MAHABHARATA STORY

by Nenena

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


CHAPTER ELEVEN: DICE


"No," Draupadi said, for the fifteenth time. "My answer is still no."

"But you can't say no," Yudhisthira said, tirelessly keeping up with her angry pacing. "Look, we've all had to do it--"

"That's because you're barbarians. And it's a barbaric practice. And there's no reason for me to submit myself to the Council because my Gift is passive and non-dangerous." Draupadi suddenly stopped in mid-step and turned to face Yudhisthira. "Don't you ever wonder what the Council does with all of that information that they scan out of you, anyway?"

"I know what they do with it. They use it to make sure that no devakin ever manifests a Gift that he's unable to control."

"And has that ever happened?" Draupadi asked, pointedly. When Yudhisthira didn't answer, she pressed on. "The gods wouldn't give us Gifts that we aren't able to control. I trust the gods more than I trust an ineffectual group of withered old men." She crossed her arms over her chest. "And you let them bag and tag you just like animals."

"It's just a scan and a chip in the ear--"

"And I'm not going to subject myself to either."

"You can't refuse. It's one of Kuru's oldest laws. Gifts cannot be used without the permission of the High Council. The chip symbolizes that permission. You're a Kuru now, and--"

" 'And even a queen isn't above the law,' right?" Draupadi sighed, wearily. Then she looked up at Yudhisthira and asked, "Do I have to go through with the scan? I could just, I don't know, demonstrate my Gift for them."

Yudhisthira raised one eyebrow. "You'd rather set yourself on fire than go through the scanning process? You know, it doesn't hurt that much."

"It's not about the pain. It's about the principle of the thing." She reached up, gently, and touched the skin behind Yudhisthira's ear, running her fingers along the base of his ear until she found the hard lump of his implant. "And you want to tell me that this doesn't hurt?"

"Er, it did get infected once. But that was just once." Yudhisthira took Draupadi's other hand. "Next week I have an appointment to get my chip updated. You can come with me then. We'll get this over with, and then--"

"And then the Council will leave you alone, right?"

"I can't keep them off your back forever."

"But you tried. And I appreciate that, I do." She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Then she paused and said, "Wait. They make you update your chip even though you don't have a Gift?"

"I do have a Gift," Yudhisthira said, quickly. "I just don't know what it is, and I can't use it. Yet."

"That means that it must be something powerful." Draupadi winked at him. "The longer it takes and the harder it is for a Gift to manifest, the more powerful it is." She turned away from Yudhisthira and said, "I'm going back inside. Will I see you tonight?"

"Absolutely."

Draupadi walked back across the expanse of the palace gardens that she had so angrily paced through a moment before. Yudhisthira watched her leave, then breathed a sigh of relief, and turned away from the palace. He wandered further into the gardens until he came to a clearing with a reflecting pool and a single majestic tree growing beside it. Yudhisthira sat down beneath the shade of the tree, not particularly caring if the grass or dirt stained his royal robes, and leaned back against the tree trunk.

This was his favorite spot in the entirety of the palace grounds. This was the tree that the gandharvas had transplanted into the ground – brought, originally, from another dimension, Yudhisthira suspected – to serve as a memorial for Yudhisthira's father.

It had been Bhima's idea, originally. When the gandharvas had first come down to the earth and had first started laying out the city of Indraprastha, Bhima had been adamant that somewhere there would be a memorial for their father. But Yudhisthira knew that his father would never have wanted a statue or anything of the sort. That was when the gandharvas had brought the tree. Now the tree stood beside its reflecting pool in the most secluded inner part of the palace gardens. It was unmarked, with nothing physical to indicate that it was meant to be a memorial for a deceased king. But Yudhisthira and his brothers knew the meaning of the tree, and that was enough.

Yudhisthira closed his eyes, leaned back further against the trunk, and said, "I just resolved my first marital crisis today." He scratched his ear and said, "I don't know how you managed with two wives."

Now, if only Yudhisthira could resolve his larger familial crisis…

He winced at the sudden memory of Duryodhana storming out of Indraprastha on the same day that he had arrived. The tabloids had had a field day. Bhisma had been furious at both of his grandchildren. Yudhisthira had spent the past week with a hard, unpleasant tightening in his chest that refused to ease no matter how much he tried to distract himself.

"I'm not going to ask you what I should do," Yudhisthira told the tree. "Because I'm the king now. I have to figure out how to fix this myself. And I'm going to figure out how to fix things with Duryodhana. I will."

Yudhisthira sighed. Saying that he would fix things and doing the actual fixing were two different things indeed. No, he wasn't going to ask his deceased father what to do. But still, if an answer were to suddenly come down from on high, Yudhisthira thought, he would certainly be much obliged…

Suddenly, Yudhisthira's comm unit rang.

He pulled it out of his robes and clicked it open. "Yes?"

"There's a call for you from Hastinapura," Yudhisthira's new chief of staff replied. "It's His Majesty."

"Du… Duryodhana?!"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Yudhisthira's heart was racing. Duryodhana had refused to speak to him since the incident. Why was he calling Yudhisthira now? To apologize? To make things worse? Duryodhana had grown so unpredictable over the past year that Yudhisthira didn't know what to think anymore. But Yudhisthira swallowed nervously and then said, "Put him through."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Duryodhana listened for a moment as the comm unit hummed in silence. Then, from the other side of the planet, came Duryodhana's voice. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, not at all."

"Good, but it's a bad time for me, so I'll make this quick. I feel terrible about what happened between us." He sounded more bored an impatient than anything else, Yudhisthira thought, but wisely chose not to interrupt. "So I'm going to make it up to you," Duryodhana said. "Come back to Hastinapura. It doesn't have to be for long, just for a day or two. We'll play dice."

Yudhisthira was silent.

"What, didn't you hear me?" Duryodhana asked, not bothering to hide his impatience.

"You, uh…. Dice?"

"Yes, dice." A pause, and then, "Like Bharat did, remember? Great-great-great-granddaddy?"

Yudhisthira remembered. A game of dice between Bharat and the then-king of Madra had ended a decades-long war and established peace between the two planets. A public game of dice was the way that Kuru kings had ended feuds and established peaceful ties ever since. It was a long and noble kingly tradition.

It was also an invitation that Yudhisthira couldn't refuse. Not if he didn't want to offend Duryodhana any more than he already had, that is.

"I'll be there," Yudhisthira said. "As soon as you need me."

"Excellent! I'll send the details to your staff." Duryodhana cut of the call without another word. Yudhisthira turned off his comm, leaned back against his father's tree, and sighed again. If he had to play the role of the appeaser, then he had to play the role of the appeaser. Anything was better than letting Duryodhana drift even further away from him. Even a game of dice.


II.

As Yudhisthira had expected, however, his family protested. They protested during the days leading up to their departure from Indraprastha. They protested during the flight to Hastinapura. They even protested inside the hoverer that took them from the airport to the palace, all the way up until the last minute.

"He's not really interested in making up with you," Bhima pointed out as their hoverer bumped along. "And he knows that you're terrible with dice--"

"I can't be terrible with dice," Yudhisthira snapped, a bit testily. "It's not a skill, Bhima. It's just luck."

"Yes, but you have terrible luck," Sahadeva pointed out.

"So I'll lose a couple of valuable knick-knacks to Duryodhana," Yudhisthira said. "If that's what it takes to appease him, then that's what we'll do." Yudhisthira sat as regally as he could manage and stared down at his brothers and Draupadi. "This dice game is a royal tradition. A game of dice has been the method used by Kuru kings to end pointless feuds peacefully for generations."

Draupadi rolled her eyes. She was extraordinarily beautiful today, Yudhisthira thought. Before they had left the port in Hastinapura, Draupadi had changed into a stunning traditional sari. Normally Draupadi preferred to flaunt her modern fashion sense during her public appearances. But the gandharvas who had built Indraprastha had also gifted Draupadi with heavenly clothing fit, they said, for a true goddess. Draupadi was wearing one such sari right now. She did indeed look like a queen of heaven, Yudhisthira thought. But there was a tightness around her eyes and a slight frown on her lips that marred her otherwise unearthly beauty.

"Do you have a better suggestion for how to end this?" Yudhisthira asked his queen.

"Yes," Draupadi said. "On Panchala, we do have a better method for ending family feuds. If a family member makes a habit of acting insufferable, you cut off his head." She snapped her fingers. "Easy as that. Then you take everything that he owns." She glared at Yudhisthira darkly. "At least then your planet wouldn't be divided anymore."

Yudhisthira forced himself to chuckle, weakly. "You have an interesting sense of humor," he said.

Draupadi turned her head angrily away from him. "You think I'm joking?" Then she added poutily, "I have a chip in my ear because of you."

Yudhisthira sighed.

"Either way, this is bad," Nakula said. "You're giving in to Duryodhana's request for this stupid dice game without even putting up a fight. You're apologizing to him on his terms. That's not fair. He's the one who insulted you by leaving Indraprastha early, remember?"

Yudhisthira pointedly ignored Nakula, and turned toward Arjuna, who had been staring silently out of the hoverer's viewing window during the entire ride. "And you?" Yudhisthira asked. "Don't you have something to say, too?"

"What?" Arjuna turned toward Yudhisthira, and paused for a moment, his brain obviously struggling to catch up with the conversation. "Oh, yes," he finally said. "Gambling is a sin."

Yudhisthira settled back in his seat. "Well," he said. "You're all certainly being very supportive today."

The interior of the hoverer descended into an uncomfortable silence. Arjuna returned to staring out the window. Sahadeva picked at a loose thread coming off his sleeve, humming to himself tunelessly. Bhima and Nakula sat fuming silently. And then, finally, Yudhisthira felt Draupadi take his hands and squeeze them gently. "We are supporting you," she said. "We just think that you deserve better than this. You don't have to dance when Duryodhana tells you to dance."

"Thank you," Yudhisthira said. "I suppose."


III.

Hastinapura did not feel like home, Yudhisthira thought. It hadn't felt like home when he had first entered the city as a thirteen-year-old usurper prince, and it especially didn't feel like home today. This was Duryodhana's city now, Yudhisthira thought, as he watched his family enter Duryodhana's court and bow low, showing their respect. Duryodhana stepped forward and embraced Yudhisthira, whispering in his ear, "Thank you for coming."

"It's my pleasure," Yudhisthira said. He let Duryodhana lead him to his seat in the center of the hall, where a dice board had been arranged. Yudhisthira glanced over, and signaled for his brothers to take their seats. Arjuna was already busy talking to Ashwatthama , but Bhima managed to pull Arjuna's arm until he followed Nakula and Sahadeva to their seats along the side of the hall. Yudhisthira turned his head, taking quick and silent stock of the audience that Duryodhana had gathered. Duryodhana's father was there, and his mother, and his brothers, one hundred of them taking up the majority of the seating space in the hall, Karna seated among them. Yudhisthira saw Bhisma and Drona, sitting side by side. That was a surprise.

Then Yudhisthira saw his mother and Draupadi quietly sneaking out the back of the hall. Yudhisthira rolled his eyes, and quickly looked away. Gandhari and Dusshala had invited Yudhisthira's mother and Draupadi to their own private little gathering. Yudhisthira had expected Draupadi to at least stay by his side during the first few rounds of the dice game, and then take her leave after she had spent a few moments fulfilling her role as the queen showing public support to her husband's diplomatic gesture. But apparently the dice game had already become too boring for Draupadi to stand, even though it hadn't even begun yet. Ah, well. Yudhisthira didn't want to stop Draupadi from leaving and end up making a scene in front of everyone. For now, he had the dice game to concentrate on.

Yudhisthira turned his head and was startled to see Shakuni sitting not with Duryodhana's family on the side of the hall, but in Duryodhana's seat on the other side of the dice board. Duryodhana took another seat beside his uncle. "I hope you don't mind," Duryodhana said quickly, "but Shakuni will be rolling on my behalf." He rubbed his uncle's shoulder; Shakuni admirably did not recoil, although Yudhisthira could see the urge to do so in his eyes. "His fortune says that he has good luck today."

"I don't mind," Yudhisthira said, taking his seat. "It's an honor to play with your, Your Majesty."

"Likewise," Shakuni said, with enough sincerity to be believable.

Duryodhana beckoned, and Ashwatthama hurried to his side. "Our dice," Shakuni said, handing a pair of dice to Ashwatthama. "I trust that they are satisfactory?"

Ashwatthama rolled the dice in his hand, and nodded. "May they bring good fortune to you both," he said, handing the dice back to Shakuni. Then Duryodhana dismissed him with a wave of his hand, and Ashwatthama took his seat beside his father.

"I trust that you've chosen your first stake?" Shakuni said, handing one of the dice over to Yudhisthira.

"This," Yudhisthira said, and one cue one of his aides stepped forward and presented Duryodhana with a necklace of braided gold threads. "It was a gift from a gandharva."

Shakuni seemed impressed. "Nice," he said. Then he added, "Now roll."

Yudhisthira rolled his die, and Shakuni rolled his. The necks of everyone sitting along the side of the hall craned forward to see.

"I win," said Shakuni with a grin. He snatched the golden chain from Yudhisthira's aide, and tossed it to Duryodhana, who in turn handed the chain to one of his aides, who quickly scurried to the back of the hall. "Your loss," Shakuni said, "So make another stake."

Yudhisthira was prepared. "That painting by Gurnan," Yudhisthira said. He looked right at Duryodhana. "The one that you always liked--"

"You know me too well," Duryodhana said, with a laugh.

Yudhisthira laughed, too. This was good. They were getting along together, finally healing the rift between them. This was what he had hoped for. "I'll stake that," he said. Then he and Shakuni rolled their dice.

"I win again," Shakuni said. "Your next stake?"

"A sword," Yudhisthira said, as one of his aides stepped forward and presented Duryodhana with a holographic image, "handed down from my mother's grandfather."

Shakuni rolled his die. "I win again," he said.

Yudhisthira sighed. The sword was a minor price to pay in exchange for peace with Duryodhana, he reminded himself. "I'll stake--"

"You wanna come over here and rub Arjuna's head for good luck, or something?" Nakula suddenly said, loudly, from the side of the hall. "Because you look like you could use it."

For a moment, Yudhisthira was mortified, but then the crowd on both sides of the hall burst into laughter, and Yudhisthira joined them, laughing with relief. All right, still good. Nakula was just entertaining the crowd, whether he intended to or not. "I'm fine, Nakula," Yudhisthira said loudly. Nakula rolled his eyes in response, then glared at Sahadeva, who was laughing with the crowd.

When the crowd had quieted down, Yudhisthira continued. "Varuna's Heart," he said. "I'll stake the Varuna's Heart."

The crowd gasped. "Your yacht?!" Duryodhana said, in disbelief.

Yudhisthira shrugged. It was the largest item that he had planned on staking. And after four rounds with the dice, his obligation to the dice game would be finished. That was the tradition; any player who lost four rounds in a row could retire from the game without shame. Yudhisthira didn't mind. If he lost, he could always order the building of a new yacht. He was a king, after all.

"Most interesting," Shakuni said. Then he and Yudhisthira rolled their dice.

"I win," Shakuni said.

One of Yudhisthira's aides was unfolding the deed to the yacht for Duryodhana to sign. Yudhisthira clapped his hands together and said, "Well, that was certainly…. Interesting, wasn't it?" He bowed to Shakuni. "Perhaps I should have followed my brother's suggestion and rubbed Arjuna's head." The crowd laughed again at Yudhisthira's joke. Then Yudhisthira handed his die back to Shakuni and said, "It's been a pleasure, Your Majesty."

"Oh no," said Shakuni. Yudhisthira held out the die, but Shakuni refused to take it. "You're leaving already?"

"Today apparently isn't my lucky day," Yudhisthira said, ruefully.

"But it's only been four rounds!" Shakuni said, cheerfully. "Come, stay for a little longer. Duryodhana has some excellent treasures to stake for you, once you finally win a round."

Yudhisthira laughed. "I don't think--"

"Nobody can lose all of his rounds," Shakuni said. "Sit. Stay."

Yudhisthira slowly drew back his hand holding the die. He rolled the die against his palm and thought that yes, he really would like to see what treasures Duryodhana had planned to stake. All he had to do was stay until he won a round or two. And if he left now, he would run the risk of insulting Shakuni and Duryodhana. After all, Duryodhana hadn't even had the chance to showcase his own stakes in the game.

Yes, Yudhisthira thought to himself, he really should stay.

"All right," Yudhisthira said, still rolling the die against the palm of his hand. The motion felt soothing, calming. Even if he was losing, he was enjoying this game, just as he enjoyed all gambling despite himself. And besides, this game was fun! Duryodhana wasn't angry at Yudhisthira anymore. And the crowd was laughing at his jokes, even! Yudhisthira didn't want to leave, not just yet. He wanted to stay, so that he could let the game stretch out a little bit longer. It felt like old times again – back in Hastinapura, with Duryodhana, and the whole world at his feet.

"I'll stake…" Yudhisthira hesitated, suddenly unsure of what to stake. Since he had already staked his yacht, it would be bad form to stake anything less valuable from this point onward. Yudhisthira frowned, his brow furrowed in thought, then finally said, "I'll stake the worth of my crown jewels in gold."

Shakuni's eyes lit up. "A most excellent stake!"

Yudhisthira and Shakuni rolled their dice.


IV.

"Now this one," Gandhari said, pouring Draupadi another glass of wine, "my brother brought from Gandhara. It's from a little island in the north where--"

"Does His Majesty know that we're drinking this?" Draupadi asked, feeling pleasantly buzzed with the vague awareness that she was about to cross the line into officially tipsy.

"No. Why?"

"You're terrible," Kunti said, even as she held her glass out for her share.

"You're more like Uncle Shakuni than you think," Dusshala added, also holding out her glass.

"I'll disown you if you ever say that again," Gandhari sniffed, feigning – or perhaps only half-feigning – insult.

Between the four of them, they had already finished two bottles of wine. Draupadi sipped at Gandhari's latest offering, and sighed contentedly. If Yudhisthira wanted to spend the day wallowing in vice and debauchery, then Draupadi figured that she might as well do the same. There was more than one way to patch up broken familial relations, after all. The dice were one way. The wine was another.

"When this ridiculous dice game is over," Kunti said, "You two need to visit us in Indraprastha. I mean it," she said, sternly eyeing Gandhari. "No excuses."

"But Duryodhana said that your palace attacked him," Dusshala pointed out.

"Which is true, and likely because he deserved it," Gandhari said, gesturing emphatically with her wine glass. "Duryodhana is just that kind of person. A great king. But a terrible houseguest."

"Just that kind of person," Dusshala echoed, nodding somberly. Then she tapped her chin and said, "I would like to go to Indraprastha someday." She turned to Draupadi. "Is it true that you have books written by gandharvas in the national library?" Draupadi nodded, and Dusshala's eyes lit up. "Oh, that is so amazing!"

Draupadi shrugged. "I've seen those books, but I can't read them. So far nobody can."

"And when I get married," Dusshala went on, her cheeks flushed with alcohol, "I want it to be in Indraprastha, in the winter, so there can be snow, and ice sculptures. I know he'll love--"

" 'He'?" Draupadi asked, raising one eyebrow.

"No," Gandhari said. "No, you are not marrying him."

"Don't listen to her," Draupadi said, wagging her finger at Dusshala a bit drunkenly. "You should marry the man that you love." She gulped down more of her wine. "So who is this guy?"

"Do you know Jayadratha? From Sindhu? He was at your weddings."

"Oh… Ew," Draupadi said, making a face. Kunti and Gandhari burst out laughing.

Dusshala sighed and rolled her eyes. "Nobody understands him," she mumbled, poutily.

"So don't listen to what I say," Draupadi said, wagging her finger again. "You should marry the man that you love," she repeated.

Dusshala finally laughed. That was good, Draupadi thought. She could get used to this. Although Draupadi could never stand Duryodhana himself, she honestly rather liked Duryodhana's family. Dusshala would have been a perfect little sister. Draupadi had always secretly wanted a sister. And Gandhari was a woman who Draupadi felt she could admire for hours. Gandhari had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue and a strong bearing, exactly the type of queen that Draupadi hoped to someday be.

"Who's up for another bottle?" Gandhari asked, her hands poised to uncork.

Draupadi and Dusshala raised their glasses simultaneously. "I am!"

"Good," Gandhari said, already pouring into Draupadi's glass. "Now you two can settle an age-old question: Who can hold their liquor better, Kurus or Panchalans?" She then poured into Dusshala's glass. "The pride of our race is riding on your shoulders, dear."

"Or rather, your liver," Draupadi added.

Dusshala hiccupped, then saluted drunkenly. "I shall do my best!"

"That's my girl."


V.

It was around the twentieth or so loss that Arjuna began to suspect that something was wrong.

"My landscaping staff," Yudhisthira said. "All of them."

The dice rolled.

Arjuna looked around the hall slowly, trying not to make his alarm obvious. His eyes found Ashwatthama first, on the opposite side of the hall. Ashwatthama met Arjuna's eyes, then quickly looked away. But Arjuna could see the worry on his face. Arjuna tried to catch Drona's gaze, but Drona was busy staring at Yudhisthira, frowning intently, looking more and more upset by the minute. Arjuna shifted his gaze to the center of the hall. "The kitchen staff," Yudhisthira was saying. "All of them." Yudhisthira's gaze was focused intently on Shakuni. He was trembling slightly, his face deathly pale, not even noticing Arjuna's frantic attempts to catch his eyes. Arjuna turned his head to his left, and saw Sahadeva sitting calmly and clearly paying exactly zero attention to the game, whereas Nakula was leaning forward with his fists in his knees, his jaw clenched in anger.

"All of the gold in the streets of Indraprastha," Yudhisthira said. The dice rolled.

"Stop the game," Nakula hissed under his breath, "Stop the game!" Nakula turned to Arjuna and whispered, "Do something."

Arjuna opened his mouth to reply, but Bhima's enormous hand was suddenly on his shoulder, squeezing gently. "Don't," Bhima whispered. "Only Yudhisthira can stop the game."

"But--"

"Don't embarrass us, Arjuna," Bhima said.

"I think we've already been plenty embarrassed," Nakula whispered back, angrily.

"Trust in your brother," Bhima responded.

Nakula fumed silently. Arjuna turned his attention back toward the center of the hall. "The art museum," Yudhisthira said. "And its entire collection. And the archives."

The dice rolled.

Wait, Arjuna thought. Suddenly the stakes had changed.

"The library," Yudhisthira said.

Wait, wait, wait!

"Half of the fishing territory in the area south of the equator," Yudhisthira said. His voice sounded strangely choked, strangled.

I'm not hearing this, Arjuna thought numbly. It was too surreal. He was watching a dream. He was incapable of believing that this was actually happening before his eyes. Moments ago, Yudhisthira had been laughing and joking with Duryodhana as he predictably lost a good-natured game of dice. And now, Yudhisthira was pale and trembling and clutching at the die in his palm in an odd way, his hand flexing and unflexing in arrhythmic convulsions, as he calmly gambled away the territory of his kingdom.

Something was wrong. Something terrible was happening, right in front of Arjuna's eyes. He couldn't believe it. And because he couldn't believe it, he couldn't act to stop it.

"I win again!" Shakuni crowed as the dice rolled.

Yudhisthira's mouth opened and closed without saying anything.

"Maybe you should quit," Duryodhana said, although there was nothing pitying or sympathetic in his voice.

"No," Yudhisthira croaked. "No!"

"Well, what more do you have to stake?"

Yudhisthira sat silently for what felt like an eternity, his gaze fixated on his own hand, still convulsively clutching and unclutching his die. "The Mayasabha," he finally said.

"Your palace?!" Duryodhana asked, no longer bothering to hide the greed in his voice.

"…Yes."

Arjuna looked helplessly at Bhima, who shook his head. Nakula pounded his fist into his thigh but said nothing. Sahadeva blinked slowly, and continued to stare at nothing in particular.

The dice rolled.

"I win," Shakuni said. He picked up his die and rolled it confidently across his hand. "Do you have anything else to stake?"

"My kingdom," Yudhisthira said, without even hesitating. He still would not look at anything but the die in his own hand. "Everything. Everything that I have. It's yours."

Shakuni laughed and clapped. "Did you hear that, Duryodhana? Kuru will be a united kingdom again!"

Arjuna glanced frantically around the hall. Old blind Dhritarashtra and Vidura sat together on the far side of the hall, Vidura's mouth hanging open in disbelief, Dhristarashtra's face displaying an odd mixture of emotions that Arjuna couldn't even read. Bhisma was staring at Duryodhana completely aghast, and Drona was frowning more deeply than Arjuna had ever seen him frown. Karna and Duryodhana's brothers were leaning forward in their seats, whispering eagerly. Arjuna tried, frantically, to catch Ashwatthama's eyes. A priest has the authority to stop Duryodhana, Arjuna thought frantically. You stopped him at the weapons contest, didn't you? Ashwatthama, Ashwatthama, if you're my friend, then please….!

Awatthama was looking to the right at his father, then to the left at the rest of Duryodhana's court, helplessly. But he would not look at Arjuna. And he was making no move to stop the game.

"Roll," Shakuni said.

Yudhisthira, his hand trembling, rolled his dice. And Shakuni rolled his.

The pair of dice scrambled across the dice board, bouncing and bumping until they rolled to a stop.

"Well," Shakuni said. "It looks like I win."

For a long moment, the hall was completely silent. Then Dhritarashtra asked, in his trembling old-man's voice, "The game is finished, then?"

"No," Yudhisthira said. He was staring down at the dice in front of him, not looking at anyone, but speaking to address everyone. "No, it is not finished."

"That's right," Shakuni said, his voice sinewy smooth with perfect agreement. "As long as you still have something to stake, you still have a chance to win back what you have lost. And you most certainly do still have possessions which you may stake." He leaned back in his chair as Duryodhana leaned forward hungrily. "As a king and eldest brother," Shakuni continued. "They are yours alone to do with as you please. To command, to take, or to give away."

Yudhisthira finally looked up at Shakuni. "Yes," he said.

Arjuna glanced around the hall nervously. Yes, what? What were the they that Shakuni was talking about? What did Yudhisthira still own that he could stake on the dice? Hadn't he already lost everything?!

And then Arjuna realized that Ashwatthama was finally looking at him. Arjuna met Ashwatthama's eyes, and saw only a flat, calm emptiness. Of course. Ashwatthama was supposed to always be in control of his emotions, wasn't he? But Arjuna knew from experience that his friend only got that eerily calm, empty look in his eyes when he was struggling to not be enormously upset about something.

Ashwatthama shook his head slowly, then looked away from Arjuna.

And then Arjuna finally realized what Shakuni was talking about.

No, Arjuna thought. No no no no no no! There it was again, that strange dream-feeling, the sensation that nothing that he was seeing or hearing could possibly be real. There was just no way. Not his brother, no, not ever. Yudhisthira was good. Arjuna had always known this deep in his bones, from back before he could even remember. Yudhisthira was his biggest brother, the one who was always looking out for him and Bhima and Nakula and Sahadeva – or at least trying to, even if he didn't always do a very good job of it. There was no way that Yudhisthira could possibly ever do anything so monstrous, so unspeakable, so—

"I stake Nakula," Yudhisthira said.

The watching crowd finally exploded in an uproar.


VI.

"Silence," Duryodhana shouted, "SILENCE!"

His voice cut through the crowd like a knife. Bhima shut his mouth and sat down slowly. Duryodhana's brothers still laughed quietly among themselves, but did not speak. Vidura had buried his head in his hands. Dhritarashtra's face was still unreadable. Bhisma looked as though he was ready for war, but he closed his mouth and took his seat.

"The laws of our kingdom are very clear on this," Duryodhana said, standing beside his uncle, his voice booming authoritatively throughout the hall. "An elder brother owns his younger siblings. He may offer his siblings as trade for peace, or as stakes in a sport of gambling." Duryodhana walked around the dice board and gently touched Yudhisthira on the shoulder. "Is not this true?"

Yudhisthira nodded, slowly. "Yes, this is true."

"Then we roll!" Shakuni called out cheerfully. "The stake is the prince named Nakula, who, if Yudhisthira loses, shall become Duryodhana's servant--"

"No!" Nakula shouted. He was up out of his seat, standing with his fists clenched, his face twisted with fury. "No! I refuse to participate in this! You can't--"

"Nakula, be quiet," Yudhisthira said, calmly.

Nakula looked as though he had been slapped in the face. "You're not serious, are you?"

"I am serious. And I won't lose you."

"This is barbaric!" Nakula exploded. "My uncle Shalya will never forgive you for this! No Madra prince will ever become a lowly servant to the likes of Duryodhana!"

"But you are not a Madra prince, you are a Kuru," Yudhisthira snapped, finally tearing his eyes away from his own hand long enough to meet Nakula's angry gaze. "And as such, you are subject to Kuru's laws, and you will be a stake in this game!"

"According to Kuru's laws," Nakula hissed, "human slavery is illegal."

"This isn't slavery, you're speaking of commoner law, and legal precedent is very clear in this matter: As a royal, you are bound by the royal traditions, and this is a royal tradition."

Nakula stared at Yudhisthira for a long time, his body trembling with rage. The watching crowd held their collective breath, silently. Finally, Nakula's face twisted into an expression of utter loathing. "I should have renounced you a long time ago," he snarled. He spat at Yudhisthira. "You can't be my brother. You're pathetic." Then, having said his piece, Nakula sat down. "Go on," he said. "Roll your dice. If you're determined to damn yourself to hell, then I'm not going to waste my time stopping you."

Yudhisthira turned back toward Shakuni without bothering to further acknowledge Nakula's protest. "Do you accept my stake?" he asked.

"Yes, most gratefully." Shakuni's voice was as slick and slithery as oil on water.

"Then roll."

The two of them rolled their dice. Duryodhana watched the dice roll and bounce across the board, then briefly risked a glance over toward Nakula. Sahadeva was clutching at Nakula's arm and trying to whisper something in his ear, but Nakula just shook his head.

The dice stopped.

"My win," Shakuni said.

Utter silence. Nobody said a word. Excellent, Duryodhana thought. He had expected to meet with more protests. Shakuni looked up at Duryodhana, expectantly. Duryodhana turned toward Yudhisthira's brothers and said, "Nakula, come here."

Nakula stood up out of his seat with exaggerated slowness, but did not step forward. "What, you want something?" he asked.

"I'm ordering you to come here. You're a servant now."

"Fine by me," Nakula said, loudly, as he stomped angrily across the hall toward Duryodhana. "Brother to an asshole or servant to an asshole, it doesn't make much difference to me."

The crowd gasped.

"What did you call me?" Duryodhana snarled.

"I called you an obscenity," Nakula said, taking his place among the aides at the back of the hall. "What, did you not hear me? Would you like me to clean the wax out of your ears, Your Majesty?"

For a moment, Duryodhana seriously entertained the notion of wrapping his hands around the spoiled brat's neck and squeezing until it made a satisfying snap. In front of his father, in front of Bhisma, in front of Yudhisthira, in front of the whole world – he didn't care. But Duryodhana swallowed his anger, and forced himself to calm down. He had all the time in the world to slowly break Nakula, he reminded himself. He would deal with the brat later. Right now, he had to finish his business with Yudhisthira. "You are charming," Duryodhana told Nakula with a warm smile, "But right now I have no patience for a child's temper tantrum. If you have any other clever insults to give, then go ahead and get them out of your system now. Trust me when I say that you will face your punishment later."

Nakula fumed silently, but said nothing.

"Would you like to make another stake?" Shakuni was already asking Yudhisthira. "If you make another stake, you have the chance to win your brother back."

Yudhisthira stared down at his hand for a long moment. Then he said, "I will stake Sahadeva."

The crowd did not say a word. Nobody bothered to protest. They already understood the inevitability of what would happen next, Duryodhana realized. Good.

"Excellent," Shakuni said. They rolled their dice. "My win."

Duryodhana finally sat back down in his seat next to Shakuni. "Oh, Nakula!" he called over his shoulder.

"What?"

"Go and fetch your brother. Bring him to me."

Nakula calmly walked back across the hall. "Come on," he said, taking Sahadeva's hand and pulling him up out of his seat. Sahadeva's eyes were wide and frightened, but he followed Nakula over toward Duryodhana.

"My shoulders have grown stiff," Duryodhana said, cracking his neck for emphasis. "Sahadeva, I want you to massage them."

Sahadeva looked repulsed at the suggestion. Nakula, however, cracked his knuckles eagerly and said, "I'll massage your shoulders."

"No," Duryodhana said. "I ordered Sahadeva to do it." He smiled up at Sahadeva. "There's a rumor among the servants here that you have very talented hands." Duryodhana's smile widened. "Skills honed by years of promiscuity," he said. "All of the low-ranking servants in this palace like to gossip about your skilled hands. And not just the ladies, either."

Sahadeva stared at Duryodhana with his mouth hanging open.

"Well, hurry up," Duryodhana snapped. "Don't just stand there like an idiot."

"But--"

"Just do it, Sahadeva," Nakula said, wearily. "We can figure out how to poison his food later."

Sahadeva wordlessly placed his hands on Duryodhana's shoulders and began to rub, half-heartedly. Duryodhana gave no sign that he was enjoying this, but instead dismissed Nakula with a contemptuous wave of his hand. On the far side of the hall, Bhisma lowered his head in his hands and began to weep quietly.

"Well?" Duryodhana asked Yudhisthira, who would not meet his eyes. "Would you look at this. Doesn't he look happy to finally be working for a real king?" Duryodhana asked, jerking his thumb up at Sahadeva. "Of course, if you really would like a chance to win them their freedom back--"

"I stake Arjuna," Yudhisthira said.

This caused a reaction. Duryodhana's brothers began laughing and cheering. Bhima stood up out of his seat and shouted something, but Duryodhana couldn't hear him over the sound of his family's laughter. Sahadeva's hands momentarily tightened around Duryodhana's shoulders.

"Roll," Duryodhana told Shakuni quickly, "Roll!"

Shakuni and Yudhisthira rolled.

"Well," said Shakuni with a smirk, as the dice rolled to a stop, "Would you look at that."

Chaos in the hall. Duryodhana motioned for his guards, who swarmed toward the side of the hall where Bhima and Arjuna now stood alone. Bhima stepped in front of Arjuna, his face dark with anger, his massive fists swinging back to pound the guards. Duryodhana wondered, with some interest, if there would be a fight.

But instead, Arjuna grabbed at Bhima's arm and shouted. "Stop, stop!"

Bhima reluctantly lowered his fist. But he turned to Arjuna and said, "You can't go with them."

"But I will. It's the law." Arjuna managed to give his brother an unconvincing smile. "It's okay. No king will mistreat me." He was doing a poor job of hiding the fear in his voice, though.

Duryodhana relished the look on Bhima's face as Arjuna quietly stepped forward and allowed the guards to escort him to the back of the hall, where he took his place beside Nakula. Duryodhana's brothers continued to laugh and cheer at the sight of Arjuna standing with the other low-ranking servants. Duryodhana was surprised to see that unlike Nakula and Bhima, Arjuna did not look particularly angry. In fact, he seemed afraid if anything. Afraid of Duryodhana? No, Duryodhana realized, when he saw where Arjuna's eyes were looking. Arjuna was afraid for Yudhisthira. Afraid, and sad, and hurt.

This day couldn't have gotten better, Duryodhana thought.

Except for one thing—

"Yudhisthira!" Bhima roared, his thunderous voice shaking the hall into silence. Ah, yes, Duryodhana thought. There it was. The sweetest icing on the cake.

"If you weren't my own brother," Bhima continued, his body trembling with rage, "I would rip your weak, cowardly heart out of your chest right this moment! How could you?! How could you do this to us?!" Then Bhima pointed an accusatory finger at Duryodhana. "And YOU--!"

"I stake Bhima," Yudhisthira said quietly, cutting off Bhima in mid-sentence.

Now, Duryodhana thought, the look on Bhima's face was truly priceless. "You can't," Bhima said, in what amounted to a quiet voice by Bhima standards.

But Yudhisthira did not answer him anymore. "Roll," Yudhisthira told Shakuni. And they rolled.

The dice bounced, and flipped, and then finally rolled to a stop.

Shakuni laughed and clapped his hands. Duryodhana's brothers exploded into a mixture of cheers and gleeful catcalls. Sahadeva's hands clutched convulsively at Duryodhana's shoulders. Bhima stood alone on his side of the hall, stunned and speechless.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Duryodhana asked, turning his head toward Bhima. "Hurry up and get to the back of the hall. My servants do not stand before me unless I give them permission."

For a moment, Bhima's face was so red with rage that Duryodhana seriously thought that Bhima was about to march right over to him and snap his neck. But then, slowly, Bhima turned and began to march toward the back of the hall. So far, so good, Duryodhana thought. Bhima hadn't quite been pushed over the edge. Not yet. As long as Bhima still had his wits about him, he at least was bound to obey the laws of Kuru royalty.

"Go with him," Duryodhana told Sahadeva, already bored with his shoulder massage. Sahadeva stepped away from Duryodhana and followed Bhima to the back of the hall.

Duryodhana stood up out of his seat and turned toward the back of the hall. "Well, look at you all!" he said cheerfully. "All together like one big happy family!" His brothers laughed and roared in approval. Nakula glared murderously at Duryodhana. Sahadeva held his brother's arm and stared sadly at the floor, while Arjuna kept his sad eyes fixed on Yudhisthira, and Bhima stood and loomed protectively over all of them, perfectly copying Nakula's murderous glare.

"But," Duryodhana said, "You fools still don't look like proper servants." He walked across the hall, right up to Sahadeva, and grabbed his startled cousin by the shoulder. "Just look at this!" he laughed, bunching Sahadeva's shirt in his fist and purposefully ignoring the fact that Arjuna was currently restraining Nakula from murdering him. "These fine clothes aren't fit for a lowly servant," he sneered. "It's an insult for my servants to be dressed as royalty." Duryodhana let go of Sahadeva and pushed him back toward his brothers. Sahadeva was still wide-eyed and stupid with surprise at his sudden violation and release. Duryodhana turned toward his cheering brothers and asked, "Well?"

"Take them off!" Durmada shouted, obligingly. And suddenly one hundred voices joined him in a thundering chorus. "Take them off! Take them off! Take them off! Take them off! Take them off!"

"You heard your masters," Duryodhana said, turning back to his new servants. "Take off your clothes. You have no right to be wearing such luxuries anymore." Then he paused, and finally added magnanimously, "Keep your underwear, though. I have no wish to see any of your filthy bodies exposed any more than necessary."

"Take them off! TAKE THEM OFF! TAKE THEM OFF! TAKE THEM OFF! TAKE THEM OFF!" The crowd was roaring and stomping their feet and clapping their hands to the rhythm. Nakula said something, no doubt something nasty, but Duryodhana couldn't hear him over the roar of the crowd. Finally Sahadeva cast down his eyes and began unbuttoning his shirt, his hands trembling as he did so. Nakula stared at his brother in disbelief for a moment, then set his jaw and began unbuckling his belt, taking care to make each and every gesture in the process as sharp and as angry as he possibly could. A moment later, Bhima and Arjuna began stripping as well.

Duryodhana's brothers went wild, laughing and applauding. Jackets, shirts, and pants fell to the ground around Yudhisthira's brothers. Finally they were huddling together, mostly naked and shivering. Duryodhana ate them up eagerly with his eyes. Arjuna's strong arms, Bhima's barrel-like chest, Nakula and Sahadeva's intricate matching devakin markings curling around their necks and backs. Bhima wrapped his arms around the other three and pulled them close to him, managing to mostly shield them with his bulk. But it was too late, the damage was done. Duryodhana could see the naked humiliation written all over their faces. Humiliation, and shame.

It was beautiful.

"Do you see what you've done?!" Bhima suddenly shouted at Yudhisthira. The crowd of Duryodhana's brothers was still laughing and applauding, causing so much uproar that even Bhima had to struggle to be heard over the din. Nevertheless, he still shouted at Yudhisthira. "I told you this would happen! I told you!" He cast his wild, angry eyes over the entire watching crowd: Duryodhana's cheering brothers, his father and uncle shaking their heads in horror, Bhisma still weeping not with despair but with anger, and Drona looking ready to kill. "I told all of you!" Bhima roared. "Duryodhana is evil! He destroyed us, and he will destroy all of you! If you--"

"SILENCE," Duryodhana roared, matching Bhima decibel for decibel.

Bhima fell silent. So, too, did the crowd.

And slowly, Duryodhana turned back toward Yudhisthira, who was still sitting at the dice board, his face blank and stunned.

"You know," Duryodhana said quietly. "You can still save them, if you wish." He walked back over to the dice board, and took his seat beside his uncle again. "You can still make another stake. You still have a chance to win them back."

Yudhisthira seemed to look at Duryodhana without really seeing him. "Oh," he said. But then he fell silent again.

Shakuni rolled his die around in his hand, eagerly. "So what are you going to do, Your Majesty?" Shakuni asked.

Yudhisthira nodded his head slowly. "Yes," he said. "I will stake myself."

"You're mad!" Bhima shouted from the back of the hall. "You idiot – you complete, utter, sniveling idiot – for the love of God, snap out of it!"

But Yudhisthira ignored his brother's roaring. "We roll," he said, finally lifting his eyes to meet Shakuni's gaze.

Shakuni laughed as he rolled his die. And a moment later, he was clapping and laughing. "It's over, it's over!" he crowed, as Yudhisthira stared wide-eyed at the dice.

Duryodhana's brothers began cheering and clapping again. "What should we ask him to do for us first?" Dusshasana shouted over the din.

"Get down on his hands and knees and scrub the floor!" Durmada shouted.

"Clean out the trash dumpsters!" Vikata added. This suggestion was met with a torrent of applause.

"Clip my toenails and massage my bunions!" Sama added. This suggestion was also met with approving thunderous applause and more laughter. Then Sama continued, "And clean the manure out of the tiger's cage!" The laughing crowd seemed to love this suggestion even more.

"Stand up," Shakuni ordered Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira stood up slowly, his face still stunned, disbelieving. "Take off your clothes," Shakuni sneered, "and join your brothers at the back of the hall until we decide what to do with you."

Yudhisthira began to unbutton his shirt with his slick, sweaty fingers. But Duryodhana suddenly said, "Wait."

Yudhisthira froze. Shakuni shot Duryodhana a curious, intrigued look.

"Sit down," Duryodhana ordered Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira sat back down at the dice board. "We're not finished yet," Duryodhana said.

"But I have nothing more to stake," Yudhisthira said. He sounded remarkably calm, given the circumstances. He was still clearly in some stage of denial.

"Yes, you do," Duryodhana did. His brothers began to quiet down and watch intently as they realized that even more entertaining humiliation was about to be served to them. "You still have one last thing that you may stake," Duryodhana said, struggling to hide the eagerness in his voice. If he didn't watch himself, he was about to start drooling with anticipation for what was coming next. But Duryodhana forced himself to maintain his composure. "You still have one last chance," he said, "to win back your freedom and the freedom of your brothers." Duryodhana gestured for Yudhisthira to take his die again. "I'll tell you what. I'll even bend the rules and make a direct stake this time. Yours against mine. I'll stake you and all of your brothers – if you will stake this last thing for me."

Yudhisthira licked his lips. "What do you suggest that I stake?" he asked, his voice hoarse, hushed.

"Your wife," Duryodhana said. "Draupadi."

Duryodhana's brothers burst into applause again. "Draupadi!" They chanted. "Draupadi! Draupadi! Draupadi! Draupadi!" Shakuni shot Duryodhana a surprised look, but Duryodhana just nodded at Shakuni, and Shakuni clutched his die and nodded in return.

Yudhisthira nodded his head, too. "Very well," he said. "Against Duryodhana's promise of myself and my brother's freedom, I will stake my wife Drau--"

"This stops here." Drona's voice sliced through the roar of the crowd and brought the entire hall to instant silence.

Duryodhana turned his head and regarded the old Panchalan priest, who was standing up out of his seat, staring Duryodhana straight in the eye. "For Yudhisthira to stake his wife after having lost himself first is against even your backwards, anachronistic laws. Your Majesty."

Finally a challenge, Duryodhana thought. He had wondered how long the dice game would drag on before he would have to shout down an old man. He wasn't surprised that Drona was the first to question the game. The crazy old Panchalan had always been as unpredictable and as dangerous as a badly-tuned firearm, after all. But he was also the weakest possible challenger to Duryodhana's authority. "What do you know of Kuru's laws, old man?" Duryodhana spat.

"More than Kuru's king, apparently."

"Is that why you always seem so intent on breaking them?"

Drona, unfortunately, smiled at this. "There is a difference between you and I," he said. "I have honor, at the very least. You have only shown everyone here today that their king has the black heart of an asura."

"Shut up, old man," Duryodhana said with a snarl. "It is only by my grace and goodwill that I allow you to stay beneath my roof in the first place."

"Correction," Drona countered. "It is only by my grace and goodwill that I choose to stay in the court of a tyrant." He shrugged. "I would rather--"

"It is only by my grace and goodwill," Duryodhana snarled, "that your son is allowed to live in freedom on Kuru rather than as a prisoner of Panchala's High Council."

At this, Drona froze.

I've got you now, Duryodhana thought, unable to hide his triumphant smile. Duryodhana still didn't have the first clue what Ashwatthama's Gift was, but he knew that the Panchalan High Council wanted Ashwatthama locked away for good, and that was all that Duryodhana needed to know for the moment.

Drona narrowed his eyes at Duryodhana, searching Duryodhana's face, trying to discern if Duryodhana's threat was serious. It was. Drona's eyes widened.

"Your objection is noted, old man," Duryodhana said. "But ignored. Yudhisthira is Draupadi's master; if he chooses to stake her, then the stake is fair." Duryodhana smiled at Drona. "Do you have anything else to say?"

Drona turned his head slightly to look at his son. Ashwatthama looked horrified, on the verge of tears, his face drained of color, the strange blue mark on his forehead darkened so much that it looked like a bloody scar, contrasting sharply to his pale skin. Ashwatthama shook his head and mouthed the word "No," although Duryodhana wasn't sure whether this was a plea for his father to answer No to Duryodhana's question and sit down, or whether it was a plea for his father to not give in to Duryodhana's threats.

But Drona tore his eyes away from Ashwatthama and said through gritted teeth, "No, Your Majesty." He shook his head. "If this is the foolish choice that Yudhisthira will make, then so be it." He sat back down again.

Because he couldn't help himself, Duryodhana risked a quick glance over at Arjuna, just to relish – for a brief moment – the look that he imagined would be on Arjuna's face. Arjuna did not disappoint. He was staring at Drona and Ashwatthama with a perfect blend of horror, anger, betrayal, and deep hurt written all over his face. Neither Drona nor his son were looking Arjuna. They were both busily looking away.

Duryodhana turned back to Yudhishtira and clapped his hands briskly. "Now that that little distraction is taken care of," he said cheerfully, "are we ready to roll the dice?"

Yudhisthira shook the die in his hand. "Yes," he said. "We roll."

He and Shakuni rolled their dice. The dice crashed into the dice board, bounced, flipped, and finally rolled to a stop.


VII.

Dusshala handed the last wine bottle to Draupadi. "Last glass?" she asked.

"Please tell me that there's more."

"I'm ordering more brought to us as we speak," Gandhari said, her fingers deftly flying across the modified keys of her comm unit. "And no vintage younger than twenty years," he said into the comm, before closing it with a click. She turned her blindfolded eyes toward Draupadi and said, "I admit that you have impressed me, young lady. I thought that no woman could hold her liquor as well as my Dusshala."

"We're just getting started," Draupadi said with a laugh. She was officially tipsy now, but not terribly so. So far, the only effects of the alcohol that Draupadi had felt were that own jokes suddenly seemed astoundingly clever to her ears.

Gandhari seemed about to say something else, but she suddenly turned toward the door and mumbled under her breath, "That was fast…" And then, on cue, there was a knock at the door.

Kunti pulled open the door. "Yes, Sanjaya?" And then, without waiting for Sanjaya's answer, she asked sharply, "What is the matter?"

Draupadi and Dusshala stood up quickly. Draupadi craned her neck to be able to see Sanjaya's face, to see just what exactly had alarmed Kunti so. Sanjaya was deathly pale, his brow sweaty, deep bags under his eyes. His shoulders were hunched, as if weighed down by a great burden. His face looked like death.

Draupadi felt herself sobering up instantly.

"I have been sent to fetch Queen Draupadi," Sanjaya said, bowing low. "H-His Majesty Duryodhana requests her presence in the gambling hall," Sanjaya continued, his voice hitching.

Draupadi's first thought was that something must have gone wrong with the gambling match: an insult had been thrown, harsh words had been exchanged, and things had escalated until Bhima had finally ripped someone's head off. She could imagine the scenario all too well. But she forced herself to stay calm. "What business does His Majesty have with me?" Draupadi asked.

Sanjaya looked up at Draupadi's face, then quickly averted his eyes. "His Majesty Yudhisthira staked you in the dice game and lost," Sanjaya said, gasping out the words in a rush, as if he couldn't even bear to say them. "His Majesty Duryodhana has requested that you report to the gambling hall and fulfill your duties as his maid."

Draupadi dropped her wine glass. It spilled all over the floor and her feet, but she didn't even notice. "What?"

"His Majesty Duryodhana has requested that you report to the gambling hall and fulfill your duties as his maid," Sanjaya repeated, grimacing at the taste of the words in his mouth.

"That isn't funny, Sanjaya," Gandhari said. "If my husband is using you for an ill-advised prank, then--"

"I would not joke about this!" Sanjaya shouted, his voice cracking. Now there were tears rolling down his eyes. "Yudhisthira lost everything! His kingdom, his brothers, himself, his wife – everything!"

For a moment, all four women watched Sanjaya sobbing in silent horror. Then Dusshala said in a small voice, "That can't be. My brother would never…"

"Sanjaya," Draupadi finally said, as the horror of everything that Sanjaya had just said began to sink in. "Sanjaya, I need you to deliver a message to Duryodhana for me," she said, calmly. "Tell him that I will not enter the gambling hall until he can answer one question: Did Yudhisthira lose me before, or after, he lost himself?"

Sanjaya nodded tearfully. "I will ask him, Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Sanjaya," Draupadi said, as kindly as she could. She couldn't stand to see the poor old man weeping for another moment.

Sanjaya left, and Kunti closed the door behind him. For several long moments, nobody said a word. Then, slowly, Draupadi sat down in her chair and said, "I would like another glass of wine, please." She glanced at the floor and said, "I'll pay for the carpet."

Still, nobody said anything. Finally Dusshala sat down beside Draupadi and said, "This can't be happening."

"I think it is."

"Duryodhana would never –- Yudhisthira would never--!"

"Just stop," Draupadi said.

Kunti buried her head in her hands. Gandhari wrapped her arms around Kunti's shoulders and held her without saying a word.

They were frozen like that, in silence, waiting, for what seemed like hours, but couldn't have been more than a few moments. Draupadi's mind was racing. She needed to know exactly what had just happened in the dice game. She needed to know so that she could figure out what to do about it. She needed to talk to Yudhisthira. She needed to punch Duryodhana in the face. She needed to call her secretary to look up the ancient Kuru laws recorded in the libraries of Hastinapura. She needed to call her brother and her father on Panchala and tell them to ready the fleet. Even if she had lost her kingdom, she was still a queen, and she could still fight to get it back.

There was finally a knock at the door.

Draupadi stood up and threw open the door. "Sanja--"

"No," said Dusshasana, "not anymore." He sighed. "Good help is so hard to find these days." The five faceless brothers that he had brought with him laughed at this line. "Come here," Dusshasana said, reaching out to grab Draupadi's arm and pull her bodily into the hallway. "You're going to--"

"Don't TOUCH me!" Draupadi snarled, swiping her free fist toward Dusshasana's face. But one of Dusshasana's brothers grabbed her fist and twisted her arm behind her back, immobilizing her. Dusshasana grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her forward. She stumbled forward, further into the hallway, and suddenly there were hands all over her, pushing her down the hallway and pulling at her hair and—

"Stop it!" Dusshala's voice cried out from somewhere behind Draupadi. "Dusshasana, stop this!"

There was the unmistakable sound of a slap. And then some other brother, a voice that Draupadi didn't recognize, started yelling. Escalating voices, the sound of an argument. But Draupadi could no longer hear their words. She was being pushed and pulled down the palace hallway, and Dusshasana still had her by her hair. She tried to fight back, but the other brothers were grabbing at her arms and laughing at her.

And then, suddenly, there was no more hallway. Draupadi was pushed and dragged into the gambling hall. Dushasana let go of her hair, but another brother suddenly pushed her, and she stumbled, fell, and went sprawling onto the floor. Her beautiful sari, the one that Nakula had helped her choose that morning, the one with the pale yellow colors that looked so nice against her dark skin, ripped as she tripped over its hem when she fell. Her torn sari parted, obligingly exposing her naked legs to the view of everyone in the hall.

The sound of roaring laughter pounded against Draupadi's ears. She scrambled to stand up as fast as she could, nearly tripping herself again/ But finally, somehow, she managed to right herself. Draupadi flipped her now-tangled and much-abused hair over her shoulders and glanced around the hall, as regally as she could, gathering up the last shreds of her dignity and cloaking her heart with them. The side of the hall where her husbands should have been sitting was empty. That was the first thing that Draupadi saw. Then she saw Duryodhana, standing in the center of the hall next to the dice board, devouring her greedily with his eyes. Behind Duryodhana, at the back of the hall, standing among the other servants and aides, were Draupadi's husbands – stripped of their clothes, huddled close together, and looking angry enough to kill Duryodhana within moments. Well, four of them looked angry, that was. Yudhisthira was standing slightly apart from the others, staring at nothing, his face frozen in a strange expression of shock. Draupadi tore her eyes away from her husbands before she could let herself feel sorry for them. She needed to hold on to her anger, she realized. It was the only way that she was going to survive this. Draupadi finally turned her head to the other side of the hall, to the crowd watching her. Outnumbering everyone else were Duryodhana's brothers, laughing and hooting and jeering at her, causing a roaring uproar. Then there were Bhisma and Drona and Ashwatthama, who kept their heads down and their eyes turned away from Draupadi. At the sight of the three of them, Draupadi felt a flash of emotion, a mixture of shock, anger, disgust, and contempt. And then finally Draupadi saw the old blind man that was Duryodhana's father, weeping uselessly as he listened to the jeerings of his own sons, while Vidura held him silently and whispered into his ear.

"Well, well," Duryodhana said, leering at Draupadi. "You finally showed up. Late, I may add. That's no way for a maid to behave."

Draupadi didn't feel like giving Duryodhana the dignity of a reply. Instead, she spat at him.

The crowd laughed. Duryodhana feigned insult. "Is that any way to treat your master?"

"You are not my master," Draupadi snarled.

"Yes, I am. Your husband lost you in a dice game. If this displeases you, you should direct your anger at him."

"You still haven't answered my question," Draupadi countered, marching straight down the center of the hall toward Duryodhana, making damn sure that everybody watching knew that she felt no fear. "Who did Yudhisthira stake first, himself, or me?"

Duryodhana's face darkened. "It is no longer your place to ask such questions."

"Who did Yudhisthira stake first?" Draupadi asked, again.

"I'll have you hold your tongue," Duryodhana snapped, reaching for her – to strike or to grab, Draupadi wasn't sure.

But Draupadi stepped out of Duryodhana's reach and turned toward the laughing crowd instead. "Will none of you answer my question?" she asked, shouting to be heard over the catcalls of Duryodhana's brothers. "Yudhisthira staked himself first, didn't he? Didn't he?" She turned back to Duryodhana. "No man can stake his wife after he has already lost himself. I don't belong to you."

"Your interpretation of the rules is incorrect," Duryodhana said, as condescendingly as he possibly could.

"Damn the rules!" Draupadi suddenly shouted, loud enough to shock the crowd into a temporary silence. "And damn your prehistoric dice game! A person is not a possession! A person cannot be won or lost in a game!" She was furious now, shouting, and she didn't care. "I do not and have NEVER belonged to Yudhisthira! I belong to nobody! And I most certainly do not belong to you!"

"Ha!" Duryodhana laughed. "What a sharp tongue you have."

"I have a sharp sword, too, if you'd like to taste it."

"You don't own a sword anymore," Duryodhana said. "You don't own anything, not even your own freedom. You're just a serving girl. Of course," he added, thoughtfully, "if you'd rather be a queen than a lowly slave for the rest of your life…" Duryodhana slapped at his inner thigh invitingly. "Come, sit on my lap," he said. "I will take you as my queen."

Draupadi felt the bile rising in her throat. She opened her mouth to give her reply, but suddenly Bhima's voice boomed from the back of the hall. "I swear to all the Gods, Duryodhana, I will BREAK that thigh of yours before I die!"

Duryodhana laughed. "She is no longer yours to protect," Duryodhana said with a dismissive sneer, not even bothering to turn around to address Bhima directly.

"She was never worth protecting," Karna suddenly called out from the crowd. He stepped forward from among Duryodhana's brothers and pointed one accusatory finger at Draupadi. "A woman who would sleep with five men has no honor worth protecting. She's a whore. She never was and never will be anything more than a common whore."

"Shut your mouth, weaponsmith," Draupadi growled, threateningly.

But Duryodhana laughed again. "That's right," he agreed, "a whore! A woman without honor." He leered at Draupadi again. "Certainly no whore deserves to wear such fine clothes as these."

Draupadi took another step away from Duryodhana. "Don't you dare," she said.

"Why not?" Duryodhana licked his lips. "What are you trying to protect? Your dignity? Your honor?" He laughed. "You have none. You belong to me now. And I would like to see my newest servant nude!"

Duryodhana's brother burst into laughter and clapping again. "Strip! Strip! Strip! Strip! Strip!" they chanted.

"Strip the whore!"

"It's what she deserves!"

"It's what she wants!"

Dusshasana suddenly loomed at Draupadi's shoulder, and grabbed at her sari.

Acting without thought, acting on instinct, Draupadi lashed out with her fists. She landed a blow squarely on Dushasana's nose. He stumbled backward, blood spurting. And then she turned and ran. Her only instinct was to flee, to escape. She could worry about other things – her kingdom, her husbands, her revenge against Duryodhana – later. At the moment, her only thought was to protect her body, to escape the laughter pounding in her ears, to never have to feel Duryodhana's eyes or hands roaming her flesh—

Draupadi suddenly slipped, her feet flying out from under her, and went crashing to the ground.

What? She was numb, dazed. She could feel cold, slick ice beneath her body. What? What?!

Why was there ice on the floor of the gambling hall?! And why hadn't she noticed such an insane, incredulous thing before?!

Suddenly Dusshasana was grabbing her by her shoulders and lifting her up. She tried to struggle, tried to kick, but it was no good. He whirled her around and suddenly she was facing Duryodhana again, Duryodhana and his hundred brothers, all of them laughing at her, laughing and jeering and clapping, as Dusshasana reached around her back, grabbed the front of her sari, and ripped.

Draupadi screamed.

The crowd roared in approval as the front of Draupadi's sari was torn apart. Fortunately for Draupadi, however, her chest was still covered; the sari wrapped around her body in layers, and Dusshasana had only managed to tear through the outermost layer of silk that was covering Draupadi's body.

Dusshasana seemed instantly enraged by his failed attempt to expose Draupaid's breasts. Draupadi tried to stumble away from him, but Dusshasana grabbed her arm again, and pulled her back toward him. Draupadi realized that she was crying. She hated herself for showing them her fear, she hated herself for giving them all the satisfaction of her tears – but she couldn't stop crying.

Dusshasana let go of her arm and grabbed the end of her sari, pulling at it, preparing to unravel the entire garment right off her body. Draupadi closed her eyes and began weeping. "Oh Lord, oh Lord," she sobbed, her voice instantly drowned out by the roaring crowd. "Please, Lord Shiva – Please, Lord Vishnu – Please, Lord Rama – if you can hear me, if you can hear your daughter, then please please--"

Draupadi finally felt the delicate folds of her sari unraveling. Dusshasana was tearing her clothes right off her body.

Draupadi's arms instinctively flew up to her chest in a feeble attempt to cover her breasts. But then, suddenly, she felt that her sari was still there.

Draupadi risked opening her eyes. Dusshasana was staring at her, wide-eyed, as he pulled and pulled and pulled, and a never-ending river of silk poured into his hands.

Neither Duryodhana nor the jeering crowd seemed to have realized yet what was happening. "Hurry up, Dushasana!" Duryodhana snapped. "Let's see what this whore really looks like!"

Dushasana reached for Draupadi again, grabbed at the silk covering her shoulder, and tore.

Draupadi closed her eyes. "Hare Rama," she sang, the words coming unbidden to her mouth, welling up inside of her, calm and soothing. Suddenly she wasn't afraid anymore. "Hare Rama," she sang again. "Hare Rama, Hare Hare."

Dusshasana ripped and tore at Draupadi's sari. But no matter how much he tore, no matter how much he pulled, there was still more silk beneath, covering Draupadi's body.

The crowd began to quiet down.

"Rama Rama," Draupadi sang, "Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare!"

Dusshana tore at her clothes again. And still Draupadi was not naked.

Now the crowd was silent, watching in awe.

Dusshasana tore and pulled and tore and pulled some more. And Draupadi threw her arms up and sang with joy. "Hare Vishnu, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare!" She was transfixed, possessed. The devakin markings on her back glowed with a holy light. She felt only a deep sense of peace, and joy, and basked in the knowledge that she was loved and would not be harmed.

Dusshasana roared with rage and tried to grab at Draupadi and tear off her sari, her hair, anything. But it wouldn't work. And Draupadi still laughed and sang, her arms held up to the heavens.

Finally Duryodhana stepped forward, glared at Dusshasana, and said, "That's enough."

Dushasana let go of the fold of silk that he had been pulling, feeding into a pile of clothing that had been steadily growing beside him for the past several minutes. "Witch," he snarled at Draupadi.

Draupadi lowered her arms and opened her eyes. The mysterious feeling of euphoria was slowly draining, but in its wake she was left feeling sharp-eyed, clear-minded, and alert. She turned to Dusshasana and asked calmly, "What did you just call me?"

Dusshasana opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly, Bhima was roaring from the back of the hall again. "DU-SHA-SA-NAAAA!"

The entire hall rumbled as if caught in an earthquake. Dusshasana cowered, his face suddenly filled with fear. Draupadi stood her ground and privately relished the look on Dusshasana's face. "In front of the Gods and with all here as my witness," Bhima rumbled, stepping forward out of the line of servants, "I swear that I will tear out your heart with my own bare hands and drink your blood before you die!" Bhima turned, sweeping his hands across the crowd of Duryodhana's brothers. His eyes were red, flaming. "All of you," he roared, "all of you!" This was Bhima pushed over the edge, Draupadi realized, allowing herself to feel a tiny bit of awe. This was the deva side of Bhima – the side of him born not of human civilization but of the raw howling rage of Vayu – and the devas were here now, inside of Bhima, inside of the gambling hall, all around them, listening to Bhima's vow. The gods were here to witness Bhima's vow. "I swear," Bhima said, glaring directly at Duryodhana, who had finally turned around to face him, "I swear, Duryodhana, I will kill you and each and every one of your brothers. With my hands alone, I will take each of your lives in return for this insult."

The hall was utterly silent. Draupadi reached town and effortlessly tore off the trailing end of her sari with her bare hands. Then, no longer attached to the river of silk flowing around Dusshasana's feet, her sari torn and her hair still disheveled, Draupadi walked slowly across the hall, past Duryodhana and Dusshasana, and directly up to Bhima. He stood, mostly naked, fuming with rage, a trembling thundercloud of a man who looked ready to charge forward and tear Duryodhana apart at that very moment. Draupadi reached up and gently touched his shoulder. He seemed to calm down, a bit, then looked down at her with sorrowful eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Don't be." She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on his cheek. Then Draupadi turned to face the silent crowd, now watching her in horror. "You all heard that, didn't you?" she asked. "The devas are here with us, and they heard Bhima's vow, too." She turned toward Duryodhana. "For the injustices that you have wrought here today, you will die. You and all of your brothers." She turned toward the watching audience. "The Kuru dynasty will be destroyed. It is no less than any of you deserve. You who would sit silently and weep like useless children while your daughter-in-law is humiliated in front of you," she said, glaring at Bhisma, "you who had once vowed to protect me and have since betrayed once, twice, and thrice over," she added, casting her fiery gaze at Drona, "you who would--"

"Enough," Dhristrashtra finally said.

Draupadi turned to face him. The trembling old blind man had stood up out of his seat and was walking slowly across the hall, lead by Vidura, his hands outstretched toward Draupadi. "Enough, enough!" he sobbed. "I beg of you, daughter of Lord Shiva, I beg of you! Take back this curse which you and your husband have delivered. Spare my sons. They are my children. They--"

"They do not deserve your love," Draupadi said, "and you do not deserve my mercy. You sat and did nothing while Duryodhana committed cruel sins against your own kin, right beneath your very nose!"

"You are right," Dhritarashtra said, stopping a few feet in front of Draupadi, Vidura beside him. "I do not deserve your mercy, nor your forgiveness. But I can at least right some of the wrong that has been done here today." He took a deep breath, then bowed low in front of Draupadi. "Oh beloved woman whom the gods themselves protect," he said, "ask of me one thing, anything, and I will grant it."

"You can't!" Duryodhana suddenly shouted. "Father, what are you doing?!"

"I am trying to undo what you have done," Dhritarashtra answered, his voice still trembling.

"You can't! I forbid it! Are you listening to me?! I'm the king and--"

"Even a king must obey his father," Vidura suddenly snapped.

Duryodhana shut his mouth.

"Ask anything of me," Dhritarashtra repeated, to Draupadi.

Draupadi nodded. "I wish for my freedom," she said. "I will be neither a servant nor a slave to anyone, least of all to Duryodhana."

"It is done." Dhritarashtra raised his head to gaze at her with his sightless eyes. "Ask of me another boon," he said.

"I wish for Yudhisthira's freedom," Draupadi answered.

"Done." Dhritarashtra ignored Duryodhana's shout of protest. "Ask of me another boon."

"I wish for Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva to be free as well."

"Done, and done." Dhritarashtra stepped toward her. "Ask of me another boon."

But Draupadi shook her head. "No," she answered, "not any more. I could never ask for more than three boons. My husbands and I, now that we are free, will fight for whatever else we need. Even," she added with a cruel smile, "if it means the destruction of Kuru."

Dhritarashtra's face fell. He turned to Duryodhana. "My son, please," he begged, "give your cousins back their kingdom! Are you deaf to Draupadi's words?! They will destroy us all if you do not--"

"No!" shouted Duryodhana, slamming his fists down on the dice board that had caused so much grief that day. "No, Father! Our kingdom has been reunited, and I will not let you – not your or anyone – tear it apart again!"

"Then so be it," Draupadi said. She looked up at Bhima, he looked down at her, and together, they began to walk toward the exit of the hall. "Come," Draupadi said to the rest of her husbands. "We're leaving. There is nothing left for us here."

Draupadi and Bhima walked side-by-side down the hall, past Dhritarashtra and Dusshasana and Duryodhana, past the dice board, toward the exit. Draupadi turned her head slightly and saw Arjuna following behind her, leading a still shell-shocked Yudhisthira by the arm, with Nakula and Sahadeva, hand-in-hand, following a step behind. They were a ridiculous-looking procession: five men in their underwear, and Draupadi wearing a torn sari. But nobody dared to laugh at them. Their every step now echoed with the promise of deva-sanctioned death.

"Wait," Bhisma said, finally standing up out of his seat. It was the first word that the useless old man had uttered during the entire dice match. "Where will you go? You have no kingdom left to return to."

Draupadi paused in mid-step. Her husbands stopped, too. She turned to face Bhisma. "To Panchala," she said. "We have family there that will not betray us."

Draupadi noticed, with some satisfaction, that Bhisma's eyes widened at the mention of Panchala. Drona's eyes did too. They understood what that meant. Panchala had a mighty fleet that could crush Kuru in an instant, and a king who would not take kindly to the news that his daughter had been stripped and humiliated in front of Kuru royalty. Not just Panchala, but Madra too. They could count on military support from Nakula's uncle.

Kuru was finished.

Draupadi turned her head slightly, and saw Shakuni frantically whispering in Duryodhana's ear. She laughed inwardly. If the wiley old Gandharan king thought that he had come up with a way to save Duryodhana, then—

"Yudhisthira," Duryodhana suddenly called out, stepping away from his uncle.

Yudhisthira slowly turned his head toward the sound of Duryodhana's voice.

"I have a proposal for you," Duryodhana said, obviously struggling to keep his voice even and calm. Draupadi couldn't tell whether Duryodhana was trying to hide fear, eagerness, or both. "If you want your kingdom back – the whole kingdom, the united kingdom – then we'll give you one last chance to win it."

Yudhisthira pulled away from Arjuna's grip and turned fully toward Duryodhana. "I'm listening," he said, evenly.

"One last wager," Duryodhana said, as Shakuni tossed a pair of dice invitingly in his hand. "The stakes will be simple. Whichever of us wins the toss will win the throne. Whichever of us loses the toss will leave – accompanied by a court of his choice – leave this planet branded as an exile, for thirteen years. When he returns, the kingdom will be his." Duryodhana held out his hands in a gesture of supplication. "This is not a wager that you can lose," he said, soothingly. "Either you win the kingdom now, or you win the kingdom in thirteen years."

"And if I win this wager and you leave in exile," Yudhisthira replied, "this means that in thirteen years, I hand the kingdom over to you?"

"Yes, yes, but!" Duryodhana said quickly. "This exile has rules." He was talking quickly now, trying to explain everything in a rush, laying it all out before anybody could talk Yudhisthira out of listening. "The exile must travel exclusively in the Yama Quadrant for twelve years. Contact with any family members or previous acquaintances is forbidden, save for those who accompany the exile. The exile may travel in any direction to any planet that he wishes, but must never stay on one planet for more than six months – six universal standard months – at a time. If the exile breaks any of these rules, the thirteen years starts anew at that very moment. And – in the thirteenth year – the exile must stay on a single planet for exactly twelve months, in hiding. If I – you – whichever of us can find the exile during the thirteenth year, the period of exile begins again, for another thirteen years. See?" Duryodhana jabbed his finger at Yudhisthira. "Even if you win and I leave in exile, you still have a chance to defend your throne. If you can find me during the thirteenth year, and again during the thirteenth year… And the same for you. If you end up in exile, I can search for you, over and over again… This is only fair. Do you understand?"

"That's not fair," Nakula said. "That's insane."

"It is fair," Duryodhana insisted, urgently. "Yudhisthira and I both have a claim to this throne, but I will not – I will never – divide the kingdom again." He pointed to the dice in Shakuni's hands. "This is the only fair way to settle the matter, once and for all. The dice are random. They're tools of chance. They--"

"Do you seriously expect us to believe that those dice are random?!" Nakula interrupted, incredulously. "After what we've seen here today?"

Duryodhana laughed. "How could I cheat with a pair of dice?!" he asked. Then he pointed to Ashwatthama, who visibly recoiled from Duryodhana's finger. "My own priest inspected these dice! Would you accuse Ashwatthama of cheating?"

Nakula closed his mouth and said nothing.

"Come now, come now," Shakuni said, tossing the dice cheerfully in his hand. "Yudhisthira, we're offering you your kingdom back. All you have to do is agree to play a little game." Shakuni grinned at them, a grin like a snake's grin. "It will be a fun little game, won't it? A fun little game that lasts for thirteen years."

"Don't listen to him," Draupadi said quickly, stepping around Bhima to grab Yudhisthira's arm. "This is not a fun little game," she hissed. "Do you know what the Yama Quadrant is like?! It's a wasteland! There are planets there that we haven't been able to contact for hundreds of years. There are rakshasas there. There are asuras, hiding in the dark spaces between planets. There are--"

"Draupadi, you sound like a certain paranoid Panchalan priest that I know," Duryodhana said, lightly. "The Yama Quadrant may be far away, but it is far from a wasteland. There are many planets there, great planets, just like Kuru and Panchala."

Draupadi ignored him. "If you end up in the Yama Quadrant," she told Yudhisthira somberly, "you will die. We all will. To be sent to the Yama Quadrant is a death sentence."

"But," Yudhisthira said, slowly, "we can get the kingdom back." He turned to look her straight in the eye. "Isn't that what you want?"

"Forget the game!" Draupadi said. "We don't need Duryodhana's stupid game! We have can have the Panchalan and the Madran fleet on our side with a single comm call! We can--"

"No," Yudhisthira said, shaking his head slowly. "No, Draupadi. No. I will not shed blood for the sake of a throne." He gently, but firmly, removed her hand from his arm. "But I will not let Duryodhana keep Kuru's throne, not after what he did to you today." Yudhisthira stepped away from Draupadi, toward Duryodhana. "You are right," he told Duryodhana. "We will let the dice decide which of us wins the throne, and which of us will have to leave Kuru."

"You coward!" Draupadi hissed. She looked to her left, at Bhima, then to her right, at Arjuna and the twins. None of them would meet her eyes. Draupadi realized, with a sinking feeling, that they were all thinking the same thing that Yudhisthira was thinking. They were thinking that they would willingly walk into Duryodhana's trap, if it meant possibly taking away his throne without a fight. They were thinking that they would be able to survive the Yama Quadrant if they lost, these soft and naïve princes who had never endured true survival circumstances before, let alone traveled outside the limited area of space occupied by Kuru, Panchala and Madra. Even Bhima, even Bhima, who moments before had sworn a bloody vengeance against Duryodhana and all of his brothers, was staying quiet.

Draupadi balled up her fists, pressed them against her forehead, and screamed inwardly.

Yudhisthira, the great cowardly idiot, sat down in his seat at the dice board. "I will do this," he said.

"Excellent!" Duryodhana said, as he took his seat on the opposite side of the board, and Shakuni sat down beside him. "First, should either of us end up in exile, we must choose our courts."

"Before the dice roll?"

"Yes. Who will you take?"

"My brothers and Draupadi," Yudhisthira answered, quickly.

Shakuni raised one eyebrow at this. "Do any of you know how to pilot a ship?"

Yudhisthira furrowed his brow. "And a pilot," he said. "I reserve the right to choose the pilot at a later time," he added, haughtily, finally returning a bit to his normal regal attitude.

Duryodhana nodded. "I will take Dusshasana," he said. "And Yuyutsu," he added, although this immediately caused rumblings among his crowd of watching brothers. "My other brothers will stay on Kuru," Duryodhana said quickly. "They have done nothing to deserve the dangers of exile."

"You will take only two with you?" Yudhisthira asked.

Karna suddenly stepped forward, out of the crowd. "I will go," he said.

Duryodhana was visibly startled by this. He turned toward Karna slowly. "But… Your sons…"

"They'll have their mother." He put his hand on his chest. "I swear, Your Majesty, wherever you go, I will be by your side."

Duryodhana nodded slowly. "Thank you," he said, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

" I will go too," Ashwatthama suddenly said, stepping up beside Karna. "Please, Your Majesty. Let me come with you."

Duryodhana shook his head. "The High Council has forbidden you to--"

"So override the High Council. You do it all the time anyway." Ashwatthama pleaded with Duryodhana. "Let me go with you. Exile is the least that I deserve."

Duryodhana glanced quickly at Drona, who was still sitting in his seat and glaring murderously in Duryodhana's general direction, but who was making no effort to stop his son. "Very well," Duryodhana said. Then he turned back toward Yudhisthira. "Well. I've declared my court, and you've declared yours. Do you understand the rest of the rules?"

"Yes," Yudhisthira said, reaching for the die that Shakuni offered him. "I understand."

Shakuni handed the other die to Duryodhana, who was finally, apparently, about to roll on his own behalf. "Then we roll," he said.

The two of them drew back their fists, and released their dice.


To be continued.