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!
Bhisma watched Arjuna and Yudhisthira leave, closing the door behind them. Then he finally sat down at his desk, sighing as his old, old bones settled into the chair. He clicked on his desktop comm unit and leaned over its speaker, waiting to hear Vidura's voice on the other end.
"Yes?" Vidura asked.
"I want a report," Bhisma said, stating the obvious. Otherwise he wouldn't have bothered calling.
"Mrs. Kripi keeps looking right at the cameras we have installed in the home," Vidura said. "They must know that they're there."
"I'm not surprised." Drona always seemed three steps ahead of them, somehow.
"But other than that, they're just sitting around and talking. Sanjaya is here with me now. The other guards are posted outside the home... The audio fritzed out on us nearly thirty minutes ago, though."
Again, not surprised.
"But we still have visual," Vidura said.
Because Drona wants us to know that Drupada isn't being harmed.
"They're just talking, though. It looks fairly civil. Oh, wait..." Vidura fell silent.
"Yes?" Bhisma asked, a bit impatiently.
"I think that Drupada might be crying."
Bhisma didn't know what to say. Finally he rested his chin on his folded hands and said, "Vidura."
"I realize that this may not be the best time, but I need you to send a word to your brother for me."
"Tell him that my decision is final, and that I will not tolerate him delaying the inevitable any longer."
Bhisma could hear Vidura swallowing nervously on the other end of the comm. "Is this about...?" The problem seemed so momentous that Vidura would not even bring himself to say it.
"Absolutely. I've chosen Yudhisthira."
"But why?!" Vidura suddenly blurted out.
"Because," Bhisma said, a small smile playing on his lips for the first time in days, "today, he finally had the courage to stand up to me."
Bhisma turned off the comm unit and massaged his knuckles, cracking them gently. He supposed he should turn in for the night. Let the drama between the Panchalan king and his priest play out as it would. Bhisma would have to confront Dhritarashtra in the morning.
"You can't do this to him," Dhritarashtra said. He was breathing slowly and deeply, his hands clenched. "You know how much this means to him. And I'm not sure if Yudhisthira even wants--"
"This isn't about which one wants the throne more," Bhisma said.
"You can't expect me to announce this now. The Panchalans are still here!"
"Oh, absolutely." Bhisma wrapped a white curl from his beard thoughtfully around his finger. "We ought to wait until Drupada's sons arrive from Madra. That will be tonight. So, then," he finished cheerfully, "you can make the announcement tomorrow. It will be quite the auspicious occasion, with Panchalan royalty visiting us."
" 'Visiting' is an… interesting… way of putting it."
"I think this invasion has been officially downgraded to a visit," Bhisma said, glancing over the king's shoulder and out over the palace gardens spread below them. Down there, the Panchalan king and his bodyguards were mingling with Duryodhana and his cabinet members and the heads of Parliament, being served fine wine and networking as best they could without being distracted by the fine weather. "Duryodhana's handling Drupada well."
"Yes," Dhritarashtra agreed, pointedly. "And Yudhisthira isn't even here."
"I sent Yudhisthira and Bhima to the port. The Panchalan fleet is powering down their weapons systems today. They want to make a ceremony out of it."
"Will not be leaving the walls of this palace again, until he turns fifty." Bhisma turned away from the king, leaving him alone on his balcony overlooking the gardens. "Have fun entertaining Drupada." He started to leave the balcony, but at the last minute, out of some half-obeyed instinct, turned his head. Duryodhana, standing several stories below the balcony, was looking right up at Bhisma, his dark eyes full of hurt.
Alone in his private quarters, Bhisma sat down in front of his media console and switched it on, idly flipping through channels, wondering what the pundits were saying about Arjuna. Sanjaya could have researched and reported it for Bhisma if he had asked, but...
Bhisma's elbow bumped against something.
He started, and nearly dropped the console remote. As a muted talking head moved her mouth in a silent commentary on the screen in front of him, Bhisma turned around, wondering what he had almost knocked over. It was a rather lumpy and deformed attempt at a drinking mug, covered in garish blue glaze. Duryodhana had made it for him when he was six years old. Bhisma was using it to store his console and stereo remotes.
Bhisma sighed. Even the gods feel fit to communicate with me in clichés, he thought wearily. He picked up the mug and turned it around carefully in his trembling, veined hands. Suddenly he realized why he had been so intent on watching his console. Because if he had let himself look around his quarters at all, he would have been unable to avoid the fingerpainted, watercolored, and occasionally dried-rice-covered works of art that adorned all of his walls. All were made by Duryodhana and his brothers.
The earliest thing that Bhisma had from Yudhisthira was a fourteen-page paper about Abhasa's theories of the welfare state. Bhisma still had a copy of the same paper from Duryodhana, too - one that Bhisma had made Duryodhana rewrite no less than five times until it had been acceptable. And Duryodhana had done it each time he had been asked, too - staying up all night for several nights, if what Sama and Durmukha had told Bhisma had been correct, reading and researching until his eyes were red.
Bhisma put down the mug and stood up, walking over toward one of his many bookshelves. He pulled a worn, heavy book off the shelf and opened its inside cover, gazing at what he knew would be waiting for him inside. It was a photograph of his longest-surviving brother - the last photograph of his brother before his death - smiling and posing with his three sons, his arm wrapped around Dhritarashtra's shoulders. As usual, Dhritarashtra was smiling, but his useless eyes seemed to miss the gaze of the camera. Pandu's long bangs were blowing over his eyes, as he had, at the time, quite badly needed his hair to be trimmed. Vidura was smiling in a tight-lipped, closed way. Bhisma remembered that Vidura had lost his front tooth at that time, and had been too embarrassed to smile and show the gap in his teeth.
It was an old-fashioned photograph, the type printed on paper, not the type projected in a hologram. Bhisma kept it hidden in this book, slightly ashamed to admit that he kept such an old thing around, slightly ashamed admit that he still needed a photograph that he would be able to touch with his hands.
Bhisma gently rested the tip of his finger on his brother's face. He traced a line down to Dhritarashtra's misplaced, smiling gaze. "You won't let it happen, will you?" Bhisma asked the photograph. "You'd break even a promise to your own brother, for his sake."
Bhisma's fingertip lifted off Dhritarashtra's face, then hovered a moment over Pandu. "You can't blame him, though," Bhisma told the photograph. "If it had been you, it would have been no different. You wouldn't let me take your crown away from your son. Any more than Dhritarashtra would."
Bhisma closed the cover of the book, and the photograph was gone from his sight. He suddenly felt moody, restless. He needed to leave. And he knew where he needed to go.
"Here is fine."
The chauffeur pulled over and stopped the hoverer on the edge of the thin beach. Bhisma got out slowly, wincing at the bright sunlight. He supposed he really was getting old. He walked quietly to the edge of the beach, watching the wide river in front of him run clear and cold over its sandy bottom, fish swimming lazily against its current. Bhisma removed his shoes and rolled up the bottom of his trousers. He waded out into the river, watching the fish dart away from him, feeling the cold sand clumping between his bare toes. He closed his eyes, folded his hands, and prayed.
The touch of her hand on Bhisma's shoulder was a splash of cold water. "You haven't visited me in years," Ganga said. Bhisma opened his eyes, and saw her gathering her skirts of watergrasses around her flowing legs demurely, as she stepped away from Bhisma and sat down on the bank behind him. She gazed up at him with her dark, inhuman eyes. "You've grown old," she said.
Bhisma turned and bowed respectfully in front of her. "Mother," he said.
"The mountains that feed me are cold," she said. Her voice gurgled and echoed with the rush of distant waterfalls. "It makes me feel old, too, this time of year. I do not like it much. But the life inside of me is more warm and alive now than any other time." She looked across the river - across herself - gazing with her deva-eyes at the teeming masses of fish swimming through her. "They're meeting and mating and creating. Isn't that wonderful?" Her eyelashes fluttered wetly. "I remember when I did as much with your father. He was nice, for a human. He smelled good." She glanced over at Bhisma again. "You're troubled."
"Then you've probably heard by now."
"I hear everything that the humans tell me," she said. "They warned me that you would have to choose between two princes to rule your human world." She wove water-bugs into her hair. "Yudhisthira was born of my kind. There is a part of him that is not human. Duryodhana was born of the other kind." She seemed to shiver for a moment, a wet shimmering flicker from head to toe. "But you raised him to have a human heart."
Bhisma, forgetting his deference, splashed toward her quickly. "What do you mean, Duryodhana was born of the 'other' kind?"
She paused, and pulled her hands out of her half-braided hair. She looked Bhisma directly in his eyes, and her face grew dark. "You know that Duryodhana and his brothers were not conceived by human means. They were not conceived by our means, either. We devas have been watching over him. We are afraid of what power might have brought him into the world, and we do not know what that power is. But we do know that only the asuras have the power to blind us to their doings." Ganga folded her hands in her lap. "But we are glad, that you and your brother's son raised that child. We believe that your love has protected him."
Bhisma sat down heavily beside her, and looked away, unable to bear her divine gaze for a moment longer. "I didn't want him to be born, you know," he said, softly. "I told Dhritarashtra to..." Bhisma hung his head sadly. "That would have been a mistake. That would have been the biggest mistake that I could have ever made. If Dhritarashtra hadn't stopped me... I still think about it, sometimes. It haunts me, I suppose. I look at Duryodhana's face and I remember that I almost stopped him from being."
Ganga watched her son silently. Bhisma wanted to bury his face in his hands, to hide from her. But to do so would have been even worse than enduring her silent, penetrating gaze.
Finally, Ganga said, "You may like Yudhisthira more than Duryodhana, but you love Duryodhana more than you love Yudhisthira."
Bhisma nodded, slowly. "I have this nightmare, that someday Duryodhana will find out about what I told Dhritarashtra the night that we discovered what was growing in the Queen's womb. I have this nightmare that he will find out, and that he'll never forgive me."
"He may not ever forgive you for choosing Yudhisthira over him," Ganga said, pointedly. Her voice rustled with watergrass and echoed loudly across the river banks. "Are you prepared for that?"
"I tell myself that I am." Bhisma shook his head slowly. "But what if this is another of my mistakes?"
"You are unsure of your choice?"
Bhisma shook his head again. "I am certain of my choice. I can feel it, in my bones. But I felt the same way that night thirty years ago."
Ganga dipped her fingers in her own waters, teasing the fish that swam up to suck at her fingertips. "And?" she asked him. "You wish for me to tell you what to do?"
"Does it matter what I do?" Bhisma asked. "I'm already fairly certain that Dhritarashtra isn't going to stand by his word to honor my choice. And that worries me, because, lately... Duryodhana..." He paused, unsure of how to put his suspicions in words. Duryodhana what, exactly?
"Duryodhana is cold," Ganga said.
Bhisma looked over at her curiously, but she offered no further comment.
"When I speak to him," Bhisma went on, "he has this look about him. This look like he's hiding something. I remember Vidura had that same look growing up, when he was hiding all of those trashy science-fiction magazines in his room. A look as if he had something to be ashamed of."
"Magazines?" Ganga's laughter splashed across the river valley. "Perhaps a love affair? Bhisma, your grandson may well be deeply ashamed of something entirely innocent."
"I hope it is a love affair," Bhisma said. "Somehow I would feel better about him if I knew that he could fall in love."
"Or he might have already, if you had not worked him so hard. The same for the other one."
Bhisma started. He was not used to hearing Ganga sound even remotely like a human mother.
"More than worrying about Duryodhana, you seem to doubt Yudhisthira."
Bhisma frowned. "Who wouldn't? He has none of Duryodhana's charisma and very little of his leadership abilities."
Ganga laughed again. She watched a waterbug dancing across the back of her flowing hand. "You chose that one anyway?" She splashed a bit as she seemed to begin to stand up, then began flowing back into the river waters. "I know that you have your reasons."
"He drinks and smokes uncontrollably," Bhisma began, checking off on his fingers, "he can't hold an audience's attention for more than thirty seconds, he's dull in person and even more boring on the media console--"
"You are not making a convincing case."
"And all of that," Bhisma finished, "is because he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Because he actually cares about what happens to this planet and its people. And I don't know if I can say the same about Duryodhana. At least I can know in my bones that it's true for Yudhisthira." Bhisma paused. "We will have to do something about the smoking, though."
Ganga waded further down back into herself, turning her head toward Bhisma one last time. "It is the same to us either way," she said. "You will make the right choice. Oh Bhisma, you poor soul… You truly are my most misfortunate child. For you are the only one who still survives."
It had been a long drive out to the river, and it seemed like an even longer drive back. By the time that Bhisma returned to Hastinapura, it was late in the evening. He found Sanjaya before he could find the king.
"Drupada's sons are here," Sanjaya reported. "They--"
"Tomorrow. If they're waiting to see me, I'll see them tomorrow."
"...Right. I'll tell them."
Bhisma left Sanjaya to deliver his message, without even bothering to ask where Dhritarashtra had gone off to. He had a good idea. Bhisma decided to take a shortcut through a secluded part of the gardens, hoping to save some time and breathe in some night air to clear his head--
No such luck. Bhisma's shortcut was currently occupied.
"It'sh BHISMA!" Drupada roared out, sloshing most of a bottle of wine over his robes. "Bhisma, come'an drin wih us, you old basdard." He had his arm around Drona, who laughed and hiccupped something in an old Panchalan dialect that Bhisma had not ever heard him use when sober.
"I really can't--"
"But see, this guy--" Drona made a valiant attempt to point at Drupada, and ended up smashing his hand into Drupada's beard instead. "You don't say no to this guy, he'll, he'll behead you--"
"I'll behead you--"
"'Cause he'sh the king--"
"I don't drink," Bhisma said.
"Shuddup an' sih down," Drupada snarled. "Thissis bonding."
Bhisma decided that he did not want to provoke the drunk old man any further, so he sat down on the grass beside where the two of them were currently sprawled. Bhisma managed to grab the bottle of wine out of Drupada's hand before the old king could manage to spill it all over Bhisma's clothes.
"Toast!" Drona cried, popping open another bottle of wine. None of the three of them had glasses, and two of them didn't care. "To..." Drona trailed off, frowning, having already forgotten what he was supposed to be toasting.
"You know what?" Drupada drawled, poking his finger into Drona's chest. "You know what?"
"Your son," Drupada hiccuped. "He hatesh me."
"Your son," Drona answered, managing to tilt his bottle in such a way as to pour most of his wine over his legs, "ish shuppos'd to kill me." He swayed for a moment, dangerously close to falling over into Drupada's lap. "Or shome...thing."
"Oh yeah.... The deash vow." Drupada paused, then with a great deal of effort, mustered up the coordination to pronounce the word properly. "Death vow."
"Any chansh...?" Drona was swooning too much to finish the question.
Drupada at least had the presence of mind to squeeze his hand on Drona's shoulder tightly, bringing him temporarily back to the present. "Noooooo," Drupada answered, licking a fresh gulp of wine off his lips. "'Sh a deash vow. Can't take ih back."
"Awwww...." Drona sounded disappointed.
Bhisma waited for either of them to remember or notice that he was there. Suddenly, it seemed as if Drupada did. He turned his head blearily toward Bhisma and slurred, "You should be ha, ha, happy, Bhisma. You won."
Bhisma shook his head. "I don't know what--"
"Don you sit there an' act all shtupid," Drupada yelled, suddenly jabbing an accusing finger drunkenly in Bhisma's face. "You…"
Drona's chin slid down to his chest. Drupada finally let go of his shoulder, and Drona slumped over forward and fell silent.
"Look ah thish guy," Drupada hiccupped again, shaking Drona's shoulders. "Older'n me an still ca, can't holdish liquor."
"I don't think that priests are supposed to be able to hold their liquor," Bhisma said. Older than Drupada?! Bhisma glanced down at Drona's slumbering, twisted body, which was mostly hidden in the nighttime shadows of the garden. One more thing that both Drona's biological records - and appearance - lied about. Drona looked barely old enough to even be Ashwatthama's father.
Drupada saw the line of Bhisma's gaze, and grinned sloppily at him. "Ish too. Older'n me an' you. He wash my fathersh' gift to me when I was ten. He wash elevenen." Drupada held up one finger, managing to barely hold it relatively straight. "One year oldern' me. Allmosh same age ash you."
Bhisma nodded slowly.
"Annow lookah you. Your gran, gran, grandsons alreadygrown up." Drupada hiccupped. "You'll have gr-gr-greatgrand....somethin's soon." He shook his head slowly, shakily. "I only have a son..." He paused for a long moment, wrinkling his brow, trying to remember something. "Sons. Two ovem. Mmm. 'Cause I wha, wha, waited so long..." He hiccupped again. Bhisma hoped that none of this was a warning of a more dire bodily function to come. "Gonna have my own grandsons soon..." Drupada smiled dreamily at his bottle of wine. " Sikhandhi's gennin' married next year. My liddle girl gennin' married!" He laughed, loud and wetly. "Gonna be a good fa-fa-father. My Sikhandhi."
"Sikhandhi..." Drona murmured sleepily.
"Well," Bhisma said brusquely, standing up hastily, "I really am on an errand--"
"WAIT!" Drupada suddenly shouted.
Bhisma waited. "Yes?" he asked, impatiently.
"I jus goh the gr-gr-greatest idea. Ever!" Drupada amazingly managed to stand up, to sway at eye-level with Bhisma. He seemed wild, excited, possessed by the stupefying greatness of his thought. "They should geh married!"
"Thah prince, whashisname, Arjuna. He'sha good kid. Smart," Drupada said, somehow managing to successfully tap his head. "An' strong. An' good."
"Arjuna?! But he abducted you--"
"Bah," Drupada spat, waving his hand dismissively.
Somewhere below Drupada, Drona stirred and moaned. He sat up slowly, and immediately reached for another half-empty bottle of wine. "Whassit now?" he asked blearily, only vaguely aware that the conversation seemed to have progressed without him. He took a long, slow gulp from the wine bottle he was holding.
"I figgeruhed ih out!" Drupada shouted, waving his arms at Drona and swaying dangerously on his feet. "They're gonna geh married!"
"Who?" Drona and Bhisma asked, again.
"Ar, ju, na," Drupada said, punctuating each syllable with a wobbly jab of his finger into the air, "an' Draupadi."
Drona spit out wine all over Drupada's legs.
"I'm sorry," the guard said politely, "but the king won't be disturbed at this time."
Bhisma gave the guard a long look.
"B-B-But I'm sure that he can make an exception for you, Your Highness," the guard said nervously. He escorted Bhisma into the king's private chambers.
Gandhari was reclining on a couch, her fingers running over the raised surface of the pages of a book. "Bhisma?" she asked, when Bhisma approached. "If you're looking for my husband, he's on the balcony. With Duryodhana."
Bhisma appreciated the warning, but of course could not say as much.
Gandhari seemed to understand regardless. "If you're planning to attempt to talk some sense into either of them, my prayers are with you." She sniffled a little bit, in an absent-minded way. Bhisma wondered if she had been crying. Her blindfold hid her eyes, however.
When Bhisma stepped out onto the cool balcony upon which the king was sitting, Duryodhana was just stepping out. He passed by Bhisma quickly, not even bothering to look up or acknowledge Bhisma's presence. Bhisma caught a glimpse of his face, and it was dark.
When Duryodhana was gone, Dhritarashtra finally turned his head toward Bhisma and said, "The announcement is tomorrow at noon. The Panchalans have already been informed."
Bhisma nodded, even though he knew that Dhritarashtra could not see this. "The council and I will be eager to see the reaction to our choice."
"Your choice. Yes."
"You made a promise," Bhisma said, almost pleadingly. "To your brother. You promised Pandu that you would honor my choice."
Dhritarashtra turned his face toward the night sky and said, "Pandu would understand, more than anyone."
Bhisma shivered. Dhritarashtra's words only confirmed what he feared.
"It seems a good idea, making this announcement while the Panchalans are here," Dhritarashtra went on, conversationally. "Making peace with the Panchalans would create a fine historic moment, if we could find some way to symbolically do so..." He turned his face back toward Bhisma. "Marriage, perhaps? Draupadi would make a good wife for Duryodhana." He turned away from Bhisma. "I wish to retire to bed. Please leave me be."
Bhisma left without saying another word. He passed by Gandhari on his way out. She was still sitting where he had left her, her hand still resting on the same page of her book. "Bhisma," she muttered with a frown. "You didn't even try."
To be continued.