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 SEVEN: DIVIDED


"I know about Grandpa Bhisma's decision."

Those were the first words that Duryodhana said - more like angrily spat - as he stomped onto the balcony where his father was sitting. Dhritarashtra sighed and turned toward his son. Duryodhana was breathing heavily, radiating heat and the smells of fear and anger.

"Duryodhana--"

"Why not me?!" Duryodhana suddenly cried out, his voice breaking. "What was wrong with me?! What did I do wrong?!" Then he was back to fuming. "Grandpa Bhisma never told me that I was doing anything wrong! He only chose Yudhisthira because he's a devakin, you know that's what this is about, they're going to put him on my throne just because he was born with a bunch of stupid marks on his back and you all think that makes him better than me--"

"Duryodhana," Dhritarashtra said, sternly. He had not heard his son make such an outburst since he had been thirteen years old. It was ugly to hear, and painful to listen to.

"But it's true!" Duryodhana leaned over and grasped his father's shoulders. "That's how Grandpa Bhisma and the High Council think! They wouldn't let you have the throne just because you couldn't see! And now they're not going to let me have the throne just because I wasn't born with--"

"Duryodhana, that's enough." Dhritarashtra reached out and gently, firmly pushed Duryodhana away from him. "Do not speak like that about your grandfather."

Duryodhana was silent for a moment, then Dhritarashtra heard him slumping to the floor. He knelt in front of his father, deflated, dejected. "It's because of me, then. It's because I wasn't good enough." He trembled. "I don't understand, I don't understand. What was wrong with me? What was I missing? I don't understand." He buried his face in his hands, muffling his voice. "I worked so hard... I did everything that Grandpa Bhisma taught me to..."

"Duryodhana, sometimes..." Dhritarashtra trailed off, praying that what he was about to say wouldn't come out as trite as it sounded in his head. "Sometimes even when we want something very badly, even when we work hard towards that goal, even then--"

"But that's not fair!" Duryodhana protested angrily, standing up again. "And besides, you promised me! Grandpa Bhisma promised me, too! You both promised me that I would become the next king!"

"That was before we knew that Pandu--"

"Yudhisthira can't do it! The Council only supports him because he's a devakin, but the Parliament doesn't support him, the people don't support him, you know as well as I do what a weak ruler he'll make!"

"Lord Bhisma," Dhritarashtra said, slowly, pointedly, "has made this decision after many years - decades, even - of careful thought. Are you accusing your grandfather of making an unwise decision?"

"Yes!" Duryodhana breathed in and out heavily. "I should be the one on that throne. You know that I should be the one on that throne."

Dhritarashtra said nothing. What good would it do, to admit that he agreed? It would only add fuel to the fire in Duryodhana's heart.

"Just like you knew that you should have been the one on the throne instead of Pandu," Duryodhana pressed on, relentlessly. "But Grandpa Bhisma chose Uncle Pandu anyway."

Dhritarashtra's lower lip trembled. "That was not Bhisma's decision. That was the High Council."

"They're all the same devils." Duryodhana's voice was clenched and angry. "You have to stop this, Father! This is unjust and you know it. This is not right and you know it. You were the one who always told me that a king has to stand up and do the right thing, no matter what the sacrifice!"

"I made a promise to my brother," Dhritarashtra said. His voice sounded hollow, even to his own ears. "It would be wrong to break it."

"No, Father." Duryodhana reached out and grasped his father's hands tightly in his own. "I love you, Father," he said, his voice breaking. "I love you and I promise you that I will be a king worthy of you. But please, please, please don't let them do this to us. Don't sit down and let them deny us our rights any longer. Not just for us, but for all of Kuru." He slid his hands away from Dhritarashtra's. "This planet is not safe in Yudhisthira's hands. He isn't strong enough to protect it. You know that."

Dhritarashtra didn't say anything. He couldn't say anything.

Duryodhana stepped away from him. "Grandpa Bhisma is here," he said, softly. Then he left without another word.

Dhritarashtra heard Bhisma approaching him. "The announcement is tomorrow at noon. The Panchalans have already been informed," he said.


II.

Duryodhana slumped down on top of his bed and buried his face in his hands. He had not cried in front of his father, but it had taken every bit of self-control that he had in order to not do so. Now, he was spent and exhausted. He leaned forward and wept bitterly.

He had told many lies over the years - small lies, white lies - to his mother, to his father, to Grandpa Bhisma, to Uncle Vidura. But he had not told a single lie while with his father on the balcony that night. And he had never lied about how much he loved any of them.

He deserved the throne. He knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was a better king than Yudhisthira.

Then why can't Grandpa Bhisma see that?!

Duryodhana felt his tears coming hot and fast, his face contorting with grief and rage. Thirty years - his entire lifetime - spent worshipping and adoring Grandpa Bhisma, laboring long and hard over so many sleepless nights to finish the perfect homework assignment, the perfect speech, the perfect budget plan, the perfect anything. A lifetime spent watching for, desperate for, those rare and wonderful words of approval.

And he doesn't care--

He chose Yudhisthira instead.

I loved him and I listened to him and

he chose Yudhisthira instead

I am strong I am loved I am smart and

he chose Yudhisthira instead

and maybe I lied to him sometimes but I had to because of this ice that started

when Yudhisthira came

and he always loved me the best

until Yudhisthira came

and I was the greatest swordsman on Kuru

until Bhima came

and I was the strong and great warrior who would protect this family and bring them fame and honor

until Arjuna came

and everyone thinks they're so great and they're so special just because they were born as devakin and it's not fair it's not my fault I was born with ice just because I was born

from the asuras--

Duryodhana did not realize that he was screaming and tearing apart his pillow and beddings, until there were shreds of fabric and feathers floating all around him.

Duryodhana forced himself to calm down. He closed his mouth, licked his lips, and wondered if the guards posted outside his door would enter to see what was the matter. After a few moments, they didn't.

"You were right," Duryodhana croaked hoarsely, at the shadows that no longer came to visit him. "The devakin. They are my enemies. They were created just to take away what's mine."

Bhisma, the shadows had said, on that night long ago, pawn of the devas. Yudhisthira, created to deny you your destiny.

Duryodhana clenched the ruins of his pillow in his hands. Ice crackled beneath his fingertips. He loved his grandfather. He loved his father. And he had faith in both of them, still, even though perhaps it was foolish to believe in them any longer.

Duryodhana laughed, bitterly. Blind, foolish love. Of course, he was just as susceptible to it as any other human. He would wait, then. He would believe in his father - for one more night - and he would wait. Perhaps his father would finally stand up to Bhisma during the announcement tomorrow.

Duryodhana hoped that such would be the case. If not, though...

The day will come when you will have to fight for what is rightfully yours, the shadows had also said.

A part of Duryodhana still prayed that such a day would never come. A part of him still prayed that he could not trust what the shadow-things had said to him. A part of him still prayed, fervently, that his father would protect him, that Grandpa Bhisma would give him his crown and cry and tell him how proud he was, that Yudhisthira would just slink back into the forest from which he had come and vanish forever.


III.

Yudhisthira spent much of the following morning trying to ignore the distinct sensation that his heart had migrated to the back of his throat.

"It won't be me," he moaned for the umpteenth time, as tailors and dressers pawed at his robes and the ornate monstrosity on top of his head. "If nothing else, at least you can look good in an outfit like this."

"Nobody can look good in an outfit like this," Duryodhana answered bitterly, staring at himself in a mirror. His robes were identical to Yudhisthira's - layers of gaudy color upon gaudy color, weighed down with useless jewels - and the thing on top of his head, strange and angular shapes of contrasting hues, looked more like it had been designed by a pretentious, postmodern architect rather than a hatmaker. "Who chose these awful things, anyway?"

"Tradition, Your Highness," one of Duryodhana's tailors said. "These robes were worn by your great-grandfather when he--"

"They haven't aged well," Duryodhana cut off the tailor, curtly.

"It won't be me," Yudhisthira moaned, again.

Duryodhana turned toward him, and flashed him his best charismatic grin. "Don't be so sure," he said. "I heard the odds in the palace betting pool are in your favor."

"Actually..." Yudhisthira shuffled his feet nervously, as two more servants fastened his not-quite-hat to his hair. "The odds in the palace betting pool are one hundred to one for me..."

"How do you know that?"

Yudhisthira coughed, nervously.

Duryodhana tsked. "One vice at a time, please." He laughed. "Remember our promise? Whatever happens now, you and I are going to go out and celebrate together. With drinking. I won't have you dying of alcohol poisoning on my first official night as the king, understood?"

Uncle Vidura popped his head in and out of the dressing parlor almost too fast for Yudhisthira to even register that he had been there. "Five minutes," he said.

As if on cue, the tailors and dressers fell back and vanished. Yudhisthira was left alone in the room with Duryodhana, his heart thumping in his throat. Duryodhana, however, looked calm and confident. As always. Yudhisthira envied him.

Duryodhana glanced over at his cousin. "You have rings under your eyes," he said. He glanced around the room, frowning. "Did that makeup woman leave already?"

"I couldn't sleep," Yudhisthira admitted.

"Neither could I." Duryodhana reached out and grasped Yudhisthira's hand, squeezing it tightly. "But this is it, huh?"

"Yes... This is it." Yudhisthira took a deep breath. "Don't forget our promise."

"Never."

Yudhisthira squeezed Duryodhana's hand back. He remembered the promise that he and his cousin had made to each other on a starlit night decades ago. You are my family and my dear friend and I will love you forever, he thought, gazing at Duryodhana silently.

Duryodhana turned his head and grinned at Yudhisthira, as if reading his thoughts. Yudhisthira felt his heart sink a little bit closer back toward its normal spot in his chest. It felt good, knowing that Duryodhana felt the same way that he did.


IV.

Arjuna swallowed nervously when he saw the rows upon rows of console cameras lined up along both sides of the Great Hall, ominously humming black and silver contraptions perched upon a veritable forest of spindly black legs. The reporters and photographers swarming around in that forest, despite the hungry, predatory look in their eyes, looked positively benign by comparison.

When he saw the cameras, Nakula brushed a lock of his hair back from his forehead and urgently hissed at Arjuna, "How do I look?"

"Identical to Sahadeva."

"Ha, ha. Very funny." Nakula pouted for a moment, then remembered that he was in front of the cameras, and looked princely again. Behind him, Sahadeva had the presence of mind to cease humming whatever strange, self-composed tune he had been humming for the past thirty minutes.

Bhima led Arjuna through the crowd gathering in the Great Hall - it was rather easy for Arjuna to follow along behind Bhima's considerable wake, after all - and towards the seating area on the far end. "Mother sits opposite of us," he mumbled, reminding himself as he walked, "Uncle Vidura three seats down, the Prime Minister on our side, the High Council Chief with Dusshasana, the--"

"HEY, OVER HERE!"

Bhima stopped in his tracks. Most of the crowd paused, actually, at the sound of the very un-prince-like voice cutting across the Hall. Arjuna turned his head and saw Sikhandhi, standing in front of a row of empty seats and waving his arms enthusiastically. "Hey Arjuna, hey Bhima!" he shouted across the hall. "Come and sit over here! Best seats in the house!"

Bhima shrugged. "I think those were supposed to be our seats anyway."

But as they approached Sikhandhi, Arjuna saw that he wasn't alone. Draupadi and Dhristadumnya were sitting down on the end of a row of seats behind Sikhandhi, glaring down at Arjuna with identical expressions of cold, sullen fury. Then Arjuna saw Sikhandhi turn and say something to Ashwatthama, who was sitting beside him. Ashwatthama laughed and answered in Panchalan. Arjuna was relieved to be able to focus on Ashwatthama instead of the other two sitting behind him.

Sikhandhi was running forward to meet them before they could reach the seats. He bypassed Bhima completely - not an easy feat - and threw his arms around Arjuna, as if he were hugging his own long-lost brother. "Arjuna!" he cried out, whirling him around. "I missed you so much--!"

"You aren't mad at me?" Arjuna managed to gasp, once Sikhandhi had put him down and he had found his footing again.

"Huh? For what?"

Unbelievable, Arjuna though numbly, as he allowed Sikhandhi and Bhima to lead him over to the seats. Ashwatthama was already helping Sahadeva step over an empty seat to reach the row that they would be sitting in. "You aren't sitting with Mr. Dhaumya?" Sahadeva asked.

Ashwatthama shook his head. "Sikhandhi invited me to sit here."

Sikhandhi threw his arm around Ashwatthama, who gamely managed not to flinch. "Ashwatthama and I are like brothers," he declared. "And our parents are like and old married couple who finally realized how pointless it is that one of them has been sleeping on the couch for the past decade. Or two."

Ashwatthama laughed nervously, clearly not agreeing at all. But Sikhandhi seemed not to notice. He pulled his arm away from Ashwatthama and sat down beside Bhima. Arjuna crawled around Bhima's knees and noticed, with a sinking feeling of dismay, that now he was the only one left standing. And the only empty seat left was between Sikhandhi and Ashwatthama, right in front of Draupadi. Arjuna pointedly did not look behind himself as he sat down.

Sikhandhi, of course, turned immediately around and loudly scolded his younger siblings. "You two are being rude," he admonished. "You haven't even greeted our hosts yet."

Dhristadumnya turned his head and glared at the wall to his left. But Draupadi nodded her head stiffly down at Arjuna and said tersely, "Thank you for having us."

Arjuna stared up at her. She was wearing a formal dress almost the exact same color as her blue-black hair, which hugged and flowed down the length of her body--

Do not stare at her cleavage do not stare at her cleavage do not--

"You're welcome," Bhima finally said, a bit pointedly. Arjuna started, and turned away from Draupadi without saying anything. He had forgotten that Draupadi should have been addressing Bhima in the first place. Bhima was older than Arjuna, after all.

"Don't mind them," Sikhandhi said, leaning over toward Arjuna. "Draupadi's just upset that you humiliated her and her little spacefleet. And Dhristadumnya is upset because we were supposed to meet with your grandfather last night for a private audience, but he cancelled."

"Grandpa Bhisma did?"

"I'm sure he had too much to do, preparing for today," Sikhandhi said, sympathetically. "Still, I have to admit, I'm dying to meet this 'Bhisma' that my father is always going on about."

"There they are," Ashwatthama said, suddenly, pointing across the Hall. Arjuna looked and saw his mother and Queen Gandhari enter and take their seats at the head of the Hall, holding each others' hands. Behind them filed in Vidura, Drupada, Mr. Drona and Kripi, Mr. Kripa, and the Prime Minister and the Chief of the High Council. Drupada looked up and across at them. Arjuna saw Ashwatthama stiffen and look away. Then Drupada looked directly at Sikhandhi, and winked.

Sikhandhi laughed. "Oh, no."

"What?" Arjuna asked nervously.

"I've seen that look on Father's face before. He's playing matchmaker again. I wonder who will be the victims this time. Speaking of which..." He rummaged around inside his formal robes, and then triumphantly pulled out a fingernail-sized datadisc. "Here," he said, handing it over to Bhima. "You're all invited to my wedding. Six months from now."

"You're getting married?" Nakula asked.

"Yes, and it's all my father's fault," Sikhandhi responded cheerfully. He turned to Ashwatthama. "You should be grateful to him, too. My father is the one who hooked your parents up with each other."

"Thankful. Right." Ashwatthama looked away from them again.

"I don't know if I would ever want to get married," Sahadeva commented. "You wouldn't be able to go on dates with anyone anymore."

"But princes can take more than one wife," Nakula pointed out. "Like Father did."

"I'm going to have five wives before I die," Sikhandhi said, leaning back contentedly in his seat.

"That's sick," Draupadi said from behind Arjuna.

"How so?" Bhima asked, turning around to face her.

Arjuna listened for a moment as Sikhandhi and his brothers and Draupadi started a debate about a topic that he absolutely did not want to be thinking about. Instead, he leaned over toward Ashwatthama, who was sitting tense and stiff with his hands clenched in his lap. "You keep staring at Drupada," Arjuna whispered.

"Is it that obvious?" Ashwatthama asked, with a wan smile. He sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm just not used to..." He trailed off.

"Not used to what?"

"Hating." Ashwatthama's face darkened. "It hurts. Hating someone hurts. But I don't know if I can make myself stop."

Arjuna didn't know what to say. Finally he swallowed and said, "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault." Ashwatthama shook his head. "You did the right thing, bringing Drupada here. My father asked you to."

"I agree," Draupadi suddenly said, leaning forward between them.

Arjuna started. A cascade of her curled dark hair nearly fell right in his face. She turned her dark eyes toward him, her painted lips pursed. "You may be an idiot, Prince Arjuna, but as long as you were fulfilling your dakshina, then..." She seemed to momentarily choke on her own words, her face grimacing with distaste. But the moment passed. "You were acting honorably. And I suppose I should not be angry with you."

"Uh," Arjuna said, eloquently. Was this an apology? Arjuna stared at Draupadi's face, and willed himself not to wonder what her breasts looked like when she was leaning over that way.

She raised one trimmed eyebrow at him. "Is that all that you have to say for yourself?"

"Ummm...."

Draupadi sighed impatiently, and straightened up, settling back into her seat.

"Smooth," Bhima whispered, rather loudly, from the other side of Sikhandhi.

Arjuna opened his mouth to come up with what he hoped was a witty reply, but then the Hall fell silent, and Arjuna realized that he had been saved from having to make a clever retort. All faces turned toward the front of the Hall, where Bhisma was entering, leading the king's hand as the two of them marched stately across the Hall. Yudhisthira and Duryodhana followed behind them, hand in hand.

Suddenly, Arjuna felt a hand clench at his knee. It was Sikhandhi's. Arjuna turned and saw Sikhandhi, eyes wide and mouth working silently, his face lit up in ghastly colors as the cameras lining the bottom level of the Hall flashed ceaselessly, beaming images of Yudhisthira and Duryodhana and their ridiculous matching hats all over the planet. Sikhandhi's eyes were fixed on Bhisma, his burning gaze following the old man as he walked across the hall.

"Arjuna," Sikhandhi croaked. His strong, viselike hand threatened to crush Arjuna's kneecap. Arjuna winced in pain. "Arjuna, who is that down there?" Sikhandhi whispered. "Who is that leading the king?"

"That's Grandpa Bhisma," Arjuna said, trying in vain to pry Sikhandhi's fingers off his knee without being conspicuous about it.

"That's Bhisma?"

Suddenly Bhima's hand was there too, mercifully pulling Sikhandhi's hand off Arjuna's knee. Arjuna breathed a sigh of relief as Bhima forcefully but subtly twisted Sikhandhi's arm. "Is something the matter?" Bhima asked, darkly.

Arjuna sensed more than saw Dhristadumnya behind him, leaning forward and about to tell Bhima to let go of his brother. Arjuna saw the reporters down below, a few of them beginning to point up at the chairs where they were sitting. A scene, he thought, beginning to panic. We're going to make a scene!

But Sikhandhi, thankfully, defused the scene before it could begin. He laughed softly, and pulled his hand out of Bhima's. "I'm sorry," he whispered, embarrassed. "Sometimes I have these moments, my head feels funny and I…"

"They're sitting," Ashwatthama said suddenly. "This is it."

The cameras ceased their flashing. Duryodhana and Yudhisthira stood side-by-side, still holding hands, facing the throne where Dhritarashtra slowly sat down, Bhisma taking a seat beside him.

The Hall was silent. Arjuna held his breath.

Dhritarashtra folded his hands in his lap, and spoke.

"The kingdom shall be divided," he said.


V.

For a moment, Yudhisthira thought that he hadn't heard correctly. "What?" he mumbled, feeling the floor of the Hall suddenly lurch sickeningly beneath him.

"What?!" Duryodhana demanded, angrily pulling his hand away from Yudhisthira's.

"The kingdom shall be divided," Dhritarashtra said again, his voice clear and cold, "into two equal halves."

This time, rather than greeting the king's words with shocked silence, the Hall burst into an uproar. Yudhisthira felt his head swimming. He tried to focus on the scene in front of him, but then he saw the shocked, angry look on Grandpa Bhisma's face, and understood in an instant what had happened. This wasn't Grandpa Bhisma's choice. He didn't honor Grandpa Bhisma's choice!

"No," Yudhisthira mumbled.

"This is insane!" Duryodhana cried out, disregarding all pretense of formality and politeness. Cameras snapped and flashed as he ripped his hat off his head and threw it angrily to the ground in front of him. Leftover hairpins stuck out of his handsome locks at random intervals. "What are you going to do, make two completely separate governments? Will there be a border?! What in the names of the gods--?!"

A border, Yudhisthira thought, his head swimming. Passports. Visas. Two Parliaments? Two Prime Ministers? What about the courts? The spacefleet? The military? The police?

"Everything that there is, will be divided equally," Dhritarashtra went on calmly, his electronically amplified voice echoing across the loud, uproarious hall. "Duryodhana will rule the half of the planet with its capital here, in Hastinapura. Yudhisthira will take half of the existing kingdom and establish himself a new capital in the southern hemisphere."

"The southern hemisphere?!" Bhima roared angrily from the seats above the Hall, his voice cutting across the din. He stood up and stomped angrily, a gesture which caused the entire Hall to shake. "There's nothing but ice and fish down there! There's no land!"

"There are islands," Dhritarashtra answered. "And a native population."

"This is insane!" Duryodhana cried out again. "This is unheard of!" He stepped angrily in front of his father. "You can't cut my kingdom in half just because you feel sorry for him!"

By now the reporters were already beginning to break free of their cordoned-off area, heading in a wave toward Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira stood in a daze as his bodyguards appeared and began pressing around him, while the reporters began screaming questions at him. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry. This is insane, he thought, echoing Duryodhana's words in his head. This is unheard of!

"No," he mumbled, "No no no no..."

"There will be a coronation one week from today," Dhritarashtra said, speaking over the chaos that had overtaken the Hall. "I have spoken. That is all."

"Father, wait!" Duryodhana cried out. But it was no use. Dhritarashtra was already leaving, and the decision was already final.


VI.

"Are. You. Insane?!" Bhisma hissed. He followed behind Dhritarashtra as the king exited out the back passageway behind the Hall.

"I could no more deny my son his birthright than I could break a vow to my brother," Dhritarashtra answered calmly. "This was the only solution."

" 'That which is united,' " Vidura quoted, catching up to them quickly, " 'let no man, god, or asura rip asunder.' "

Dhritarashtra sighed impatiently.

"That's from the charter," Vidura said, urgently, "written when Kuru was united under Hastinapura for the first time." When Dhritarashtra still did not reply, Vidura added, desperately, "Father would never have wanted the planet divided."

Dhritarashtra suddenly stopped in his tracks. His fists clenched at his sides. "Father was a fool," he hissed, and then stomped angrily away from Vidura and Bhisma.


VII.

"The equator will mark the boundary of your territory," Sanjaya said, pointing at the dotted line ringing the flickering blue-and-green globe projected in front of them. "The largest habitable island is Khandava, in the eastern hemisphere. There's a large fishing port here." Sanjaya pointed at a cold and miserable-looking dot, located on an island that was not much more than a cold and miserable-looking dot itself, not too far from where the ice of the antarctic icecap began curlings its seeking tendrils out over Kuru's vast southern oceans. "It would probably be the best location to establish your capitol and any central government offices."

Yudhisthira sat and stared at the flickering projection, his mind and his body numb. His mother sat beside him silently. All around him sat his four brothers - Bhima and Nakula fuming in silent harmony, Arjuna fidgeting nervously, Sahadeva staring mournfully at the sad little dot of Khandava on the projected globe.

"An expedition to accompany you to Khandava is already being formed," Sanjaya went on. "It would be best if you left immediately after the coronation next week. That gives you one week to pack, and to plan, and to prepare."

Yudhisthira said nothing, and Sanjaya waited patiently.

"That is fine, Sanjaya," Yudhisthira finally said, and Sanjaya left.


VIII.

Drupada cornered Bhisma before he could enter the conference room.

"The boy," Drupada breathed quietly. "I assume that Drona has told you everything?"

Ashwatthama, Bhisma thought. "When we first arrested him. He told me the truth, although I was reluctant to believe it. The High Council knows. Ashwatthama has been chipped, the same as any devakin, and the Council is keeping a careful eye on him."

Drupada gave Bhisma a long, long look. "Who knows about his Gift?"

"Me. And select members of the Council. Dhaumya. Nobody else. His records are kept highly classified."

"Not Dhritarashtra?" Drupada asked, accusingly.

Bhisma bristled. "That's not--"

"It should be a king's prerogative to decide the fate of that boy. Or at least to know."

Bhisma gave Drupada a condescending smile. "That worked out well for you, didn't it?"

Drupada's face was dark. "You seem to underestimate the danger that that boy's very existence constitutes. A chip in his ear hardly seems to count as a safety measure." Drupada's whisper was rough and low. "A king has a duty to protect his people and his planet from unnecessary risks. When I was called upon to decide that boy's fate, I made the only decision that I could make. It was within my rights, but it was also the right thing to do." His eyes narrowed. "I expected Ashwatthama's father to disagree with me. I never, however, expected the same from you."

When Bhisma said nothing, Drupada scowled at him and said, "You've grown soft."

"Believe me when I say that such is not the case."

Drupada snorted. "You indulge your grandson in letting him buy a dangerous criminal from me. You indulge your nephew in letting him split apart your kingdom and destroy everything that you and your brothers worked for. You--"

Bhisma stepped - ahead of Drupada, which was deliberately rude - past a heavy wooden door and into a conference room where Dhaumya, Drona, Kripa, Kripi, and Ashwatthama were already waiting for them. Drupada closed his mouth immediately and pushed indignantly past Bhisma, seating himself at the head of the conference table.

"I agree that Ashwatthama is ready to pass his final exams," Dhaumya said as Bhisma sat himself down, continuing a conversation that must have started before Bhisma had arrived. "He can be appointed Yudhisthira's priest within a week, and accompany Yudhisthira's party to Khandava--"

"No," Drupada said.

Drona rolled his eyes and muttered, "Here it comes." Ashwatthama looked down at his lap, his cheeks flushing bright red. Bhisma could not tell if this was from anger, embarrassment, or both.

"I do not think," Drupada said, "that Ashwatthama should be stationed so far from Council headquarters. For safety reasons."

"Have you asked the Council their opinion?" Drona asked, pointedly.

Almost simultaneously, Dhaumya snorted angrily. "I sit on the Council--"

"Do you speak for all of them?"

"In my official capacity, yes."

"What about the two kings?" Kripa asked, reasonably. He turned toward Bhisma. "Shouldn't we wait to hear what they have to say? Dividing up the royal family's priests is not a decision reached so casually."

Bhisma looked up at the timepiece mounted on the wall across from him. "Our two illustrious kings are apparently running quite late--"

"Not much later than you," Duryodhana pointed out, dragging Yudhisthira by his arm into the conference room. Yudhisthira pushed the heavy wooden doors shut behind him and took his place at the head of the table beside Duryodhana. "By the way, just to save everyone the trouble, Yudhisthira and I decided that we're going to arm-wrestle to determine who gets to keep the current Prime Minister."

"We'll have a dice tournament for the rest of the cabinet," Yudhisthira added.

Bhisma hadn't thought that Yudhisthira was even capable of joking. About anything. At least, Bhisma hoped that he was joking. "Lord Dhaumya has informed us that Ashwatthama could be appointed as your priest before you depart for Khandava," Bhisma told Yudhisthira. "Does this sound agreeable to you?"

Drupada seemed about to object again, when suddenly Duryodhana leaned forward and said, "Wait a minute."

Ashwatthama jerked his head up, startled.

"What if I would like to keep Ashwatthama as my royal priest?" Duryodhana pointed out. "None of you even asked me what I wanted."

The entire table fell silent. Yudhisthira blinked at Duryodhana, startled.

Dhaumya cleared his throat and asked, "Am I displeasing to you, Your Highness?"

"Oh, no," Duryodhana answered quickly, "It is just that..." He turned his eyes toward Ashwatthama. "Ashwatthama is my dear, close friend. I couldn't bear the thought of him being stationed half a world away from me."

Ashwatthama opened and closed his mouth, apparently all too aware that there was no acceptable way for him to deny this. Drona looked at his son, shot a glare in Duryodhana's general direction, looked at his son again, then finally jerked his thumb toward Dhaumya and said, "There's no way that this old man could survive the journey to Khandava."

Dhaumya laughed. "Well said, well said."

Bhisma breathed a silent sigh of relief. It was a good thing that Dhaumya had a sense of humor. Well, Bhisma would see that Drona paid for that remark later.

But Drona wasn't finished. "I am still teaching Prince Arjuna," he said. "I still have much to teach him. Of course I will accompany him to Khandava. And my family - and I - wish to stay together. Please, Your Highness."

"I agree," Yudhisthira said, placing his hand on Duryodhana's shoulder. "It makes sense for Drona and his family to come with me. Lord Dhaumya can stay here. He has served your family for many years--"

"Our family," Duryodhana corrected Yudhisthira. "He is as much your priest as mine. He would do well to stay with you."

Yudhisthira withdrew his hand, slowly.

"Although of course," Duryodhana added, "I would like to hear what Ashwatthama has to say."

Ashwatthama suddenly looked very pale. Bhisma felt his hands clenching into fists. Perhaps Duryodhana was too old to be spanked, but Bhisma had never been so tempted. There was no way that Ashwatthama could refuse the king's preference. To do so would have been to irreversibly offend Duryodhana.

"I--" Ashwatthama began.

Duryodhana didn't even wait for him to finish. He turned to Yudhisthira and asked sharply, "You would be happy to have Dhaumya in your court, wouldn't you?"

Yudhisthira nodded slowly. There was also no way that he could say no to this question, without gravely insulting Dhaumya.

"Then it's settled," Duryodhana said, standing up quickly.

Fortunately, Drona and Drupada also stood up in near perfect unison. "Now wait just a minute!" Drona shouted, while Drupada growled, "Young man..."

"Sorry, but Yudhisthira and I have a meeting with the Minister of Defense. I'm sure that Grandpa Bhisma wouldn't mind if we sawed him in half," Duryodhana said, having already succeeded in dragging Yudhisthira halfway out of the room. Yudhisthira had a mildly stunned look on his face, as if he were about to be hit by an oncoming hoverer.

Bhisma stood up quickly. He reached for Yudhisthira's free arm, unsure of what exactly he planned to do - perhaps pull both kings back into the room, dislocating Yudhisthira's shoulder while he was at it? - but Duryodhana was faster, and the two of them were gone before Bhisma could properly react.

Bhisma turned back toward the table, only to find Drupada right in his face. "Are you going to let him get away with that?" Drupada hissed, angrily.

"It's all right," Ashwatthama suddenly said, loudly, from the other side of the table.

Drupada sat down slowly as Ashwatthama continued. "I would be honored to stay in Hastinapura with His Majesty. But if my family chooses to accompany Prince Arjuna to Khandava... That is all right." He smiled calmly. "Papa always said that he wanted to do some traveling."

Bhisma stared at Ashwatthama and remembered the brave, slight young man who had stared down both Duryodhana and Bhima at the weapons contest.

"Ashwatthama," Kripi suddenly said. She had been silent during the entire meeting. Ashwatthama looked up at her sharply, and she said, "Please leave the room for a moment."

"Mother--"

"Please."

Ashwatthama stood up slowly and left, closing the heavy wooden doors behind himself.

Drona paced anxiously around one end of the table while Kripi continued speaking calmly. "We often had to leave Ashwatthama alone for extended periods of time while he was growing up. But that was never more than a few days at time. He seemed stable enough, but..."

"But that was different," Drona muttered angrily from behind her. "It's not the same as leaving him alone on a royal court. On Duryodhana's court."

Bhisma thought that he should have felt insulted by the implications dripping from Drona's voice, if only he didn't half-believe that Drona may have been right. Bhisma did not like the thought of Duryodhana and Ashwatthama together. If Duryodhana found out about Ashwatthama's Gift....

Dhaumya was shaking his head slowly, sadly. "You know, don't you?" he said, looking straight at Drona. "The Council is acting under the official recommendation that Ashwatthama never be separated from his parents. We fear that he will destabilize otherwise."

Drona stopped pacing, and stood with his shoulders slumped. Kripa stood up and gently placed one hand on Drona's shoulder. "You would have never wanted to leave him anyway, right?"

Drona shook his head.

Drupada sat like a dark thundercloud on one side of Bhisma. "I agree," he rumbled. "I agree with Kuru's Council, as distasteful as I find them." Dhaumya had the good grace not to bristle. "The only way that I can consciously allow the continued existence of that boy," Drupada went on, "is knowing that his father, at least, is keeping careful watch over him."

"Then it's settled," Bhisma said, echoing Duryodhana's words. Inside, however, he was seething. In one swift move, Duryodhana had managed to separate Arjuna from his teacher.

Dhaumya muttered something into a comm that he pulled out of his robes, and a moment later, Ashwatthama was let back into the room. He stood behind Bhisma, one hand still on the handle of the door that he had walked through. Across the room, Drona managed to smile in a warm way and said, "Ashwatthama, your mother and I have decided to stay in Hastinapura with you."

Ashwatthama seemed to twitch. "You what?"

"Your mother and I are going to stay--"

"I heard," Ashwatthama said. For a moment, Drona seemed taken aback. Bhisma wondered if he had ever heard his son snap at him before. Ashwatthama clenched his fist around the door handle and mumbled, "Again."

"What was that?" Drona asked, a bit sharply.

"I ruined everything for you again," Ashwatthama snapped, and then stepped angrily back through the door, slamming it behind him.


IX.

It was the middle of the night, and the Hall was dark and silent, when Duryodhana finally was able to sit down on the throne that his father had used that morning.

Duryodhana sighed and leaned back on the silk cushions, savoring the sensation of the golden carvings upon which his arms rested. All his life, he had been watching his father sit on this throne, waiting for the day when it would be his turn to take the seat and gaze out upon the Hall before him. Duryodhana stroked the golden armrests lovingly. After the coronation in one week, the throne would be his.

Unfortunately, he would only have half a kingdom at his feet.

"Your Highness?"

Yuyutsu entered slowly, almost on tiptoe, all too aware that he was sneaking around in a way that he probably shouldn't be. The door behind the throne that he had used to enter the Hall creaked in a suspicious way.

" 'Your Majesty' would be more appropriate," Duryodhana said airily, as Yuyutsu walked in front of his - his! – throne, and bowed low.

"But your coronation isn't for another week," Karna pointed out bluntly, stepping up behind Yuyutsu. He did not bow. "Why did you send Yuyutsu to bring me here?"

"To ask you a question," Duryodhana said, leaning regally forward.

Karna raised one eyebrow at him. "And you had to be sitting on a throne to do so?"

"Why not?" Duryodhana stared down at Karna, daring him with his eyes to challenge him again.

Karna shrugged. Something in his eyes did not so much submit to Duryodhana's challenge as much as dismiss it entirely. "If it means that much to you. You're the king. I suppose."

"Nice of you to notice." Duryodhana laughed and leaned back in his throne. "I wanted to ask you about the brahmastra," he said.

Karna started. "The brahmastra?!"

Duryodhana grinned at him, a bit hungrily. "So you do know it."

"Yes," Karna said, carefully, slowly. "My teacher taught it to me. It was one of the last things that he taught me before he..." Karna seemed to sigh out his nose. "Before he finished teaching me."

"Finished?" Duryodhana waited for Karna to elaborate.

"Yes. Finished. He dismissed me and will not see me again."

"Is there a particular reason for that?"

"Yes," Karna answered, and then fell silent. Duryodhana fumed silently. There was a story here, an important story, one that Karna was not willing to tell him.

"Your Highness," Karna said, watching Duryodhana's face, perhaps sensing his anger, "I truly am sorry, Your Highness. But out of respect for my beloved teacher's wishes, I really can't tell you any more."

Duryodhana shook his head, quickly. "No matter. I only want assurance that you truly do know the brahmastra."

Karna nodded, but then added, "You do understand that the brahmastra is something that must never actually be used, don't you, Your Highness?"

"Of course, of course," Duryodhana laughed. "Indulge me in this silliness, please. I was only feeling envious that one of Yudhisthira's brothers had been taught the brahmastra..." Duryodhana watched Karna's face darken. "Yes, haven't you heard? Arjuna commands that brahmastra."

Karna started again. "But he's so young!"

"That is dangerous," Yuyutsu commented softly, finally straightening up out of his bow.

Duryodhana waved his hand dismissively. "I trust Arjuna not to do anything foolish. As I trust you, Karna," he said pointedly, "to keep my best interests in mind."

"Of course," Karna said, fervently. "Anything for you, Your Highness." But he still would not bow.

Duryodhana dismissed Karna and Yuyutsu with a wave of his hand. As they left, he slumped down into his throne and frowned at himself. He had Karna's love, but did not yet have his obedience.... Likewise, Duryodhana suspected that he had Yuyutsu's obedience, but doubted that he had Yuyutsu's love.

And Duryodhana did not want to rule merely half a kingdom for the rest of his life. His thoughts raced ceaselessly around in his head, desperately thinking of ways that he could ensure that would not have to.


X.

"Have you seen Mother?" Yudhisthira asked Bhima the next morning, while carefully folding layers of puffed bubble-wrap around his mother's favorite vase.

"She went off with Aunt Gandhari somewhere," Bhima said, lifting up a heavy couch as if it were as light as air and carrying it across the room, so that a nearby servant could scurry forward and quickly vacuum the patch of long-neglected carpet he had uncovered. "Which means that they're probably plotting something."

Yudhisthira wondered, not for the first time that week, whether someone was about to be married off to Princess Draupadi. And that someone would have to be either him or Duryodhana. It would have been unheard of for any of his younger brothers or cousins to be married first.

Yudhisthira straightened up and cracked his back. "Your Majesty," a servant said, watching him, "I can take care of--"

"Don't call me 'Your Majesty' yet," Yudhisthira said, taking his leave of the room. He had to find his mother. Really, it was her job to be overseeing the packing of their apartments anyway. Yudhisthira had more important things to do, like trying to find a replacement for the Minister of Finance that he had lost to Duryodhana in a game of dice the night before. At the time, it had seemed like the only fair option for dividing up the cabinet.

Yudhisthira checked all of the garden balconies and tea rooms, searching for his mother. Instead, however, he found Princess Draupadi, leaning out on a balustrade overlooking a wave-swept cliff below, her feet up on the lower railing of the balcony.

Yudhisthira approached her respectfully. "That's dangerous," he said.

She turned her head toward him, startled. The ocean wind whipped her long dark hair around her face. She hopped down from the railing - a rather un-princess-like move - and turned to face Yudhisthira, one hand entwined in her hair to keep it from blowing in her face. "I am hardly so foolish that I would fall into the ocean, Your Highness."

"What are you doing out here?"

"Enjoying," she said, turning her head back toward the ocean spread out below her. "We've always been so far from the ocean in Kampilya." She turned back toward him. "By the way, Your Highness, might I inquire as to the whereabouts of your brother?"

"Which one?"

"Arjuna."

Yudhisthira raised one eyebrow at her. "Are you still angry at him?"

"No. That is why I wish to see him."

"I don't know. He's been around." Yudhisthira suspected that Arjuna was off pouting somewhere. He had not taken the news that Mr. Drona would not be accompanying him to Khandava well. Yudhisthira did not understand any of the reasoning behind this decision. But then again, there was much about the Panchalans that Yudhisthira did not understand.

"If you see him," Draupadi said, her dark eyes almost pleading, "tell him that I'm waiting for him. Please."

"Of course," Yudhisthira said. Uh-oh, Yudhisthira thought.

He left Draupadi alone on the balcony. The next person Yudhisthira ran into, unfortunately, was Duryodhana.

"Don't say I never do anything for you," Duryodhana said, tossing him a datadisc that Yudhisthira barely managed to catch. "That's all of the dirt that Sanjaya could dig up on that Bhushana fellow. He looks clean. Might make a decent minister for you."

"Thank you," Yudhisthira said, pocketing the disc. "Have you seen my mother around?"

"Probably with my mother," Duryodhana said with a frown. He paused for a moment, impatiently waving his bodyguards away. Once they were gone, he drew himself closer to Yudhisthira and whispered, "You know, my mother hasn't spoken to my father since the announcement. I don't understand what she's so upset about."

Yudhisthira drew in his breath sharply. "That's terrible," he breathed. "Will they... Will they be all right?"

"Yes, yes," Duryodhana said, waving his hand dismissively. "They'll get over it. I've only seen them like this once before, and if I recall correctly, the end result of that was Yuyutsu." Duryodhana laughed, even though Yudhisthira did not think this very funny. "I'm pretty sure they'll patch things up soon. I wouldn't be surprised if I got another sibling out of this, though. And one more thing," Duryodhana added. "I want to let Ashwatthama divine our fortune at our coronation. The kid deserves it. Dhaumya probably won't mind, but I thought it might be better for you to ask him instead of me."

Yudhisthira made a small sound in the back of his throat.

"What?" Duryodhana asked, puzzled by the sudden look of terror on Yudhisthira's face.

"I almost forgot," Yudhisthira moaned. "The coronation. Our promise."

"What promise?" Duryodhana asked.

"To the yakshas." Yudhisthira buried his face in his hands. "One of them will be the one to tell our futures, remember?"


XI.

The week before the coronation passed all too quickly. Yudhisthira felt as though he barely had enough time to get his affairs in order before, all of a sudden, he was standing in the same room and being fitted for the same robes and hat by the same servants who had attended to him exactly a week ago. This time, however, Yudhisthira was relieved to be in the dressing room. He had just endured nearly twenty-four hours of fasting and purification, including having his naked body smeared with mud from sacred spots all over Kuru. Fortunately, he had also been forced to bathe in freezing-cold purified water before putting on his royal robes.

"Nobody can look good in an outfit like this," Duryodhana complained, eyeing himself in a mirror as a servant finished pinning his not-quite-hat to his hair. The mud had somehow managed to make his skin look even better than it had before. Yudhisthira envied him this.

Yudhisthira had to hold his own head steady as a wave of déjà swept over him. "Bow during the hymns," he mumbled to himself, even though Duryodhana and he had rehearsed the coronation ceremony what felt like a hundred times already. "Ignore the cameras. Remove your headpiece. Don't flinch if the water they pour on you is cold."

"Hold your breath and bite your lip right before they pour it," Duryodhana advised. "Then you won't flinch."

Yudhisthira wasn't listening, at that point. He was praying.

Duryodhana reached out and grasped Yudhisthira's hand. "This is it," he said.

Yudhisthira took a deep breath. Somewhere far in front of him, through a long hallway and through many doors, a crowd - and his crown - was waiting for him.

"It's time," an aide with a comm wrapped around his ear suddenly said. "They're cueing you, Your Majesties. And...." The aide paused for a moment, then reported: "There is still no sign of the yaksha which you told us to expect."

"Maybe it forgot," Duryodhana said. "Maybe it's not coming."

"It will come," Yudhisthira said, as he and Duryodhana stepped forward, hand in hand. "It will."


XII.

As far as Arjuna was concerned, the entire ceremony was a great boring waste of time, at least so far. Ashwatthama sang a hymn and led a prayer, and some ministers that Arjuna didn't care about gave speeches. Ashwatthama led another prayer. Then he took his seat beside Arjuna again, while someone else gave another boring speech.

"I never knew you could sing," Arjuna whispered, leaning over toward Ashwatthama.

Ashwatthama chuckled quietly. "I have many hidden talents."

Arjuna glanced across the hall, to where Drona, Kripa, and Kripi were seated opposite him and his brothers. Drona caught Arjuna's eye and mouthed boring, then rolled his eyes dramatically. Arjuna had to stifle a laugh, then suddenly clenched his hands in his lap as a wave of sorrow passed over him, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. He still couldn't believe that Mr. Drona wasn't going to stay with him and be his teacher anymore. He still couldn't believe that nobody was willing to tell him the reason that Mr. Drona was staying in Hastinapura, no matter how persistently Arjuna had asked.

Arjuna suddenly reached out and grasped Ashwatthama's hand. "I'm going to miss you," he whispered fiercely.

"Save the goodbyes for later--"

"Just saying."

"I know." Ashwatthama's eyes scanned the crowd sitting across from them, his eyes resting briefly on Drupada, his mouth twisting into a tiny frown that was gone almost as soon as it had begun to appear. "Arjuna..."

"What?"

"Lately I haven't been able to hear the Lord Shiva's voice. At all." Ashwatthama closed his eyes. "No matter what I do. No matter how much I pray." He opened his eyes. "It's because I broke my vows. I swore never to hate, and yet there is someone that I hate. I swore never to envy, and yet there is someone that I envy. I swore never to fear, and yet there is someone that I have begun to fear. I swore never to loathe, and yet there are times when I loathe myself."

Arjuna slowly let go of Ashwatthama's hand. "Um," he said.

Ashwatthama shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I... That was inappropriate of me. Forgive me."

Arjuna said nothing. He remembered all of the times that he had blurted out all of his problems to Ashwatthama, all of his secret fears and hurts and longings, and Ashwatthama had known exactly the right words to say, exactly the right thing to do to make him feel better. Arjuna had not really stopped to think that Ashwatthama might ever feel things like fear before. And now Arjuna did not know what to say in the face of it.

"I--" Arjuna began, when suddenly something large and heavy began crushing his foot.

Arjuna bit down on his lip to stifle a yell of pain. "The cameras are watching us," Bhima hissed, withdrawing his enormous foot off of Arjuna's. "Be quiet. Eyes straight ahead."

Arjuna folded his hands in his lap and pretended to be interested in the speech going on in front of him. But his eyes kept wandering across the hall, to where Drupada and his three children were sitting. Arjuna's eyes rested on Draupadi, and he watched her as she delicately stifled a yawn with her slender, dark hand. Arjuna wondered if he and Draupadi were kindred spirits after all.


XIII.

Walking down the length of the Great Hall with his hand in Duryodhana's, surrounded by silence punctuated by the discrete clicks of cameras and the electronic whirring of broadcast equipment, felt almost surreal to Yudhisthira. He stood and endured the coronation ceremony as if he were experiencing it in a dream. It certainly felt like a dream. Or rather, it did until the moment when he had to kneel and have freezing cold water poured all over his head.

Yudhisthira hoped that his long, wet bangs had concealed the flinch on his face from the watching cameras.

Yudhisthira lifted as his head as Bhisma smoothed back his wet hair and placed his great-grandfather's crown on his head. Yudhisthira stood up slowly, and tried not to look sideways at Duryodhana. He wondered how Duryodhana looked wearing his father's crown on top of his wet hair. Dashing, no doubt.

Ashwatthama poured clarified butter into the sacred fire burning at the end of the hall and chanted, "O Supreme Lord, who art light and wisdom, Thou knowest all our thoughts and deeds. Lead us by the right path to the fulfillment of life, and keep us away from all sin and evil. We offer unto Thee, O Lord, our praise and salutation."

Then Ashwatthama paused, and Bhisma stepped back. Ashwatthama looked expectantly over Yudhisthira's shoulder, at the back of the Hall. He looked to the left, then to the right. Then he sighed, waited a moment longer, and finally said, "It is now time for the Lord to show us the path our kings' futures." Another long pause, and then, "I will be the one to--"

"Just one moment, young man." The yaksha tapped Ashwatthama's shoulder in a polite way. The look on Ashwatthama's face, Yudhisthira thought, would have been comical in any other circumstance. Bhisma took another step back, startled, wearing an expression almost identical to Ashwatthama's. A rumble spread through the crowd in the Hall. The yaksha simply had not been standing behind Ashwatthama a minute ago. And now, in front of all of the cameras and all of the eyes on Kuru, there he was.

This time the yaksha did not even make an attempt to appear human. He was naked and round and plump, his proportions strange and alien, his face curiously bland and unremarkable, save for the sharp teeth peeking out from beneath his fleshy upper lip. His long arms hung down nearly to his squat ankles. A reddish-gold beard hung from his face. His arms and legs and torso were covered in gold chains and precious jewels, but not much else. Yudhisthira thought that perhaps this yaksha had worn his version of his most formal dress for the coronation ceremony. But still, there was a conspicuously bare area leftover for the broadcast cameras to pixelate.

The yaksha bowed down in front of Yudhisthira, grasped Yudhisthira's hand, and kissed the soft spot between his thumb and forefinger. He did the same for Duryodhana, who looked repulsed. Yudhisthira swallowed nervously. Where the yaksha's lips had brushed his skin, he felt a burning, tingling sensation beginning to spread up his entire arm.

The yaksha stood up again, beaming at Yudhisthira. "Your Majesties," he said. "Forgive my rudeness, but I did not wish to intrude upon your human ceremony until it was my turn." He turned his head briefly toward Ashwatthama, who still looked as if he were in the throes of a mild heart attack. "My apologies," he said, with a slight bow of his head.

Ashwatthama held up his trembling hand in a shaking gesture of blessing.

The yaksha turned toward Yudhisthira again, still beaming. Yudhisthira was taken aback. This yaksha seemed much warmer and kinder than the cold, threatening one who had saved him and Duryodhana on that stormy morning so many years ago. But it was the same one, nevertheless. He had the same voice. Yudhisthira would never forget that voice.

"Your kings agreed to bestow upon me the honor of divining their futures," the yaksha said, addressing the general assembly. "In preparation for this day, I have spent many years, traveling many worlds - to the heavens, to the hells - asking the assistance of my master Lord Kuvera, many devas, and many asuras. I have been shown the shadowed paths of the futures of these two many times. There is very little uncertainty in what I am to say to them; there is only one shared destiny woven into the lives of these two."

The yaksha reached out and grasped Yudhisthira's hand. "You, Dharmaraj. You will take the weight of the world upon your shoulders, and know only suffering for it." With his other hand, the yaksha reached for Duryodhana, grasping his trembling hand. "You, Adharma made flesh. This world and all worlds will bow before your feet, and you will know only suffering for it." He turned his head toward Yudhisthira. "You were born of Dharma, who is justice, but also death. You will bring death to this world." He turned his head toward Duryodhana. "You were born to be more than a mere human. Should you fulfill your destiny, you will also bring death to this world." The yaksha brought Yudhisthira and Duryodhana's hands together. "You will both destroy everything and everyone that you love. In doing so, you will fulfill the will of the Gods."

Yudhisthira felt bile rising in his throat. The touch of the yaksha was repulsive to him. He wanted to pull away his hand, to scream, to run away, to do something, anything. But he was rooted in place, passive, immobile, paralyzed by the watching cameras and the millions of eyes he could feel staring at him.

Duryodhana, however, apparently felt no such fears. He shook his hand angrily free of the yaksha's grasp and snarled, "What manner of devilry is this?!"

"I am no devil." The yaksha mercifully dropped Yudhisthira's hand, then folded his own hands in front of his bare, protruding belly. "I have prepared for many years to bestow upon you your fortune, Your Majesty. Please do not mock me."

"I'll not mock, but I'll not trust the words of a cunning monster, either," Duryodhana said, loudly.

Yudhisthira felt his heart thumping in his chest. Stupid, stupid! Don't provoke it! He glanced around the Hall frantically, saw Grandpa Bhisma whispering something into the micro-comm that he had discretely clipped to the collar of his robes, and saw the bodyguards beginning to close in around the head of the Hall.

Yudhisthira turned back toward the yaksha, who met his eyes, once, briefly. "Be not afraid," the yaksha said. Words not for Duryodhana or for Bhisma or for anybody else there or watching, but for Yudhisthira alone. Then the yaksha vanished. No puff of smoke, no eerie supernatural sound effects, nothing. He simply was no more.

Yudhisthira felt his knees shaking. "Be not afraid," he mumbled to himself. The yaksha had meant it not as advice or reassurance, but as a command. Yudhisthira wondered if he would be able to fulfill such an impossible task.


XIV.

There was no time for a feast or a celebration afterwards. Immediately following the coronation, the expedition to Hastinapura was scheduled to leave. It would have been inauspicious, Dhaumya had explained, for Yudhisthira to celebrate his coronation in a city that he was not meant to rule.

Yudhisthira followed the porters carrying the last of his provisions up the wide plank connecting the massive Matsya's Blessing to the cement dock stretched far out over the ocean, away from the dangerous rocks and treacherous waves closer to the shore. He tried not to pay attention to the porters and servants and bodyguards that surrounded him like a cloud.

"A real yaksha? That was a real yaksha?!"

"I didn't think they could step inside a human-made building--"

"It was covered in gold, you should have seen it--"

"I saw it on the console--"

"It was amazing--"

"Yes, but did you listen to what it said?!"

Duryodhana was waiting halfway up the plank, along with his family, to see Yudhisthira off. Even though the loading plank was wide enough to support the Rough-Terrain Vehicles that had been loaded on the ship ten minutes ago, it was still barely wide enough to support Duryodhana, his parents, and his one hundred siblings. Yudhisthira embraced his uncle Dhritarashtra, and let Gandhari kiss him on his forehead. "Tell your mother that I'll be terribly bored without her around," Gandhari said.

"I'll tell her that."

"Build a great city," Dhritarashtra said, touching Yudhisthira's hair. "A splendid city to make your father proud."

"I will."

Yudhisthira pulled away from Dhritarashtra, and turned toward Duryodhana. Duryodhana made as if to shake his hand, then seemed to pause, reconsider, and finally threw his arms around Yudhisthira. "I'll miss you," he said simply.

"Then come to visit me."

"Once you build a decent palace, and there's electricity, plumbing, climate control in that wretched place, then I will."

Yudhisthira laughed, and kissed Duryodhana's cheeks. Then he grew serious for a moment. "I owe you too much," he said.

Duryodhana shook his head. "No, you don't. For what?"

"For everything. For helping me so much in the beginning. For being my friend."

"I won't accept payment for being your friend," Duryodhana said. He pushed Yudhisthira away, gently. "You should go. And for the Gods' sake, Yudhisthira, save those tears for the cameras up there."

"I'll try," Yudhisthira said, wiping his eyes as discreetly as he could. He bowed to Duryodhana's other brothers, who bowed in unison in return. Then Yudhisthira turned and continued up the plank.

The deck of the ship was in chaos. Servants and porters ran everywhere, fastening down equipment, travel vehicles, construction machines, loading provisions, and trying to shoo off the many people who had come aboard just to say farewell.

Yudhisthira shaded his eyes against the bright afternoon glare of the sun reflecting off the ocean around him. He saw three of his four brothers leaning over the back of an RTV that had been fastened to the deck. They were intently watching something. Yudhisthira squeezed in beside Bhima and asked, "Where's Arjuna?"

"Shhhh!" Nakula hushed his brother impatiently. He adjusted something fastened to his ear. "I still can't hear them."

"They've been hugging for minutes," Bhima said, by way of explanation. "If I didn't know better, I'd say the damn priest was molesting him."

Yudhisthira followed Bhima's line of vision and saw Arjuna, standing on a lower level of the deck, crying and hugging Drona. Drona finally pushed him away and said something - there was no way that Yudhisthira could hear him - and Arjuna shook his head tearfully. Ashwatthama came running up to them, panting and out of breath. Arjuna began crying and hugging him, too. But Ashwatthama pushed Arjuna away and shoved something into his arms. It was a book bound in fine cloth, the cover riddled with Panchalan writing that Yudhisthira had to squint to make out.

"What's he saying?" Sahadeva asked Nakula. "What did he just give him?"

"I still can't hear," Nakula hissed. He adjusted whatever device he had stuck in the well of his ear with his fingernail again.

Yudhisthira began scanning the area around the lower deck. He spotted the seagull that was obviously not a seagull almost instantly. It was perched on a railing not too far from Drona. "Nakula," he sighed.

"What? I'm just testing it. I thought it might come in handy for you later."

"I appreciate that. I suppose."

"What are you looking at?" Draupadi suddenly asked.

All four brothers turned around instantly. Draupadi was standing behind them, watching them curiously from behind the dark shades that were protecting her eyes from the sun. She lifted the shades off her face, pulling them up and resting them in her hair. "And with such guilty expressions on your faces, too."

"Something of no importance," Nakula said, stepping forward to bow and kiss her hand. She laughed. "How much longer are you staying in Hastinapura, Your Highness?"

"I would stay longer if I were able to keep you around," Draupadi said, coyly. Then she turned toward Yudhisthira. "I know that you have much to deal with, Your Majesty, building a new capitol and all, but... You will all be coming to my brother's wedding, won't you?"

Yudhisthira stared at her. She was wearing a sundress and a silk wrap around her shoulders, her long dark hair blowing freely in the ocean breeze. He swallowed and tried to remind himself that the woman standing in front of him - barely more than a girl, really - was the woman who had, just a short time ago, led a hostile alien force into a full-scale invasion of Kuru. "I wouldn't miss Sikhandhi's wedding for all the worlds," Yudhisthira said with a grin.

Draupadi glanced around the deck, blinking in the bright sunlight. "Where is Arjuna?"

"Right here," Arjuna said, a bit morosely. He stepped toward them, his gift from Ashwatthama still clutched to his chest. He nodded at Draupadi. "Hey."

She snapped her shades back down over her eyes. "Well," she huffed. "At least I got a kiss on the hand from your brother." She turned and walked away.

Arjuna watched her leave, blinking at her receding back. "What was that about?" he asked, baffled.

"Nothing," Yudhisthira said quickly. "What've you got there?"

"It's from Mr. Drona," Arjuna said, sadly, holding out the book. "It's homework."

Nakula and Sahadeva laughed in unison. "Homework?!" Nakula snorted.

"Since I'm not officially done being his student yet," Arjuna said, embarrassed. "It's mantras and meditation homework and a log for me to record my shooting practice. And... some stuff about the spacefleet.... I didn't really get that part, I'll have to call him later..."

"Fleet specs?" Bhima asked, suddenly interested. "I didn't know he had a military background."

"I don't know why he wants me to have a military background," Arjuna added.

"Quite the military background, actually," Bhisma said, appearing out of almost nowhere to rest his hands on Arjuna's shoulders. "I remember back in the day, your Mr. Drona was the chief commander of the largest division of Drupada's fleet."

Arjuna looked up at his grandfather, startled. "He never told me that."

"Likely because he quit that job a long, long time ago. Regardless," Bhisma said, lifting his head to look Bhima squarely in the eye, "if your brother's been assigned to learn more about our military capabilities, you'll help him, won't you?"

Bhima nodded.

Bhisma patted Arjuna on the shoulder. "Heaven forbid that either of you should ever have to use such knowledge." He stepped around Arjuna and embraced Yudhisthira. "I don't care if you're on the other side of the planet, you had better not use that as an excuse to never call your grandfather on the comm."

"I won't."

"And I assigned that pesky reporter crew to the lowest level of cabins, and there are no less than twelve guards stationed all around their quarters, so there's no way any of those fools can try to come up here and broadcast video of you crying," Bhisma said, flicking a tear away from Yudhisthira's cheek, "like you are now."

"I'll miss you, Grandpa Bhisma."

"You're a king, now. You don't need me breathing down your neck anymore." Bhisma pulled away from Yudhisthira, and bowed to all of his brothers. "Take care of your mother," he said. And then he left.

Yudhisthira sighed and then looked around. Sahadeva had already wandered off, as he was prone to do. But Nakula was now sitting on the hood of the RTV behind them, prying open the back of his seagull with a screwstick.

Yudhisthira sat down beside him. "It still needs some work?" he asked.

"Apparently." Nakula removed one screw, pocketed it, and started on another. "Memo to you: that Draupadi likes having her hand kissed."

Yudhisthira started. "Why...?"

"Because you're going to marry her, I think," Nakula said. He tapped the listening device in his ear. "Drupada's been walking around all day talking about a marriage alliance with Kuru. That means you. It has to be either you or Duryodhana. And honestly, Duryodhana isn't the one that he keeps staring at."

Yudhisthira looked up quickly, and saw Arjuna still standing a few steps away from them, holding his book, pretending that he wasn't listening. His face was dark.

"How long are we going to be on this ship?" Nakula suddenly asked.

"Two weeks, before we reach Khandava."

"Ugh." Nakula pocketed another screw. "I hate the ocean. Too many damn fish." He paused for a moment, then his face suddenly lit up. "But if this ship were equipped with a defensive laser cannon--"

"It already is," Yudhisthira said, quickly.

"Unfortunately," Nakula sighed. The he looked up at Yudhisthira and said, "By the way, yaksha are known for lying to humans. You do know that, right?"

"...Right."

"Personally, I wouldn't believe a word that it said." Nakula pocketed yet another screw. "I don't think you have it in you to destroy a world. You don't have the spine or the balls for it." He looked up at Yudhisthira. "And that part about you destroying everyone that you love? Yeah, right. I'd like to see you try." He frowned at Yudhisthira thoughtfully. "I could take you. If I had a decent weapon. Or a doomsday device."

"Thank you," Yudhisthira said, resisting the urge to hug Nakula. Nakula would have balked, and then the moment would have been ruined.

"No problem," Nakula said.


XV.

For Yudhisthira, the two weeks he spent aboard the Matsya's Blessing were far from relaxing. There was still far too much to plan and organize before the arrival at Khandava, the broadcast reporters who had gotten clearance to come along wanted to interview him at every opportunity, and he watched the console reports from Hastinapura almost obsessively. Not much of note happened, save for the departure of Drupada and his family, who returned to Panchala a few days after the coronation.

On the dawn of their fourteenth day at sea, Khandava was spotted on the horizon.

"Ugh," Nakula said, leaning out over a railing and staring at the bare, rocky dot on the horizon. A few fisher's dwellings huddled on top of a windswept cliff, and that seemed to be the extent of human civilization on the island.

"It's not so bad," Yudhisthira said, forcing himself to sound upbeat. "The opposite side of the island is supposed to be very fertile, covered with dairy farms."

"I hate cows," Nakula apparently felt obligated to comment.


XVI.

The citizens of the fishing village that Yudhisthira had spotted from the ship came down to greet the Matysa's Blessing in groups of two and three, chanting prayers and throwing flowers at their king. Yudhisthira made it a point to smile and wave, while he left the loading of the RTVs to Bhima.

"You will stay for at least a night, won't you, Your Majesty?" a village elder asked, bowing before Yudhisthira.

"We'll come back, later," Yudhisthira said. "But for now, we've been advised to move inland as quickly as possible. We must find a site and begin building the new capitol before we can even think of taking a respite."

The old man looked up sharply. "Your Majesty--!"

Yudhisthira laughed. "I appreciate the offer, but I suspect that you would have been less than overjoyed if I had told you that I was building the new capitol on top of your village."

The elder straightened up slowly. "You are very kind, Your Majesty."

Yudhisthira took the old man's hands in his. "I will not disturb the peace of this place," he promised. "We will build far inland, away from those who have already settled here."

"Head north, then," the elder said, as village woman came forward and began piling offerings of gold and jewels in front of Yudhisthira. "The land is clear, and there are few farms. There is an old forest there."

Yudhisthira winced inwardly. The environmentalists would have his head if they found out that he cleared out an old-growth forest in order to build new government offices. "Thank you," he said, as an aide helped him onto the back of an RTV. "We will come back. I promise."

Yudhisthira frowned to himself as the RTV rumbled to life beneath him. So far, so good, although he knew that he had not won the hearts of his new subjects in Khandava quite yet. Khandava was far from Hastinapura, and for centuries had existed almost completely independent of Hastinapura's nominal rule. The people of Khandava were used to their independence, too – and had nothing but disdain for Hastinapura's traditions regarding the roles of men and women, the ironclad law that children followed in the footsteps of their parents, and the rules of right and wrong. Yudhisthira still wasn't sure how much he was able or willing to compromise with Indrapastha's people. But he at least knew that he didn't want to earn their spite, or their hatred, by forcing them under his thumb.

Yudhisthira tapped his chin and pondered. This was going to be difficult.


XVII.

There were only four hours of daylight left by the time that the RTV convoy began rolling over the rocky terrain, heading north up the coast of the island. Yudhisthira rode in an RTV with his mother. He, unfortunately, was still wearing his formal robes, which were appropriate for greeting his subjects for the first time, but hardly appropriate for a cold, muddy journey into the scrubland on Khandava. Yudhisthira turned to his mother. "I haven't seen you dress like that since I was twelve years old," he said.

She laughed, and brushed a strand of her graying hair from her face. Yudhisthira's mother was already wearing the camping jacket, coveralls, and boots that he remembered from his childhood in the forest. "We are camping tonight," she said. "And I've hardly had a chance to leave the city since we moved back to Hastinapura."

Just as the sun was setting on the horizon, the convoy stopped on a ridge overlooking a vast expanse of scrubland, scrubland, and even more scrubland. In the distance, Yudhisthira could just make out the forest that the village elder had mentioned.

"Why are we stopping?" Nakula asked, loudly, climbing down from the RTV he had shared with Sahadeva. "Are we breaking ground here?"

"No, we're setting up camp here," Bhima said.

Nakula grumbled something under his breath.

Servants scrambled around, setting up tents, cooking equipment, sanitary facilities, and unloading food and clothing. Dhaumya built a sacred fire and began to prepare a sacrifice. Yudhisthira vanished into his tent at the first opportunity he had, gratefully stripped off his robes, and changed into something rougher and warmer. He quickly pulled his long hair back and stepped back out into the campsite, which was being strung with electric lights. A half dozen generators hummed in the dark beyond the tents.

Nakula came stalking up to Yudhisthira immediately. "Where am I sleeping?" he demanded.

Yudhisthira took his hand and pulled him into the tent he had just emerged from. "In here," he said.

"In a tent?!"

Yudhisthira looked around the tent. Servants were busy inflating beds and layering them with fine sheets and thick, warm blankets. A heater hummed in one corner, and various parts of the tent were partitioned off with curtains for privacy. A water pump and sink had been installed in the center. "Just like home," he said.

"No it isn't! This is terrible! I can't believe I'm sleeping in a goddamn tent! I should be sleeping in a palace, not camping like a homeless person in a goddamn tent!"

"This hardly counts as camping," Yudhisthira said, dryly.

"What if I have to go to the bathroom?!"

"They've set up a privy--"

"No!" Nakula held up his hands. "I don't want to see it! Ugh!" He turned and began stalking away. "I'll just hold it until we have some decent plumbing around here. If I die of kidney failure, it'll be your fault!"

Bhima stepped into the tent just as Nakula was leaving. "Why didn't we ever take him camping when he was younger?" Bhima asked.

"Because he would have hated it."

"So, again, why didn't we?"

"You're a terrible brother," Yudhisthira said. He stepped outside the tent, rummaged around his pockets for a smokeroll, found one, lit it, and inhaled deeply. He watched his servants set a table, preparing it for the four-course feast that other servants were busy preparing inside the cooking tent. "Where's Sahadeva?"

"Around. You know how he comes and goes," Bhima said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he were busy disassembling some vital piece of equipment right now." He looked up at the clear, starry sky overhead. Kuru's moon floated low above the horizon, the lights of Anga clearly visible on its surface facing the planet. "Reminds me of long ago," he said wistfully.

Yudhisthira looked up at the sky. "It reminds me of Father," he said.

"He would have enjoyed this."

"Even with Nakula complaining every moment, he would have enjoyed this." Yudhisthira looked down again. "Speak of the devil," he muttered.

Nakula was approaching them again, this time with a small bag slung over his shoulder. Sahadeva followed a step behind him. "We have to start on our hair," he said. "It takes an hour to wash it right, and I don't know what kind of primitive facilities you have set up here, but--"

"Can't that wait until after dinner?" Yudhisthira asked, almost rhetorically.

"Is there a place where I can plug this in?" Nakula asked, pulling a straightening iron out of his bag. "The cold weather makes my hair curl. Literally."

"Nakula, is that really so important?"

"Unless you want your little brother to look unpresentable, then yes."

"We have to limit our electricity usage," Bhima explained, patiently. "No frivolous plugins. If you want to try, you can ask for permission from Mother. But if you plug that thing in and it ends up shorting out a generator, you'll be sorry."

"That's stupid. It's not my fault if your electrical generators are wired poorly," Nakula fumed.

Sahadeva placed one hand on Nakula's shoulder and said softly, "Uncle Shalya warned us that this would happen."

Nakula muttered something under his breath. "Just saying," Sahadeva said, and removed his hand slowly.

Yudhisthira said nothing, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply of his smokeroll. When he opened his eyes, Nakula was gone, thankfully. However, Arjuna was there. Arjuna looked at him for a moment, then bowed low. Now what?, Yudhisthira thought.

"If I may have your permission," Arjuna said, "I would like to leave the camp for the night."

Yudhisthira inhaled his smokeroll again. "Why?" Bhima asked.

"Because I wish to meditate. And pray." Arjuna stood up. "There are... Some things I need to think about."

"I thought that the point of meditating was not thinking."

Arjuna said nothing.

Yudhisthira blew out a smoke ring. "You'll be okay out there alone?"

"You know I will be. I'm not like Nakula."

Yudhisthira laughed. Well, what was the harm? Arjuna had done pilgrimages into the wilderness before, and he seemed to know what he was doing. "You won't at least stay for dinner?"

"I'd rather not. I can take some food with me."

"Will you at least be back by eight hundred hours tomorrow morning? To help us pack up?"

"I will be."

"Then go."

Arjuna turned, and left. Yudhisthira watched him go. "I don't understand why he..." Yudhisthira trailed off. Wastes time trying to speak with the Gods, he was about to say, but then decided that it was wisest to close his mouth. "Why he can't just pray here," Yudhisthira finished.

"Because sharing a tent with Nakula is not the most conducive environment to mystical experiences," Bhima said. "Especially when Nakula's busy spending four hours doing his hair and complaining loudly about it."


XVIII.

Arjuna climbed down another ridge of scrubland. It was dark out here, very dark. The lights of his family's campsite had already receded into the distance. But there was moonlight, and starlight, to guide him. Arjuna squinted his sharp eyes, his vision piercing clearly through the darkness. Years ago, he would have been blind as a bat in this environment - or in any environment, for that matter. But things had changed since then. He had changed.

Arjuna had brought a small bag of food with him, and a thick blanket rolled up and strapped to his back. It was cold out here, and it would only get colder as the night wore on. But Mr. Drona had taught Arjuna to resist the influences of the environment around him. Especially when he was meditating: he could not allow himself to be distracted by discomfort.

After about an hour, Arjuna found himself on the edge of the vast forest that he had seen in the distance. He moved among the trees quietly, mindful of the nocturnal rodents and birds rustling around him. He found a soft pile of dead leaves beneath a tree, unrolled his blanket, and sat down on top of it. He breathed in the cold air, feeling the stillness of the forest filling him. He crossed his legs, rested his hands, and then tried very, very hard not to think.

Arjuna wasn't sure of how much time had passed, but when he was rudely snapped to his senses sometime later, the stars were in a completely different position in the sky.

Arjuna only noted this because, for some reason, he was suddenly flat on his back, and staring up at the sky. And there was someone lying sprawled on top of him. Because, apparently, said someone had tripped and fallen right on top of Arjuna.

"Sorry, sorry," the someone said, crawling off of Arjuna gingerly. The stranger dusted himself off quickly, and shined his flashstick right into Arjuna's face. "Nothing broken, I hope?"

Arjuna sat up quickly, blinking and shielding his eyes from the beam of the stranger's flashstick. "I'm fine," he said.

"Listen," the stranger said. "Have you seen--?" He cut himself off as the beam of his flashstick flashed across Arjuna's face again. "Oh my gosh. You're a prince!"

Arjuna straightened up his back. Finally, this idiot seemed to have noticed. Arjuna waited patiently for the stranger to bow down and touch his feet, beg for forgiveness, or at least stop flashing that cursed flashstick in his eyes. But the stranger did none of these things. Instead, he dropped his flashstick for a moment - Arjuna still couldn't see his face - and unshouldered the pack on his back, digging around until he found another flashstick, which he promptly tossed into Arjuna's hands. "Great!" he said. "You can help me look."

"Wait." Arjuna stood up and blinked, clutching the flashstick. "What?"

"We have to find Spider tonight. My mom'll kill me if I don't. It's my fault that he escaped the pen in the first place." The stranger cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, "Hey, Spider!" But there was no answer from the silent forest.

Arjuna looked at him for a long time. "You lost your dog?" he asked.

The stranger turned his head toward Arjuna, still a vague shadow to Arjuna's light-blinded eyes. "Spider isn't a dog," he said. "Spider is a cow. A six-week old calf, to be specific." The stranger began stepping lightly away from Arjuna. "This way," he said.

"That's toward my family's camp," Arjuna said, gathering up his bag and blanket and following the stranger without having any idea why. He switched on his flashstick and unselfconsciously examined the stranger beside him in its bright beam. The stranger had dark skin and thick, dark hair. His unruly bangs flopped down over his eyes, which he brushed aside as he winced under the glare of Arjuna's flashstick. "You're Arjuna, aren't you?" the surprisingly handsome stranger asked.

" 'Your Highness.' "

The stranger laughed. "I'm not a prince."

"No, I mean... You should address me as 'Your Highness.' "

The stranger ignored this. "I'm Krishna," he said. "My family has a farm on the other side of this forest," he explained, waving his flashstick in the vague direction behind them. "It's my fault that Spider got out of the pen. You wouldn't think that a six-week-old would be able to run as fast as that thing could, but..." Krishna shrugged.

" 'Spider'?" Arjuna asked, curiously.

Krishna laughed again. "Because the poor thing has four vestigial legs growing out of its back. Two on each side."

"That's... disgusting."

"It's normal. That's what you get for raising cows on growth hormones." Krishna sighed. "We're going to cut the stupid things off when Spider gets old enough. Hey, Spider! Spider, where are you?"

"Spider!" Arjuna called out, cupping his hands. He had to struggle not to laugh at himself. Why in the five hells was he following this crazy dairy farmer who had tripped all over him in the middle of the night? And a rude crazy dairy farmer, to boot. Arjuna tried to rationalize: this Krishna was one of his subjects, after all, and as a prince it was his duty to serve his subjects in need--

"What were you doing out here all alone?" Krishna suddenly asked, apparently oblivious to the concept of not being nosy.

"Seeking enlightenment," Arjuna answered, dryly.

"You and about two billion others."

Arjuna couldn't decide whether this comment was offensive or not. He looked sideways at Krishna. He seemed to be about Arjuna's age, and he badly needed a haircut, but he didn't seem to care. The elbows on his jacket were patched and his boots were worn. Krishna suddenly cupped his hands and called out again, "Hey, Spider!"

This time, there was an answer - a faint, mewling cry from deep within the forest.

"This way!" Krishna said, suddenly bolting through the trees. Arjuna followed him as quickly as he dared, trying not to trip over the roots and undergrowth that got in his way. "Spider! Spider!" Krishna shouted, mindless of the nocturnal animals that he disturbed with his yelling.

Krishna ground to a halt so quickly that Arjuna nearly slammed right into him. "Spider!" he cried out, falling to his knees and embracing the small, gangly creature that had come limping up to meet him.

Ugh, Arjuna thought, as his flashstick beam gave him his first glimpse of Spider. The calf would have been adorable, if not for the shriveled, withered four legs growing out of its spine, lying limp and useless against its flanks.

"Who's a good baby? Who's my good little baby?" Krishna cooed, scratching the calf's chin. "Why did you come running all the way out here, you silly thing?"

The calf mewled in response, and Krishna suddenly let go of it and stood up quickly. "Really?!"

Arjuna stared at Krishna, fascinated. He had never actually met anyone crazy enough to think that they could talk to animals before. "What'd he say?" Arjuna asked, deciding to humor the insane farmer boy.

"He said that he was supposed to lead us out here. That there's someone who wants to talk to us." Krishna patted Spider's head briefly. "You'll lead us to him, won't you?"

Spider turned and began walking in his awkward, gangly walk, deeper into the forest. Krishna followed him for a few steps, then turned, and trained the beam of his flashstick on Arjuna, who was still standing rooted to the spot. "Aren't you coming?" he asked.

"You're insane," Arjuna said.

Krishna squinted at him. "You came out here looking for the gods, didn't you?"

Arjuna's flashstick trembled in his hand.

"Well," Krishna said, "There's a god waiting for us right over there. He wants to talk to you."

"Did Spider tell you that?"

"Yes." Krishna turned back toward Spider, who had paused with his front hooves resting on an elevated tree root. The calf turned its head and glared at Arjuna, while making a sound that might have been an impatient grunt.

"Fine," Arjuna said, reluctantly stepping forward to follow Krishna. If the gods want to communicate with me through unhinged dairy farmers and deformed animals, then that's just fine.

Arjuna followed Krishna and the hideous little calf silently through the forest, listening to the sound of leaves and twigs snapping and crackling beneath their feet. Finally, Spider stopped and lay down awkwardly in front of a towering, ancient tree that vanished into the blackness overhead. Sitting at the base of the tree, legs bent and arms resting limply in his lap, was a man. At least, it appeared to be a man, until Arjuna stepped closer and the beam of his flashstick revealed the man's red skin – as well as the fact that the man had two faces.

"Ah, Krishna," the man said, as Krishna knelt down respectfully in front of him, keeping his eyes downcast. The man's voice sounded weak and trembly. Looking at his two faces, which seemed to exist and also to not exist in the same space, made Arjuna's head ache. Arjuna quickly imitated Krishna, dropping to his knees and bowing respectfully, casting down his eyes. He had already seen the man's sweaty, trembling arms and limp, greasy dark hair. Arjuna knew that this man was not well.

"And you must be Arjuna," the man said. "You are Indra's son."

Arjuna began to tremble. The devakin markings on his back and neck seemed as if they were on fire. This is real, he thought, his heard pounding in his chest. This is real. This man is a deva. This man is a GOD. I'm talking to a god! Arjuna felt time slowing down around him, felt his breath coming in shallow gasps. This is a dream. This is a dream. This is--

"This is no dream, young man." The god sounded ill, but amused nevertheless. "You've never spoken with a deva before, have you?"

"Only once, sir." Arjuna winced as soon as he had said it. Sir! You can't address a god as sir, it should be "my Lord" or something--

"How unfortunate," the god said. "Your father shouldn't have ignored you for so long."

Arjuna looked up sharply. Had the god just made a joke?

The god laughed weakly. "Do I surprise you, Arjuna?"

"A bit, my Lord."

"I am quite ill," the god said, closing his eyes for a moment, his faces drawn. "Forgive my appearance. It is hard to maintain a human form in my present condition." He sighed. "Forgive me, Krishna. I had to use this poor creature to draw you both out here, for I have a favor to ask." He opened his blazing eyes - all four of them - and stared at Arjuna, his two faces glowing red from within. "I am Agni, the fire," he said, his voice licking at Arjuna's ears, "and I will soon shrivel and starve if I cannot devour this forest."

"Ah," said Arjuna, as if this explained everything. Then he blinked. "So... How do you wish us to assist you?" What's stopping you from just burning up everything in sight?

"Your father, unfortunately." Agni laughed weakly, again. "Indra has taken this forest and its creatures under his protection. Every time a bit of fire starts in here, the rains appear and drown it out. Capricious and stubborn as always, your father is," Agni said.

"Why won't Indra allow the forest to burn?" Krishna asked.

"Who can understand any of what Indra does or wants?" Agni responded, with more than a hint of bitterness in his fading voice.

"You want me to talk to my father?" Arjuna asked, trying to keep the awed tremble out of his voice.

Agni chuckled. "Oh no, no!" He shook his two faces back and forth. "Indra will no sooner listen to his devakin son than he will to me. Oh no, dear prince. What I want from you is much simpler. I want you to stop him."

Arjuna stared at Agni's two faces, no longer caring whether it was disrespectful or not.

"More directly, I want you to stop Indra from bringing his rains. It should not be that difficult of a task for you to stop him, I believe. You have the Gandiva bow, do you not?"

Arjuna's mouth opened and closed, unable to breathe out any words.

"Krishna will aid you," Agni said.

Great, Arjuna though dimly.

"Come on, Spider," Krishna said cheerfully, standing up quickly. "We have work to do."

"Hurry," Agni said, looking directly at Arjuna. "I will start my fires soon." He turned his head toward the sky, which was growing dark and black. Stars began to vanish behind rumbling clouds. Warning flashes of lightning streaked through the skies overhead. "He's coming," Agni said.


To be continued.