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 TWELVE: DEPARTURE
It was Subhadra who called Balarama's comm at ten in the morning. "I don't know what you're doing right now," she said, "but you should come home and turn on the media console, now."
"Who died?" Balarama sighed, trying to finish the milking of Spider with one hand as he held his comm in the other.
"Nobody's dead yet, but--"
"Just come home quickly. And tell Krishna to come too."
Balarama clicked off his comm, tried to stuff it back into his coverall pocket and slip back on his milking glove at the same time, managed to accomplish both tasks, allowed himself to feel impressed with himself for a moment, then quickly finished up his business with Spider. Spider regarded Balarama curiously as he finished up the milking, slipped off his coverall, and pulled out his comm again.
Balarama pressed his brother's number, but was not surprised to receive a message that Krishna's comm was out of service. Balarama strode out of the barn and looked around for his brother, squinting against the late morning sun. He found Krishna sitting on a fence, concentrating on whatever handheld game he had managed to borrow from Subhadra that morning. Krishna's thumbs flew across the keypad as he frowned in concentration.
"We're going back to the house," Balarama said, grabbing at Krishna's arm and unceremoniously pulling his brother off the fence.
"Is it lunch time already?" Krishna asked eagerly.
"No. But something's wrong."
Balarama marched Krishna back to the house where his mother and Subhadra were waiting for them. Or rather, Subhadra was waiting. Their mother was glued to the media console.
"This is bad," Subhadra said, as she led her brothers to the console. "This is very, very bad." She sat down beside her mother and said, "Duryodhana is our king now."
Balarama blinked at her, unsure if he had heard right. "Come again?"
"I said, Duryodhana is the king now."
"But what happened to Yudhisthira?!" There were few people who dared to refer to a king by his name only, but Balarama and his sister were among them.
"Just watch," Balarama's mother suddenly said.
So Balarama sat down beside her, on the opposite side of Subhadra, and watched the media console. After a few moments, he felt an angry knot clenching in his stomach. He couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe any of it. He couldn't believe that one Kuru king could be so deceitful and treacherous, or that another Kuru king could be so weak-willed and greedy.
Balarama's comm unit rang, and he pulled it out of his pants and flipped it open. He wasn't surprised when he saw the identity of his caller flashing across its small screen. It was a call from Kritavarma. Balarama stood up off the couch, brought the comm to his ear, and was about to answer when there was a loud crash from the kitchen. Krishna stumbled back into Balarama's field of view, rubbing his head and cursing.
"What did you break?" Balarama's mother asked as Balarama slipped his still-ringing comm back into his pocket. Kritavarma could wait. Balarama had the strange, almost queasy sensation that something more important was about to happen in his own home.
"It wasn't me, it was the ladder!" Krishna said in an incoherent rush, pointing toward the kitchen. "The, uh, the ladder from the crawlspace! It just came flying down and--"
"What are you doing trying to get into the crawlspace at a time like this?" Balarama's mother asked, her patience obviously wearing thin.
"You stored my luggage up there and--"
"Krishna, no," Subhadra said, without letting him finish.
"Fine, then I'll use Dad's good set of luggage," Krishna said cheerfully, misunderstanding her, perhaps on purpose. "He certainly doesn't need it anymore."
Krishna moved to step away from the kitchen, but Balarama blocked his path. "What exactly are you playing at, here?" Balarama asked.
Krishna blinked at him. "Nothing. This isn't a game." He tried to step around Balarama, but was blocked again. "Move it, will you? This is a matter of life and death!"
"Of course it is. Absolutely. Now you're going to tell me where exactly you plan on running off to so that you can get yourself killed, and then maybe I'll let you go. Maybe."
Krishna backed up a step. He looked to Subhadra, then looked to his mother. Finding no help on either of their faces, Krishna finally sighed and said, "I have to go with them."
"The king and his family."
"No, the real king," Krishna snapped, then suddenly looked abashed. "Sorry." He tried to step around Balarama again. "I know that you won't understand, so there's no point in me explaining right now. But I have to go with them."
"If you're trying to convince me to let you exile yourself into space for thirteen years," Balarama said, "you're doing a terrible job of it."
"Krishna," his mother said, "Explain to me this: Not why you want to go with His Majesty, but how do you intend to leave with His Majesty? You are not currently an employee of the royals. And even if you became one, the console said that His Majesty isn't allowed to take any--"
"But they need me," Krishna said. "Even if they don't know it yet." Suddenly he stepped back into the living room and pointed at the console screen. "See? Look!"
It was King Yudhisthira on the console screen. He was speaking to a reporter while a small crowd of bodyguards and aides pressed close to them, and what sounded like a much larger crowd swelled around them. The reporter asked something that Balarama didn't catch, but the king shook his head and said, "No, no. No, we won't be." There were dark circles under the king's eyes. His gaze looked slightly out of focus, as if his mind were somewhere else. Or as if he were in shock. The reporter asked another question. The king nodded and answered, "We've inspected the vessel that we were assigned already. And, ah… Yes, we do. We are asking for any volunteer, civilian or military, who would be willing to sign on as a pilot. In exchange we can offer only a small--" The king suddenly cut himself off as Prince Nakula leaned over his shoulder and whispered something into his ear. The king frowned, then corrected himself. "For free," he said.
And then Balarama reached over and clicked off the console screen. "Oh, you are not," he said.
"Oh yes I am!" Krishna held out his hands innocently. "Did you hear? They need a pilot! But they can't even pay their pilot! Who else would be willing to take up such a job?"
"But you're not a pilot," Subhadra pointed out. "You don't even have a license to drive a hoverer. You're not even licensed to drive a landbound vehicle."
"But," Krishna said, "I can read an instruction manual."
"Krishna, that's not--"
"And I'm a fast learner."
"But they won't accept you if you don't have a piloting license!"
"They're beggars, they can't really afford to be picky now, can they?"
"This is insanity," Balarama hissed. "Krishna, I've put up with a lot of ridiculousness from you over the years. But this is different. You're going to throw your life away, volunteer for a job that you're in no way qualified to do, and probably get yourself and our king killed while doing it. And you won't even give me a reason why you want to do so! I can't let you go through with this. I just can't."
Krishna stared at Balarama for a long, hard moment. Then he turned toward his mother. "Mother," he said.
She glanced at him for moment, and her eyes widened in shock. Then she quickly turned away from him. Balarama glanced back and forth between Krishna and his mother, baffled. What had she seen? Krishna looked the same as usual. But Balarama's mother closed her eyes and whispered, "Don't do this to me, Krishna. Not now."
"I'm sorry mother. But I have to go."
And then, Balarama and Krishna and Subhadra's mother nodded her head.
Balarama was aghast. "Mother!"
She turned toward him, and when he saw the look in her eyes, he suddenly felt utterly defeated. "Balarama, I'm sorry," she said. Subhadra was staring at her, an almost comical expression of shock on her face. And Krishna was already gone, presumably climbing the ladder toward the crawlspace above their kitchen. Balarama's mother looked at Subhadra, then at Balarama, then said slowly, "I'm sure that you must have noticed this by now, but your brother Krishna is…" She trailed off, frowning, unsure of how to explain herself. Then she finally said, "He's not like you or Subhadra. He's different."
"Now that's an understatement."
"You have no idea how different," Balarama's mother suddenly hissed, almost angrily.
Balarama fell silent. He had heard his mother use that tone of voice before, but never directed at him.
Subhadra was giving her mother a strange look. "Mother," she said, "is there something that you know that you're not telling us?"
Balarama's mother nodded, but said, "I know very little, though. Oh so very little. One thing I do know – and the one thing that I will tell you now – is that I promised Krishna a long time ago that when the time came for him to leave, I would let him go."
Subhadra crossed her arms over her chest, clearly not satisfied with this explanation. Neither was Balarama. But Krishna suddenly appeared again, this time dragging an empty trunk behind him. He kissed his mother on the cheek, once, quickly. "Thank you," he said. Then he turned toward Balarama. "Help me pack?"
Balarama shook his head numbly. No, he would not help his brother pack. He couldn't help Krishna pack even if he'd wanted to. He felt as if his brain were going into shutdown mode. There was suddenly too much for him to process at once. The king was gone, Indraprastha belonged to Duryodhana, he didn't know what would become of himself and Kritavarma once the new government was established, his little brother was going to run away (and likely die) for some unfathomable reason that he couldn't explain, and his mother was going to let this happen for some unfathomable reason that she refused to explain, and—
Balarama suddenly realized that his comm was ringing again. He pulled it out of his pocket and flipped open the viewscreen. It was another call from Kritavarma, again. Apparently this was urgent.
"Can I get a ride to the port, Balarama?" Krishna was asking as Balarama cupped his comm to his ear. "Oh, and could I borrow some money for an airjump ticket?"
Balarama merely nodded, because he wasn't sure what else he could do anymore.
The jumper to Hastinapura was nearly deserted. Krishna figured that most of the planet's population was too busy being glued to their console screens to be able to travel anywhere. Well, all the better for him. Krishna had three entire seats all to himself, so he folded down the arm rests dividing the seats, stretched out his legs, and took a long nap. He figured that it might be the last peaceful sleep he would have for a long time.
He awoke when the jumper landed in the port at Hastinapura. Along with the scant few other passengers who had been on the jumper with him, Krishna filed through the port corridors, making his way toward the luggage area. He found his only bag, scanned his claim ticket, and left to find a bus. The entire journey would have been completely uneventful, if he hadn't overheard the shouting as he was exiting the luggage area, which happened to be located not far from the ticket counters where departing passengers were queued up.
"I care little for your pointless laws!" an old man was shouting, his voice carrying clearly across the entire ticketing area and filtering into the luggage area as well. "A man has a right to protect himself! A man has the right to check whatever items in his luggage that he--"
"Sir," a ticket counter agent answered, her voice also rising in volume, "Sir, the laws are very clear that--"
"I am ABOVE your petty laws!"
At this, many of the passengers waiting behind the old man burst into laughter. Krishna sighed, rolled his eyes, and quickly veered toward the ticket counter. He could already see the identity of the shouting old man. He would have recognized that white beard and furiously blazing eyes anywhere. Another quick glance was all that Krishna needed to determine the point of contention between the old man and the counter agent. The old man had an enormous antique axe resting at his feet. The handle was wooden and cracked, and the blade was stained with what Krishna hoped was rust. Krishna wondered how Parashurama had even managed to get as far as the ticket counter while conspicuously carrying an illegal weapon.
"Sir," the ticket counter agent said, "Not only do you not have a permit to be carrying that in the first place, but we have a very strict policy regarding what items are allowed in your checked luggage. If you would just read--"
"I have familiarized myself with your asinine policy. And it does not apply to me!"
More laughter from the crowd beginning to gather behind Parashurama to watch the farce. The counter agent did not look amused, however.
Krishna suddenly placed his hand on Parashurama's shoulder – the old man twitched, momentarily surprised – and said, "Don't be absurd. These people have to protect the rules. It's their duty."
Parashurama snorted. "What are you doing here?" He glanced at the trunk that Krishna was pulling with his other hand. "Finally ready to make a move, are you?"
"You shouldn't be carrying that thing around," Krishna said, nodding toward the axe. "You know that only royals and the military are allowed to--"
"I DESPISE THESE SENSELESS LAWS!"
"Sir," the counter agent said, this time addressing Krishna, "Do you know this man?"
"Yes." Krishna understood that he was being asked to remove Parashurama from the line. "Come over here," Krishna said, trying to lead Parashurama toward a waiting area far from the ticket counters. "We need to talk."
Parashurama growled something under his breath, but picked up his axe and started to follow Krishna. The counter agent called after them, "Sir, we're going to have to confiscate your--"
"NOT UNLESS YOU INTEND TO PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD FINGERS!"
"…All right, then." And with that, the counter agent turned her attention to her waiting customers.
Krishna led the old man toward a row of benches lining one wall of a spacious waiting area. They sat down together, and Krishna did his best to ignore the people staring at them. "What are you doing here?" Krishna asked, echoing Parashurama's question from earlier.
The old man snorted. "I can go wherever I please." He glowered a nothing in particular. "Provided that these idiots will let me board a shuttle to the moon, that is."
"You're going to see your student?"
"Former student. Yes."
"But Karna is here on the surface, right now."
"Is that so? Hrmph. Even if he's here, he must have left some of his family members back in Anga. Either him, his wife, or his sons would be obligated to welcome me into their home for as long as I need."
Krishna laughed. "Is that all?"
"I want a decent bath once or twice a decade. Is that too much to ask?" Parashurama crossed his arms angrily. "And I want to yell at my idiot former student for throwing his lot in with that shitstain of pretender king."
"He won't listen to you."
Krishna sighed. "Haven't you screwed things up enough, just by meddling in the first place?"
Parashurama turned his murderous glare toward Krishna. "You dare accuse me of meddling?!" he snarled. "I gave a man what he deserved. You're only upset because now my Karna represents a threat to your precious little Kuru prince--"
"You weren't supposed to pick a side," Krishna said, bristling. "Or play favorites."
Parashurama suddenly laughed. "Only true royalty could be capable of such hypocrisy!" He applauded Krishna. "Well played, Yadava prince. Well played."
"Keep your voice down," Krishna hissed. "I'm not--"
"Oh, yes, right, I forgot. You're just a cowherd." He smirked at Krishna. "If you throw in your lot with the exiled king, you wouldn't be able to keep up that lowborn façade for long." Then he turned his head toward the ceiling. "He's still out there, you know. Jarasandha."
"I'll deal with him when the time comes."
"You don't seem to have put a lot of forethought into any of this."
"I don't need to," Krishna said, standing up. "If I can be with Arjuna, then things will work out."
Parashurama eyed him coldly. "You have a great deal of faith in that man, don't you."
"Anybody with even the tiniest grain of sense. These vain, greedy, self-important royals deserve our contempt, not our support."
"Look, do you want to see Karna or not?" Krishna asked, impatiently. "I don't have the authority to get you on a shuttle as long as you insist on carrying that axe. But he might. I can pay for your fare if you'll bus with me into the city."
Parashurama pouted, as petulant as a small child. "I don't need the charity of a Yadava prince. Or a cowherd. Whatever you are."
"Fine. Stay here then. I have a universe to save." Krishna picked up the handle of his trunk and briskly walked away. He was not surprised when, a few moments later, he heard Parashurama's footsteps following behind him.
"Not those," Sahadeva said, pointing to a stack of discs visible on the video screen. "Please. Let us keep them. What possible use could you have for them?!"
"It's not about use," Durmada said brusquely, motioning for his aides to gather up the discs. "It's about upholding the terms of the agreement. You gave up all of your possessions, remember?"
Sahadeva shook his head and said nothing. He lowered his head and watched silently as, visible on the video screen but located on the other side of the world, Durmada's aides boxed up the discs. Finally, Arjuna put his hand on Sahadeva's shoulder and said quietly, "It's all right. They're going to put it in storage and make sure that it stays safe until we come back. All right?"
"You don't know that."
"I do know that." Arjuna turned toward the video screen, toward Durmada. "We have your word, right?"
"Of course. None of your personal effects will be destroyed or altered. Merely stored."
"Then please," Arjuna said, "take care of these discs. They're holos of our mother." Specifically, of Sahadeva's mother. But Arjuna didn't want to clarify that. Madri had been as much his mother as she had been Sahadeva's mother.
Durmada gestured, and his aides fanned out throughout Sahadeva's quarters in Indraprastha, taking his clothes and jewels, ripping the paintings and hangings off his wall, confiscating his books, his discs, his holos, the flatscreen console—
Sahadeva winced as he watched, via the video screen, as Durmada lifted an elegantly engraved vase into his arms. "That was a gift from Uncle Shalya," Sahadeva whispered to Arjuna. "Our great-grandmother commissioned it, he said."
Arjuna squeezed Sahadeva's hand, and said nothing. His own quarters – both his guest quarters in Hastinapura and his private rooms in Indraprastha - had already been stripped bare, earlier that day. Like Sahadeva, he had been allowed to watch over the packing of his Indraprastha quarters via video screen, while at the same time Duryodhana's brothers stripped him of whatever possessions he had brought to Hastinapura. Now all of Arjuna's fine clothes and jewelry were gone. He was, for the second time in his life, currently dressed in civilian work clothes, taken from the storage hold of the ship that he and his brothers had been assigned to.
Those were the new rules. They were allowed to start with their ship and whatever food, clothes, and tools were currently stored on board. That, and nothing else.
Arjuna watched Durmada's aides rolling up an antique tapestry. Half of Duryodhana's family was slated to move into the palace at Indraprastha. But the palace was being stripped bare before the move; it was, apparently, Duryodhana's way of keeping his word not to harm any of Yudhisthira's possessions during the period of exile. Also, Arjuna realized, it was a way give him and his brothers an extra dose of pain and humiliation before they left. Seeing all of his wordly possession bundled up and shipped off to storage hadn't exactly been a pleasant experience.
"Change your clothes," Vikata suddenly said. He was with the two brothers in the monitor room. Vikata tossed an armful of clothing at Sahadeva. "And take off your jewelry."
Sahadeva turned around, made as if to step out of the room, then paused when he saw the guards posted at the door, making no move to step aside and let him through. He met Arjuna's eyes, but Arjuna only looked away. They had already been stripped of their clothes in front of the entire assembled royal family and court; what did it matter, then, to strip again in front of only a handful of people?
Sahadeva reluctantly turned away from Vikata and began taking off his clothes; a moment later he turned around again, wearing workslacks, boots, and plain, unadorned shirt. "How do I look?" he asked Arjuna, trying to crack a joke.
"Stunning," Arjuna said with a laugh. It was only a half-lie. Sahadeva's somewhat inhuman physical beauty could hardly be marred by merely unattractive clothing. Arjuna glanced toward Vikata just in time to see him shoot a jealous glare at Sahadeva. Then Arjuna quickly grabbed Sahadeva's hand and said, "Come on. Let's get out of here."
Sahadeva nodded, and let himself be led out of the monitor room. Arjuna had shown up in the monitor room moments before, under the pretense of supporting his brother while Durmada did his job. The reality, however, was that Arjuna had just wanted an escape from having to see either Nakula, or Yudhisthira, or Draupadi, or anybody else whose eyes he still felt unable to meet. The monitor room had been a temporary refuge, but now even that refuge was gone.
Well, no sense in delaying the inevitable.
They found Yudhisthira first. He was curiously alone, separated from his usual entourage of aides and bodyguards, walking brusquely along the edge of a reflecting pool not unlike that which had humiliated Duryodhana not so long before. Arjuna pulled Sahadeva along, quickening his pace to catch up with his brother. "Hey! Where are you going?"
Yudhisthira paused in mid-stride and waited for his brothers to catch up. "Final business with Duryodhana," he mumbled, by way of explanation. His voice sounded quiet, and strangely distant.
Arjuna instantly didn't like the sound of that. "Where are--?"
"I told Bhima not to come. Or Draupadi. Or Nakula." Yudhisthira glanced over at his remaining two brothers, as if trying to assess how likely they were to kill Duryodhana on sight.
"You can't do this alone," Sahadeva suddenly said. "I mean, you shouldn't. Be alone with Duryodhana."
"We'll go with you," Arjuna said, quickly. He met his brother's eyes, trying to communicate his silent promise: no matter how tempting it may be, he would not send an arrow straight into Duryodhana's heart. And it would be tempting. But Arjuna sensed, somehow instinctively, that protecting his brother was more important. He wasn't sure exactly what Yudhisthira needed protecting from. But Arjuna knew that Duryodhana was evil – more evil that he had ever really imagined – and Arjuna could also see that Yudhisthira was still so broken, so vulnerable. Sahadeva was right. Yudhisthira couldn't face Duryodhana alone, not in his current state of mind.
Yudhisthira nodded, as if he understood Arjuna's train of thought. "Come with me, then," he said. It was a feeble attempt at an order.
Arjuna and Sahadeva followed Yudhisthira as he finished his last walk through the palace. Arjuna felt a strange, angry tightening in his chest as he realized that they were headed toward the ceremonial throne room. Damn you, Duryodhana, he thought, tasting sour hatred in his mouth.
Duryodhana had already posted guards outside the throne room. They stopped Yudhisthira from entering. "Are you unarmed?"
"Obviously," Yudhisthira said, wearily holding up his arms to demonstrate.
The guards glanced at Sahadeva, then at Arjuna. Arjuna knew full well that he was not unarmed – he could never be unarmed, not as long as he was possessed by Gandiva – but he held his hand over his heart and said, "I swear I carry no harmful intentions. I only wish to support my brother."
The guards let them pass.
Yudhisthira mustered up enough dignity to stride into the great hall beyond the doors as if he owned the palace. Arjuna and Sahadeva followed a step behind him.
Duryodhana was settled comfortably on his throne. Sanjaya and several of Duryodhana's brothers were at his side. "Well, hurry up," Duryodhana said impatiently. "Let's have them."
Yudhisthira held out a single data disc, which Sanjaya stepped forward to take.
Duryodhana shot him a suspicious look. "That's it?" he said. "That's your entire staff directory?"
Sanjaya inserted the disc into his reader and clicked it open. "There's, ah…. There is only one name and one comm number here," he said.
"It's the only name you need," Yudhisthira replied calmly.
" 'Kritavarma'?" Sanjaya read, incredulously.
"Talk to him," Yudhisthira said, addressing Duryodhana directly. "He has the power to make all of Indraprastha cooperate with the handover. Or not."
Duryodhana sighed and rubbed his forehead, as if fending off a headache. "Do I really want to ask just who exactly this 'Kritavarma' is?"
"Technically, he's a large-animal veterinarian."
Duryodhana looked aghast. "A commoner?!"
"What kind of government were you running over there, anyway?!"
Yudhisthira said nothing. Arjuna noticed Sahadeva step incrementally close to his brother, though. Arjuna did the same.
Duryodhana, unfortunately, seemed angry. "I can't unify the government offices if you don't cooperate. I need--" He cut himself off when the sound of a comm ringing cut through the hall. "Damn," he murmured. "That's the emergency line."
Instantly, Sanjaya was at his side, holding a comm to his ear.
Duryodhana listened for a moment, his face growing redder and redder. Finally he turned his furious gaze toward Yudhisthira and hissed, "You!"
Yudhisthira dithered, confused. "What? What is it?"
"You put him up to this, didn't you?!"
Yudhisthira shook his head, looking more confused than ever. But Arjuna turned his head and met Sahadeva's eyes, and they both knew, in an instant, who the problem was.
"Bhima," Sahadeva said.
The crowd gathered around the dock had swollen with curious onlookers, both government officials and commoners alike. Bhima and Nakula were isolated on one end of a pier, surrounded by Duryodhana's guards, weapons pointed both inward at the two brothers and outward at the crowd that seemed soon inclined to start getting too close. Bhima didn't seem to notice or care about the guns pointed at him. He was sitting down on the pier, Nakula sitting beside him. The two of them were soaked to the bone, although their clothes were already drying beneath the hot midday sun. Bhima was grinning to himself.
"What did you do?!" Yudhisthira asked, as soon as the guards parted briefly to let him through – although they did not lower their drawn weapons, not for an instant.
"I sank the jumper," Bhima answered simply.
"I punched a hole in the hull."
"What are they going to do?" Nakula asked, dumping water from his boots. "Arrest us? They can't. We're in exile now, officially."
Yudhisthira felt a hot swell of rage bubbling up in his body. "Bhima… Tell me… exactly why you would do such a thing…"
Bhima shrugged. "Duryodhana doesn't need all of his cargo jumpers anymore, does he? You gave him all of ours, remember?" He finally turned his gaze toward Yudhisthira. "The amphibious jumper from Indraprastha had just arrived. And I just didn't like the idea of a jumper full of our stuff sitting there, waiting for Duryodhana to comb through it. So… You know."
"A little wanton destruction to finish off the day," Nakula said, apparently quite satisfied with Bhima's handiwork.
Yudhisthira turned on Nakula immediately. "You suggested this, didn't you?!"
"I was thinking of it before he said it," Bhima stated, calmly.
"And besides," said Nakula. "We promised to hand over our stuff to Duryodhana, but we didn't make any specific promises about whether it would be on the bottom of the bay or not."
"But that's…" Yudhisthira waved his arms helplessly. "Those were our belongings! We were going to get them back!"
"Some of our belongings," Nakula said, paying more attention to the task of picking mud out from beneath his fingernails than he was paying attention to his brother. "Mostly my stuff and yours. The rest hasn't even been packed up yet, much less left Indraprastha." Suddenly he turned toward Yudhisthira and grinned. "You should've seen the look on their faces when Bhima boarded the jumper. I was just tagging along."
"You both could have drowned."
"Believe it or not, it's not that hard to escape a sinking ship."
"Basic survival skill," Bhima added.
Yudhisthira was beyond furious. He was seeing red. He couldn't even think of what to say next. "Nakula," he hissed, deciding to cast his fury upon the most obvious target, "how dare you--"
"Awfully late for you to be getting angry, now, isn't it?" Nakula said. He regarded Yudhisthira contemptuously with his strange, inhuman golden eyes. "Duryodhana treated us like slaves and you said nothing. Duryodhana tried to rape our wife and you said nothing."
"Also, I swore to kill most of our family," Bhima added. "You didn't seem too upset about that, either. This? This is nothing. It was just a ship." Bhima finally stood up, standing at his full imposing height. "Come on," he said, stepping neatly through the circle of guards that wordlessly made way for him to pass. "We should get going."
Yudhisthira nodded silently to Duryodhana's guards as they parted the gathering crowd to make way for Bhima and his brothers. Yudhisthira wasn't sure if Duryodhana's guards were on his side or Duryodhana's side; but either way, they weren't preventing Bhima or Nakula from leaving the dock. They were still pointing their weapons at the exiled princes, but they certainly weren't preventing them from leaving the dock.
The three brothers walked in silence down the length of the dock. The crowd of citizens that had gathered to watch them grew eerily, expectantly silent as well.
Finally, however, Bhima paused beside a few military autos that were parked near the access ramp for another cargo jumper. "I feel like Duryodhana has a few too may of these things, too," he suddenly said, thoughtfully.
Before Yudhisthira could stop him, Bhima was casually lifting one auto into the air and bringing it down on top of a second, smashing both vehicles to pieces.
The crowd exploded in cheers and applause. Duryodhana's guards stood by silently, not joining the cheering crowd, but making no move to silence them – or to stop Bhima. And then suddenly, it was too late. The crowd surged, swarming around the wrecked autos, spilling down the dock area, and marching out into the streets of Hastinapura. "DOWN WITH THE TYRANT!" they chanted. "DOWN WITH THE CHEAT! DOWN WITH THE TYRANT! DOWN WITH THE CHEAT!"
Yudhisthira watched the crowd flowing around him, stomping, chanting, and clapping. He felt dizzy, like his head was swimming. Bhima had just started a riot, and Yudhisthira was helpless to stop it. Not that it mattered, of course. He and his family were still bound to the terms of their exile, no matter how much the citizens of Hastinapura chanted and protested. The only thing that the angry crowd could really change was how much of a mess Duryodhana would be left to clean up, once Yudhisthira and his brothers finally left.
Duryodhana swung his sword blindly. It smashed into a priceless vase and sent the precious work of art tumbling to the floor, shattering into hundreds of sharp, jagged pieces.
"DOWN WITH THE TYRANT!"
He roared and swung his sword again, slicing into a shelf of antique books.
"DOWN WITH THE CHEAT!" The chanting voices still pounded into his ears. It didn't matter that the protesters were located far, far below him and far, far away, unable to approach even the outer walls of the palace compound due to military presence. It didn't matter. Their voices carried across the clean ocean air, filtering through the windows and walls of Durydodhana's private chambers, pounding into his eardrums as strongly as if the idiot protesters had been right there in the room with him.
Duryodhana flung aside his sword. He began tearing books of his shelves and ripping them with his bare hands. "I didn't cheat!" he screamed at the windows and walls. "I didn't cheat! I didn't cheat!" The ice was escaping his hands uncontrollably now, coating everything he touched with a layer of frozen anger. "I did what I had to do, you ingrates! I RE-UNITED THE KINGDOM! I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO!"
Duryodhana flung himself down on his bed – now covered in a layer of hard, frozen ice – and clamped his hands over his ears. "Don't listen to them," he mumbled to himself, pressing his face against the cold ice covering his bed, pressing his frozen hands over his ears. He closed his eyes. Don't listen to them. Don't listen to them. Don't listen to them.
Ice was covering the carpet on the floor and coating the ceiling above his head. Duryodhana clenched his fists against his ears, and his bedposts froze and cracked sharply. He opened his eyes, sat up, and felt like cowering in fear when he saw the frozen stalagmites extending down from the ceiling.
Look at what you did.
"It's just an illusion," Duryodhana mumbled to himself. He took a deep breath, and forced himself under control again. He waved his hands, and in an instant, all of the ice was gone. His chambers were clean and dry and warm, as if no surface had ever been touched by his frozen wrath at all.
But there were still huge cracks splitting apart his wooden bedposts.
Duryodhana sat on his bed and buried his face in his hands. He could still hear the protestors outside the palace. So what if he had cheated? He had needed to reunite the kingdom, and had done so without bloodshed. So what if he had a terrible power that he still needed to keep secret? It didn't make him a monster. And just having power wasn't enough to make him a tyrant by default…
"MONSTER! MONSTER! MONSTER!!" the protestors were shouting now.
Duryodhana suddenly lifted his head out of his hands and laughed. His laugh sounded slightly unhinged even to his own ears, but he didn't care. If only they knew. If only! He laughed again, wondering what the protestors would say if they could have seen the icicles dripping from his ceiling only moments ago. They didn't know the half of it. They didn't know--!
"Monster, huh?" Duryodhana looked up at his ceiling, now bare of icicles. He felt cold. He remembered that it had been slightly chilly in the dice hall, even with all of his brothers and most of his court packed in there. The palace cooling system had been working full blast. He remembered how Draupadi's nipples had looked, pointed and pert beneath the fabric of her sari, erect both from the cold in the hall and from the thrill that Duryodhana knew the little whore was getting from being exposed to the eyes of so many virile, eager men.
Duryodhana felt a fresh surge of frustration tightening his chest, and his groins. He had been so close. He closed his eyes and could so easily imagine the sights that he had been denied – Draupadi's bare breasts heaving as her breath quickened with rage, the pain and humiliation on her face as she would have been paraded around the hall naked, the look that would have been on Yudhisthira's face as Duryodhana would have taken his nude wife in his arms. Duryodhana could imagine all too easily what it would have felt like to fuck her. How tight she would have been. How she would have fought against him. How her screams of anger would have eventually given away to screams of pleasure. How she would have begged him for more, insatiable whore that she was.
Duryodhana sighed with longing, his hand slipping down into his pants. How long had it been since he'd had a woman? He'd never even had a real woman, anyway. He'd fucked a few servants on the side, and had one time even managed to lure the daughter of his Minister of Defense into his private baths for several intensely pleasurable hours. But he had never had a woman that had been worthy enough to be in a public relationship with him. Draupadi would have been worthy, though. Whore that she was, she was at least worthy of being broken by him.
Duryodhana suddenly realized that his hand was stuffed down his pants, and pulled it out, disgusted with himself. Ugh. A moment ago he had been smashing apart his personal possessions and screaming while listening to a bunch of protestors outside his palace, and now he was masturbating and thinking about his cousins' wife while listening to a bunch of protestors outside his palace.
"Pull it together, Duryodhana," he said, sliding off his bed and standing up shakily. "Pull it together. You have to pull your kingdom together. You have to pull yourself together."
And stop talking to yourself, it makes you sound like a crazy person.
"Can do." Duryodhana surveyed the damage in his room – the torn books, the smashed vase, and the cracked bedposts. That could all be repaired. He stumbled over toward a mirror, and stared at his own face. There were deep shadows underneath his eyes. His skin was beginning to age and wrinkle. He looked awful.
"You look awful."
Duryodhana turned just in time to see Bhisma quietly closing the door behind him. "We heard you breaking things," he said. He glanced over at the broken vase, the torn books, and the sword that Duryodhana had flung to the ground. "That vase was a gift from Gandhara," he said.
"It's just… a thing. When they get broken, things can be replaced."
"But not people."
Duryodhana glared at his grandfather. "Did you come here just to spit pithy sayings at me?"
Bhisma returned the glare a thousand-times fold. "That is not how you speak to your grandfather," he said. His voice was even colder than the ice which had been covering Duryodhana's bed moments ago.
Duryodhana switched tactics immediately. "I need to be alone."
"No, you don't. You need to get a speechwriter in here, you need to get out on that balcony, and you need to say something to unite your people before your kingdom falls apart beneath your feet."
"Then fine. Make yourself useful and call a speechwriter." Duryodhana stormed across the room and slumped down into a chair. "My comm isn't working." This was true. Over the years Duryodhana had gotten better about controlling and preventing the occasional leakages of his power that seemed to cause the electronic equipment around him to malfunction. But sometimes – especially when he lost his temper – things short-circuited anyway.
Bhisma still stood by the door of the room, silently. Then he said, "Duryodhana."
Duryodhana buried his face in his hands. "Go away," he mumbled. He didn't have the strength to face Bhisma right now. And besides, it was too late anyway. Bhisma felt cold and far away. Duryodhana wouldn't have blamed him for never wanting to come close again.
But Bhisma did come close, then. Very close. Duryodhana lifted his head out of his hands in time to see Bhisma kneeling before him. Bhisma reached up, and grasped Duryodhana's hands in his. He squeezed Duryodhana's hands tightly. "You're as cold as ice."
Bhisma shook his head. Then he looked up at Duryodhana and asked, in a sad, plaintive voice that Duryodhana had never heard his grandfather use before, "Why?"
Duryodhana was taken aback. "Why… Why what? Why I did it? I did it for you and for Father. I did it to reunite the kingdom."
Bhisma shook his head again. "No, that's not it." He looked up at Duryodhana, and Duryodhana felt his heart breaking when he saw the sorrow in his grandfather's eyes. "Why are you so far away from me?" Bhisma asked. "You're sitting right in front of me, and yet it feels like you're a thousand light-years away." He closed his eyes, and squeezed Duryodhana's hands tightly. "Don't go, Duryodhana," he whispered. "Don't go down that path."
Duryodhana didn't know what to say. He felt his breath rasping in his throat, but no words would come out. Finally he said, in a hoarse whisper, "I'm not going anywhere."
Bhisma opened his eyes. He regarded Duryodhana sadly, but said nothing. Duryodhana looked away from him, unable to meet his eyes. Maybe it was no use lying. Maybe Bhisma could already see the cold, dark place where Duryodhana was trapped. Duryodhana bit his lip, and listened to the protestors again. The voice of the protestors outside, and the ice inside of him, they were all pulling him further into that cold, dark place. But the warmth and weight of his grandfather's hands were still there, anchoring him, keeping him from drifting away. Duryodhana took a deep breath, and decided to let himself be anchored. For now. He leaned forward, close to Bhisma, and said, "I've sinned. A lot. Haven't I?"
"Yes. You have."
"What should I do?"
Bhisma reached up with one hand, and stroked Duryodhana's hair, the way that he had used to when Duryodhana had been a child. "For now," Bhisma said, "You must fulfill your dharma. And your dharma is that of this planet's king. Your people are rioting. You need to put a stop to it."
Duryodhana nodded, solemnly. "And…?"
"Is that all?"
"No." Bhisma tenderly touched Duryodhana's cheek and said, "Promise me that you won't forget how much I love you." He kissed Duryodhana's hand. "And I swear that I will always be by your side. Always and forever."
Duryodhana said nothing. He refused to acknowledge that he felt tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. Finally, desperately trying to prevent his voice from hitching, he asked quietly, "…Then do you forgive me?"
Bhisma let go of Duryodhana's hands, and stood up, slowly. "It is not my role to forgive you. Only the Lord can redeem you from your sins. My role," he said, offering a hand out to Duryodhana and then pulling him out of the chair, "is to support Hastinapura's king. And to guide my grandson along the path of righteousness." He was squeezing Duryodhana's hand again, painfully. "I cannot do either of those things if you turn away from me."
Duryodhana nodded, silently. Finally Bhisma let go of his hands.
"Is your comm really broken?" Bhisma asked, suddenly all business. Duryodhana nodded silently again, and Bhisma pulled out his own. "Here's the plan," he said, punching in numbers as he spoke to Duryodhana. "We're going to put your aunt Kunti in front of the protesters right away, and have her calm them down. Vidura has a speech written for you, and he's on his way now. You will have time to practice it once before you go out on that balcony. Is that clear? I've already arranged transport for Yudhisthira and his brothers to port. Their ship is scheduled to launch in one hour. You and I will be there to see them off. This riot will disperse well before then. Understood?"
Duryodhana nodded for a third time. Things were out of his hands now, but that was perhaps the way that they should be. He was in no condition to be taking charge of anything, not at the moment. But Bhisma understood that. And that was good.
The military presence surrounding the spaceport kept the crowds – both the curious and the outright rioting – as well as the media at bay. Yudhisthira was grateful for that.
Not that there wasn't enough chaos inside the launch bay, though.
"Our prospects look grim," Draupadi said, greeting Yudhisthira by handing him an electronic notebook. "I've catalogued the food stores available on the ship. We have enough to last us through a two-week jump. That will put us in the Gajapati system. We can make our first port there."
Yudhisthira looked at the notebook in his hands, then turned his gaze toward the ship. Their ship. It was resting on its surface legs in the midst of the mostly-deserted port. It was small – barely large enough to take a crew of ten on a deep-space voyage – and old. Depressingly old. It was a junker by any standards, and Yudhisthira knew full well that Duryodhana had chosen that ship to give to his cousins exactly because it was too obsolete to continue using, but not damaged enough to justify scrapping. Duryodhana had just wanted to get rid of it.
"Also," Draupadi added, still all business, "We need to name the damn thing."
"The ship. It was decommissioned. Now we need to give it a new name. It's inauspicious to launch in an un-named ship. And I've been listening to the console… Bhima, did you start a riot?"
"Yes," Bhima answered.
"Excellent." She stood up on her tiptoes to kiss Bhima's chin. Then she moved on to give Nakula a kiss on the lips.
Yudhisthira summarily ignored this. "Sahadeva and Arjuna are coming any moment now. So that means that we're all--"
"No," said Draupadi. "We're not all here. We still need a pilot."
Yudhisthira looked around helplessly. "Draupadi, I don't know where to find a pilot! Duryodhana forbid all of the qualified military personnel from applying to travel with us. And nobody outside of the military has a piloting license!"
Nakula eyed the nameless ship thoughtfully. "Does that thing come with an instruction manual?"
"Oh, shut up." Nakula was clearly at the end of his patience with Yudhisthira. "Do you have a better idea? No? Then shut up and go do something useful." He pointed at a pile of provisions – dried rice, lentils, and medical supplies – still piled beside the small loading bay of the ship. "Go over there and start lifting."
And just like that, Yudhisthira reached the end of his rope too. He threw the electronic notebook to the ground and whirled toward Nakula. "You sniveling, selfish little--"
"Oh, so now he finally gets angry--!"
"Don't you dare order me around, Nakula! I'm the eldest and--"
"—And obeying you is what got us into this mess in the first place!"
That was when Yudhisthira snapped, too. Really snapped, just lost it and saw red. And that was when he raised his hand, preparing for a strike. Bhima stepped neatly between the two of them before Yudhisthira could do something that he would really regret, before he could send the whole family past the point of no return. "That's enough," Bhima hissed at Yudhisthira. Then he turned toward Nakula. "You go over there and load those supplies. Work off that damn temper of yours." Then back toward Yudhisthira. "Pull yourself together."
"Oh thanks, Bhima. Real helpful advice."
Bhima turned away from him angrily. "You won't be helped, will you?"
Draupadi touched Bhima's shoulder. "Let's go," she said. "I'm still trying to catalogue the pre-launch repairs that need to be made. Will you help me?"
Bhima nodded, and a moment later, he and Draupadi boarded the ship. Nakula trudged over to the loading bay, swearing under his breath the whole time. Yudhisthira was left alone, standing in the middle of the launch bay uselessly. He bent over and picked up the electronic notebook that he had flung to the ground. His hands trembled as he pressed its keys, trying to discern if he had damaged it. He wasn't sure what hurt more. Nakula's rage and contempt, he had expected that. Bhima was only trying to help, Yudhisthira supposed, but he was going about it in a decidedly un-helpful way, what with the sinking ships and starting riots and all. But what hurt the worst, Yudhisthira thought, was the way that Draupadi was simply ignoring him. Even when she had been speaking to him a few moments ago, she had been avoiding his eyes, and had handed over the notebook in a way so as to avoid the touch of his hand.
Yudhisthira winced. He could hardly stand to meet her eyes, either. He couldn't even begin to fathom what it would take for her to ever forgive him.
Yudhisthira switched the mode of the electronic notebook with a press of a button, turning it into a mini-console. He flipped through the airwaves, watching broadcast video of the riots. Then he saw Duryodhana on the video screen. Yudhisthira's breath caught in his throat.
Duryodhana was speaking, addressing a rioting crowd around the palace.
Yudhisthira closed his eyes and listened to the words. Powerful words. Duryodhana was good, as usual. Yudhisthira listened to the tinny sound of the crowd coming from the console speakers, the crowd that was beginning to cheer instead of jeering at their king.
"So they're cheering for him now?"
Yudhisthira snapped his eyes open. Nakula was standing in front of him, looking down at the console screen. Nakula shook his head in disgust. "Gods. Our subjects are so stupid."
Yudhisthira glared at Nakula. "Whether Duryodhana deserves the love of the people or not is irrelevant. They must love him, for he is the king. Without a strong king, it is Kuru's people who will suffer."
Nakula rolled his eyes. "Levels of irony this high ought to be fatal."
"Nothing." Then, suddenly, Nakula leaned in close to Yudhisthira. "Do you know why I told Bhima to sink that ship?" he asked, his voice a breathy whisper.
Yudhisthira shook his head.
Nakula glanced around quickly, to make sure that nobody was eavesdropping. Then he said, "My stuff was in the cargo hold of that ship. Including all of the data files that they confiscated from my personal equipment. Designs for… things… Things that I would never actually make, you know, but that I designed."
"By 'things' you mean…?"
"Weapons. And that's not all." Nakula's voice was barely audible now. "Remember that project that Sahadeva and I started? The one where we were trying to replicate Arjuna's speed and movement with Gandiva mechanically? We collected a lot of data for that. A lot of video of Arjuna using Gandiva. Holos, too. Speed measurements. Snap-captures. We had the most sophisticated technology on Kuru at our disposal, and we still couldn't precisely film him when he started shooting really fast. But what we got was enough. Enough to maybe hurt Arjuna if somebody who was an enemy ever found those videos and started studying them."
Yudhisthira stared at him. "Nakula, you don't think…?"
"I was just trying to protect my brother. That's better than you've done so far."
Yudhisthira could say nothing to this, so Nakula, apparently satisfied with his zinger, stormed off again.
Fortunately, Yudhisthira didn't have to stand and stew in his own misery for long before Arjuna and Sahadeva arrived. "Why don't you turn that thing off," Arjuna said, reaching for Yudhisthira's notebook console. "We have to get ready to launch."
"We can't launch without a pilot," Yudhisthira pointed out, again.
"Hey," said Sahadeva, pointing to the opposite side of the bay. "Why are you making Nakula do the heavy lifting? Where's Bhima?"
"Mother says that she's coming after she's done speaking on Duryodhana's behalf," Arjuna continued, rushing to report everything to Yudhisthira. "Duryodhana's court will be here in an hour, too. I mean, the whole court. Everybody. To see us off. We have to get ready!"
"You're not going to come up with a pilot in one hour, are you?" Sahadeva said, more of a statement than a question.
Yudhisthira pressed one hand against his forehead, trying to fend off a sudden headache. Running a kingdom was one thing, but this was turning out to be a completely different set of impossible tasks. "I'll think of something," he told Sahadeva tersely.
"Pray to the Lord," Arjuna said.
"Arjuna, that's not very helpful."
"The Lord won't desert us."
"But does the Lord know how to pilot a spaceship?!"
"That's not--" Suddenly Arjuna fell silent, his eyes widening as he apparently spotted something behind Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira turned and saw two unfamiliar commoners striding across the bay toward them. No, not unfamiliar. Yudhisthira squinted, and then he remembered where he had seen one of the pair – the younger man – before. It was Krishna, the younger brother of Balarama. And he was accompanied by an old man with a knotted white beard and a sour-looking face.
Yudhisthira's questions were immediate. What was Balarama's brother doing all the way over here, and why had the guards posted around the launch area let him through?!
Krishna and the old man walked right up to Yudhisthira. Neither of them bowed. "Hi," Krishna said. "I heard that you needed a pilot."
Yudhisthira stared at him. "You're, uh… Balarama's brother, right?"
"Yeah. We've met before." He suddenly glanced over Yudhisthira's shoulder, toward Arjuna. "Right, Arjuna?"
The convoy of hoverers crawled slowly through the air above the city streets of Hastinapura. Duryodhana waved at the crowds gathered to cheer for him. He waved as long as he could, until the skyscrapers thinned and the open air emptied of his supporters. With the press of a button, the windows in his hoverer went opaque again. Duryodhana leaned back in his seat and sighed.
"You handled that well," Karna said.
"You helped me."
"No I didn't. I just stood next to you while you spoke. I didn't do anything."
"But that was enough." Duryodhana glanced sideways at Karna. "They love you, you know. The lowborns think of you as one of their own. They'll support whomever you support."
Karna laughed. "Is that why you keep me around?"
"Yes. Well, that and the fact that I like you."
"Oh, I'm so flattered."
"You should be. My taste is impeccable." Duryodhana regarded Karna for a moment, then said, "Tomorrow I'm going to send you to Indraprastha."
Karna was startled. "Tomorrow I have to be back in Anga. Vrishasena has an archery competition."
"Fine. The following day, then."
"I told you. The lowborns there will respond better to you than to me. I'd send Ashwatthama, but, you know, he still looks too Panchalan, and they're kind of backwards about those things over there."
"But they loved Draupadi--"
"They liked her because she has huge breasts and because she's always shamelessly flashing them with those whorish clothes of hers. Can't say the same for Ashwatthama." Duryodhana pulled out his comm and began fiddling with it, typing a message even as he continued to speak to Karna. "I want to put you in charge of the Mayasabha. That palace needs a devakin resident. It's kind of hard to explain, but that's what it needs, I think."
Karna was quiet for a moment. Then he said softly, "Shrutakiirti is pregnant."
Duryodhana snapped off his comm immediately. "Again?!"
"Well… Yes. I mean, we both decided that we want a large family. This isn't an unexpected pregnancy." He looked Duryodhana directly – and defiantly – in his eyes. "I need to spend more time on Anga from now on."
Duryodhana looked away from him. "I know. I know you do. But I need you too right now. Especially right now. It's not… It's not just because the lowborns like you, although that helps. It's just that I need you."
Karna was silent for a long moment, then he slowly reached over and grasped Duryodhana's hand. "I made a vow to you, didn't I?" he said. "And I'll stand by that vow. Anything for you. Anything. All you ever have to do is ask." Then he pulled his hand away from Duryodhana's hand. "But if you make me miss Vrishashena's competition tomorrow, I'm going to take ask Shrutakiirti to take a holo of his sad little face and send it straight to your comm."
Duryodhana winced. "Fine. I won't. I swear."
They rode in silence after that, but it was not an uncomfortable silence. Duryodhana was surprised to find that he was dozing lightly by the time that their hoverer touched down near the port where his damn cousins were set to launch from.
Duryodhana and his entourage landed well within the circle of military protection now ringing the port, far from the civilians that had gathered in the surrounding area, some to cheer, others to protest.
Inside the launchbay, Duryodhana strode like the king that he was, Karna at his side, across the vast expanse of the bay floor. He was surrounded by his bodyguards, and confident that nothing and nobody would try to stand in his way. Which was why he was surprised when somebody did.
"So there you are!"
And old, withered man with a long white beard and a sour face was marching across the bay floor directly toward Duryodhana. Duryodhana's guards drew their weapons. There was something intense and insane about the old man's eyes. But Karna suddenly stepped forward and ordered the guards, "Drop your weapons."
"His Majesty is in no danger." Karna stepped out of the ring of bodyguards, toward the old man, his arms open in an invitation to embrace. "You came all this way to see me? But you told me that you didn't want to ever look upon my face again."
"You stupid, stupid man." The old man returned Karna's embrace even as he yelled at him. "I leave you alone for a decade or two and this is what you make of yourself?! I didn't come all this way just to see you. I came all this way to give you a smack upside the head, you adharmic imbecile!"
Karna stepped away from the old man's embrace. "Good to see that you haven't changed." He turned toward Duryodhana, who was waiting rather impatiently for an explanation. "Your Majesty, this is my guru Parashurama. He taught me how to use Vijaya."
Duryodhana was about to bow and show the proper respect, when the old man suddenly snapped, "Don't you dare call that honorless sack of shit 'Your Majesty.' You think I'm going to stand by and do nothing while my pupil sucks on the limp sore-ridden dick of this false king?!" He reached out, grabbed one of Karna's golden earrings, and yanked on it as hard as he could. "You come with me. Now. We need to talk."
For a moment, Duryodhana was absolutely stunned. He braced himself, waiting for the inevitable moment when Karna would strike back against the insolent fool who had so vulgarly insulted his king. With his fists, most likely, but with Vijaya if Duryodhana was really lucky.
But that moment never came. Karna stumbled forward, and the old man kept pulling on his earring angrily. The two of them began to step awkwardly away from Duryodhana, the old man pulling on Karna's ear and grunting angrily, and Karna – bizarrely – making no move to resist him. Karna turned his face briefly toward Duryodhana, mouthed "I'm sorry" with a chagrined look on his face, and then turned away again.
Duryodhana figured that he ought to be fuming at Karna for leaving him in his moment of need.
But the image of Karna being pulled by his earring across the bay floor amused Duryodhana enough that he allowed the scene to unfold as it did. He turned away from the old man and Karna, and continued his way silently across the bay floor. He figured that he could ask Karna for an explanation later. And it had better be a good explanation, Duryodhana told himself, feeling a brief twinge of anger again. But the anger passed.
Wait, Duryodhana suddenly thought. How did that old man get past the military blockade--?
But he didn't have time to think about that anymore. He had reached the parting point – the farthest edge of the launch bay where humans were allowed so safely stand during a launch. Duryodhana paused and waited, his guards falling into position around him. There were other hoverers arriving behind his. Eventually his court fell into place around him: Bhisma. Ashwatthama and his father. Dusshasana and several of his brothers. Dusshala. Yuyutsu. Shakuni. Duryodhana's parents. Vidura came last, holding Kunti's trembling hands in his.
Duryodhana watched with forced disinterest as his cousins scrambled around the junker that they had been given, loading supplies, trying desperately to finish a safety inspection, and doing it all without any help from any of the crowd of gawkers gathering to watch.
Duryodhana tried not to smirk as he watched Yudhisthira ineffectively giving orders, Bhima doing the heavy lifting like a common laborer, Nakula pointedly ignoring everything that Yudhisthira told him to do, Sahadeva following suit, and Draupadi doing her best to keep track of everything on the electronic notebook that she was nervously clutching to her chest. All of them were trying to pretend as though they weren't being stared at.
Suddenly Arjuna and someone unfamiliar jumped down from the boarding ramp and onto the bay floor. Duryodhana tried not to laugh at the sight. Clearly his cousins had finally found a pilot stupid enough to join them in their exile – and a lowborn commoner by the looks of things.
Now the last of the supplies were loaded, and the cargo ramp was raised. Beneath the looming spaceship, seven small figures gathered together and turned toward the crowd at the edge of the bay. Yudhisthira stepped forward, and began walking toward them, followed by the rest of his family and their pilot. This was it.
Duryodhana turned toward Ashwatthama. "You have it?"
Ashwatthama took Kunti's hand from Vidura, and began to lead her across the bay floor toward Yudhisthira. Ashwatthama had one last task to do, and Kunti had her last farewells to say.
Yudhisthira took Kunti's hands from Ashwatthama. "Mother," he said. Then he choked up, momentarily unable to say anything else. Finally he said, in a breathy, trembling whisper, "I'm so sorry."
"Don't be." She touched his cheek. "You can't afford to feel sorry right now." She looked at him with her steely gaze, not a hint of sadness in her eyes. "Yudhisthira, listen to me. I've lost your father. I've lost your mother Madri. But I haven't lost you. Not any of you. You're all coming back to me, aren't you?"
Yudhisthira nodded, and Kunti pulled him into a tight embrace. "My sons are strong. They'll survive." She then embraced Bhima and Arjuna in turn. She hesitated a moment before putting her arms around Nakula, but only for a moment. "You'll keep your brothers from doing anything too foolish, won't you?"
"I make no promises," Nakula said.
Kunti embraced Sahadeva, and then Draupadi. "I'm sorry," she said as she held Draupadi in her arms. "I'm so sorry that your father couldn't be here. He wanted so badly to say his farewells to you."
"I know," Draupadi said in a quiet voice. But there was nothing that any of them could have done about that. Drupada had insisted that the launch be delayed for a day so that he could make the jump from Panchala in order to personally say farewell to his daughter; but Duryodhana had refused.
Finally Kunti withdrew her embrace, then paused to give a look-over to the commoner who was going to join her sons in their exile. She squinted at him. "And you are…?"
He bowed low to her. "I am Krishna, Your Highness. Brother of Balarama."
Kunti tapped her lip thoughtfully. "I had heard Balarama had a brother, but have never met any such person. And yet… You seem somehow familiar…"
Krishna straightened up out of his bow hastily. "My brother and I look very much alike, or so I am often told," he said quickly. A bit too quickly.
Yudhisthira raised an eyebrow when he heard this, but said nothing.
Sensing that the farewells were finished, Ashwatthama stepped forward. "Are you ready?" he asked.
"Wait. There is one more thing." Yudhisthira touched Arjuna's shoulder. "Go ahead."
Arjuna nodded. And then there were a pair of arrows in his hands. Old-fashioned ones, wooden, with feather fletches and stone tips. Not the modern arrows made of synthetic materials that he sometimes materialized, and not the ones that flashed like lightning or flowed like rain, either. Arjuna snapped off the tips of both arrows, then dropped one in his mother's hands, and gave the other to Ashwatthama. "It's not much," he said. "Because we don't have anything else to give you right now. But… It's something to remember us by."
Ashwatthama clutched the arrowhead in his hands. "I can't accept this," he said. "It's a piece of your heart."
"I know. That's why I gave it to you." The remains of Arjuna's broken arrows vanished in his hands; then he leaned forward and embraced Ashwatthama. "I have more where that came from, you know. I'll be fine."
"Then I'll keep this," Ashwatthama said, returning Arjuna's embrace even as he clutched the arrowhead in one hand, "if only to give it back to you when you return."
Arjuna kissed Ashwatthama's cheek, then pulled out of the embrace and turned toward his mother. She was cupping the arrowhead in her hands. "It feels warm," she said. "But wet. Like rain." She clutched it to her chest. "Thank you. I'll keep it with me always. Until you come back to me, that is."
Arjuna nodded, satisfied with this. Then he stepped back; his role was finished. Yudhisthira stepped forward. "Now," he said to Ashwatthama. "We're ready now."
Ashwatthama concealed his arrowhead somewhere within his official robes, then took a deep breath. It was obvious from the pained expression on his face that he would have given anything to not be the one forced to do what he was about to do, but he was of course unable to disobey Duryodhana's orders. He pulled a ring – a flat grey stone set in a silver band – out of his robes.
Yudhisthira held out his hand. "Well, hurry up," he said.
Ashwatthama looked to Arjuna, to Kunti, and back to Yudhisthira. "I've cursed this ring," he said, "with the full extent of my spiritual powers. That's, um, that's a lot," he added a bit sheepishly. Then he continued, "This is the symbol of Yudhisthira's oath to His Majesty. The conditions of the oath are as follows: Yudhisthira must travel to the Yama Quadrant and stay within the bounds of that space for thirteen years. During this time, contact between Yudhisthira and any friend or relative known to him before the start of his exile is forbidden. Yudhisthira must work and live as a commoner to fulfill his own survival needs. Yudhisthira may not stay on any one planet for a period longer than six months as calculated by Kuru's standard. At the start of the thirteenth year, Yudhisthira is permitted to adopt a disguise and conceal his identity, in order to avoid detection by His Majesty's seekers. If Yudhisthira is found during the thirteenth year, his exile will begin anew. This oath applies not only to Yudhisthira but to his six companions. If at any point this oath is broken, His Majesty will know. His Majesty wears the ring that matches this one. If the oath breaks, the rings will break." He placed the ring on Yudhisthira's finger. "Thus you accept this oath." Then he added, in a much smaller and less official-sounding voice, "You don't have to wear it all the time. Just keep it with you in your ship. I cursed it good and strong for you."
Yudhisthira, amazingly, was able to chuckle quietly at this. "That's very thoughtful of you."
"Just trying to help."
"Ashwatthama has a lot of mysterious powers," Arjuna said cheerfully. Then he reached for his brother's hand. "Can I keep the ring?" he asked. "If it's full of Ashwatthama's spiritual powers, then it will be like always having a bit of him with me."
Ashwatthama blushed at this, but Yudhisthira promptly removed the ring from his hand and handed it to Arjuna. "No harm in that," he said. "It doesn't matter who has the ring, since the oath binds us all equally."
"Thank you!" Arjuna said, sounding far too cheerful considering the circumstances.
Then there was a moment of awkward silence. "Well," Yudhisthira said.
"Well," Kunti echoed.
"This is, ah… I guess this is goodbye," Yudhisthira said. They had finished all of their business and could no longer delay the inevitable.
"Wait," Draupadi suddenly said. "There's still one more thing." She pointed at the spaceship looming behind them. "It still needs a name." She turned toward Kunti. "Will you do the honors?"
Kunti eyed the ship thoughtfully. Then she said, "Duryona." She smiled. "It means 'home.'"
Nakula rolled his eyes. "That's depressing."
"It's a good name," Draupadi said. "A good name."
They did not embrace again, because they had already finished their embraces. When it was time to part, Ashwatthama merely walked Kunti back toward the rest of the silently watching crowd.
On board the Duryona, things were oddly terse and quiet, despite the fact that there should have been a million things to worry about pre-launch. Nakula sequestered himself in the engine room with a stack of safety manuals – the old-fashioned kind, printed on paper – and fifteen minutes later emerged with the proclamation, "I think I've figured out the engine mechanism – it's absolute shit – and I think I finished all the steps of the pre-launch check. I think. It's hard to tell, because, you know, our engine is absolute shit. We have enough fuel to jump us to the Gajapati system. But no farther."
Nakula was the last person to take his place on the bridge. Except that he didn't really take a place, he just sort of stood around, as they were all doing. There were places to sit on the bridge, but the only one already sitting down was Krishna, secure at his station at the helm. He was poking at the buttons at his station in between cursory glances at the electronic manual scrolling on the screen in front of him. "Wow, there sure are a lot of buttons!" he exclaimed cheerfully.
Yudhisthira was giving him a mildly horrified look. "Are you sure that you know what you're doing?"
"Pretty sure. I've figured out how to prime the engines, launch, steer, and make a jump. And I mean, I don't even have to do any steering at all, I just tell the computer where to go and it gets us there." Krishna gave Yudhisthira a thumbs-up signal. "We're good!" Then he tapped a button, and pulled up another screen. "So let's go. Who's going to walk us through the launch sequence?" When a confused silence greeted this question, he turned again toward Yudhisthira and said pointedly, "That's normally the captain's job."
Yudhisthira sighed. "So I'm the captain, now?"
"If you can't be a king you might as well be a captain," Bhima pointed out.
"Oh, hells no," Nakula said. "I'll mutiny. I swear I will."
"Can your mutiny wait," Yudhisthira said wearily, "until after we've made our first jump, at least?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever."
"Right." Yudhisthira glanced around the unfamiliar bridge. "I guess, ah, this is the captain's chair?" he said, placing his hand on the appropriate seat. Yudhisthira turned toward Bhima and Draupadi, who had each had more experience on board spaceships – or at least military spaceships – than he had. "Right?"
"Right." Draupadi nodded, then smoothly slipped into her military mode. "What are we looking at, here? Four bridge positions?"
Bhima answered her. "Three, actually. Environmental and engineering together at one station. The helm also handles navigation. The first mate's seat has the communication controls."
Draupadi rubbed her forehead, as if staving off a headache. "Please tell me that we have a weapons station."
"No. We don't have any weapons. This is a class of transport ship that was decommissioned decades ago."
"Great." Draupadi tapped her foot impatiently. "We at least have defensive shields, right?"
Krishna pointed to a mass of buttons at his station. "I think these are shields."
"I'm still not done reading the operator's manual."
"Great," Draupadi repeated. But she pushed gamely ahead anyway. "Nakula, you were in the engine room for a moment ago, so do you think you can take the engineering station?"
"I can, but Sahadeva has to help me. It'll take two of us to keep that thing from blowing once we engage the jump drive. I mean, this ship is old."
"We noticed." Draupadi frowned. "Anyway, there's only one seat at the engineering station, so for now you can, I don't know, arm wrestle Sahadeva for it or something."
"Let him take it," Sahadeva said, stepping down to the row of extra seats a step below the bridge stations. "I'll sit down here with Arjuna."
"Wait wait wait," Arjuna protested. "Who said that I was sitting down there? Don't I get a bridge position?"
Bhima, Draupadi, and Nakula laughed at that. Krishna gave Arjuna a sympathetic look, but said nothing. Yudhisthira coughed.
"Fine," Arjuna said, stepping off the command level and down to the row of seats immediately below. "I'm fine down here."
Draupadi ignored this childish outburst. "Bhima, do you want to take the first mate's seat, or give it to me?"
"How about I arm-wrestle you for it?"
"Ha ha, very funny." She paused, and thought about the problem for a moment, pondering it seriously. Then she said, "We'll decide on a chain of command later. But for the time being, I'll take the first mate's position."
"I'd like to point out," Bhima said, "that I have more familiarity with Kuru technology – even obsolete Kuru technology – than you do."
"And I'd like to remind you that once upon a time I successfully invaded and all but conquered your pathetic little planet and I think that makes me slightly more qualified to take a leadership position here than you. Also," Draupadi added, "The eldest brother's first wife has authority over the second brother. So there."
Bhima laughed heartily. "I love it when you remind me of exactly why I love you." He leaned forward and kissed her. "Don't ever change."
"I don't intend to." She leaned forward to kiss Bhima lightly on the cheek, the quickly whispered into his ear, "Sit down there for now and take care of Arjuna."
Bhima nodded, then stepped down to take his seat beside Arjuna. Satisfied with the arrangement of the bridge, Draupadi took her seat at the first mate's station. "Right. So. Are we ready to run through the pre-launch checklist?" She turned her head slightly to give Yudhisthira a pointed look. "Captain?"
Yudhisthira frowned. "I'd rather that you didn't call me that."
Draupadi turned away from him, and said nothing. Her scalp was still sore from when Dusshasana had pulled her hair. She still didn't feel as though Yudhisthira quite deserved for her to be addressing him by name again, at least not yet. She could still feel her love for him, burning together with the anger in her heart. She knew on an intellectual level which of those emotions would win out as time passed. But she also knew that she needed time to let her anger burn hot and bright. Her anger was sustaining her at the moment. Her anger was what was helping her confidently organize the bridge and order around her husbands, instead of buckling under the crushing weight of her humiliation, her grief at being separated from her father and brothers without even getting a chance to say her farewells, her worry about how Dhristadyumna would pull himself together without her, her fear about heading into the Yama Quadrant with only an unqualified pilot and her inexperienced husbands in the engine room and very little standing between her and the bleak promise of death. Draupadi took a deep, shuddering breath, and let her anger burn brighter in her heart. Yes, she definitely needed the heat of her anger at that moment. She could face her grief later, on her own terms. For the moment, her husbands – and especially Yudhisthira – needed her to remain strong, calm, and focused.
Yudhisthira, who was currently lacking for both dignity and confidence but at least still had his sharp intellect to fall back on, wasted very little time fiddling with the controls on the captain's chair before he pulled up the electronic screen that he needed: a scrolling pre-flight checklist. "Fine. Here we go. Uh. Hull openings sealed? What does that mean?"
"Whether the bay doors are closed or not," Bhima provided helpfully from the lower level of seats.
"…Right. So are the bay doors closed?" There was silence. "Who's supposed to answer that?"
"I think I am. Wait. Still trying to figure this out," Krishna said helpfully, flipping through the options on his electronic screen. "Here it is!" An image of the ship, with bay doors and boarding ramps highlighted in green, appeared on his screen. "They're closed."
Yudhisthira moved on to the next item. "Fuel levels?"
"Full," Nakula replied promptly. He had already mastered the controls of his station as if it had been one of his childhood electronic toys. "And sufficient to jump within acceptable distance of Gajapati."
Yudhisthira read through the rest of the checklist. Nakula and Krishna continued to answer him. Draupadi could hear his voice faltering over some of the more unfamiliar terms. She could all too easily imagine Yudhisthira mentally kicking himself for delegating all tasks related to Kuru's spacefaring fleet to Bhima over the years and never learning about the technology for his own purposes. But he was learning now, and learning fast.
"Canopy uncovered?" Yudhisthira finally asked.
Krishna pushed a button, and the shutters that covered the transparent dome of the bridge pulled apart. "Uncovered," he said. Kuru's sky shimmered a pale blue above them.
Yudhisthira looked up at the sky for a long moment, then turned to Nakula. "Right, then. Start the engines."
The engine was rumbling to life beneath them. Arjuna could feel it vibrating deep in his bones. He glanced around at the clear canopy now surrounding him, but it only gave him a view of what was above and in front of the ship, not below. So he settled down into his seat, closed his eyes, and stilled his thoughts, trying to expand his mind's eyes the way that Mr. Drona had taught him how to.
And then he saw them, standing in a crowd a distance from the launch floor, looking up at the rumbling ship with sorrow-lined faces. Arjuna saw his mother, holding back her tears, gazing with defiant, shimmering eyes up at the bridge of the ship. Arjuna saw Vidura holding his mother's shoulders, his head bowed. Arjuna saw Kripi and Mr. Drona holding each other too, as they watched the ship lifting off. Arjuna saw Ashwatthama, his hand closed around the arrowhead that Arjuna had given him, clutching it to his chest. And when Arjuna saw Ashwatthama's face, that was it, his heart broke, and his vision evaporated as his consciousness returned to his body seated inside the ship. He blinked tears from his eyes, and felt his cheeks flushing with anger, shame, and sadness. He had wanted to see more. He had wanted to see Grandpa Bhisma's face one last time, to burn it into his memory as he had the others. But it was no use. Arjuna was suddenly too overwhelmed with his own emotions; there was no way he could get his senses back under control again.
Bhima reached out and touched Arjuna's hand. He was pointedly looking away from Arjuna, sparing Arjuna the indignity of having his tears seen. Arjuna was grateful for that, but also instantly ashamed. Strong, he told himself. He had to be strong. Crying was for women. And Draupadi wasn't even crying. The tears in Arjuna's eyes were shameful.
Krishna shouted something from the bridge, but Arjuna couldn't hear over the sudden roar of the engines. Then the ship lurched. Arjuna felt the sudden adrenaline rush in his blood, instinctively preparing himself for danger. But Bhima leaned over and shouted, "That was the landing gear retracting. We're hovering now."
"I said we're hovering now!"
Arjuna's ear drums were pounding. "Is it supposed to be this loud?!"
Bhima laughed. At least his laugh was loud enough to be heard over the roar of the engines.
Another lurch, and Arjuna's stomach dropped. They were lifting off.
Arjuna felt their ascent, hard and fast. Almost too fast. His thoughts were racing. This is it, he thought, as the truth finally lodged into his brain. We're leaving Kuru. We're really leaving Kuru.
The engines began to quiet down as the Duryona's launch momentum propelled it upward. "One click above sea level," Arjuna could now hear Krishna reporting from the bridge. "One point five. Two."
Arjuna turned toward Sahadeva, who was looking up through the canopy of the bridge, at the blue sky above them. "It never gets any closer," Sahadeva said, "until all of a sudden it's gone." The sky was beginning to darken already.
Arjuna closed his eyes, trying to empty his thoughts. When he opened his eyes again, thousands of stars were gleaming in the pitch blackness that had enveloped the bridge canopy.
Arjuna's heart sank at the sight. It was not something that he had never seen before. But it was going to be his last glimpse of Kuru's stars for a long time.
"Cruise program initiated," Krishna reported. "The computer will guide us to the jump point."
"How long do we have until jump?" Yudhisthira asked.
"Twenty-four hours until we've escaped the system's gravity," Nakula said. Arjuna could hear him unbuckling himself already, standing up from his seat. "From the back observation deck we'll have a view of Kuru for the next several hours." Then he added, in a quiet voice, "Best to enjoy it now."
Kuru was more blue than it was any other color. Draupadi had to squint to see any visible landmass. At present, the Eastern hemisphere, which held the gleaming jewel of Hastinapura in its bosom, was turned toward them. In the dark distance, Kuru's sun gleamed, still too bright to look at. But the light of the sun was rapidly fading. The swirling gaseous bulk of Kuru Five was already looming in the area visible from the observation deck.
Bhima slipped his hand around Draupadi's waist. She leaned against him, gratefully, but said nothing.
There were no seats on the tiny observation deck. Just a small ledge to stand on, and a clear canopy. The "deck" was little more than a last-minute addition that some thoughtful architect had grafted onto the rear of the ship. But it was long enough, at least, to be shared by several people. And so the five brothers and their wife stood silently, watching until their home faded from view, swallowed by the dark emptiness of space.
The rings of Kuru Six finally drifted into view. By then Draupadi had had enough. Kuru, her home, was no longer visible. She pulled away from Bhima, turned, and stepped off the observation deck. Somebody had to break the inertia, after all, and it might as well be her.
"Yudhisthira," she said.
He turned toward her immediately, barely masking his surprise at hearing her finally address him by name. "Yes?"
"Come with me," she said. "We have work to do."
Thirteen years of work, she thought, taking his hand. And a kingdom to win back. She glanced up at him, at his lined face, the few gray hairs that he had forgotten to pluck that morning, the deep furrows in his brow. I don't want to do this to you, she suddenly thought. I don't want to be the one who makes you into the king that you need to be. I don't know if I can be that cruel.
But then he bowed his head to her, and gently kissed her hand. "My Queen," he said. "Forever."
And Draupadi realized that he had just made her a promise.
Kuru was gone. But her husbands were still there, gathered around her, watching her, waiting for her to speak.
"Well," she said, "Let's get started."
To be continued.