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!
Rukmaratha still wasn't used to being unable to walk around unless he was surrounded by bodyguards and servants. But in Sagala, it was a necessity. In Sagala, people were still talking. In Sagala, the purist faction was still plotting. In Sagala, Rukmaratha wasn't allowed to step outside the palace unless he was wearing a light-armor vest beneath his clothing.
Rukmaratha had hoped to get away from all of that during his first official vacation as the crown prince of Madra, but this had turned out to be a naïve hope. Even without the constant risk of assassination, Rukmaratha soon discovered that a prince just did not walk around alone. It simply never happened.
But there was one place that Rukmaratha could go where the guards couldn't follow him.
"I'll be finished soon," Rukmaratha said, as he removed his expensive shoes and his guards assumed their positions around the entrance to the temple. "Wait here," he said, even though they knew better than to follow him inside. Then Rukmaratha slipped inside the temple, breathing deeply in the familiar smell of incense and lamp oil, feeling the comforting atmosphere of the old stone walls and the benign gaze of the watching god-statues envelop him.
Rukmaratha walked quietly, listening to the sound of his own bare feet slipping across the cool stone floor. It was late at night, and not a soul was around. Rukmaratha supposed that most everyone was busy either sleeping or preparing for the groom-choosing in the morning. Rukmaratha thought that perhaps he should be nervous on the eve before his first groom-choosing, but instead he felt a strange sense of ease. In fact, he felt relaxed. It was fortunate that his first groom-choosing would be an event in which he and likely hundreds of other princes were expected to fail miserably. There was no performance pressure because there was no hope for any sort of performance. Rukmaratha stifled a chuckle, which he felt might have been inappropriate to let slip while he was standing in front of a snarling statue of Kali.
Finally Rukmaratha found a chamber where a statue of Shiva sat, silently meditating in his eternally frozen stone form. Rukmaratha stood in front of the statue and stilled himself.
Eventually, however, Rukmaratha heard quiet breathing. And he realized that he wasn't alone.
Rukmaratha turned his head and saw Dhristadyumna standing a few steps away from him, his hands raised in prayer, his eyes closed. Dhristadumya's eyes suddenly fluttered open, and he met Rukmaratha's startled gaze.
Rukmaratha turned away quickly. He felt ashamed, as if he had just been caught spying on someone during an intimate moment. "My apologies, Your Highness," he mumbled quickly.
Dhristadyumna lowered his hands. "There's no need to apologize. You're… Rukmaratha, right?"
"Yes. We met at the reception."
Rukmaratha turned his head to look at Dhristadyumna again, and saw Dhristadyumna quickly reach up and wipe the corner of his eye. His fingers came away wet, gleaming in the candlelight. "Did you register for the groom-choosing?" he asked.
"I did, Your Highness."
"Good. I'm honored." Dhristadyumna wiped his eyes again. His hand was trembling, slightly. But his voice, for the moment, was still steady and even. "Peace be to Madra," he said. It was clearly a dismissal.
Rukmaratha bowed to him. "I will pray for your brother and sister," he said, as he turned to leave.
"Thank you. So will I," Dhristadyumna said. This time, his voice hitched slightly.
Rukmaratha paused for a moment, unsure if he should say something more. The part of him that had once trained to be a psychologist wanted to say something more. He wanted to say that he understood how Dhristadyumna must have felt, how lonely it would be without his brother and sister, how much he would miss them, how much he would worry about them. But the part of Rukmaratha that was becoming a king knew that now was the time to simply leave Dhristadyumna to his tears, and to walk away quietly. For Rukmaratha to offer words of comfort at this moment would nearly be an insult to Dhristadyumna. It would be an acknowledgement that he had just seen Panchala's crown prince crying alone in the dark. No, the polite thing for Rukmaratha to do, at this point, would be to forget the whole thing – and to signal to Dhristadyumna that he was going to forget the whole thing, by leaving.
So Rukmaratha turned around to leave. Unfortunately, Ashwatthama was just stepping into the hallway behind him. Rukmaratha nearly walked right into him.
"Pardon. Pardon!" Ashwatthama said quickly, bowing low. "Beg pardon, Your Majesty." He straightened his back but kept his head bowed. "My apologies."
Rukmaratha still wasn't used to people tripping all over themselves to apologize to him, much less devakin. "That's--"
"Leave," Dhristadyumna suddenly said, loudly, from the spot where he was still standing in front of the Shiva statue.
Ashwatthama started visibly. He hadn't even seen that Dhristadyumna was there.
"Leave," Dhristadyumna repeated. "Ashwatthama, you're not welcome here."
But Ashwatthama didn't leave. He stepped around Rukmaratha, slowly, and then stood his ground. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "but not even a king has the right to cast a priest out of a temple. I came here to pray."
"Very well." Dhristadyumna stood silently for a moment, smoldering with an almost palpable hatred. Then he turned quickly on his heels and said "I'm done here."
"I'm sorry," Ashwatthama said.
"I doubt you are. I thought that you weren't supposed to feel anything."
Dhristadyumna stormed past Rukmaratha without another word. Rukmaratha listened to his sharp, clipped footsteps echoing down the hallway. Even barefoot, Dhristadyumna still managed to produce intimidating-sounding footsteps.
Then Rukmaratha stepped back in front of the statue and stood still again, folding his hands in prayer. Well, no sense in leaving now. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Ashwatthama, but the other man offered nothing interesting to observe, his eyes closed and his body relaxed in prayer. The mark on his forehead gleamed in the candlelight.
Rukmaratha lost track of time, standing still and breathing in the atmosphere of the place. But after some time, he finally breathed out slowly, breaking the silence, then turned and walked toward a row of benches lining the back of the room. He sat down slowly on one, trying to be as silent as possible in doing so. Ashwatthama, however, opened his eyes and turned his head. "Can't concentrate?" he asked.
"No. Your presence feels peaceful."
"Peaceful? I've been trying not to have violent fantasies about Dhristadyumna this whole time."
Rukmaratha raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure that you're really a priest?"
"Hmm." Ashwatthama sat down next to Rukmaratha, comfortably, familiarly, without a trace of the formal deference that he had shown earlier. "Are you sure that you're really a prince?"
Rukmaratha laughed. "I could behead you for that."
"You'd have to get past Duryodhana first." Ashwatthama folded his hands in his lap. "Your presence is peaceful," he suddenly said. It was an amazingly forward thing to say, and he said it without a trace of joking in his voice. "Please don't take this the wrong way, I mean it as a compliment, but… One can tell that you weren't born a king. Because kings are always so full of chaos."
"Chaos. Huh." Rukmaratha scratched his ear. He didn't care that it was an undignified thing to do. He didn't feel, at the moment, like he had to play the part of the prince anymore. "Not yet, anyway. Give me a few years. You know, I wasn't born into your line of work, but once upon a time, I was getting as close as a person of my blood could get."
"I thought your father was an ambassador?"
"My birth-father, yes. But I was going to be a doctor. A psychologist, actually. I mean, before this happened," Rukmaratha said, gesturing to indicate his expensive clothing, and the jeweled rings on his fingers. "I finished half of my undergraduate degree before my career change."
Ashwatthama laughed. "Psychology, huh? I suppose that really is the closest thing to what I do every day. Taking care of a royal family's spiritual well-being is kind of the same thing."
"Then maybe you're already a psychologist," Rukmaratha said, "even if you don't call it that." He held out his hand. "Secret handshake?"
"…We have a secret handshake?"
"We should have one," Rukmaratha said with a longing sigh.
Ashwatthama started to laugh, when suddenly the comm unit on his belt started to buzz insistently. He picked it up with a sigh and flipped it open. "Your Majesty?"
But the voice that came from the comm unit, ringing loud and clear through the echoing prayer room, most certainly did not belong to Duryodhana. "You have to talk to him!" Draupadi insisted.
"Who--? Your Highness--?"
"Why didn't Arjuna register for the groom-choosing?!"
Rukmaratha sat very still and tried to pretend that he wasn't listening to the conversation unfold. He could hear both sides loud and clear; and Ashwatthama certainly wasn't making any move toward a more private location. "Your Highness, how did you get my access number--?"
"You're his friend, aren't you? What's going on?!"
"I-- I don't know, I didn't know that he didn't register…" Ashwatthama suddenly shot a desperate look at Rukmaratha, but Rukmaratha shook his head slowly. No, Arjuna hadn't registered.
"Talk to him," Draupadi insisted, again. "I know that you're not one of my subjects and I know that I have no right to demand anything of you. But I trust you more than I trust either of the kings of Kuru right now. Please, Ashwatthama. Will you do this for me?"
Ashwatthama nodded, even though she couldn't see him do so. "I'll try."
"Thank you. Truly." And with a click, Draupadi's voice was gone.
Ashwatthama pulled the comm unit away from his ear and held it in his hand, frowning at it contemplatively. "How did she get my access number?" he asked the placid statue of Lord Shiva sitting in front of them, his arms poised in a frozen blessing. Then Ashwatthama shook his head and muttered to himself, "Never mind." He started dialing on the comm with his thumb, as Rukmaratha sat and watched him silently, wondering if Ashwatthama even remembered that he was still there. Ashwatthama finally brought the comm back to his ear and listened for the telltale click the other end of the comm line connecting. "Arjuna, did you--?"
"Arjuna's busy," Nakula said from the other end of the comm unit, his voice every bit as loud as Draupadi's voice had been. Rukmaratha winced inwardly. Of all the many souls on all the many planets, perhaps only Draupadi and Nakula would speak into a comm unit loud enough for anyone within a ten-step radius of the other end to hear. "What, who is this? Psychopath Panchalan or Psychopath Panchalan Junior?"
"This is Junior. I need to speak to Arjuna. I can hear him yelling in the background. Did you steal his comm?"
"He can't talk to you, we're fixing his ears, his makeup will smear, and his hair dye is still setting."
"…What are you doing?"
"Uh, nothing. Nothing!"
"Tell Arjuna I'm coming over there."
"You'll never find us!"
"The comm unit that you're holding has a location pinger."
Ashwatthama hung up his comm with a click before Nakula could say anything else. "Well," he said, "even if it means having to deal with those two… I did promise Draupadi that I would try."
Arjuna hadn't lied. He would never lie to his own mother. He had just told her that if he was only to be allowed to go to the groom-choosing ceremony just to watch, well, then he would rather not watch. It was too painful to watch. So Arjuna's mother had nodded and hugged him and sent him to bed.
And it had been well past midnight, when everyone else had already gone to sleep, that Arjuna had flipped open his comm unit and called Nakula.
"So I didn't lie," Arjuna explained again, as Sahadeva massaged another glop of dye into his hair. "I told Mother that I'm not going to go just to watch. And I'm not."
"All right, so…" Ashwatthama rubbed at his forehead, as if it hurt. "So you avoid the sin of deceit on a technicality. But still, this will never work."
"Actually," said Rukmaratha, who was two steps behind Ashwatthama, "Actually, I think…" He trailed off, uncertain. "Not that I'm denying that it's insane, mind you, but…"
"See? Rukmaratha gets it. But of course he does, he's Madran. This will work because it's brilliant," Nakula said, holding up a shirt to Arjuna's shoulder and eyeing in critically, judging the way that its grey color offset Arjuna's newly-lightened hair. "And it's not against the rules, either. An unregistered groom can still ask permission to participate on the day of. It's an open groom-choosing."
"This will be just like when I came to Panchala before," Arjuna said. "I know how to make myself unnoticeable in a crowd. If I concentrate, I can make it so that nobody will recognize my face. Mr. Drona taught me how."
"Yes, but in front of broadcast cameras?"
"Look," said Nakula. "He's going to be with the military crowd. The broadcast cameras won't even be filming him until he steps forward to take Pinakin."
Rukmaratha watched the debate silently, afraid to step in and take a side. But then Sahadeva was suddenly at his shoulder, tapping at Rukmaratha's foot with his own, which Rukmaratha figured, in Sahadeva's mind, was likely a perfectly acceptable alternative for tapping someone's shoulder, especially when one's hands were dripping with hair dye. "Can you help me comb Arjuna's hair?" he asked. "It's a two-person job, really." He blinked up at Rukmaratha was his oddly-colored, inhuman eyes. "Please?"
It was an odd request, to be sure. But Rukmaratha found himself smiling just to be asked. "Of course," he said. He hadn't known Sahadeva for long, but he already knew that Sahadeva was a lot easier to read than rumors otherwise would suggest. If Sahadeva likes you, Shalya had once told Rukmaratha, he'll ask you to help him with something. It would be something simple, though. Sahadeva rarely trusted anyone other than his brother Nakula to accomplish anything important correctly.
Rukmaratha stepped behind Arjuna and watched Sahadeva begin working on one side of Arjuna's head. Then he picked up a comb and followed suit on the other side. Meanwhile, Arjuna ignored them both and kept pleading with Ashwatthama. "If I'm in uniform and in rank with the other soldiers, nobody will ever spot me," he said.
"Speaking of which, where did you get that?" Ashwatthama asked, pointing angrily at the Panchalan navy uniform that was hung in one corner of the room.
Sahadeva paused in the midst of combing Arjuna's hair. "I'd tell you, but… Right now, that's between me and God." He finished unraveling a particularly nasty wet tangle of hair, and reached for a towel to wipe his hands on.
Arjuna ignored Sahadeva's reply and plowed gamely forward with his argument. "Look, we've got two hours until sunrise, four hours until the ceremony starts. All I need to do is be dressed and in the naval ranks when it starts. That's how I get in."
"You know that impersonating a naval soldier is a capital offense, right?"
" 'Capital' as in--?"
"As in you could be executed, idiot."
Arjuna snorted. "No government would seriously execute someone for--"
"This is Panchala. Yes, they will."
"Well, that's the risk."
"Don't try to talk him out of this," Nakula said. "He's in loooove. He has the right to die for love."
"It would make such beautiful headlines," Sahadeva said wistfully.
"You told me that Draupadi sent you to make sure that I tried for her hand tomorrow," Arjuna said, eyeing Ashwatthama evenly, ignoring Sahadeva and Rukmaratha painfully combing through the tangles in his hair. "It sounds to me like the odds are stacked in my favor. So I need you to give this message to Draupadi for me. Tell her that I'll be there. Tell her not to turn down any unregistered challengers. Can you tell her that, for me?"
Ashwatthama rubbed the mark on his forehead again. He looked to Rukmaratha, as if seeking a voice of reason, but Rukmaratha looked away and resumed busily attacking a snarl in Arjuna's hair. Ashwatthama looked again to Arjuna and said, "You know, the point of a secret conspiracy is that you're not supposed to tell anyone."
"But you have to tell Draupadi for me."
Ashwatthama sighed. "All right, Arjuna. I'll do this. For you."
The sun had already risen by the time that they finished.
"Well?" Arjuna asked, buttoning up the last of his uniform buttons. "How do I look?"
The twins clapped enthusiastically. Rukmaratha joined in. The four of them were alone in the innermost drawing room of Arjuna's guest suite. Ashwatthama had left an hour ago to relay his message to Draupadi.
"Listen," Nakula said, glancing at a clock across the room, "You have to go. As in, now."
"Wish me luck."
"You're going to need it. Sure."
"Thank you," Arjuna said. Then he turned to Rukmaratha and said, "And really, thank you, too. You didn't have to help us."
"Yes I did," Rukmaratha said, quickly. "You're my family now." He winced as soon as he said it, because it sounded so horrifically trite. But it was still a lot better-sounding than I need to prove to you that I'm your family now, which would have been closer to the truth. "I'll be praying for you," he finished, lamely.
Arjuna nodded once, gratefully. Then he turned and slipped out of the room, silently, and quickly. Rukmaratha merely blinked once, and then Arjuna was gone.
"Well," said Nakula, "he should have no trouble sneaking around." Then he looked around the room, at the discarded clothes and dye-soaked towels and styling products and makeup that had been tossed about heedlessly during their frantic overnight work. "We need to clean this up and get out of here before somebody sees us."
Rukmaratha knelt down to pick up a towel, but Sahadeva said, loudly, "You don't have to do that."
Rukmaratha shook his head. "Yes I do. You're my--"
"We could get in big trouble for this," Nakula suddenly said. "Conspiring together. Lying to our parents and to Drupada's officials. Helping Arjuna impersonate a naval soldier. Stealing Panchalan military equipment – er, Arjuna's hat and boots, at least. Not to mention crimes against fashion." He wrinkled his nose. "I know that it was all for the sake of creating a disguise, but ugh, that hair color… I don't think we could have picked a shade that would've looked worse on Arjuna."
Rukmaratha stood up straight and began ticking off on his fingers. "Lying, stealing, conspiracy, and crimes against fashion. Yes, I'd say that's a fairly auspicious start to the day. Especially the day of my first groom-choosing."
Nakula snorted. "I can't believe you used to be a headsniffer, or whatever." Then he chuckled. "All right. All right, you know what? I like you, Rukmaratha."
"That's never a good sign," Sahadeva told Rukmaratha, solemnly.
Rukmaratha wasn't sure how to react, so he forced himself to laugh. Although he wasn't sure if Sahadeva was trying to be funny. Then Nakula said, "Hey, ah… You should be getting back, soon. Uncle Shalya wakes up early."
"Yes, he does…"
"I'll go with you," Nakula suddenly said. "Sahadeva, take care of the cleanup," he ordered casually, as he reached out and grasped Rukmaratha's hand. Rukmaratha was dragged halfway out the door before he could utter a word of protest.
Rukmaratha and Sh—No, his father – shared a suite of rooms not far from where the Kuru royals were staying. The king – no, Shalya – no, no, no, Rukmaratha's father – was already awake and dressed when Rukmaratha returned. He was sitting in the dining room, eating his breakfast and listening to an aide read him his comm messages. When he saw Rukmaratha and Nakula enter the room, he stood up immediately, his brow furrowed. "You didn't come back last night," he said, carefully eyeing Rukmaratha.
Rukmaratha felt his heart thumping painfully in his chest. "Ah… I was, see…. I was…."
Shalya's eyes flickered to Nakula, then back to Rukmaratha, then to Nakula again. And then, his face softened, because he had finally made the only logical conclusion that a father could make when his son showed up early in the morning with mussed hair, tired eyes, and Nakula in tow. "Were you out with girls?" he asked.
"Caught red-handed," Nakula said, laughing. He shuffled his feet, projecting an extremely convincing aura of sheepishness. "Look, it's not Rukmaratha's fault. Sahadeva and I dragged him along."
"I can believe that." Shalya sighed out through his nose.
"Hey, Uncle Shalya," Nakula suddenly asked. "Can I sit with you and Rukmaratha at the groom-choosing today?"
Rukmaratha was taken aback. He hadn't expected this. If Nakula sat beside him at the groom-choosing, it would be nothing but a purely political statement: a statement that Nakula endorsed Rukmaratha's claim to the throne. A statement being made in front of broadcast cameras from hundreds of planets, an act being viewed by countless billions of people across the galaxy.
Shalya looked equally taken aback by the request. He glanced back and forth, at Rukmaratha, at Nakula, at Rukmaratha again. Rukmaratha could see him weighing his options. On the one hand, Nakula's public endorsement would immeasurably strengthen Rukmaratha's political credibility on Madra. On the other hand, by making such a statement, Nakula was risking an explosive backlash from the pureblood faction on Madra. He might be putting both himself and Rukmaratha in danger.
But Rukmaratha understood and accepted that. He had understood the risks the moment that the High Council had ripped his textbooks from his hands, had told him that he was no longer a scholar and would never be a doctor, and had given him a crown instead. Rukmaratha told his father as much with his eyes; and finally, Shalya nodded. "All right," he said. "If Yudhisthira doesn't object."
"Thanks," Nakula said, turning to leave. "I'll see you soon, then." He left, winking at Rukmaratha before he stepped back out the door.
Shalya shook his head, watching Nakula leave. Rukmaratha watched him carefully, noting the soft expression on his face, the lingering warmth in his eyes.
For some reason, watching his father look at Nakula that way, it made Rukmaratha feel cold.
Suddenly Shalya turned to Rukmaratha and said darkly, "You stayed out all night drinking with girls on the night before a groom-choosing?"
Shalya sighed and rubbed his beard. Then, slowly, he smiled. "I would tell you never to do that again," he said, smile-wrinkles crinkling around his eyes, "but from the looks of you, I'd say that you learned your lesson."
Rukmaratha shuffled his feet. "Is it that obvious?" He didn't need to look in a mirror to know that there were dark circles under his eyes, and that his face was probably drawn and nervous.
"Sit down and eat something," Shalya said, pulling out a chair. Rukmaratha sat down gratefully, and moments later, a servant appeared over his shoulder, setting down bowls of fruit and yogurt in front of him. Rukmaratha felt his stomach rumbling, the saliva pooling in his mouth. He reached for some yogurt, but Shalya suddenly touched his shoulder and said, "Wait."
Rukmaratha froze, waiting.
And then a servant set down another bowl in front of him. The bowl was small, and plain, and wooden – a glaring contrast to the fine Panchalan porcelain laid out on the rest of the table. And in the bowl was some water, and in the water was a fish. It was thin and silver and about the size of Rukmaratha's thumb. It had no room to swim in the bowl, and merely floated, mindlessly, or perhaps aware of and already resigned to its fate.
Rukmaratha stared at his father, quizzically.
"On the morning of my first groom-choosing," Shalya said, "and, er, on the morning of the subsequent five groom-choosings that I attended before I married my first wife – ah, anyway – on the morning before my first groom-choosing, my father gave me one of these. His father had given him the same, and his father, and so on…" He chuckled. "It's a family tradition. The silverscale is a sacred fish. Consuming one will bring you a happy and fertile marriage."
"By 'consuming' you mean--"
"If it lives and dies inside of you, you will receive its blessing."
Rukmaratha stared down at the fish in front of him. "You brought this all the way from Madra?"
"I suspected that Drupada would pull a groom-choosing out of his sleeve," Shalya chuckled. "I would also have liked to have shared a decent breakfast steak with you this morning, if only for good luck. But, unfortunately, such meat is forbidden on Panchala. I have little respect for that asinine taboo, but I do have a great deal of respect for Drupada, and I would be loathe to insult his culture and traditions while a guest in his home. So. Rukmaratha, I am sorry. But this fish is the best good-luck charm that I can bestow upon you, given the circumstances."
Rukmaratha laughed, comfortably. He thought it was silly, the way that his father was attaching such melodramatic importance to their current lack of breakfast steak. But he also knew that, on rare occasions, sometimes his father was deliberately just a bit silly. And Rukmaratha knew that his father secretly delighted in having someone to laugh at his strange, subtle jokes. Rukmaratha was beginning to suspect that perhaps all kings had two faces: their dignified public face, and their more private and decidedly odder faces, which they only revealed to a trusted few. And yes, those private faces were always a bit odd, just a bit offbeat. Because all kings eventually went a little bit insane, Rukmaratha thought.
There were many species of bovine creatures native to Madra, all of which were bred and consumed for food. On Panchala and on Kuru, eating bovine flesh was sacrilege. Rukmaratha slowly realized that his father's complaint about Panchala's meat taboo was not just another one of his understated jokes, but also meant to be a lesson to the new Crown Prince. Rukmaratha nodded to himself slowly, absorbing the wisdom of his father's words. No matter how stupid another kingdom's laws may be, Madra royalty must always respect the cultures of the kings who would be their allies. This was a good lesson to be reminded of, Rukmaratha thought. And he was still new to this whole royalty thing, so he needed a lot of reminders.
But he was learning. Rukmaratha was confident that he could learn more, that he could learn to be a proper prince, and eventually a great king. The gods themselves had chosen him, after all. And his new father believed in him. And Rukmaratha loved him for that.
Rukmaratha stared down at the fish. Both he and his father held no delusions about the groom-choosing that day. They knew that Rukmaratha would not be able to pass Drupada's test. But that made Rukmaratha no different from the hundreds of other princes that had registered for the groom-choosing merely as a gesture of diplomatic support.
Still, it didn't matter if it was futile. Today was Rukmaratha's first groom-choosing, and his most public debut as the crown prince of Madra yet. Today was not just an event that Madra would be watching, it was an event that the entire galaxy would be watching.
Today was a milestone. Today was important.
Rukmaratha glanced over at his father, who was watching him intently, and even a bit nervously.
Then Rukmaratha looked back down at the fish. He slipped his hands around the bowl and slowly lifted it to his lips.
Rukmaratha had been though a lot in the past year. He had lost his carefree anonymity and his life as a privileged university student. He had once thought that studying medicine, and the science of psychology, had been difficult. But that had been the easy life, compared to what the gods had had in store for him. He had traded in his medical books and his journal papers for law and economics, for policy and politics, for scandal and hatred and light-armor vests. He accepted all of this, because it was his fate to accept all of this. But even with acceptance he still had some lingering regrets.
However, there was one thing that he would never regret, and one thing that he would always be thankful for. And that was finally being given a real father.
Rukmaratha closed his eyes and tipped the bowl into his mouth. The silverscale wriggled defiantly as it slid down his throat, but Rukmaratha refused to choke or gag. He swallowed, winced, and then set the bowl back down again. Then he looked up at his father.
Shalya was clearly impressed. "You did much better than me my first time."
"Dare I ask?" Rukmaratha said, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
"…Do you promise not to tell anyone?"
"I spit the damn thing clear across the room and it landed in a plate of blood pudding. It flopped around and made an unbelievable mess. And my father was furious."
Rukmaratha laughed, because all of a sudden he could see a mental image of the incident so clearly that he couldn't help but laugh. And his father joined in, and Rukmaratha looked up at him, and saw that Shalya was finally looking at him the same way that he had looked at Nakula, but this time with tears of laughter in his eyes.
To be continued.