MAHABHARATA STORY

by Nenena

AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti and Steelehearts for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER ONE: HASTINAPURA


Yudhisthira sat very still, concentrating on keeping his back straight and his legs together, as he had been taught. He folded his hands in his lap and allowed only his fingers to fidget, discreetly. He had never been in a place like this before - a place with plush velvet carpets and windows that soared four stories tall and gold and silver on the walls. He had never been surrounded by so many people before, not all at once. It was more than a little unnerving - especially since those people were all, each and every one of them, staring at him.

The silence behind their blank, hostile stares was even more unnerving. The fact that they all appeared to be Yudhisthira's age or younger did nothing to make Yudhisthira feel any better. There had been adults in this place a few moments ago, but then the adults had gone, ostensibly to discuss something very urgent and dire. The children had been left alone, in silence.

Yudhisthira's fingers fidgeted restlessly in his lap. He was painfully aware of how he looked, especially compared to these princes. He had no gold jewelry or fancy robes, and his hair had gone far too long without a decent trimming. Yudhisthira turned his eyes away from the other princes who were staring at him (it felt like there were a hundred of them!) and looked for something, anything, to catch his attention. His eyes flickered briefly to his brother Bhima, who was sitting at his side, looking just as uncomfortable. Cradled in Bhima's lap, baby Arjuna, their youngest brother, dozed lightly, sometimes opening his eyes to gaze lazily around at the opulence around him, then yawning and closing them again. He alone seemed unfazed by any of his surroundings.

Yudhisthira's eyes flicked back toward the crowd of princes gathered on the far side of the lobby, and yes, they were still staring at him as if he were some sort of horrifying yet fascinating insect that they had found crawling up one of the walls. None of them had said a word since the adults had left them. Yudhisthira cast his eyes back down into his lap and prayed silently and fervently for a hole to open up in the ground beneath him and swallow him whole. He started mentally running through the names of every god and goddess that he knew, hoping that one of them would hear his prayer and strike him dead on the spot. That would at least save him the pain of--

Suddenly, he heard footsteps. Yudhisthira looked up and saw one of the princes approaching him and his brothers, striding across the lobby confidently, his jaw set and determined. The other princes watched him with wide eyes, as the hush in the room grew deeper and more expectant.

Yudhisthira watched the strange prince approaching. He was tall and handsome and wore a gold earring in one ear - a sign that he had completed his thread ceremony. The prince came to a halt squarely in front of Bhima, clasped his hands, bowed, and said, "Welcome."

"Hi," said Bhima, although his forehead was creased with bafflement.

The prince straightened up and held out his hand. "I'm Duryodhana," he said. "You don't have to call me 'Your Majesty' if you don't want to," he added generously.

Bhima shifted Arjuna so that he was resting on only one of his hands, then held out his free hand to grasp Duryodhana's. "Bhima," he said. Then he added, with a nod of his head in Yudhisthira's direction, "And that's my older brother."

Duryodhana suddenly jerked his hand away from Bhima's. His eyes flickered back and forth between Bhima and Yudhisthira. Now his face was a perfect mirror of the confusion that had been on Bhima's face a moment earlier. "Oh," he said. "But I thought..." He trailed off, unsure how to proceed.

Yudhisthira sighed. Perhaps this was only to be expected. Bhima was two years his junior, but a full head taller than Yudhisthira was. Yudhisthira finally raised his head to meet Duryodhana's gaze, forced out a nervous smile, and said, "I'm--"

That was when Arjuna, who apparently had woken up fully a few short moments ago, decided to open his mouth and wail.

Nearly everyone in the room jumped - the baby's cry had cut through the nervous silence like a knife. Bhima immediately turned to Yudhisthira and asked desperately, "Now what?"

"I don't know, maybe he's hungry--"

"He just had a bottle, the stupid pumpkin--"

"Try rocking him - Not like that, Bhima, don't SHAKE him--!"

"This is rocking him, I'm ROCKING him--!"

"Oh, hush," Duryodhana suddenly said, snatching the screaming baby right out of Bhima's arms. Before Bhima could protest, Duryodhana had given the baby three quick rocks, stroked his head, and whispered, "Hush now, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay," three times over. Arjuna abruptly ceased crying, fell silent for a moment, then raised his chubby arms toward Duryodhana's face and waved them around, laughing. "Well, hello there," Duryodhana said, tapping at Arjuna's nose with his finger.

Bhima's jaw dropped. "How did you...?"

"I've had a lot of baby brothers," Duryodhana said, handing the baby back to Bhima. Arjuna laughed again, then began contentedly sucking his thumb. "What's his name?" Duryodhana asked.

"Arjuna."

" 'Stupid pumpkin' works, too," Bhima added.

"Bhima--"

"What? He's round like a pumpkin, and he's stupid."

"He's a baby," Yudhisthira countered.

Duryodhana suddenly leaned forward - very far forward - and squinted at Yudhisthira's face. Yudhisthira started, but did not cringe away from this intrusive examination. "What are you doing here?" Duryodhana asked, bluntly.

"Papa brought us here," Yudhisthira said, licking his lips nervously. "Because... Because he told me that I'm to study to become the king."

The room descended immediately into a deep, oppressive silence. Nobody even dared to breathe.

Suddenly Duryodhana pulled away from Yudhisthira, straightened up, threw back his head, and laughed. "That's won't happen," he said, rolling his eyes.

"Why not?" Bhima demanded angrily.

"Because I'm the Crown Prince. And my papa's the king." Duryodhana snorted derisively. "What, have you been living in a cave?"

Bhima and Yudhisthira exchanged glances, then Yudhisthira answered, with as much hauteur as he could muster, "Actually, the cave smelled much nicer than this awful palace of yours, thank you very much."


II.

"How could you DO this?!" Dhritarashtra asked, punctuated his words with angry flailings of his arms, apparently not particularly minding that he had already managed to slap Vidura twice in the face by doing so. "You can't just waltz in here after being gone for fifteen years and expect me to crown your son the next king--"

"I didn't know that you would have a son, too--"

"Didn't know? Didn't know?! YOU were the one who told me to get married before you left! You were the one who practically told me to go forth and procreate--"

"I never said anything like 'Go forth and procreate--' "

"Actually," Vidura pointed out quietly, "You told him 'It's up to you to produce an heir to the throne.' Your exact words."

"SHUT UP, VIDURA," the other two snapped at him. Dhritarashtra grabbed Pandu by the shoulders and demanded angrily, "And how DARE you bring a son into the world when you knew full well that you wouldn't be around to--" Dhritarashtra abruptly froze, his eyes widening with a sudden realization. Then he began shaking Pandu's shoulders and shouting, "HOW IN THE FIVE HELLS did you have KIDS anyway?! I thought your balls were--"

"Er," Pandu said, suddenly flushing bright crimson.

"They're devakin," Kunti said, stepping forward from the corner of the room where she had been standing silently, with Madri at her side.

"I thought so," Bhisma said quietly. He turned toward Kunti and asked quietly, "All three of them?"

She nodded, her eyes blazing with both pride and defiance.

"And they're sons born of you?" Gandhari asked coldly.

Kunti nodded again.

"Then they're not Lord Pandu's sons," Gandhari said, "not truly."

"Legally they are," Kunti said through gritted teeth. "In every sense that matters, they are."

"She's right," Bhisma told Gandhari, who immediately shot him a glare cold enough to freeze water, even through her blindfold. Then he turned back toward Kunti, who at least looked as if she were not fervently wishing him a messy and prolonged death at that very moment, and asked, "But how can one woman bear three devakin?"

Kunti suddenly looked away from him, unable to meet his eyes.

"A devakin child is a rare blessing," Bhisma pressed on. "I've never heard of the gods blessing a single woman with more than one devakin child, let alone three."

Kunti took a deep breath, then answered, her cheeks flushed bright red, "I know a mantra... A mantra that summons a god and grants me a devakin every time I utter it."

"Oh, she knows amantra!" Gandhari exclaimed, throwing up her arms. "How convenient! That must make it so very easy for her to undermine her husband any time she feels a little itch for--"

"Please," Dhritarashtra said firmly. Gandhari fell silent, but everyone in the room could practically feel her seething.

"I asked her to do it," Pandu said frankly, gingerly extracting the front of his shirt from his brother's white-knuckled grasp. "It was so lonely and quiet out in the forest, and-- and-- I'd always dreamed of having a son of my own, I couldn't bear the thought of finishing my life without ever having held my own son in my arms. And when Kunti told me that she knew that mantra... I asked her to have a son from Dharma."

"Dharma!"

"So that he would be born a wise and just king," Pandu said, sounding miserable.

"So Yudhisthira is the son of Dharma?" Bhisma asked, thoughtfully.

Dhritarashtra swallowed, a sound which revealed a the nervous dry click in his throat. "So you actually created your first son to be a king?! And you never once stopped to think that I might have--"

"It wasn't like that--"

"You thought that I wouldn't be able to get married? That no woman would ever--"

"I would NEVER think something like that!" Pandu protested, shocked.

"Yes," Dhritarashtra agreed, "It does sound like there was a startling lack of thinking on your part."

"I know, I know!" Pandu moaned, clutching at his own hair. "And by the time that Yudhisthira was a year old I thought that it wasn't fair for him to be raised all alone, so I asked Kunti for another child, and she..."

"Vayu," Kunti said, holding up her chin defiantly.

"The wind?!"

"Bhima's father," Kunti went on. "Because I knew that Yudhisthira would need someone strong to always support him."

"You witch," Gandhari spat. "You were planning for him to take over the throne from the start, weren't you!"

"What did you just call me?" Kunti asked, her voice low and dangerous.

"Kunti, please," Madri pleaded, reaching for Kunti's arm.

"You heard what she called me!"

"Dhritarashtra," Gandhari snapped, daring to address her husband by name, "I don't care if he's your brother, you've promised the throne to Duryodhana since his birth and you can't--"

"We promised our Yudhisthira too--"

"You can't say that Yudhisthira would make a better king than Duryodhana just because he's a devakin--"

"Nobody ever said such a thing--"

"But--"

"Enough," Bhisma suddenly said, stepping angrily between Dhritarashtra and Pandu and pushing them both apart, forcefully. He then turned his head toward Pandu and asked, "Why did you come back to us, Pandu?"

"Because of my sons," Pandu answered. "Because I know that Yudhisthira must be the next king of our world - because it was what he was born to do. And because a king cannot be raised in a cave in the wilderness, far away from his subjects. Because I want Yudhisthira to have the type of education that he can only have here. Because I want Yudhisthira to meet and interact with other human beings. He's never even met anybody outside of his immediate family before today. And... Because of me. Because I've been getting headaches, and because I've been getting thinner, and because I want to know that Yudhisthira will be here and safe and taken care of before I have to leave him."

Kunti reached out and squeezed Pandu's hand.

Dhritarashtra shook his head, slowly. "I've been telling Duryodhana since the day that he was born that he was to be the next king. Everyone has been telling him that. Pandu, you don't know - you can't even begin to imagine - how much he's studied, how hard he's worked, toward that goal. He's a good kid and he's been focusing his entire life on preparing to take my place someday. You can't just ask me to rip that away from him. He's my son."

"Yudhisthira has been studying, too," Pandu said quickly. "He's amazingly bright - so smart you wouldn't even believe it - we didn't have much with us out in the wilderness, but we taught him how to read and write and you should see that kid handle a bow..." Pandu's voice trailed off, and he finally glanced up and met his brother's sightless eyes, sighing miserably. "I really mucked this up, didn't I?"

"Yes. Yes, you did."

"I always dreamed that I would live long enough to introduce my son to you, someday," Pandu said, his eyes growing dangerously shiny. "I thought that it would be the happiest moment of my life."

Dhritarashtra sighed and rubbed his temples. "I would have hoped likewise," he said, "If I hadn't given you up for dead fifteen years ago. I never thought-- I don't think that any of us expected--"

"--That I would live this long?"

"...Yes."

Pandu then looked up at Bhisma. "What should we do?"

Everyone around Bhisma suddenly fell silent, waiting for his decision.

Bhisma rubbed at his temples for a moment, stalling for time. Then, reluctantly, he knew that he had to make a decision, and so he spoke, and prayed silently that his words were the right words. "Both of my nephews," he said, placing one hand on Dhritarashtra's shoulder and one hand on Pandu's shoulder, "have been crowned the king of this planet. Both of them have a son in line for the throne - either son born, unfortunately, in the exact same year at the exact same date. One was born a human and has proven himself worthy of the title of Crown Prince. The other was born of a god and has not yet had a chance to prove himself worthy of anything. Therefore, it only seems fair that Prince Yudhisthira be given that chance."

"You mean," Vidura said slowly, "you're going to pit them against each other?"

"No," Bhisma said. "No, this will not be a competition. But nevertheless, both Duryodhana and Yudhisthira are to be raised and educated as if they were both already chosen to become the future king. And in the end, when they are both old enough and have both had ample opportunities to show us all their strengths and weaknesses, only one will be chosen."

The room was hushed and quiet for a moment. Then Madri said, very softly, "That is a competition. And it sounds cruel. After all those years of work, only one of them will become a king..."

"It may be cruel, perhaps," Bhisma said, "But it is also the only fair method of choosing that I can suggest."

"And who will make the final decision?" Gandhari asked. "None of us here are impartial in the matter--"

"Vidura and I," Bhisma said quickly, "as well as the High Council of Brahmins and any other judges that we deem worthy."

"I can't make a decision like that," Vidura protested.

"You must."

Vidura fell silent, but his face was long and worried.

Pandu took a deep, trembling breath. "I think... Yes. That does seem fair."

"Duryodhana has an advantage," Bhisma felt it only fair to point out. "He's advanced further in his studies that Yudhisthira has, he knows how to handle himself among polite society, and the public already knows and adores him."

"Yudhisthira's a genius," Kunti said, immodestly. "He'll breeze through his studies. And just let us give him a haircut and some proper clothing, and get him out in public. He'll have as many swooning fangirls as your pretty little prince does."

"What about Bhima?"

"Bhima knows how to behave himself," Kunti said, tersely. "Most of the time."

"I'll handle Bhima. And Yudhisthira. I can give them both all of the extra tutoring that they need, I promise," Bhisma said quickly. "Now agree and shake on it," he told both his nephews, sternly.

Dhritarashtra and Pandu shook hands. "I'm so sorry about all of this," Pandu said, his voice shaking. "So sorry."

Dhritarashtra suddenly wrapped his arms around his brother and hugged him fiercely, whispering, "You're here and you're alive, aren't you? There's that to be thankful for. There's always that."

Pandu laughed and returned his brother's hug with equal enthusiasm. "I missed you so much."

"Now," Bhisma said, sounding relieved, "I hate to interrupt such a heartwarming moment, but, Pandu, your sons--"

"Yes?"

"You know that all devakin have to be registered with the Council of Brahmins and tested for Gifts. When they're less than a year old."

"Er--"

"Yes, I rather thought that you hadn't done that."

"Exile," Pandu said, pulling himself away from Dhritarashtra's embrace, "which means that any contact with civilization is absolutely forbidden, remember?"

Bhisma sighed. "I'll take them tomorrow morning, then," he said. "Meanwhile, you all have something that you should probably be explaining to your sons right about now."


III.

Dhritarashtra had expected that Duryodhana would not react to this news well. He was not disappointed.

"HIM?!" Duryodhana shouted, accompanying himself with a whistle of air and a soft thud, the sound of him throwing a pillow angrily across the room. "That ugly, smelly kid who crawled out of a cave?! You're handing my crown over to HIM?!"

"No," Dhritarashtra said calmly, "that hasn't been decided yet. When you two are old enough, a choice will be made--"

"But I'M supposed to be king! You PROMISED me I would be king! I'M the one who's working hard every day and studying my brains out and-- and-- and now you're going to take that all AWAY from me?!"

Dhritarashtra winced. For a prince who was supposedly not very bright, Duryodhana seemed to have a knack for saying exactly the one thing that he needed to say to hurt someone the most. "Duryodhana, please--"

"Please, what?!" Duryodhana practically snarled.

"Think of your little brothers. Think of Dusshasana."

This, at least, made Duryodhana pause. "Yeah?" he asked, cautiously.

"I know that you would do anything for them," Dhritarashtra said, reaching out to touch his son's shoulder. "Because you're a very good big brother. And I'm very proud of you because of it."

Duryodhana said nothing.

"Pandu is my brother," Dhritarashtra said, "but he was the king before I ever was. His son has every bit as much a claim to the throne as you do - at least according to our laws. And I can't deny the son of my brother at least a chance, just a chance mind you, to prove that he is worthy to fulfill that claim."

"But your brother ran away," Duryodhana said. "Dusshasana would never do something like that to me." Then he sniffled and said, "You promised me. You promised."

"Duryodhana--"

"Leave me alone," Duryodhana said, shrugging his father's hand off his shoulder. "Please."

Dhritarashtra stood up slowly, and turned away from his son. The two of them had been sitting in Duryodhana's bedroom, and now Dhritarashtra sensed that their conversation was finished. He started to walk away from Duryodhana, paused, then turned around and said sternly, "You're thirteen years old already. That means that you're a man. So, be a man, Duryodhana. I know that you deserve this crown more than anybody else in the world. So be a man, and prove it to the world."

Then he left, leaving his son alone with the sound of his own teary sniffles.

Gandhari was waiting for him outside. "That didn't sound like it went very well at all."

"Let him get some sleep. He'll have a clearer head in the morning."

"I doubt it," Gandhari said sharply. "A father's betrayal is hardly something that a son can shrug off so easily, even a son as strong as Duryodhana."

"I did not--"

"Yes, you did. You betrayed him tonight, in every way that matters."

"...Have you talked to Dusshasana and the others?"

"Yes, although the little ones didn't seem to understand what was going on."

Dhritarashtra sighed, wearily. "What have we done?" he asked. As he had expected, his wife did not answer him.


IV.

Yudhisthira did not like this. First, he had been taken by the hand and led through a hallway filled with people, many of whom had flashing cameras that blinded his eyes, all of whom seemed to first gasp in awe and then start shouting angry questions when they saw him. Then, Bhima and Arjuna had been taken away by his mothers. Then he and his father had walked through a brightly-lit, gilded, dazzling and terrifying palace for a very long time until they were finally led by some servants into a strange room filled with couches and cushions and a large, elegant four-poster bed.

"You can sleep here, tonight," Yudhisthira's father said. Then he sat Yudhisthira down on a couch and said, very quietly, "But first, we need to talk."

Yudhisthira cast his eyes down in his lap, hoping that his father wouldn't see his lower lip trembling.

"Do you know why I brought you here?" his father asked.

"So that I could be a king..."

"Yes. Well. Well... Right now, we aren't sure if you can be a king."

"I know. Duryodhana told me."

"But Duryodhana might not become the next king, either. One of you two will become the next king, but only one. Since nobody around here knows how wonderful you are yet, they're going to give you a chance to prove that you're worthy of becoming a king." Yudhisthira's father shook his shoulders gently, grinning at him, trying to cheer him up. "All you have to do is show all these people what a great king you'll make. And then you'll be the king. All right?"

"What about Duryodhana?"

"He'll be trying just as hard as you are to show what a great king he can be. You'll just have to... You'll have to be a better king than he is."

Then Duryodhana will surely hate me, Yudhisthira understood instantly. But he nodded and said, "Yes, Father."

"Well, then." Yudhisthira's father gave his shoulder one last encouraging pat, then he stood up and stretched wearily. "I'd best be going to bed, now. I suggest that you do the same. You've got a big day tomorrow." Then he left, and Yudhisthira was alone.

The couch that he was sitting on, Yudhisthira suddenly realized, smelled unfamiliar, and terrible. He brushed his long, overgrown bangs out of his eyes and frowned. Now, what? Was he supposed to actually sleep on top of that monstrous, four-postered thing in the center of the room?

Before Yudhisthira could spend a moment more stewing over his unpleasant lot in life, however, the doors to his room burst open. "Your Highness!" a strange man wearing white and red robes, with his hair in a ponytail and a prim mustache on his lip, exclaimed jovially. He led a procession of men and women in crisp white uniforms into the room. Yudhisthira stared at them all, his eyes widening with what could only be described as utter terror. "Do not fear, Your Highness, we are here to serve you," the ponytailed man said with a bow. Then he straightened up and clapped his hands, once, sharply. And then the men and women in white uniforms fell upon Yudhisthira.

One tugged off Yudhisthira's shirt, but before he could shout a protest at this indignity, another was wrapping a soft, furry robe around his body. Two more suddenly appeared and ushered him toward the back of the room, where a fifth appeared to open a door in front of him. Then Yudhisthira was being pushed into a marble-tiled chamber filled with clouds of steam and realized that his feet were sliding toward a pool in the floor filled with warm, swirling water. He hissed in pain as his toes dipped into the edge of the water.

"Is the temperature unpleasant, Your Highness?" the man with the ponytail inquired.

"It's too hot!"

Again, that sharp, single clap; again, figures in white scrambling through the clouds of steam, turning dials and flipping switches. Yudhisthira dipped his toe in the water again; "It's much better, thank you," he said. And then he was promptly stripped of his robe and pushed into the water.

He shouted in protest and was rewarded with a lungful of searing hot water. Yudhisthira gasped and spluttered, and then was suddenly being held upright. Two young women wearing very, very little in the way of coverings over their breasts and hips were in the water, with him. But they were not there for pleasure, or for play. One briskly swept Yudhisthira's wet hair off his forehead and then gathered it in her hands, attacking it with a pair of scissors. The other had a grainy sponge in one hand and a bar of soap in the other, and set to work vigorously (and painfully) scrubbing every inch of Yudhisthira's skin in a very business-like manner.

"Hey, hey!" Yudhisthira protested, as severed locks of his own hair began showering down around his shoulders. "I can do that myself--"

"Apparently not," the woman with the sponge said, with a teasing, coy smile. "Look at all this dirt!"

"I'vebeenlivinginacave," Yudhisthira mumbled apologetically. Then he gasped and stuttered, "N-N-Not down th-th-there!"

She was keeping her eyes politely averted from where her hands were working her sponge, but she still answered Yudhisthira smartly, "Believe me, Your Highness, you need a good scrubbing down here more than you need it anywhere else."

The other girl laughed as she clipped off the last of Yudhisthira's split ends. "If you're going to be a king, Your Highness, you might as well learn to enjoy the perks and privileges."

"But this isn't--"

Before Yudhisthira could finish, however, he was being hauled out of the water and wrapped in his robe again, and then ushered out of his private little bathing room. In an instant he was back in his bedroom, and being pushed forcefully into a chair positioned in front of a large mirror. One of the girls from the bath sauntered in behind him, now wearing a robe over her otherwise scant coverings. "If you hold still, Your Highness, this will be done before you can blink your eyes." She then set to work blasting Yudhisthira's hair and face with hot air blown from a tool that looked like a squat, shortened version of something Yudhisthira's father would use to hunt birds with, while at the same time painfully pulling out every single tangle and snarl in his hair with a tiny, ineffectual comb. Then, mercifully, she finished whatever she was doing with hot-air gun, and began combing and brushing Yudhisthira's hair back from his face. "There," she said, finally finished. "Don't you look handsome?"

"I supposeā€¦ Thank you."

When everything was said and done, another servant presented Yudhisthira with a glass of fresh water, and then the ordeal was over.

"Pleasant dreams, Your Highness," the man with the ponytail said, bowing low as he and the rest of his troupe of servants left Yudhisthira's room, closing the doors behind them.

Yudhisthira sighed and slipped out of his robe, fumbling to put on the nightclothes that the servants had left out for him. At least they had finally gotten clued in to the fact that he was capable of dressing and undressing himself, and that he would rather do just exactly that - himself.

Yudhisthira circled his room, turning off every lamp that he could find. There were so many of them! And some of the complicated switches utterly baffled him at first - this lamp had a dial which only made the lamp grow dimmer or brighter as he turned it, another was controlled by a switch not on the lamp itself but located on a cord hanging behind the lamp. When Yudhisthira finally managed to click off the last of his lamps, he stood still for a moment, amazed that his room was not yet dark. A bright, persistent glow was filtering into the room, invading every crevice and shadow. Yudhisthira turned his head and saw that the source of this glow was coming from behind the curtains covering the tall windows on one side of his room. The curtains were thick and dark, but the light concealed behind them still managed to filter in around their edges and corners. Yudhisthira padded in his slippered feet over to the curtains, and hesitantly reached out and drew one aside. What he saw beyond the window made him gasp.

It was the city of Hastinapura, laid out before him like a carpet of glittering jewels. Everything was aglow - the buildings, the streets, the automobiles running in a steady stream along the roads around and beyond the palace, the flying machines lighting up the skies above. Then Yudhisthira turned his head toward the darkened sky, and his heart sank. He could see the pale moon floating in the sky above him, crisp and clear, which meant that there were no clouds in the sky, and yet... And yet, the stars were gone. Yudhisthira squinted as hard as he could, but he could not even see the polestar that his father had taught him and Bhima to use as a point of reference whenever they were out in the woods after dark. The sky was dull and lifeless, an expansive matte black emptiness, its stars having been swallowed up by the polluting glow of the city surrounding Yudhisthira.

Yudhisthira sighed and closed his curtains. This did little to change the amount of light filtering into his room. He found his way to his bed - it was as easy for him as if he had been walking in broad daylight. He pulled back the covers and crawled cautiously on top of the bed, then slowly tried to stretch himself out on top of it. It was no good. Whether he tried to lie on his stomach or his back or his side, he sank so far into the infuriatingly soft mattress beneath him that it felt as if he were being swallowed whole. With a shudder of revulsion, Yudhisthira finally gave up and slipped off the bed and onto the floor, pulling some of the covers with him. That was better, he thought, settling onto a comfortable position, curled up on the floor beside his bed.

Yudhisthira lay like that for a very long time, unable to sleep. His room was too bright. The sounds of traffic from the city below the palace thundered in his eardrums. He had no idea where Bhima and Arjuna had been taken. He had never even slept this far away from Bhima or his father or his mothers before, never in his life. He missed the sound of their breathing, the sound of insects singing in the woods at night, the sound of night winds rustling branches and leaves.

Yudhisthira finally fell asleep when the moon was already low in the sky outside his window. But he tossed and turned, plagued by vague and unpleasant dreams.


V.

Somebody was shaking Yudhisthira awake. "Your Highness - Your Highness!"

He sat up slowly and groaned. Everything was bright. There were unfamiliar faces all around him. "Wha...?"

"Your Highness, what are you doing on the floor?!"

"Better than the bed," Yudhisthira said, standing up shakily, his blankets still wrapped around his shoulders. Almost immediately, there were hands snatching his blankets away from him, more hands steering him this way and that, toward the bathroom where he had been last night--

"I can do that myself," he suddenly said, when someone started to forcefully peel his shirt off his back. The servants backed off respectfully and left Yudhisthira alone in the bathing room.

Left in a moment of blessed privacy, Yudhisthira peeled off his nightclothes and sank gratefully into the pool of hot, swirling water waiting for him. The temperature was not nearly as intolerable as he had found it last night, for some reason. The marble floors of the room were still painfully cold against his feet after he emerged from the bath waters, and the gold and silver gilding everywhere dazzled his eyes enough to make him feel dizzy. Still, he managed to finish his bath, wrap himself in a robe that someone had thoughtfully left out for him, and fumbled around the bathroom until he found a toothbrush and some paste to clean his teeth and tongue with. The artificial blue paste tasted terrible, and made Yudhisthira cough and gag. Once this unpleasant chore was done, Yudhisthira cautiously returned to his bedroom.

Thankfully, the crowd of servants that had awoken him was gone. His bed was made and the carpet looked as if it had actually been cleaned and vacuumed while he had been occupied in the bathroom. And lying on top of his freshly-made bed was another unpleasant surprise.

"I can't wear that," Yudhisthira said to nobody in particular.

He approached the unfamiliar clothes, cautiously, almost afraid that they would rear up and bite him. He reached out nervously and rested his fingertips, and then the palm of his hand, against the shirt - one of the three shirts, which looked as if they were to be worn in layers - lying closest to him. It felt cool and smooth, and more luxurious than anything he had ever worn before.

Yudhisthira sighed, and then slipped out of his robe.

He quickly slid on the pants that had been left for him, and, as he was struggling with the seven golden buttons which were supposed to close his fly, he glanced up and momentarily caught sight of his own reflection in the tall mirror mounted on the other side of his room. He looked very pale and thin and awkward. The curling, trailing edges of his deva-markings were visible curved over the top of his right shoulder and along the edge of his collarbone. His face was too long and his nose had a slight, unattractive bump on its bridge. His wet hair was plastered to the sides of his head, and Yudhisthira suddenly thought with a panic that he did not know how to comb it back to the way that it had appeared last night, when the stylist had finished with him.

I'm thin like Papa, he thought, with a sudden flash of self-loathing. Yudhisthira had always silently envied his brother Bhima's broad chest and stocky build. Only Papa used to be like Bhima, too. Papa wasn't always so thin, Yudhisthira thought again, and he momentarily paused, caught up in a sense of unpleasant dread that seemed to always accompany thoughts of his father lately.

Then Yudhisthira finished dressing himself, wondering as he did so whether Bhima had also gotten his hair cut, what sorts of hideous clothes the servants had chosen for him, whether he had been able to sleep on these unpleasantly squishy beds.

There was a knock at Yudhisthira's door. "Come in," he said, fumbling to close a button at his throat.

Bhima burst through the door and pounded across the room, immediately sweeping up his brother into a crushing hug. "There you are!" he sniffled. "I missed you so much--"

"Me too," Yudhisthira agreed, so utterly relieved to see his brother again that he forgot all about the rib-cracking pain of being trapped in one of Bhima's hugs. He knew that he had been separated from his brother only for a few short hours, but it had felt like an eternity.

"Look at you!" Bhima exclaimed, pulling back from Yudhisthira and then grasping his shoulders, holding him at an arm's length. "You look... different!"

"They cut your hair."

"Yours too."

"I see they gave us matching jackets."

"Horrible, that."

"I think I hate this place."

"Me, too."

A loud cough announced Bhisma's presence in the room. He was holding Arjuna on his hip. Arjuna was gazing around Yudhisthira's room with mild interest and sucking his thumb contentedly; Bhisma, however, looked impatient, even harried. "You two need to follow me," he said, quickly. "It would be prudent for us to leave, finish, and come back here as early as possible."

"Where are we going?" Yudhisthira asked, stepping into his boots. He noticed that Grandpa Bhisma was already wearing a coat and gloves, and was obviously dressed for traveling.

"There's something special that you three have to do, because you're devakin," Bhisma explained as he ushered Bhima and Yudhisthira out of the room and into a hallway. "I had to do the same thing, when I was very little. Every devakin has to do it, because it's a law."

"Do what?"

"Go see a priest, and get tested for a Gift. Then your name and your Gift gets written down in a book and entered into a computer. It's called registration."

"Why do something like that?" Yudhisthira asked, while at the same time, Bhima said, "But I already know what my Gift is."

Bhisma ignored them both, gesturing impatiently for them to hurry up. "Quickly now, this way," he said. He shifted Arjuna in his arms.

"Let me carry the stupid pumpkin," Bhima said, holding out his arms.

Without breaking his stride, Bhisma handed the baby to Bhima. Bhima bounced Arjuna softly as he walked, and Arjuna squealed with delight.

The four of them walked for what seemed like forever, until Yudhisthira noticed that there were no more windows in the opulent hallways that they were passing through, and began to suspect that they were traveling underground. Then they were no longer in a palace hallway but in a place of brick and concrete, and a rumbling, dark mechanical beast was waiting for them.

"What's that?!" Bhima asked, taking a sudden and nervous step backward.

For a moment, Bhisma seemed aghast at the children's fear. "This is an auto," he said, "It's just an auto."

Bhima and Yudhisthira clearly did not believe him.

Bhisma sighed, exasperated. "You know what an auto is. Your father told me that you drove here in one."

"Yes," Yudhisthira answered, "THAT was an auto."

"Autos and small and blue and parts of them are orange and crumbly," Bhima explained. He pointed at the sleek, black thing rumbling impatiently in front of them, and said nervously, "THAT is not an auto."

Bhisma sighed again. He could tell that it was going to be a long morning.

One the children were shown the interior of the auto and the smiling chauffeur sitting in the front seat, they seemed a bit mollified. After some coaxing, Bhisma managed to get all three of them and himself in the back of the auto, and as the automobile began rolling forward at last, Bhisma leaned forward toward the chauffer and said quietly, "Stay underground and off the main streets as long as you can. We're trying to not draw attention to ourselves."

"Yes, Your Highness."

They drove in silence for a while, Bhima occupying himself with bouncing Arjuna in his lap, Yudhisthira staring resolutely at his own feet. Finally Yudhisthira raised his head and asked, "Grandpa Bhisma, where are Papa and our Mamas?"

"They were very busy this morning," Bhisma said. "They had to talk to many people. But you'll see them when we get back home. I promise."

Yudhisthira looked pale and pinched and miserable, but said nothing.

They drove through dark underground streets with no sunlight for what seemed like forever. Then, without warning, they sped up a slight incline, and suddenly, the world was flooded with light.

Bhima whistled. "It looks different in the daytime."

Yudhisthira made a small, frightened sound in the back of his throat. The sunlight reflecting off all the tall, glassy buildings dazzled his eyes and made him feel weak, disoriented, and nauseous. There were people of every shape, size, and color, walking beside the street, riding bicycles and humming speeders, leaning out of windows, waving and calling to each other and gesturing angrily and stuffing fried pastries into their mouths. Strange and frightening machines sped by on either side of the car, and even more flew in the sky overhead. Yudhisthira suddenly glanced away from his window, unable to take in any more. He had seen the city for the very first time in his entire life, only last night. It was too much, he thought. How could people live in a world like this? There was so much noise, so many flashing lights, and the stink of fumes from these unnatural machines in the air. Yudhisthira suddenly missed the sound of birdsong and the taste of mountain air more than he ever thought he could miss anything in his entire life.

Yudhisthira caught a glimpse of Grandpa Bhisma staring at him intently, then quickly looked away, his cheeks burning bright red.

Bhisma was quiet for a moment, then he suddenly leaned toward the chauffeur and whispered, "Pull over and stop the car."

"But, Your Highness, I thought we were in a hurry--"

"I know, but this will just take a moment."

The chauffeur slowed the auto and pulled it into the first available space on the side of the street. Bhisma slipped on a cap and a pair of sunglasses, and turned up the collar of his coat. "Wait here," he told Yudhisthira and Bhima as he popped open his door and stepped out of the car. "I'll just be a moment. Don't make eye contact with anybody that approaches."

Then the door slammed shut, clicked, and Bhisma was gone.

"He looks like he didn't want people to see him," Bhima commented.

"Recognize him," Yudhisthira corrected his brother half-heartedly.

"Nobody will recognize us in this baby," the chauffeur said, patting his steering wheel affectionately. "I think you boys are safe. Members of the royal family usually don't travel outside the palace without a full motorcade and security detail, least of all not in an auto instead of in a hoverer, so nobody's likely to think that you three are sitting inside this thing."

Yudhisthira didn't understand a word of what the chauffeur was saying, but at the moment was feeling a bit too light-headed to ask any questions about it.

The door clicked and swung open again, and then Grandpa Bhisma was back, balancing a stack of papers and two clear plastic cups full of swirled cream-and-brown liquid, each topped with a dome of whipped cream. Almost as soon as Bhisma was in his seat, the door swung shut behind him, and the chauffeur pulled the auto out of its parking space and back onto the road.

"Boys," Grandpa Bhisma said cheerfully, balancing the papers on his lap and handing one cup to Bhima and the other to Yudhisthira, "I think you're going to like civilization."

"What is this?" Bhima asked suspiciously, eyeing his drink with open disgust on his face. "It looks like barf."

"It's called chocolate."

Yudhisthira took a sip of his tentatively. It smelled nice and tasted smooth and spicy and sweet. That was all right, then. It felt warm and pleasant sliding down his throat and settling into his stomach. "Thank you," he said politely.

Bhisma reached out and flicked a speckle of whipped cream from Yudhisthira's nose. "See? There are perks to not living in a cave."

"No, stupid pumpkin," Bhima was saying, holding his drink out of reach of Arjuna's questing, chubby fingers. Bhisma slid the thick stack of papers off his lap and into Yudhisthira's. "This is my favorite newspaper," he said, tapping a picture of what appeared to be a village buried in a mudslide on the front page. "Read the front part and tell me how much you can understand."

Yudhisthira oggled at all of the tiny letters crowded onto the page in front of him. "I've never read anything like this!" he protested.

"But your father did tell me that you'd learned how to read."

"Yes, but..."

"I need to know how well you can read."

"All right. All right." Yudhisthira took another sip of his drink - its sweetness tasted cloying this time - and commenced frowning at the page on his lap, his brow furrowed with concentration.

"Can I see the newspaper?" Bhima asked.

"When your brother is done with it--"

"I know how to read, too."

"You'll have to wait your turn--"

"But there's more than one part of this thing," Yudhisthira suddenly realized, his hands having found the folded sections that pulled out to reveal the separate sections of the newspaper. "Bhima, you can read this one," he said, handing a particularly fat section over to his brother. "Look who's in that picture there!"

Bhima frowned, struggling to hold his drink in one hand, his newspaper in the other, and his baby brother in his lap. "It's that Duryodhana, isn't it?"

"Let me see that," Grandpa Bhisma said, snatching the section of newspaper from Bhima's hands. "Hey!" Bhima protested. Grandpa Bhisma frowned at the front of the newspaper and said, "This is just the 'People' section. It's all gossip and rubbish. A prince shouldn't be reading this sort of thing."

"Then gimme another one!" Bhima demanded. Yudhisthira grabbed the first section his hands found and quickly handed it to his brother. Bhima took it, unfolded it, frowned at it for a moment, then asked loudly, "What the hell is a 'stock market'?"

Yudhisthira ignored him - he was busy watching Grandpa Bhisma. "But that's Duryodhana on the front of that part, isn't it?" he asked. He could see the front of the newspaper that Grandpa Bhisma was holding quiet clearly. There was a large but grainy photograph of Duryodhana at the beach, wearing nothing but his swimming trunks, his handsome chest deeply tanned and his dark hair tousled by the ocean wind, holding his little sister Dusshala's hand and she stomped around gleefully in the splashing edge of a breaking wave. The photograph looked as though it had been taken at a very great distance. "That picture looks awful," Yudhisthira declared.

"Yes, but it's what people want to see."

"Huh?"

"That is, people love to see photographs of your cousin Duryodhana, no matter how poor the quality," Grandpa Bhisma said, folding up the newspaper and placing it decisively in his lap, photograph-side down. "Yudhisthira..."

"Yes?"

"There's something that you should probably understand," Grandpa Bhisma said, very softly. "I love your cousin Duryodhana very, very much. So does pretty much everyone else on the entire planet. That's why photographers and cameramen follow him around everywhere and try to take as many pictures of him as they can. Because the people love him so much, and they love to buy anything that has pictures of him in it. Especially young girls," Grandpa Bhisma added, with a sigh of resignation.

Yudhisthira thought for a moment, then said, "That makes sense."

"Yudhisthira, do you understand why I'm telling you this?"

"No. Why?"

"So that you know what you're up against."

"...Oh," Yudhisthira said, after his great-uncle's words had properly sunk in. He fell quiet for a few moments, staring into his suddenly unappealing drink, thinking as fast and as furiously as he could. Then he looked up at Grandpa Bhisma and asked, bluntly, "So how do I get people to love me instead?"

Bhisma smiled. "It will be interesting to see how that plays out," he said.

"Hey," Bhima suddenly said, "Hey, is this about us?"

Yudhisthira turned his head toward his brother and saw that Bhima, having discarded the finance section of the paper, had snatched the front section of the newspaper out of his brother's lap and flipped it over so that he could read the articles printed below the fold. "What's an 'usurper'?" he asked.

"Let me see that," Grandpa Bhisma said quickly. Bhima reluctantly handed over the paper and Grandpa Bhisma scanned the article in question quickly, his eyes darting back and forth, his frown deepening. "How could this all have leaked out already?" he mumbled to himself.

Yudhisthira, unable to help himself, glanced surreptitiously at the article that his great-uncle was reading. He caught the words "Usurper Prince" in the headline, then quickly looked away, his stomach lurching in a very distracting and rather nauseating way.

Grandpa Bhisma threw the paper aside and then leaned forward, addressing the chauffeur again. "If you know of a back entrance to get where we're going," Bhisma said, "it would probably be a good idea to take it."

"Oh, I think I know a way," the chauffeur answered.


VI.

The room was small and dimly-lit, but very plain, which made Yudhisthira feel substantially more at ease than the expansive, soaring, opulent hallways and rooms in the royal palace. He was sitting on a cold, metal chair, his legs primly set together and his hands resting comfortably in his lap.

"You shouldn't feel a thing, save for a bit of tingling," the priest was saying, "although, to be perfectly honest, we rarely run these tests on someone as old as you, so you might actually be a bit more sensitive to the effects than an infant or toddler would be," he added conversationally.

Yudhisthira swallowed, but said nothing. There was nothing to be afraid of, he reminded himself. The priest had kind, crinkled eyes and a nice smile, and Yudhisthira had already decided that he rather liked this man, whether he knew his name or not.

The priest flipped a few switches mounted on a wall, and a line of small green lights along the base of each wall suddenly lit up. The walls began humming and buzzing, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. The priest sat down at his desk directly across from where Yudhisthira was sitting, put on a pair of glasses, and began typing rapidly on the keyboard mounted on the desk, staring intently at the screen in front of him. Yudhisthira tried not to stare at him too openly. He had read about computers in the few books that his family had provided him with during their exile, but he had never actually seen one before.

"Yudhisthira, could you please spell your name for me?" The priest asked.

Yudhisthira did, and then the priest asked him for his birthday, and Yudhisthira told him. "Goodness, you've just turned thirteen!" the priest exclaimed. "Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir."

"Has anybody ever told you that you seem rather tall for your age?"

"Not as tall as my brother, sir."

"Tell me, which of your two parents is your biological parent?"

"My mother, sir."

"Then your father was a deva?"

"Yes, sir." It seemed to Yudhisthira as if the humming in the walls was actually starting to become somewhat unpleasant - it was making his skull tingle and his skin crawl in a very strange way. "Sir, I think--"

"It's only natural for you to feel the scanners as they work," the priest said. "It might feel a bit strange. You just let me know the moment that anything starts to actually hurt, all right?"

"Yes, sir."

"From which god were you born?"

"Dh-Dharma, sir."

The priest raised his eyebrows. "Really. That's quite extraordinary."

Yudhisthira didn't feel particularly extraordinary at that moment. In fact, he rather felt as though his scalp was crawling with tiny, tickling little bugs.

"Yudhisthira, have you ever met your real father?"

"Met?"

"Has he appeared to you - in a vision, perhaps, or in a dream? Has he ever approached you, wearing any form? Have you ever heard his voice?"

"No, sir."

"Do you ever practice meditation?"

"...S-Sometimes."

"How often do you visit a temple?"

"I've never been to a temple, sir." Yudhisthira then quickly added, "I've been living in exile. But my parents taught me puja, we do it every single day..."

"Hmm. I see." A ghost of a frown flitted across the priest's face as he appeared to be reading something from his computer screen, but then his smile was back in an instant. "The scanners have detected the presence of Gift inside of you," he announced happily.

"Oh," Yudhisthira said. "Are they done yet?" he asked faintly. He felt as if his skin were trying to crawl off his body.

"Not yet, the machines seem unable to determine the exact nature of your Gift, although they're predicting that you should be able to use it within a few short years."

"That's nice to know, I suppose."

"You look a bit peaked, if you don't mind me saying so."

"I, uh -- It feels kind of weird--"

"Does it hurt?"

Yudhisthira winced, because suddenly, it did. "Yes," he said.

The priest quickly stood up, walked over to the far wall, and switched off whatever machines were running inside the walls all around them. The tiny lights lining the bases of the walls went dark and dead, and the humming sound that had been boring into Yudhisthira's skull abruptly ceased. Yudhisthira breathed a long, slow sigh of relief.

"Now hold still," the priest said, stepping toward Yudhisthira. That was when Yudhisthira saw the sharp, black thing he was holding in his hand. His eyes widened.

"This will probably sting," the priest admitted. Then he bent down over Yudhisthira, brushed Yudhisthira's long hair back from his ear, and slid the long, dark black thing behind the base of his ear. Yudhisthira closed his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the inevitable. There was a sharp pinch, and then nothing. It was over.

"You'll have to come back to get that chip updated," the priest said, stepping away from Yudhisthira, "once you're old enough to be able to use your Gift."

"Yes, sir."

"You were very brave," he said, not at all condescendingly, as he tapped Yudhisthira's shoulder. "Come on, now. We're finished."

"Sir?" Yudhisthira asked, tentatively, as he slid off his chair.

"Yes?"

"Does every devakin have to do this?"

"Absolutely."

"Why?"

"Because of the Gifts," he answered, very seriously. "Because sometimes the Gifts can turn out to be very dangerous things. Which is why no devakin born on Kuru is allowed to use his or her Gift without permission of the High Council of Brahmins."

"...Oh."

The priest led Yudhisthira back to the lobby where he had first entered the building. Grandpa Bhisma was there, sitting on a bench, uneasily rocking a fussing, sniffling Arjuna in his lap. The priest approached Bhisma, bowed low with his hands clasped, then straightened up and whispered something to Bhisma. Bhisma nodded and smiled, looking pleased. Then the priest left, and Yudhisthira took a seat next to his great-uncle, who was still struggling to calm Arjuna down. "He didn't seem to like the scanners very much," Grandpa Bhisma said, bouncing Arjuna lightly on his leg.

"Poor pumpkin."

"How did it go?"

"It felt awful."

"I heard that you have a Gift, but that the scanners weren't able to tell what it was." Grandpa Bhisma was grinning at him. "The suspense is exciting, isn't it?"

"What about Arjuna?"

"This little pumpkin," Bhisma said, tapping Arjuna's nose, "has a devaweapon. The scanners said that he'll be fifteen or sixteen years old before he can use it, though."

"Grandpa Bhisma..."

"Yes?"

"What's your Gift?"

Grandpa Bhisma's eyes twinkled. "Do you know how if you swim in water or sit in a bathtub for too long, your fingers get all wrinkly?"

"Yes?"

"Well, mine--" Grandpa Bhisma suddenly cut himself off, distracted by a commotion on the other side of the lobby. "What the--?"

A group of priests had gathered and were talking excitedly among themselves, and Yudhisthira suddenly heard Bhima's voice protesting loudly, "I TOLD you I already knew my Gift! Now gimme another one."

"What in the world--?" Still holding Arjuna, Grandpa Bhisma stood up quickly and strode purposefully over toward the gathering of priests. Yudhisthira followed at his heels, quietly, although he was already grinning to himself. Bhima's Gift was really, really neat, as Yudhisthira would have happily told anyone who asked him.

The priests stood aside respectfully when Bhisma approached, and then there was only Bhima, standing alone in the center of this silent group of priests, holding something strange in his hands. Bhisma stopped dead in his tracks when he realized that Bhima was holding a sword - a sword which had been bent and tied into a neat, double-layered knot.

"Bhima, what--?"

"It's my Gift. It's really great." Bhima tossed the ruined sword aside absent-mindedly. "Wanna see? I'll need something else."

"Here," an elderly priest said quickly, handing the child his gleaming metal walking cane.

"Oh, that's an easy one," Bhima boasted, taking the cane and twisting it in his hands as easily as if it were a paper ribbon. In Bhisma's arms, Arjuna laughed and clapped, clearly enjoying the spectacle. But Arjuna wasn't the only one amused. Yudhisthira privately thought that the dumfounded expressions on all of the wise, learned priests gathered around them were amusing enough in their own right.

"I can also lift things," Bhima bragged, finishing with the cane and handing it back to the priest who had given it to him, even though it was now useless. "This one time, when there was a big storm and a tree fell across the mouth of a cave where me and Papa were sitting because we had been hunting, I lifted up the tree and moved it all by myself."

"He did," Yudhisthira affirmed solemnly, nodding his head. "I saw it."

"Papa says I have the strength of one hundred men," Bhima proclaimed, importantly, crossing his arms over his chest, as if daring anyone to question this boast.

Yudhisthira nodded again. "He does."

Bhisma spoke then, not to Bhima, but to the priests gathered around them. "Is this true? Is this his Gift?"

"Well, it would appear to be consistent with what our scanners found," one of the priests said.

"I could have told you that without the stupid machines having to tell you," Bhima complained at the priest. "And you didn't have to poke me in the ear or nothing, either."


VII.

They returned to the palace with as much discretion as Yudhisthira remembered from their departure that morning. Grandpa Bhisma led Yudhisthira and his brothers back up through the bowels of the palace and into the inevitably crowded, busy heart of the structure. But soon the four of them were surrounded by a silent crowd of men in dark suits with dark shades over their eyes, who kept away anybody who tried from being able to stare at Yudhisthira or Bhima as they walked along silently behind their great-uncle. Yudhisthira was not terribly pleased (or comforted) by the silent, menacing aura that seemed to surround these dark-suited men, but he understood at once why they were useful - necessary, even. They were there for protection.

"Where are we going now?" Bhima finally asked.

"To find your father, if I can," Grandpa Bhisma said, distractedly.

Yudhisthira felt his heart thumping giddily in his chest. He hadn't seen his father in what felt like centuries. He would have quickened his pace, if he'd been able to. But unfortunately, he was stuck following Grandpa Bhisma, and Grandpa Bhisma was walking slowly, occasionally leaning over to speak quietly to one of the dark-suited men, occasionally leaning his ear this way or that as one of the dark-suited men stepped forward to whisper something in his ear. Finally, Grandpa Bhisma grinned and said, "Ah," then turned and began stepping more quickly down this hallway and that. It was quieter in this part of the palace, and Yudhisthira noticed only a few of what appeared to be maids and other servants going about their business. His sense of direction had been scrambled ever since his late-night arrival in the city on the previous day, but Yudhisthira was beginning to feel a vague inkling that this was the part of the palace in which he and his brothers had slept last night.

Finally, as if on cue, the dark-suited men stepped away from them, and Grandpa Bhisma led them through a door and into a warm and small room with walls covered in bookshelves and a fire crackling in a fireplace. Sitting in front of the fire, wrapped in a blanket, was Yudhisthira's father, warming his hands and sighing. But his face lit up instantly when he saw his sons. "There's my little pumpkin!" he exclaimed, holding out his arms to receive Arjuna from Bhima.

"You look cold, Papa," Bhima observed bluntly as his father took Arjuna and began bouncing him on his knee.

"Papa had to go out this morning, too," Yudhisthira's father said by way of explanation.

"Where did you go, Papa?" Yudhisthira asked, kneeling respectfully at his father's side, as he had been taught.

"A hospital." Yudhisthira's father made a face. Then he turned his head to address Bhisma, who was standing a few steps away, waiting. "Do you remember that poor old sap who couldn't say the word 'testicles' in front of me?"

Bhima snickered. Yudhisthira didn't know exactly what his father was talking about, but he noticed that Bhisma certainly looked amused at the thought.

"He's still around," Yudhisthira's father continued wearily, "and still apparently the only one who's ever chosen to tell me the bad news. And fifteen years hasn't made him any less of a prude about anything."

"Why did you go to the hospital, Papa?" Yudhisthira suddenly asked, trying not to sound as concerned as he felt. He wished that he hadn't noticed the dark circles beneath his father's eyes. He wondered if Bhima noticed them as well.

"Just for a check-up," his father answered cheerfully. "Papa's fine." He gingerly re-positioned Arjuna in his lap, and wiped some baby drool off his sleeve, which Arjuna had been busily chewing a moment before. "And how about you? How did it go this morning?"

"The priests were all stupid," Bhima proclaimed loudly. "Not at all like they are in books. They only knew how to turn machines on and off and how to ask stupid questions."

Yudhisthira shot Bhima a withering glare, but his father just laughed. "That sounds just about the way that I remember them."

"We should probably get going," Grandpa Bhisma suddenly said, glancing at his watch. "I have to take them to--"

"Yes. Of course."

Yudhisthira stood up, bewildered. "Go?" But he had only just seen his father again! And he still hadn't seen his mothers since last night--

"I'll take him," Bhima said, reaching for Arjuna, but his father shook his head and said, "Arjuna is staying with me right now."

"I'll have the nanny fetch him in a moment," Grandpa Bhisma said quickly, ushering Bhima and Yudhisthira out of the room.

"But wait!" Yudhisthira protested, even as his feet followed Grandpa Bhisma's orders. "Where's Mama? Why can't we see--?"

"Later," Grandpa Bhisma said. He closed the door to the study behind him and said sternly, "Right now, your papa needs some rest. And you two need to start your lessons."


VIII.

Lessons, as Yudhisthira soon found out, involved him and Bhima sitting in a room scattered with couches and cushions, along with Duryodhana and about twenty of his oldest brothers, while Bhisma stood in the middle of them and spoke. Duryodhana and his brothers had thick textbooks which they held on their laps, and well-worn notebooks that they propped on their knees and took furious notes in. A few of them used a stylus to jot notes on the small screen of some electronic device or another - to Yudhisthira, the strange gadgets all looked equally unfathomable. Before the lesson had started Bhisma had tossed a textbook each to him and Bhima, but Yudhisthira had been afraid to even open it. Now he and Bhima sat hunched together in a corner of the room, surrounded by Duryodhana's brothers, who were all, not surprisingly, purposefully sitting a fairly good distance away from them.

Duryodhana himself was sitting nearest to Bhisma and paying close attention to his teacher's lecture, pointedly acting as if Bhima and Yudhisthira were not even in the room. His brothers, however, were occasionally glancing up from their notes to shoot a hostile glare or two in Yudhisthira's general direction. Yudhisthira was convinced that he could actually feel the temperature in the room dropping a degree or two every time one of the other princes glanced at him with such a look of hatred and loathing in his eyes.

"But there was a time," Bhisma was saying, "when much of the inhabited portion of the eastern half of our galaxy was united under one imperial rule. And that was..."

Duryodhana raised his hand. Bhisma nodded at him and he said, "Ten thousand years ago, under Ravana, the Asura King." Then he stopped, but when Bhisma was silent and obviously waiting for him to go on, Duryodhana licked his lips and continued, a bit less confidently, "He conquered over two hundred inhabited systems. And imposed martial law everywhere that his empire extended. And he controlled all of the schools and media, and had his law enforcement troops imprison, publicly torture, and often kill anybody who dared criticize his regime."

Bhisma seemed pleased. "And how did one man manage to conquer so many advanced worlds, many of them with formidable armies and defenses of their own?"

All of the princes looked expectantly at Duryodhana, who raised his hand and answered, "Because he wasn't a man. He was an asura. And he fought using maya."

"Maya, which is--?"

"The power of illusion. He could wipe out an entire spacefleet using illusions that would entice ships to fire upon each other."

"And who was it that finally defeated the Asura King?"

"Rama!" the princes shouted in unison.

"Tell us the story about Rama and Ravana!" Duryodhana's brother Dusshasana said eagerly.

Bhisma shook his head. "You already know that story. And that isn't the point of today's lesson. The point is, can anybody tell me what happened to Ravana's empire after his death?"

"Rama gave Ravana's crown to Ravana's younger brother, Vibhishana." Duryodhana said. "But Vibhishana said that it wasn't right for one man to rule so many worlds, so he restored almost all of the conquered worlds to freedom. He only kept Lanka, because it was his home." Duryodhana finished, but when Bhisma was still silent and expectant, Duryodhana took a deep breath and continued, with a bit of difficulty, as if he were struggling to remember something he had read from his textbook, "and no single empire has ever united that many worlds since."

"And that was the end of the greatest empire that this universe had ever known," Bhisma said definitely. "A house built of violence and hubris, which crumbled all around its ruler in the end." He paced for a bit around the center of the room, then turned back to his young charges and asked, "Now who can tell me about thesecond-greatest empire in our history?"

Duryodhana frowned and furrowed his brow, struggling to remember. The other princes were silent. Yudhisthira looked first to Bhima, who was tapping his fingers against the cover of his unopened textbook and looking bored, and then up at Bhisma, who was staring at Duryodhana rather expectantly.

Then Yudhisthira silently steeled himself, and raised his hand.

Bhisma seemed startled. Duryodhana looked openly shocked. Dusshasana and the other princes, however, glared icily at Yudhisthira. Struggling to ignore them, Yudhisthira held his arm straight up, sitting with his back straight and his chin held high, waiting for his teacher to acknowledge him. When Bhisma finally nodded at him, Yudhisthira lowered his hand and said, "Actually, it was Vali and the Kishkindans, who were around at the same time as Ravana." Yudhisthira suddenly realized that Duryodhana was glaring darkly at him, and his voice momentarily faltered. "B-but the Kishkindans didn't conquer any planets." He took a deep breath, and continued steadily, forcing himself to ignore the fact that Bhima was now glaring menacingly back at Duryodhana, as if daring him to say anything, but Duryodhana, unintimidated, did not look away. "The Kishkindans terraformed uninhabited planets, and added them to their empire. The Kishkindans weren't human, either. They were a particularly rare type of primate species, but as intelligent as humans, and scholars think they were likely the result of experiments of the devas, which at least would explain how they had access to technology so advanced that today most humans can't even understand the remnants of it that they still find buried throughout the galaxy."

"And the Kishkindans? What became of them?"

"They vanished thousands of years ago," Yudhisthira said confidently. "Likely extinct. Human populations have moved into many of the planets that they terraformed, and not a trace of any Kishkindan has been seen for at least two thousand years."

Bhisma seemed very pleased. "Excellent," he said, "Really excellent. Have you studied these things before, Yudhisthira?"

"Yes," Yudhisthira mumbled, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "Some. Papa and Mama taught me." He fervently wished that Bhima and Duryodhana would stop the little staring contest that they had going on. Yudhisthira figured that it was no longer his imagination that the temperature in the room was dropping. How could his great-uncle Bhisma not feel that growing chill in the air?

Apparently, he did, because Bhisma suddenly glanced from Duryodhana to Bhima, and then up at a clock that was mounted on a wall, and then said quickly, "Oh, dear. We don't have any more time for our history lesson today. But if I could keep you for just a few more moments, there is something about last week's mathematics homework that I wanted to discuss," he said, giving a pointed look to Duryodhana and each and every one of his brothers, who seemed to shrink a little in their seats. "I do have your papers in my study still, but they were all quite disappointing--"

"It's not our fault!" one of the younger princes suddenly protested. "Duryodhana didn't know how to do it, so we couldn't copy off him!"

Duryodhana looked as though he suddenly wished the floor beneath him would open up and swallow him whole. Yudhisthira could sympathize. He knew the feeling all to well.

Bhisma crossed his arms. "Duryodhana--"

"I don't let themcopy me, not exactly--"

"If you ever don't understand something, you can always ask me for help," Bhisma said a bit less sternly. "In fact, I think it might be a good idea for you to stay after right now so that I can go over the assignment with you."

Duryodhana hunched his shoulders miserably. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.

Bhisma addressed the rest of Duryodhana's brothers. "The rest of you are dismissed," he said, and they all quickly got up and began to file out of the room, talking in low, urgent voices amongst themselves, most of them pausing to shoot sympathetic looks in Duryodhana's direction.

Bhima and Yudhisthira stood up, too, and Yudhisthira had taken less than three steps away from his former seat when Bhisma suddenly said, "Just a moment, Yudhisthira, you should probably stay as well. Duryodhana and I will be discussing parabolic functions. You should know this material, too."

Yudhisthira nodded silently, then turned and started back toward Bhisma. He sensed Bhima hesitating behind him, but turned his head and mouthed, "It's okay, just go," and Bhima got the message. He reluctantly left his brother alone in the room with Duryodhana and Bhisma.

Yudhisthira folded his legs and sat down on a cushion beside Duryodhana, who was deliberately looking quite polite and well-behaved, at least in the sort of cold way that clearly sent the message that he had no intention of saying a single word to his cousin.

"Starting from the beginning, here," Bhisma said, handing Duryodhana a sheaf of pages of graphs and equations, most of which were covered in red marks. Seeing this, Duryodhana's shoulders slumped a bit, but he still said nothing. Bhisma pointed to the first problem on the page and said, as kindly as he could, "Let's go through this one from the beginning, shall we?"

"I don't let my brothers copy me," Duryodhana muttered, stubbornly.

"I know you don't. And I know how much you help them." But Bhisma's tone was brisk.

Yudhisthira leaned over Duryodhana's shoulder, frowned a bit at the math problem that Bhisma had just pointed at, and then said softly, "Oh."

"Oh, what?" Duryodhana asked, darkly.

"Oh, I know how to do those," Yudhisthira said in what he hoped sounded like a helpful tone of voice. "My mama taught me."

The rest of the lesson went very well for Yudhisthira, who could demonstrate easily how to complete every problem that Bhisma offered him, while Duryodhana continued to struggle with each and every step of each problem. Finally, Bhisma assigned Duryodhana several more pages of the same homework to complete, but handed Yudhisthira a page of much more advanced problems to work on. The two of them left the lesson, not speaking to each other, although Yudhisthira could feel Duryodhana's eyes glaring at him hatefully as soon as they were out of Bhisma's sight.


IX.

"Parabolic functions!" Duryodhana raged as he punched at the pillow that Dusshasana was holding one last time. " 'Oh, I know how to do those.' Who the hell does he think he is, anyway?!"

"It's not your fault," Dusshasana said, seeing Duryodhana lower his trembling fist to his side, and deciding that it was safe to toss the pillow that he borrowed back onto Duryodhana's bed. He reached out and put a hand on his older brother's shoulder. "He lived in a cave for thirteen years. I bet he had nothing better to do than sit around and figure parabolic functions. It's not your fault that you had more important things to do."

Duryodhana's shoulders were trembling with rage still, although punching his pillow seemed to have drained most of his energy from him. "You saw the way Grandpa Bhisma was looking at him."

"So what? That Yudhisthira is just a nerd. I bet the thought of writing a book report gives him a hard-on."

For a moment, Duryodhana's dark expression evaporated, and he chuckled at his brother's words.

"Grandpa Bhisma still likes you best," Dusshasana said definitively.

But Duryodhana's brow furrowed, and his face darkened again. "I don't know about that."

"What do you mean?"

"Dusshasana..."

"What?"

"Sometimes... Sometimes I just get this feeling. Like Grandpa Bhisma never liked me at all. That he's just faking it."

"That's stupid!" Dusshasana said, vehemently. He shook Duryodhana's shoulder, urgently, trying to get him to snap out of his funk. "Grandpa Bhisma is Grandpa Bhisma! He's the best grandpa ever! Well," Dusshasana amended himself, "he would be if it weren't for all the homework he assigns and the boring stuff he makes us read. But, but! Remember when he gave you a speedbike for your birthday?"

"So what? He gave Sama a tiger." Duryodhana's face was as dark and heavy as a thundercloud, and he stood with his shoulders slumped and his fists clenched, both miserable and furious at the same time. On a few occasions before, one of his younger brothers had showed him up during lessons with Grandpa Bhisma, but that was a different thing. His brothers were his brothers. Besides, after a few pointed words from Dusshasana, and perhaps a punch or two, none of Duryodhana's brothers ever repeated the same mistake twice. But Yudhisthira was not one of his brothers. Yudhisthira was something different - Yudhisthira was a threat. Yudhisthira had appeared out of nowhere and now stood ready to rip away from Duryodhana everything that he had ever cared about. And Duryodhana was not a fool - he knew how much of a role his Grandpa Bhisma would play in the momentous decision that was facing all of them, years into his future.

"Because he's such a total nerd," Dusshasana spat, contemptuously.

Duryodhana's attention snapped out of his own brooding. "What?"

"That Yudhisthira," Dusshasana said, his lip curling in a sneer. "He's just anerd. Sure, Grandpa Bhisma will probably like him - I bet that Yudhisthira is busy getting a boner from his math homework right now. But that doesn't mean that he knows anything about how to be a king, not like you. I mean, there's more to being a king than parabolic functions, right?"

"Right," Duryodhana said, half-heartedly.

Dusshasana peered at his older brother for a minute, then bit his lip and said, "I know you'll make a better king than he will."

"Thanks, but... You're my brother."

"So?! That doesn't mean that I'm dumb."

At that, Duryodhana managed to chuckle again.

Dusshasana saw this opening, and seized upon it. "Look, I know what'll make you feel better--"

"What?"

"This," Dusshasana said, stepping over to where Duryodhana's real grandfather's sword was kept mounted on one wall of his room. "Didn't Durmada and Vikata tell you this morning that they wanted some practice time this afternoon, anyway?"

Duryodhana stared at his brother for a moment, then, slowly, he felt a smile creeping back onto his face. "Yeah. Yeah, okay." Dusshasana was right - whenever Duryodhana was feeling sad or frustrated, practicing with his sword always made him feel better. He knew that he was good with the sword - very, very good. Good enough that he consistently impressed his teacher, Grandpa Bhisma, which was in turn a pretty good feeling in and of itself. And Duryodhana was also good enough to have begun tutoring some of his younger brothers in the art of fencing, a practice which also consistently earned him praise from Bhisma. Durmada and Vikata were two of his younger brothers who seemed not only talented, but more eager to learn and to practice than any of his other brothers.

Duryodhana gently lowered his sword from the wall, and when he turned around, Dusshasana had already found his protective padding and helmet and was ready to head out the door with him. "Are we going to the gym?" Dusshasana asked as he followed his brother.

"Nah. Do you have your comm? Call Durmada and Vikata and tell them to meet me in the courtyard behind the fig orchard. I want to practice outside today."

By the time that Duryodhana and Dusshasana arrived in the courtyard that they had agreed upon, Durmada and Vikata were waiting for them, already strapped up and with their swords ready. A crowed of Duryodhana's youngest brothers were sitting off to the side, whispering excitedly amongst themselves. Many of them were too young to handle a sword themselves, but they seemed to adore watching these practice sessions. Around the corners of the courtyard, however, Duryodhana noticed more than a few of his dark-suited bodyguards lurking quietly. As Dusshasana helped Duryodhana strap on his protection, Duryodhana casually glanced around the courtyard and counted no less than a dozen guards, standing at various distances around him - that was far more than usual. He caught the eye of one guard (at least, he assumed he did; it was hard to tell because of their shades) and beckoned for the guard to approach with an imperious jerk of his chin.

Obediently, the guard dropped to one knee in front of Duryodhana. "Your Highness?"

"Is something the matter, that there should be so many of you babysitting me today?"

The guard looked to his left, then to his right, then slowly stood up and leaned over toward Duryodhana's ear, whispering quietly, "The security cameras captured an image of a man with a camera in the orchard five minutes ago--"

Duryodhana threw back his head and laughed, contemptuously. "It's probably our same friend from the beach last week."

"Your Highness, we are only somewhat certain that this man had a camera - he could be carrying something else--"

"Oh, please," Duryodhana snorted. "Let him or her or it or whatever be. If it's a camera that he's got, then I'll give him something worth shooting," Duryodhana said with a grin. "And if it's not a camera, then I doubt that any of my brothers are in danger - after all, who would want to shoot at them when I'm right here?" Dusshasana finished fastening the last of the straps on the pads that were now covering Duryodhana's upper arms, and Duryodhana slid his thin protective helmet over his head with a well-practiced dramatic flourish. "And if it's me that he's after, I'd like to see him try anything. After all, I have you all to count on, don't I?"

"...Yes, Your Highness."

The guard withdrew, and Duryodhana drew his sword. "Durmada!"

"Y-yes!"

"You'd better look good today, we might have company!"

Durmada laughed and drew his sword. He and Duryodhana had a few practice bouts, all of which Durmada lost. Duryodhana felt a bit better getting into the swing of things. He felt different with a sword in his hand. He felt graceful and powerful and in control - which he was. He knew that he was. The pleasant sweat rolling down his temples and down the back of his neck seemed to be washing away all of his worries about Yudhisthira and Grandpa Bhisma. It was a clean, calming, purifying sweat. It didn't exactly hurt matters when Duryodhana heard the distant and discreet clicking of a camera lens snapping open and shut somewhere nearby. Put this on the front page of your silly newspapers, he thought smugly as he dramatically parried Durmada into a corner against a tree. Duryodhana's brothers laughed and clapped and cheered at this sight, and Durmada, chagrined, dropped his sword and lifted his helmet, pushing his sweaty bangs out of his eyes with his gloved hands. "Okay, okay. You win."

"Only because you left me too many openings. What did I tell you last time?"

" 'Don't forget to guard your sides'?"

"Yes." Duryodhana rolled his eyes. He stepped away from Durmada and turned to Vikata, lifting his sword in a gesture of challenge. "Well?"

"Bring it on."

"I'll make you eat those words."

"Probably yes," Vikata said, lowering his thin, clear helmet over his face, "but I'm not going to make the same mistakes that Durmada did."

Duryodhana was several minutes into a rather satisfying bout with Vikata when he suddenly heard a voice behind him exclaim, "Oh, how marvelous!"

Duryodhana and Vikata both froze. At that moment, Duryodhana realized that Dusshasana and his younger brothers, who had previously been shouting and cheering throughout his rally with Vikata, had fallen deathly silent. Duryodhana instantly whirled around and pushed his helmet off his head. "Oh," he said, suddenly tasting something very nasty in his mouth. "You."

Yudhisthira was standing at one end of the courtyard, his hands clasped at his chest, staring at Duryodhana with an expression of naive, childlike amazement on his face. He was flanked, as usual, by Bhima. Bhima, in contrast to his brother, looked utterly unimpressed, even bored, by the spectacle in front of him.

"Oh, please, do go on," Yudhisthira said, somewhat embarrassed, when he realized that Duryodhana had stopped and was staring at him. "You're - you're really amazing!"

Duryodhana refused to let himself feel any satisfaction from this compliment. "Like you would know," he said darkly.

Yudhisthira faltered for a moment - behind him, Bhima glared angrily at Duryodhana - but then Yudhisthira seemed to regain his composure, and said, "Well, yes, actually - I do know a little bit about it - my father taught me--"

"Oh, really?" Duryodhana was not feigning his surprise. Around him, his brothers were beginning to snicker quietly, and Vikata suddenly had a mischievous glint in his eye.

"But, but!" Yudhisthira raised his hands quickly. "I'm nowhere near as good as you!"

"Well, we don't know that for sure, now, do we?" Duryodhana simpered, as he bowed his head to Yudhisthira. He then gestured toward his brother and said, "Here. Take Vikata's sword. I would be honored to test my skills against that of my esteemed cousin."

"Oh," Yudhisthira said, his voice filled with dismay. His eyes nervously flickered around to Duryodhana, who was waiting expectantly, then to Vikata, who was holding out his sword and biting his lip to keep a smug smile off his face, then to Duryodhana's brothers, who were all leaning forward in eager anticipation, and finally to the silent bodyguards surrounding him, whose stony faces apparently offered him no comfort. He seemed to have realized too late what he had gotten himself into.

Bhima suddenly placed his hand on his brother's shoulder and said urgently, "You don't have to--"

"Oh, Bhima." Yudhisthira shrugged his brother's enormous hand off his thin shoulder, suddenly affecting an (unconvincing) air of confidence again. "It would be rude of me to refuse Duryodhana's challenge. I'd be honored," he said, stepping forward to grasp Vikata's sword. "But I don't have a helmet or--"

"You don't need one," Duryodhana said, assuming his beginning stance.

Yudhisthira faltered again, eyeing Duryodhana's sharp, long sword nervously. "But you're not using a practice sword. That thing is - that thing is real!"

Duryodhana rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to hurt you. Grandpa Bhisma and I practice without gear all the time."

"Give him a helmet!" Bhima demanded angrily. "It isn't safe otherwise!"

"And I suppose that you and your brother had helmets and protective gear when you learned how to use the sword?"

Bhima stepped forward angrily. Was it just Duryodhana's imagination, or did the ground actually seem to tremble with Bhima's thundering footsteps? "Papa made sure that we always used practice swords--"

"Yes, I'm sure that the woods were full of pointy sticks for you to use--"

"We did NOT use pointy sticks, Papa let us use real swords!" Bhima thundered, just as Duryodhana had hoped he would.

Duryodhana paused for a moment, watching Bhima slowly realize what he had said, making no effort to hide the smug little smile that now danced across his lips. "Well?" he asked softly. "Which was it? Pointy sticks or real swords?"

"That's not--! That doesn't--!" Bhima faltered angrily, then shouted again, "At least give him a helmet!"

"My brother's helmets won't fit him--"

"You haven't even let him try one on--!"

"Enough," Yudhisthira finally said, shooting a withering glare at his younger brother, who immediately fell silent and hung his head. "Bhima, there's no sense in prolonging this any longer." He then raised Vikata's sword - which was, indeed, just a practice sword, heavy enough although barely sharp enough to do any real damage - and assumed a stance which mimicked Duryodhana's. "When you're ready, then."

"Excellent," Duryodhana said, licking his lips eagerly. Then he lunged forward.

The two of them clashed, for one brief, tense moment. The courtyard was utterly silent, save for the clacking sounds of Yudhisthira's sword ineffectually parrying Duryodhana's thrusts. Duryodhana toyed with his opponent for a few moments, testing Yudhisthira's skills, testing his limits, laughing inwardly as he observed Yudhisthira's every clumsy move. Yudhisthira fought with his brow furrowed in concentration and his jaw set, although Duryodhana could see in his eyes that he already knew he was defeated. Finally, with one finishing stroke, it was over. Duryodhana lunged forward like a snake, startling Yudhisthira so badly that he stumbled and fell backward. The moment that he hit the ground, Duryodhana was pointing his sword at Yudhisthira's chest. His brothers erupted into wild cheers. The moment could not have been any sweeter, Duryodhana thought, until he heard the telltale click of a camera from somewhere within the bushes nearby. Ah, he thought with a glow of satisfaction, perhaps this will be the image plastered all over the papers tomorrow.

Yudhisthira grinned up at Duryodhana and laughed, good-naturedly, although there was a bit of a tremble in his voice. "I told you," he said. "I'm nowhere near as good as you."

Duryodhana said nothing, but withdrew his sword, allowing Yudhisthira to stand up. Yudhisthira rubbed his shoulder and kept what Duryodhana knew must have been a carefully calculated, good-natured, slightly embarrassed grin on his face. But inside, Duryodhana could tell that Yudhisthira was smarting badly. Well, it serves him right, Duryodhana thought. He'd set himself up for a bit of humiliation, and he'd certainly earned it.

"Nice rally, though," Duryodhana said, rather insincerely.

"Thank you," Yudhisthira said. "This is yours, I believe," he added, turning to hand his sword back to Vikata.

But before Vikata could reach for the sword, Bhima was suddenly there, snatching it out of his brother's hand. Ignoring Yudhisthira's gasp of protest, Bhima stepped menacingly toward Duryodhana - again, the ground seemed to almost tremble with his steps - and said, tersely, "Fight me."

Duryodhana was momentarily taken aback. "You?" He wasn't sure what to think. Bhima was the younger of the two - surely he couldn't be any better with a sword than his older brother. And yet, he was a full head taller than Duryodhana was. And he was broad-shouldered, likely quite strong, and at the moment, quite angry. Duryodhana wasn't sure what his odds against Bhima were.

"Bhima, please--" Yudhisthira said, pleading with his brother, "don't be rude--"

"I'm not being rude," Bhima said, his lips stretching into a humorless grin as he continued to stare at Duryodhana, pointedly not looking at his older brother, who was standing at his side and tugging ineffectually at his arm. "It would be an honor for me to test my skills against my esteemed cousin, wouldn't it be?"

Duryodhana swallowed.

"Bhima," Yudhisthira suddenly said, finally showing an echo of the firm, assertive voice he had used to make Bhima back down a few minutes earlier. "Bhima, you're angry--"

"Am not."

"Don't be daft, you'll make Papa look bad--"

"It's fine," Duryodhana suddenly said, meeting Bhima's angry stare with a defiant glare his own. "I would be honored, Bhima." He assumed his ready stance and held out his sword. He had been watching Bhima's movements and could see that his opponent was strong - and he had the advantage of size. But he was also angry, and in Bhima's eyes Duryodhana could see a stupid, animal rage that would be easy to counter in a fight. If Yudhisthira was a bookish nerd, then Bhima was surely a simpleton, Duryodhana was beginning to understand. Duryodhana had no doubt that even if Bhima were skilled at all with the sword, his dull mind and ungraceful girth would surely handicap him in a fight.

Yudhisthira swallowed and licked his lips. His eyes darted around the courtyard, briefly touching upon the silent bodyguards standing at a respectful distance away from them - but their stony faces still offered him no help. They weren't about to step in and stop the fight. Realizing that he was defeated, Yudhisthira stepped away from his brother, giving him space, and mumbled morosely, "Be careful. His sword is real."

"That won't help him," Bhima boasted as he thrust toward Duryodhana. With that, the duel was on.

Duryodhana was caught by surprise - Bhima was swift and quick on his feet, and his thrusts were immediately difficult to parry. Seconds into the duel, and Duryodhana was already on the defensive. But he grit his teeth and refused to let himself feel alarmed. He had to maintain control of the duel, he had to find a way to get his opponent's size and brute strength to work against him. Duryodhana thrust this way and that, but it was no good - Bhima blocked every swing of his sword, and countered quickly with his own.

Now Duryodhana could hear his brothers shouting, cheering him on. It was small comfort. Bhima was fast, too fast, and not giving Duryodhana a single instant to rest or catch his thoughts. Duryodhana's heart was thumping in his chest, sweat was rolling down his back, his breath was rasping in dry, panicked gasps against the back of his throat. And still Bhima came at him, his face stretched in that same frightening, humorless grin of triumph, his eyes blazing. The ground shook and trembled as Bhima thundered around Duryodhana - and Duryodhana knew that it was no longer his imagination. He couldn't keep his balance on the heaving ground, and he couldn't make a single offensive thrust as he was so desperately struggling to defend himself against Bhima's relentless onslaught. His knees were starting to tremble and Duryodhana knew that it was a matter of moments before his legs betrayed him. He was facing a monster.

Duryodhana realized that he had to end the duel, and soon. He thrust his sword this way and that, seeking Bhima's heart - in a blind panic, no longer caring about the fact that his sword was heavy and real and very sharp. Duryodhana dimly heard Yudhisthira shouting something at him, high and panicked - "What are you DOING?! BE CAREFUL!" and now even Dusshasana was shouting something at him, but Duryodhana didn't care anymore. He was facing a monster and he had to get the monster to stop. His thoughts had narrowed and seized upon this one, single-minded point. He had to stop his opponent. Duryodhana swung at Bhima's wrist, hoping to disarm him, not particularly caring if he sliced off his cousin's hand in the process. Bhima effortlessly blocked Duryodhana's swing. Duryodhana thrust forward again and again, and Bhima roared with laughter and blocked his every move. Duryodhana's vision began to fill with shades of red. I must not lose to this brute, his brain screamed at him as his arms, now seeming to move with a will of their own, continued to blindly and brutally thrust at his cousin. I will NOT be humiliated like this! I will NOT be humiliated like this! I'M the best swordsman in this family! ME! Nobody has ever beaten me in a duel - nobody!

Duryodhana hadn't even realized that he was no longer on the offensive - but with a start, he suddenly became aware that his arms, his talented and apparently independent arms, were now busy furiously parrying a volley of violent swings from Bhima. Duryodhana was being forced backward toward a tree, step by excruciating step. He dug his feet into the ground, but Bhima's relentless onslaught still forced him to step backward, backward, backward. And still Bhima was laughing at him and Duryodhana realized that he was shouting now, not even with words even, just a sort of wordless scream of rage as his sword clashed again and again with Bhima's.

Then, it happened. Duryodhana's back finally bumped against the trunk of a tree at the same moment that Bhima struck Duryodhana's wrist with the heavy, blunt side of his practice sword. Duryodhana's hand jerked back and his fingers flew open, shocked by the pain of Bhima's blow; and his sword fell to the ground. Within an instant, the top of Bhima's practice sword was pointed squarely at Duryodhana's heart.

The world around Duryodhana was utterly, utterly silent, as if the birds in the trees were even afraid to utter a single noise. For what felt like an eternity, Duryodhana could hear nothing but the sound of his own heavy, rasping breath in his ears.

Then Bhima, who hardly appeared to be out of breath at all, tapped Duryodhana's chest with the tip of his sword, and laughed contemptuously. The sound of his roaring laughter seemed to shake the branches and leaves above Duryodhana's head. "Oh, a nice rally!" Bhima said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, and then he laughed again.

Duryodhana's fists clenched and trembled at his side. He grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes at Bhima. "You--" he snarled, but before he could get any further, something unspeakably horrible happened.

There was a click, and a flash from the bushes immediately at Duryodhana's side.

Bhima suddenly drew his sword away from Duryodhana's chest, looking almost comically startled. Duryodhana jumped away from the tree and stomped angrily away from Bhima, shouting at a bodyguard that he passed, "I want the grounds sealed off and that photographer found NOW. Rip the film out of his camera and burn any digital storage he has on him!" Duryodhana ripped his helmet off his head and tossed it angrily to the ground as he continued marching away from the courtyard, not caring that he had just turned his back on Dusshasana and Durmada and Vikata and all of his brothers and Yudhisthira and Bhima without so much of a word of goodbye. He just wanted to be away from all of them, the whole awful lot of them, as soon as he possibly could be. His humiliation couldn't have been more complete.

"Your Highness--" One of the bodyguards was running to catch up with Duryodhana. "Your Highness, about the intruder--"

"FIND HIM AND THROW HIM IN JAIL!" Duryodhana shouted. "And if so much as a single picture of what here happened today leaks out ANYWHERE, even on the diginet, then the whole lot of you are FIRED!"

With that, Duryodhana continued to stomp away in a furious silence, ripping off his own shoulder and arm protection and throwing it angrily to the ground as he did so.


X.

The night was cool and dark, but it did little to soothe Duryodhana's seething anger. That was all right, though. It felt unexpectedly good to just sit and seethe with anger, Duryodhana was now discovering, as he doodled idly with his pen on his math homework, his thoughts more concerned with the frustrating events of the day than with parabolic functions.

From the terrace where he was sitting hunched over his homework with his math textbook and the calculator balanced in his lap, Duryodhana had a full view of the darkened courtyard where he had dueled with Bhima. The palace grounds were now quiet and deserted, but just a few hours ago they had been crawling with bodyguards and security detail, searching every bush and tree and flowerbed for the photographer who had somehow managed to sneak in earlier that day. But when the sun had set and the culprit had not yet been found, Duryodhana had been forced to conclude, along with his bodyguards, that the photographer had already made his escape somehow. And at the end of the day, Duryodhana hadn't had the heart to follow through with his threat of firing his bodyguards.

Duryodhana sighed and shifted in the cushions that he was sitting on, stewing in his unpleasant thoughts. He wondered who the photographer was, who he worked for, which of the images captured on his camera he would sell to which publications. Duryodhana supposed that he would find out by tomorrow.

"Duryodhana?"

Duryodhana momentarily snapped out of his reverie, startled. "Mother?"

His mother, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, was stepping out onto the balcony. She turned her blindfolded eyes this way and that, seeking the sound of his voice. "Ah, there you are. What are you doing out here?"

"Homework," Duryodhana said, standing up and reaching out for his mother's hand, guiding her toward him. The two of them sat down, side by side, on the pile of cushions that Duryodhana had arranged against one side of the balcony. Duryodhana's mother gracefully folded her skirts around her as she sat. "Ah, this is nice," she said. "A bit chilly, though. And an odd place to be doing homework, if I do say so myself."

"We can go inside--"

"No. You're out here." She reached out and cupped her palm against his face. "Ah, my handsome son..."

Duryodhana sat very still as his mother caressed his cheek. That was good. It felt safe, familiar. Duryodhana had grown up with blind parents and was used to the fact that neither his mother nor his father could really see him without touching him.

Duryodhana's mother withdrew her hand and rested it in her lap. "I've heard that you and your cousin Bhima had a tiff today."

Duryodhana instantly stiffened. "We weren't fighting. It was just a little practice duel. With, with swords."

"Oh, really? Because the guards that I spoke to told me that your little duel didn't appear to be very friendly."

Duryodhana wondered if maybe he really should have fired all of the bodyguards who had been in the courtyard that afternoon. "It's not my fault," he said quickly. "Bhima started it. It was just supposed to be a practice duel, but he was trying to hurt me!"

"Duryodhana--"

"Mother, I--"

"Duryodhana, everybody has heard about it by now."

Duryodhana fell silent, instantly convinced that he could not possibly feel any more miserable.

Duryodhana's mother was quiet for a long, thoughtful moment. Then she said, softly but firmly, "I think that you should be more careful from now on. Bhima is not somebody whom you should provoke."

Duryodhana looked down at his hands.

"When his throne is in question," his mother continued, "a prince's reputation becomes his greatest strength, his most important asset. Do not let your reputation suffer, Duryodhana, in any way. Therefore it might be best for you to consider avoiding Bhima from now on." She stood up, gracefully, and then stepped away from Duryodhana. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your homework," she said.

"Mother, wait--!"

"Yes?"

Duryodhana stood up nervously, clutching his math textbook to his chest. "People are talking about what happened, right? So... So what are they saying?"

His mother smiled at him. "Actually, I've heard quite a few compliments about the way that you handled yourself in that duel. Even the bodyguards were impressed."

Duryodhana finally felt himself cheering up, at least a little bit. "Yeah? Really? What'd they say?"

"One of them actually told me that you fought like a demon," his mother said. "Like the great asura warriors of long ago." Then Duryodhana's mother stepped through a curtain and closed the glass doors of the balcony behind her. She was gone, and Duryodhana was alone.

Slowly, Duryodhana's textbook began to slide through his numb fingers. Finally, it dropped and hit the ground at his feet with a thud and a flutter of pages.

It was a compliment, a calm, rational voice in the back of his brain tried to argue with him. Whoever said that meant it as a compliment. Mama meant it as a compliment. It's nothing to get upset about.

Then why did Duryodhana suddenly feel so cold?

"It was a compliment, stupid," he muttered to himself, as he bent over to pick up his math textbook. Nothing to get upset over. It's not a bad thing to be compared to an asura. The asuras were the greatest and most accomplished warriors in the history of known civilization. And sure, maybe they were a brutal race that liked to conquer and subject worlds and occasionally eat their human slaves, but - but! Duryodhana had heard professional athletes, and princes from other worlds, being praised by being compared to asuras before. It was not an uncommon thing. It was a honor. Yes, that was it, an honor. He should be pleased with himself, to have his fighting prowess compared to that of an asura's. And it's not like anybody would ever think that he was an asura or anything as unbelievably silly as that--

"OUCH!" Duryodhana fumbled and dropped his textbook again, which had suddenly grown inexplicably cold and wet to the touch - so much so that it felt as if its suddenly freezing surface had actually burned his fingers.

"What in the hells--?" Duryodhana took a sudden, panicked step away from the spot where his textbook had fallen. It was shining, glossy beneath the moonlight - and suddenly radiating a sort of cold, forbidding chill. That was funny. Duryodhana's textbook hadn't been particularly shiny or glossy a few moments before.

Very, very slowly, Duryodhana knelt to the ground, bringing his face closer to his textbook, lying cold and glittering on the floor of his balcony. He suddenly realized that he could see his breath, coming out in neat, white little puffs, the closer that he drew to his textbook. He squinted at his book, but the darkness thwarted his inspection. Then, slowly, he reached out and brushed the tips of his fingers against it. It was cold and wet, like ice.

No, not like ice. Itwas ice. His textbook was covered in a solid layer of it.

Duryodhana hissed and quickly drew back his hand. "What in the five hells?" he asked again, although nothing and nobody was there to answer him.

Duryodhana straightened up, clutching his shoulders and shivering, his mind whirling. Where the spirits playing tricks on him? Had somebody cursed him? Grandpa Bhisma was going to be so mad when he found out. If Duryodhana could get it in a microwave, maybe, or in an oven, or if he could borrow a blow-dryer from his sister, maybe it could be saved, maybe he wouldn't have to tell Grandpa Bhisma, maybe--

"Oh, there you are!"

As if this moment could really get any worse, Duryodhana thought darkly. He turned his head, and sure enough, Yudhisthira was stepping through an opening in the balcony doors and then sliding the doors politely closed behind him. Duryodhana noticed instantly that Yudhisthira had a copy of his history textbook under one arm. "Um, are you busy?" Yudhisthira asked.

Duryodhana stepped in front of his frozen textbook, still lying like a lump of ice on the floor of the balcony, and prayed fervently and silently that Yudhisthira had not seen it. "Yeah, kind of--"

"Oh," Yudhisthira said, although he was clearly puzzled - Duryodhana appeared to be standing awkwardly in the middle of his balcony and not really doing much of anything at all. "Well, I, um-- I was just trying to..." Yudhisthira trailed off nervously, then, apparently having made some sort of decision, reached beneath his arm and pulled out his history textbook, flipping it open to a bookmarked page. "I was just trying to do Grandpa Bhisma's reading homework, and there was, um, there was a lot of it that I didn't understand, and I... Um..."

"You came to ask me for help?" Duryodhana asked, tersely.

Yudhisthira brightened up. "Yes! If you wouldn't mind."

"And why," Duryodhana asked slowly, "should I help you?"

Yudhisthira faltered for a moment, stunned by the question. Then he said, "Grandpa Bhisma told me that if I never needed help with any of the homework, I could ask you."

"Oh, he did, did he?"

"Y-Yes..."

Duryodhana said nothing else, but only glared at Yudhisthira, feeling momentarily overwhelmed with revulsion and loathing. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than for Yudhisthira to turn around and leave and hopefully never show his face anywhere around Duryodhana ever again.

Yudhisthira, however, did not quite get the message. "It's just that, um," he said, faltering, but still gamely pushing forward, "there were a lot of words that I didn't understand, and I thought that maybe you could... I thought that maybe you could..."

"If you're so smart," Duryodhana asked, "why don't you just figure it out yourself?"

"Wh-what?"

"Oh, what's the matter? Is it that you know all about Vali and the Kishkindans but not anything else?"

"It's not like--"

"I'm not helping you," Duryodhana said. He turned away from Yudhisthira, bent down quickly, and picked up his frozen textbook before Yudhisthira could see it. Clutching the painfully cold textbook to his chest, Duryodhana kept himself turned away from Yudhisthira as he stepped around his cousin, toward the balcony doors, sliding one open angrily. Before he stepped through the curtain beyond the door, Duryodhana turned his head - only his head - toward Yudhisthira, and said, "Nobody wants you here, you know." He then quickly turned away from Yudhisthira's face but caught, out of the corner of his eye, a brief glimpse of Yudhisthira's stricken expression. The sight filled Duryodhana's heart with a frightening yet satisfying sort of glee. "Why don't you just crawl back into the cave where you came from!" he snarled, then whirled away from Yudhisthira and stomped off, slamming the balcony door angrily behind him.


XI.

Duryodhana slept uneasily that night, tossing and turning in the throes of garbled dreams. He felt the tip of Bhima's sword pressed over his heart; he told Yudhisthira "Nobody wants you here, you know," tasting the words in his mouth and this time unable to look away from the expression on Yudhisthira's face; he felt the world turning to ice in his hands, everything falling still and cold and silent.

Duryodhana awoke colder than he had ever felt before, although it was already late in the day and warm sunlight was filtering into his bedroom. He suddenly sat up in his bed with a start. He was going to be late for his lessons with Grandpa Bhisma!

Duryodhana washed and dressed quickly, and gathered up his things. His math textbook had thawed overnight but was now a sopping, ruined mess; with a sigh, Duryodhana realized that he would have to leave it behind. As he ran out of his room, passing by his bodyguards without a word, Duryodhana's mentally rehearsed the excuses he would give his grandpa Bhisma to explain the math textbook. He had been studying in the courtyard and dropped it in a fish pond. No, he had loaned it to Durmada and he had dropped it in a fish pond. No, even better - he had been studying in the courtyard when Bhima had snuck up behind him and grabbed the book and thrown it into a fish pond!

Duryodhana pelted down the palace hallways, concentrating more on deciding whether he could convincingly blame Bhima for his textbook than on where he was going. Which is probably why Duryodhana didn't see the enormous fist flying toward his face until it was too late.

His nose crunched and spurted blood on the first impact. The next fist slammed into Duryodhana's stomach like a battering ram. Duryodhana doubled over and fell to the ground, tasting his own blood gurgling up in his throat. "NOT SO HANDSOME NOW, ARE WE?" Bhima roared as his fists continued to pummel Duryodhana. Oh, Duryodhana thought, not at all surprised, of course it's Bhima. He couldn't hear much else of what Bhima was saying, since his ears were now ringing so badly. But it wasn't just Bhima shouting now, either. Everybody was there, and everybody was shouting. Duryodhana felt more than saw Bhima's enormous shadow suddenly and forcefully pulled off him. He rolled over slowly and saw, dimly, that no less than four dark-suited bodyguards were wrestling Bhima to the ground. There were more bodyguards coming and more starting to bend over Duryodhana and now Duryodhana could see and hear some of his brothers running toward him and shouting--

"Don't you know what he said TO MY BROTHER?!" Bhima was shouting as he struggled against the bodyguards, nearly frothing at the mouth. "DON'T YOU KNOW?! HE DESERVES IT! HE DESERVES EVERY BIT OF IT!"

Duryodhana coughed and spat out blood. Well, the nice white carpet was probably ruined now, he thought dimly, as he closed his eyes and ears and retreated down into blessed darkness.


XII.

Duryodhana was awoken by a painful slap across his swollen, tender cheek. It hurt, a lot. It was not exactly the wake-up call he had been expecting.

"Uuuungh?" Duryodhana slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was that he could see his own nose between his eyes. It must have been swollen about four times its normal size. The next thing he noticed was his grandpa Bhisma's face, which looked absolutely furious.

Duryodhana realized, amazingly, that he was sitting upright in a chair. He didn't have time to wonder how he had gotten there or how he could be sitting upright at all, especially when his stomach felt as though it had been pounded into a gooey pulp. Duryodhana quickly took stock of his situation. He was in a room that he recognized as his grandpa Bhisma's private study. Duryodhana slowly, painfully turned his head to his left and realized with a start that Bhima was sitting on a chair right beside him, staring sullenly at his feet. Then Duryodhana turned his head to his right and saw Yudhisthira standing there, looking as though he were torn between trying to cower in front of his great-uncle Bhisma and yet glare reproachfully at Bhima at the same time.

"I wanna doctor," Duryodhana said thickly. His voice whistled through a fresh, bloody gap between two of his teeth.

"You'll live," Bhisma said, shooting Duryodhana a withering glare. Duryodhana shrank back in his seat. He had never, ever in his entire life seen his grandpa Bhisma looking so furious before. "BHIMA!" Bhisma suddenly barked.

Bhima jumped in his seat, which was no small feat for a boy his size. "Um!" he answered, eloquently.

"Let me make one thing very, very clear to you, young man," Bhisma said, leaning forward, menacingly, into Bhima's face. "If you expect to be able to live like a civilized prince, then you are never, EVER to lay a hand on anyone, especially not out of anger. I don't care if you feel offended by your cousin or your brother or a servant or a guard - you are NOT to lay your hands on another human being, EVER."

"But Duryodhana--"

"And if I EVER hear of you hitting someone else ever again, I will exile you back into the wilderness myself, DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR, YOUNG MAN?"

"Y-yes, sir."

"Go to your room, NOW."

"But Papa--"

"You're GROUNDED, Bhima. I don't care what your father or your mother have to say about it, although I'm sure they'll agree with me when they hear about this. In THIS house, I make the disciplinary decisions, is that clear?!"

"Y-yes sir," Bhima repeated, miserably. He slid out of his chair and slunk out of the room, pointedly not looking Duryodhana in the eyes.

Duryodhana turned his head and watched Yudhisthira watching Bhima go. Yudhisthira turned his head and opened his mouth, as if he were about to say something, when Bhisma suddenly leaned toward him and said, "And as foryou..."

"I didn't know he was going to--!" Yudhisthira protested, desperately. "He didn't tell me, if I'd known I would have--"

"You expect me to believe that a young man as smart as you could make such an idiotic mistake predicting his own brother's behavior?"

Yudhisthira looked stricken. "I would never--"

"Do you have any idea how strong your brother is? Duryodhana could have been killed! Your brother is completely out of control and you're telling me that you can't do anything about it?!"

"You don't understand, you don't know Bhima like I do, he's--"

"He looks up to you," Bhisma said, jabbing one of his fingers at Yudhisthira's chest. "And he's your responsibility."

"My what--?! How is that fair?!" Yudhisthira finally had found a hint, at least a hint, of defiance in his voice.

"An older brother looks out for his younger brothers," Bhisma said, sternly. "Your cousin Duryodhana knows how to hold himself responsible for his younger brothers - and he has ninety-nine of them! I would expect you to at least be able to handle the two that you have."

"So what am I supposed to do?!" Yudhisthira finally shouted, a bit tearily.

"You could start by growing a backbone," Bhisma said, bluntly.

Yudhisthira sniffled and squeezed his eyes shut.

Bhisma sighed and drew back from Yudhisthira. "Go to your room and think about what you've done. Or rather, what you didn't do." Then Bhisma pointedly turned his back to Yudhisthira, who slunk out of the room slowly, his shoulders hunched, sniffling as he went.

Then Yudhisthira was gone, and Duryodhana was all alone with his great-uncle Bhisma.

"Duryodhana..."

"I'm sorry," Duryodhana said, quickly, before Bhisma could say anything else.

Bhisma was silent for a moment, then sighed again, and wearily sank down into a seat on the opposite side of the small room. "So it's true? What you said to Yudhisthira last night?"

"Yes, sir."

"Whatever would possess you to say something so horrible to your cousin?" Bhisma no longer sounded angry. Instead, he sounded rather sad. Duryodhana personally found this even more terrible than his great-uncle's angry shouting. Duryodhana was ashamed to feel tears beginning to prick the corners of his eyes.

"Duryodhana, he's your cousin," Bhisma said, sternly. "Your flesh and blood. A true king - no, a real man, any man - would never be so cruel toward his own flesh and blood, especially when he was only approaching you to ask for your help."

Duryodhana still said nothing. He was too busy biting his already-swollen lip hard enough to draw blood, furiously concentrating on not crying, not crying, not crying. He was thirteen years old, he was a man, he couldn't let himself start blubbering not a baby, not now, especially not in front of great-uncle Bhisma.

Bhisma continued to stare at Duryodhana for what felt like a very, very long time. Finally, he sank back into his seat, as if every bone in his body were exhausted, and sighed, rubbing his temples. "Duryodhana, I just... I don't know what to say. I thought that you were better than this. I'm just... I'm just so disappointed in you right now, I don't even have the words for it."

At that, Duryodhana gave up, and finally burst into tears. He rocked back and forth in his seat and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, and Grandpa Bhisma watched him, saying nothing.


XIII.

Days and nights passed, not that Duryodhana particularly noticed. After somebody had treated and bandaged his nose, he holed himself up in his bedroom and refused to emerge for meals or lessons or even for affairs of estate. But he was not pouting. He was praying - sitting on top of his bed with his legs in a lotus position, breathing deeply, chanting when he remembered to, willing himself into a state of calm, clear-headedness. It seemed to take a very, very long time.

But finally, Duryodhana opened his eyes and looked around his room.

It was evening - he was unsure of the exact date - and it was quiet within and without the palace. Duryodhana slid off his bed, a bit shakily. His legs felt like jelly. Okay, he berated himself, that was stupid - he had never meditated in one position for so long before. Duryodhana took a few wobbling steps across his room and then stopped, having caught sight of his face in a mirror. He breathed a quick sigh of relief. His face was back to normal--

His face was back to normal?!

Duryodhana's eyes widened. That couldn't be. That wasn't possible! He didn't even remember removing the bandages over his nose - had somebody else done that while he had been--?!

"No way," Duryodhana croaked. Then he tasted his own voice in his mouth, and he realized, with a wrinkle of his newly good-as-new nose, that he needed to clean his teeth.

Duryodhana struggled on his stiff legs into his private bathroom, and brushed his teeth and washed his face. Then he leaned forward, staring into the mirror over his marble sink, poking and prodding at his smooth, unblemished, unscarred face. His nose didn't even hurt anymore. There was still a gap between two of his teeth where one had been knocked right out of his head by Bhima's fist, but everything else was fine.

Duryodhana was dumbfounded. Grateful to whatever higher powers were apparently looking out for him, but also dumbfounded. Surely he couldn't have been on top of his bed for more than a few days... Duryodhana remembered when Dusshasana had been seven years old and had broken his nose, and it had taken nearly two weeks to heal completely...

Duryodhana stumbled out of his bathroom and back into his bed chamber. In one corner of his room, his computer sat on a desk and hummed to itself contentedly. It was always on. And the calendar on its screen told Duryodhana that it was only four days since Bhima had broken his nose.

"Wow," Duryodhana breathed, touching his whole, healed nose with wonder. He made a silent vow to visit every temple in Hastinapura tomorrow and personally say a prayer of thanks to any statue that he could find.

Tomorrow, he vowed. As for today, he had something more urgent to attend to.


XIV.

Yudhisthira frowned at his keyboard for the umpteenth time in the past ten seconds. Where were the stupid vowel keys? Why didn't any of the keys follow a logical, alphabetical order? Why did it have to take him hours to type up even a simple, short assignment for his grandpa Bhisma?

Yudhisthira suddenly slammed his hands down on his keyboard and sighed. An explosion of gibberish letters flashed across the computer screen in front of him, but he didn't care. He still didn't understand why he couldn't just hand-write the paper that his grandpa Bhisma wanted. It was all well and good for Grandpa Bhisma to insist that he learned how to type and use the incredibly stupid and useless piece of machinery that was his personal computer, but still--

"But that doesn't mean that I have to LIKE you!" Yudhisthira shouted at his computer screen. Then, realizing what he had just done, he bit down on his lip and stifled a nervous chuckle. Talk about childish.

Well, as long as he had the courage to shout at an inanimate computer in the privacy of his own chambers, Yudhisthira supposed, that had to count for somesort of progress in this whole "backbone" thing, right?

Probably not.

Yudhisthira slumped in his chair, frowning at his computer, frowning at the world. Why did everything have to be so awful, here in this fabulous royal palace? Yudhisthira hated it here. He still couldn't sleep at night, because of the light and the noise of the city and the sickening softness of his bed. His days were filled with overwhelming amounts of homework from his grandpa Bhisma. He had Bhima by his side more often that not, but he hardly ever saw Arjuna or his parents anymore. Arjuna had a nanny now, and Yudhisthira's mothers were busy running the palace household and involving themselves in public functions, and Yudhisthira's father was always either not in the palace, or otherwise too tired to see him, too tired to see him, always too tired to see him, as all of the servants told him over and over and over again.

Yudhisthira wasn't fooled. He had overheard Grandpa Bhisma and Uncle Vidura talking about doctors and tests and medications in hushed, quiet whispers, when they thought that Yudhisthira either wasn't close enough to overhear, or wasn't paying attention. Yudhisthira had never been told as much, but he knew, which a kind of sickening certainty, that whatever time his father wasn't spending in the palace, he was likely spending in a hospital.

Yudhisthira took a deep breath and forced himself to try typing again, but it was useless. His mind kept wandering, remembering this and that - remembering winters spent hunting with his father and Bhima in the woods, remembering his father's broad shoulders and tanned skin and the long shadow that he used to cast, remembering the first time that Yudhisthira's father had told him to take Bhima hunting since he was too tired to accompany them that day, remembering how pale his father's face had looked and how deep the lines around his usually-smiling mouth had been.

Duryodhana had been right, Yudhisthira thought sullenly. Nobody wanted him here. Probably because he himself didn't want to be here. He wanted to be back in the woods with his father always at his side and his baby brother always in his lap. Yudhisthira knew that if his father was sick, then being cooped up in this strange palace - not to mention breathing all of this insufferable city air, and being constantly exposed to all of this noise and commotion - certainly wasn't helping him get any better.

Yudhisthira stared at his flickering computer screen, which only displayed a discouraging lack of a typed assignment back at him. For four days Duryodhana had been shut up in his room, for four days Yudhisthira and Bhima had been steadfastly avoiding any of Duryodhana's brothers as much as they could. For four days Yudhisthira had been putting up with Dusshasana's hateful, silent glares during their lessons with Grandpa Bhisma. For four days Yudhisthira had noticed all of the servants in the palace whispering and staring at him whenever he passed them by - and from the sounds of it, it was not any sort of pleasant thing they were whispering.

Nobody ever spoke of what had happened four days ago. But nobody was exactly doing a good job of pretending that it had never happened, either.

"Your Highness?"

Yudhisthira snapped out of his reveries and turned his head. He had company. One of his bodyguards was standing on the threshold of his study, bowing low.

"Yes?" Yudhisthira asked, sliding out of his seat and standing up.

"His Royal Majesty, Prince Dury--"

"Oh please, there's no need to announce me like that," Duryodhana said, rolling his eyes as he stepped around the servant, who bowed his head even lower and then withdrew silently.

Yudhisthira at first didn't know what to say, but unfortunately, his tongue seemed to be running ahead of his brain. "Your face--!"

Duryodhana grinned and touched the side of his own perfect nose. "Pretty great, isn't it?"

"It's a miracle--!"

"Miracles happen to royalty all the time," Duryodhana said, waving his hand dismissively. "I'm going to some temples tomorrow, as a way of thanks. Want to come?"

Yudhisthira stood rooted to the spot, more confused than ever. "Er, what?"

"Are you deaf? I'm going out on a very important religious-like thing. Do you want to come with me?"

Yudhisthira still stood frozen, his mouth moving open and shut, silently. Finally, he found the words to say, and he knew that they were the right words, hurtful as they sounded, especially to him. "I thought that you didn't want me around," he said, softly.

"Oh, that." Duryodhana rolled his eyes. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

Yudhisthira looked down at his feet, but said nothing.

"Hey, I... I said I was sorry," Duryodhana said, suddenly floundering. Then he seemed to recover his confidence. "Oh, yeah! I brought you something." And then he produced his gift, seemingly out of nowhere, with a flourish of his hands.

Yudhisthira stared at it. "Um..."

"Oh... You don't like it?"

"No, I like it, it's great, it's just... Um, what is it, exactly?"

"Oh, give me a break." Duryodhana flounced over to Yudhisthira's computer and inserted his gift - a small, hard, black square of some incomprehensible material - into a slot in the computer's side. "It's the Vels. You'll like them. They're really great - they're my favorite. Hey, you know what? I can totally get us the best tickets for when they play Hastinapura next winter--"

"What's a Vels?" Yudhisthira asked, feeling even more lost than he had a moment ago. But then, as the speakers surrounding the computer came to life and the sound of stringed instruments and a thumping backbeat filled the room, Yudhisthira had his answer.

"They're a band," Duryodhana said, although by that time the explanation was unnecessary.

Yudhisthira stood with his head cocked to the side and his eyes half-closed, listening intently.

Duryodhana watched him for a moment, then asked, hesitantly, "Do you like it?"

Yudhisthira frowned for a moment, deep in thought. Then he finally opened his eyes and said, "Yes."

"Good, I thought you would. This is a mix that Sama made for me." Then Duryodhana tapped a few keys on the computer's keyboard, and the music ceased. He pulled slowly away from Yudhisthira's computer, then turned to face his cousin, and said, awkwardly, "So."

"So..."

"So, tomorrow. About tomorrow."

"I, um, I have lessons with Grandpa Bhisma--"

"I have the same lessons you do, but we can get out of them for something like this."

Yudhisthira hesitated, fidgeting with his hands.

"I get it," Duryodhana finally said, looking away. "It's okay if you don't want to go."

"No! I..." Yudhisthira wrung his hands for a moment, a gesture which Bhima had always teased him about. Bhima said it made him look like an old woman. Yudhisthira supposed that this was true, but that didn't mean that he could easily stop himself from doing it. "I just..." Yudhisthira supposed that there was no more point in beating around the bush. "I thought that you didn't like me," he said, quietly.

Duryodhana tapped his foot impatiently. "Look," he said, "I said something mean, okay? And I'm sorry. So this is making up. I'm trying to make up with you."

"Oh..."

"It's what people do when they have a fight."

"Oh..."

"Is that all you ever say?"

"No, it isn't! I can't go because I have too much homework, okay?!"

"What homework? You mean, tonight-homework?"

"Yes, I have to write two stupid pages for Grandpa Bhisma--"

"Only two stupid pages? And that's going to take you all night?" Duryodhana scoffed.

"It wouldn't take me all night if I didn't have to type it on that infernal machine!" Yudhisthira suddenly snapped.

"Then dictate and get a servant to type it for you."

"That's cheating. I'm supposed to do it myself." Yudhisthira shuffled his feet awkwardly, painfully aware of the fact that he was sulking like a child, but unable to help himself. "It's stupid. I've never had to type anything before. How do you do it so easily? It's too hard for me."

"It is not too hard for you," Duryodhana said, pulling a convenient chair up to Yudhisthira's computer desk and plopping himself down into it. "Your problem is that you're starting with sentences and words. You have to teach your fingers where the keys are, first. That's how I learned. When I was little, Grandpa Bhisma made me type a bunch of the same letters, over and over again, without looking at the keyboard, until I could feel where they all were without having to look."

"That sounds like even more work," Yudhisthira said, grumpily sliding down into his own chair, in front of the keyboard, beside Duryodhana.

"But if you just do it for a couple hours now, you'll save tons of time when you have to type up anything for real later on," Duryodhana explained.

Yudhisthira was startled when a moment later Duryodhana reached out and grasped his hand, guiding it to rest over the keyboard. "You start like this," Duryodhana said. Yudhisthira said nothing, but he thought that Duryodhana's hands were strangely cold.

Yudhisthira finally found his voice. "What are you--?"

"I'm helping you."

"Oh. Thank you."

"We'll start with this key and this key," Duryodhana said, pushing down Yudhisthira's fingers. Then he withdrew his hand and said sternly, "Don't move! And don't look at the keyboard. Just keep your eyes on the screen and move your fingers until you know what's underneath them."

And so Yudhisthira sat like that, beside Duryodhana, for nearly and hour, typing letters but not words, only moving his hands and his fingers where Duryodhana told him to. At the end of an hour, Yudhisthira could still barely type a sentence in less than five minutes, but it was a little bit easier (and faster) than it had been before Duryodhana arrived.

But eventually, Duryodhana stood up from his chair and said, "I need to go, now. I haven't seen Grandpa Bhisma for four days. I'm sure he'll have homework for me."

Yudhisthira smiled up at him, and for the first time in many days, his smile didn't feel forced. "Thank you," he said.

"Yeah, sure, no problem. Listen, about tomorrow...?"

"Yes!"

"Great. See you then," Duryodhana said, and then he left Yudhisthira alone with his homework.


XV.

"You're going OUT?" Bhima protested as he stomped angrily into Yudhisthira's bedroom the following morning, "and with HIM?!"

"Bhima," Yudhisthira said with what he hoped was a somewhat stern tone of voice. He was just finishing buttoning up his coat and re-arranging a few rebellious strands of hair with his fingers. "How did you get in here?"

"Funny, your bodyguards didn't seem very inclined to stop me--"

"Were you shaking your fist and threatening to rip their throats out?"

"...Maybe."

"Bhima, we've talked about that sort of behavior--"

"That's not thepoint!" Bhima exploded. "You're going to appear in public with Duryodhana?! Are you insane? He's mean and he's nasty and he's going to do something to humiliate you--"

"BHIMA!"

Bhima suddenly shut his mouth. He had never heard his older brother shout at him in such a way before.

"This feud ispointless and stupid and it ends HERE," Yudhisthira said, sternly. "Duryodhana and I talked last night. He's very sorry for what he did, and that's why he and I are going out together today. Besides, this isn't a fun thing, this is for a... A religious-like thing. We're just going to some temples because Duryodhana wants to pray. Duryodhana is trying to be my friend," Yudhisthira said, shooting a pointed glare at Bhima, "and I suggest that as long as he's making nice to us, you should probably make nice to him. You're the one who tried to smash his face in, remember?"

"Because he's been trying to get rid of YOU since we got here! Are you blind? Can't you see that? He's plotting against you--!"

"Bhima, are you insane?"

"No," Bhima said, sulkily. "I just don't trust him. He's not a nice person. I know. I can smell it on him. He's rich and spoiled and rotten and he WAS going to be the next king until you came along. Which is why if I were you, I wouldn't trust him."

"Well," Yudhisthira sniffed, pushing past Bhima and stomping out his bedroom, "I, for one, am tired of not trusting my own family. And I have no intention of surrounding myself with enemies, especially enemies that I create with my own mind."

Bhima watched his brother leave, then shouted after him, "I can't believe you're going somewhere and you DIDN'T INVITE ME!"

Yudhisthira chose to ignore this and marched himself proudly down the hallways of the palace, his bodyguards falling into place around him as he did so.

Duryodhana was waiting to meet him. "I like the hair," he said.

"But it's just my normal--"

"Come on," Duryodhana said, grasping Yudhisthira's hand and pulling him foreword. The two of them were surrounded by bodyguards and ushered into the bowels of the palace, where Yudhisthira was not surprised to find an auto waiting for them. This was a fancy one, bigger and brighter than the auto that Yudhisthira remembered from his first outing with Grandpa Bhisma - and it hovered, too, not like the other auto, which had used wheels.

"Where's Grandpa Bhisma?" Yudhisthira asked, as he climbed into the back of the hoverer with Duryodhana. "Isn't he coming with us? Or Uncle Vidura?"

"No, this is, ah, it's like it's my pilgrimage thing, or something. You and I are going alone."

"If it's like, your pilgrimage or something, then why am I--?"

"Because you're my friend," Duryodhana said.

Yudhisthira looked down at his hands and said nothing. The hoverer's secondary engine rumbled to life beneath him, and then he felt them moving forward. A few moments later, they were flying over the streets of Hastinapura. Yudhisthira tried to sneak a peek outside the window nearest to him, and then instantly regretted having done so. They were very high off the ground, and moving very fast.

"First time in a hoverer?" Duryodhana asked.

"Uh... Yeah..."

"I hope you don't mind crowds," Duryodhana said conversationally. "I know we're just going to pray, but they'll be crowds there, you know. Especially girls. Girls love to come see me."

Yudhisthira said nothing, but instead attempted to look out his window again. He noticed, if he turned his head slightly, that there was a small, dark hover-auto speeding alongside him, and another one slightly behind. There were probably more surrounding the entire vehicle. Yudhisthira swallowed. He suddenly realized just how very noticeable their hoverer was at the moment.

"You know," Duryodhana said, "I don't think that anybody's ever seen you in person before."

Yudhisthira snapped his head around, sharply. "What?"

"I mean, you've been here for what, like, a week? And you've never even been out of the palace."

"That's not true, the very first day I was here Grandpa Bhisma took me to--"

"Yeah, but that was like a secret mission." Duryodhana dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "If you're going to be a king, then you have to meet your public," he lectured. "And you'd better make sure that you're doing something decent and worthwhile as long as people are looking at you, anyway. Like harpooning fish for charity. Or going on a prayer pilgrimage."

"Oh," Yudhisthira said, beginning to understand.

"Just follow me and do everything I do," Duryodhana said. "They'll all be watching you. Everybody wants to see you."

"Really? Everybody?"

"For a week, the people out there," Duryodhana said, gesturing to indicate the city speeding along beneath them, "have heard about you, but only that - just rumors and conjecture. It's about time you gave them a face to talk about, don't you think?"

Yudhisthira folded his hands in his lap. "You're not... You're not seriously doing all of this just to make me look good, are you?"

"I," said Duryodhana airily, "am going on a prayer pilgrimage. I owe somebody Up There big-time for what they did for my face. I just invited you along to be nice. This is that make-up thing, remember?"

"Thank you," Yudhisthira said. Then he had no more time for speaking, because he was suddenly filled with nervousness. He could feel the hoverer slowing down and descending to the ground.

"Just do what I do," Duryodhana said, as the hoverer slowly ground to a halt. "Follow me. You and me are here to pray, remember? Just act like we're normal people here to pray. Everybody will be staring at you, but you can't acknowledge them, got it?"

"G-Got it."

"It'll be fine," Duryodhana said, one last time.

And a moment later, when Yudhisthira climbed out of the back of the hoverer and out into the sunlight, he realized that indeed, it was fine. Everything was fine.


XVI.

"Look at him, just look!" Pandu exclaimed, jabbing his (disturbingly bony, Bhisma thought) finger at the media console. "See? I told you. He's a natural."

Bhisma frowned in disapproval, not at the image of Yudhisthira and Duryodhana bowing their heads in prayer and surrounded by a thronging crowd of squealing fangirls and curious, neck-craning onlookers, but rather at the fact that he, Bhisma, was watching anything at all broadcast by this hateful celebrity gossip channel. "Fine, then," Bhisma admitted, "your son appears to have impressed everyone today. But that doesn't prove anything. All he did was follow Duryodhana around and keep his mouth shut."

"He's just being shy," Pandu said, confidently. "Give him time, he'll get more comfortable in front of people, and before you know it, he'll be as popular as Duryodhana."

"He'll never be as popular as Duryodhana," Dhritarashtra said, with mock smugness. He was sitting beside his younger brother and trying his best to act cheerful, which was somewhat difficult, considering that he was well aware of the way that Pandu was wrapped in a blanket and often shivering uncontrollably.

"Just wait and see," Pandu repeated, rising to the bait.

Dhritarashtra sniffed. "He'll need a nose job."

"You can't know that - you're blind!"

"Vidura told me so."

"Betrayal!" Pandu melodramatically clasped his thin hand to his chest. "This is betrayal!"

Bhisma suddenly coughed, loudly. His nephews, who may have been old and graying themselves, immediately fell silent, appropriately chastised. Bhisma said slowly, "This is not a popularity contest, and you both know it."

"But," Dhritarashtra added firmly, "This is not not a popularity contest, either."

Bhisma mulled this over in his head. It was true, he supposed. He turned away from his nephews, who were sitting in front of the television, and studied the walls of the small, private study where the three of them had gathered. There were books on the shelves that Bhisma couldn't remember having ever read. For some reason, he suddenly found himself wondering how long Dhritarashtra and Pandu would be able to keep joking and pretending to be jovial about the situation that they had thrown their sons - and themselves - into.

"Duryodhana did a very kind thing for Yudhisthira today," Pandu said.

Bhisma turned back around in time to see Dhritarashtra vigorously shaking his head. "Maybe, but in all honesty, he made himself look good, too."

Bhisma nodded in silent assent. So he wasn't the only one who had figured that much out, apparently. Of course the kind, generous prince Duryodhana would take his bewildered, back-water cousin under his wing for said cousin's first public appearance in Hastinapura. That would probably go over well with the teenage girl contingent who never failed to buy up any magazine that published articles about Duryodhana's dreamy eyes or oh-so-down-to-earth personality.

"But," Dhritarashtra added, "Duryodhana really does feel badly about--"

"Oh, I know, and by the way, Bhima is still absolutely one hundred percent grounded because of--"

"Would you like some tea?"

"Yes. I mean, no! I mean, let me get that."

Bhisma turned away from the both of them again. Watching his nephews dance around and ignore the issue of what had happened between their children four days ago was sometimes amusing, but often more disinheartening than anything else.

Without saying a word, Bhisma left his nephews alone in the study and walked out to one of the many balconies that lined this floor of the palace, pausing for a moment to clear his head in the cool night air. For some reason, he found himself thinking of his own brother, someone whom he had not thought about for many, many decades.

Bhisma's brother had been eaten by a fish. He was dead, very dead. Bhisma had finished his mourning and buried his grief years ago. Which is exactly why he wasn't sure if he would be able to handle it if his brother suddenly returned from the dead and came waltzing back into his life after all of these years.

Bhisma suddenly felt a fierce surge of pride for his nephews Dhritarashtra and Pandu. They were his - he had raised them! - and they had grown into good men and good kings. And now Dhritarashtra had grey hair and Pandu was wasting away to nothing. And Bhisma loved them both so much that his heart burned with thoughts of them.

And now they had asked him to choose between their own sons, to name a successor to the throne.

Bhisma closed his eyes and felt the cool night breeze tickling his face. He had never wanted to break anybody's heart. And now he would have to.

"That's Indra in his chariot," a voice said, carried from what sounded like very far away on the night breeze.

Bhisma leaned over the edge of the balcony, peering into the palace gardens spread out below him. He saw two small figures sitting on a bench. Bhisma focused his old, tired eyes for a moment, and then realized that he was peering at Yudhisthira and Duryodhana.

Duryodhana was pointing at the sky. "Can't you see it? That's his head, that's his bow, that's his quiver."

Yudhisthira had tilted his head as far back as it would go, craning his neck at the sky. "I know, I know! My papa taught me all the stars. But - But you can't hardly see them here! They're so dim."

"Dim?"

"The stars are brighter, where I come from," Yudhisthira said. "And the sky is darker."

Duryodhana shivered. "I wouldn't want the sky to be any darker than it already is."

"It's not scary, though."

Duryodhana said something else in reply to this, but now his voice was too low and quiet for Bhisma to hear. Bhisma leaned against the edge of the balcony for a few moments, listening to the distant murmur of Duryodhana and Yudhisthira talking in low voices, sometimes pausing to laugh at something or other, sometimes dropping their voices to a whisper. It was a good sound, a peaceful sound.

Please let the two of them find peace like this every day, Bhisma prayed, silently. Please let Bhima and Dusshasana and the others follow their lead. Please let there be peace in this family. Please, please, help me and give me the strength to make it so.

Bhisma turned away from the balcony and retreated back into the palace.


XVII.

"It's not scary, though," Yudhisthira said.

Duryodhana scratched at the side of his nose. "So you what, you seriously lived in a cave?"

"Yes. It was really great."

"When I go out to the forest, me and Papa and Mama stay in a log cabin with plumbing and electricity and lots of servants."

"That's because you're going on vacation," Yudhisthira explained, "but I was in exile. It's different."

"Do you miss it?" Duryodhana suddenly asked.

"Yes, of course."

"Really?! But it's - it's exile! You're not supposed to want to be in exile."

"But it was nice," Yudhisthira said, a bit dreamily. "There were trees and birds and everything smelled clean and nice. And I saw Papa and Mama and Arjuna every single day, not like here. And there weren't people staring at you or bodyguards following you around. And you didn't have to worry about things like wars and the stock market and scandals with a royal priest."

"Mm," Duryodhana frowned, disapprovingly. "But if you're going to be a king, then you're supposed to worry about those things. It's your job."

"I know. That's why I'm here, I guess."

Duryodhana fell quiet.

Yudhisthira coughed, and then said, "Um." Then he said nothing.

Finally, Duryodhana took a deep breath, and said, "Listen... Listen, um... Can we make a promise?"

"What kind of promise?"

Duryodhana reach out and took Yudhisthira's hand in his, squeezing it tightly. "I want to make a promise. A promise that no matter what happens, you and I are going to be friends, okay?"

Yudhisthira said nothing for a moment, only squeezed Duryodhana's hand in return. "Right," he said, softly.

"And - And no more fighting! I hate fighting."

"No more fighting."

"No matter what happens, with, with--" Duryodhana's voice caught for a moment, then he forced himself to go on, "with who gets to be king or not, we're not going to hate each other. We're not allowed to. Got it?"

"Yes," Yudhisthira said, squeezing Duryodhana's hand hard enough to hurt. He sounded immensely touched, and immensely relieved. "Yes! I promise!"

"And if you ever need anything - anything, okay? - just ask me. I'll help you."

"Me too, me too!" Yudhisthira said eagerly.

"So then..." Duryodhana pulled his hand away from Yudhisthira's. "Suppose that, hypothetically, I needed some help with some mathematics homework..."

Yudhisthira laughed. "Is this also what a king does?"

"Of course. If it weren't for wheeling and dealing, do you think that we would still be at peace with the Panchalans after all these years?"

Yudhisthira laughed again, and Duryodhana watched him and thought to himself, yes, this wasn't so bad. It was a good thing, being Yudhisthira's friend. It made him feel less cold inside. It was the right thing to do, he supposed. And in the end, it was okay, perfectly okay, for him to be nice to - even help out - his cousin, Duryodhana decided. Because Duryodhana had been watching Yudhisthira carefully all day, and he had seen enough. He knew in his heart that Yudhisthira could never be a king. Grandpa Bhisma would simply never choose him. Yudhisthira was a lost cause, and certainly not the at all the threat that Duryodhana had once mistakenly thought him to be.

But Duryodhana was going to be a king, that much was for certain. And it was just like his grandpa Bhisma had said - a king had to know how to make a guest feel welcome in his home.

And that was why Duryodhana felt that it was all right, perfectly all right, for him to be Yudhisthira's friend.


To be continued.