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!
The high tide was the most dangerous time. The higher the water was, the closer to land the large, toothy fish could approach.
"We have defenses mounted on the cliff there and there," Kritavarma said, pointing along the edge of the cliff upon which stood his village, "and all around the wharf. If anyone ever falls into the water, the Lord forbid, the guns can hopefully take out whatever approaches them, giving us enough time to get them out." Kritavarma waved briefly to someone he spotted on the distant wharf. "Those guns have saved lives before. We hate to use them. There's always a risk you'll hit somebody instead of something with fins. But what else can we do?"
Yudhisthira nodded at this, thoughtfully. The deck beneath him rocked and heaved as their boat putted along across the bay in front of the cliffs. An attendant hovered at Yudhisthira's shoulder, holding his comm unit and a thermos of lickfire at the ready. A few more of his bodyguards were positioned around the deck of the boat, trying not to get in the way of the men reeling up the fishing nets trailing through the water beside them. Yudhisthira turned toward Kritavarma and asked, "Are the nets dangerous?"
"No. We sometimes get the dangerous ones caught in the nets, but that's why we haul the nets out and hang them in the air before opening them. To make sure that there's nothing left alive in them when we do open them." Kritavarma walked across the deck to the other side of the boat, and tapped a suspension cable supporting the nets below them. "All of our roping is actually woven of a mesh of metal fibers," he said. "Not even the toothy ones can cut their way free."
Yudhisthira took off his gloves and reached out to touch the cable. "That's extraordinary," he said.
Kritavarma seemed to eye him for a moment, then turned away. "This way, please, Your Majesty," he said, leading Yudhisthira down into the ship's cabin.
Yudhisthira and his attendant followed. Kritavarma was a huge man, broad-shouldered and thick-bearded, the type of person who could manage to look intimidating even standing next to Bhima. His voice was quiet and soft-spoken, but there was a hardened, just-short-of-grizzled edge beneath it. In his official capacity, he was and had nearly almost always been the royally-endorsed governor of the island of Khandava. In his unofficial capacity, however, he was an expert fisherman, large-animal veterinarian, and leader of the local militia that Yudhisthira technically wasn't supposed to know about. And whether this man decided to bow before Yudhisthira, officially or unofficially, would largely determine how pleasant his rule of Kuru's southern hemisphere would be.
Kritavarma led them to the back of the ship's cabin, where an old, sagging couch sat in front of a wall-mounted rack of liquor. Yudhisthira sat down on the couch while his attendant hovered alertly beside him. Kritavarma poured a drink and handed it to Yudhisthira, completely ignoring all of the usual politeness and formal ceremony required when a commoner offered something to a king. But Yudhisthira took his drink and swallowed it gratefully. "I find it quite unusual to have a king on board my ship," Kritavarma said, bluntly.
Yudhisthira looked taken aback. "I beg pardon?"
"I do not feel that there is a need for your personal inspection here."
"Inspection?" Yudhisthira looked stupidly confused for a moment, then he blinked, and choked back a laugh. "This isn't an inspection. I just wanted to meet--"
"Would there be another reason for a king to dirty his hands onboard a ship like this?"
"It's much cleaner than many I've been on," Yudhisthira said calmly, taking another swallow from his drink.
Kritavarma was quiet for a long moment, sizing up Yudhisthira with his eyes, trying to decide whether he believed that the king had actually spent time on filthy fisherman's ships or if he was bluffing. "If you did not come here for an inspection," Kritavarma asked, "what did you come here for?"
"To meet you," Yudhisthira answered. "And because I was curious."
"About the people here. About the riggings on your ship – it's different than every one I've visited before. About the guns on the wharf."
Kritavarma slowly sipped from his drink, never taking his eyes off Yudhisthira. "You are not like other kings," he finally said.
Yudhisthira gave him a curious look.
"You are especially not at all like your father," Kritavarma added. "You are much more foolish than him."
Yudhisthira nodded at this, since he didn't see what good it would do to deny it. When he and Kritavarma emerged from the cabin and back onto the ship's deck sometime later, however, Kritavarma chose to walk one respectful step behind Yudhisthira. Just one step, but it was something. The men on deck saw and took note.
Later that evening, Kritavarma had scheduled an appointment with a dairy farmer out in the countryside, on a farm nestled between the seaside cliffs and burnt-out husk of the Khandava forest. Although Kritavarma did not say as much, Yudhisthira understood that he was invited along. He had spent the day speaking with the fishermen on Kritavarma's ship. The men had at first been incredulous at the idea that a king would want to look at them, or talk to them, or listen to them. But they had quickly warmed up to the idea, and had become quite vocal and opinionated as the day had worn on.
Kritavarma almost chose to leave the foolish king behind, seeing as how said foolish king had rolled up his sleeves and was hauling up the evening nets right alongside the laughing and nearly-incredulous men on deck, but at the last minute the foolish king met Kritavarma's eyes and seemed to understand that it was time to go. He apologized to the men and bowed out, following Kritavarma to the waverunner that would take them back to shore.
The king and only one of his bodyguards climbed into the RTV that Kritavarma was driving. "The view out here is fantastic," the king said, leaning out of the RTV and watching the seaside cliffs falling behind them as they headed inland.
"It looked better before the forest burned to the ground," Kritavarma commented.
The king laughed, leaned back in his seat, and accepted a smokeroll that his bodyguard offered him. Kritavarma watched the king through his rearview window as he drove. The king was gazing out the open sides of the RTV, not bothering to shield his smokeroll from the wind, a small, faint smile on his lips. He seemed to enjoy being out in the countryside, accompanied by nobody but Kritavarma and a single bodyguard, without the dozens of attendants and armored hoverers that normally would have followed him out on an errand had he still been in Hastinapura.
Kritavarma turned the RTV off the main road and onto a dirt road, which they traveled down for a few moments before pulling to a stop some distance in front of a small farmhouse. There was a young man waiting for them out front, waving his hands to indicate a stop. Kritavarma risked another glance into the rearview mirror, and saw the king nearly fumble and drop his smokeroll when he saw the young man at the head of the drive.
"Tall, isn't he?" Kritavarma laughed.
"Good gods, he looks as big as Bhima!"
"That's just Balarama. He was practically born that tall." Kritavarma climbed out of the RTV, and the king and his silent bodyguard followed. The young man named Balarama finally saw the king and, after a moment of hesitation, as if he couldn't quite believe his eyes, decided to drop into a bow.
"There's no need for that," Yudhisthira said quickly, jogging up behind Kritavarma. Balarama didn't say anything, but straightened up just enough to give Kritavarma a searching look. Kritavarma shrugged a bit – the same shrug he would have given if a stray dog had followed him home, no point in asking questions – and Balarama straightened back up to his full height.
Balarama glanced once more at the king, mumbled a quick "Your Majesty," then turned his attention back to Kritavarma. "This way," he said, turning down another path. "Krishna's supposed to be in the pen with them, but… You know."
Kritavarma knew. At any given moment, it was ninety-five percent likely that Balarama's younger brother Krishna was nowhere near where he was supposed to be or doing what he was supposed to be doing. Still, Kritavarma liked the kid. Everyone liked Krishna. It was kind of a strange thing, really.
But this time, surprisingly – very surprisingly – Krishna was indeed right where he was supposed to be, sitting on the fence surrounding the cattle pen, looking as if he was and had been doing nothing but waiting patiently for them to arrive. He hopped off the fence when he saw Balarama approaching him, nodded quickly to Kritavarma, and bowed low before the king. "What an unexpected honor, Your Majesty," he said, touching the king's feet.
Yudhisthira looked genuinely embarrassed. "Really, there's no need for that," he repeated. "I am just Lord Kritavarma's guest for today."
Kritavarma chuckled to himself. He had never been referred to as a Lord before. But now that Indraprastha had a king, he supposed that meant that he had some sort of official noble position.
Krishna straightened out of his bow and brushed his too-long bangs out of his eyes absent-mindedly. He looked deeply-tanned and darker than usual, as if he had been working outdoors all day. Actually working, instead of running off to fool with the girls in town or do whatever else Krishna usually did to avoid his chores. Krishna pointed to one of several indistinguishable cows milling about in the pen. "Spider is right there," he said.
Kritavarma climbed over the fence and went to examine the sitting cow that Krishna had indicated was Spider. Two sets of long, fresh scars on either side of the cow's back were the only indication that the poor creature had ever been born with vestigial legs. Spider seemed to recognize Kritavarma, and lifted his head toward him, mildly curious and sniffing with his massive bovine nostrils, hoping to catch a whiff of contraband food. Kritavarma knelt beside Spider and began examining the scars on the cow's back carefully, searching for any sign of inflammation or irregularity. It was Kritavarma who had removed the poor thing's vestigial legs two weeks previously, and it was Kritavarma who was responsible for making sure that Spider healed properly.
On the other side of the fence, Krishna was engaging the king in conversation. "I've been to the library in Indraprastha," he was gushing. "It was enormous! I took my cousin Satyaki because he needed to do a paper for school. Do you really have books written by Gandharvas? We weren't allowed to access certain rooms, so I wasn't sure."
"We have a few," Yudhisthira said, modestly. "The High Council decided that only priests should be able to see them, though. I couldn't even look at them if I wanted to."
"You couldn't read a book written by a Gandharva anyway," Balarama reminded Krishna pointedly.
Krishna gave his brother a world-class pouty look. Then he turned his attention back to the king. "How is Prince Arjuna doing?" he suddenly asked. The topic seemed to drop into the conversation as if it had come out of nowhere. Kritavarma silently wondered why Krishna would ask such an odd question.
Yudhisthira gave Krishna a funny look. He also apparently thought that this was an oddly specific and nosy question. "Let me guess. You're one of his fans?" Yudhisthira asked.
Krishna laughed. "You could say that. Not like I've ever met him in person or anything," Krishna said quickly. "It's just that, you know, I think he's amazing. I heard that he fought off a whole battalion of Indra's Gandharvas and sacrificed the forest to Agni and brought in asuras to build your palace."
"That's what they said on the media console," Balarama added.
"Which is all true, of course," Yudhisthira said. "And my brother is doing fine."
Krishna looked relieved to hear this.
"I'll bring you an autograph next time," Yudhisthira said.
Krishna shook his head. "Oh no, Your Majesty. I wouldn't ask for such a thing."
"Yes he would," Balarama commented.
Krishna gave his brother another pouty look. By this time, however, Kritavarma had finished inspecting Spider's clear eyes and clean gums, so he patted the cow on the head and stood up, his back creaking. He really was getting old. He walked back over to the fence, and Balarama offered one of his huge hands to help Kritavarma up and over the fence again.
"Thank you," Kritavarma said, gratefully. Balarama was a trustworthy and serious young man. Kritavarma secretly thought that someday he would like to groom Balarama to be his successor as the official governor-cum-Lord and unofficial head fisherman, large-animal-vet, and militia leader of the island. But for the time being, Balarama was generally too busy managing his family's farm and his capricious younger brother for any sort of training. Krishna was so irresponsible that he had actually let Spider out of the pen on the night of the forest fire. Fortunately Krishna had found Spider and returned to the farm the following morning, but not before giving everyone a good scare and his brother Balarama a spike in his blood pressure. Krishna said that he had been stuck on the opposite side of the burning forest and been forced to wait out the fire all night. Which was typical Krishna – always an excuse for mysteriously vanishing for long periods of time and then turning up again right when his family had been given a good reason to think that he was dead.
"Your farm is beautiful," Yudhisthira was saying, bowing his head toward Krishna and Balarama. "Thank you for letting me see it."
"Come back anytime," Krishna was saying, waving as Kritavarma led the king and his silent bodyguard back down the path from which they had come.
Kritavarma led the king and his bodyguard back to the RTV waiting for them. "You seem pleased, Your Majesty," Kritavarma said, as Yudhisthira climbed into the back of the RTV.
Yudhisthira took his seat in the back of the RTV with just a hint of imperiousness. "This is a good place," he said, contentedly. "This is a beautiful island." He looked Kritavarma squarely in the eye. "You have good people here."
Kritavarma was not oblivious to the calculation behind this comment. The king implied that the islanders were Kritavarma's people. Kritavarma nodded his head slowly. He still thought that the king was foolish and naïve in many ways, but he did not think that Yudhisthira would make a bad ruler, either. At least he would not mind sharing authority with this seemingly simple, oddly earnest man.
"I'm not sure how much you've heard," Kritavarma said casually, sliding into the driver's seat of the RTV, "but since royal authority has been long absent from this island, we do maintain a small self-defense force, just some local men and women who volunteer their time…"
"You mean, the militia?"
"You could call it that."
"I would. Royal authority is no longer absent from this island, yet I have noticed that your group still conducts patrols and exercises around here."
Kritavarma said nothing, waiting for what the king would say next.
"My brother Bhima would like to speak to someone about that," Yudhisthira said, carefully. "He and I have no intention of disbanding any citizens' self-defense groups. We would, however, ask that you register with the office at Indraprastha, so that we may recognize you as an official military affiliation. That's necessary to allow you to handle weapons, of course. I would also request that you maintain your weapons up to standards, agree to periodic inspections, and cooperate with government authority whenever and wherever deployed."
Kritavarma mulled this offer over, stroking his graying beard. "You're quite to the point, aren't you?"
Yudhisthira gave him a disarming smile. "None of these people will listen to a word that I say without your consent, my Lord."
"I'll agree to your terms," Kritavarma said, "if you will drop this 'Lord' business."
Kritavarma glanced at the king through his rearview mirror one last time. "You really do take after your father," he finally said.
To be continued.