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!
Uluka ran forward and pressed his face against the viewport. "Look at that ocean!" he cried out as they flew low over the waves, approaching Hastinapura's spaceport. "Can we go swimming, Papa?"
Shakuni placed one hand on his son's shoulder and steered him away from the viewing window. "Maybe you can go to the beach with your cousins," Shakuni said, "but you wouldn't want to go swimming in those waters."
"Yeah, right." Uluka, at the tender age of nine, already knew better than to believe anything that his father told him. Ever.
"It's true," Shakuni said, raising his right hand solemnly. "King's honor. You can ask your cousins if you don't believe me."
"Your Majesty," an aide said, approaching Shakuni and bowing low. "Your Highness," the aide added, with a bow toward Uluka. "Touchdown is estimated in five minutes. Your esteemed family is already awaiting you at the port."
Shakuni pushed Uluka gently. "Go. Nana will get you ready."
"You're a crown prince. You need to look your best for the cameras."
Uluka reluctantly shuffled away. Once he was gone, Shakuni turned toward the aide and asked quietly, "Is my sister there, with the party at the port?"
"She is. We have already seen her on camera."
"Well," Shakuni said, tossing a bit of his fine silk drapery over his shoulder in the way that he normally tended to do when vexed. "Let us hope that she doesn't make a scene."
"You look very handsome," Shakuni said, as a female servant finished adjusting Uluka's elaborate crown, pinning it to his thin, fine hair. Shakuni took his son's hand in his. "Come on," he said. "We're here. Smile big and don't flinch when the cameras go off."
Uluka took a deep breath, and began smiling. He looked good, for a nine-year-old, Shakuni thought. He looked both adorable and regal. But then again, the boy had good genes.
Shakuni and his son stepped through an airlock and onto the carpeted ramp leading from their ship to the spaceport floor below. Cameras from the paparazzi crowding the floor began flashing immediately. Shakuni waved elegantly to his left and to his right. He risked one glance down to the end of the ramp, trying to take stock of the fools' gallery lined up to meet him. The old blind king Dhritarashtra was there, and Shakuni's sister, with that wretched blindfold marring her otherwise spellbinding face. And between them was Shakuni's eldest nephew—
"There's my guy!" Duryodhana said, stepping forward to sweep Uluka up in his arms. Uluka shrieked with delight and the cameras flashed wildly. "I think you were only about this big when I saw you last," Duryodhana said, making a tiny gesture with his fingers.
Dhritarashtra stepped forward and embraced Shakuni. "My brother," he said. "How was your journey?"
"Long," Shakuni chuckled, his best charismatic smile on his face. He was not Dhritarashtra's brother and he loathed the traditional beliefs that forced them to address each other as such. Shakuni pulled out of Dhritarashtra's embrace as gently as he could. The old man stank of salt and seaweed and the slimy fish that the people of Kuru subsisted on. And it always unnerved Shakuni, the way that Dhritarashtra's useless, filmy eyes sometimes gravitated toward the sound of his voice but never toward his face proper. "My son and I are glad to be back on solid ground, Brother."
"You missed my coronation," Duryodhana said, still holding a giggling Uluka in his arms.
"I heard it was quite the spectacle," Shakuni forced a chuckle again. "You really must forgive me. I meant to be here, but, as you well know, the life of a king is never predictable, and some urgent business kept me--"
"Funny," Shakuni's sister Gandhari suddenly said, loudly. "I thought that you couldn't make it because you were preoccupied with being under investigation for fraud and embezzlement and accepting bribes from your--"
Shakuni laughed, loudly. "Oh, ho! As sharp as always." He turned toward Dhritarashtra. "I can see that my sister hasn't changed. She never did understand her place as a woman." Shakuni laughed again, and did not care that Dhritarashtra stared at him coldly instead of joining his laughter.
Shakuni finished laughing, sighed, and wiped a tear from his eye. "Won't you at least welcome your brother?" he asked, stepping toward Gandhari so as to embrace her.
Gandhari returned her brother's embrace stiffly. Shakuni rested his head on her shoulder for a moment, breathed deeply, and sighed. She reeked of salt and seaweed, just like the rest of them. He pulled away from her and watched her face for a moment, sadly. His beautiful, beautiful sister – who had ruined her own eyes and marred her face forever, all for the love of a blind, weak, useless man. King and Queen of the fishmongers. Well, Shakuni's sister always had been foolish.
Shakuni turned toward Duryodhana, who had finally put Uluka down. "So, you're the king now, I hear," Shakuni said, carefully.
Duryodhana nodded. "What gave it away? Was it the glittering headgear?"
Shakuni bellowed laughter again. But as he chortled and wheezed, he squinted his eyes and looked over Duryodhana carefully. Shakuni had met Duryodhana once, years before, when Uluka had been newly born and he had brought the baby to visit his family on Kuru for the first and, since then, the only time. At the time, Shakuni had been impressed with Duryodhana. The young prince had been strong, handsome, charismatic, and confident. He had seemed to have inherited all of the magnificent royal blood flowing in his mother's veins and none from those of his feeble father. Now, looking at Duryodhana standing side-by-side with Uluka, Shakuni could tell that they were cut from the same cloth.
"Come," Duryodhana said, tugging at Uluka's hand. "Let's go back to the palace. You can meet all the rest of your cousins."
"Hey," Uluka said, craning his neck to look up at Duryodhana. "Are there really sea monsters on this planet?"
"Oh, yes. Lots of them."
"Yes huh. There are some stuffed ones in my palace. I'll show you."
Surrounded by bodyguards and aides, the party began making their way across the spaceport floor and toward the fleet of hoverers awaiting them. An aide named Sanjaya led the blind king by his hand, which left Shakuni free to walk beside his sister at the back of the party, as the bodyguards behind them shooed away persistent photographers.
"You did miss Duryodhana's coronation," Gandhari said, pointedly. "He asked me if you would be there. Not that I could have cared less, but he wanted you to be there."
"And you missed Father's funeral," Shakuni hissed in return.
Gandhari's shoulders stiffened. "Why are you here?" she whispered.
"To pay my respects to my nephew. And because Uluka will be a king someday as well, and it's important for him to know that he has family on Kuru."
"Really." Gandhari brushed a lock of her long, graying hair impatiently over her shoulder. "What a perfectly noble purpose for a visit. That doesn't sound like you at all."
The dinner feast was long, and nearly insufferable for Shakuni. He could hardly keep the names of his hundred nephews straight, he hated eating fish, and being forced to be respectful and humble toward Dhritarashtra was almost more than he could bear.
After dinner was finished, Shakuni ordered his servants and the nanny to tuck Uluka into bed, then approached Duryodhana as soon as he had the chance. "Could you use a drink?" Shakuni asked, leaning in toward his nephew. "My guest quarters have come furnished with quite the selection."
Duryodhana nodded. "Thank you," he said, although Shakuni noted the caution in his voice. "Twenty hundred hours?"
Shakuni retired to his guest quarters. They were admittedly nice, the nicest that this planet of poor fishmongers could have possibly offered. And, as promised, at precisely twenty hundred hours, Duryodhana entered the study where Shakuni was waiting for him, waved away his bodyguards, and then sat down slowly.
"Would you care for something?" Shakuni asked, standing up to serve Duryodhana a drink. There were no more servants or bodyguards in the room. The two of them were alone.
"No thank you," Duryodhana said, politely. "I'm supposed to be cutting back. Blood pressure, you know."
"Of course I know." Shakuni poured Duryodhana a shot of lickfire anyway. "But may I say, speaking as one king to another, that a sip of this stuff every night is one of the few things that has kept me sane over the years."
Duryodhana accepted his glass but did not drink from it. "Why did you want to see me?" he asked, bluntly.
Shakuni smiled at him. "Because you're my family. But I feel as if I've hardly even met you. And now here you are, already grown and a king."
Duryodhana peered at Shakuni suspiciously. "So those things that Mother says about you…"
"Are true." Shakuni sat himself down in a chair across from Duryodhana. "I have been under investigation for… certain crimes. Which of course doesn't mean that I ever committed them. A king, no matter how honest or good, will always have enemies, Duryodhana."
Duryodhana still stared at Shakuni.
"You don't believe me," Shakuni said.
Duryodhana shook his head.
"I see that you've inherited your mother's, ah, forthrightness." Shakuni chuckled. "And her tendency to jump to conclusions."
Duryodhana set down his glass on a nearby end table. "A king must always be honest," he said, pointedly.
"So. Let us be honest, then." Shakuni finished his shot of lickfire in one swallow. "So tell me, king. Are you completely honest?" Shakuni peered at Duryodhana, a small, smug smile dancing on his lips. "Is there no secret that you wish to keep from the world?"
Shakuni chuckled again. "I see." He leaned back in his seat. "A king must be honest, true. But a king must also do what is best for his people. Sometimes, if there is a truth that, were it to become known, would do more harm than good, then a king is justified--"
"Mother rarely speaks of you," Duryodhana said, suddenly.
"Ah. Good. And here I was, afraid that she was constantly telling you lies about me."
"Why did you come here?" Duryodhana asked, again.
Shakuni stood up to pour himself another drink. "You know how much I love your mother," Shakuni said, "despite our bickerings. She is my only sister. And your father… is like a brother to me. That makes you my family. And you are my blood." Shakuni sat down again, this time with a glass of wine in his hand. "I came because I wish to look out for your best interests. You may be the king of Kuru, but you are also Gandharan royal blood, and as your elder, it's my responsibility to look after you."
"But I don't need looking after," Duryodhana protested.
"Really?" Shakuni swirled the liquor in the glass he was holding. "Because it seems to me as if you just lost half of the kingdom that should rightfully be yours."
"Perhaps…" Duryodhana said, cautiously.
"This planet is your birthright," Shakuni went on, fervently. It was easy for him to sound fervent, during the rare moments when he was actually honest. "You should rule all of it. You must rule all of it. We must make that happen."
" 'We'?" Duryodhana was still cautious, guarded. "Is this the part where you promise to be on my side?"
"Well." Shakuni took a sip of his drink. "You don't see me visiting Yudhisthira and licking his ass, now do you?"
Duryodhana shuddered. "Please don't make me think of Yudhisthira's… anatomy."
Shakuni bellowed laughter. "He has a sense of humor! And here I was afraid that you had gotten nothing from your mother's genes."
Duryodhana seemed to relax in his seat, a little bit. He took a sip of his drink. Shakuni watched him carefully, taking mental notes in his head. Humor diffused him. Complimenting his mother, whether she deserved it or not, relaxed him. Shakuni loathed Duryodhana's father almost as much as he hated his sister for betraying herself and her family when she married him. But Shakuni had done his homework, and he knew that Duryodhana would not tolerate any insult against his parents. He was deeply loyal to them both. Well, that was all right, for now, Shakuni thought. He certainly couldn't hold filial loyalty against the boy. But for the time being, Shakuni knew that he would have to watch his tongue, if he wanted Duryodhana to trust him.
"From one king to another," Duryodhana said, carefully. "Yes. I've thought about that. I've thought about how to reunite the kingdom again." He straightened up in his seat. "And it's not just because I want to rule it, either! It's because… Because the kingdom shouldn't be divided. It's bad for everyone. It goes against everything that my ancestors worked so hard to accomplish."
It was your loathsome idiot father who divided the kingdom, Shakuni thought, but did not say. How long before he could get Duryodhana to see how different he was from either of his parents? How much better he was? But that would take time. Shakuni had patience. Instead, Shakuni said, "You have to start with your strengths. The people in your corner, that is. You have been building a strong court, haven't you?"
Duryodhana nodded. "I have all of my brothers. Dusshasana is an excellent military strategist. So is Durmukha. Sama can wrap the parliament around his little finger."
"Then there's my priest, Ashwatthama. You met him at dinner."
"Yes, he… He seemed awfully young."
"He's stronger than you think," Duryodhana said. This time it was his turn to look smug. "And the King of Anga. You also met him at dinner."
"A striking young man, yes. But a commoner."
"He's the strongest warrior Kuru has ever known. And he's not a commoner – he's a devakin."
"Somehow, I doubt that this man's ability to use a magical bow or bench-press however many mass units will be of much use to you in getting the rest of your kingdom back."
Duryodhana's face darkened. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you should not be looking toward brute force." Shakuni leaned forward toward Duryodhana. "When your cousin is your rival, then you could not – should not – be relying on strength to defeat him. Rather, use your wits." Shakuni tapped his forehead. "An inexperienced priest and a secondary school dropout will hardly be of much help to you."
Duryodhana gave Shakuni a long, hard look. Then he tried one more name. "Yuyutsu."
"Bastard," Shakuni spat, unable to hide his contempt. Yuyutsu was the result of the idiot king's infidelity – his betrayal of Shakuni's sister. It rankled Shakuni that his sister allowed Yuyutsu to continue living. His very existence shamed all of Shakuni's family.
Duryodhana, however, did not back down. "Sorry to bring up a touchy subject," he said, not sounding sorry at all, "but Yuyutsu is among my most intelligent and learned servants."
"And he is strong. Strong in ways that you can't imagine."
Duryodhana's shoulders suddenly stiffened. "That's… classified. Um, classified information."
"Then it's useless to us." Shakuni shook his head. "If you will be a true king, Duryodhana, then you need to look at the big picture. The kingdom must be reunited, and you must be the one to do it. I can't promise that this won't be a delicate task, however. What it comes down to, in the end, is that you must take the other half of the kingdom away from your cousin Yudhisthira."
"Easier said than done."
"I will help you."
"Then I can count you as one of my strengths?"
"Precisely." Shakuni set aside his glass. "Now we move on. We know your strengths, but what about your rival's weaknesses?"
Duryodhana laughed. "Where to begin?" He sighed. "Yudhisthira has no confidence, no charisma, no stage presence, no camera presence, and no ability to lead. He's addicted to smokerolls and drinking and probably gambling, too. His brothers are no help. Bhima is a moronic brute. The twins are sociopaths. And Arjuna is… Arjuna." Duryodhana laughed again. "All talk of conspiracy aside, I've often thought to myself that if I just sat back and waited, Yudhisthira would somehow find a way to lose his own kingdom. I mean, it's not like he can really hold onto it in the first place."
"A pleasant thought," Shakuni said, standing up slowly. "But unwise. Do not underestimate your cousin, Duryodhana. He is a devakin. They can be tricky, those ones."
Duryodhana snorted. "Yudhisthira doesn't even have a Gift. Thirty years old, and no sign of a Gift! That means he'll likely never have one."
"Still." Shakuni re-corked the bottle of lickfire that he opened. "We should watch. And wait." He reached out and took Duryodhana's hands in his. "Thank you. I am glad that we had this talk. I wanted you to know that you and I were, shall we say, on the same page."
Duryodhana stood up carefully, his hands still held in Shakuni's. "How do I know that I can trust you?" he asked.
"Because you and I share the same blood."
Duryodhana looked at Shakuni for a long, long moment. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to breathe in deeply. Suddenly, Shakuni felt as if a cold, icy wind was blowing up through his robes. He shivered, but the moment passed, and Duryodhana's eyes snapped open again. "Yes," he said, pulling his hands away from Shakuni's. "I can trust you."
Shakuni glanced around the room, and shivered again. "Is there a draft in here?"
"I don't feel anything." Duryodhana turned to leave. "Welcome to my corner, Your Majesty," he said.
Shakuni bowed low as he watched Duryodhana leave. A handsome, brave, strong man, Shakuni thought with satisfaction, once he was alone in the study again. A worthy king. Not at all like his father. Shakuni shuddered at the thought of Dhritarashtra – hateful, blind, stupid Dhritarashtra. Useless king of the fishermen who had taken Shakuni's sister away from him. Idiot king who had denied Duryodhana his birthright. Traitorous king who had betrayed Shakuni's family and his own family as well.
But Duryodhana was different. Duryodhana shared Shakuni's blood. And Shakuni was damned if he wasn't going to make sure that Duryodhana got what he deserved in life.
"It's a good thing," Shakuni said to himself as he poured himself another drink, "that I'm such a selfless, loving person."
To be continued.