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 NINE: PANCHALA
They hadn't even left yet, and already Arjuna's nerves were getting the better of him. "Don't pack those," he snapped, snatching some discs and a book away from a servant's hands. "I need them with me."
"You're not," Nakula complained loudly, catching a disc that slipped out of Arjuna's arms and eyeing the label on it critically, "going to spend the entire jump studying 'conversational high-standard Panchalan', are you? Because Sahadeva and I will die of boredom if Bhima is the only one around to talk to."
"You might as well give up anyway," Sahadeva pointed out calmly from his perch on top of Arjuna's bed, sitting among a pile of clothes that servants were frantically folding and sorting into luggage. Nobody seemed inclined to tell Sahadeva that he was in the way, and Sahadeva did not seem inclined to move. "You know, Yudhisthira already speaks perfect high-standard Panchalan."
Arjuna felt his cheeks blushing furiously as he snatching the wayward disc back from Nakula's hand. "He does, does he?"
"Didn't you hear him talking to Drupada last time?" Nakula pushed aside a pile of clothes and sat down next to Sahadeva. "You're hopeless if you don't even know that much about your competition."
Arjuna stood in the midst of his frantically packing servants, clutching his books and discs to his chest and sulking. "It's not a competition," he mumbled. Then he added more loudly, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, right," Nakula said, leaning back on Arjuna's bed. "Because you're totally studying conversational Panchalan because you want to ask Dhristadyumna about his thoughts on water-mining regulations."
"No," Sahadeva countered, "He wants to impress Sikhandhi with his ability to say 'Hi, my name is Arjuna, I'm twenty-three years old, and my favorite sport is archery'."
"And this has absolutely nothing to do with a certain Panchalan princess."
"Oh no, nothing."
Arjuna glowered at them both. "Get off my bed," he said.
Nakula ignored him and turned to Sahadeva. "Of course," he speculated, rather loudly, "there's always the queer-for-Ashwatthama possibility--"
"OUT!" Arjuna shouted, reaching down to bodily pull Nakula off his bed and toss him in the general direction of the door. Sahadeva slid off the bed and followed behind leisurely, as the servants around them completely ignored the commotion. "Get out NOW."
Nakula stumbled toward the bedroom door, then caught his balance and grabbed at Arjuna's wrist. "Listen," he said, suddenly serious.
"Don't… Don't be stupid about this." Nakula shook his head sadly. "You're third in line for the throne. Yudhisthira is the king. Our parents want an alliance between Panchala and Kuru. The only way for that to happen is for Drupada's daughter to marry Kuru's king. To give Drupada's only daughter anybody less than the true king would be an unacceptable insult."
Arjuna breathed in and out slowly, trying to ignore the servants pretending not to eavesdrop on them as they busied themselves packing his clothing. "You've really thought this through, haven't you?"
"These days we really don't have much else to do," Sahadeva said, standing beside his brother. Then he glanced over Arjuna's shoulder at the pile of clothes on his bed and said, "You're not seriously going to wear that in public, are you?"
"Why?" Arjuna turned around quickly, scanning his piles of clothing. "Which one? What's wrong with it?!"
"Calm down," Nakula said, steering Arjuna back toward his bed. "Let us help you."
"Rule Number One," Sahadeva said, tossing clothes off Arjuna's bed as servants scrambled to pick them off the floor, "don't let Mom pick out your clothes for you."
"Rule Number Two," Nakula added, digging through Arjuna's drawers, "don't forget your archery gloves. How else are you going to impress her?" Nakula pulled a pair of gloves out of a drawer and stood up triumphantly. "Honestly, you should go prepared to put on a show. I mean, it's not like you have any other impressive talents."
The hangar floor was mostly reunions and hugs. "You would have thought that we hadn't seen each other for years," Nakula muttered sourly as he was forced to endure a hug from Grandpa Bhisma.
"Nonsense, we just missed you," Bhisma said, squeezing Nakula extra tightly, apparently just to feel him squirming uncomfortably. "Particularly you, Your Highness. There's been a distinct lack of explosions and laser burns without you around."
"You're really not coming?" Yudhisthira asked sadly, as Nakula managed to extract himself from Bhisma and run pelting back toward his luggage.
Bhisma shook his head. "It would be best for me not to."
"But Sikhandhi invited you."
"He invited me, but that doesn't mean that he wants me there." Bhisma shrugged the matter off. "Either way, with all of you lot gone to the wedding, somebody has to stay behind and run things."
Yudhisthira laughed nervously. "Yes," he agreed. He had left Indraprastha in the official care of Dhaumya and the highly unofficial care of Kritavarma, but many in Indraprastha had already expressed that they still felt uneasy about the fact that Yudhisthira and his entire royal family were leaving for an extended stay on Panchala.
"Give Sikhandhi my best," Bhisma said. Then he glanced around, saw Arjuna standing on top of a pile of luggage and scanning the hangar floor, and said, "Ashwatthama and his father aren't here yet. They're coming with the last party from Hastinapura."
"Understood. Thank you," Arjuna said, with a curt nod, as he hopped off the stack of luggage. Seeing no further reason to wait on the hangar floor – especially since he did not much feel like waiting for the arrival of Duryodhana and his brothers – Arjuna picked up his light travel bag, and headed toward the entrance of the large liner that would be his home for the next two days.
Arjuna bypassed the servants who attempted to take his bag from him, and found his private suite on the stately floor that he would be sharing with his brothers. He closed and locked the door to his suite, tossed his bag down on a couch, kicked off his shoes, and flopped down on top of his bed. Arjuna took a deep breath, and then sighed into his pillow. Over the past months he had finally gotten used to sleeping on his bed in Indraprastha, his bed made of maya, his bed that always felt and smelled a little bit otherworldly. Compared to that bed, this one was tame. And boring. Arjuna wondered if he would be able to sleep at all that night.
Arjuna sat up, slid off the bed, and walked back toward the couch where he had dropped his bag. He found his Panchalan discs, a player, and a pair of audiobuds. Walking back to the bed, he slipped one of the discs into his player, and nestled the audiobuds inside of his ear. He sat down cross-legged on top of the bed, and relaxed his body the way that Mr. Drona had taught him to do. Arjuna ceased thinking, and made his mind a blank. Blank, that was, except for the small amount of attention that he allowed himself to focus on the Panchalan words and phrases now being piped into his ears.
Sometime later – a long time later – Arjuna realized that there was someone on top of the bed with him.
"This doesn't seem like a very effective method of studying," Ashwatthama said, lifting an audiobud out of Arjuna's ear. "You're not even paying attention." He was kneeling on top of the bed in front of Arjuna.
Arjuna blinked once, twice, three times. "But I locked the door," he said, stupidly.
"What, you're not glad to see me?"
"I am," Arjuna said, and he grasped Ashwatthama's shoulders and pulled him into a brief embrace. "I missed you."
"We've missed you terribly," Ashwatthama said quietly, as he pulled away from Arjuna. "Hastinapura is… It's completely different, without you around."
"Why haven't you come to visit us in Indraprastha?"
"His Majesty won't grant me leave." Ashwatthama glanced away from Arjuna uncomfortably. "I've been very busy. His Majesty has assigned me all of the most important official functions since my appointment. Which is a great honor for me. And I have to be on call twenty-four hours in case a member of the royal family needs my services. With one hundred princes, that tends to happen more often than not."
Arjuna stared at Ashwatthama, watching the way that Ashwatthama fingered the golden embroidery on his collar that signified his appointment as the king's royal priest. "Are you happy?" Arjuna suddenly blurted out.
Ashwatthama seemed surprised by the question. "Yes," he said quickly. "Very. Why wouldn't I be?"
Arjuna pulled out his audiobuds and said nothing.
"Is this because you no longer have such a very high opinion of His Majesty?"
"Well," Arjuna countered, "do you?"
"There is not a soul in this world without his troubles," Ashwatthama said. "Mr. Dhaumya always told me that it was my duty to guide and serve as much as I can. I must never abandon a single soul, not even those of the wicked."
"How's Mr. Drona?" Arjuna suddenly asked, eager to change the subject.
"The same as always," Ashwatthama laughed. "With me busy and without you around, he doesn't have much to do. He's been spending more time praying and meditating and training himself than before, I think." Ashwatthama was looking away from Arjuna again. "He's very happy, to be going back to Panchala. More happy that I think I've ever seen him before. He… It will be our first time back, you know. Since."
Arjuna was silent for a moment, watching Ashwatthama carefully. Then he slid over across the bed toward Ashwatthama and said quietly, "You don't sound very happy."
Ashwatthama leaned away from Arjuna. "I'm happy for Father," he said quickly. "Isn't that enough? I don't want to spoil this for him."
"But you don't want to go back to Panchala."
Ashwatthama shook his head. "Promise that you won't tell Father about any of this?"
Ashwatthama hesitated for another moment, watching Arjuna carefully, as if determining whether he could trust that promise or not. Then he pulled his knees up to his chest and said, "No, I'd rather not go back. I have nothing but bad memories of Panchala. But for Father, it's different. Panchala is where all of his good memories are. And… It's just that I'd rather not spend so much time around Drupada," Ashwatthama said.
"You don't seem to like Drupada much," Arjuna said, sliding of the bed and standing up slowly, stretching his stiff legs and arms.
Ashwatthama also unfolded himself and slid off the bed. "Whatever gave you that impression?"
"Was that sarcasm that I just heard?"
Ashwatthama clapped a hand over his mouth. "You're a bad influence on me."
"Yeah, well… I thought that you weren't supposed to judge people. That's what you just said, right?"
Ashwatthama nodded slowly. Then he said, thoughtfully, "In a way, I should be grateful to Drupada, I suppose. If it hadn't been for him – if Father and Mother and I hadn't left – then I would never have become your friend. Not that we wouldn't have met, Arjuna. But we would have surely met as enemies. I think," he said, quietly fingering the gold braid on his collar again. "Yes. In another world, you and I might have been enemies."
"…I don't follow."
"Mmmm." Ashwatthama reached out and picked up the disc player that Arjuna had left on top of the bed. He turned it over in his hands, thoughtfully, then looked up at Arjuna. "Let's say this. If Drupada had had his way, you wouldn't need to be studying High Panchalan right now. Because you would have grown up speaking it."
There were two days on board the ship, which meant two awkward dinners in which the entire extended royal family gathered together and pointedly did not compare notes. Even Durmukha, whom Arjuna could not remember having ever felt uncomfortable around, seemed to be avoiding him. Only Duryodhana and Yudhisthira seemed able to speak to one another at all.
Not that Arjuna didn't do his own fair share of avoiding. "I don't see why he had to come along," Arjuna grumped on the third morning, leaning over a balcony railing and watching Karna swim laps in the pool down below.
"He came because Duryodhana invited him," Drona said, frowning down at Arjuna. "Now it is your choice: either swim laps, or run laps. And do not tell me you refuse to swim just because he isdown there."
"I'd rather go back to bed."
"You have gotten lazy without me around," Drona sighed. Then he pinched at Arjuna's bicep. "And you are putting on the wrong kind of weight, young man."
"Now I really want to go back to bed."
Fortunately, by that time, landfall was merely hours away.
The first glimpse that Arjuna saw of Panchala, upon emerging from the ship's boarding dock later that day, was completely different from what he remembered.
"Well, of course it is," Nakula said, when Arjuna commented on this. "You were on a commercial flight last time, remember? Not," he said, sweeping his arm to indicate the rolled carpets, smartly lined up military personnel, bowing courtiers, and saluting soldiers, "in a royal hangar like this."
"Mmm." Arjuna glanced down the landing ramp, where Duryodhana and Yudhisthira were standing at the bottom, formally bowing to Drupada. He tried not to wince as flashbulbs went off on either side of him.
"Stop frowning," Nakula hissed out of the side of his mouth, casually turning toward the general direction of the cameras and pretending to look at something on the other side of the hangar. "Try to look happy. Why wouldn't you be happy? You should be happy."
"It's because Draupadi isn't down on the hangar floor," Sahadeva offered helpfully. "Which seems awfully rude of her, actually. Dhristadyumna is here."
Arjuna tried not to twitch.
And he was doing a fairly good job of not twitching, too, until the guests from Kuru were escorted back to Drupada's palace and shown their rooms. An entire wing of the palace had been reserved for Kuru's kings and princes.
Arjuna's servants had barely begun to unpack his bags when Nakula and Sahadeva showed up in his room. Nakula grabbed at Arjuna's shoulder and said, "Come with us!"
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the 'port. Uncle Shalya's ship is landing this evening. We got permission to join the greeting party."
"Why me?" Arjuna asked, even as Nakula was already successfully dragging him out of his room. He didn't want to say that Shalya didn't seem to much like him, but it was true, Shalya had never seemed to much like Arjuna.
"Because Draupadi will be there this time," Sahadeva added. And then Arjuna went.
The hangar floor was crowded with elaborately uniformed soldiers, and somewhat less conspicuously uniformed bodyguards. Drupada had allowed Nakula and Sahadeva to stand at the front of his greeting party, but Drupada's bodyguards had relegated Arjuna to the third row of the party.
Next to Draupadi.
Arjuna coughed, and Draupadi turned toward him. She was wearing a long, flowing formal wrap. "Yes?"
"Um… Your Highness…"
"Yes?" She sounded impatient and distracted. She seemed to be wearing more makeup than Arjuna remembered from their last meeting.
"You didn't come to greet us when we landed this morning," Arjuna finally said.
She looked away from him. "I am sorry about that," she said. "I had an important meeting with my priest. It had to be at noon. It was kind of a… Kind of a divining thing."
"About your future?"
"You could say that." She glanced toward the front of the greeting party, her gaze lingering on the back of Sahadeva's head. "Your Highness, how old are your brothers?"
"Who, those two? They're nineteen."
"Why do you ask?"
"I think they're good-looking. That is all." She frowned to herself. "I don't suppose that either of them has much experience with antique archery equipment. Do they?"
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud." She glanced up toward the ship in front of them, which had landed some time ago, but was just now powering down and preparing to open its boarding doors. "Here they come," she said.
Arjuna watched as elaborately robed guards, priests, and soldiers began filing out of the ship toward them. Shalya came striding out, glittering in his royal finery. He was followed a step behind by a young man wearing slightly less gold and jewelry, and then more guards and soldiers.
Shalya's leading procession parted to make way for Nakula as he charged up the boarding ramp, Sahadeva a step behind. Beaming, Shalya caught Nakula and pulled him into a deep hug. The press gathered around the hangar floor flashed their cameras in simultaneous explosions of blinding light.
Draupadi clicked her tongue in disapproval. "Your brothers are too old to be acting like that."
Arjuna watched the young man a step behind Shalya. He had a slight bearing and a serious face, his unremarkable brown eyes flat and unreadable as he watched Shalya embrace both of his nephews in turn. Not only were his formal robes identical to Shalya's, but his hairstyle and golden headpiece were identical, too. "Who's that with Lord Shalya?" Arjuna finally asked Draupadi.
Draupadi looked taken aback by the question. "Don't you watch the news?"
"Yes I do," Arjuna lied, defensively.
"That's Rukmaratha. Lord Shalya adopted him as his heir last year."
Arjuna glanced back up toward the landing ramp. Shalya was walking down toward Drupada, one arm slung casually around Nakula's shoulders. Sahadeva was chatting enthusiastically with Rukmaratha, although Rukmaratha had a slightly baffled look on his face. Arjuna couldn't hear what was being said, but he could well guess that anybody forced to listen to Sahadeva's incoherent one-sided conversations for the first time would look similarly baffled.
Drupada finally stepped forward, and he and Shalya exchanged bows. Shalya was led through the greeting party, bowing in turn to Sikhandhi, Dhristadyumna , and Draupadi. He bowed slightly less low in front of Arjuna than he had in front of Drupada's family. "Prince Arjuna," he said.
Arjuna returned the bow.
"I would like you to meet my son," Shalya said, nudging Rukmaratha forward. Rukmaratha bowed stiffly and said, "Pleased to meet you, Your Highness."
"Likewise." Arjuna grasped Rukmaratha's hand. It felt cold, and slightly sweaty. "I would love to introduce you to my other brothers--"
"Tonight, tonight," Shalya laughed, pulling Arjuna's hand off Rukmaratha's. "There will be time at the banquet tonight." He reached out and ruffled Nakula's fiery red hair. "I'll see you two later."
As Shalya, Rukmaratha, and their party were escorted away, Nakula turned to Sahadeva and said, "So?"
"So?" Sahadeva repeated.
"Prince Rukmaratha. Verdict?"
"He's okay," Sahadeva replied, noncommittally.
"He seemed nervous," Arjuna added. "When I touched his hand. I could feel it."
"Of course he would be nervous," Draupadi sighed, "meeting the true heir of Madra for the first time."
"Hey," Nakula said, suddenly, rather loudly. "I'm not. How many times do I have to say that I'm not?"
"That's still not what the talking heads on Madra think," Draupadi said. When she noticed the confused look on Arjuna's face, she sighed and asked again, "Don't you watch the news at all?"
"It was a thing," Nakula said, when Arjuna asked him about it later. "It was just a big stupid thing. And it happened last year, so there's no point in bringing it up again now."
"What thing?" Arjuna asked, insistently.
Nakula rolled his eyes. "Uncle Shalya announced that he had adopted an heir from out of some high-ranked ambassador's family. And the media got all upset, because the purist faction wanted someone from the Madra bloodline to be the next in line for the throne. The only thing is, after Shalya, the only two left in the royal bloodline are me and Sahadeva. But I don't want to be the king of Madra. Neither does Sahadeva. So that's that." He poured Arjuna another drink. "Some people are still angry about it, though. I feel sorry for that Rukmiri."
Arjuna accepted the drink from Nakula's hand. "So wait a minute… You don't want to be the king of Madra?"
"Nah. Who would want to be a king?" Nakula flopped down on top of his bed, somehow – amazingly – managing not to spill his own drink. "I like Indraprastha. There's not that many people to rule, so it's easy, you know? And Yudhisthira and Bhima do all the work anyway, so I can do whatever I want. And – and there's snow. There's actually snow in the winter. Do you know what the climate is like Sagala? It's crap."
"But you never thought about it?" Arjuna asked. "Not once?"
Nakula sat up and shook his head. "Besides," he said, "it's not like Uncle Shalya ever offered it to me, or anything."
There were days of endless ceremonies and dinner parties, and Arjuna never saw Draupadi save for at the opposite end of a banquet hall or temple.
"Wedding in two days," Nakula finally said one evening, having invaded Arjuna's quarters and currently working on stripping Arjuna's media console for spare parts. Arjuna did not want to know what the parts were going to be used for. "What are you going to do? At this rate, you'll never be able to impress her with your ability to say 'I enjoy eating breakfast' in Panchalan."
"She's busy," Arjuna said, scratching at his ear absently. "Did you get permission to--?"
"To what?" Nakula asked, delicately unspooling wire from the gutted back of the media console. "What, it's not like you ever use this thing. You don't watch the news."
"But it's not mine, and we're guests here--"
"This will do, too," Sahadeva suddenly said, holding up what looked like an antique lamp. Arjuna hadn't even noticed him entering the room. "Can we have this too?"
"It's not mine to give you--"
Sahadeva unplugged the lamp and sat down on the floor, busily unscrewing its constituent parts.
"What are you working on?" Arjuna finally asked, resigned.
"Right now, the answer is you," Nakula answered. He waved a length of wire in Arjuna's general direction. "If you don't do something to get Draupadi's attention soon, then this entire trip will be wasted."
"That Karna," Sahadeva suddenly said. "He goes out to the sports field every morning to practice archery. The other princes and princesses go with him. They all watch him. All of the palace girls watch him. I watched him too." Sahadeva paused. "He was good. I think I'll watch him again."
Arjuna felt his shoulders stiffen. "Did you see Draupadi down there?"
"This morning. Yes."
"A-ha," Nakula said.
It was still dark outside when Arjuna wandered down to the outdoor archery range the following morning.
"Are you sure that you don't need any light?" Sahadeva asked, waving an unused flashstick at Arjuna.
"No." He narrowed his eyes. "I can see fine in the dark."
Nakula stumbled over a clod of dirt and swore colorfully. "Says you."
Arjuna took his place at one end of the range, as Nakula sat down his bag and pulled out the first set of drones. Sahadeva hovered over Nakula's shoulder, shining a flashstick down into the bag. "Save the hard ones for later," he whispered, loudly.
"Wait a minute," Arjuna called over to them, "what do you mean 'hard ones'?"
"The ones with defensive capabilities," Nakula answered, as he switched on a handful of drones and released them into the sky. "Don't worry! Nothing that you can't handle."
Arjuna's bow winked in and out of his hands, and the drones that Nakula had just released plummeted to the ground, cut cleanly in two.
"Or maybe we'll just start with the hard ones," Nakula muttered.
By the time that Arjuna had finished off nearly one quarter of Nakula's drones, the sun was barely beginning to peek over the horizon. And that was when Karna came.
"What are you doing?" he asked, striding down toward the range, flanked by Durmukha, Yuyutsu, Uluka, and a pair of young princes from Abhira whose names Arjuna could not remember. A large group of girls from Drupada's palace and from the visiting parties – servants, soldiers, bodyguards, and handmaidens – followed a discrete distance behind, watching the brewing confrontation with hungry eyes.
"Practicing," Arjuna answered. He turned away from Karna, drew his bow, and took aim at the lone drone that Nakula has just released into the sky. "His Majesty Drupada said that any of his guests were welcome to use these facilities."
"I see." Karna shrugged. "Well, do whatever." He took his place beside Arjuna.
Arjuna paused, his bowstring still pulled taught. "Are you going to shoot too?"
"Yes." Karna folded his hands, closed his eyes, and bowed toward the rising sun. "After prayer."
"Fine. You do that." Arjuna snapped Gandiva's bowstring and sent his arrow flying.
The drone zipping around the sky in front of them exploded apart in a burst of white flame. And Arjuna's arrow went sailing, untouched and unscathed, through the cloud of smoke and falling sparks of electricity left in the drone's place.
Karna lowered his bow as Arjuna turned and glared at him. "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to aim for your target. My mistake." He beckoned to Uluka. "This morning I promised to tutor Uluka with his shooting, right?"
Uluka clutched the antique bow that he had dragged onto the field with him nervously. "Right. But…" The two Abhiran princes, both appearing somewhat younger than Uluka, clustered behind him and whispered to each other nervously in an alien language.
"Will it be too distracting?" Yuyutsu asked, kindly, placing a hand on Uluka's shoulder. "If Arjuna's drones are too distracting, then we can leave."
"I don't see why we should have to leave," Karna said, rather loudly. "We've been using this field at the same time every day for the past week." He glared at Arjuna. "And I made a promise to Uluka and to Uluka's father."
"Just because you keep using this place," Nakula suddenly shouted, "doesn't make it yours."
"No," Durmukha conceded, "but it means that you knew that we would be here, Your Highnesses." He frowned disapprovingly at Arjuna. "And it means that you chose this time for a reason, instead of coming earlier or later." He looked Arjuna directly in his eyes. "Well, Your Highness? What is your reason?"
Arjuna clenched his hands tightly around Gandiva. He glanced around the shooting range, first at Karna, who looked impatient; Uluka and Yuyutsu, who were watching him nervously; Durmukha, whose eyes showed none of the kindness that Arjuna remembered from his younger years in Hastinapura; at Nakula, whose strange eyes were reflecting the burning anger of the rising sun; and at Sahadeva, who was sitting and plucking at the grass on the ground, suddenly completely oblivious to everything going on around him.
"I wanted to test myself," Arjuna finally answered, "against the great Karna."
Karna raised one eyebrow while the watching gallery, predictably, let out a collective gasp. Then, slowly, Karna began to grin. It was not a pleasant grin. "It would be rude of me to refuse you challenge, Your Highness. Previous promises notwithstanding."
"It's okay," Uluka suddenly said, nodding up at Karna. "My father always taught me to never refuse a challenge. You shouldn't either."
"Thank you," Karna said, bowing his head slightly to Uluka. Uluka and the others stepped back, leaving Arjuna and Karna standing alone at the end of the range. "We'll use your drones," Karna said, mounting a sizzling arrow on his bow.
"Fine by me," Arjuna said, drawing back his own bow.
Without a word of warning, Nakula launched another drone. It whirled through the air for less than half a second before two arrows – one white-hot flame, the other liquid lightning – hurtled toward it. The drone exploded in a burst of flashing electricity, and the fiery arrow went sailing, untouched, through the air.
Arjuna beamed as the audience behind him burst into applause. But suddenly there were two more drones in the air, and another arrow of white-hot fire already streaking toward them. Arjuna fired his own arrows, but he was too slow.
"Don't let your guard down," Karna advised jovially, as he mounted another arrow and more drones zipped across the range in front of them.
The contest went on for what felt like ages. Arrows whipped through the sky and drone after drone met a grisly airborne demise. The watching audience clapped, and cheered, and steadily grew, as more and more palace personnel heard the commotion and came to watch. By the time that the sun had well risen into the sky, the ground around the archery range was choked with eagerly watching bystanders. And still the drones flew and the arrows flashed, until a loud voice from behind the crowd suddenly said, "Oh, come on."
For a moment, the crowd fell silent. For a moment, both Karna and Arjuna paused, turning their heads toward the sound of the voice.
It was Draupadi, standing on a hill overlooking the archery range, a pair of handmaidens and bodyguards on either side of her. "Aren't you finished yet?" she shouted down at them, tapping her foot impatiently, a deep frown wrinkling her face.
Arjuna was confused by the question. He glanced around, baffled. Nakula still had drones in his hands and Karna still seemed ready to shoot, so--
"Not yet!" Arjuna shouted back up at her.
Draupadi threw up her hands. "Why don't you just save yourselves the trouble and whip out your dicks right now to compare?!" she shouted. Then she whirled around and stomped off angrily, her entourage scurrying to follow.
The watching crowd was deadly silent. Karna stared up at the spot where Draupadi had been standing, his mouth a perfect O of surprise. And Nakula tossed an unused drone up and down in his hand and commented loudly, "You know, that Princess Draupadi is kind of hot."
Arjuna had planned on sulking all day in his room with his tail between his legs, but he was less than surprised when it turned out that nobody would let him.
"What did you think you were doing?!" Yudhisthira asked, shaking Arjuna's shoulders. "We're not here to start fights. We're here to be diplomatic. Why did you think that it would be a good idea to challenge Karna?!"
"It was Nakula's idea," Arjuna mumbled. "And kind of Sahadeva's."
"I know. I know!" Yudhisthira let go of Arjuna's shoulders and paced back and forth, frowning. "Grandpa Bhisma's dealing with them right now--" Yudhisthira paused when he saw the look on Arjuna's face. "That's right. You're the lucky one."
"WHAT did you think you were doing?!" Bhima suddenly asked, stomping in behind Yudhisthira. "How could you be so stupid?!"
Arjuna refrained from commenting on the irony of being chastised by Bhima about this. He started again, "I--"
"What did you think you were DOING?!" Arjuna's mother asked, as Bhima moved aside to let her into the room. "Arjuna, what would your father think?"
"What in the five hells--" Drona shouted, pushing his way past Bhima, which appeared to not be a terribly easy task, "has gotten into you?!"
Arjuna flopped down into a chair and rubbed at his forehead. "Does anyone else have something that they want to say to me?" he grumbled.
"Yes," Bhisma said, his white beard and icy eyes suddenly looming over Arjuna. Arjuna felt himself shrink down into his seat.
"I thought that you were taking care of the brats," Bhima said.
Bhisma straightened up slowly. "An old man like me has not much taste for an exercise in futility." He turned his attention back toward Arjuna. "I hope you realize that the royalty from over fifty planets gathered here is currently gossiping about one topic and one topic only, and that is how a pair of idiot Kuru princes were humiliated by Princess Draupadi this morning."
"Karna's not a prince," Arjuna said through gritted teeth.
"You've brought shame to our entire family," Bhisma hissed, "and likely made us all the butt of jokes for years to come."
"A hilarious joke," Nakula offered brightly, dragging Sahadeva into the crowded room. When he saw the glares being directed at him, he shrugged. "What, am I the only person who thinks that what Draupadi said was absolutely hilarious? And you should have seen the look on that Karna's face. It was so worth it."
Bhisma crossed his arms over his chest. "Was it really 'worth it'?"
"Yes," Sahadeva answered.
Bhisma shook his head. "Why do I even bother asking?" he mumbled.
"Arjuna," Drona said solemnly, stepping in front of him, "do you understand what you have done? Besides shaming and humiliating your family," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Your real sin was--"
"Yeah yeah yeah." Arjuna sulked in his chair. "I wasted my arrows for a frivolous purpose."
"And that has consequences," Drona suddenly exploded, angrily, "Serious consequences! That bow is a part of you, and using it means losing a part of yourself with each arrow that you waste!" He hissed through his teeth. "Although I can see now that you do not – or choose not to – understand that at all."
Arjuna sank lower in his chair, glaring up at his teacher. "Why don't you go yell at Karna?" he snapped. "This is his fault too. And you're in his court now."
"I belong to no king's court," Drona said, "And I am still yourteacher."
"No you're not," Arjuna mumbled beneath his breath.
"What was that?"
"I said…" Arjuna straightened up in his chair slowly. "No, you're not. You stayed in Hastinapura even though you could have--"
"Arjuna," Bhisma said, sharply.
But Arjuna ignored him. "I never see you," Arjuna said to Drona, calm but with his voice slowly growing louder, "I never speak to you, I never hear of you, I never hear from you. You're not my teacher anymore."
"Arjuna," his mother said, "Don't be so disrespectful. You don't know--"
"What? What?!" Arjuna suddenly stood up and threw out his hands. "I don't know what?! Why are you taking his side? None of you," Arjuna said, sweeping his hand to indicate his brothers and mother and Bhisma, "none of you ever even liked him. I don't know why, nobody tells me anything, but even I know that much!"
Kunti was shaking her head. "Arjuna, you don't--"
"Stop interrupting your mother," Bhima growled.
"Stop interrupting me!" Arjuna countered.
"You're acting childish--"
"Oh, give him a break," Nakula suddenly said, loudly. "He's allowed to act stupid. He's in looooove."
The room fell silent.
"Oh, come on," Nakula snapped, impatiently. "It's not like everyone here didn't already know."
Arjuna looked around the room, and suddenly realized that everyone was unable to meet his eyes. Everyone, that is, except for Drona, who stood watching him quietly, his face a careful blank, his eyes cold.
"Well," Yudhisthira suddenly coughed. "Well. Arjuna, I hope that you take some time to reflect on what you've done. You two," he said, turning to Nakula and Sahadeva, "as well."
"Yeah yeah yeah. Reflect. Sure."
"Come," Kunti said, already steering the twins out of the room. "Drupada's head of staff would like to have a word with you two about some of the hardware that has recently gone missing from the guest quarters." Bhisma followed them out.
Finally Bhima turned to Arjuna and asked, "Is that true?"
"Is what true?" Arjuna asked, back to sulking.
"That you fancy Draupadi."
Arjuna didn't answer.
"You know…" Bhima was speaking slowly, carefully. "You know… She's Drupada's only daughter, which means that she has to marry--"
"That's enough, Bhima," Yudhisthira said, quietly. Bhima fell silent.
"What does it matter?" Arjuna turned away from his brothers. "She hates me now, anyway." He turned toward Drona and snapped, impatiently, "Well? Aren't you going to say anything?"
Drona narrowed his eyes. "Why would Your Highness care what I think?" He turned around and walked slowly out of the room. "After all, I am no longer Your Highness's teacher."
Arjuna waited until Drona had left, then flopped back down into his chair again.
"Arjuna--" Bhima started, but cut himself off when Yudhisthira placed a hand on his arm. "That's enough," Yudhisthira repeated. "Arjuna has punished himself enough already."
"No, he hasn't," Bhima countered. He glared at Arjuna. "Are you stupid? It's Duryodhana's fault that Drona has to stay in Hastinapura. You should blame him."
"Bhima, don't start this again," Yudhisthira pleaded.
"And if you fire Drona like that," Bhima continued, "then you're playing right into Duryodhana's hands."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Yudhisthira challenged. "Duryodhana's not our enemy."
"Yes he is. Can't you see? He's plotting against you. And scheming. Plotting and scheming."
"Bhima, those are synonyms."
"Yeah. And yesterday, when Duryodhana was describing Indraprastha's fishing industry to Drupada as if it belonged to him, and right in front of you no less, was that a synonym too?"
"You're not using that word correctly."
"The point," Bhima said, turning back to Arjuna, "is that you should apologize to your teacher."
"Agreed," Yudhisthira added, unhelpfully.
Arjuna rolled his head away from them, sinking even further down into his chair. "Later," he said, noncommittally.
"Today would be ideal," Yudhisthira pressed. "It already seems as if there will be enough awkwardness at tonight's dinner as it is." He took a step closer to Arjuna. "May I ask you to make a promise to me?"
"I promise to apologize today," Arjuna mumbled.
"Not that, but your promise is duly noted." Yudhisthira knelt down beside Arjuna and grasped his hand. "I want you to promise me that you won't challenge Karna anymore."
Arjuna sat up abruptly, pulling his hand away from Yudhisthira's. "Why not?!"
"Because when you're around him…" Yudhisthira paused, and then stood up slowly. "He brings out all of the ugliness in you."
Duryodhana found Yudhisthira and Bhima just as the two of them were exiting Arjuna's quarters. "Did you talk to Arjuna?" Duryodhana demanded to know.
"We've already taken care of it," Bhima answered, stiffly, as he moved himself to stand between the door and Duryodhana. "Have you taken care of your part of the problem?"
Duryodhana felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. "What--?"
But suddenly Yudhisthira was between the two of them, one hand on Duryodhana's shoulder, gently steering him away from Bhima. For the moment, Duryodhana allowed himself to be steered. "How is Karna?" Yudhisthira asked.
"Livid. Ashwatthama is trying to get him to calm down." Duryodhana frowned at nothing in particular. He could use Karna's temper and his tendency to hold epic grudges. Possibly. Someday. He just wasn't sure how yet. "Karna doesn't seem to take to public insults well."
"Does anyone?" Yudhisthira was still leading Duryodhana down the hallway. Bhima was gone.
"We're laughingstocks, now," Duryodhana fumed. "All of us."
"It's not so bad," Yudhisthira said. Duryodhana knew that from Yudhisthira's point of view, this was not a polite lie, as Yudhisthira was incapable of polite lies. But Duryodhana knew that Yudhisthira was also capable of being astoundingly dense. "I don't think that one rude comment from a Panchalan princess is going to do much to discourage Arjuna's legions of fans."
"Speaking of the princess," Duryodhana mumbled, "have you heard?"
"Yuyutsu got a tip-off from the palace servants this morning. A shipment of flowers came in today, but they weren't just wedding flowers." Duryodhana paused for dramatic effect. "There were floral arrangements for a groom-choosing ceremony hidden in the shipment."
Duryodhana felt a small thrill of satisfaction when Yudhisthira's step momentarily faltered. Then Yudhisthira gathered himself and said carefully, "Well, that makes sense. If all of the eligible royalty from fifty planets are already gathered here for a wedding anyway… That makes sense."
"Efficiency," Duryodhana nodded emphatically. "Now you're thinking like a king." He watched Yudhisthira carefully. "If Drupada does decide to pull off Draupadi's groom-choosing… What are you going to do?"
Yudhisthira stumbled slightly, again.
"I'm going to offer my hand to her," Duryodhana said, bluntly. "You should too." He watched Yudhisthira's careful non-reaction. "You and I, we should be worrying about forming an alliance with Panchala as soon as we can. Before they invade us again, you understand. Now that they've demonstrated that they can. Specifically, that she can."
Yudhisthira frowned slightly. "That sounds awfully…"
Yudhisthira scratched at his nose. "Do you love her?" he asked.
"I'd say I fancy her. Tendencies to make rude comments about my appointed governor's genitals aside. She's rather nice-looking." And Duryodhana had also had more than one fantasy about ripping Draupadi's military uniform off her body, bending her over backwards, and teaching her a lesson about invading other kingdom's territories and mouthing off to men. But he knew better than to share that with anyone, especially with Yudhisthira.
Yudhisthira shook his head. "I don't know if I can--"
"Listen," Duryodhana said. "You and I, our time is running out. We have to get married, sooner rather than later. You haven't been living in Hastinapura and you haven't had Grandpa Bhisma breathing down your neck about this every day, but I have. I don't know if things like 'love' are a luxury that either you or I can afford anymore."
Yudhisthira looked away from him. "Arjuna loves her," he finally said.
"I know," Duryodhana said. And as much as he would love to end up with Draupadi under his thumb, Duryodhana figured that it also wouldn't be so bad to see Arjuna heartbroken and Yudhisthira feeling deeply guilty about something for the rest of his life. It was a win-win situation, for Duryodhana at least. If there was going to be a heart-wrenching family drama over in Indraprastha, Duryodhana wanted to have a front-row seat. "But that's not an issue, here. You're the oldest so you get…" He trailed off, searching for the right word.
"I can't believe you just said that."
"You were thinking of saying it." Yudhisthira laughed. Duryodhana watched him carefully, suddenly remembering the old Yudhisthira, who had been pale and nervous and rarely seen without a smokeroll between his fingers. This Yudhisthira was different – a Yudhisthira who stood straight and tall and calm, self-assured and confident, with a smile in his eyes and the weight of a much smaller, less-populated world on his shoulders.
At least his hair was still terrible, though. And his nose. He really did need some decent cosmetic surgery to correct that awful nose.
"It will be Draupadi's choice, anyway," Yudhisthira said. "So we'll have to wait and see."
Of course, Arjuna spotted Karna and his wife at the dinner banquet that evening. Which he did every evening, and their mutual non-acknowledgement of each other was no different than on any previous evening. Draupadi pointedly would not look at him, however; she spent the evening at Dhristadyumna 's side. Everyone was watching Arjuna, of course. This was neither vanity nor paranoia on Arjuna's part. He could feel their eyes on him. But nobody spoke of what had happened on the archery range that morning. Everyone was too busy speaking about the upcoming wedding. Including Sikhandhi, who singled out Arjuna and spent most of the evening cheerfully talking his ear off.
Arjuna left the banquet as early as he politely could. He found himself a spot in the gardens surrounding the library wing of Drupada's palace, and sat in still, silent meditation for several hours. By the time that he returned to his senses, Arjuna noticed that Panchala's moons had moved far across the night sky, and he figured that it was time for him to retire to bed.
Arjuna walked back toward the guest quarters, not through the inside of the palace, but following the outdoor gardens as far as he could go. He paused when he saw a light and heard familiar voices. Feeling only slightly guilty about not announcing his presence, Arjuna slid carefully around the side of an old tree and watched.
Drona and Ashwatthama were sitting on the veranda surrounding their guest house, heads hunched together, speaking low and quiet in a language that only vaguely resembled Arjuna's textbook Panchalan. Ashwatthama kept touching Drona's right hand and saying something; Drona laughed and tried to brush him aside. Finally Drona said something that Ashwatthama must have found funny, because Ashwatthama momentarily caved in and laughed as well. Drona then brushed off Ashwatthama's hand again and said loudly, "You can come out now, Arjuna."
Arjuna sheepishly stepped into the moonlight.
"Can I get you some tea?" Ashwatthama asked, not at all surprised to see Arjuna standing there. Before Arjuna could answer, however, Drona shook his head and said, "No. No tea. Why don't you go inside and get that thing. That thing that we were talking about."
Without another word Ashwatthama stood up and stepped back into the guest house.
Arjuna stood awkwardly in front of Drona, shuffling his feet. "Um…. Ummmmm…"
Drona sighed and placed a hand on his forehead, wincing with pain. "You're an adult and soon to be a married man, Arjuna," he said, wearily. "If you cannot handle this like an adult, then--" He cut himself off when he opened his eyes and saw that Arjuna had dropped to his knees, bowing so far forward that his forehead touched the ground. "You do not have to go that far," Drona mumbled.
"I'm sorry," Arjuna said into the grass.
"I cannot even hear you when you are rubbing your face in the mud like that."
Arjuna stood up hastily. "I'm sorry!" Then he glanced down at Drona's right hand, trying to see what had so concerned Ashwatthama a moment ago. Drona's knuckles were gnarled and the veins on the back of his hand looked swollen. "What's wrong with your hand?" Arjuna asked.
"Just old age," Drona said dismissively. "It is starting to catch up to me. That is all."
"You don't look old."
"I'm older than your Grandpa Bhisma."
Arjuna peered at Drona carefully, frowning deeply. "No way." Drona looked to be half of Bhisma's age.
"Honest." Drona placed his hand over his chest dramatically. "Would I lie to you?"
"Well, all right, yes I would. But I am not lying about this." He stood up. "Things are going to be different, from now on." He looked down at his hand. "I decided that it was time for me to let the years catch up. That is all." He glanced over at Arjuna, saw the confused look on Arjuna's face, and then continued gently. "It is because I am an agrapani, Arjuna. Which means that my own flesh and blood do not belong to me. I belong to Drupada. A long time ago, Drupada decided that he did not want me to grow old, at least not yet. He wanted me to be around to teach his children and his grandchildren. So he stopped my body from aging." He shook his head, smiling to himself. "But things have changed since then. I no longer serve Drupada, and Kripi is growing old without me. So I asked Drupada to let me grow old, and he agreed to my request. Because I do not want Kripi to leave me behind. And I cannot keep clinging to this world forever. You and Ashwatthama are already all grown up. And you, Arjuna… You are going to be married soon, yes?"
There it was again. "What are you talking about?" Arjuna asked.
"Princess Draupadi," Ashwatthama said, stepping back onto the veranda. He was holding an ancient, enormous wooden bow in his arms. "You want to marry her, don't you?"
"Yes," Arjuna answered, honestly, as he did not want to lie to Ashwatthama or Drona. "If she'll have me. If it won't make my mother angry. If Drupada doesn't want her to marry my brother instead. If--"
"Trust me, Drupada has a marriage coat fitted for you already," Drona said, drolly. "Which brings us to this." Ashwatthama dropped the enormous bow to the grass with a thud. "Have you ever used one of these before?" Drona asked.
Arjuna glanced down at it. "Sometimes Gandiva looks like that, but…"
"But I never asked you to use the real thing before, have I?" Drona smacked the side of his head. "Stupid Drona." He sat back down on the veranda.
"Well, I don't see why I would ever have to."
"Trust me. You will have to." Drona paused as Ashwatthama sat down beside him. "A little bird told me." Then Drona rolled his eyes. "I cannot believe I am helping you cheat like this."
"It's not really cheating," Ashwatthama pointed out. "It's just extra beforehand preparation."
Arjuna blinked at them both, having completely lost the thread of the conversation.
"Arjuna," Ashwatthama said, suddenly very serious. "Do you really, really want to marry Draupadi?"
Arjuna nodded. "I do."
"If you do that, then Dhristadyumna will be your brother. And Drupada will be your father." Ashwatthama's eyes narrowed. "Are you all right with that?"
Arjuna hesitated. "Are you all right with that?"
"What I want doesn't matter. It's your marriage."
"But you're my friend."
"Thank you." Ashwatthama's eyes softened. "Personally, I'd rather you not be saddled with that soulless limpdicked horsetoed stabhappy humorless twat of a brother-in-law, but that's just me. And Draupadi, you know, she seems all right."
Drona's mouth was opening and closing silently. He seemed unable to speak. Finally he took a deep breath and asked, "Who taught you such language?!"
"That's what you called Dhristadyumna two nights ago."
"No, no. I did not say that he was 'stabhappy'--"
"You just don't see the way that he keeps fingering his butter knife and staring at your throat during dinner."
"Excuse me," Arjuna said loudly. He hefted the bow that Ashwatthama had dropped to the ground. "What exactly am I supposed to do with this?"
"First, you must string it," Drona said.
"You must step on the lower limb with your left foot – carefully, now – just the tip of it against the edge of your boot. Now hold the riser, and – wait, wait, no, you will want to turn your face away from the bow, just in case--"
There was the sound of snapping wood and a heavy thud. "Ow!" Arjuna cried out, his hands flying to his face. "That was my nose!"
Drona turned to Ashwatthama. "On second thought, do get that tea," he said. "This is going to be a long night."
The last day before the wedding was complete chaos. Yudhisthira managed, somehow, to spend most the day standing still while Drupada's tailors fit him for his guest robes. It was his way of staying calm before the storm. It was calm, that is, until Yudhisthira's mother found him.
"Have you seen Arjuna?" she asked. "Drupada's staff has been looking for him all day. He didn't show up for his fittings this morning, and…" She lowered her voice to a whisper that everyone within a ten step radius could have heard. "Bhima says that he saw Arjuna with a bruised eye. Do you know anything about that?"
"No," Yudhisthira said, shaking his head. "I haven't seen him. What's this about a black eye?"
"He probably walked into a wall," Gandhari said, dismissively. She was, as always, at Kunti's side. "Happens to my Sama all the time."
"We have to find him," Kunti said, urgently. "If he isn't fitted for his robes--"
"Dear, relax." Gandhari squeezed Kunti's shoulders. "You're only missing one son. Thirty of mine are currently unaccounted for. And two of them may have just landed themselves in the middle of a prostitution scandal. But do you see me worrying?" She shook her head. "You and I, we're too old to be worrying. It's not good for the blood pressure."
Kunti took a deep breath, and let it out in a long sigh. "I miss you in Indraprastha," she said, allowing Gandhari to steer her out of the room.
Fortunately, Arjuna was found later that evening. Yudhisthira caught up with him in his guest suite. Arjuna was simultaneously being fitted for his wedding robes and trying not to wince as Drupada's attendants slathered makeup on his face.
"What happened to your face?!" Yudhisthira gasped, when he saw the damage.
"Bow and… stringing and… snapping…. happened."
"All will be fine by tomorrow, Your Majesty," one of the attendants assured Yudhisthira eagerly. "We've been experimenting with several products and shades, and we believe that soon we will find exactly the right formula to match High Highness's skin tone and mask his injuries."
"The important thing," Arjuna mumbled, "izzat I can do it now. Also… maybe concussion."
Yudhisthira paused for a moment, then he asked, "So, I take it this means that you're back together with Mr. Drona?"
"Could you tell?"
Yudhisthira didn't answer. He barely sleep that night, either. He wasn't the one getting married, yet he couldn't help but feel the performance pressure mounting. During the wedding, he would be responsible for the appearance and behavior of all four of his brothers. Yudhisthira sighed and drifted off to sleep, thinking that he did not at all envy Duryodhana his one hundred younger siblings.
Trouble, of course, started very early in the morning, during the breakfast banquet. Sahadeva had dark circles under his eyes and was swaying in his seat.
"What is wrong with you?" Yudhisthira asked, trying to position himself and Bhima to block the general public's view of Sahadeva.
"The lights are too bright," Sahadeva answered, his voice throaty and coarse.
"You're hungover! What were you doing last night?"
"Hey, those Abhiran kids know how to have a good time. We just tagged along," Nakula answered, defensively. Unlike his brother, Nakula seemed bright-eyed and alert.
"You were with him?" Yudhisthira asked. "Why are you all right?"
Nakula shrugged. "It was Sahadeva's turn to get the hangover. I had the last one."
Yudhisthira was suddenly reminded that there was a good reason that he didn't spend too much time attempting to speak to Nakula or Sahadeva. "All right, just… Just take care of your brother and make sure that he doesn't embarrass us. The last thing that we need today are rumors. Or scandals."
"Definitely no scandals," Bhima added, threateningly.
The wedding was just that – a wedding – and it seemed to drag on for hours. Arjuna sat and watched the whole thing, although admittedly, he spent more time watching everyone in the audience around and across from him, than he did the actual ceremony. The ceremony was painfully boring, and not even all that different from a Kuru wedding. Sikhandhi looked happy, though. His bride looked stiff and nervous, and she flinched when cameras in the ceremony hall went off. But she seemed happy enough, being close to Sikhandhi.
It was a relief when it was over. Arjuna attempted to stay interested in the formal reception that similarly dragged on for hours afterwards, but eventually even he got tired of faking interest in the dozens of foreign princes and princesses that wanted to talk to him. Arjuna had just managed to excuse himself from a conversation with a young king of some planet or another, on the pretense of getting something to drink, when he saw them.
Draupadi was walking away from the drink table, seeming to float in her elegant formal gown. Holding her hand was Duryodhana, speaking to her as naturally and as comfortably as if he weren't even aware of the dozens of eyes staring at them. Draupadi laughed at something that he said. Arjuna couldn't hear what the two of them were saying, but suddenly, he didn't want to look anymore.
Arjuna passed by them and stopped at the food table, where a servant poured him a drink. "Are you enjoying yourself, Your Highness?"
"Yeah," Arjuna said, sipping his drink. "Sure."
That was when Arjuna felt a shadow fall across him – an enormous shadow. "That's your fourth one in an hour," Bhima said, disapprovingly.
Arjuna was momentarily confused, until he turned around and realized that Bhima wasn't speaking to him. Yudhisthira was taking another shot of lickfire from the hands of a servant. He waved aside Bhima's complaint with his free hand. "I'm fine, Bhima. Look at me! I'm fine."
"But just a minute ago you were actually laughing at one of Dhristadyumna 's jokes. That's not fine, that's drunk out of your gourd."
Yudhisthira, who did not look or sound at all drunk, sipped his drink calmly. "Diplomacy is as diplomacy does," he said.
"It looks like somebody is beating you at the diplomacy game," Bhima said, nodding toward the end of the long balcony that they were standing on, where Draupadi and Duryodhana were descending the stairs to take to the dance floor below them.
Yudhisthira frowned at nothing in particular. Then he tuned his attention toward Arjuna. "How are you holding up?" he asked. "Is your face…?"
"It's fine. It doesn't hurt."
Yudhisthira was silent for a moment, watching Arjuna watching the dance floor. Then he said, "Why don't you ask her to dance?"
"Why don't you?" Arjuna shot back, before he could really stop himself.
"Well, er, I thought that you would want to--"
"I'm sorry, I just, I thought that you--"
"I'll ask her," Bhima finally grumbled, "if neither of you will."
"I don't think that will be necessary," Yudhisthira suddenly said in a small voice.
Bhima looked away from the dance floor and closed his eyes. "Don't tell me. It's Nakula, right? It's Nakula, isn't it."
"No," said Arjuna, watching the slight red head bob across the dance floor below them. "It's Sahadeva."
Sahadeva whirled his dance partner across the floor and right toward Duryodhana and Draupadi. Draupadi saw them coming, laughed, and let go of Duryodhana's hands, as Sahadeva's partner let go of his. The switch was over and done before Duryodhana even seemed to realize that he was twirling around a complete stranger.
Bhima whistled low under his breath. "That took some guts. Look at Duryodhana's face."
"That's my boy," Nakula said, proudly. Arjuna nearly jumped. Nakula seemed as good at inexplicable appearances and disappearances as Sahadeva was. "Well, come on," Nakula said defensively, when he saw Yudhisthira giving him his prissy frown of disapproval. "We needed some Indraprastha representing down there. And with the three of you all fooling around uselessly up here…" He shrugged.
Yudhisthira's frown deepened. "Duryodhana looks upset."
"That's what makes it funny," Nakula said.
The music stopped eventually, and the couples on the dance floor started drifting up the stairs toward the food and drinks. Sahadeva and Draupadi ascended the stairs linked arm-in-arm. Draupadi was flushed and slightly out of breath. A stray strand of blue-black hair had escaped from her elaborate topknot, and she was brushing it impatiently out of her eyes with her free hand.
"Here they are," Sahadeva said, leading Draupadi toward his brothers.
Draupadi half-bowed to Yudhisthira. "Your Majesty." She acknowledged the others with a nod, then turned toward Yudhisthira again. "I hope that you are enjoying yourself this evening, Your Majesty."
"I am. We all are. Your father is a great and generous host."
"Thank you." Draupadi gratefully took a shot of lickfire that Sahadeva offered her into her hands. "Tonight is my brother's last night on Panchala." Her eyes suddenly looked sad. "We all want this night to be special. For his sake."
Yudhisthira, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva nodded gravely. And once again, Arjuna suddenly felt as though he were missing something important. He tapped the shoulder of Nakula, who was standing closest to him, and mouthed silently, "What?!"
Nakula's eyes widened. He quickly looked around, and then grabbed Arjuna's hand and dragged him a few steps away from the others. Arjuna had one last glimpse of his other brothers and Draupadi standing around talking, before he and Nakula were swallowed into the crowd gathering around the food and drinks. "You mean you don't know?" Nakula hissed.
Arjuna shook his head. "Is Dhristadyumna going away somewhere?"
"Not Dhristadyumna . Sikhandhi."
"Oh. Is he going away somewhere?"
"But why? I thought that Sikhandhi was the next in line for the throne."
"Except that he's totally not." Nakula sighed. "Look, Draupadi was right, don't you ever watch the news?! Oh wait, okay, I forgot, you're too busy whacking yourself in the face with antiquated archery equipment to pay attention to the real world." Nakula pulled Arjuna into a corner where the crowd milling around them would be unlikely to hear their conversation. "Listen to me. Normally the king's eldest son inherits the throne, right?"
"Yeah. So why--?"
"Because Sikhandhi had… a scandal. And the High Council on Panchala declared him impure and unfit to take the throne. So Dhristadyumna is going to get the throne. And Sikhandhi, after he's married, is going to move to Dasarnika. Because King Hiranyavarna of Dasarnika doesn't have any sons, so he offered to give his throne to Sikhandhi, if Sikhandhi would marry his daughter. Which he did. Are you following this?"
Arjuna blinked, confused. "But Dasarnika is hundreds of light-years away! It takes months to jump there--"
"Yeah. Which is why it took so long for Hiranyavama and his daughter to get here. The Dasarnika party was the last party to arrive, remember? And that's why," Nakula said, tapping Arjuna's forehead, "when Sikhandhi leaves for Dasarnika tomorrow, we can assume that none of us – and certainly none of his family here – are going to see him again for a long, long time."
"Oh," Arjuna said, in a small voice.
Nakula sighed again. "Good gods, Arjuna, don't you ever pay attention to the gossip channels?!"
Arjuna fiddled with his empty drink glass in his hands. "But I like Sikhandhi. I was kind of thinking, it would be nice if he were the king of Panchala. Then there probably wouldn't be any more fighting between Kuru and Panchala. Sikhandhi likes us all too much to start a war with Kuru."
Nakula laughed softly. "You're right. I hate to say it, but you're right. Imagining this planet under the rule of Sikhandhi…" He laughed again, louder. "Arjuna, sometimes you can actually be funny!"
"What was this scandal thing?"
Nakula abruptly stopped laughing. In fact, his jaw seemed to drop open. "You… You don't know?!"
"For the love of fish Arjuna have you been LIVING UNDER A ROCK?!"
The crowd immediately around them fell silent and turned to stare. "Shhh, shhh!" Arjuna said desperately, even though it was already too late. "Nakula!"
"Oh, for the love of--!" Nakula smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. "You know what, Arjuna? I'm not going to tell you. You can ask someone else and make an ass of yourself, or look it up on the internet later. Gods, I… I can't believe I'm related to someone so dumb. Come on," he said, taking Arjuna's hand and pulling him back into the crowd, which had just begun to mind its own business again. "Let's go back."
They rejoined Arjuna's other brothers in a matter of moments. Draupadi was still with them, talking and laughing. "Where did you two go?" she asked, when she saw Arjuna and Nakula again.
"Nowhere," Nakula said quickly, and unconvincingly. "What'd we miss?"
"Nothing much." Draupadi turned toward Arjuna. "Are you feeling all right, Your Highness? Your face looks a little… swollen."
"It's nothing," Arjuna said, just as quickly and as unconvincingly as Nakula had spoken. "I--"
And all at once, there was Sikhandhi, striding joyously toward them, his arms held out wide, his new bride Dasarna a mere step behind him. Arjuna watched mutely as his brothers and Draupadi expertly stepped aside, making way for Sikhandhi to swoop in and wrap Arjuna in a tight, bone-crushing hug. "There you are! How've you been?! I've been looking all over for you!"
"But you saw me last night," Arjuna said, his voice muffled from within the many folds of Sikhandhi's wedding robes. "We talked for hours at dinner--"
"Darling," Sikhandhi said, mercifully letting go of Arjuna and turning toward his new wife, "These are my valued friends, the rulers of Indraprastha." Dasarna bowed. Sikhandhi them grabbed Arjuna's shoulders and pulled him close. "Arjuna and I go waaaay back!"
Draupadi suddenly laughed. "We didn't meet them that long ago!"
"Oh yeah, when was it… That contest thing. You should have seen me wrestling," Sikhandhi said to Dasarna. "I was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself."
"You really should have seen him," Nakula piped up. "He was mostly naked and covered in oil for the better part of an entire day."
Yudhisthira looked suddenly appalled, but everyone else laughed. Especially Dasarna, who laughed so hard that tears appeared in the corners of her eyes. "Oh, oh!" she gasped. "I don't suppose that any of you have pictures?"
"I have pictures," Sikhandhi said, letting go of Arjuna long enough to wrap his arms around Dasarna's waist, take her hand in his, and kiss it slowly. "But let us save the kinky bits for the honeymoon, darling."
And it was that line, rather than Nakula's comment, that suddenly caused all of them to fall into an uncomfortable silence. Draupadi stared down at the empty drink in her hands and said nothing. Arjuna watched her hands trembling, and knew what she was thinking. Sikhandhi was never going to come back from his honeymoon. Arjuna suddenly wanted to say something to her, something like It's all right or You can still call him or I miss the people in Hastinapura too, but he was paralyzed, unsure of what to say, afraid that he would say the wrong thing, afraid of being improper.
"Hey, sis," Sikhandhi said, brightly. Draupadi looked up, startled. "You know that thing that Father was talking about?" Sikhandhi suddenly winked, as Draupadi's eyes slowly widened and her face grew taut and tight. "I'm thinking it's going to go down in about five… four… three…."
Draupadi suddenly glanced around frantically. "Who has a watch? What time is it?!"
On cue, the music from the dance suddenly ceased, trumpets blared, and the crowd fell silent. The other people on the balcony suddenly surged forward to get a view of the dance floor, where King Drupada was standing, his white beard a stark contrast against his deep purple robes, holding out his hands to command total silence.
"My esteemed guests," Drupada said, his booming voice nearly deafening in the otherwise total silence.
Arjuna peeked over Yudhisthira's shoulder, trying to get a better view of the dance floor. Then he turned his head around, and saw Draupadi standing in the back of the crowd, beside Dasarna, looking miserable. Dasarna wrapped her arms around Draupadi's shoulders. "You're prepared for this," she said, comfortingly, but forcefully. Draupadi shook her head, but said nothing.
"I thank you all," Drupada said, "for honoring myself and the illustrious King Hiranyavarna with your presence at the union of our son and daughter. This is indeed a joyous night," Drupada said, beaming from ear to ear, "and a night for celebration. It is a night to celebrate the loving union between two souls. And a night to wish for the blessings of many more. Which is why," Drupada said, slowing down for dramatic effect, "which is why… The gods and my trusted priests have both advised me that tomorrow, although I will be losing one son, I will also have the opportunity to gain another." Drupada swept out his arms dramatically. "Tomorrow, at noon, my daughter Draupadi will choose her husband!"
For a moment, only a stunned silence greeted this announcement. And then, the crowd roared.
Arjuna turned around and saw that Draupadi and Dasarna were gone, having made a discrete exit. Arjuna wondered how they had accomplished that. He turned around again and fought back to his spot at Yudhisthira's shoulder. Yudhisthira wasn't cheering, but instead looked thoughtful and more than a little bit morose.
Drupada silenced the crowd with another wave of his hand. "Any suitable candidate for my daughter's hand must first pass a simple test," he said.
The last few dwindling cheers and claps from the crowd suddenly ceased.
Dhristadyumna walked solemnly out to his father's side, carrying something enormous in his arms, wrapped in a silver cloth. He silently set whatever he was carrying down on the ground in front of his father. Then he pulled off the silver cloth and tossed it aside.
It was a bow. An enormous, antique wooden bow.
Arjuna's eyes widened, and he felt a strange flutter in his stomach. It was a familiar bow.
"This is Pinakin," Drupada said, "the bow of Lord Shiva himself. The Lord has instructed me to use this bow as a test to choose Draupadi's husband."
The crowd erupted again, this time not with cheers. There was a strange mixture of cries of disbelief, spontaneous songs of praise, and prayers uttered from those with enough sense to feel awe in the presence of such an object. Nakula scoffed loudly. "That's not Pinakin. It looks like a piece of junk…" He trailed off when he saw the look that Sahadeva was giving him, though.
Arjuna suddenly grasped at Yudhisthira's arm, without even realizing what he was doing. Yudhisthira winced at the sudden pain. "Arjuna," he hissed.
"Can't believe it," Arjuna muttered under his breath. "Can't believe it can't believe it can't believe it. That's the bow that--"
"The test will be simple," Drupada said, his voice booming over the agitated rumblings of the crowd. "Whosoever can string Pinakin, and use it to shoot a target which I will reveal on the morrow, will be eligible for my daughter's hand. Of course," he finished, his cold and wicked grin barely hidden beneath his flowing white beard, "nor ordinary man will be able to lift this bow."
"Of course," Nakula echoed, shooting Arjuna a meaningful glance.
Arjuna swallowed nervously.
"Of course we are," Duryodhana answered huffily, corralling Dusshasana and Durmukha with one sweep of his arm. "Well, not all of us, of course, that would take too long, Drupada would probably throw a fit if we all registered for the groom-choosing, but--" He suddenly stopped and craned his neck, glancing around frantically. "Where is that Angan idiot?!"
"In. In!" Duryodhana shoved his brothers through the doors to their own wing of the guest palace, and whirled around, searching for Karna in the thinning crowd around him. And there he was, holding Vrishasena's hand, with Susena balanced on his hip. Shrutakiirti, her belly already swollen with her third pregnancy, was talking to someone a few steps away from them.
"Hey. Hey!" Duryodhana strode over to Karna. "I need you. Now." He paused when he saw the look on Vrishasena's face. "Not for long, though."
"I'll be back soon," Karna said, handing Susena over to a waiting attendant as Shrutakiirti took Vrishasena's hand.
Vrishasena said nothing, but finally smiled and waved his tiny free hand in a gesture of goodbye. Duryodhana pulled Karna away from his family quickly. "Listen, I need your help."
"The groom-choosing tomorrow--"
"Wait a minute, what?!"
But by that time Karna had already been ushered into the private wing that Duryodhana shared with his family. Duryodhana slammed the outer doors shut behind him. "We need a strategy," he said, bluntly. He surveyed those whom had already assembled themselves in a circle of cushions surrounding Duryodhana. Dusshasana and Durmukha, arguing over a list of names scrolling down the screen of Durmukha's electronic reader; Ashwatthama, sitting calmly with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap; Shakuni, impatiently fidgeting with a deck of cards that he kept shuffling and re-shuffling in his hands; and Yuyutsu, standing at the back of the room and pouring tea for everyone. Duryodhana pushed Karna into his seat and then stood back, lording over the room with the comfortable ease of a born king. "Strategy," he repeated.
"What, you want to marry Draupadi?" Karna asked, managing to sound both bored and impatient. Duryodhana rankled silently. "You can't. You won't even be able to lift that bow."
"That's true," Ashwatthama said, quietly but firmly. "No human can touch Pinakin." He shook his head. "Only a devakin might be able to. And that's a big 'might.' There's a reason that Drupada made Dhristadyumna carry out Pinakin tonight. Because Drupada himself could never have touched that bow. Only a devakin like Dhristadyumna can."
"No, actually. I don't think so." Duryodhana dismissed Ashwatthama's words with a wave of his hand. "It can't be just devakin. Any worthy human could touch Pinakin, or else there would be no point to this whole contest in the first place. Theoretically."
"Theoretically I think you're making that up," said Ashwatthama.
"No, he's not," countered Dusshasana. "Why wouldn't a worthy human be able to touch Pinakin? What, you think that you devakin are really so special?"
"Could you touch it?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. I have."
"And there you go," Shakuni said, still shuffling the cards in his hands. "If a priest like Ashwatthama can touch this bow, then surely someone as great as the King of Kuru will be able to handle it."
Ashwatthama gave Shakuni a slightly aghast look. "Right," Duryodhana said quickly, nodding in agreement. "Any worthy human will be able to do it." He turned his gaze toward Ashwatthama, regarding him evenly. "Do you not think me worthy, Ashwatthama?"
"I think that you are worthy to marry Draupadi," Ashwatthama answered, calmly. Duryodhana noted that Ashwatthama did not agree that he was worthy to touch Pinakin, and mentally filed this observation away for later. For the moment, however, he still had bigger problems to deal with.
"You," Duryodhana said, suddenly pointing to Karna. "Could you do it?"
Karna gave him an inscrutable look. "Yes," he said. "But--"
"Yes? Really? Are you sure?!"
Karna sighed. Then he stood up, cracked his knuckles, and with a whisper of white flame his bow suddenly appeared in his hands. Shakuni, at least, was impressed enough to momentarily pause in his shuffling. "This," Karna said, resting his bow against his foot, "is Pinakin. In a sense."
"Wait, wait, wait," Duryodhana said. "You told me that your bow was Vijaya."
"It is. But it's also Pinakin. But also not."
Duryodhana turned expectantly toward Ashwatthama.
"All right. This is kind of hard to explain," Ashwatthama said slowly. "But… Pinakin and Vijaya are the same. But not."
Duryodhana glared at Ashwatthama.
"Forget about the metaphysical idiocy," Shakuni said, having put down his cards long enough to accept a cup of tea from Yuyutsu. "If the Angan can meet Drupada's challenge, then we'll register him."
"Hold up," said Karna. His bow vanished as he placed his hands on his hips. "I can't enter the groom-choosing. I'm already married."
"So?" Shakuni shrugged. "You're royalty now. You can take more than one wife."
"But I don't want to marry Draupadi!"
"You don't have to," Duryodhana said, soothingly, placing one hand on Karna's shoulder, gently trying to calm him down. "All that you have to do is win her. Win her, and she'll be yours to do with as you please. Then you will give her hand to me."
Now it was Karna's turn to look mildly aghast. "That has got to be against the rules."
"Actually," said Durmukha, scrolling through the official registration information that he had downloaded to his reader, "According to this, it's not. The groom can choose to offer Draupadi to a different husband. However," he added, looking up at Duryodhana pointedly, "Draupadi has the right to refuse any potential groom, even a man who can string and shoot Pinakin."
Duryodhana's face darkened momentarily, then he regained his composure. "Not a problem," he said quickly. "She won't refuse Karna. Who wouldn't want to marry Karna? I'd marry Karna." He turned back toward Karna. "So you'll do this for me, right?"
Karna refused to meet Duryodhana's gaze for a long moment. Then he finally nodded his head and said, "Sure. For you."
"I knew you would." Duryodhana pinched Karna's cheek. "Karna, you are truly the greatest friend a man could hope for. If I were more drunk I would kiss you!" Then he let go of Karna and turned back toward Dusshasana and Durmukha. "Well, that's settled. Draupadi will be mine by this time tomorrow." He was beaming from ear to ear. "Do we have a registrant pool narrowed down yet?"
Durmukha tossed his reader to Duryodhana. "Dusshasana and I picked the fifteen that we think we least likely to embarrass us." He watched Duryodhana scroll through the list and nod at what he read, thoughtfully. "Drupada expects every eligible prince here to register for the groom-choosing, but even he understands that we're in a different situation. All that we need to do is register enough of us to show our support of Drupada. Any more, and we'll outnumber all of the other suitors here. And that would just look terrible."
"Then it's decided," Duryodhana said, clicking the reader shut definitively. "Fifteen on Durmukha's list, plus me, Dusshasana, and Karna." He tossed the reader back to Durmukha. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he snapped. He pointed at Karna and Dusshasana in turn. "You two. Get the others and queue up for registration. I'll be there shortly." He pointed at Shakuni. "You--"
"Find the betting pool? Done already. Although I have to admit, the odds are definitely against you."
Duryodhana sighed. "You're not betting on the outcome of this thing, are you?"
"I don't see why not."
"Go. You. Get out of my sight." Duryodhana herded Karna and his brothers and Shakuni out the door, impatiently. Ashwatthama followed a step behind them. "Oh yeah, and you," Duryodhana called to Ashwatthama as he left, "pray to every deity that you know! Even the obscure ones. It can't hurt to have them on our side."
"As you wish."
Ashwatthama left, and Duryodhana closed the door behind him. He turned around and saw that the room was now deserted, save for himself and Yuyutsu. Yuyutsu was gathering up the used teacups that the others had left behind. He paused and looked up at Duryodhana. "Are you really going through with this?" he asked.
"What, the groom-choosing?" Duryodhana waved his hand, and all of the remaining used teacups in the room scrambled through the air and assembled themselves neatly on Yuyutsu's serving tray. "Of course I am. If anybody can handle Pinakin, it's me. You know that. You and I, we're more powerful than anyone else, human or devakin." He grinned. "Karna is just my back-up plan."
Yuyutsu still looked worried. "Tens of thousands of people will be at the groom-choosing tomorrow," he said, "and hundreds of billions will be watching it on their consoles. If you… If you do something too amazing, people will want an explanation. They'll want to know how you did it. What will you do then?"
"Nothing," Duryodhana snapped, impatiently. "That's a non-issue. Look, this Pinakin thing will let any worthy person handle it. Any person with power. I'm worthy, and I have power. That's all there is to this."
"Maybe you're right," Yuyutsu said, although he still sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.
"Of course I'm right. Am I ever not right?"
"Because it wouldn't be right," Kunti said with an indisputable air of finality. "You can't marry before your older brothers do, Arjuna. And it will do nothing for our kingdom's security, either."
"Security?!" Arjuna spluttered, barely restraining himself from shouting at his own mother.
She was sitting calmly, her aged but still deft hands braiding red and yellow silk as she regarded Arjuna silently. "Yes. Security," she responded, calmly. "The marriage of Drupada's only daughter is our only chance to form a peaceful alliance with Panchala. Draupadi must become our queen. She cannot marry a low-ranking prince like you. She must marry a king." Kunti turned toward Yudhisthira, who was standing silently at her shoulder. "You understand, don't you?"
Yudhisthira nodded slowly, although his face was pinched and drawn.
"I'm sorry, Arjuna," Kunti said softly, turning her attention back to her braiding. "I truly am. We all are. We know how you feel about her. But you're a prince, and you have to learn to understand. Love is a selfish luxury that you may indulge in only as long as it does not interfere with your duties to your people." She finished her braid, knotted the end, and stood up slowly. "You will not register for Draupadi's groom-choosing. I forbid it."
Arjuna's mouth opened and closed, and his throat worked silently. "But," he croaked, "But--!"
"You too," Kunti said, draping her braided silk over Yudhisthira's shoulders and pausing to make a last adjustment to the flow of his robes. "You must do your duty for your people, as their king." She touched his cheek, and smoothed a lock of hair away from his face. "She will make a wonderful wife for you."
"But he'll never be able to touch Pinakin!" Arjuna suddenly burst out, angrily. "I can! I know because I've tried!"
Yudhisthira stiffened. But Kunti turned to Arjuna and said rather angrily, "Your brother is a devakin. Your brotheris the son of Dharma. He is more than worthy to touch the Lord's weapon."
"But he can't shoot--!"
"I've had some practice," Yudhisthira said, quickly. "A long time ago, with Grandpa Bhisma. And besides," he said, a bit nervously, "it can't be that different from shooting a hunting rifle, is it?"
"It's completely different!"
"Are you finished yet?" Bhima suddenly asked, entering unannounced. He grabbed at Yudhisthira's hand. "The registration queue is getting pretty long. We'd better make an appearance down there soon."
"And while we're on the subject," Arjuna continued angrily, completely ignoring Bhima's presence in the room, "How come Bhima gets to register and I don't?!"
"Because Bhima is old enough and high-ranking enough to win Draupadi without scandal," Kunti countered, "as long as, in the end, he still hands her over to Yudhisthira to marry."
"So why is he so much more important than me?"
"Because he actually fulfills his duties and runs our military and has ninety percent of the cabinet administration answer directly to him!" Kunti was in full queen mode now, shoulders squared and eyes blazing, refusing to move an inch in the face of Arjuna's epic complaining. "You do nothing but waste your every day training your body for no purpose and doing a poor job of keeping your younger brothers out of trouble! You haven't earned the right to marry someone like Draupadi yet!"
Arjuna stared at her, his eyes wide and disbelieving. Neither Arjuna nor his mother bothered to acknowledge Bhima or Yudhisthira as they backed slowly out of the room.
Finally Arjuna swallowed and managed to croak indignantly, "But I got the palace for all of you." Then Arjuna winced inwardly. Somehow, he had just managed to make even that incredible feat sound astoundingly lame.
Kunti sighed. "I know, Arjuna."
"I love her."
"No you don't. You just think that you do. Arjuna, you hardly know her."
"I know that I want to marry her."
Kunti sighed again. "Go get some sleep," she said. "You need to calm down."
Arjuna turned away from her and mumbled something under his breath.
"I will permit you to attend the groom-choosing tomorrow, as an observer sitting beside me in the audience," Kunti said, "and as long as you promise not to try anything stupid."
Arjuna clamped his mouth shut and promised nothing. Kunti finally left him alone, slipping silently out of the room.
"It doesn't look so scary," Durmada said, eyeing Pinakin critically as it sat beneath its glass case behind the registration table. "It's not even sparkly."
Vikata stifled a laugh.
"It's not supposed to be sparkly," Duryodhana snapped, a bit impatiently. "At least, I don't think so. It's a weapon of a god. It's too dignified to be sparkly."
"His is sparkly," Durmada said, grabbing at Karna's arm.
Karna shook his head. "I wouldn't say that, not exactly…"
They were standing in line with hundreds of other princes and dignitaries from across the galaxy, waiting for their turn to register. Duryodhana cast one quick glance over his brothers – only seventeen of them – and Karna. They were the backup plans, each and every one of them. Then he turned his gaze back toward Pinakin, resting beneath that glass, displayed behind the registration table. It looked perfectly normal, old and wooden and beaten, as if it had been made by human hands hundreds of years ago. Then he turned his head again, scanning the gathering crowd idly, until he saw Yudhisthira and Bhima entering the hall together. Duryodhana caught Yudhisthira's eye and waved him over. Yudhisthira turned to Bhima, said a few words, and then apparently sent Bhima to the back of the line to secure a spot. Bhima shot one glare in Duryodhana's general direction before stomping off. Then Yudhisthira smiled pleasantly and walked over toward Duryodhana.
"I was going to let you cut in line with us," Duryodhana said.
Yudhisthira laughed. "That's very kind of you, I suppose."
"Your mother made you wear one of these things too?" Duryodhana asked, fingering the red and gold braid hung around his neck. Then he looked around and asked, "Where's Arjuna?" He felt a small thrill of glee when he saw Yudhisthira's eyebrow begin to twitch.
"He's not registering," Yudhisthira said quickly. "Are you all registering together?" he asked Duryodhana's brothers. He briefly glanced at Karna, then glanced away. His eyes roamed for a moment, then he settled his gaze back on Duryodhana and said nervously, "We're being stared at."
"No, you're being stared at, and that's probably because you just showed up here without Arjuna."
"Mmmm." Yudhisthira frowned deeply. "Has it always been that obvious to everyone?"
Yudhisthira leaned in close to Duryodhana and asked quietly, "Do you think that you can do it?"
"What, string and shoot Pinakin?" Duryodhana shrugged. "Can you?"
Yudhisthira thought for a moment. "Bhima can," he said, finally.
"Well there you go." Duryodhana glanced over Yudhisthira's shoulder and saw someone far more interesting than Yudhisthira. "Hey, isn't that the Rumkiri kid from Madra?"
"His name is Rukmaratha--"
"Rukmaratha!" Duryodhana exclaimed, stepping out of line and neatly around Yudhisthira, walking toward Rukmaratha with open arms.
Rukmaratha looked momentarily startled, then regained his composure, and bowed low. "Your Majesty."
Duryodhana barely waited for Rukmaratha to straighten up before he grasped Rukmaratha's hands in his. "I'd been looking forward to meeting you!" he gushed. He watched Rukmaratha's face carefully, gauging the nervousness in the young man's eyes, but noting his surprised yet pleased expression. "And you can drop the 'Your Majesty,' we're practically family."
"We are family," Yudhisthira said, firmly. He bowed his head quickly, slightly to Rukmaratha. "Did you register for the groom-choosing?"
"Yes," Rukmaratha said, managing to pull his hands free of Duryodhana's overenthusiastic grasp. He laughed nervously. "I figured that I should register, since all the princes here are registering. But it's not as if I stand a chance. Then again, neither do most of the candidates here. So at least I won't be humiliated alone. I mean…." He managed to glance away from both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. "I'm not a devakin."
"That doesn't matter," Duryodhana said, quickly, vehemently. And perhaps a bit too loudly. Heads were suddenly turning in his direction.
Rukmaratha's face drained of color. "My apologies, Your Majesty. I didn't mean to imply--"
"A piece of advice," Duryodhana said, drawing himself up to his full height and towering over the younger man. "You'll never become a true king so long as you keep comparing yourself to them."
Rukmaratha stared at Duryodhana silently for a long moment, his eyes wide and bright. Then he turned away quickly. "I have to go," he said, stepping away from Duryodhana and Yudhisthira as quickly as dignity would allow.
Yudhisthira said nothing. Finally, Duryodhana said, "No offense, you know."
"I know," Yudhisthira said quietly. "I should get back to Bhima," he said. Then he too left, walking slowly toward the back of the line.
Duryodhana returned to his spot in line. "No offense," he repeated quickly, tossing the apology haphazardly in Karna's general direction.
Karna shrugged and said nothing.
To be continued.