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!
INTERLUDE: SHAKUNI II
It was the media console, Shakuni decided, that really did it. Every image on every channel, and it was all the same. Draupadi, smiling and waving, the Panchalan whore-queen that the entire planet had fallen in love with, ruling Indraprastha from her throne within her otherworldly, heaven-built palace. "You should just turn that cursed thing off," Shakuni finally told Duryodhana, taking the remote from his hand and clicking the console off. "You're frowning so hard you'll give yourself wrinkles."
"I am not frowning," Duryodhana said, frowning.
"You need a drink," Shakuni said. He poured one and then added, "And a woman."
"Not you too," Duryodhana said. "I get enough of that from Grandpa Bhisma."
Shakuni shook his head. Bhisma was pestering Duryodhana to settle down with a wife because it was his duty as a king, because he needed to produce an heir, and because his one hundred and one younger siblings weren't allowed to marry themselves until Duryodhana did so first, despite the fact that many were already engaged in extremely public romances on the side. But Shakuni had a more important reason to want Duryodhana to find someone. Shakuni had seen the lust in Duryodhana's eyes when he looked at Draupadi; he had watched Duryodhana stare at the console in his private study every single evening for months on end, impatiently flipping away from any channel that didn't show an image of Draupadi, his gaze fixed and cold. "You need to get over her," Shakuni said, handing Duryodhana a glass of wine.
Duryodhana looked startled. "Get over who?"
"What do you mean, 'get over her'? She's a whore. How dare you suggest that I would be…" He trailed off, then took the glass of wine from Shakuni's hand and finished grumpily, "She's probably already infested with diseases from Nakula."
Shakuni laughed. "And, so?" he asked, watching Duryodhana drink. "What are you going to do next? Wait for Yudhisthira and his brothers to drop dead from venereal diseases?" Shakuni watched Duryodhana carefully, gauging his reaction. "You're going to have to do something if you want to reunite your kingdom."
"I'm working on it," Duryodhana said. Then he added, "I spoke with Yudhisthira on Panchala. He's amazingly gullible, you know. And accommodating. He might even--"
"What? Just hand over Indraprastha to you?"
"He might. You don't know Yudhisthira like I do."
"I've at least observed him enough to note that he's changed," Shakuni said. "Yudhisthira has changed a lot since he gained Indraprastha. And now he has the Panchalan woman by his side, whispering into his ear every night, poisoning him against you. Do you think that she will ever give up Indraprastha to you?"
Duryodhana frowned again.
"When is the last time that you spoke to Yudhisthira, face-to-face?" Shakuni pressed.
"On Panchala," Duryodhana admitted. Then he added defensively, "We've been busy. And there's a time difference between here and Indraprastha. And--"
"That was months ago."
"There's an old saying," Shakuni said. " 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.' You have some advantages over Yudhisthira because you know him deeply. If you want to keep those advantages, you're going to have to stay in touch." He kept pressing. "Have you even been to Indraprastha yet?"
"Well. That reflects poorly on you."
"For diplomacy's sake. You really should make an appearance in Indraprastha."
"No," Duryodhana said quickly, "Not yet. I can't risk a confrontation with Yudhisthira in his own kingdom."
"But," Shakuni insisted, "You don't even know what that new kingdom looks or feels like. And you'd better know, because there's going to have to be a confrontation in the future." He poured Duryodhana another glass of wine. "Think of it as a reconnaissance mission. You need to scope out who Yudhisthira has become, what he's been up to, what sort of resources he has at his disposal. And a visit will be an important diplomatic gesture on your part."
Duryodhana swirled his wine thoughtfully in his glass. Finally he said, "If I go, you're coming with me."
Shakuni feigned surprise. "I am honored, Your Majesty."
"I'm sure you are," Duryodhana said, before dismissing Shakuni with a wave of his hand.
Shakuni bowed low, humbly, and left Duryodhana alone in his quarters. This was a step in the right direction, Shakuni mused. Shakuni was going to see Duryodhana, the sole and rightful ruler of this miserable fishing planet, recognized as the sole and rightful ruler of this miserable fishing planet, no matter what the cost. Shakuni was going to push and pull and drag Duryodhana toward a unified throne whether he liked it or not. Fortunately, Duryodhana seemed very keen on the idea of a unified throne. That was good. Shakuni could work with that.
Shakuni was going to unite his nephew's kingdom. And if he had to tear down Dhritarashtra, Yudhisthira, and all the rest of the foul Kurus in the process, then so be it.
There were always obstacles, though. Like the other people whom Duryodhana seemed to want to surround himself with. Distasteful people. Rude people. Disrespectful people.
"What are you doing out here?" Shakuni demanded, early the next morning, stomping across the dewy grass covering the sports field below Duryodhana's palace. "I've been calling your comm--"
"Oh! Sorry," Uluka said, shame-faced. "I turned it off. I--"
"I told him to turn off his comm," Karna said, calmly. "My apologies, Your Majesty." He bowed. "I did not want there to be distractions."
Shakuni bristled. At the time, it had seemed like a good decision to remove both himself and his son from the political situation on Gandhara, in order to enjoy an extended stay under Duryodhana's protection. But ever since Uluka had fallen in with Duryodhana's ill-bred friends, Shakuni was beginning to regret that decision.
Every morning Karna took his eldest son, Vrishasena, out to the archery range for tutoring. Uluka had begun to join them a few days ago. Karna had readily taken to training Shakuni's son in archery. And Shakuni didn't like that. But he could hardly say as much in front of Karna.
Vrishasena and Uluka were standing together in the grass, each holding a practice bow. Uluka had his head respectfully lowered, but Vrishasena did not. He peered at Shakuni with guarded eyes. Shakuni bristled again. He was the sovereign king of Gandhara. Vrishasena was the lowborn son of a low-ranking vassal king who wasn't even a real king. The astounding rudeness of the situation was—
"Did you need me, Father?" Uluka asked.
"Yes. I've arranged a tutor for you. Starting this morning."
"You're a prince. Until we return to Gandhara, you should at least be keeping up with your real studies. Put down that bow," he said.
Vrishasena watched Uluka slowly lower his bow with wide eyes. "Uluka," he said, his tiny round face both hurt and puzzled.
"I have to go," Uluka said.
"We can't practice together anymore?"
"Of course we can," Uluka said, reaching out to ruffle Vrishasena's curled hair. Vrishasena giggled and nearly dropped his bow. "Some other time, right?" Uluka said, glancing expectantly at both Karna and Shakuni in turn.
"Whatever time works for you," Karna answered, without waiting for Shakuni's permission.
"Thank you," Uluka said.
Shakuni reached for Uluka's hand, ready to drag him away from the scene, when suddenly he was stopped by a tug on his robes. He looked down, and saw that Vrishasena was pulling on his sleeve with his grubby little hands. "You're a king too!" Vrishasena exclaimed, apparently delighted.
"Don't--" Shakuni began to growl, but Vrishasena continued cheerfully. "That means that I know four kings!" Vrishasena mercifully let go of Shakuni's sleeve in order to count off on his hands. "I know Duryodhana, and Yudhissira, and Drupada, and you." He smiled up at Shakuni. "I don't have to go to school today! Because we're on the surface. I only have to go to school when we're in Anga."
Apparently having finally noticed that Shakuni was visibly bristling, Karna took Vrishasena's hand and pulled him away gently. "Sh, sh," he said. "Vrishasena, that's not the way that you behave in front of a king."
"It's not?" Vrishasena blinked up at his father. "But Duryodhana lets me--"
"Not every king is as nice as Duryodhana," Karna said.
Uluka laughed. Shakuni forced himself to laugh too, to at least let them know that he was in on the joke. "May I comm you later, sir?" Uluka asked Karna.
"When you get your schedule straightened out."
"Thank you," Uluka said again. Then he finally turned his attention toward Shakuni. "I'm ready to go, Father."
"Then let's go." Shakuni turned and walked briskly back toward the palace. Uluka followed close behind. When they were sufficiently out of Karna's earshot, Shakuni slowed down a step, waiting for Uluka to catch up. When Uluka was at his shoulder, Shakuni leaned his head toward his son and hissed at him, "You let them call you by name?!"
"Should I not?"
"You're a crown prince. They're lowborn commoners. They should know better than to act familiar with you. And you called that man sir?!"
"But he's my teacher!"
"A teacher of what? A useless sporting pastime?"
"I asked him to teach me." Uluka's eyes lit up. "He says I'm really good! And I can get even better!" Uluka glanced back over his shoulder, at the distant figure of Karna crouched behind Vrishasena, helping his son assume a proper stance and lift his tiny child's bow. Shakuni recognized the look in Uluka's eyes. It was hero-worship, plain and simple. Shakuni wanted to vomit. Uluka turned back toward his father. "Please, Father. I didn't know that this would make you angry."
Shakuni finally sighed. "I'm not angry at you. I'm sorry. But," he added, taking Uluka's hand, "you do need to keep up with your studies."
Uluka squeezed his father's hand. "I will," he promised. Then he made a face. "I miss studying with Nana, though." He continued to walk beside his father in silence for a few moments, then asked, "When can I see Nana again?"
"When we can go home."
"So how much longer do we have to stay in exile?"
Shakuni froze in mid-step. "We are not in exile."
"But we can't go back to Gandhara."
"We can soon." Shakuni let go of Uluka's hand. "We will soon. I promise you."
Uluka said nothing, but looked sadly up at the sky.
The preparations for the journey were going smoothly. Shakuni was pleased. Yudhisthira had been contacted and had enthusiastically agreed to host his cousin. A ship was being prepared to take them overseas. Gifts for Yudhisthira and his brothers were being prepared.
Everything was going smoothly, until the evening when Ashwatthama asked his question.
"How long will we be staying in Indraprastha?" Ashwatthama asked, as he gathered up the last of the supplies that he had used to clean and dress the statue of Shiva in Duryodhana's quarters. "Do you need me to bring anything in particular, Your Majesty?"
Duryodhana glanced over at Shakuni. Shakuni understood the question in Duryodhana's eyes; so he shook his head once, quickly. Duryodhana turned toward Ashwatthama and said briskly, "You're not coming."
Ashwatthama nearly dropped a vial of rose water that he was holding. "What?"
"I said, you're not coming. I need you to stay here with my father."
Ashwatthama stared at Duryodhana for a moment, his mouth hanging stupidly open. Then he said, "But I'm your priest. I'm supposed to travel with you everywhere."
"You're not my priest, you're my family's priest," Duryodhana said. "And I'm ordering you to stay here with my family."
Ashwatthama glanced once, coldly, in Shakuni's direction, then turned back toward Duryodhana. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, but that would go against protocol. You can't make a diplomatic visit without your priest." Ashwatthama's eyes were sharp, and his voice was even. Shakuni knew that the kid was smart, and that he understood what was really going on. Not that it did him any good.
"I can't make a diplomatic journey without a priest," Duryodhana corrected Ashwatthama. "Someone else from the High Council will accompany me."
Ashwatthama stared at the king again, then finally said, "Do I displease you, Your Majesty?"
"No," Duryodhana said. "But the rest of my family needs you. I can trust only you to look after them," he said. It was a lie, and they all knew it. But Ashwatthama could not say or do anything in the face of such an elegant lie. "You will stay here," Duryodhana repeated. "And now, Ashwatthama, you are dismissed. Leave me."
Ashwatthama gathered up his things and left, saying nothing.
When Ashwatthama was gone, Shakuni let out a small sigh of relief. "You handled that well," he said. "But I think your priest is angry. It was quite obvious that you were keeping him here just to spite Arjuna."
"Nah. Ashwatthama doesn't get angry. He took a vow never to feel anger." Duryodhana laughed. "What a little idiot." Then he mimicked Shakuni's sigh. "If it weren't for his Gift, I wouldn't even bother to keep him around."
"What is his Gift?"
Duryodhana shrugged. "I don't know. But it's yellow-level classified information. So it has to be good, right?" He smiled to himself, smugly. "I'll find out what it is eventually."
"I'm sure you will," Shakuni said. He stood and bowed his head to Duryodhana. "I must be retiring now."
Shakuni left, returning to the palace hallways that had grown quiet with the impending night. Shakuni walked through the palace for a while, thinking to himself, planning for the days ahead. He first began to sense that something was wrong when he was a security guard leaning his head against a wall, his face gray.
Shakuni passed by the guard and said nothing. If the foolish guard was too ill to be on duty, he really out to be making a comm call as soon as possible, Shakuni thought.
Shakuni walked a bit further, passing by a few more guards and servants. Then he saw another one who looked sick. This one was leaning over slightly, clutching her head, while a co-worker held her shoulders and asked what was wrong.
"Great. A plague," Shakuni muttered to himself. He stepped out of the palace and into a sunset-lit patch of garden, grateful for the chance to breathe in some fresh air.
That was when he heard the whispering.
I'mincontrol I'mincontrol I'mincontrol I'mincontrol
It was coming from everywhere, all around.
Shakuni stepped forward, between two trees. Then he quickly stepped back, lurking behind one of the trees. He saw Ashwatthama sitting on a bench, his bag of murti supplies discarded at his feet. His left hand was a fist clenched in his lap, his right hand clawing at his own thigh. His head was bowed low, and Shakuni couldn't see his face. But he could hear the whispering.
"I'm not upset. I'm in control. I'm not upset. I'm in control. I'm not upset. I'm in control." Over and over again. A mantra.
A useless mantra, apparently. Shakuni could feel something building up in the air all around him. An electricity. An energy. It felt hungry, and angry.
Suddenly Ashwatthama wasn't chanting anymore. He was breathing, heavily, like a drowning man. His head still bowed, one hand still clenched, the other hand still clawing at his own clothes and skin and flesh. "It's not time yet," he finally croaked. Then, "Go. Back. To. SLEEP!"
The last was a hiss that sliced through the electrified air, a verbal knife shredding the last slithers of writhing energy that Shakuni had felt crawling on his skin. Within moments, it was over. The air was calm again. There was nothing supernatural going on. There was just the light of the setting sun casting the entire garden in an eerie glow.
"Who's there?" Ashwatthama suddenly called out.
Shakuni stepped out from behind his tree, grinning sheepishly. "My apologies," he said, smooth and polite as could be. "I was taking an evening stroll and I thought I heard--"
"Did I make you sick?" Ashwatthama asked, brusquely. He was sitting on the bench in a normal position now, his hands folded neatly in his lap, his back straight, his head high. But he looked even paler than usual.
Shakuni blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Do you feel unwell, Your Majesty?"
"No, I…. I feel fine."
"Good." Ashwatthama sighed. "Sometimes it just builds up so much energy, and I can't contain it all, and it tries to jump out of me and into other people but it just makes them…" He trailed off, then shook his head. "At least I didn't make myself sick this time," he mumbled to himself.
Shakuni said nothing. When a moment passed and Shakuni realized that Ashwatthama was merely waiting for him to leave, he turned around and did so without another word.
Shakuni debated asking Duryodhana if he knew the meaning behind Ashwatthama's strange words. But then he decided against it. Duryodhana already had his hands full, preparing for a diplomatic visit to what was clearly enemy territory, no matter how much certain parties may be in denial of that fact. The last thing that Duryodhana needed was more unnecessary distractions.
Finally, everything was packed. Finally, everyone was on board. Finally, the ship was ready to set sail. Uluka was leaning over a deck railing, waving wildly to some servants on the docks below. "Goodbye!" he called out. "Good-by-y-y-e!"
"You'll fall," Shakuni said. "And then the sea monsters will eat you."
"I can take them," Uluka said, flexing his arm muscles. "I'm strong."
"I know you are," Shakuni said with a laugh. He gently pulled Uluka down from the railing. "But you are also, unfortunately, extraordinarily tasty."
"Yes, you are. Those redfin would be all over you in an instant."
Uluka licked his own hand, pondering this.
Suddenly Shakuni's comm buzzed, loudly. "I have to go," he said, flipping it open just long enough to confirm what he already knew: the identity of his caller. "Go find your tutor," he told Uluka.
Shakuni found Duryodhana surrounded by aides, each holding an angrily buzzing comm unit out to him. "I've got that idiot Drona on one line still trying to yell at me about assigning Ashwatthama to a temple visit in Anga tomorrow," Duryodhana said, jabbing his thumb angrily in the direction of one aide, "and that idiot Arjuna on another line trying to ask about the same thing, and now I've got a call from Yudhisthira--"
"Take the one from Yudhisthira," Shakuni said quickly. "He won't want to talk about the Panchalans."
Duryodhana took one comm unit, then plugged it into a wall monitor and switched it on. "Yeah, I'm here," he said.
"I heard that you've already set sail!" Yudhisthira's voice came from the wall-speakers. "We're looking forward to your arrival. We--"
"Why did you call me?" Duryodhana snapped, impatiently. He motioned for his aides to leave the room, and they did. But Shakuni stayed.
"Ah… It may be too late to address this now, but… Arjuna is awfully upset that you refused the extension of our invitation to Ashwatthama."
Duryodhana shot Shakuni a cold glare. Shakuni shrugged, a bit sheepishly. Then Duryodhana turned his attention back to the speakers. "I know that Arjuna's upset. He's trying to call me right now."
Shakuni heard footsteps from beyond the speakers, and a brief scuffling noise. Then Yudhisthira's voice, barely audible, coming from a great distance. "Arjuna, I'm on the line with him now… No, I told you to drop it…. Put down the comm, Arjuna, I told you I would – No, I will not…. Fine. We can continue this conversation later. I'm on the comm right now." Then another brief pause, the sound of footsteps again. Then Yudhisthira's voice was back, loud and strong and as clear as before. "Er, my apologies," he said. "I specifically told Arjuna not to bother you about this."
"And yet you are."
"Duryodhana, why not let--?"
"Because there's a very important festival in Anga tomorrow, and I told Ashwatthama to officiate. I'm sorry. This was planned months in advance. I can't pull my head priest out of the Angan festival at the last minute. You know how rude that would be."
"….Months in advance, was it?"
"Yes," Duryodhana said, even though both he and Shakuni knew that Ashwatthama had likely been in contact with Arjuna, and had likely told him otherwise. Which would have been the truth. And Arjuna would have told Yudhisthira. And Yudhisthira surely would have understood what was really going on.
Now, the only question was how far Yudhisthira would push the matter. How much guts he really had. How much he was willing to risk confronting Duryodhana with his own blatant lies, and whether or not Yudhisthira believed that Ashwatthama was worth risking a fight over.
"Well," Yudhisthira said, slowly. "If that is the case, then… I'm sorry to have bothered you. Duryodhana, you should have told me about the festival earlier."
Shakuni chuckled to himself. Same old spineless Yudhisthira. This visit was going to be easier than Shakuni had hoped in the first place.
"Yeah, sorry. I've been busy. Look, I have to go. I'll call you again when we get close to port." Without waiting for Yudhisthira's response, Duryodhana brusquely shut off the comm unit. Then he turned to Shakuni and said, "Diplomacy-wise, I'm beginning to think that keeping Ashwatthama in Hastinapura was a bad idea."
"No. It was the right idea," Shakuni said. "Whether a spoiled prince like Arjuna wants to play with his little friend or not, that's irrelevant. What matter is that Ashwatthama learns that you're his boss – and that you're the one who controls his schedule. He has to learn that he has a job to do, and duties to fulfill."
"A job to do and duties to fulfill, huh?" Duryodhana turned toward Shakuni. "And what is your duty to me?"
"I will do everything in my power to ensure that your kingdom is united, and that you will reign from your rightful throne," Shakuni said, bowing his head humbly. "I promise you that."
"Hmm," Duryodhana said. "Good answer."
There were peasants waiting for them at the port. Low-born, unclean fishermen. Yudhisthira was there, too, and he proudly introduced a weathered village elder named Kritavarma to Duryodhana. Duryodhana actually bowed to the old man and made a show of respect. It was a good show. Even Shakuni, who knew a liar when he saw one, could believe in it.
Their party spent the night in the fishing village, being feasted and entertained by the peasants. Uluka listened wide-eyed as the fishermen regaled him with stories of fighting sea monsters. Shakuni pretended to listen to everyone and listened to no-one, save for Yudhisthira.
The next day, they finally set out for the city.
"We'll take the long route," Yudhisthira said, climbing into an RTV beside Duryodhana and Shakuni. "The view is more dramatic that way." He was smiling and cheerful. His eyes were brighter and sharper than Shakuni remembered. His complexion was different too, sun-darkened and smoother. Shakuni wasn't sure if he was imagining things, but Yudhisthira seemed to even have a little bit more meat on his bones than he recalled from before. Even at the wedding on Panchala, Yudhisthira had seemed slightly emaciated. He had always seemed slightly emaciated. But now that was no longer the case.
Their procession of RTVs climbed up a mountain ridge past a line of trees. "Here it is," Yudhisthira said, leaning slightly out of the RTV and pointing enthusiastically.
Suddenly the trees fell away, and the valley of Indraprastha was spread out before them. The view was breathtaking. A city of gold and silver, gleaming and new, surrounded in green, nestled in between two mountains. Looming over the city was an almost indescribable royal palace, composed of gleaming towers that rose in all sorts of disorganized, chaotic shapes; it was truly a building designed by architects not of this world. A moment's glance at the view of the city revealed other treasures: a calm canal lined with boats, public parks everywhere, fountains and flowers, and very little traffic on the streets or in the skys. At the base of the valley, a broad road connected the city to the rest of the continent – what little of it there was. There were a few cars on the road, a dozen hoverers in the sky above it, and nothing more.
Shakuni heard Duryodhana make a strange, strangled sound in the back of his throat.
"Neat, isn't it?" Yudhisthira said with a grin.
Shakuni wasn't sure if Yudhisthira was going to throw a parade in their honor, or simply slip them into the city while keeping a low profile. After the antics of the fishermens' village the previous night, Shakuni wasn't sure that he could stomach any more of these simple peasants' celebrations. Fortunately, they slipped into the city – and into the palace – relatively quietly. Shakuni and Duryodhana disembarked from their RTVs and were led into a splendid golden hall, where Draupadi was waiting for them. Yudhisthira walked right up to her and kissed her, and she laughed. Shakuni pretended not to notice Duryodhana quickly looking away from the spectacle, his expression dark. Then Draupadi turned and bowed her head slightly to Duryodhana. "Welcome, Your Majesty."
"It's an honor." Duryodhana, all charm and grace again, stepped smoothly forward and kissed her hand.
"Oh, my." Draupadi turned to Yudhisthira. "Are you going to let him get away with that?" she asked, teasingly.
"Hmm." Yudhisthira tapped his chin, thoughtfully. "Technically, I don't think that either of us has the authority to behead the other."
Duryodhana laughed, and clapped Yudhisthira on the shoulder. "See? I knew you had a sense of humor."
Shakuni rolled his eyes. Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice. Uluka stepped forward and bowed in front of Draupadi, mimicking Duryodhana. "Thank you for inviting my father and me," Uluka said, just as Shakuni had told him to do so earlier.
"It's my pleasure," Draupadi said, bending over so that she could look Uluka in the eye. "I haven't seen you since my wedding!" she said. "You look very handsome, Your Highness."
Uluka was beaming. "Mr. Kritavarma gave this to me!" he said, showing off the new ring that the villagers had honored him with the previous night.
"This way," Yudhisthira said. "I'll show you to your quarters." He led them and their entourage of aides through the hallways of the palace. The inside of the palace generally looked unremarkable – save for the occasional door that seemed to lead nowhere, the semi-transparent walls, and the occasional painting or sculpture that was clearly not of this world. Uluka stared wide-eyed at one painting, and when Yudhisthira noticed, he laughed and said, "A gandharva gave us that painting."
Uluka's eyes went even wider.
Finally, they arrived at their quarters. Shakuni's aides immediately took charge of unloading their luggage. Yudhisthira clapped his hands and said, "Well, I have to be off. Dinner in an hour. I told Bhima to be on his best behavior, so you should have nothing to worry about. Do you need anything?"
"No, we're good." Duryodhana quickly embraced his cousin, then pulled back. "Thank you for all of this, really."
Yudhisthira shook his head. "It's my pleasure. I've missed you."
"You're a king and a newlywed. You're not supposed to have time to miss me. Now go, shoo. We can take care of ourselves."
Yudhisthira left. Shakuni handed Uluka over to an aide and told him to settle Uluka into his own room. Then Shakuni and Duryodhana were left alone, in the beautiful study that was a part of Duryodhana's private guest quarters.
Duryodhana placed his hand on the back of a chair. Then he lifted his hand, and lowered it to the surface of a small table, placing his palm flat against it. He hissed through his teeth, then lifted up his hand again, and this time touched a wall.
"What are you doing?" Shakuni asked.
"Can't you feel that?" Duryodhana asked.
"This place… It's made entirely of maya…"
Shakuni rolled his eyes. "Feels fine to me."
Duryodhana lifted his hand and looked at Shakuni for a long time. He was getting good at hiding his thoughts, Shakuni observed, a bit ruefully. Duryodhana's face was blank, and his eyes were guarded. Shakuni couldn't tell what he was thinking. Finally Duryodhana shook his head and mumbled, "It must be my imagination. Sorry." Then he pulled out his comm unit and dialed. "I have to talk to Dusshasana. You should unpack."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
Shakuni finished overseeing his own servants settle his things into his room, and was back in Duryodhana's study less than half an hour later. When Shakuni entered, Duryodhana was pacing back and forth across the room, a comm held to his ear, saying, "Yes… Yes. I does feel that way. I don't know how to describe it… Like a feedback loop. It makes me feel…" He trailed off, and saw Shakuni standing in his doorway. "Stronger," he said, and then clicked off the comm unit.
"I'm sorry," Shakuni said. "Did I interrupt your call to Dusshasana?"
"Hmm? No. I was talking to Yuyutsu." Duryodhana must have noticed the mixed look of disgust and disbelief that Shakuni was helpless to prevent from momentarily crossing his face, so he quickly said, "It was nothing important." He put away his comm unit, and pulled Shakuni into the study, closing the door behind him. "Listen," he said. "This place…" He trailed off, frowning, as if unsure how to continue.
Shakuni waited patiently.
"It's like a focal point," Duryodhana said. "Of maya."
"Which is why it shouldn't belong to Yudhisthira!" Duryodhana hissed. "He's part deva! He doesn't belong inside these walls. This palace was never meant to be his."
"So…" Shakuni did not like the wild look in Duryodhana's eyes. "Are you saying that it should belong to you?"
"Yes! This place was made for me. It…" He trailed off again, frowning to himself, still unsure what to say. Shakuni really didn't like the wild, desperate look in Duryodhana's eyes now. He liked Duryodhana's usual way of thinking. He wanted Duryodhana to want the kingdom that he deserved. But Shakuni needed Duryodhana to stay calm, and to keep focused. This new wild energy of his was unpredictable – potentially explosive, but also potentially useless.
"I can feel it," Duryodhana finally said. "It's kind of hard to explain, but I can feel it in my bones, down deep inside of me. This palace – this city – they've been waiting for me."
"Of course," Shakuni said brusquely. Then he looked at his watch pointedly. "Being late for dinner, however, will not do much to help you with your cause."
"Oh. Right." Duryodhana straightened up his dinner jacket and brushed back his hair with his hand. The transformation was instantaneous. He was once again calm, cool, collected, and in control. "Is Uluka coming with us?"
"I sent him ahead with the nanny." Shakuni finally managed to get Duryodhana out the door and into a hallway. Two aides from Yudhisthira's court flanked them as they walked toward the dining hall. "Uluka seems to be enjoying himself," Shakuni said, conversationally. "But, you know, he's easily impressed."
Duryodhana laughed. Good, Shakuni thought. He was supposed to look like he was having fun. Neither he nor Shakuni were supposed to betray by their facial expressions the fact that they were about to dine in dangerous enemy territory.
The two of them stepped into a great, open-air hall with a pool in the center and breezy balconies lining both sides. "Nice place," Duryodhana said, glancing around appreciatively. Shakuni did not miss the hunger in his eyes, though. "It reminds me of--"
Then his face smashed into what seemed like thin air.
Duryodhana stumbled backward, holding his nose, cursing. "What in the--?"
"It's glass," Shakuni said, placing his hand on the solid but invisible wall in front of them. "I think." He turned toward the two aides and snapped angrily, "What is the meaning of this?!"
The aides looked flabbergasted. "There was not a wall there this morning," one of the aides said.
"But sometimes…" The other aide glanced nervously at Duryodhana. "Sometimes this palace is tricky, Your Majesty."
"Tricky, huh." Shakuni ran his hand along the glass wall until he found an opening. "Come on," he said to Duryodhana. "Do you need medical attention, or should we--?"
"I'm fine," Duryodhana said, holding his head high, sniffing back a drop of blood from his nose. "It's nothing. Let's go." Then Duryodhana stepped through the opening in the glass wall and straight into the pool in the center of the hall.
Shakuni blinked, stunned. The pool in the center of the hall happened to be at least twenty steps in front of him. Yet there Duryodhana was, coughing and spluttering as he struggled to climb out of the pool, which certainly didn't look as if it could possibly have been that deep—
"Your Majesty!" Shakuni exclaimed, rushing forward – it took him several leaping steps, he noted – to the edge of the pool. "Are you--?"
"No, I am NOT all right," Duryodhana snapped, grabbing Shakuni's arm and using it to pull himself out of the pool. His clothes were soaked, his hair dripping, his face twisted with fury. He managed to get himself completely out of the pool, then turned around, and dipped his hand into the water. It was only as deep as his wrist. Yet mere moments before, he had been sunk into deep water up to his neck. He lifted his hand and muttered, "What in the hell…?"
Suddenly, there was the sound of a door slamming, and footsteps. Yudhisthira burst into the hall from the other end. He took one look at Duryodhana, and his eyes went wide. His hands flew to his mouth in horror. "What happened to you?!" he asked. Behind him were a handful of aides, one holding a comm that was still turned on. Shakuni saw Draupadi and Yudhisthira's brothers stepping into the hall behind him, gawking like idiots.
"I don't know what happened to me," Duryodhana said, standing up angrily, managing to splash Shakuni in the process. "I was walking and then I--"
And then Duryodhana was in the center of the pool again.
For a moment, Shakuni continued to blink stupidly at the sight in front of him, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Duryodhana had been standing beside him a moment before. And now, Duryodhana was in the center of the pool again. Only this time, the pool was shallow, and he was standing in water that was only as deep as his ankles. Duryodhana also blinked, stupidly, as if he couldn't quite comprehend how or why he had just been moved from point A to point B.
"Whoa," said Nakula.
Duryodhana stood in the center of the pool, his feet soaked through, his fists trembling with rage. "I demand to know--!" he began, but never finished, because at that moment, something beneath his feet shifted. Duryodhana slipped, dramatically, and landed on his rear with a comic splash.
For a moment, there was nothing but stunned silence in the hall.
Then Shakuni heard laughter.
It was Draupadi, standing at Yudhisthira's side, her hand clapped over her mouth, her shoulders trembling, trying and failing to contain her giggles. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice trembling to match her shoulders, "I'm sorry, it's just--"
"Just the funniest thing I've seen in my entire life," Nakula stated, deadpan.
And that did it. Draupadi, Yudhisthira's brothers, and the aides in the hall all burst into raucous laughter. Draupadi was clutching her stomach and nearly bent over, she was laughing so hard; Bhima's bellowing laughter seemed to shake the walls themselves; Arjuna had one hand on Sahadeva's shoulder and the two of them were giggling uncontrollably, like little girls. Shakuni looked over at Duryodhana, who was still sitting on his arse in the middle of the reflecting pool, his wet clothes stuck to his body in sodden lumps, his face twisting and darkening with rage.
Then Shakuni looked at Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira clapped one hand over his mouth and chuckled, softly.
Shakuni saw that Duryodhana saw that, too.
Duryodhana stood up quickly, hissing, his teeth bared. "Stop laughing!" he shouted. "Stop laughing!"
The laughing stopped, abruptly. Yudhisthira finally had the good grace to look horrified again. He stepped toward Duryodhana, his hands outstretched. "Calm down," he said. "It's just the palace acting up. It happens sometimes. Please don't be angry. Look, we'll get you a change of clothes, some nice wine…" He trailed off when he saw the look on Duryodhana's face. Then he forced himself to smile, somewhat unconvincingly. "Come on," he said. "You know we'll both be laughing about this as soon as--"
"I fail to see," Duryodhana said, through clenched teeth, "just what is so funny about this." He waded across the reflecting pool toward Yudhisthira, and then stepped out slowly, his demeanor dark and menacing. Shakuni had never seen him so angry before. "Is this the way that your palace treats its guests?"
Yudhisthira opened his mouth to answer, but suddenly, from behind him, came Sahadeva's voice. "No," Sahadeva said. "This is how the palace punishes people." He stepped forward, somberly. "If one of us says or does something bad, we get punished. The same thing happened to Nakula when he tried to take apart a weather vane--"
"It wasn't the same, it was worse," Nakula said with a derisive snort. Then he turned toward Duryodhana. "Look, it happens to all of us sometimes. Except to Yudhisthira, but whatever. You've got to just laugh it off, okay? There's no use being a prick about it."
"You must've said or done something that the palace didn't like," Arjuna pointed out, redundantly.
"This is crazy," Duryodhana spluttered, "and you're crazy!" he added, inelegantly. Then he snarled at Yudhisthira, "If your horrible maya palace had a habit of randomly attacking people, you could have at least warned me!"
"No, no, it's not like that at all," Yudhisthira said, soothing and pleadingly at the same time, "It's just the maya, it's just trying to have a little fun with you. Listen, about that wine--"
"No," Draupadi said, loudly, from behind Yudhisthira. "This isn't one of the maya's little pranks." She turned her cold eyes toward Duryodhana. "You must have done something, I mean really done something sinful, in order to earn this punishment. What did you do?"
"Draupadi, that's enough," Yudhisthira said, a bit tersely. Draupadi, however, tossed her hair over her shoulder in a gesture clearly dismissive of Yudhisthira's reprimand. Yudhisthira chose to ignore this. He turned back toward Duryodhana, all pleading and pleasing again. "I am so, so sorry about this," he said. "And look at you, you're shivering. We have to get you out of those clothes. Come on," Yudhisthira said, gently taking Duryodhana's hand and leading him away from the pool. "I really do have a lovely wine that I'd like you to try. We can--"
That was when Duryodhana's foot smashed into something unseen, and he fell sprawling to the ground, nearly dragging Yudhisthira with him.
"Blind as a bat and as stupid, too," Draupadi said, loudly. "Just like his father."
Bhima and the others burst into laughter again. Yudhisthira glanced around helplessly, panicked, unsure of what to do, too incompetent to even offer Duryodhana a hand. Duryodhana staggered back to his feet, his face bright red, his entire body trembling with rage. Shakuni suddenly had the sense – a gut feeling, really – that something terrible was about to happen. It was Duryodhana. Something was building up, inside and around Duryodhana. Something angry. Something powerful.
Suddenly it was very, very cold in the hall.
Shakuni rushed forward, grabbed Duryodhana's shoulders, and pulled him away and out of the hallway as fast he could, before something disastrous – although he wasn't sure exactly what – could happen. "We won't be coming to dinner!" Shakuni shouted over his shoulder and he and Duryodhana hurriedly left the hall, still filled with the stinging sounds of laughter, behind them.
"Did you see that?!" Duryodhana snarled, tearing off his wet clothes and tossing them angrily around his quarters, "Did you see that?!" He tore at his wet hair, almost mindless with rage. "Did you hear what that bitch said about MY FATHER?!"
"I heard," Shakuni said, "and if you don't lower your voice, I'm going to have to pay off every guard in this wing of the palace to prevent them from leaking to the tabloids that you just called Indraprastha's queen a--"
"I AM NOT SHOUTING!"
"You're right. I'd say that 'screaming like a gandharva with its hand chopped off' would be the more accurate term."
Duryodhana finally shut his mouth. He stood, silent and half-naked, breathing heavily, his entire body trembling with barely-contained rage. "They can't treat me like this," he said. "The can't get away with this."
And slowly, Shakuni began to grin. He could see everything that he needed to know in Duryodhana's eyes. It was time to take Yudhisthira down. And Duryodhana was finally willing to do it. "You're right," Shakuni agreed, again. "And we won't let them get away with this."
Duryodhana paused in the middle of toweling off his hair. "Yeah? How so?"
Shakuni was about to answer, but then the comm unit buried in a pile of Duryodhana's wet clothes started buzzing loudly. Shakuni shook his head at Duryodhana. Answering that call would be a bad idea right now. But Duryodhana, clearly intent on ignoring Shakuni's advice, picked up the comm unit and clicked it on. "What?" he snapped, tersely. He listened for a moment, then his face grew thunderously dark. "No," he hissed. "No, we won't be coming back for dinner. In fact, we won't be staying here a moment longer. As soon as I get some dry clothes on, we're leaving. Got it?" Without waiting for a response, Duryodhana clicked off the comm.
Shakuni nodded, somberly. "This is the right decision," he said. Duryodhana would do well to stick up for himself, and to refuse to stay where he was clearly disrespected and unwelcome.
"You're going to have to tell Uluka that we're leaving," Duryodhana said, tossing aside his comm unit.
"In a moment," Shakuni said, quickly. "Right now, you and I need to talk." And they needed to talk right away, Shakuni understood instinctively. They needed to talk while Duryodhana's anger was still sharp and his humiliation still fresh in his mind. They needed to talk while Shakuni could still turn that anger and humiliation into forward momentum.
"What about?" Duryodhana asked, a bit impatiently.
"I know how to destroy Yudhisthira," Shakuni said, bluntly.
Duryodhana's eyes widened. "I can't kill him," he said. "We'd never get away with it."
Shakuni almost felt like laughing. He was impressed that murder was the first place that Duryodhana's thoughts went to. "No," Shakuni said. "We're not going to kill anybody. In fact, we're not even going to hurt Yudhisthira. Not physically. All we have to do is publically humiliate him, ensure that his own followers loathe him, strip him of his kingdom and all of his worldly possessions, and then hand everything that Yudhisthira once owned over to you, where it rightfully belongs."
Duryodhana snorted. "You make it sound so easy."
"It is easy."
"All right. How?"
"With these," Shakuni said, pulling a small lacquered box, no larger than his thumb, from the pocket inside his robes where he always, always kept it safe and hidden.
"What is that?" Duryodhana asked.
Shakuni glanced to his left, then to his right. They were alone in the room, but still… "Not here," Shakuni said. "If these walls can attack you, then they can also listen to us." He slipped the box back inside his robes. "If you'll excuse me," he said, rather loudly, "I have to find Uluka. You and I can continue this conversation once we're seabound, Your Majesty."
Shakuni left Duryodhana with a hungry, curious look in his eyes. That was good, Shakuni thought. No, better than good. That was perfect.
Duryodhana had finally been pushed over the edge. And Yudhisthira was finally doomed.
Yudhisthira stood between them and the RTVs, blocking their escape. "Duryodhana, I can't let you leave like this," Yudhisthira said, calmly, refusing to wither under the murderous glare that Duryodhana was giving him. "I can't let you leave with something this awful still hanging between us. I cannot do so as a king, I cannot do so as a host, and I cannot do so as your cousin!"
"This is a fine time for you to be throwing those words back at us," Shakuni said, coldly. "Where was your generous hospitality when you stood back and allowed your cursed palace to attack Duryodhana? Where was your sense of familial loyalty when you laughed at Duryodhana's injuries? Where was your royal dignity when you allowed your queen to insult my honorable brother-in-law? You've already failed as a king, as a host, and as a cousin."
Yudhisthira regarded Shakuni evenly. "I beg your pardon," he said, "but I was speaking to Duryodhana."
Shakuni saw red. How dare he! How dare he! How dare that damn fisherman king – that filthy usurper – that pathetic Kuru – how dare he speak to the king of Gandhara like that!
And how dare he finally grow a spine, after all of these years!
Shakuni swallowed his trembling rage, and forced himself not snap back at the idiot king. He was well aware of the fact that Uluka and all of his servants were watching him with wide eyes. Outwardly, Shakuni remained calm. Inwardly, however, he was seething. This was not the Yudhisthira that Shakuni remembered from before, not at all. This was a new Yudhisthira, a stronger Yudhisthira. A more threatening Yudhisthira.
Shakuni knew in that moment that he and Duryodhana had no more time to lose. They had to destroy Yudhisthira, and soon. This new Yudhisthira was unpredictably powerful, and therefore unpredictably treacherous. He was an obstacle standing in the way of the reunification of the Kuru kingdom. He had to be removed as soon as possible.
Thankfully, for the time being, Duryodhana was still every bit as strong and as stubborn as he had ever been, which still made him stronger and more stubborn by far than Yudhisthira was. "Move aside, Yudhisthira," Duryodhana said, his demeanor calm, but his voice dark with implied threats. "If you truly do value the relationship between us, then stand aside and let my uncle and I leave now. I refuse to stay in any palace where I am clearly unwelcome. And if I have to spend even one more moment anywhere near Draupadi or Bhima or you, then I very well might say or do something that I would reallyregret."
Yudhisthira looked as if he'd been slapped across the face by Duryodhana's words. "Did you just say that you cannot stand to be around me?"
"I did just say that, yes." Duryodhana's eyes narrowed. "Why would I believe for even a second that the feeling isn't mutual? Your palace attacked me, remember? Clearly you don't want me around, therefore I no longer wish to be around you. Let me leave, Yudhisthira, and we can easily solve both of our problems."
"Duryodhana, please!" Yudhisthira begged. "Please don't say such horrible things! That you would even think that I wanted to cast you out of my own palace, I--"
"If it wasn't you, then it must have been Draupadi or one of your brothers who didn't want me here anymore," Duryodhana said, calmly. "Or do you have some other explanation for the insults that your very palace itself just inflicted upon me?"
Yudhisthira shook his head, miserably. "I have no other explanation," he said.
Shakuni realized that the pathetic king looked miserable precisely because he could no longer deny the truth behind Duryodhana's words. The other members of Yudhisthira's disgusting family clearly did loathe Duryodhana, and clearly did not want him to stay in their enchanted palace. Yudhisthira, hypocritically righteous as he was, could not lie to Duryodhana about that part, nor could he deny the truth of it.
So much for growing a spine, then.
Inwardly, Shakuni was relieved to see Yudhisthira suddenly deflated. Just when he had been fearing that Yudhisthira had grown strong enough to be a serious threat, along came Yudhisthira's self-destructive sense of honesty to turn his steely resolve into spoiled mush.
Shakuni had little patience for useless honesty. Honesty had never gotten him anywhere in life, after all. Honesty was a weakness. An honest king was a weak, unworthy king. Yudhisthira was a weak, unworthy king. Honesty was what had made Yudhisthira laugh at Duryodhana's fall in the pool, and honesty was what had driven Draupadi to say those heinous things that she had said about Shakuni's admittedly heinous brother-in-law. That was behavior deeply unbecoming of a king and a queen. As far as Shakuni was concerned, Yudhisthira's honesty proved more than anything that he needed to be removed from his throne as soon as possible
"Stand aside, Yudhisthira," Duryodhana said, "or I will have my bodyguards push you aside. I hope that it will not have to come to that, especially not in front of Uluka," Duryodhana said, casting a meaningful glance at Shakuni's wide-eyed, frightened son. "But the choice is yours."
Yudhisthira looked Duryodhana straight in the eye. "You are making a mistake, Duryodhana," he said. "You should not leave Indraprastha like this." But nevertheless, he finally stood aside.
That was it, then. The confrontation was over. Duryodhana walked silently past Yudhisthira, and climbed into a waiting RTV. Shakuni took Uluka's hand and followed Duryodhana. Behind them came their servants and bodyguards, carrying their luggage.
Yudhisthira stood still and did not say another word, watching in horror as Uluka and Shakuni somberly climbed into the RTV behind Duryodhana. Uluka, at least, was genuinely somber. Shakuni had to work hard to disguise his elation as somberness.
The engine of the RTV rumbled to life. The sound of the engine seemed to panic Yudhisthira. So the stupid, incompetent, useless king mustered up his courage for one last round of begging. "Duryodhana, listen to me," he said, grabbing onto the RTV door nearest to where Duryodhana was sitting. "You can't leave like this! Neither of us will be able to--"
"I really don't care what the tabloids will say or what kind of rumors your staff will spread," Duryodhana said, coolly. "All I know is that I'm not going to stay where I'm not welcome." And then, without waiting for a reply from Yudhisthira, Duryodhana snapped his fingers at the RTV driver. The vehicle rumbled away, out into the city streets.
Shakuni glanced in the driver's mirror and caught a glimpse of Yudhisthira standing behind them, receding in the distance. Yudhisthira stood and watched them leave with his usual helpless, hopeless expression on his face. He was an utterly useless king, too incompetent to do anything but whine and beg and then stand and watch silently when things didn't go his way. Shakuni felt a knot of disgust twist in his stomach when he saw Yudhisthira just standing there like a drooling idiot.
Well, at least Indraprastha wouldn't be saddled with such a useless king for much longer.
They were able to reach the coast and set sail that night. Uluka, however, seemed quite disappointed to be back on board the ship, and heading back to Hastinapura.
"Why did we have to leave so early?" he finally asked, having saved up the question until the moment when Shakuni was tucking him into bed.
"Because Yudhisthira and his family said some mean things to us," Shakuni said.
Uluka's chin trembled. "But… they're our family…." He settled morosely down into his blankets. "Family isn't supposed to hurt each other."
Shakuni, sitting on the edge of Uluka's bed, looked down at his son for a long, long time. Then he said quietly, "I love you, Uluka."
Uluka's face lit up into a brilliant smile. "I love you too, Papa."
"And in some ways, I hope that you never grow up," Shakuni said. Then he stood up and stepped out of Uluka's room, closing the door behind him quietly.
Shakuni returned to his own quarters, only to find Duryodhana already there, waiting with a bottle of wine and two glasses. "He's too old for you to be tucking him in at night," Duryodhana said, bluntly.
"He's only eleven," Shakuni said. "And in a sense, he's still young for his age."
"You like to keep him that way, don't you?" Duryodhana said, pouring a glass of wine. "What, are you afraid that if he grows up, he'll finally start to figure out your – and his – political situation?"
Shakuni accepted the glass that Duryodhana offered him. "You didn't come here just to psychoanalyze my parenting and discuss my political situation, did you?" he asked, a bit more snappishly than he intended to.
Duryodhana regarded Shakuni evenly for a moment, then poured himself a glass of wine, and said, "You're right." Then he set down the wine bottle and said, "So, show me this thing of yours. This thing that can destroy Yudhisthira. And," Duryodhana added, gesturing angrily with his wine class, "it had better be good. And I mean foolproof. If we try to screw up Yudhisthira and don't get it right the first time, we won't get a second chance. And I'll lose everything."
"I know," Shakuni said. "Believe me, I know how high the stakes are. And I wouldn't be showing you this," he said, pulling his box out of his robes again, "if I didn't know that it would work."
Shakuni opened the box, and shook out its contents into his palm.
Duryodhana raised one eyebrow, incredulous. "Dice?" He nearly spilled his wine again. "You think I can ruin Yudhisthira with a pair of dice?!"
"These aren't just a pair of dice," Shakuni said. "These are a pair of dice that never, ever lose."
Duryodhana gave him a bemused look. "Riiiiiiight."
"These dice," Shakuni said somberly, "are carved from the bones of my father. Your grandfather. They were made by an asura and given to me in exchange for… a price. But they never lose. These dice always do my bidding. Which, unfortunately, is why I can't actually use them all that often," Shakuni said, with a rueful chuckle. "If I used these dice all the time, I'd be accused of cheating far more often than I already am."
Duryodhana was still looking at Shakuni as if he thought that this uncle had finally gone senile. "You've had contact with an asura," he said. "Sure you have."
"Do you find that so hard to believe?"
"Asuras are extinct."
"And yet your cousin met one, and that asura turned around and built him an enchanted palace," Shakuni pointed out, calmly. "Asuras are still among us, Duryodhana. And if there's one thing that your cousin Yudhisthira and I share in common, it's this: we have both been served, and served well, by the powers of an asura."
Duryodhana gave Shakuni a long, hard, unreadable look. Then, slowly, he stretched out his free hand, and let it hover above Shakuni's open palm where the dice were sitting. Something seemed to light up in Duryodhana's eyes. He reached down, scooped up the dice from Shakuni's hand, and held them in his clenched fist. Now his face looked simply amazed, his eyes full of wonder. "You're telling the truth," Duryodhana whispered. "I can feel--" Then he shook his head, quickly, cutting off his own sentence. "You're right," he finally said, returning the dice to Shakuni's hand. Then, slowly, Duryodhana began to grin. "I'm listening," he said.
"Say, for example, Yudhisthira," Shakuni continued, after taking a sip of his wine. "Everybody knows that he has a gambling problem. If you challenge him to a game of dice and let me roll on your behalf, using these babies, then… Well, then Yudhisthira will be finished. He won't stop betting until he's lost everything. And nobody will suspect any sort of cheating or intervention on our behalf, because they know that Yudhisthira's an addict anyway." Shakuni rolled the dice in his hand, feeling their soothing, pleasant little bumps and ridges rub against his palm. "All that we have to do is give the poor addict an appropriately public venue to in which to let him completely self-destruct, as spectacularly as possible. And then he'll be ruined forever. And the kingdom will be yours."
Duryodhana sipped his wine and nodded, thoughtfully. "You think he'll go as far as to bet his kingdom?"
"I told you. Yudhisthira has an addiction. He also has a weak will. You're strong, Duryodhana, so you may not understand what a terrible demon an addiction can be. But Yudhisthira is weak, and he won't stop until he has nothing left."
"Are you certain," Duryodhana asked, "that Yudhisthira is truly as weak as you say? Because I fear that his will has only grown stronger since he gained Indraprastha."
"No, no, he is still weak," Shakuni said quickly, soothing Duryodhana's fears. "I have heard rumors, Duryodhana, especially among my fellow gamblers. It takes very little for Yudhisthira to lose control to the dice."
"Draupadi will never let that happen. She'll interfere and stop the game before it goes too far."
"Then we'll have to make sure that Draupadi isn't by Yudhisthira's side during the game," Shakuni said, smoothly. "That should be easy. Have your mother and Dusshala invite Kunti and Draupadi to their own private gathering. Draupadi has expressed her disgust with Yudhisthira's gambling before, and I'd be willing to bet money that she would rather spend time with her fellow brainless, giggling women than she would spend time at a boring dice game."
Duryodhana nodded again, then sipped his wine again and muttered, "This is crazy."
"This. All of this. I can't believe it. I can't believe I'm sitting with you in this room right now, and plotting to humiliate and destroy a member of my family with a pair of magical demon-dice."
Shakuni suddenly felt alarmed. "Are you getting cold feet?" he asked.
Duryodhana said nothing.
"Don't you remember what happened in Indraprastha?" Shakuni hissed, realizing that he had to push as hard and as fast as he could right that moment, realizing that if Duryodhana backed down now he might never be able to convince him to strike again. "How they insulted you? How they laughed at you? Don't you remember Panchala?! The lies, the deceit, the fact that they all got away with it? Do you want those people in charge of the kingdom that ought to be yours?" Shakuni pressed and pressed, not bothering to hold back anything anymore. "This isn't for you," he said. "This is for Kuru. You have to reunite the kingdom, Duryodhana. And the only way to do that is to destroy Yudhisthira. Expose him for the fraud that he is. Give your people a reason to revile and abandon him. It is only as much as he deserves."
Duryodhana looked down at his wine glass, then up at Shakuni. "There's a problem with this plan," he said.
"Which would be?"
"The inspection," he said. "Before a formal dice match between royals, the host's royal priest inspects the dice in a ceremony to ensure that there is no cheating involved. It's just a silly ceremony, but it's a tradition, and we can't skip over it." He pointed to the dice in Shakuni's hand. "Those things are crawling with maya. Ashwatthama will sense it right away."
Shakuni contemplated this for a moment, then asked quietly, "Your devakin friends. The priest, Ashwatthama, and also that Karna of yours. How honest are they?"
"Very," Duryodhana answered, without hesitation. "And they're both, you know, religious. About everything."
"Then they can never know about this," Shakuni said.
Duryodhana was silent for a moment, then nodded somberly. "But I told you, Ashwatthama can sense--"
"He won't, because I'm going to give him a pair of normal dice to inspect," Shakuni said.
"And how are you going to accomplish this?" Duryodhana asked. "The handover and inspection happens in front of a crowd. And then the priest hands you back your dice and you start playing right away."
"I handle it like this," Shakuni said, as he closed his hand around his dice and twisted his wrist slightly. A moment later, he opened up his hand again, and a completely different set of dice were in his palm.
"Sleight of hand," Duryodhana said. "You must be joking."
"I'm not joking."
"You're going to fool Ashwatthama and everybody else with a simple parlor trick?"
"Yes," Shakuni said.
Duryodhana poured himself another glass of wine. "This is crazy," he said, again.
"It most certainly is not. Listen, you--"
"No, you listen," Duryodhana suddenly said, coldly. "A year ago – a month ago – even a few weeks ago, if you had asked me if I would ever consider doing this to Yudhisthira, I would have said no. For a long time I've known that I have to get back his half of the kingdom. I've known that since long before the first time that you and I ever talked about it together. And I've known for a long time that doing so would probably involve hurting Yudhisthira –a lot. But I'm willing to do it. Believe me, I'll do what I have to do in order to save this kingdom. I'll destroy Yudhisthira, if that's what it takes. But once we start this thing, you and I – we can't screw it up. I told you, there won't be a second chance. If we fail in this, and if anybody finds out what we tried to do – then that's it. We're finished. So if we're going to do this, I want you to promise me. I want you to promise me that you'll go as far as I need you to go, and that you'll do anything that I need you to do, in order to make this work." Duryodhana took a deep breath. "Is that understood?"
Shakuni bowed his head low. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"And you're right. Nobody can ever know about this. Not Karna, not Ashwatthama, not Dusshasana, not any of them. Just you, and me." Duryodhana suddenly grabbed Shakuni's shoulder. "Swear to me," he hissed.
"I swear to you," Shakuni said solemnly. "I – and my dice – are yours."
Duryodhana let go of Shakuni's shoulder and slowly stood up. Shakuni realized that he was trembling slightly, his glass of wine jittering in his hands. "So," he said. "So we're really going to do this thing."
"Yes. We are."
"Then a toast," Duryodhana said, raising his glass high. "To vice," he said. "May Yudhisthira drown in his own."
"He will," Shakuni said. "All that you need to do is give him a little push."
To be continued.