was forbidden from following him in the order, but--"

"Why?" Duryodhana blurted out, helpless to resist the urge to ask. "Why were you forbidden?"

Ashwatthama fell silent and clenched up instantly. His shoulders hunched and his hands tightened around his teacup.

A mistake, Duryodhana realized. This was something that Ashwatthama was not willing to speak of in front of him.

Ashwatthama suddenly winced, and his right hand flew up to the curling blue mark on his forehead. "Ah," he hissed.

Duryodhana blinked, startled. This hadn't happened before. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes." Ashwatthama slowly lowered his hand, although it seemed to be trembling slightly. He forced himself to look up and smile wanly at Duryodhana. "Just a headache. Sinuses, I'm afraid."

"Can I get you something for that...?"

"No thank you, Your Highness. It's already gone."

"Thank goodness."

Ashwatthama blinked, as if suddenly confused. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "What was I saying?"

"You couldn't join the Ajagava order," Duryodhana prompted, patiently. He was tempted to try and ask why again, but restrained himself. Whatever the answer to that simple question was, it was something that Ashwatthama was deeply protective of.

"He taught me what he could, regardless of the prohibition," Ashwatthama went on, his gaze focused on his cold tea again. "But he still followed the rules, I guess. He wouldn't teach me anything violent. He wouldn't teach me any of the offensive astras or mantras." Ashwatthama frowned. "I was there when Papa told Arjuna that he would teach him the secrets of the Ajagava order, even though Arjuna wasn't really his son, which meant that such a thing would have been forbidden." Ashwatthama squeezed his teacup tightly. "I thought that meant that Papa would teach Arjuna the same things that he had taught me. I didn't want to think that Papa would be willing to break even more rules for Arjuna than he did for me. I didn't think that Papa would go so far as to give Arjuna the brahmastra." Ashwatthama finally looked up at Duryodhana, and his eyes were full of sorrow. "If Papa was going to break the rules and teach Arjuna the brahmastra even though it was forbidden, why couldn't he break the rules and teach me the brahmastra?"

Duryodhana had stopped listening to Ashwatthama two sentences previously. "The brahmastra?!" he breathed. "Arjuna knows the brahmastra?!"

"Yes," Ashwatthama said, frowning. "Even though it's completely useless in that he can never use it, but--"

"The brahmastra?!" Duryodhana repeated, incredulous. "That mantra that can destroy entire worlds?!" He shivered, remembering the day that he had learned about that terrible spell during his history lessons with Grandpa Bhisma. The idea of that much power in the hands of a teenage brat like Arjuna...

The idea of that much power in the hands of Yudhisthira...

"Your Highness?" Ashwatthama asked.

Duryodhana shook his head quickly. "I'm sorry, I'm just surprised... The brahmastra, of all things..."

"It's just a formality," Ashwatthama said, quickly. "Something like the brahmastra is only passed on so that it will never be forgotten. It's not passed down because anybody ever intends to actually use it."

"Do you trust Arjuna to understand that?" Duryodhana asked, sharply.

Ashwatthama fell quiet. Then he said, very quietly, "No."

"No?" Duryodhana asked, intrigued.

"Sometimes he seems like such a child," Ashwatthama said, his voice so low that Duryodhana had to strain to hear. "Because, honestly? I know that he's still upset about what happened at the weapons contest, even though..." Ashwatthama trailed off.

Duryodhana said nothing, waiting.

"Even though I think that the challenger won fair and square. But it would have made Papa and Arjuna mad at me if I had said so."

Bingo, Duryodhana thought.

"It's not fair!" Ashwatthama suddenly hissed, and Duryodhana was taken aback by the force of his outburst. "Papa broke the rules for him and taught him the brahmastra even though he's still an immature child and even though I-- I--" Ashwatthama trembled for a moment, then seemed to suddenly deflate under the weight of his own anger. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, hanging his head in shame. "I have no right to--"

"You have every right, I think," Duryodhana said. "There is nothing sinful about a son questioning his father. No father can be perfect, Ashwatthama. Not even yours."

Ashwatthama looked up at Duryodhana, sharply. "You don't know," he breathed, angrily. "You don't know what he gave up, what he sacrificed for me. I could never..."

Duryodhana nodded slowly. "I understand," he said, kindly. "And I'm sure that your father cares about you very much. You're right to remain so loyal to him. But then again," Duryodhana added, watching Ashwatthama's face carefully, "Mr. Drona has duties to his son, and then he has duties to the Ajagava. He can hardly be faulted for desiring to pass on all of the Ajagava's teachings. I suppose he can hardly be faulted for wishing that Arjuna were his real son."

Ashwatthama's mouth twitched.

"The gods and their ways are unfathomable to us, sometimes." Duryodhana took a sip of his tea. "Your father prayed for a son, and what the gods gave him was someone who could not receive the teachings of his order. I'm sure he would never resent you for that, though."

Ashwatthama sat perfectly still for a moment, save for the muscle in his throat that was working itself in a strange way. Then he stood up suddenly, nearly spilling his tea. "I have to go," he said quickly, pushing in his chair and rushing toward the door. "I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but I have to go."

"Of course you do." Duryodhana struggled to suppress the urge to grin as he watched Ashwatthama leave.

Ashwatthama was gone in an instant. That left Duryodhana alone with the tea.

Duryodhana pushed aside his tea, folded his arms on the table, and rested his head in his arms. The brahmastra, he thought. The idea of Arjuna having such a powerful weapon at his disposal - which meant that Yudhisthira had such a powerful weapon at his disposal - was unbearable. But what could Duryodhana do about it? Only one thing, really, and that was to make sure that he also somehow had the brahmastra in his corner. Karna, Duryodhana suddenly thought, as he impatiently tapped his fingers on the table. He'll get it for me. Maybe his teacher knows it. Whoever his teacher is. What is taking Yuyutsu so long with...?

Duryodhana's thoughts slipped seamlessly into a daydream of the world trembling beneath his feet.


XI.

Arjuna lied down gingerly on the bed in his cabin. The mattress was stiff and the blankets were thin. He frowned to himself. He had been standing in line after line all day, and had only been able to board his ship less than a few hours ago. Arjuna rolled over in the bed and sighed. The pillow smelled the way that his brother Yudhisthira smelled after he had just finished three smokerolls in a roll.

The ship was going to take nearly twenty-four hours to clear the Kuru system before it could make the jump to Panchala. Arjuna had that much time, at least, to think and plan.

He sat up and slid off the bed. Arjuna dug around inside the luggage that he had thrown open on the floor of his cabin, and pulled out what he had been looking for: a Panchalan dictionary and phrasebook.

"I beg your pardon," he practiced, pronouncing the words as carefully as he could, trying to remember the way that he had heard Mr. Drona and Ashwatthama speak. "I'll have the special. Where is the restroom?"

A lightning-tipped arrow appeared in his free hand, and he twirled it absent-mindedly as he practiced. "I have no food to declare. I have no weapons."

Arjuna suddenly wondered what the limits were in terms of what he was allowed to bring back to Kuru from Panchala. Surely Customs would limit the food and perishables he could bring back into the system, right? But processed candies might be permissible. Maybe Arjuna could get his mother to forgive him for kidnapping a king and likely starting an interplanetary war, if he could just bring her back a nice box of candies.


XII.

Ashwatthama's forehead hurt. He sank down onto the couch in front of the media console and turned it on, watching the news dispassionately.

"Ashwatthama?" His mother popped her head out of her study. "Hon, you look exhausted."

"I'm fine," he said, forcing himself to smile at her. "Where's Papa?"

"He commed, he said he would be back for dinner."

"Oh." Ashwatthama turned back toward the console, and his mother returned to whatever she was doing. Ashwatthama rubbed at the mark on his forehead absent-mindedly, wondering why his head hurt so much. He remembered having an audience with Prince Duryodhana which seemed to have lasted forever, he remembered drinking tea and discussing trivial matters...

You felt anger, Ashwatthama. Deep anger and jealousy.

Ashwatthama winced at the memory. He had lost control of his emotions. No wonder his head was pounding. The psychic after-effects of his outbursts in front of Duryodhana would be bouncing around his head for days.

Ashwatthama did not realize that he was dozing until he felt his father's hand on his forehead. "You have a fever," his father pointed out.

Ashwatthama opened his eyes groggily. "Wha?" he asked, intelligently.

"And you're pale, and you're sweating." Ashwatthama's father wrapped his arms around Ashwatthama's shoulder and gently pulled him off the couch. "Off to bed with you, then."

"But I don't get sick," Ashwatthama pointed out, thickly. "I just had… An emotion. Thing. Today."

Ashwatthama's father suddenly paused. Then he frowned and said, "Maybe, but there's also a virus going around. You were with Duryodhana today, weren't you?"

"Yes…"

"Dusshasana's been bedded with a stomach virus and Duryodhana nearly collapsed during a Council meeting a few minutes ago. Whatever this thing is, you probably got it from breathing in their filthy Kuru germs."

Ashwatthama managed to laugh weakly, then he swooned against his father. "But I don't get sick," he repeated, stubbornly.

"There's a first time for everything." Ashwatthama's father led him into his bedroom and sat him down on his bed, then began removing Ashwatthama's socks and shoes.

"Where's Arjuna?" Ashwatthama asked, suddenly.

"I sent him on a pilgrimage to the woods." Ashwatthama's father sighed. "That poor child has almost no control of his emotions. Perhaps a few weeks of eating dirt and wearing leaves will be good for him."

Ashwatthama laughed again. His father left for a moment, then came back with a tray of food. "Your mother says she'll personally come and spoon-feed you unless you can clean your plate by yourself."

Ashwatthama looked down at the food, then up at his father, solemnly. "Something's going to happen, isn't it, Papa?"

Ashwatthama's father started. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ashwatthama closed his eyes. "Arjuna isn't in the forest, is he? You've gone and done something foolish again."

Ashwatthama's father touched Ashwatthama's shoulder and said, "You should know by now that everything that I do is foolish."

"I know." Ashwatthama settled down into his bed, balancing his dinner in his lap, a contented smile on his lips. "If you weren't hopeless, then you wouldn't be my Papa."


XIII.

"It must be a virus going around," the doctor said, pulling the thermometer away from Duryodhana's wrist. He turned toward Grandpa Bhisma, who was not doing a very good job of hiding his worry. "Lord Dhaumya's apprentice also came down with a similar illness this evening."

Really?! Duryodhana thought, alarmed. But he controlled his face and commented neutrally, "Ashwatthama and I were together all afternoon."

"Then it's likely contagious," the doctor said, pointedly. He was still facing Grandpa Bhisma. "I'd suggest that the Prince's servants take appropriate precautions, but other than as such, I see no reason to be worried. I can give him something for his fever, but honestly, he should be able to sleep this right off."

Duryodhana settled back into the pillows piled on top of his bed and said, "Finally, an excuse to sleep!"

"You know why this happened to you," Grandpa Bhisma said sternly, as the doctor packed up his things and left. "You're overworked, and you never take care of yourself--"

Duryodhana wrapped a pillow around his ears. "You wouldn't lecture an invalid, now, would you?"

Grandpa Bhisma's face softened. "I'm supposed to worry about you. You are my grandson. My fifty-third most foolish grandson. Of course I'm going to worry about you."

Duryodhana suddenly wondered where Yudhisthira ranked in Grandpa Bhisma's list of foolish grandsons. He closed his eyes and muttered, "Okay. I'll sleep more, then. Starting now."

Grandpa Bhisma pulled Duryodhana's covers up to his chin, then paused. Behind his closed eyes, Duryodhana could sense his grandfather hovering over him for a long, long moment. Finally, Duryodhana opened his eyes. "Grandpa Bhisma?" Duryodhana asked, impatiently.

Grandpa Bhisma shook his head, the curls of his white beard flying back and forth. "I was just remembering," he said, as he stood up and stepped away from Duryodhana's bed. "I remember when you were so small, and you used to insist that I would tuck you in this way every night." He turned his face away from Duryodhana. "You were different back then," he said.

"Different?" Duryodhana asked, frowning.

"You would never keep secrets from your Grandpa, for one thing." Bhisma turned and started toward the door. "Or lie to him, either."

Grandpa Bhisma switched off the lights in the room, and closed the door behind himself as he left. Duryodhana was left alone in the darkness.


XIV.

For Yudhisthira, the following days passed slowly. With Duryodhana - who was, in all honesty, half of the actual government - laid up in bed, Yudhisthira suddenly found himself with double his normal amount of responsibility dumped in his lap.

"Please," he found himself begging Nakula early one morning, "if you would just--"

"I don't do charity breakfasts," Nakula pouted, "and I don't do crazy Vishnu cult-worshippers. So double no."

Yudhisthira clenched his fists at his side. He turned toward Sahadeva. "You--"

"I'll do the meeting with the Minister of Finance," Sahadeva volunteered, unhelpfully.

"But Bhima's already--"

"Let Bhima do the breakfast," Nakula said. "He likes food. Sahadeva and I can do the Minister of Finance, and then you can go blackmail members of Parliament or whatever you were going to do over there."

"For one thing," Yudhisthira snapped, "I'm not going to blackmail anybody, I'm going to sit down for a briefing with--"

"I really don't care," Nakula said, rolling his eyes.

"For another thing," Yudhisthira continued through gritted teeth, "You don't anything about economics, so--"

"Yes I do," Sahadeva protested. Then he scratched his ear and offered no helpful proof of his statement.

"I can't be three places at once!" Yudhisthira cried out, pleading with his brothers. "Look, all I'm asking you to do is one simple thing. You know that I almost never ask you two to do anything in the first place. Please. Just this once."

"Ask Arjuna," Nakula said. "He really never does anything to help you out."

"Arjuna's in the forest."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot." Nakula rolled his eyes again. "He's busy eating worms and having starvation-induced hallucinations and convincing himself that he's becoming one with the gods."

"Worms…" Sahadeva sighed. Then he suddenly tapped Nakula's shoulder and said, "You know what? I'm hungry."

"But we just had breakfast."

"I know, but we could have a second breakfast." Without giving Nakula a chance to retort, Sahadeva turned to Yudhisthira and said, "We'll do the breakfast."

"Thank you," Yudhisthira gasped, clasping at Sahadeva's hands. "Thank you so much, I--"

"You're late," Nakula pointed out, tapping the watch on his wrist.

Yudhisthira hurried away, hoping that somebody had already commed to have a hoverer ready to take him to the Parliament building. He wanted a smoke, but he knew that he didn't have the time. Fortunately, somebody had called a hoverer for him already. Down in the basement of the palace, Yudhisthira climbed into the back seat of a hoverer, only to find Uncle Vidura already sitting there waiting for him.

"I figured it would be you in here with me," Uncle Vidura said, offering Yudhisthira a glass of amber liquid as a chauffeur closed the hoverer behind Yudhisthira. "You managed to send Nakula or Sahadeva to the breakfast?"

"Both of them, if you can believe that," Yudhisthira said, taking the offered glass gratefully. He took a sip, then coughed. It wasn't lickfire - it wasn't even alcoholic. Yudhisthira wiped out his mouth angrily. "This is juice!" he gasped. "It's just... juice!"

"Naturally." Uncle Vidura folded his hands in his lap, in that particular stuffy way that he often did. "You have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Yudhisthira," he said. "Your shoulders are much more suited to such a burden than your liver."

The hoverer, which had been humming forward a moment ago, suddenly slowed and stopped. They were still in the basement of the palace. The chauffer sitting in front got out and opened in the back door again.

Grandpa Bhisma slid easily into the back of the hoverer. "Do you mind if we join you?" he asked Vidura. "We also have an appointment at the Parliament."

Vidura nodded, and before Yudhisthira could ask who we was supposed to be, Duryodhana slowly climbed into the back of the hoverer and flopped down into his seat, exhausted. "Guess who's back among the living?" he asked, wanly.

Yudhisthira leaned forward and gave his cousin a relieved hug. "You have no idea," he gasped, "how grateful I am to see you."

"I wish I could say likewise," Duryodhana said, gently pushing Yudhisthira away, "But in all honesty, I would rather be in bed." He leaned back in his seat and groaned. "Never again," he mumbled. "Definitely never again."

"Never again, what?" Yudhisthira asked, curiously.

"Never again in the same room as a Panchalan," Duryodhana said. "They're a whole race of viral incubators." He accepted a glass of juice that Uncle Vidura poured, and raised his glass as Uncle Vidura refilled the one held in Yudhisthira's hands. "Here's a toast," he said. "To me not being dead."

Yudhisthira nodded and raised his own glass. "To peace and prosperity," he added.

"To having no major crisis to deal with."

"To peace with Panchala and Madra."

"To good health."

"To high approval ratings."

"Cheers," Duryodhana said, clinking his glass against Yudhisthira's. He took a long sip of his drink, then spit it out angrily, coughing and wiping his mouth. "This isn't lickfire!" he gasped.

Yudhisthira sighed. He wondered how Arjuna was faring, out alone in the forest. Hopefully he was having an easier time of whatever he was supposed to be doing than Yudhisthira was.


XV.

When it was morning in Hastinapura, it was night in Kampilya.

Arjuna stood on the balcony of his hotel room, staring at the imposing palace rising out of the city in front of him. Even in the middle of the night, the palace's gray brick towers and turrets were lit with blazing spotlights, and Arjuna could make out the tiny, black-suited figures of guards marching smartly around its many perimeters.

Arjuna slipped his protective gloves over his wrists and took a deep breath. He would need them, tonight, to protect his arms from the snap of his bowstring. He had spent nearly a week in Kampilya, walking the streets around the palace, watching the movements of the guards, taking note of where security cameras were mounted. It had not been an easy task. The interior of the palace wasn't open to tourists, and a strict city-wide curfew kept citizens off the streets around the palace past sunset.

Arjuna checked his equipment one last time. He had a few crumpled notes of Panchalan currency tucked into his boots, and that was all that he would risk physically carrying. He had the mantras in his head and the bow tingling beneath his palms, and that was all that he needed. His luggage and everything else, he would abandon in his hotel room. Once he started, there was no turning back.

Arjuna climbed up onto the railing of his balcony. He was on the fourth floor of the hotel, which offered a nice view of the palace, but was unfortunately far off the ground. But Arjuna couldn't risk leaving through the hotel lobby. It was hours past curfew time, and he would be noticed. So he stood, balancing on the railing of the balcony, steadying his breathing.

Three, two, one.

Arjuna jumped.

He whispered a mantra as the wind whipped past him, and landed safely in a crouch. He sprung forward, using the momentum of his fall to push him into a sprint. He pounded across the parking lot of the hotel and into the streets. He whipped past two or three guards at a time, clouding their minds so that they wouldn't notice him. He ran straight up the street leading to the palace, sprinting nimbly over rows of spikes meant to stop auto tires and magnetic disrupters meant to hold hoverers in place. He ran right past a guard posted by the side of the road, leapt over a yellow-and-black painted gate meant to block autos yet again, and then--

He ran right into the guard crossing the road before he could stop himself.

Arjuna stumbled backward, struggling to regain his balance. The guard whom he had just smacked into wasted no time in pulling the rifle off his back and aiming it right at Arjuna's chest. He opened his mouth to shout something--

Great. Not all of the mantras in the world are going to do any good if I run right into them! And none of the mantras in the world are going to do any good if this guy shouts or fires or raises any sort of alarm!

Arjuna's bow was in his hand before he even realized it. The arrow he cocked was more a curse than a point. He fired, and the guard in front of him dropped his rifle with a clatter, and slowly crumpled to the ground.

Arjuna looked around quickly. They were alone on the road - nobody seemed to have heard or noticed what had just happened. But that wouldn't last long. Arjuna bent over quickly to check the guard's pulse and breathing - he was fine - then instantly leapt back into his pelting run.

Arjuna began scaling walls as soon as he ran into them. The gray bricks that made up the outer walls of the palace provided numerous and deep ledges for his fingers and toes. But Arjuna could also easily plunge his arrows right into the bricks and use them as grips for his feet and hands, as well. Arjuna scaled one wall, leapt down into a courtyard, and sprinted through a maze of flowers and sculpted bushes to the next wall. He whispered mantras that he hoped would cloud the lenses of the security cameras that he could hear whirring in the darkness of the garden.

Please, Lord Indra, Arjuna prayed as he scaled the next wall, I have no idea where Drupada is inside this enormous palace. Please guide me to him.

Arjuna leapt down onto a balcony, and pushed open the unlocked glass doors in front of him. He slid past silk curtains and tiptoed past a wall lined with books and a large, ancient desk, upon which sat no computer. Whatever room Arjuna had just found himself in, he was alone.

Arjuna stood in the center of the study, closed his eyes, and controlled his breathing. He had left a guard collapsed in the road leading up the palace - which meant that he no longer had time to go searching for Drupada. Either the gods would show him in the way, or he would fail.

You've already found him, the wind blowing in through the open balcony doors whispered to Arjuna.

Arjuna nodded to himself, then walked slowly, silently, across the study. He pushed open a heavy wooden door, and found himself walking right into the king's spacious bed chambers. Arjuna crept across the room, which was almost entirely empty save for the enormous bed, draped in silks and covered in sheer canopies, in the center of the room. Arjuna peered at the top of the bed as he approached, trying to make out Drupada's figure. What if he's with one of his wives tonight?! Arjuna thought, suddenly in a panic. Then he forced himself to calm down. Surely the gods would not have led him astray...

Of course not. Arjuna squinted, and could make out the shape of the old man buried beneath his blankets. A tuft of Drupada's white hair, reflecting the moonlight filtering in through the windows in the ceiling, shone like a beacon in the gloom of the bedroom.

Arjuna summoned an arrow to his hand, and silently crept up to the edge of the bed. The situation could not have been more perfect: Drupada was lying on his back, his white throat exposed above the edge of his blankets, snoring his old-man's snores. Arjuna lowered the tip of his arrow to Drupada's throat, then, with his other hand, gently shook the old king's shoulder.

Drupada's eyes flew open instantly, and he choked on his own snore. Arjuna pressed the tip of his arrow into the soft spot where Drupada's jaw met his neck and hissed, "Don't make a sound."

Drupada held still, but his eyes, bright and alert, searched Arjuna's face. "You are not the first of my would-be assassins to have made it this far," he whispered calmly.

"I'm not here to take your life."

Drupada squinted up at Arjuna's face, then, slowly, his eyes widened. "The Kuru prince," he breathed. "So Lord Bhisma finally saw fit to send one of his spawn after me?"

"What?" Arjuna almost fumbled and dropped his arrow. "Grandpa Bhisma has nothing to do with this," Arjuna said quickly, once again pressing his arrow into Drupada's throat. "Now get up. I'm taking you with me."

Drupada held still for a moment longer, then hissed impatiently, "I can't get up, you twit, your arrow will cut my throat open."

"Oh." Arjuna pulled back his arrow a short distance. "Sorry." He kept his arrow close to Drupada's jaw as Drupada slowly sat up in his bed.

"My shoes and clothes are in an adjoining room," Drupada said as he slid out of his bed. He was wearing nothing but a nightdress. His ancient feet were bare and white.

"We don't have time," Arjuna said, grasping Drupada's hand and pulling him back toward the study from where he had entered. "I'm sorry, but--"

"This is your first abduction, isn't it?" Drupada shook his head. "Amateur. I remember twelve years ago, when that silly terrorist group snatched me right out of my hoverer--"

"Be quiet!" Arjuna hissed, edging toward the open balcony on the far end of the study.

"Have you thought about how you're going to get me through the window and down to the ground?" Drupada asked, smugly.

Arjuna twitched angrily. "I--"

He never had the chance to finish, however, because that was when he realized that there was an axe blade swooping down toward his head.

Arjuna ducked and pulled Drupada down with him just in the nick of time. There was a thunderous crash as the axe buried itself in the bookshelf behind Arjuna. Arjuna's first thought was that Drupada had somehow managed to attack him, but then he realized that Drupada was down on the ground with him, and there was a woman cursing and trying to pull the axe free of the bookshelf.

Arjuna rolled into a crouch then leapt back into a standing position. He couldn't use his bow - it required two hands, and one of his hands was still grasping Drupada's wrist - but he still had astras, and he--

"Don't you dare!" the woman shrieked, and swung her axe at Arjuna's head again. Arjuna ducked, and Drupada snapped angrily, "Are you trying to kill me, too?"

The axe was back, this time swinging toward Arjuna's ribs. There was no way for Arjuna to avoid it. He flung out his free hand and prayed and felt Gandiva crackle to life with a flash of lightning. The body of the wooden bow should not have been enough to block the swinging blade of the axe; but Gandiva was no ordinary bow. The axe blade smashed into Gandiva and then seemed to bounce, flying backward as arcs of lightning raced up its gleaming metal body. The woman started screaming, and Arjuna turned away from her, setting his sights on the door behind her. Without bothering to see what became of his attacker, Arjuna tightened his grip around Drupada's wrist and pulled him out of the study, through another door, and into a high-ceilinged hallway. Arjuna began running as fast as he could, and Drupada kept up easily.

"Halt!" the woman shouted from somewhere behind them. Arjuna had no intention of halting, so he ignored her. He ignored her successfully until the first arrow screamed past his ear. He stumbled and ducked instinctively, and three arrows suddenly arced over his head and stuck into the ground in front of him, quivering. Arjuna stopped and whirled on his heels, as Drupada stepped behind him.

She was standing behind them in the hallway, her nightdress torn and scorched, her hair wild and uncombed and smoking. But there was not a single burn mark on her flesh. The ancient bow in her hands creaked and groaned as she held it taught, a razor-tipped arrow cocked and ready, aimed at Arjuna's heart. "Release my father now," she shouted at him, "and I might spare your life."

Arjuna turned toward Drupada. "I was told that your children were away on Madra," he said.

"My sons are on Madra," Drupada corrected Arjuna, calmly. "This is my daughter, Draupadi. Surely you remember her?"

Arjuna turned back to face the woman who had attacked him. It was the same princess that he remembered from the weapons arena. He simply hadn't recognized her without her makeup and hair ornaments.

For a moment, their eyes met. Her grip on her bow faltered, and her eyes widened. "The Kuru prince...?" she whispered slowly.

Arjuna saw his opening, and took it. He risked letting go of Drupada's hand for a single moment, but a single moment was all that it took to summon Gandiva and snap its string. Draupadi blinked, wasting precious seconds as she slowly realized that the string of her bow been cleanly severed into three separate sections. Arjuna pulled Drupada with him as he leapt down the remaining length of the hallway and around a corner.

"Where can I access a hoverer?" Arjuna shouted at Drupada as they ran.

"Wouldn't it make it too easy for you if I told you?" Drupada responded coldly, his breath heavy with the effort of keeping up with Arjuna's running.

"Either we get a hoverer now," Arjuna snapped, "or we run this way all the way to the spaceport."

Drupada pounded along in silence behind Arjuna for a moment, then said, "To your left and three levels down."

Arjuna ground to a sudden halt, and again risked letting go of Drupada's wrist for a split second. He could already hear alarm sirens sounding throughout the palace. He bow flashed in and out of his hands - just long enough for him to fire a volley of explosive lightning-tipped arrows directly into the wall to his side - and the wall suddenly exploded away from them. Arjuna gripped Drupada's wrist again and pulled him through the hole he had made in the wall. "Come on," he said. "We'll take a shortcut."


XVI.

"Everything's grounded," the voice crackled over the comm and into Gurnam's ear again. "Executive order from His Majesty's office."

"But we have to lift off tonight," Gurnam explained patiently to the traffic controller, as patiently as he still could. "We're already fifteen hours behind schedule, and we--"

"Gurnam!" his co-pilot, Hemachandra, suddenly shouted down from somewhere within the rows of boxes filling the back of the transport. "Gurnam, you have to turn on the console, you gotta listen to this!"

"I'm trying to get us liftoff clearance," Gurnam snapped impatiently at Hemachandra. He turned back to his comm and went on as politely as he could, "Listen, surely you could make an exception for--"

"If you liftoff now," the voice on the other end of the comm calmly interrupted, "You'll be shot down instantly."

Gurnam swallowed nervously. "I don't suppose I should ask the reason for the flight blackout, should I?"

"Haven't you seen a console lately?" the traffic controller responded, incredulous. "The King's been abducted. By a terrorist from Kuru."

Huh, thought Gurnam. Was there going to be a war? Would he and Hemachandra have even their little candy-transport drafted into the fleet?

"They're going to declare war with Kuru," Hemachandra announced cheerfully, climbing back into the cockpit. "I don't know why they haven't already." He smacked his fist into his right hand. "That'll be something, won't it? I wonder how well those fishmongers can pilot."

Gurnam shook his head. "I don't think--"

He never had a chance to finish, however, because that was when he suddenly felt the arrow pressed against his throat.

"Don't move," someone behind his back breathed into his ear. Gurnam felt a gloved hand resting casually on his shoulder, its fingers tense. Gurnam strained his eyes, and saw Hemachandra sitting beside him, his eyes wide and his mouth working silently.

Gurnam swallowed again, and felt the sides of the arrow's tip working against his throat.

"Prep the engines for liftoff," whoever was behind Gurnam told Hemachandra.

Hemachandra froze for a moment, staring Gurnam's attacker up and down. Finally he asked, in a small, strangled voice, "How did you get in?"

"Through the on-ramp," the hijacker explained, impatiently. "You just didn't notice us."

Us? Gurnam thought. He was still afraid to turn his head to see his attacker. "If we liftoff now," Gurnam tried to explain, although the arrow pressed to his throat made speaking a distinctly unpleasant experience, "we'll be shot down."

"Not if you broadcast a message that we have the king onboard," the hijacker said.

Hemachandra turned his head and looked behind him. "Oh," he said. "We do."

"What are you transporting?" Gurnam heard King Drupada's curious voice grumbling behind him. "Sweets?"

"Chocolates," Gurnam clarified, thinking that the moment could not have been more surreal.

"Excellent," the king declared. "Then we shall not have to go hungry. Provided, of course, this small ship can outrun the tractor beams of my daughter's fleet."

He doesn't sound very upset about being kidnapped, Gurnam thought. "I'll cooperate," he told his hijacker, "if you would please just--"

"Of course." The arrow was pulled away from Gurnam's throat, and the hand left his shoulder. Gurnam turned his head and saw the king sitting behind him, barefoot and in his nightdress, his uncombed white hair flying wildly around his head. He had already pried open a crate - what, with his bare hands? - and was busy fishing out a box of chocolates. Standing beside him was a young man dressed all in black, wearing leather archery gloves. There was no trace of the arrow that he had just been holding to Gurnam's throat. "Start broadcasting," the hijacker told Hemachandra, impatiently. "Tell them that we're lifting off. Tell them that if they shoot us down, the king is dead."

"Right." Hemachandra turned toward the comm unit and pressed down on a button. "This is the commercial freighter Martaha. We're lifting off now. His Majesty and one Kuru hijacker are onboard. Do not shoot us down. Repeat, do not shoot us down. His Majesty is onboard."

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the comm. Gurnam took a deep breath and switched on the liftoff engines.

Finally, from the other end of the comm came a crackling voice. "Verify that His Majesty is onboard," came a new voice. It was not someone whom Gurnam remembered speaking to before.

"I'm right here," Drupada snapped into the comm, leaning between Gurnam and Hemachandra and stuffing a chocolate-covered berry into his mouth. "Tell these idiots approaching us on the floor not to shoot at us. And open the cursed hangar roof while you're at it."

Gurnam watched the armored vehicles rolling toward the Martaha from across the hangar floor. They came to a slow halt. As the Martaha's engines cycled up to full power, the hangar roof above them gradually opened, metal plates sliding away from each other with excruciating slowness.

"We're not the only thing lifting off," Hemachandra said, pointing to a radar screen. "Something big's lifting off three sahasra-clicks away. That's where the fleet's base is."

"They're going to chase us and tractor-beam us," the hijacker murmured to himself. He turned to Gurnam. "Liftoff," he said, "But don't strain the engines yet. Go slow. Let them catch up to us before we clear the atmosphere." He looked up, scouring the roof of the ship with his eyes. "You have an emergency hatch, don't you?"

"In the back," Gurnam said. He turned his head, and saw that King Drupada had already settled happily into a makeshift throne on top of several crates of chocolates, an open box in his hand. He bit into one chocolate, frowned, and placed the half-eaten candy back in the box.

The Martaha lifted off, slowly. Gurnam felt a drop of sweat rolling down his back. Spotlights from within and without the hangar followed him, tracking the Martaha into the sky.

"Trajectory?" Hemachandra asked, as the hijacker returned from his inspection of the back of the ship. "What's our trajectory?!"

The hijacker was silent for a moment, then said, "How long will it take us to clear the system?"

"Twenty hours."

"Too long." The hijacker frowned. "Is there a safe spot within the system to make a jump?"

Gurnam and Hemachandra exchanged glances. Gurnam turned toward the hijacker and slowly said, "For a ship this small, it should be theoretically possible to find a safe space between the gas planets out here..." He pointed to a spot on the map now being projected onto the glass shield in front of him. "But it would take even longer than twenty hours for our shipboard computer to calculate a spot. There's too much gravitational interference."

The hijacker fell quiet again, then closed his eyes and stood still. He slowly lifted his hand, then gently rested one extended finger on a spot on the map, between Panchala Eight and Panchala Nine. He opened his eyes and said, "Here."

Gurnam swallowed, tasting the dryness of his own mouth. "There, what?"

"We'll make the jump there. It's safe."

"How do you know that?!" Hemachandra asked, incredulously.

"The storm told me so," the hijacker said.

Gurnam looked out the glass shield at the sky falling away around them. The weather seemed perfectly clear to him.

Hemachandra leaned over toward the comm and activated it again. "This is the commercial freighter Martaha, repeat, this is the commercial freighter Martaha. I'm broadcasting our trajectory now. Please do not block or interfere."

The hijacker suddenly leaned over Hemachandra's shoulder and touched the back of his neck lightly. "As much as I don't want to," he said, "if you try anything funny, I will hurt you."

"He very much can, too," the king added helpfully from behind them, his mouth full of chocolates.

Hemachandra shivered and nodded.

Gurnam steered the Martaha carefully. They were now well over a sahasra-click above Panchala's surface, entering the stratosphere. "We've got company," he said, tapping the radar screen to bring it to the hijacker's attention.

The hijacker sucked in his breath. "It's huge," he said, watching the enormous blip of the Panchalan ship approaching them on the radar screen.

"And there's more behind it," Hemachandra commented, the radar screen casting strangely-lit shadows over his face.

"How long do we have before we're in tractor beam range?" the hijacker suddenly demanded.

"Less than sixty seconds."

The hijacker turned and pelted toward the back of the ship. "Hold onto something!" he shouted. "I'm going to open the hatch!"

Gurnam turned around quickly in his seat. "Your Majesty, there's an emergency harness--"

"Already found it," Drupada rumbled. He looked somewhat ridiculous, in his nightdress and bare feet, strapped to the wall in a brightly-painted emergency harness.

Hemachandra fumbled to strap himself into his seat. "Forty-five seconds," he said.

"Plenty of time," the hijacker commented loudly. With that, he opened the hatch in the roof of the back of the ship.

The suction was instant and intense. Gurnam turned his head - the wind seemed about to rip it right off his neck - and saw the hijacker pulling himself up on top of the roof of the ship. What in the five hells is he holding onto?! Gurnam wondered, as he watched his crates of chocolates flying about the ship in disarray, crashing and smashing into each other. Drupada calmly swatted away a loose bit of crate and several boxes of chocolate that flew toward his head.

And instant later, it was over. The hijacker lowered himself back down into the ship and pulled down the hatch door, wheeling it closed. He accomplished all of this with one hand. In the other hand he held an enormous bow woven of flickering lightning and splashing rain. "We're clear," he said, and the bow vanished from his hand, as if it had never even been.

Gurnam steered the Martaha into a tight turn. Through the transparent cockpit shield in front of him he caught a clear glimpse of the distant yet enormous military ship, and the brilliant orange explosion erupting from its right and left wings, where the tractor beams would have been mounted.

Gurnam touched Hemachandra's shoulder, and Hemachandra silently transferred the piloting over to his console. Gurnam unstrapped himself and climbed out of his seat. He approached Drupada, bowed low, and began helping the old man undo his own harness straps. "Thank you," Drupada said. He seemed even more ridiculous than before, now that a few seconds of exposure to atmospheric suction had messed his wild white hair even worse than previously.

Gurnam pulled away from Drupada, stood up, looked around his ship, and groaned. Crates of chocolates were lying in disarray everywhere, most smashed open, and boxes of chocolates were spilled all over the floor. The hijacker, standing in the middle of this mess, lifted up his foot, frowned, and scraped a smashed candy off the sole of his boot with an arrow that suddenly appeared in his hand, then vanished just as quickly. "Um," he said, suddenly looking sheepish, "Um, I'm sorry. I'll help clean this up."

Gurnam had no idea what to say to this.

"We're clearing the atmosphere!" Hemachandra shouted from the cockpit, "and the fleet is falling back! There's nothing between us and the jump coordinates."

"And nothing that can catch up with us, either." The hijacker turned toward the king. "Right?"

The king nodded slowly, grinning. "You've done your homework," he said, impressed. "My apologies for calling you an amateur." Then he pulled himself up on top of one of the few intact crates left in the ship, settled on top of it as if it were a throne, and commanded regally, "You, pilot. Clean up this mess. You, prince. Come here and massage my feet. It is entirely your fault that they ache so."

The hijacker sighed and knelt in front of the king, removing his gloves. Gurnam watched them for a moment, then set to work straightening up the remains of his chocolate shipment. Prince? he thought. Maybe I don't want to know.


XVII.

It was mid-afternoon when Sanjaya interrupted Dhritarashtra's otherwise quite pleasant nap on the veranda of his chambers.

"Your Majesty!" Sanjaya shouted, shaking Dhritarashtra's shoulder. "Your Majesty!"

Dhritarashtra's first bleary thought was that it had better be a real emergency, if Sanjaya was going to be so forward as to touch him. He second thought was that Sanjaya smelled like a panicked animal. "Sanjaya?" he more yawned than asked.

"Your Majesty, Panchala has declared war--!"

Dhritarashtra sat up instantly, wide awake. "No," he said, as if by sheer force of the word he could negate it.

"Yes!" Sanjaya cried out, pulling Dhritarashtra from his cushioned couch. "Drupada's daughter is on the comm waiting for you, she's demanding Prince Arjuna's head--"

"Drupada's daughter?" Dhritarashtra asked, as Sanjaya led him. "Where is Drupada himself?"

"That's, er... That's the issue, really."


XVIII.

The eerie silence and still blankness of jumpspace flowed outside the Martaha. Gurnam counted away the seconds and minutes until their arrival outside the rimcloud of Kuru.

"So..." Gurnam tried to approach the hijacker, whom he knew now was a Kuru prince, which only made things worse, "What are we going to do when we arrive at the rimcloud?"

"Hmm?" Prince Arjuna looked up from the box of chocolates that he had been busy devouring. Unlike Drupada, he had not yet placed a single rejected sweet back into his box. "Make a straight approach to Hastinapura. It should only take twenty-four hours." He was sitting at the feet of Drupada, who had enthroned himself on top of a crate of chocolates and was now busily ignoring everyone in the ship. Several hours ago the king had changed out of his nightdress and into the spare change of clothes that Hemachandra had brought along for their two-days' journey between Panchala and Kuru. Now the king was wearing a pilot's jacket, utility pants, and Hemachandra's oversized spare boots. He had at least been able to comb his beard in the tiny restroom unit attached to the back of the ship, but that had done little for his appearance.

"They'll know that we're coming. Panchala will have informed them by now." Gurnam turned toward the view-shields of the cockpit, watching the whiteness of jumpspace flow by. "When we jump out, we could find Panchala and Kuru at war."

"Hmm." The prince chewed his chocolates thoughtfully. "That, and my mother is going to kill me."

"So then why did you do it?" Hemachandra asked, from his seat in the cockpit.

"Because..." The prince tapped his chin, straining to find the right words. "Because I had to. Because this is my dakshina."

Gurnam and Hemachandra simultaneously raised their eyebrows.

"That is not your reason," Drupada rumbled, tossing aside another box of chocolates. "You did this not because of your dakshina, but out of foolish, stupid, blind love for that man."

"It's not foolish or blind!" Arjuna defended himself, standing up angrily. "I would never give my loyalty blindly!"

"Enjoy him for now," Drupada said, seated imperiously on his crate of chocolates and licking his fingers. "That man will abandon you sooner rather than later."

"Mr. Drona would never--!" Arjuna cut himself off, and clenched his fists. "Don't you understand?!" he shouted, angrily. "He never abandoned you, you're the one who abandoned him! He's been trying to speak to you all this time and you would never once let yourself listen to him!"

Gurnam discretely backed away from both of them, sensing that he was about to listen to a conversation that he had no business listening to.

But Hemachandra interrupted them both again. "We're getting another hailing from--"

"Don't answer it!" Arjuna snapped, impatiently. "I said I want comm silence until we finish the jump!"

"Idiocy," Drupada declared, as he stood up suddenly. "If you don't let me talk my daughter out of annihilating your entire civilization, you will find Kuru's cities razed to the ground by the time we approach its atmosphere. The fleet will arrive at the rim cloud while we're still in transit passing the gas planets, and my daughter's ships have long-range attack capabilities. Very long range. And Panchala will unleash hell upon your world, unless you let me make a simple comm. call. "

Arjuna eyed the old king suspiciously. "You're volunteering to call off the war?"

Drupada nodded, slowly.

Arjuna stared at him for another long moment, then looked away and hissed, "Very well. You can open up a channel to her."

Drupada turned away from Arjuna, toward the cockpit. Hemachandra stepped aside to allow the old king access to the comm equipment. But instead of switching on the comm, Drupada paused, and glanced back toward Arjuna. "Be careful, Prince," he said. "Be wary of giving your heart to that man. His loyalties are not what you think."

Arjuna glared at a crate of chocolates and said nothing.

Drupada finally leaned over the comm equipment and switched it on. He then turned to Hemachandra and asked, with unusual humility, "Young man, it does appear that technology has advanced a bit since the last time that I had to touch one of these cursed things. You wouldn't mind helping out an old man for just a moment, would you?"


XVIV.

Hastinapura was silent, a city collectively holding its breath. The convoy of hoverers escorting the Panchalan king and the Kuru prince from the port to the palace passed through streets lined with Panchalan and Kuru soldiers, standing at uneasy attention side-by-side. On the outskirts of the city, the hulking shapes of the Panchalan warships that had laid siege to the spaceport dominated the horizon.

A dark-colored, thinly-armored hoverer pulled into the basement levels of the palace. Several moments later, Arjuna was leading Drupada by the arm up through the bowels of the complex. Drupada walked along with an air of grudging defeat, still dressed in the boots and jacket that he had borrowed from Hemachandra. The two of them were followed by an entourage of tense, silent guards. The guards wore mismatched uniforms. Some were from Panchala, others from Kuru.

They made it to the Great Hall, fortunately, before Arjuna could completely lose his nerve.

"Father!"

Draupadi was running toward them even before Arjuna and Drupada had finished stepping through the massive doors which marked their official entrance into the hall. Arjuna hesitated for a moment when he saw Draupadi, almost failing to recognize her. This was neither the Draupadi dressed in silks and jewels that he remembered from the weapons tournament, nor the wild-eyed, ungroomed Draupadi who had attempted to murder him with an axe in the middle of the night. This was a Draupadi dressed for war. Her boots stomped against the floor of the hall as she ran toward them. Her long, dark, blue-black hair was bound in a tight braid circling in layers around her head. She was wearing the distinctive blue-and-black-piped uniform of the Panchalan military, gold braids bouncing from her shoulderpads.

Arjuna swallowed, and took in the rest of the hall with one quick glance. Dhritarashtra was sitting on his throne at the head of the hall, his thin gray hair standing in stark contrast to his dark, formal robes. His empty eyes and expressionless face betrayed nothing. Vidura stood at nervous attention at the king's shoulder. Bhisma stood behind them both, his hand on Vidura's shoulder, glaring down at Arjuna. Bhisma's white beard and dark eyes trembled with anger. Along one side of the hall were arranged Duryodhana and Yudhisthira and Duryodhana's brothers and Arjuna's brothers and the two queens; Duryodhana was watching Arjuna carefully, and Yudhisthira was staring at him in a peculiar, mildly aghast way. Arjuna looked away before he could see the faces of Bhima or the twins, or his mother. Instead, he looked to the other side of the hall, were Panchalan royalty and military were arranged in an identical formation. Drupada's two sons were still conspicuously absent. They would not have had time to make it from Madra to Kuru before Drupada himself arrived.

Draupadi ground to a halt less than a nose-length away from Arjuna. "Stop touching my father," she hissed.

Arjuna swallowed, but tightened his grip around Drupada's arm.

"Are you deaf?! I said--"

"Draupadi," Drupada suddenly admonished, sternly. "Do not be so rude. We are guests here."

Draupadi scowled. Neither she nor her father were guests. He was a captive and she was the head of an invading army, for all intents and purposes. But nevertheless, she backed a step away from her father, respectfully.

Arjuna slowly let go of Drupada's arm. The old man stepped around his daughter and strode purposefully toward the throne upon which Dhritarashtra sat. "I was informed that there is someone here waiting for me to see him. Well?"

"Out of respect for you," Dhritarashtra said slowly, "after finding out that he ordered this, we still haven't executed your esteemed host."

"Yet," Bhisma added under his breath. Although everyone in the hall heard it.

Dhritarashtra clapped his hands, and Sanjaya immediately stepped forward to escort Drupada out of the hall. Arjuna watched the two of them walk back down the hall and exit through the door from which they had come. Arjuna watched the door close behind the king, and then took two deep breaths. It wasn't over yet. The moment that he let himself think it was over, he would start having to think about how much trouble Mr. Drona was in, and then his legs would surely start shaking.

"You're lucky," Draupadi suddenly said.

Arjuna turned his head toward her. He had even forgotten that she was still standing only a few steps away from him. Her dark eyes were smoldering with fury. "If my father had given me the word--" She paused, then her face grew even darker. "If my brother Dhristadumnya had been here, even Father would not have been able to hold him back."

"But he's not here," Arjuna said, pointing out the obvious. He wasn't sure what else to say. He was suddenly afraid that his legs were going to start shaking anyway. Something about the look in Draupadi's eyes threatened to turn his knees to jelly.

"You're a complete idiot," Draupadi spat. She turned away from Arjuna, her braided dark hair flying across her back, her boots stomping angrily, as she clomped back toward her army waiting on one side of the hall.

Left alone in the center of the hall again, Arjuna turned toward the blind king, and dropped into a respectful bow. "Please," he said, "there are two men in custody at the port, they kept His Majesty Drupada and I safe during our jump, I wish to honor them..."

Dhritarashtra sighed a long, slow, impatient sigh.


XX.

Ashwatthama was sitting alone in the hallway when Drupada and his escort arrived. When he saw the old king coming, Ashwatthama pressed his clenched fists against his thighs, stared down into his own lap, and said nothing.

Unfortunately, Drupada did not merely pass him by. The old man stopped right in front of Ashwatthama. "What," he asked, "Are you doing out here?"

"We're under house arrest," Ashwatthama said, raising his eyes to meet the king's. It was a great sign of disrespect, but Ashwatthama didn't care. "They won't let me go outside to pray. So I pray in the hallway."

"Surely you can pray inside your home."

"I wanted to leave before you came. I have no desire to be beneath the same roof as you."

"My," Drupada breathed, half aghast, half amused.

"My father may have forgiven you," Ashwatthama said slowly, still not looking away from the king's eyes. "But I never will. You broke him. You broke me. You broke apart my mother and her brother. You even broke your own son's soul for the sake of revenge."

"Maybe so," Drupada said, leaning over Ashwatthama, stroking his white beard thoughtfully. "But none of this would have ever happened if not for you." His eyes were cold, and clear. "So many lives ruined, merely because you had the audacity to exist." He straightened up, and turned away from Ashwatthama. "Do you hate me for saying so?"

"I'm sworn never to hate."

"And yet you cannot forgive?"

Ashwatthama grit his teeth.

"Then you will never be half the man that your father is," Drupada said.

Ashwatthama closed his eyes and waited until the old man, Sanjaya, and the guards had gone inside his home. He tried to focus his thoughts on Lord Shiva, but all that he could think about were the gleaming sharp points of the Lord's trident, and how he longed to shove them into the old man's throat. The scar on Ashwatthama's forehead throbbed in an almost soothing way as he relaxed his body, and lost himself in such pleasant thoughts.


XXI.

"I cannot believe you!" Bhisma hissed as he pulled Arjuna into his study. Arjuna scrambled with his fingers to dislodge his grandfather's grip from his arm, but it was no use. Somebody closed the door behind the two of them, and then they were left alone.

No! Arjuna thought. My mother or Bhima or Uncle Dhritarashtra or ANYBODY but Grandpa Bhisma--!

"Sit DOWN," Bhisma ordered, while at the same time rather redundantly throwing Arjuna down into a chair. "I don't even know where to start with you! We've been invaded by Panchalans--"

"His Majesty Drupada would never let them hurt us--"

"SHUT UP."

Arjuna shut his mouth. He had never seen or heard his grandfather like this before.

"You will be silent while your elders are speaking!" Bhisma still would not sit down. He paced back and forth in front of Arjuna. Arjuna could feel his grandfather's fury like a tangible thing, a web being woven more tightly in the air around him with every impatient stomp of his grandfather's feet. Finally, Bhisma paused, then threw out his arms in a gesture of helpless anger. "Why, Arjuna?! HOW?! How could you possibly--?!"

"This was my dakshina."

"You are a Kuru, not a Panchalan! We do not practice dakshina!"

"But it would have been wrong not to do it."

"And you think that kidnapping a king, hijacking a ship, and sparking an interplanetary war wasn't wrong?!" Bhisma looked nearly ready to begin tearing out chunks of his own white hair. "You have a duty to your brothers and to your mother before you have a duty to some crazed fugitive from a foreign planet! Do you have any idea what position you've put this family in? Do you have any idea what your mother went through when we heard what you had done?! Or Yudhisthira?!"

"I have a pretty good idea," Arjuna answered, slowly.

This was apparently not the answer that Grandpa Bhisma had been looking for. "You could at least do your grandfather the favor of pretending to be remorseful." He paused and took a deep breath. "I don't know, Arjuna. I don't know what to do with you anymore. I could have your teacher executed for this--"

"No!" Arjuna cried out, nearly jumping out of his seat.

"Conspiracy to commit a Class A offense is an executable crime--"

"But we will do no such thing," Yudhisthira said.

Both Bhisma and Arjuna turned at once. Yudhisthira closed the study door behind him, and then stood solemnly beside Arjuna. "The state has not executed a single criminal during my father's reign nor during my uncle's reign. I will not have them start now."

"You're not supposed to be in here," Bhisma snapped.

"I'm sorry," Yudhisthira apologized, placing one hand on Arjuna's shoulder, "but this is my brother. He is, as you are so fond of pointing out, my responsibility. Isn't he?"

Bhisma scowled at Yudhisthira. "Say your piece, then."

Yudhisthira looked down at Arjuna, his face carefully blank. "Can you look me in the eye," he asked Arjuna solemnly, "and tell me why you did this terrible thing?"

"Because," Arjuna said, already a bit tired of having to explain this to everyone over and over again, "Mr. Drona asked me to. Because it was the right thing to do."

"Because it was your dakshina?"

"No," Arjuna said, shaking his head. "Grandpa Bhisma is right. I could have refused the dakshina if I wanted to. If Mr. Drona had asked me to do something that was wrong, I wouldn't have done it. But this was the right thing to do."

Yudhisthira nodded, slowly. Then he turned toward Grandpa Bhisma. "Then I do not think that he should be punished."

Bhisma glared down his nose at Yudhisthira. "Why not?"

"Because he did the right thing to do, even knowing what he was risking in doing so."

"He believes he did the right thing," Bhisma countered. "An individual's convictions of right and wrong can be asinine. You of all people should understand that."

"Granted." Yudhisthira nodded respectfully. "But I have my own judgment in this matter, too. And I agree with my brother."

Bhisma was now looking at Yudhisthira very carefully, but saying nothing.

"Another thing which you taught me," Yudhisthira said, pulling his hand away from Arjuna's shoulder, pressing his hands together, and bowing respectfully to Bhisma, "is that for a king, there is no higher virtue than forgiveness."

"Blind forgiveness is foolishness."

"But my judgment is not blind." Arjuna had never seen his brother speak in such a way before - soft and respectful, but absolutely rock-hard and unmoving in his opinion. "I know that my brother is young, but he is also strong and wise. I trust that he would not have committed such actions lightly."

Another long, thoughtful silence from Grandpa Bhisma. Finally, Bhisma said quietly, "The last I can recall, you were often quite vocal in your criticism of that Panchalan priest's influence on Arjuna."

"But a person's opinion can change," Yudhisthira pointed out. "That was before I realized how much that man has helped Arjuna grow up." He turned and took a step toward the door. "Come with me, Arjuna. We're done here."

Arjuna stood up out of his seat, tentatively. "Does this mean that I'm not being punished?"

"Ah... Not entirely." Yudhisthira paused in front of the study door, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "I don't know what kind of guilt trip Grandpa Bhisma was giving you, but I can guarantee you that Mother has a worse one waiting for you."

Arjuna groaned, but slunk guiltily away from his Grandfather's cold, penetrating gaze.

"Come on," Yudhisthira said softly, placing a hand on Arjuna's shoulder and steering him away from Grandpa Bhisma.


To be continued.