AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
CHAPTER TEN: DRAUPADI
It was so easy, Arjuna found. Almost too easy. Easy to convince Yudhisthira to leave without him because he would rather stay in his quarters and sulk; easy to slip out of the palace; easy to slip into the ranks of Panchalan naval soldiers as they filed toward the arena where the groom-choosing would be held. Arjuna marched in stride past the cheering crowds and the humming broadcast cameras, listening to the unfamiliar clip-clop of his boots blend in with the sharp footsteps of the dozens of soldiers around him.
Arjuna stood at attention with the other naval soldiers as they ringed the arena floor, trying to scan the crowds seated around him as discretely as possible. It wasn't hard for Arjuna to find the Kuru party, since there were so many of them. He saw Yudhisthira and Bhima and Sahadeva seated together; not far from them Arjuna saw Duryodhana and his brothers. Karna was there too, at Duryodhana's side. Arjuna groaned inwardly. Karna was wearing the blue and gold knot pinned to his chest that signified that he was a registered contestant in the groom-choosing. Arjuna forced his eyes to keep scanning, and saw King Shalya and Rukmaratha seated together, with Nakula. Huh, that was a surprise. Arjuna tuned out the dancers currently performing on the arena floor, and watched Nakula and Rukmaratha talking to each other. Nakula said something, and Rukmaratha laughed. Arjuna marveled silently, watching Nakula behave like a well-bred, dignified prince actually should.
Suddenly the crowd fell silent, and Arjuna snapped his attention back to the arena floor. The crowd of dancers were parting; Dhristadyumna and Draupadi walked out onto the arena floor, side-by-side, wearing matching robes and gowns of gold and blue. Dhristadyumna held Pinakin in his arms; Draupadi was holding a garland of flowers.
Dhristadyumna set down Pinakin in the center of the arena floor. He carefully laid out Pinakin's gleaming string beside the bow. Then he straightened up, raised his head, and scanned the crowd. "This is the bow," he said, pointing to it. "And that," he said, raising his arm to point at the open sky above the arena, "is the target."
As one, thousands of heads tilted back, eyes straining skyward. There were more than a handful of dismayed gasps as people finally spotted the target, an erratically whirring drone buzzing in uneven circles in the sky above the arena. The drone caught the sunlight and gleamed; Arjuna figured that it couldn't have been much larger than the palm of his hand.
"Anyone who can string the bow and take down the target may ask for my sister's hand," Dhristadyumna said. "That is all."
Draupadi turned and walked silently toward the end of the arena. A pair of soldiers peeled off the ranks on the arena floor and followed her. She ascended into the seated crowd and took her place beside her father, sitting down slowly. Side by side, Draupadi and Drupada sat on their thrones in the front of the crowd and surveyed the arena floor dispassionately.
"I will call the contestants now," Dhristadyumna said. An officer stepped forward and handed him an electronic reader. He flipped it open, pulled up the screen, and began to read. "From Abhira, the first Crown Prince Rajiva."
Arjuna watched the slight Abhiran prince stride out onto the arena floor, the blue-gold knot pinned to his chest standing out in stark contrast to his white clothes. Rajiva bowed low to Dhristadyumna, then turned slightly and bowed even lower to Drupada and Draupadi. Draupadi nodded at him and smiled, indicating her permission for him to proceed.
So Rajivs took a deep breath, appeared to still himself and pray for a moment, then bent over and attempted to pick up one end of Pinakin, He hefted, and hefted, but the bow would not lift. Rajiva spread his legs apart wide for balance, groaned audibly, and heaved with all his might. But the bow would not budge. It was as if it was glued to the ground.
Murmurs of disappointment spread through the crowd. Dhristadyumna finally stepped forward and tapped Rajiva on the shoulder. Rajiva let go of the bow and stood up sheepishly. He bowed to the crowd again, and was met with a few half-hearted attempts at applause. Rajiva walked off the arena floor as Dhristadyumna called the next contest. "From Abhira, the second Crown Prince…"
And thus they came. And endless string of princes, each one striding proudly out into the arena, each one unable to lift Pinakin even so much as a hair off the ground. Arjuna watched Rukmaratha take his turn, squatting in front of the bow and actually planting his knees on the ground in order to get some leverage, but it was no use. He couldn't lift the bow at all.
Finally, when the sun had risen to a point directly above the arena, Drupada stood and spread out his arms, hushing the crowd. "A break," he declared, "and a feast! We will continue this ceremony after a well-deserved rest."
As the crowd poured out of their seats, Arjuna marched with the naval soldiers out of the arena. The soldiers started piling into transports and Arjuna joined along; after a thirty minute drive, Arjuna realized that they had arrived at the military base near Kampilya's spaceport. Arjuna joined the other soldiers in their mess hall, sat down, and did his best to down the military rations that he was fed. When he was finished, he slipped out of the mess hall – it was again too easy to do, even in plain sight of his erstwhile superior officers – and headed for a deserted part of the base to catch his breath, get his bearings, and pray. Arjuna found a spot in a basement hallway and leaned against a wall, closing his eyes.
That was when Arjuna felt a tap on his shoulder. He opened his eyes slowly, prepared for the worst.
"You were never meant to be a blonde," Drona said, eyeing Arjuna's hair critically.
Arjuna relaxed, feeling that it was finally all right to let his guard down. "It's not completely blonde," he said. "Just lightened. It's my clever disguise, see?"
Arjuna tilted his head up at him. "How did you get in here?"
"I am the one who taught you how to sneak around without others seeing you, remember?" He sighed. "I was hoping that at least you would notice me."
Arjuna felt his cheeks burning. "You were following me and I didn't notice?"
"No, you did not."
"Oh, so… I fail?"
"In a sense, yes. If this turns out to be your wedding night, however, I can forgive you. Temporarily." He looked Arjuna up and down. "Are you really going to go through with this?"
"How did you find out?" Arjuna countered. "Don't tell me Ashwatthama told you."
"He did not… Until I noticed you standing on the arena floor and then asked him about it. So? How is it going?"
Arjuna frowned. "It's fine as long as nobody tries to talk to me. I can't understand the Panchalan that they're speaking."
"It is difficult to learn, isn't it?"
"Like you would know."
Drona raised one eyebrow. "You think I never had to learn?" He shook his head. "I grew up speaking three languages, two of which are dead now, and none of which are even remotely related to any strain of what we call Classical Panchalan." He scratched at his ear. "When I was eleven years old, I was brought to Kampilya, and taught only in Panchalan. All of the children in the king's palace, we were forced only to speak Panchalan. They would hit us if they caught us speaking or writing in any other language. So we learned fast. It was hard, but we did learn." He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe that is what I should have done with you. Instead of giving you all of those books and audio discs, I should have just beaten you." He paused, then laughed when he saw the look on Arjuna's face. "I am joking."
Arjuna wondered if he was also joking about being beaten for speaking the wrong language when he was a child. Panchala was a scary place, Arjuna thought, not for the first time. "I should get going," he said. "I need to be with them when they leave together." He paused, then said, "When I get married, will you be there, please? At the wedding?"
"I would be honored."
"Whether there is a wedding or not," Drona said gravely, "you should be praying for forgiveness right now. I understand that your mother forbid you to try for Draupadi's hand, did she not?"
"No 'but'. To disobey your mother is a grave sin."
Arjuna sighed. "Listen, if I make it through this, I swear that I will never, ever disobey a single word that my mother says ever again. I swear on the Lord's name."
Drona was silent for a moment, then he said, "You must be careful about what types of vows you make using the Lord's name, Arjuna. The gods are listening. They will hold you to that."
Drona squeezed Arjuna's shoulder. "I will be watching you from the stands," he said. "Do not mess this up."
"I won't," Arjuna said. "I promise. I won't."
The groom-choosing dragged on into the afternoon. An endless string of princes stepped forward to take Pinakin, but not a single one of them could lift it. Arjuna watched the proceedings from his position on the arena floor, standing stiffly in line with all the other Panchalan naval soldiers. His attention began to wander as the sun sank from the sky. He was more daydreaming about what Draupadi's hair would smell like than he was paying attention to the princely suitors in front of him, when suddenly Dhristadyumna read a name that snapped Arjuna out of his reverie.
Arjuna didn't hear what title Dhristadyumna said, but as soon as the name Karna slapped against his ears, Arjuna was instantly alert, his eyes focused on the entrance to the arena. Karna was striding toward Pinakin, dressed as resplendently as any of the royal princes that had come before him. The crowd watched in hushed silence.
Karna stood before Dhristadyumna and bowed low. Then he turned slightly and bowed to Drupada and Draupadi. Draupadi folded her hands in her lap and gazed down at him. Her face was kept carefully neutral, but Arjuna could see the distaste in her eyes, even from a distance. For a long, long moment, Draupadi made no move. Karna held himself in his bow silently, and the crowd waited, also silently. Finally, slowly, Draupadi nodded.
Karna straightened his back. "Thank you," he said. It was the first time that any of the contestants had spoken to Draupadi. Then he reached down and pulled up Pinakin as if it were nothing at all.
The collective gasp of the crowd sounded thunderous in Arjuna's ears. Ignoring the reactions he was getting, however, Karna straddled the bow, resting one end of Pinakin against the inside of his foot, and strung it quickly. Then he paused for a moment, scanning the sky for the telltale metallic gleam of the spinning drone high above them.
Dhristadyumna, saying nothing, took an arrow from a quiver that one of his attendants was holding, and handed it to Karna. Karna bowed again, received the arrow, and loaded it onto the bow. He lifted Pinakin up to his chest, leaned back, and aimed at the sky.
Karna had released his arrow before Arjuna even had time to blink. High in the sky above the arena, the target drone exploded in a cloud of flame and shredded metal.
The applause from the crowd was instant and thunderous. Arjuna could see that even the naval soldiers on either side of him were clapping with all of their might, but he refused on principal to join them. He stood and glared at Karna sullenly. Arjuna watched Karna reverently unstring and put down Pinakin, straighten up and beam happily at the crowd, then turn expectantly toward Draupadi. "Your Highness," he said.
But Draupadi, slowly, shook her head.
The cheering and applause began to die down.
Karna extended his hand to her. "Your Highness," he repeated, humbly.
"No," Draupadi said.
And then the cheering and applause abruptly ceased altogether.
"No, I will not marry the low-born son of a weaponsmith," Draupadi said, her sharp, clear voice echoing across the arena.
The crowd was utterly silent. Karna stood for a moment, at first appearing bewildered, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Then, slowly, he lowered his trembling, outstretched hand. Arjuna watched him, fascinated, unable to look away. Outwardly, Karna's appearance did not change. But inwardly… Arjuna could practically see the fires of rage burning in Karna's eyes. For a moment, Arjuna allowed himself to wince inwardly with sympathy. He thought that he would rather die than have to suffer a humiliation as great as what Karna was experiencing right before his eyes.
Slowly, Karna turned and walked off the arena floor. He moved stiffly, awkwardly. Arjuna could see him fighting to suppress his rage. His cheeks were flushed bright red and angry. His arms were stiff and trembling. He was on fire, burning with outrage at his humiliation.
That Karna, Arjuna thought. He did not seem one to take insults lightly.
Dhristadyumna watched Karna silently walk toward the exit of the arena. Then Dhristadyumna coughed, cleared his throat, and turned his attention back to the reader that he was holding. "The king of Hastinapura," he called. "Duryodhana." Another aide behind Dhristadyumna launched a new drone into the air.
Duryodhana was striding out onto the arena floor before Karna had finished leaving. Duryodhana met Karna halfway, paused, and placed his hand on Karna's shoulder. He leaned in close and said something to Karna that Arjuna couldn't hear. Karna nodded slowly, and his stiff shoulders seemed to relax slightly. Then Duryodhana lifted his hand and continued walking out toward Pinakin, as Karna exited the arena.
Duryodhana bowed to Dhristadyumna, then bowed to Draupadi. Draupadi nodded at him, granting him permission to continue. Arjuna sniggered silently. He knew that he shouldn't be proud of it, but he was looking forward to seeing Duryodhana, for whom everything had always come so easily, fail to even be able to lift Pinakin off the ground.
In fact, Arjuna was so busy anticipating Duryodhana's failure that it took him a good several seconds to realize that Duryodhana had already picked up the bow and was confidently stringing it.
The crowd was silent, shocked. Arjuna glanced quickly at Draupadi, and saw her sitting perfectly still, her eyes wide, her mouth forming a perfect round O of surprise. He saw Drupada staring down at Duryodhana with an expression of shocked disbelief. Arjuna glanced around the arena audience and saw Drupada's facial expression almost perfectly mirrored on thousands of faces.
How, Arjuna thought, how?!
His eyes were drawn helplessly back to Duryodhana. Duryodhana had loaded an arrow and pulled back the bow, aiming for the sky. He was scanning the sky above the arena, searching for the elusive drone. Arjuna saw Pinakin tremble slightly in Duryodhana's grasp. Duryodhana's hand slipped, but then he tightened his grip again, firmly.
It's fighting him, Arjuna realized. Could anybody else see that? Arjuna wasn't sure. But he didn't just see it, he could feel it in his bones. He could feel Pinakin's struggle echoing, resonating with the part of him that was inhuman, with the part of him that was deva-born. It doesn't want to be held by Duryodhana. It's trying to reject him. But it can't fight him…
Why? How?! Arjuna felt his heart doing flip-flops in his chest. This couldn't be. This shouldn't be.
Suddenly Duryodhana pulled back the bowstring all the way. He had spotted the airborne drone. With a decisive snap, he let his arrow fly.
But Pinakin, however, managed one last defiant wriggle at the last moment. And Duryodhana's arrow went sailing through the sky, cleanly missing the whirling drone.
The crowd let out a long, low, disappointed gasp.
Duryodhana lowered the bow slowly, his eyes seething with rage. But he held his composure, unstrung the bow, and bowed graciously to Dhristadyumna. "Thank you," Dhristadyumna said. And Duryodhana slowly exited the arena, to the sound of delayed but thunderous applause.
Arjuna could not join in the applause. Something was deeply wrong. He knew in his bones that he had just witnessed something deeply wrong. Hadn't anybody else seen it? Arjuna turned his head toward the audience, searching for Bhima, wanting to see the reaction on his face. But Bhima had already left his seat. Dhristadyumna was already calling his name; the arena floor shook as Bhima strode out toward Pinakin.
Arjuna watched Bhima pick up the bow and string it easily. He inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. He could almost feel a palpable sense of relief vibrating off Pinakin, too. The bow seemed glad to be held in devakin hands. But even though the bow was willing, Bhima still didn't have the right aim. His arrow zipped nearly a hair next to the airborne drone, but did not strike it. Again, the crowd gasped with disappointment as Bhima shook his head, unstrung the bow, bowed to Dhristadyumna, and exited.
By now the crowd was getting tense, restless. It was nearly the end of the ceremony, and so far Draupadi had rejected the only suitor who had passed her father's test. Now there was only one suitor left, and it was someone whom nobody honestly expected to be able to complete the required task.
Arjuna listened to Dhristadyumna read his brother's name, and watched Yudhisthira walking up to Pinakin, pausing to bow to Dhristadyumna and Draupadi. Arjuna felt his stomach fluttering nervously. He wanted his brother to succeed. But at the same time, he also didn't.
Well, at least he didn't want his brother to be completely humiliated, Arjuna decided.
Yudhisthira took a deep breath, bent down, and lifted up Pinakin. It lifted so easily that Yudhisthira momentarily stumbled backwards, a comical expression of surprise on his face. There was nervous laughter in the audience; Yudhisthira grinned, a bit sheepishly, and quickly strung the bow. He seemed more surprised than anyone that he had been able to lift the bow.
But as soon as Yudhisthira took his arrow and aimed, Arjuna knew that it was a lost cause. Yudhisthira was inexperienced with archery, and it showed in his stance. He released his arrow, and it flew close enough to the drone to earn Yudhisthira the respect of many better archers who were watching the proceedings, whether in the crowds or via the broadcast cameras. But it was still a clean miss.
The audience applauded regardless. So did Arjuna. His brothers had brought great honor to their family by merely being able to touch Pinakin. However, the applause died quickly, because everyone in the audience soon realized the truth. Yudhisthira had been the last registered suitor, and Draupadi still had no husband.
Dhristadyumna handed his electronic reader off to an aide, then stepped into the center of the arena. "Is there no one," he asked, throwing out his hands in supplication, "who is worthy of my sister?"
Total silence greeted Dhristadyumna's plea. Any eligible prince or king in the audience had already tried his hand at the bow. And all had failed.
So Arjuna stepped forward, breaking rank with the other naval soldiers, and bowed to Dhristadyumna. "I am worthy," he said.
The uproar in the crowd was immediate and deafening. Yudhisthira buried his face in his hands and groaned. "Is that…?"
"Oh yeah," Bhima confirmed. "That's him. I don't think that anybody else can see it, though."
"I can't look," Yudhisthira gasped, but he lifted his face out of his hands and forced himself to look anyway. He could hear the jeers coming from all around him. Cries of lowborn and unworthy were echoing across the arena. "Arjuna," he mumbled to himself, "what in the five hells do you think you're doing?!"
"I'll kill him," Bhima said. "If Mother doesn't first."
"Don't tell me that Mother is watching this on the console--"
"She said that she wouldn't watch, remember?" Sahadeva said. "She said she wanted it to be a surprise."
Yudhisthira grit his teeth. Well, he and Bhima had failed to provide that surprise.
"By the way," Bhima said to Sahadeva, conversationally, "I'll kill you too."
Sahadeva sat, smiling serenely, and did not even bother to deny his involvement in the matter.
Meanwhile, Draupadi had stood up and silenced the crowd with a wave of her hands. "Let him try," she said. And the crowd silently watched as the unnamed naval soldier bent down and picked up Pinakin as easily as if it were as light as a feather.
Arjuna lifted Pinakin and aimed his arrow. Pinakin felt smooth and light and right in his hands. It wanted to be in his hands. Arjuna could feel it.
"Please, Lord," he whispered to the sky as he spotted the drone and took aim. "Please please please guide this arrow. I swear that after this I will never disobey my mother again," he repeated for good measure. "I swear."
Suddenly Arjuna felt a strange shiver crawling up the base of his spine. The devakin markings on the back of his neck burned, briefly, for a single moment. And Arjuna realized that his promise had been heard – and duly noted.
All right then, he thought. He pulled back Pinakin's string, and released his arrow.
There was a pop and a bright flash, as the drone exploded high above his head.
Draupadi had run down to the arena floor and was throwing her garland of flowers around the soldier's neck before Duryodhana could even blink. He sat still in his seat, stunned and cold. He could hear the jeering starting up again in the crowds around him, and resisted the temptation to join in.
Duryodhana clenched his hands in his lap. He didn't even know who the soldier was, but he had never felt the urge to wring someone's neck so strongly before.
Suddenly Karna's hand was on his shoulder, squeezing it. "What is going on here?!" Karna hissed into Duryodhana's ear.
"Drupada's daughter just threw herself at a common soldier like a lowborn whore," Duryodhana answered, through gritted teeth. "That's what's going on here." And apparently, the crowd was having none of it. Princes and kings were starting to climb down from the stands. Men were running onto the arena floor. Dhristadyumna grasped his sister's hand and was trying to pull her toward an exit. Her new husband followed quickly, still holding Pinakin in his hands. Duryodhana wondered if they would make it out before the riot started.
"But that's not a soldier," Karna said. "Are you blind?! That's Arjuna."
Duryodhana blinked, then risked tearing his eyes away from the angry mob spilling out onto the arena floor long enough to look at Karna. "No it's not."
"Yes it is. Look. Can't you see?"
Duryodhana turned back toward the arena, and looked with all his might. He caught a glimpse of the soldier ducking behind one of Dhristadyumna's guards. The soldier's face seemed to flicker and shift, like a visage made of flowing liquid. Looking at the soldier's face for more than a second made Duryodhana's head hurt.
Aha, so that was the game, then. It was an illusion.
Duryodhana suddenly stood up and glanced around quickly. Half of his brothers had joined the mob on the arena floor. Dusshasana was sitting and watching him carefully, waiting to see what he would do. Ashwatthama and his father were, not surprisingly, nowhere to be found.
If either of them had any part of this… Duryodhana forced himself to not finish the thought, lest he become blinded with rage.
"Look," Karna said, pointing toward the arena floor again. "Dhristadyumna's guards are heading for the south exit." But it was a fake-out, Duryodhana knew, as soon as he heard Karna say it. Karna squinted, his sharp eyes scanning the riot below them. "There's an exit below and to the north of us. They're going to slip out that way. Why doesn't anybody see--?" He cut himself off, and frowned. "Oh, he's good. With that illusion trick. He's good. They're going to get away clean."
"Don't let them."
The sound of the riot was even worse when heard from inside the tunnels. "This way," the soldier said, and Draupadi followed quickly. Arjuna, a breathless step behind her, paused just long enough to glance behind him – they were still not being followed, not yet – and then kept running.
"We're almost clear," the soldier said, not to Draupadi, but to whoever was listening on the other end of her earpiece. She listened for a moment, then without breaking her stride turned her head and said, "The hoverer is waiting for us."
They were running, still running toward the bright patch of daylight at the end of the exit tunnel. The soldier listened to something else spoken from her earpiece, then suddenly ground her feet to a halt. Draupadi and Arjuna froze behind her. She turned toward Draupadi and said, "We have to find another exit. The hoverer's surrounded."
"This way," Draupadi said, quickly turning back the way that they had come. "There's an emergency passage that--"
"Wait," Arjuna said. He wasn't moving. Because he had already seen the shadow that suddenly blocked the patch of daylight at the end of the tunnel. Someone had already entered the passage and was heading toward them.
"You lying, deceitful…" Karna was rolling up his sleeves. Not a good sign. Others were filtering in behind him – Duryodhana's brothers, and the princes from Abhira who had been sitting near them. A miniature mob to be sure, but certainly large enough to cut off Arjuna's exit. "You have no right to get away with this, Your Highness."
"Arjuna hasn't broken any rules," Draupadi said, quickly stepping in front of Karna.
"No, he only lied about his identity, impersonated a military soldier, carried on an embarrassing farce in front of the rulers of dozens of planets, shamed his family, and had to resort to underhanded treachery to participate in your groom-choosing."
Draupadi stared up at him, utterly un-intimidated. "You, sir, are neither a judge, nor a priest. You're not even royalty. You have no right to reprimand me or my husband--"
"I'm here on behalf of the King of Hastinapura--"
"—And if you knew your place you would not interrupt me, you worm."
Arjuna saw the fire flaring up in Karna's eyes. But Karna turned his attention away from Draupadi and focused his rage on Arjuna. "Are you going to stand there and use this woman as a shield, you coward?!"
"No," Arjuna said, trying to step around Draupadi.
But she grasped his arm and held him back. "Don't let him bait you," she said.
"I'm not baiting," said Karna evenly.
"We just can't let you pass," one of the Abhirans said.
"You've insulted all of us with this farce," Durmada added, stepping up beside Karna. "Draupadi should go back and choose an honest husband. We can't let her leave with you."
Draupadi stepped right up to Durmada and hissed angrily, "I think you've misunderstood the point of a groom-choosing. It's my choice."
"And you would choose a liar?" Karna challenged. "You--"
He didn't get to finish his sentence, however, because that was when Arjuna's fist connected with his jaw.
Within an eyeblink the two of them were on the ground, tussling; then back on their feet, trading blows. "Stop it, stop it!" Draupadi screamed, and she lunged for them, hoping to grab Arjuna and pull him back. But the crowd pushed her away, cheering and clapping and egging the fight on. Karna, older and taller and stronger, immediately had Arjuna on the defensive. Arjuna's feet danced quickly, dodging blows as best he could, but he was slowly, inexorably being pushed toward the exit of the tunnel.
The crowd surged, and the brawl spilled out into the sunlight. Now they were both on the ground, practically wrestling, pulling at hair and growling and biting. Arjuna felt Karna's knee connect with his stomach. Instinctively, he tried to kick back, but he was being pinned to the ground. The sunlight was dazzling. There were too many faces watching him. A crowd – a mob – had gathered. Arjuna could hear them shouting, and jeering. He wasn't sure if he was the one being cheered or jeered. Then Arjuna realized that one of his arms was still free. He swung up blindly, trying to smash into Karna's face; but Karna caught his fist, laughed, and slammed Arjuna's arm back to the ground, then held it there, twisting it painfully. Arjuna felt his vision starting to swim. He looked up at Karna's face, saw the blind ugly hatred burning in his eyes, and felt, for the first time, afraid. And still his arm was twisting, twisting. Arjuna grit his teeth and forced himself not to cry out in pain. He wouldn't. He couldn't. He wouldn't give Karna the satisfaction.
Arjuna was only vaguely aware that his back was beginning to arch with pain. He squeezed his eyes shut, clawing at the cement ground with his other hand. Just when he thought that the pain in his twisted arm had become unbearable, just when he finally felt the inevitable scream welling up in his chest, suddenly the pressure was gone. Karna had let go of Arjuna's arm. Arjuna felt a split second of relief – and confusion. His eyes fluttered open and he had just enough time to wonder what was happening, before he felt Karna's hands suddenly seize his neck.
And then, Arjuna couldn't breathe.
He struggled and tried to gasp, panicked. His vision swam; he tried to look up at Karna's face, at Karna's eyes, but could see nothing. His hands twitched. One arm was useless, cramped in pain. But his other arm was mobile, although Arjuna barely had the strength to lift it. He could hear screams in the crowd now, but didn't care. Slowly Arjuna lifted his arm, watching himself as though detached, as though from a dream. An astra, he thought, his hand hovering inches from Karna's burning face. At this close range, it would be a killing blow. But Arjuna didn't have time to think about that; he was already slipping down into the darkness. With his last thought, Arjuna struggled to remember what he had been taught. But the words wouldn't come. He could feel lightening crackling at his fingertips, then fizzling, fading away, slipping away from him. His vision grew dark. His thoughts stilled.
But then the pressure on his neck suddenly vanished.
Air flooded back into Arjuna's throat and he gasped, choking, coughing violently. He rolled over onto his side, his vision swimming. His eyes focused just long enough to catch a glimpse of Karna, suddenly thrown several feet away from Arjuna and doubled over in pain, as Bhima's clenched fist hovered over him. Then there were arms grabbing at Arjuna, pulling him up. Arjuna stumbled, weakly, unable to support his own weight. But then there was darkness and the smell of perfume; Arjuna realized that he was sitting down. No, he had been pushed down, and was now seated inside a hoverer, with Draupadi's arms around him. He heard the crowd roaring, and could feel the hoverer trembling.
Arjuna glanced up, and saw Yudhisthira's face framed in the window of the hoverer. "Are you all right?" Yudhisthira asked, quick and to the point.
"I'll… be fine," Arjuna gasped.
Yudhisthira stared at him, penetratingly. "Are you sure?"
"Shall I take him to the hospital?" the unseen driver in the front of the hoverer asked.
"No," Draupadi said quickly. "Get us back to the palace. That's the safest location right now."
"Hurry," Yudhisthira said, then ducked back into the crowd, presumably to deal with the riot that Arjuna imagined Bhima was now doing his best to incite.
The hoverer quickly lifted off and high into the air. Arjuna felt his stomach doing flip-flops; he suddenly pushed himself away from Draupadi and doubled over, struggling to keep his lunch from regurgitating itself all over his lap. Arjuna felt a moment of panic when he feared that he was about to lose the battle against his lunch; but mercifully, the moment passed, and Arjuna felt his stomach calming.
So Arjuna slowly sat up straight, then leaned back in his seat. His breathing was still coming in uneven gasps. But then Draupadi was beside him again, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. She pressed her cheek against his, reaching up to stroke his hair.
"I'm sorry," Arjuna mumbled, thickly.
"You should be," Draupadi said, but not unkindly. "Also, you dropped Pinakin back there. The Lord will not be pleased."
Arjuna closed his eyes, losing himself in the touch of her cool hands, in the scent of her perfume. "I love you," he said.
She didn't say anything in response. Instead, Draupadi gently turned his face toward hers, then leaned in close, and pressed her lips against his. They kissed, long and slow.
Kunti had discovered years ago that she had no stomach for suspense. Of course, she could endure suspense when it was absolutely necessary, as it often had been when she had been a queen. Madri had used to tease her because she had secretly developed the very un-queen-like habit of biting her nails when the tension became unbearable. All of Kunti's worst memories were of suspense. She remembered the day decades ago when she had spent three sleepless nights sitting in front of the media console, watching Drupada's fleet perform their "practice maneuvers" on the edge of Kuru's rimcloud, fearing that the "diplomatic negotiations" that they had invited Pandu to were only a pretense, fearing that any moment the media stream would suddenly be interrupted to broadcast an image of Drupada slicing off her husband's head and laughing about it. She also remembered one long night in the forest so many years ago, one of the nights when Pandu had fallen ill and neither she nor Madri had believed that he would survive to see the morning, when she and Madri had spent hours covering him with ice and trying to force him to drink water and trying to prevent the fever from cooking his brains, while Yudhisthira and Bhima, the latter still an infant only, had slept in the back of the cave, blissfully unaware. Kunti remembered the suspense she had felt riding back into Hastinapura for the first time in thirteen years, sitting beside Pandu in the front of the run-down automobile that they had begged off a wandering priest. She even remembered the suspense that she had felt what seemed like hundreds of years ago, at her own groom-choosing ceremony, sitting on a throne with a garland of flowers in her hands, surveying the young princes seated in front of her nervously, wondering if among them there would be one whom she could happily sleep beside for the rest of her life.
No, Kunti couldn't stand suspense, not even joyful suspense. Contradictorily, however, she also didn't like to spoil happy surprises. Of course, she would be happy whether Yudhisthira or Duryodhana married Draupadi in the end. And of course she was rooting for Yudhisthira, because he was her son and she loved him, and because she knew better than anyone how desperately Yudhisthira needed a strong woman like Draupadi at his side. "But," she had told Gandhari, "as long as Draupadi marries one of the two of them, there will be peace between Kuru and Panchala. And that's the most important thing."
Gandhari had turned her blindfolded eyes toward Kunti and said, "You are a queen before a mother, then?"
Gandhari laughed and leaned her head against Kunti's shoulder. The two of them were sitting in a shaded garden outside Gandhari's quarters in Drupada's palace, where they had secluded themselves all day. Away from the media console, away from the audio broadcasts, away from everything. This was the vow that they had made to each other: They would not attend the groom-choosing. They would neither watch nor listen to the groom-choosing. They would stay in the garden together and wait until either Duryodhana or Yudhisthira came to greet them, with Draupadi on his arm.
"Besides," Kunti said, "I can't take much more of a cold war. I'm too old for this."
"I won't stand for you saying that you're old," Gandhari sniffed. "Besides, what would that make me?"
Now it was Kunti's turn to laugh. She loved Gandhari, and she loved being with Gandhari. She remembered that many years ago, the two of them had started off in a bad place. But they had both watched Duryodhana take Yudhisthira under his wing, and eventually, whether consciously or subconsciously, had begun to follow suit, growing closer and closer together as the years passed. They were rather alike, Kunti had discovered slowly. After she had moved to Indraprastha, Kunti had missed Gandhari more than anything.
The day had passed slowly. The sun was low in the sky, now, and Kunti suspected that the groom-choosing must already be finished. Soon Yudhisthira would be back. But with or without Draupadi? Kunti sighed. Despite her best efforts to avoid suspense, the suspense was still killing her.
So instead, she focused her thoughts on Arjuna. He had spent the entire day pouting in his room, like a child. Around noon Kunti had knocked on his door and nearly demanded that he join her for lunch, but the guards posted outside his room had told her to leave, since Arjuna had insisted that he was not to be disturbed.
Kunti still winced at the memory. She winced at the memory of her harsh words to Arjuna the previous night. She winced in shame and embarrassment at the thought of him holed up in his quarters and pouting like a spoiled child. The she sighed and thought morosely, not for the first time, that this was largely her fault. She had always indulged Arjuna, and treated him like her little baby. She could hardly blame him for still acting like a baby, then.
Gandhari tapped her watch, held it up to her ear, listened to it read her the time, then frowned. "Any moment now," she said.
"Any moment now," Kunti echoed.
They sat in silence, holding hands, for a long time.
And then, finally, Kunti heard footsteps.
She froze, squeezing Gandhari's hand, feeling Gandhari squeeze back. Kunti dared not turn her head to see who it was. But then, suddenly, she heard his voice. "Mother, Mother!"
Kunti let out a long, slow sigh, and let go of Gandhari's hand. Oh. It was only Arjuna. Well, at least he was out of his room. And he sounded much more cheerful than he had been the previous night. "Yes, Arjuna?"
"Mother, look what I've got!"
Kunti resisted the urge to roll her eyes, even if nobody would have seen it. More childish behavior. This was the last thing that she wanted to hear from him right now. "Whatever it is, Arjuna," she said, "You must share it with your brothers."
The footsteps abruptly ground to a halt. That was when Kunti finally turned her head, saw Arjuna and Draupadi standing a few feet behind her, and said, "Oh."
Draupadi bowed her head once, briefly, to Kunti. Then she stood and regarded Kunti carefully. Arjuna was grinning sheepishly, but there was a suspicious bruise spreading across the right side of his face. And on his neck. And for some reason, he was wearing a Panchalan naval uniform. And his hair was dyed three shades too light. "All right, so, let me explain," he said quickly.
By now Gandhari had stood up and had turned her face toward the sound of Arjuna's voice. "Kunti," she said. "Care to tell me what I'm looking at?"
"You don't want to know." Kunti narrowed her eyes. "Arjuna, did you disobey my order?"
"Yes," Arjuna said, nodding his head. "Yes, I did." He stepped forward, and grasped Kunti's hands. "But I made a vow, Mother. I made a vow to the gods. I swore that I would never disobey you again." He squeezed her hands tightly. "And I'm not going to."
For a moment, there was silence in the garden. Then Draupadi finally said, "Wait, what?"
They had managed to escape the riot, but the blood wouldn't stop.
Dusshasana pressed another wad of bandages against Karna's ear, and the cloth instantly began to turn red. "We need to get medical attention now," Dusshasana said. "Look at me. I'm getting blood all over my clothes."
"Your Majesty, we still can't move," one of Drupada's soldiers said, not to Dusshasana, but to Duryodhana, who was sitting on the other side of Karna and scowling. "The protestors have halted traffic, even at this altitude--"
" 'Protestors' isn't quite the right word for them," Duryodhana snapped. He and Dusshasana had managed to drag Karna into the back of a hoverer, one of many that had swooped into the riot in order to rescue the foreign dignitaries entangled in the mob. But now the hoverer, trapped in a traffic snarl in mid-air, was unable to move forward to safety. Duryodhana hadn't seen where Drupada's soldiers had taken Yudhisthira and Bhima, and he didn't care. He had seen Karna literally knocked flying when Bhima had punched him in the side of his head, however – and Bhima hadn't been holding back. Right now, Karna's injuries were Duryodhana's primary concern.
Duryodhana leaned over toward Karna. He held up three fingers in front of Karna's face. "All right, how many fingers this time?"
"Three," Karna croaked. But his gaze was unfocused. His face still wore an odd expression of bafflement and surprise. Duryodhana had seen Karna wearing that same expression on his face that moment that Bhima had knocked him flying, and his face hadn't changed since.
Duryodhana remembered the first aid that he had learned from Bhisma, remembered that in a situation like this, it was important to keep the injured party talking. "How many fingers now?"
"What's your name?"
"What's my name?"
"…Uh." Karna blinked at Duryodhana, trying to focus. "Du… Du?"
"We really have to get him to a hospital," Dusshasana said.
"No hospidle," Karna mumbled. "Can't… What'll I tell Shrutakiirti?" Suddenly his eyes lit up, wide and bright and alert. Then he pushed Dusshasana away and buried his face in his hands. "Oh God, oh God," he moaned. "What've I done?"
Duryodhana watched this new development with silent interest. Dusshasana, however, answered patiently, "Well, you were attacked by Bhima."
Ignoring Dusshasana, Karna lifted his face out of his hands and turned his gaze toward Duryodhana. His eyes were bright and feverish. "I almost killed him," he said.
"Who, Arjuna?" Duryodhana was suddenly very curious to know how Karna had gone from having a brain-addling concussion to being nearly perfect lucid in the space of a single heartbeat. He also wanted to know how the blood gushing from Karna's ear could have stopped so suddenly. But he didn't ask about that. He mentally filed away the information for further research later.
"I was going to kill him. I would have killed him." Karna hung his head in shame. "I'm a disgrace. How can I face Vrishasena and Susena?" His face crumpled in grief. "Forgive me, Lord. I…" He choked back a sob.
Inwardly, Duryodhana sighed with impatience. The last thing that he needed was Karna's overzealous religious beliefs getting in the way of a perfectly good homicidal grudge. That was the problem with Karna, Duryodhana thought. Although the man was capable of holding epic grudges – and his humiliation at the groom-choosing today had certainly done much to feed his grudge against both Arjuna and Draupadi – his damned persistent sense of moral self-righteousness always managed to keep his rage in check.
But Duryodhana did not say this. Instead, he leaned forward, and placed his hand on top of Karna's head. It was an ancient gesture of blessing. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I asked you to fight for me, and you did. You were noble and brave. If your sons were old enough to understand, I'm sure that they would be proud of you."
Karna looked up at Duryodhana slowly. He was giving Duryodhana a funny look. "But I almost strangled your cousin," he said, slowly.
Duryodhana removed his hand from Karna's head. "In the old days," he said solemnly, "an act as deceitful and cowardly as what Arjuna pulled today would have been punishable by death. Any royal would have been within his rights to challenge Arjuna to a duel to the death." He reached out, and touched Karna's chin lightly. Karna winced from the pain, but still tilted his head to meet Duryodhana's gaze. "You are royalty now. Today, you would have been within in your rights to take Arjuna's life. He deserves to die for his dishonor."
Karna trembled for a moment, then tore his eyes away from Duryodhana's gaze. "It's a little late for that, now."
"So we let him get away. Big deal. Yudhisthira's family will never recover from the shame."
Minutes passed, although it felt like hours. Dusshasana said nothing, but continued to dab at the blood that leaked from Karna's ear. Karna merely sat, not resisting Dusshasana's administrations, staring at nothing in particular, lost deep in his own morose thoughts.
Finally Duryodhana turned his head back toward them, regarded Dusshasana and Karna solemnly for a moment, then slowly let his face break out into a grin. "Some vacation, huh?"
Karna, despite himself, chuckled. Dusshasana shook his head and said, "Between the riots and the wedding scandal, I'm sure that Drupada has his hands full."
"I bet he'll never invite a single Kuru back to his planet ever again," Duryodhana said cheerfully. He turned his head toward the single window in the back of the heavily armored hoverer, through which he could see clouds of smoke rising from the fires that rioters had started in the street below. "Not after this at least."
"At least the day couldn't end any worse," Dusshasana said. Then he paused and added thoughtfully, "Well, admittedly, if the day had ended with Arjuna dead, maybe that would have been worse…"
Karna buried his face in his hands and moaned.
Duryodhana shot Dusshasana a withering glare. He opened his mouth to say something nasty, but then stopped himself, suddenly distracted by the sound of his comm ringing. He pulled it off his belt and flipped it open impatiently. It wasn't a voice call, but a type-message. From Durmukha. Duryodhana's eyes flickered quickly over the message.
"Who is it?" Dusshasana asked.
"It's Durmukha. He and Durmada made it back to the palace. Durmukha says…" Duryodhana trailed off, his voice dying in his throat.
Then, suddenly, he threw back his head and laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. But he had to laugh, because what else could he do in the face of such a cruel cosmic joke?
"What?" Dusshasana demanded. "What is it?"
"Draupadi's marriage scandal," Duryodhana said, once he'd gotten a hold of himself again. "It just became five times more scandalous."
"You can't," Dhristadyumna said, again. "It doesn't work that way."
"I don't see why not," Draupadi countered, calmly. "You and Sikhandhi could very well marry multiple wives. Why can't I have more than one husband?"
"Because you're a woman--"
"That's a real sexist double standard right there."
"Also," Dhristadyumna continued, pointing one finger at Arjuna, "He is clearly insane, and this is the dumbest thing that I have ever heard of."
Arjuna opened and closed his mouth, angrily. Fortunately, Yudhisthira stepped up to speak on his behalf. "A sacred vow is a sacred vow," Yudhisthira explained, calmly. "Arjuna has to honor his vow. And as his brothers, we have to support him in this."
"But Arjuna's vow is stupid."
"True though that may be," Yudhisthira agreed, causing Arjuna to wince as he overheard, "These things happen for a reason."
"Great," Nakula leaned over and whispered into Arjuna's ear. "Now he's going to get metaphysical on us." They were seated – Arjuna and three of his brothers, at least – in Drupada's most private study, surrounded by books so ancient that they were kept locked in climate-controlled cabinets, wall hangings from worlds so far away that Arjuna couldn't even identify them, vases, and a handful of statues that Arjuna suspected had been plundered from Kuru several hundred years ago. As well as security cameras and humming computer equipment everywhere. And several console screens arranged along one wall, all of them switched off, watching the room blankly and silently.
Yudhisthira wasn't sitting anymore. He was standing and had neatly wriggled in between the arguing twins Draupadi and Dhristadyumna; while across from them, Drupada sat and listened and nodded, frowning, deep in thought.
Arjuna tuned out the ongoing argument, watching his brother and Draupadi without listening to what they were saying, watching them standing side-by-side, now allied against an increasingly exasperated Dhristadyumna. Can I do this? Arjuna thought. Can I share my first wife with my brothers? It wasn't as though he had any choice, though. The gods had heard his vow to obey his mother's every word, and they were going to hold him to it.
"So what happens if you break your vow?" Sahadeva suddenly whispered, leaning across Nakula's chest. "Is it really that important?"
"Like, you'll be struck by a bolt of lightning, or something?" Sahadeva was smiling in a funny way. "That would be neat."
"Surely nothing that dire," a low, growling voice said. Everyone in the room fell silent, and turned to look. Ashwatthama had just entered the room, and behind him was an extremely hairy, wild man dressed in rags. "No lightning," the man in rags continued. "He'll probably just go blind. Or his nose will fall off. The latter would be more statistically likely."
"I'm sorry," Ashwatthama said quickly, bowing to Drupada, "but he insisted on speaking to you, Your Majesty."
Total silence. Everyone was frozen, staring with mild horror at the filthy new arrival in the room.
Everyone, that is, save for Drupada. He stood up immediately, grinning beneath his long beard. "Vyasa!" he exclaimed, striding over to grasp the wild man's hands in his. Arjuna watched everyone else in the room trying to discreetly sidle farther away from Vyasa, save for Ashwatthama. Arjuna tried to catch Ashwatthama's gaze, trying to ask him a question with his eyes, but Ashwatthama was looking away from him. Arjuna didn't know what to think. He could feel something about Vyasa's aura that was so strong that it almost made him shiver.
"I heard what happened," Vyasa said, briefly embracing Drupada, then pulling away. Then he turned his head toward Arjuna. "You made a vow, didn't you?"
"That was as much your will as it was the will of the Lord." Vyasa turned his attention to Draupadi. "This marriage is your destiny. It has been determined long before you were born."
Draupadi crossed her arms over her chest. "And who are you, again?"
Drupada shook his head at her sharply, and she reluctantly unfolded her arms, but gave no other sign of backing down. "If Vyasa agrees," Drupada said, "then it is settled. There will be five weddings, starting tomorrow."
"What? What?!" Dhristadyumna looked furious. "Father, you can't--!!"
Arjuna listened to Dhristadyumna yelling, and both Draupadi and Yudhisthira trying to calm him. Finally Arjuna decided that he had had enough. He stood, ignored the curious look that Nakula shot him, and slipped discreetly to the other side of the room. He tapped Ashwatthama on the shoulder and whispered, "So, who is this Vyasa?"
Ashwatthama shrugged. "I don't know. But he ran into me and demanded to see the king, and he didn't seem like the type of person to refuse."
Yudhisthira still didn't quite believe it when he woke up the following morning and realized that it was his wedding day. He laid in his bed, staring at the foreign ceiling above, for as long as he dared. Then he rolled over and saw one of his attendants standing by his bedside, patiently holding a comm unit. A light on the comm unit was blinking, indicating that it had recorded messages.
"Thirty-two messages, Your Majesty," the attendant said.
Yudhisthira sat up in his bed and silently wondered how many of those messages were from Bhisma. Yudhisthira took the comm unit, briefly considered actually listening to the messages, then decided that it might be easier just to make some calls instead. "What time is it in Hastinapura?" he asked the attendant.
"Fourteen hundred hours and seven minutes."
"Mmm." He dialed on the comm with one hand while gesturing commands at his attendant with his other – Turn off the light. Open the curtains. Turn the media console on, muted, and point it to a news channel. Fetch breakfast. Fortunately, the attendant already knew the morning routine well.
Bhisma picked up the other end of the comm and immediately asked Yudhisthira, "Well?"
Yudhisthira pushed his sleep-tangled hair back behind his ears and asked, "Well, what?"
"Are you nervous?"
"How could I not be? It's not just a wedding, it's a scandal."
"Oh, Yudhisthira. It's been years since you deposited a scandal this good in my lap. I was beginning to think that you'd lost your touch."
Yudhisthira laughed, his voice still scratchy with sleep.
"I heard that you met with Vyasa," Bhisma suddenly said.
Yudhisthira sat up straight, startled. "You know him?"
"Yes, well. I wasn't aware that he was roaming around on Panchala, though." Bhisma paused. "So you did meet Vyasa?" he asked again.
"Briefly. Drupada seemed to know him." Yudhisthira sensed that he was being grilled for information, and he delivered as much as he could. His grandfather had trained him well, he realized ruefully. "Vyasa said that Arjuna's vow was the will of the gods, and that marrying us was Draupadi's destiny. Then he spoke to Drupada some more. I couldn't hear what he said though, I was handling Dhristadyumna. Then he made to leave, but he asked me if he could attend the wedding today. I asked him why, and he said that his sons would be there. So I agreed to invite him."
Bhisma drew in a long, slow breath. "His sons?"
"Yes, I'm very sure that he spoke of his sons. He didn't mention their names, though. Why? Do I know them?"
"I have a favor to ask of you," Bhisma said, instead of answering the question. "If you see Vyasa – and you will – tell him to remember our agreement."
Yudhisthira was silent for a moment, then asked, "Are you going to elaborate?"
"Do I sound like I'm going to elaborate?"
"How astute you are."
"I will tell him that you said that," Yudhisthira said, now with half of his concentration divided by watching the silent, muted headlines scrolls across the screen of his media console.
"Have a memorable wedding," Bhisma said. "And make it look good. Press from Hastinapura and Indraprastha will be there."
"I'm sorry that you can't be here."
"I'll be watching the broadcasts." Bhisma laughed, then added, "Oh, and Yudhisthira?"
"Enjoy yourself, if that's not too much to ask."
"I'll try," Yudhisthira said, rather unconvincingly. "Love you," he said, before clicking off the comm unit. Then he stood and stared at the comm unit in his hand, silently dreading the call that he had to make next. Or would it be better to find Duryodhana and to speak with him in person? To say what, exactly? Yudhisthira wasn't sure. He hadn't seen Duryodhana since the groom-choosing ceremony. He had heard that Duryodhana had only managed to return to Drupada's palace late the previous night, after most of the guests had already gone to sleep. Yudhisthira had no idea how Duryodhana was reacting to the news.
I should do this in person, Yudhisthira decided, stepping out of his bed and patiently letting his attendants dress him. It didn't matter how late Duryodhana had gotten to bed the previous night; Yudhisthira knew that Duryodhana would already be awake. That was just the way that he was wired. Yudhisthira was much the same.
Unfortunately, nearly a full battalion of Drupada's aides were waiting for Yudhisthira the moment that he stepped out of his quarters. "Today's schedule," one said, handing Yudhisthira an electronic reader. "Rehearsal luncheon begins in two hours. His Majesty has requested that you be fitted for your robes immediately."
"Here we go," Yudhisthira muttered under his breath. Then he handed off the reader to someone else and said, "I wish to speak with my cousin first. If you will notify him and escort me, that would be most appreciated."
The aide hesitated for a moment, then bowed low in agreement. Merely a few moments later, Yudhisthira was being escorted through one of Drupada's many gardens that connected the guest wings of the palace. It was a clear morning – a good omen – and already warm outside. A few birds made half-hearted attempts to trill lazily, but otherwise, the gardens, and the palace, were still largely silent.
Many of Duryodhana's brothers and servants were sharing suites, but Duryodhana had an expansive set of rooms all to himself. He was waiting in a drawing room with tea and fruit ready when Yudhisthira showed up. "Congratulations," was the first thing that he said, while pouring Yudhisthira some tea. "And what's with the army?"
"Oh." Yudhisthira had left the dozen aides that were following him well outside Duryodhana's suite, but Duryodhana had already seen them in the gardens. "They're sent by Drupada. To help me, I suppose."
"And to keep an eye on you, no doubt."
Yudhisthira did not sip his tea. "Yesterday…" he started, then trailed off, watching for Duryodhana's reaction.
Unfortunately, Duryodhana was giving no reaction whatsoever, keeping his face carefully neutral. He sat down across from Yudhisthira and began peeling a grape with his fingers, not eating it. "Yes?" he asked.
Yudhisthira wasn't sure what to say, so he finally bowed his head as low as he possibly could, and said, "I want to apologize on Arjuna's behalf."
Duryodhana didn't say anything, just sort of sighed out of his nose and picked up another grape, peeling it grumpily. "And that's all?"
Yudhisthira was making a conscious effort not to fidget nervously with the teacup in his hands. Of course it wasn't enough; of course there was plenty more that he should have been apologizing for. Nothing that was his fault, everything that had to do with the behavior of his brothers. Then again, Duryodhana had plenty to apologize for on his end, too. But Yudhisthira sensed that Duryodhana wasn't feeling particularly inclined toward apology at the moment. In fact, he was still seething, and no longer making any effort to hide it. "Well," Yudhisthira said, "about what happened between Arjuna and Karna--"
"That's finished," Duryodhana said, quickly, vehemently. "Completely finished. I talked to Karna, and nothing like that is going to happen again. If it makes you feel any better, you should know that he's already been up for hours praying for penance. So there's no need for any disciplinary action, he's beating himself up just fine."
Yudhisthira was really fighting not to fidget with his hands now. He had a question to ask. It was an important question. He wanted to know if Karna had been ordered to go after Arjuna. But Yudhisthira couldn't bear to ask the question. So instead he said, "I made Arjuna promise to stay away from Karna. I would much appreciate it if--"
"Yeah, okay. I'll tell him to back off."
"I just don't like it," Yudhisthira said, "when they get close to each other. They bring out the worst in each other. It's like they become different people." He stopped for a moment, watching Duryodhana's reaction, but his cousin was clearly still stewing. Yudhisthira could sympathize; Duryodhana had a lot to stew about. "Please," Yudhisthira finally said, "Please, I… A lot of things were said and done yesterday, and I'm not proud of any of it. But I don't want things to…" He trailed off, staring at his tea. Decades of diplomatic training were threatening to be instantly washed away by an onslaught of treacherous, humiliating tears. Bhisma would kick him if he could Yudhisthira now. "I don't want things to…" He tried again, then had to stop.
And then, slowly, Duryodhana stood up. He walked over toward Yudhisthira, and put his cold hand on Yudhisthira's shoulder. Yudhisthira felt himself relax, felt the knot in his chest beginning to loosen. This was the part where Duryodhana would hug him and tell him that he was being a worrywart and say that they were family and that everything was going to be all right, just like he always did, just like he had a thousand times before.
But then Duryodhana said, "That's natural. Animosity between your court and my court, it's to be expected."
Yudhisthira glanced up at Duryodhana, searching his face, wondering if he had heard correctly.
"Because Kuru is divided, even though it shouldn't be," Duryodhana went on. His eyes were hard and cold. Yudhisthira resisted the urge to shiver, being held in the gaze of those eyes. Yudhisthira had seen that expression on Duryodhana's face before, but never directed at himself. "It's an unnatural state of affairs. It's sinful. No wonder everything's spinning out of control." Duryodhana took his hand away from Yudhisthira's shoulder. "This can't go on. You want to fix things? Do you want to go back to the way we were before – one big happy family? There's only one way to accomplish that, Yudhisthira, and you know what it is."
Yudhisthira stared at him. "You want to re-unite the kingdom," he said.
Duryodhana nodded, silently.
"And how? Who will--?"
"One throne," Duryodhana said, "one king, and one court. That's the way that it has to be."
Yudhisthira slowly set down his teacup, then stood out of his chair. He stood facing Duryodhana, still unable to tear his eyes away from Duryodhana's icy glare. "Is that what you want, is it?" he asked. There was no point in asking who Duryodhana imagined would be sitting on the future one throne of Kuru, because Yudhisthira could read the answer in his eyes.
"Yes," Duryodhana said. "And you should want that too."
Yudhisthira shook his head, slowly.
"But it's for the good of the kingdom--!"
"No," Yudhisthira suddenly said. He surprised himself with the vehemence of it. From the look on Duryodhana's face, he was clearly surprised, too. "No," Yudhisthira repeated, and then stopped, because he couldn't find the words to explain why. But it didn't matter, he knew why. It was because, deep down in his heart and in the back of his mind, he had always known that Bhisma had chosen him over Duryodhana to take Kuru's throne, even if nobody had ever told him as much. It was because, in the short time that he had ruled over Indraprastha, Yudhisthira had learned more about what it meant to truly be a king than he had ever learned in Hastinapura, and he had become ten times the king that he had once dared to hope that he could become. It was because Yudhisthira loved Duryodhana so deeply and profoundly that he wanted to fix things for real, he wanted to make things right, and he knew that merely handing Indraprastha over to Duryodhana wouldn't truly fix any of the ugliness currently dividing them, it would only make it worse.
And it was because Yudhisthira was terrified of that calculating, empty coldness in Duryodhana's eyes.
"Is that it?" Duryodhana asked, his eyebrow twitching. "Just 'no'? You're going to ignore the suffering of our people just because you don't want to give up your own damned shiny headgear?"
"That's not true," Yudhisthira said, carefully. "I do want the kingdom to be reunited. But…" Yudhisthira paused, tapping at his chin, wondering how much he would be able to explain, wondering if Duryodhana was willing to listen to any of it. I love you and I'm afraid for you and I want to do this right and it will be never be done right so long as you have that look in your eyes all seemed, in his head, to sound too trite to say.
"Listen," said Duryodhana. "I just want you to know where I stand. I mean, I figured, you and I, we have to talk about this someday, right? So…. So, Yudhisthira. Where do you stand?"
Yudhisthira looked Duryodhana squarely in the eye and said, "I don't know."
Duryodhana smacked his forehead and groaned melodramatically. "Let me guess. You're determined to make this a thousand times more complicated and nuanced than it has to be, right?"
"Yes!" Yudhisthira answered, brightly. "And you're right, we do have to talk about this. Someday. But not now, please, not today." Yudhisthira finally smiled and said, "We're on vacation." He reached out for Duryodhana's icy-cold hands, forcing himself to beam cheerfully. "Will you come to my wedding, please? You and your brothers and your entire court. Please, Duryodhana. I would love to have you there."
Duryodhana hesitated for a moment. Then, slowly, he took Yudhisthira's hands in his. "Thank you," he said, finally. "I'll be there." Then he squeezed Yudhisthira's hands, and for a brief moment, his touch felt warm. "Congratulations. I mean it, really. You deserve this."
"Thank you," Yudhisthira said. "Really, thank you."
They embraced – it happened spontaneously, each reaching for the other at the same time – and Yudhisthira wrapped his arms around Duryodhana's broad shoulders and sighed contentedly. "I should go," he said, after a long moment, pulling out of Duryodhana's embrace. "There's a fitting that I'm already late for."
"Go, go!" Duryodhana said, laughing, ushering Yudhisthira quickly out of the room. "You can't be late for something like that. Drupada will have your head."
Duryodhana escorted Yudhisthira outside his guest quarters, where Drupada's army of aides was waiting for him. Yudhisthira squeezed Duryodhana's hand one last time, briefly, before his cousin left again.
As Yudhisthira followed Drupada's servants to another wing of the palace, he mulled over his visit to Duryodhana, over and over again in his head. Well, Duryodhana had certainly pointed out the elephant in the room, the elephant that had been there ever since Dhritarashtra had announced the division of Kuru. Yudhisthira knew that someday he and Duryodhana would have to reunite their kingdom. And now he knew that Duryodhana planned to be sitting on the sole Kuru throne when all was said and done. But as for Yudhisthira himself…? What he had told Duryodhana was true. He didn't know where he stood, what he wanted, or whether he believed that it should ultimately be him or Duryodhana left wearing the crown in the end. But what he did know was right now, at this moment, he absolutely could not hand over his kingdom to Duryodhana. Because there was something frightening in Duryodhana's eyes.
Well, Yudhisthira thought, forcibly reminding himself to walk with his back straight and his chin held high the way that a king should walk, he had done all right for himself, he supposed. He had started out his meeting with Duryodhana nearly ready to break down in tears, and had finished by standing up for himself. Maybe, if he could see Yudhisthira right now, Bhisma would be proud.
Or maybe he would still want to kick him.
Yudhisthira suspected the latter.
The first wedding happened with a surprising amount of fanfare. The moment that Yudhisthira saw the elaborate flower arrangements and the hundreds of dancers, he finally realized just how long sneaky old Drupada had been planning for this day in the first place. Riding into the ceremony on the back of an enormous beast whose name Yudhisthira couldn't pronounce and which he could neither identify as either reptile or mammal, that was the tricky part. Avoiding eye contact with Arjuna throughout the entire day? That was easy.
Yudhisthira went through the motions and smiled and held himself as a king should the entire day. But he felt strangely detached, absent. It wasn't until very late that night, surrounded by dim candlelight and the comforting promise of silence and privacy, as Draupadi disrobed herself and climbed into his bed, that Yudhisthira finally realized that he was married.
"Oh good Lord," he said.
Draupadi paused, her face inches away from his. "What?"
"I just married you."
"Hmm. That you did." Her hair was falling in a cascade all around him, blocking the candlelight, enveloping him in darkness and the scent of alien flowers. "And?"
"…I think I'm glad that I did."
She laughed. "Are you trying to say that you love me?"
Yudhisthira wanted to say yes, but instead his brain grasped for some appropriately witty bedroom banter instead. His brain flailed futilely for a moment, then he gave up, and pressed his lips to hers instead.
They made love slowly, and then Yudhisthira drifted off to sleep, listening to her breathing.
There was no time for them to linger in bed together the next morning, however. When Yudhisthira woke up, Draupadi was already sitting half-out of the bed, absent-mindedly running her fingers through her snarled hair while talking on a comm unit. "You can't move the fitting up fifteen minutes?" she sighed, and then listened as someone on the other end of the comm unit spoke. Then she frowned, and turned toward Yudhisthira. She was still naked, her skin shiny and warm with sleep, and she didn't seem to notice or care. "I'll ask him," she told the comm, then cupped one hand over the mouthpiece and asked Yudhisthira, "Reception tonight. Where do you think you should sit?"
Yudhisthira blinked at her sleepily. "What?"
"I'm asking you because I don't have the faintest idea," Draupadi sighed. "As my husband, you should be next to me at the head of the table. But I'm marrying your brother, so it should Bhima beside me tonight. Which leaves the two seats on either side of us, but my father has to take one and your mother has to take the other. And Dhristadyumna is supposed to sit closer to me than the rest of your brothers, but if we make room for you and Duryodhana two seats away from the head, then either Duryodhana will be sitting closer to me, and that's not right because you're my husband, or you'll be sitting closer to me, and Duryodhana will have to be between you and Arjuna, and that's not right because Arjuna and the other two are still my fiancés. So…" She trailed off, and scowled at nothing in particular. "You'd think that somewhere there would be an etiquette manual to cover this sort of thing."
"You make it sound so dirty." She clicked off the comm unit without bothering to warn whoever was on the other end, and then tossed it casually aside. "Well, we have until this afternoon to decide, either way." Then she let her gaze linger on Yudhisthira, who was lying beside her now completely uncovered. "You look nice, in the sunlight," she said.
"And you look beautiful." He sat up, wrapped her in his arms, and kissed her neck. It was so deliciously warm in that room, he didn't mind being naked at all. Draupadi's skin felt pleasantly hot. Her weight shifted comfortably against Yudhisthira, and she relaxed in his arms and laughed as he tickled her with his lips.
"Mmm." Draupadi gently disentangled herself from his arms. "Forgive me love, but I really do have to get out of bed. I have a wedding to prepare for." She slid out of the bed, scratched herself, then started scanning the floor, apparently searching for the comm unit that she had just tossed away.
That was when Yudhisthira saw the dried blood on the sheets. "Did I hurt you?" he asked.
"You were bleeding."
"…I know." She looked down at the sheets, then up at him. "I was told that that might happen."
Yudhisthira blinked at her. "I wasn't."
Draupadi tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled at him. "If I had wanted you to stop, I would have told you to stop. You trust me that far, don't you?"
Yudhisthira gazed at her, standing casually naked in front of him, her long tangled hair spilling down her back, devakin markings wrapping around her shoulders and neck, small breasts casting slight but sensual shadows on her torso, her body lean and muscular and looking perfectly delicious. "I do trust you," Yudhisthira finally said. "Or else I wouldn't be letting you marry my brothers."
"Good to know," Draupadi said, with a laugh.
The second wedding was even more elaborate than the first. Most of this was because, by the second day, enough time had passed for gifts and supplies to start arriving from Kuru. Drupada's chefs had little idea what to do with the three tons of flash-frozen seafood that arrived on a transport from Kuru the morning of Bhima's wedding, but Yudhisthira sent his own chef into the palace kitchen armed with recipes and a letter of signed authority, and somehow the wedding feast was pulled together in the end.
Duryodhana wandered through the reception afterwards, ignoring everyone who tried to approach him, feeling in a foul mood. Tomorrow would be Arjuna's wedding, and Ashwatthama had asked to be included in the ceremony along with Drupada's priest. That made Duryodhana angry, although there was no way he could have forbidden Ashwatthama from participating without horrifically insulting Yudhisthira's family. Duryodhana pulled out his comm unit, and considered summoning Ashwatthama. Just to give him a piece of his mind, just to make sure that Ashwatthama knew where his place really was.
But before he could dial, Duryodhana caught a glimpse of his wayward priest near a refreshment table, talking with Arjuna. The bruises on Arjuna's face and neck, leftover from his fight with Karna, were still clearly visible even beneath his makeup. Duryodhana watched them both talking and laughing, then shook his head and turned away before he started to see red. He took little satisfaction in knowing that Arjuna would be black and blue for his wedding day. Duryodhana still suspected that Ashwatthama had been involved in the plot to sneak Arjuna into Draupadi's groom-choosing. Even if he would never be able to prove it, Duryodhana knew somehow that it was true.
Duryodhana turned his head. A lovely young woman was standing in front of him, backed by several demurely bowing attendants. Duryodhana couldn't place her face, but he did know her, and vaguely remembered her being a twice-removed niece of Shalya, or somesuch. The shape of her eyes looked distinctly Madraka. "Would you give me the honor of a dance, Your Majesty?"
Duryodhana debated this internally. He didn't want to dance. He didn't even want to touch her. But the cost of offending one of Shalya's relatives would be greater in the long run. "It would be my pleasure," Duryodhana said, trying his best to turn on his charm. He reached out, took her arm, and escorted her toward the dance floor.
Unfortunately, among the few dancers taking to the floor were none other than the bride and groom. They were comically mismatched in size, but Bhima's graceful, quick movements perfectly matched Draupadi's dancing. Draupadi threw back her head and laughed as Bhima effortlessly lifted her off the ground and whirled her around. The watching wedding guests clapped and cheered.
Duryodhana whirled his partner, whose name he still couldn't remember, around the far end of the dance floor, trying to gaze at her face in a way that he hoped looked romantically interested. He forced himself to stare at his own partner, and not at Draupadi. If he looked at Draupadi, he would see red. When he thought of her face, all that he could think of was whore whore whore whore whore whore.
Goddamn whore. Filthy slut. Spreading her legs every night for Yudhisthira and each of his brothers in turn like an overworked prostitute.
And all of these people seemed so intent on celebrating this abomination of a marriage.
"Is something wrong?" Duryodhana's dance partner suddenly asked.
Duryodhana lifted his hand from her hip in order to touch his own face. His skin felt hot and flushed. "Let me guess. I'm as red as wine, aren't I?" He pulled her closer to him. "You're making me blush."
"Shall I take that as a compliment, Your Majesty?"
"Please do." Then he let her go, stepping away from her. "I'm sorry, really, I am, but I think I need a break. A drink or something." He hurried away from her before she could protest.
Duryodhana found Karna standing beneath a window, almost instinctively standing directly in the center of the patch of sunlight that was falling on his shoulders. Shrutakiirti must have been off socializing somewhere, Duryodhana figured. Well, perfect. He needed to talk to Karna alone.
"Have something to drink," Duryodhana said, gesturing to bid an attendant to bring wine and glasses.
"Thank you," Karna said, "But I don't drink."
"I bet," Duryodhana said, taking a glass offered by another servant, "that you would be way more fun as a drunk than you are sober."
Karna raised one eyebrow at this.
"Look at you," Duryodhana said, reaching over to touch Karna's forehead. "Not even a scar left from yesterday." He took a sip of his wine. "Arjuna looks like a wreck. But you're fine." Duryodhana peered at Karna, his eyes narrowed. "How can that be?"
Karna shifted his feet uncomfortably. "I don't know." He shook his head. "I honestly don't know." He touched his own head, as if slightly amazed that his skull and brains were still intact. "To be perfectly honest, it's a bit disconcerting."
"Nah," Duryodhana said, quickly. "It just means that the gods are protecting you. All of that praying that you do has to pay off somehow, right?" He laughed, although Karna did not join in his laughter. "Listen, do you think that if I start praying to the sun, I could get an unbreakable body, too?" He knocked his own head jokingly, then winced. "Ow."
This, at least, finally got Karna to smile. "I wouldn't know about that." He turned his head slightly, gazing out the window. His earrings gleamed in the reflected light of the setting sun. "The sun is different here," he said. "It's closer, and hotter, and has a different light than Kuru's sun."
"Hmmmm. You notice those things?"
"I can feel them."
"But it's still the same Lord Surya, right?"
Karna smiled contentedly, gazing out the window. "Yes, it is."
Duryodhana stepped closer to Karna, leaning comfortably against his shoulder. He felt warm, as always. "Sometimes I think that you're even more crazy-religious than Ashwatthama."
Karna chuckled. "I'll take that as a compliment." Then he turned his head slightly toward Duryodhana and said, "I'm sorry."
"For not winning Draupadi for you."
Duryodhana snorted derisively. "Don't apologize. I should be the one apologizing to you. I never would have asked – oh, Gods, Karna, I'm so sorry, I never would have asked you to try to win her if I'd known that she would…" He trailed off when he saw the look in Karna's eyes. Duryodhana realized that he'd made a mistake. He'd only managed to hurt Karna by reminding him of his humiliation on the arena floor. Duryodhana couldn't stand to see that pained look on Karna's face, so he quickly decided to try a different tact. "I wouldn't want to marry that kind of woman anyhow." He took an angry, emphatic swig from his wine glass. "Any woman that would share her bed with five different men is a whore not worth being trusted." He watched Karna carefully, trying to gauge Karna's reactions to his words.
To his relief, Karna nodded, somberly. "These weddings are shameful," Karna whispered, keeping his voice discretely low. "This marriage is a sin. It's an affront against the gods. It's just a glorified celebration of promiscuity, that's what it is."
"Tell me about it," Duryodhana murmured darkly. "No woman should ever take more than one husband."
"Or a husband more than one wife," Karna added.
Duryodhana abruptly pulled his shoulder away from Karna. "But--"
"I don't care if one way is a royal tradition and the other way is considered a sin," Karna said, with a dismissive shrug. "Human law may sanction it, but this custom that you royals have of turning yourselves into man-whores is equally as sinful and revolting as Draupadi becoming a whore tonight. But I suppose that there's nothing unusual about this level of sinfulness among kings, after all. It's just another symptom of the corruption and excess of the royal class."
Duryodhana stared at Karna, a bit aghast. It happened every time. Just when he thought that he was starting to understand Karna, Karna would say or do something to remind Duryodhana that he was actually deeply crazy. Duryodhana had never met anyone crazy enough to pray to the rising sun every morning regardless of the time or weather, crazy enough to throw away his wealth at any commoner who asked him for a favor, or crazy enough to criticize thousands of years of royal customs while the King of Kuru was standing at his shoulder.
"You know," Duryodhana said, "You're royalty now too. You could have another wife if you wanted." He leaned against Karna again. "Don't tell me that there's nobody you've ever thought about sleeping with. That there's nobody you've ever dreamt or thought about."
Karna shook his head. "I have my wife."
"You've never had anybody else? Not even anyone before her?"
"And you would never, ever lay a finger on anyone else?"
"How disappointing." Duryodhana sighed. "We're going to have to work on that." He winked at Karna. "You should stay away from me, I can be a corrupting influence." He laughed. "I bet I could even get Ashwatthama a girlfriend."
"You'll get Ashwatthama to break his vows before you get me to betray Shrutakiirti."
"Ooooh, sounds like a challenge." Duryodhana raised his glass in a toast. "To laviciousness!" Then he took a sip of his wine and murmured darkly, "Bhisma is right. I need a goddamn wife."
Draupadi was surprised to find herself not tired in the least, even after the wedding festivities ended, and she and Bhima were left alone in private quarters. "So," she said, leaning against Bhima, "So, just how strong are you?"
"I could lift you up and carry you."
"Then please do."
Bhima lifted her up easily. "Like this?"
Draupadi threw back her head and laughed, delighted. "Absolutely." She threw her arms around his neck and said, "I don't know why, but this is really turning me on."
"Who needs to know why?" Bhima carried her over to the bed, and set her down gently. Her wedding dress fell in inelegant clumps all around her legs, but Draupadi didn't care. Bhima knelt down beside her, took her hand in his, and kissed it gently. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Are you offering to wait on me hand and foot?"
"Excellent." She leaned back against the pillows piled on top of the bed, sighing contentedly. "Bring me the best damn wine that your dowry has to offer." She glanced over at Bhima coyly. "And I want you to bring it to me naked."
Bhima laughed, a deep bellow that made the whole room shake. "I love you," he said.
Draupadi rolled over on her side, facing him. "Tell me why you love me," she said.
Bhima sat down on the bed beside her. The entire bed creaked ominously beneath Bhima's weight, but Draupadi didn't mind. "All right," Bhima said. "Remember that time that you invaded Kuru?"
"And that day that your ships powered down your weapons. And afterwards I was meeting with you and Dhristadyumna . And Dhristadyumna was going on and on at me about radiation discharges and needing a place to dump your fleet's waste and all this other stuff. And Yudhisthira was being all wishy-washy about the waste issue, going on and on and on about how his hands were tied because of the environmental agencies putting caps on dump weights from foreign ships. Then you went right up into Yudhisthira's face and said, 'With all due respect, Your Majesty, we are neither tourists nor--'"
"Oh I did not sound like that."
"Really? I was that rude to Yudhisthira?"
"You seriously don't remember?" Bhima laughed.
"Not really, no. Back then Yudhisthira was the least of my concerns. He barely registered as more than a blip on my consciousness."
"So it was Arjuna who left the real impression on you, was it?"
"At the time, yes." Draupadi twirled a lock of hair around her fingers with exaggerated casualness. "Don't hate me for saying that, though. I love you."
"I know you do."
"So. Do keep telling me this story about how you fell in love with me, darling."
"Hmm. Well. I don't remember what exactly everybody said, but I think it all ended with you outright threatening to personally take an axe to the Undersecretary of Water Table Monitoring's neck if you couldn't get dumping approval within ten hours. And I believe the line 'We have the firepower to conquer your planet ten times before teatime, Your Majesty, and don't think that we won't resort to using it' was said at some point. It was both the least diplomatic and also the hottest thing that I had ever heard any woman say in my entire life."
Draupadi peered at Bhima carefully. "So… since then?"
"Yes. I've loved you since then."
Draupadi wrapped her arms around his shoulders - or at least, attempted to wrap her arms around as much of Bhima's nearest shoulder as she could. "But you never said anything…"
"Because Arjuna loved you," Bhima said. "It was obvious even then."
Draupadi was silent for a moment. Then she said, "You really love your brothers, don't you." She rested her head against Bhima's shoulder and said, "Well, good. Because I do too."
Bhima laughed again. Then he sat up, slipped off the bed, and said, "I need to order your wine." He started fumbling about his clothes, searching for his comm unit. "Now where…?"
"A suggestion," Draupadi said. "Take off your clothes, and then we'll find your comm."
"I really love the way you think."
Arjuna woke up on the morning of his wedding day feeling strangely light-headed. That persistent feeling of goofy light-headedness simply refused to leave him, even during breakfast, even during his fittings with Drupada's tailors, even during his briefing on the ceremony (no time for an actual rehearsal), even when Ashwatthama finally showed up in order to pray with Arjuna mere minutes before the wedding was to begin.
"Look at you," Ashwatthama said. "I've never seen you so happy."
Arjuna blushed. "Is it that obvious?"
"That's nothing to be ashamed of. You're getting married. You should be happy." Ashwatthama reached out and squeezed Arjuna's hand. "I'm happy for you."
"Thank you." Suddenly, impulsively, Arjuna pulled Ashwatthama close, then wrapped his arms around Ashwatthama in a tight hug. "You know I love you, right?" he asked, squeezing Ashwatthama tightly.
"I know." Ashwatthama, his hands around Arjuna's shoulders, squeezed Arjuna tightly in return.
Arjuna wanted to say more. He felt stupid and foolish, clinging to Ashwatthama as if they were still children. But still he kept holding onto Ashwatthama, trying to think of the right words to say what he wanted to say, suddenly desperate to express everything that he had ever felt about Ashwatthama, suddenly panicking at the thought that he would never be able to tell his friend just how much he meant to him. But in the end, all that Arjuna could say was, "Thank you for officiating this."
"Of course. Arjuna…" Ashwatthama gently disentangled himself from Arjuna's embrace. "Any time you ever need or want anything, just ask me. I'll do anything for you." Ashwatthama squeezed Arjuna's hands. "I swear."
"And," said Arjuna, pulling his hands out of Ashwatthama's grasp just so that he could clasp Ashwatthama's hands in his own, "I swear the same to you. Anything you will ever ask of me, it's yours."
"Oh, really?" Ashwatthama laughed. "Then can you convince Duryodhana to give me permission to visit you in Indraprastha at least once?"
"I'll try," Arjuna said. "Although there may be some tasks beyond even my awesome powers to accomplish."
"Thank you for trying, though." Ashwatthama took Arjuna's arm, and they walked together towards the wedding hall. "A suggestion, though: His Majesty is usually a bit more agreeable when inebriated."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Most other coherent thoughts left Arjuna's mind, however, the moment that he saw Draupadi in her wedding clothes, waiting for him. He managed to stumble through the ceremony without fumbling anything, mostly by never taking his eyes off of her. Afterwards was the reception, and the wine, and the dancing, and even more wine.
By the time that the sun had set and Arjuna was finally left alone with Draupadi, he was more than a little bit drunk. But that was all right. The wine had washed away most of his nervousness about what was to come next.
He was holding her close to him, the two of them draped over a couch and over each other, kissing each other slowly, when Draupadi suddenly pulled away from Arjuna, climbed off the couch, and stood up. "Shall we?" she asked, holding out her hand invitingly.
Arjuna understood that this was an invitation to bed. No more procrastinating on the couch. "I've never done this before," Arjuna said. "It feels weird."
"Doing something that I haven't done before."
"Are you saying that you would have preferred some practice beforehand?"
"Oh, my mother told me all about you professional archers," Draupadi said. "Strong upper body. Tight, rippling muscles. Excellent reflexes. And extremely talented fingers. Well?" Draupadi asked, slowly beginning to unwrap her top.
"Wait," Arjuna suddenly said. Draupadi paused, and he stood up, walked toward her, and placed his hands on her shoulders. "I, um…." He was really blushing furiously now. "I want to do it," he said in a small voice, tangling his fingers in her silk wrap and slowly pulling it down.
In response to this, Draupadi merely leaned forward and kissed him hard, on his lips. Arjuna wrapped his arms around her, then began groping her back for the fastener holding her brassiere in place. And Draupadi kissed him and kissed him and kissed him, then pulled away from his mouth just long enough to lick his ear and whisper something in Panchalan that was definitely not in any of Arjuna's dictionaries or phrasebooks. Then Arjuna kissed her neck, over and over again, and she giggled, and the vibration of her throaty giggles tickled Arjuna's lips and he could feel the heat of her flushed skin baking against his and then finally, finally, he found that damn fastener pressed against the small of her back.
Arjuna hesitated for a moment, his lips pressed against Draupadi's neck, his fingers poised around the fastener at her back.
Draupadi wrapped her arms around him. "Take me," she whispered, breathily.
And then Arjuna finally undid the fastener.
The communal breakfast was Yudhisthira's idea. The five brothers and Draupadi were left alone in a private dining room with the finest that Drupada had to offer spread out in front of them. But it was not a time for family bonding. Yudhisthira was there for business.
"Absolutely anything that you desire," he told Draupadi earnestly, "anything at all. Just say it. We'll give you an entire wing of the palace if you'd like."
"I don't need an entire wing of your palace," Draupadi said, poking at her breakfast without touching it. Her fourth wedding was going to be today, and the nerves were finallygetting to her. "Just my own sanctum. A study would be nice. You do have books on that backwater planet of yours, don't you?"
"We have--" Yudhisthira suddenly stopped when he comm unit buzzed. He fumbled for it, flipped it open, shook his head sheepishly as a way to apologize for his rudeness, then took a look at the screen displaying the identity of his caller, and sighed. "Grandpa Bhisma," he mouthed for the benefit of everyone at the table. Then he stood up and hurried out of the room, apparently not inclined to answer the call in front of his brothers.
"A guessing game," Nakula instantly proposed. "Why would Bhisma be calling Yudhisthira while it is only three in the morning in Hastinapura?"
"Does it matter?" Bhima asked, not even bothering to be subtle about the way that he was filching fruit from Nakula's plate. "Grandpa Bhisma never sleeps. True fact."
"He's probably just worried about us," Sahadeva said.
"Why would he be worried?" Arjuna asked, carefully cutting the calorie-laden yolk out of his fried egg.
Nobody answered. The breakfast table suddenly descended into an uncomfortable silence. Finally Bhima stood up and said, "We should get going." He grabbed a surprised Arjuna by the arm, hauling him up out of his seat. "We have to get ready for the wedding--"
"But we don't--" Arjuna started to protest, then saw the look on Bhima's face. "Oh, yeah. Those things that we have to do. We better, uh, we better go do them."
Arjuna and Bhima left. Sahadeva, not even bothering to offer an excuse, merely stood up and followed them out of the room. Which left Nakula sitting alone at the table with his soon-to-be-wife.
"Well, that was subtle of them," Nakula said.
But Nakula did not share her laughter. Instead he turned his head and looked at her, his not-quite-human golden eyes gazing at her intensely. "Do you know why Grandpa Bhisma is worried?" Nakula asked. "It's because Yudhisthira and I have never exactly had to share anything before."
Draupadi tilted her head at him. "That's not true. You share a kingdom."
"No we don't. It's Yudhisthira's kingdom. Sahadeva and I are just window-dressing. Not that I mind that, though."
Draupadi watched him quietly for a moment. Then she asked, "Do you not want to marry me?"
"You cut right to the point, don't you?" Nakula shrugged. "Honestly? I don't know. I don't not want to marry you. But I don't know if I do want to marry you. Or anybody, not right now. I didn't exactly come to Panchala expecting to leave bound in a committed relationship to my first wife. And I really never expected that my first wife would also be sleeping with my brothers. I mean, that's practically like getting Yudhisthira-germs by association."
"Well," said Draupadi. "You cut right to the point, don't you?"
Nakula suddenly laughed. "So I suppose that's one thing that we have in common."
"It's a start."
"Yeah? So as long as we're being blunt, how about you?"
"You mean, what do I think of you?"
"Give it to me straight."
"On a purely physical level, I think that you and your brother Sahadeva have got to be among the top ten most beautiful human beings in existence, and were I a more shallow woman, I would be able to think to myself, sure, I wouldn't mind having him as a bedroom option for the rest of my life. But as for the things that really matter? I'm like you. I don't know. I don't even know you. Well, not really. I know of your reputation, though."
"Ah," Nakula said with a smirk, "my reputation precedes me."
"I know that you are not inexperienced with women."
"Yudhisthira is still convinced that I'm an untouched virgin," Nakula said. "But why am I telling you this? You've slept with him once. You probably already know more about Yudhisthira's sexual neurosis and bedroom hang-ups than I ever will."
Draupadi pushed back her chair and stood up. "So, the important question is: Can you share something – I mean, someone – with your brothers?"
Nakula looked up at her for a long time. "Only if it's a woman like you," he finally answered.
On the fifth morning, Draupadi was finally starting to feel exhausted. This was largely due to the fact that she had only managed to sleep for a measly thirty minutes during the entirety of her night with Nakula. This was, in turn, largely due to the fact that Nakula had a pierced tongue and more than ample skill using it.
The fifth and final day of weddings, however, also turned out to be the most hectic. Draupadi had to make her final decisions dividing up her staff, choosing who would accompany her to Indraprastha, and who would stay behind. She oversaw the packing of her quarters while her hairdressers worked on her hair. She gave a stream of endless orders over her comm while standing in the midst of a pack of tailors fitting her final wedding gown. She threw herself into the wedding, and into the reception, smiling the whole time, forcing herself to look radiant, focusing her attention on her newest and last husband, avoiding Dhristadyumna's eyes throughout the entire day.
In the evening, finally, she was left alone with Sahadeva. They lied down in their marriage bed together, and she rolled over and kissed him, but he suddenly pulled away from her, sat up, and said, "Would you like a drink?"
She sat up beside him, blinking, confused. "What?"
"You look like you could use a drink."
Draupadi looked around for a mirror, suddenly wondering how she did look. "Is it that obvious?"
"Well, I'd like a drink," Sahadeva said. He peered at her with his strange golden eyes. At first Draupadi had found Sahadeva's oddly inhuman eyes disturbing. But now she was used to them. Well, Nakula had the same eyes, and that helped. Sahadeva finally slipped off the bed, stood up, and poured a glass of wine from the bottle that some thoughtful servant had already left within easy reach. "Here you are," he said, handing her the glass.
Draupadi held the glass of wine and waited, wondering if Sahadeva were about to use the wine bottle as a prop in some wildly erotic stunt. That was what Nakula would have done. But instead, Sahadeva poured himself a glass, downed it in one gulp, then climbed back onto the bed. He looked at Draupadi and said, "You're not drinking." He blinked at her. "Would you prefer something else?"
Suddenly he was sitting beside her, his arms around her shoulders. "Can I hold you?" he asked.
"Can I hold you? You look like you could use a holding."
Draupadi closed her eyes and relaxed into his arms, resting her head against his shoulder. "Why do you say that?" she asked.
"Because you looked sad."
"…I'm not sad. I'm happy to be here with you. Truly, I am."
Sahadeva stroked her hair, gently, and said nothing.
Finally Draupadi whispered, "But I still can't believe that this is my last night in Kampilya."
Sahadeva squeezed her tightly. "I would be sad, too," he said. "If I had to leave my home. And my brothers."
Draupadi lifted up her head and gazed at him intently. "And my twin brother," she said.
Sahadeva nodded, solemnly.
"He's completely helpless without me," Draupadi sighed. "I know that he's not happy about me leaving. And that makes me feel terrible. Because I'm really – well, right now, with you and your brothers – I've never been happier. I mean it. It sounds stupid, I guess, but that's really how I feel. This, this whole marriage thing, it's so…"
"Amazing," Sahadeva said quietly, leaning forward to gently kiss her neck.
"Amazing," Draupadi giggled, because his lips tickled. "From the beginning – ever since I was a little girl – I knew that I was going to leave here someday. That's what women do. We don't stay in our homes. We're the ones who marry and leave. And I've always been prepared for that. But Dhristadyumna isn't…" She suddenly trailed off, then wrapped her arms around Sahadeva's shoulders and moaned. "Your tongue…"
"Hmm?" Sahadeva paused in the midst of licking one of her earlobes.
"It's not pierced."
"Nakula is the one with the pierced tongue. I have a pierced…" Sahadeva paused. Then, blushing, he pulled away from Draupadi's embrace, and began to pull off his shirt.
"Your navel?" Draupadi observed, amused.
"No. That's just the one that I showed Yudhisthira when he asked." Sahadeva undid his belt, and then pulled down a bit of his pants. "Down here," he said, pointing.
"My goodness," Draupadi said.
"I can take it out, if you want me to," Sahadeva said quickly.
"Hmmm… Let me try it and see if I like it first. How about that?"
Sahadeva blinked at her. "Weren't we just having a serious conversation about your relationship with Dhristadyumna?"
"Darling, you're sitting in front of me half-naked and exposing your bits. Can we save the depressing talk for tomorrow morning?"
Sahadeva frowned, seriously considering this. "All right," he finally said.
The next morning was Draupadi's last morning on Panchala. She awoke knowing this, and tried not to think about it, but couldn't help but think about it. She rolled over in bed and found that Sahadeva wasn't there. Then she sat up, stretched, and saw Sahadeva standing on the other side of the bedroom, uncorking a fresh bottle of wine.
Draupadi glanced at the clock beside the bed. "It's seven hundred hours in the morning," she said, as Sahadeva sat down on the bed beside her and offered her a glass of wine. "Isn't it a bit early to be drinking?"
"It's never too early." Sahadeva raised his wine glass and tapped it against Draupadi's. "A toast," he said.
"To Indraprastha," Sahadeva said. "Because it belongs to you now."
Draupadi laughed. "My eyes are up here, you know."
"Oh… sorry." Sahadeva had thrown on a robe, but Draupadi was still nude, unabashedly exposed, without even bothering to cover herself with a sheet. Sahadeva sipped his wine and said, "You look even more beautiful in the sunlight."
"As do you, darling." The room was pleasantly warm, and Draupadi felt alert, well-rested, and a bit playful. She should have been worrying about the last-minute arrangements for the impending departure to Kuru, or should have been finishing up the last of her packing, or should have at least been worrying about Dhristadyumna. But for the moment, Draupadi didn't want to think about any of that. She rather wanted Sahadeva to remove his robe instead.
Draupadi leaned back against a pile of pillows, sipping her wine. "You know, a girl could get used to this," she said. "Five men totally devoted to me, waiting on me hand and foot… And every morning I wake up to one of them telling me how beautiful I am." She sighed. "Best enjoy it now, I guess. Someday I'll be old and gray and wrinkled and sagging, and then you'll--"
"No, you won't be," Sahadeva suddenly said.
"You won't ever be old or gray. You won't live that long."
Draupadi blinked, confused. "I beg your pardon?"
Sahadeva was sitting on the edge of the bed, his body turned slightly away from her, staring down at the glass of wine in his hand, his face curiously slack, expressionless. "You won't live that long. None of us will, except for Yudhisthira. One by one, we all fall off the side of the mountain, until he's the only one left, still climbing through the snow, old and gray and alone."
Draupadi stared at Sahadeva, saying nothing. Then, after a long minute, she realized that Sahadeva wasn't moving, wasn't blinking. He didn't even appear to be breathing, not by much. Suddenly alarmed, Draupadi sat up quickly, nearly spilling her wine, and leaned over toward him. "Sahadeva…?"
She reached out and shook his shoulder. "Sahadeva--!"
He turned his head toward her. "What? What's wrong?" he asked, suddenly alarmed.
Draupadi's mouth opened and closed, and she hesitated, unsure of what to say.
Sahadeva winced and rubbed his shoulder. "Is this your idea of foreplay?" he asked.
"No, I… You were…. You said something about me dying--"
"What?" Sahadeva blinked at her, clearly baffled. "What are you talking about?"
Draupadi stared at him until it slowly dawned on her that whatever he had been saying or thinking moments before, he clearly didn't remember it now. "Never mind," she said, shaking her head. She figured that she probably should be more concerned about what had just happened, but strangely, she wasn't. Maybe it was because both she and Sahadeva were devakin, and Draupadi knew that sometimes devakin just had strange experiences. Draupadi suspected that this was particularly true for Nakula and Sahadeva, who were probably the two least human devakin that she had ever met.
Draupadi leaned over and kissed Sahadeva quickly. "I should get dressed," she told him.
"Likewise, I suppose." Sahadeva sounded disappointed.
Draupadi lifted her wine glass one last time. "To Indraprastha," she said. She gulped down the last of her wine and then said with a contented sigh, "It's good to be the queen."
The goodbyes were the most difficult.
"Take care of Father," Draupadi said, kissing Dhristadyumna's cheek, "and be strong," she added, kissing his other cheek.
"I…" Dhristadyumna trailed off, unable to finish without embarrassing himself. Finally, he stepped away from Draupadi, and turned his face away from her. "Just go," he said. Then he mumbled, "I'll call you."
"Er… There's a time difference…"
"It was a joke," Draupadi said. Then she looked at him and said, "You really are helpless without me."
Dhristadyumna stiffened. "I'll be fine."
"I hope for your sake that you will be." Then Draupadi turned away from Dhristadyumna and walked slowly across the floor of the hangar bay, followed by her attendants and her luggage, while the watching cameras flashed and the reporters crowded around them shouted questions. Draupadi ignored all of them. She walked until she reached Yudhisthira, who was patiently waiting for her. She took his arm, paused, and then turned to wave to the crowd. The crowd burst into cheers, even as Draupadi turned her back to them, and she and Yudhisthira climbed up the boarding ramp leading to the stateship that was about to take them away to Kuru.
Dhristadyumna stood and watched until the order was given to clear the hangar floor. Then he left, numb and quiet. He was escorted to a waiting hoverer. He climbed inside, and found himself alone. He sat down and realized that he would no longer have to wait for Sikhandhi or Draupadi to join him. Dhristadyumna opened his mouth, ready to instruct his driver to leave, when suddenly someone did climb into the hoverer and sit down beside him.
It was his father.
"You look like you could use this," Dhristadyumna's father said, handing him a smokeroll. It was one of the luxurious Kuru smokerolls that Duryodhana had given the Panchalan royal family as presents.
Dhristadyumna started when he saw his father pull out a second smokeroll and a lighter capsule. "Father…?"
"I'm old, I think I've earned my right to smoke inside a hoverer," Dhristadyumna's father said. Then he handed the lighter capsule to Dhristadyumna. "And as for you, you're practically a king. Soon you'll have more responsibilities than rights. But one of the few rights that you will have will be the right to light up whenever and wherever you wish. Enjoy it while you can."
Dhristadyumna accepted the lighter capsule and clicked it on. A small flame sprung up from its tip. He held it up to the end of his smokeroll, but at that instant, the hoverer suddenly lurched against a pocket of turbulence. Dhristadyumna hissed as the lighter capsule's flame brushed against his fingers holding the smokeroll.
And that was it. A simple, stupid thing. But for Dhristadyumna, the pain of even a little bit of exposure to flame was more than he could bear, because it was the clearest reminder of everything that he had lost over the years. His hands, still holding the smokeroll and lighter capsule, began to shake.
Drupada reached over and quickly snatched the lighter capsule away from Dhristadyumna. Then he looked at his son for a long moment and said, "I'm sorry."
"Yes. I know." Dhristadyumna had heard his father say that before. And he knew that it was deeply true. But he couldn't stop feeling bitter about everything.
When Dhristadyumna had been a child, everything had been so clear and simple. He'd had a father that he loved, a teacher who would raise him to be a great warrior, and a bitter enemy – Kuru – to conquer. Then the teacher, Drona, had left. And Dhristadyumna's father, once the most perfect and brave and stalwart and invincible man that Dhristadyumna had ever known, had literally shriveled with grief, collapsing under the weight of his own despair, right in front of Dhristadyumna's eyes. But then, the grief had turned into hatred, and the despair into a thirst for revenge. And Dhristadyumna, still merely a child back then, still eager to prove himself, and desperate to do anything that he could to see his father stand proud and tall again… He had let himself be infected by that hatred. He had embraced it. And he had done the one and only thing he could think to do, in order to bring his father happiness.
He had given up his Gift, in exchange for the Lord's promise that he would be the one to kill Drona.
That was why fire could burn Dhristadyumna. Once upon a time, his Gift had been an absolute protection against all flame, no matter what the source or intensity. He could have – and had, much to his mother's horror on one memorable occasion – walked right through a fire without even an inch of his skin being burnt. Dhristadyumna's twin Draupadi still had that Gift. She would never give hers up, for any price. But Dhristadyumna had exchanged his Gift for his boon from the gods. And at the time, Dhristadyumna remembered that his father had been so happy, and so proud of him.
Then things had changed. Sikhandhi had gotten weird. A cold war had settled between Kuru and Panchala, either side loathe to provoke the other. Drona had finally surfaced again on Kuru, but Dhristadyumna's father had let him cower behind the protection of a spoiled Kuru prince. Years had passed, and Dhristadyumna's world had kept growing darker and stranger. Dhristadyumna had absorbed himself in his studies in order to become Panchala's future king, trying to ignore the fact that he was watching his father growing older and grayer, trying to ignore the way that Sikhandhi continued on her mad quest to flaunt the laws of nature and the Gods, trying not to resent the fact that his beautiful, free-wheeling, elegant and confident sister Draupadi became the darling of the Kampilya press while the rest of her family was frequently and viciously vilified.
Then, overnight, everything had changed – again. Arjuna had kidnapped Dhristadyumna's father and started a war. Finally a move could be made against Kuru. Finally Dhristadyumna would be able to face Drona for the last time. Finally he could fulfill the destiny that he had traded his Gift for, and finally he could satisfy the driving purpose in his life.
Except that things hadn't worked out that way. Dhristadyumna's father had forgiven Drona. Which had left Dhristadyumna with no Gift, a death vow that nobody wanted him to carry out, and no way left to bring his father happiness.
And then peace had been declared with Kuru. And then both Sikhandhi and Draupadi had married and gone away. Which now left Dhristadyumna with no brother, no sister, and no more enemy to unite his kingdom against, either.
It left him with a whole lot of nothing, actually.
"You're burnt," Dhristadyumna's father said, examining his hand.
Dhristadyumna shook him off. "It's nothing," he said. Then he added quickly, "And this did not happen because I'm useless without her or anything."
"…I never said that you were."
Dhristadyumna held his burnt hand and said nothing.
Finally, his father sighed. "You will make a great king someday, Dhristadyumna," he said. "Even despite the fact that I am your father."
Jumpspace was quiet and strange. Draupadi watched the otherworldly colors sliding past the observation deck windows, and listened patiently to Yudhisthira.
"The schedule isn't set in stone, of course," Yudhisthira said, flipping open an electronic reader that one of his aides had handed him, and calling up the appropriate screen. "We'll have one night in Hastinapura for the send-off celebration. They've already prepared a ship to take us to Indraprastha. We'll--"
"A stratosphere-jumping transport?"
"No, a… A ship. Er, the type that floats on the water."
Draupadi turned toward him and raised one eyebrow. "How quaint."
"But I thought you liked the ocean."
"I do." Draupadi turned back toward the observation deck windows. "But I'm impatient to see this wonderful Indraprastha of yours. Especially if even half the things that I've heard about your heaven-built city turn out to be true."
"Ah, that's… Aha." Yudhisthira cleared his throat, a bit uncomfortably, then turned his attention back to his reader. "The villagers insist on having a feast in your honor. It may be a bit rustic, but… Hmm. It will be our first opportunity for you to meet Kritavarma, so this will be important."
"A village elder. He's more in charge of Indraprastha than you or I am."
"I shall do my best to impress him, then."
Yudhisthira was quiet for a moment, then clicked his reader closed, and dismissed his aides with a quick gesture of his hand. The aides scurried away, and Yudhisthira and Draupadi were left alone on the observation deck. "Do you understand what you're getting into?" Yudhisthira asked, quietly.
Draupadi regarded him evenly for a moment, then answered, "You tell me what you think I'm getting into."
Yudhisthira nodded. "All right. Our planet is divided. But it shouldn't be. I think that the two kingdoms should be united. Duryodhana agrees with me. But I fear that Duryodhana would not be averse to using force to accomplish this." Yudhisthira paused, then said, "You saw what happened at the groom-choosing ceremony. Duryodhana can turn his court against us with a word. There are few people in this world who are truly capable of harming either me or my brothers, but Duryodhana has them all in his camp."
"However," said Draupadi, "now you have me in your camp."
"And," Yudhisthira continued, not to be deterred, "There's a prophecy that I'm supposed to destroy the world and everyone that I love."
She sidled up to him, wrapping her arms around his. "You Kurus are so docile, so peaceful. One little courtly intrigue – one little riot, one little attempted murder, one little prophecy of impending doom – and you all think it's the end of the world." She chuckled. "On Panchala, that's just a typical working day."
Yudhisthira was quiet for a long moment, then he said, "You know, Nakula was right."
"What Nakula said before. 'Panchalans are scary.' "
Draupadi laughed, then leaned her head against Yudhisthira's shoulder. "I'm going to tell Nakula that you said that he was right about something," she said. "Then you'll never hear the end of it."
To be continued.