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!
EXILE 02: PAST TENSE
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIFTEEN DAYS, AND SIXTEEN HOURS AGO
One of them was alone.
That surprised her. The brothers were almost never apart, at least not as long as she had been observing them. They were a strange combination, oddly mismatched, and as different as night and day – but they were also inseparable. Or had been, until that morning.
Hidimbi cautiously crawled through the bushes, approaching for a closer look. It was the big one who was out there all alone in the forest, crashing through the underbrush as he followed an animal trail down to the bank of a not-insubstantial stream, already stripping off his shirt as he walked. "Day forty-three," Hidimbi whispered into her collar-recorder, "eight hundred hours. One of the princes appears to be going for a swim – alone. I wonder what happened to his brother." There was no need for her to whisper, not technically. After all, her cloak of maya prevented her research subjects from seeing or hearing her. Nevertheless, the overwhelming sense that a whisper was called for was still a difficult feeling to shake.
Hidimbi had been trailing and closely observing the two Kuru princes for the past three days, ever since they had first shown up in her forest. Previously, she had limited her research to hovering around the edges of the impoverished shantytowns surrounding the city that the Kurus called "Hastinapura." She had observed much about the lives of the bottom rung of humans in this society, all of it quite fascinating, and all of it leaving her hungry to know more. But even with her cloak of maya, she dared not venture too far into human habitation. She was no magician, and her maya was imperfect. That, and the fact that there were a number of devakin concentrated in the area of the royal palace provided a powerful deterrent. The gathering of that many devakin in one place had the effect of cloaking Hastinapura in an aura so powerful that it sometimes felt as though it were burning against Hidimbi's skin.
When the two devakin princes had shown up in the forest, however, the game had changed. As it was just the two of them, they had produced a gentle enough aura that eventually Hidimbi had begun to build up an immunity to it. The more time she had spent close to them, the stronger her immunity became. Unlike the poor farmers that Hidimbi had grown used to studying, the royal princes had been a completely different breed of research subject. Their language and their mannerisms had initially thrown Hidimbi for a loop, but it ultimately hadn't taken her long to grow accustomed to their way of speaking. The more that she had listened to them, the more information that she had gleaned about them. She had learned that they were brothers, that they were princes, that they were attempting – for a short while, at least – something close to might what be called a "vacation" in the forest. Unfortunately, the "vacation" hadn't been much of one, as the skinny, chain-smoking prince had been unable to shut up about politics for more than a few heartbeats at a time, and the tall, burly prince had spent most of the past few days rolling his eyes and attempting to get his brother to relax. Most of his attempts had been futile.
Now he was alone, on the bank of the mountain stream still swollen from the rain that had fallen several days ago, stripping off his clothes. Hidimbi watched him for a moment, then averted her eyes. Despite the beliefs of many of her kind, Hidimbi knew that humans weren't quite as low as base animals, and therefore they deserved to be granted at least a modicum of respect and dignity. Hidimbi had no problem listening in on – and recording – her subjects' conversations. That was all done in the name of science, of course. But she could think of no good excuse to violate her subjects' privacy when they were nude and vulnerable, whether they were aware of the violation or not.
Hidimbi carefully spoke into her collar-recorder again. "He's getting into the water now, I think." She looked, suspecting from the sound of his splashing that it was relatively safe to look at him again. It was. "The flow has a dangerous current but he appears unconcerned. Swimming now. His back markings are very interesting. Note to self: More study of devakin markings in future. Would tracings from living subjects be unethical? Debate later."
She watched him swim for a few moments, the broad strokes of his oversized arms cutting effortlessly through the rushing water. Then, apparently satisfied, he jumped out of the water, flopped himself down on a relatively flat area of the riverbank, sighed contentedly, then laced his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He sunned himself in the bright morning light, still completely naked. His legs spread wide apart. This time, Hidimbi did not look away.
"A nap? So early?" Hidimbi mused into her recorder. "Perhaps Kuru royalty is bred to be as lazy as rakshasa royalty. Would not be a surprise." She carefully stepped toward him, approaching closer and closer, until she was no longer protected by the branches and leaves of the forest. She stood beside him, looming over him, but still cloaked from head to toe in her own maya, unseen. "Interesting. Have not observed such casual disregard for nudity taboo before. Especially when with his brother – subject was much more reserved. Still unknown reasons for this culture's development of inconvenient modesty in such a miserably hot climate."
She stared at him openly now, figuring in the back of her mind that this was more scientific observation than not. Still, whether judged by human or by rakshasa standards, he was quite the breathtaking sight. Far taller than an average human, his body hard and thick with muscles, well-toned and well-shaped from head to toe, save for some softness around what Hidimbi assumed would eventually be an ample belly. He had that particular type of handsome face that most devakin seemed to have, not so much handsome in an extraordinary way, but rather symmetrical and evenly-spaced, which accounted for most of what humans defined as beautiful anyway. Unfortunately, he had a very human nose. Hidimbi tapped thoughtfully at her own rakshasa face, at her tiny rakshasa nose; she did not understand why something as alien as a nose should fascinate her so much, but it did.
Suddenly, he opened his eyes.
Hidimbi momentarily froze. She was leaning over him, and he was staring right into her eyes. But then she reminded herself, with a mental chuckle, that he couldn't possibly be actually seeing her, let alone detecting her presence with any of his other limited human senses. Don't be silly, she told herself. He's looking through you, not at you. She gazed some more at his face, thinking that she probably should turn her head to see what could possibly have been so fascinating as to cause him to stare so intently. But she couldn't look away from his eyes. "Eyes appear to be dark brown and unremarkable for his race, save for hint of unseen colors beneath irises. Difficult to describe. Perhaps an effect unique to devakin? Requires further investigation. Quite a lovely effect, regardless."
"Why thank you," the Kuru prince said.
Then Hidimbi really did freeze. Her brain activity momentarily crashed to a halt, her thoughts choking on two impossible questions – How can he see me?! How can he understand a word that I just said?! Her mouth opened and closed, stupidly. Her voice rasped in her throat. Finally, however, she managed to gasp out two words: "You're welcome."
He squinted up at her. There was no fear in his face, only a half-asleep, dreamy sort of curiosity. However, Hidimbi could see his muscles beginning to tense, his legs slowly drawing together, his body preparing to spring into action if so required. But his hands remained laced casually behind his head. He wasn't even making an effort to protect or shield his bits. "Are you a yaksha?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm a rakshasa. Uh… Pleased to meet you."
Slowly, he removed his hands from behind his head. Slowly, he sat up. "I think we've met," he said. He was keeping eye contact with her even as he repositioned himself. "Are you the one who's been watching us?"
"…You could see me?"
"Not always." Now he was finally drawing his legs together in a more protective position. "Sometimes out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes straight on. At first I thought I was imagining you, but you kept getting clearer and clearer."
Hidimbi didn't know what to say that. She wasn't exactly sure how to read his reaction, either. Then she finally said, "I mean you no harm."
"I kind of figured." Unbelievably, he gave her a wry smile. "But I thought you were yaksha. I thought it would have been a bad idea to say or do anything as long as you weren't hurting us. And I didn't say anything to Yudhisthira because, you know, he has problems with his blood pressure." Suddenly his smile vanished. "But you're a rakshasa."
"And you were spying on us?" His eyes narrowed. "If you're plotting something against Yudhisthira, so help me God I'll--"
"Oh no no no no no no. Nothing like that." She shook her head frantically. "I'm an anthropologist."
That gave him pause. "A what?"
"An anthropologist. You know, a scientist."
He was sitting up completely now, his whole body tense, ready to spring at a moment's notice. His eyes narrowed even further. "You're joking. Rakshasa don't have scientists."
"And why wouldn't we?!"
He seemed taken aback by the question. And he clearly didn't have an answer for it, at least not right away. But finally he said, "Because you don't."
Hidimbi crossed her arms over her chest. "All right, Kuru. Say what you will, but I am a scientist. And I have two scientific questions for you. One, how can see me? And two, how can you understand my speech?" She pointed one claw at him. "Somehow I doubt you've ever sat down and studied a rakshasa language before."
He looked taken aback, again. "You're speaking… Oh." His eyes widened. "I don't know." He stared at her. "I really don't know. I also know that I've never seen a rakshasa who wears clothes before."
Hidimbi laughed at the absurdity of his statement. "Then you've never seen a rakshasa! We have civilized standards of modesty," she said, glancing up and down his body and smirking, "unlike some."
He shrugged, still unashamed despite her mocking. "I know you were watching Yudhisthira take a bath yesterday. Whatever." But now he was standing up and stepping toward the pile of clothing that he'd left on the riverbank.
Hidimbi glanced away from him as he bent over to pick up his clothes, again strangely compelled to afford him a bit of privacy, despite the fact that she had just spent several minutes staring at him in his full frontal nudity. At least she was cheating herself out a glimpse of his no-doubt wonderful ass. "So what happened to your brother?" she asked.
"Some big stupid… scandal… thing. He had to go back to the palace right away. Damage control. Our current Ministry of Finance is basically done for, though." Suddenly he cursed. "Why am I telling you this?!"
"It is the custom among your people that shared nudity enforces a bond of intimacy, isn't it?"
" 'Shared' my butt."
"For the record, I never saw your butt." Hidimbi turned back toward him. He was fully dressed now, eyeing her cautiously as he re-buttoned his shirt. "I know you," she said. "You're Bhima. You're the second prince born of Kunti. Your father was the deva Vayu. Your Gift is physical strength far beyond that of a normal human, even one of your size." She tried her best to smile at him. "So, in the interest of fairness, let's start sharing now. My name is Hidimbi. I'm an anthropologist by training. My specialty area is human civilizations. I abstain from consuming self-aware beings such as yourself." She bowed low to him. "I apologize deeply for violating your privacy."
He gazed at her evenly. "Was that an introduction? It makes it sound like you're not going to leave me alone anytime soon."
"Oh, I couldn't. Not now." Hidimbi shook her head. "Not now that I've learned that you can see through my maya and inexplicably understand my native tongue. I have to study you more. I have to find out why. I can't leave you alone anymore."
He glared at her. "I'm a person. Not a test… thing. And I'm royalty so technically I don't have to put up with anything that I don't want to." Then he turned away from her. "You're as bad as the High Council."
Her ears perked up, her senses instantly alerted to the exciting presence of potentially new information. "You mean the High Council of Brahmins? My observations so far had not led me to believe that they were a scientific body--"
"They're not. But." He pointed at his ear. "They put a chip in my skull anyway."
"I thought that you were royalty and didn't have to do anything that you didn't want to."
"Even royalty submits to the Council." He took a step toward her, no longer playing at being friendly. There was a distinct hint of menace in the way that he moved his enormous body. "But you're not the Council. In fact, you're an enemy."
Hidimbi stood her ground. "I assure you, I'm not your enemy. In fact, I'm on your side. The side of humans, that is. Really. I am." She stared up at him, unafraid. "Listen, there's a lot that I could tell you, and a lot that I want you to tell me. So let's stop making this a study, and stop casting you as the object of study. Shall we call it a friendly exchange of information instead?"
He stared at her.
"Admit it," she pressed on. "You have questions that you want to ask me. And you don't really want to fight me, do you?"
He slowly shook his head. "Well… No. You are a woman, after all."
"And a rakshasa."
He laughed. "That too." Then he looked at her seriously. "Why aren't you afraid of me?"
She shrugged. "It's kind of hard to be afraid of someone once you've seen his waggily."
" 'Waggily'? Is that what you just called it?!"
"Hmm. I've observed that slang terms for genitalia truly don't seem to translate across cultures." Then she held out her hand to him. "Peace?"
He hesitated for a moment, as if unsure what to do about her long, sharp claws. Then he reached out and grasped her hand anyway, unafraid. "Peace," he said.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIFTEEN DAYS, AND EIGHTEEN MINUTES AGO
The night was cool, but she seemed unbothered by the chill, despite the fact that the sleeves of her workshirt were rolled up and her arms bare. "So do you always understand foreign languages instantly?" she asked, as she pushed through the underbrush ahead of Bhima.
"No. No no no no no. You should have seen what a disaster I was on Madra. I couldn't understand a word that anybody said to me."
Her back was to him, but when she turned her head he could see her frowning at that. "It doesn't make sense," she mumbled. Then she suddenly paused and said, "Well, here we are." She stepped into a small clearing, and Bhima followed her.
Aha, Bhima thought. So this was her campsite. Bhima recognized a tent – good to know that rakshasa still used some of the same primitive technology that humans did – but little else. There was a cleared area around the tent, but that was it. There were no visible signs of a fire, or water storage, or—
"Come on in," she said, lifting up the flap of her tent.
Bhima hesitated. The tent barely looked large enough for him to sit inside of it comfortably, let alone the two of them sitting together. "I'm not sure--"
"Just trust me," she said. She was smiling, showing off her teeth. Bhima suspected that meant that she had some sort of maya trick up her sleeve. He was getting better and better at reading her facial and body language, especially after having spent a full day in her company.
Bhima peered at her for a moment, taking in the sight of her face in the moonlight. Hers was the first rakshasa face that he had ever seen, and at first he had thought it as strange and alien as all of the stories had led him to believe it would be. Her head was taller and thinner than that of a human's, her face long and flat, her small nose barely protruding from the plane of her face. Her eyes were deep-set and dark, her lips full and sensuous, but her teeth long and sharp, her fangs protruding low over her lower lip. She had a predator's face, but there was an innocent gleam in her eyes that seemed to cancel out the intimidating sight of her sharp fangs. Judged by human standards, the rest of her body was too tall, too long, and too thin as well; her basic outline seemed human enough, two arms and two legs and a pleasantly curvy torso, the shape of her more feminine features clearly visible even though her workshirt and practical hiking trousers. But she had other features that immediately betrayed her inhumanity; her long fingers ended not with nails but in elongated claws, and her feet seemed too large to fit with her long, thin legs.
She blinked at him. "Why are you staring at me?"
He laughed. "Just getting back at you for earlier."
She echoed his laugh, shaking her head slightly. Her braid shook with her. She wore her hair long, like most human women that Bhima knew. The braid that Hidimbi was currently sporting was done in a style similar to the fashion in Hastinapura at the moment. Bhima's cousin Dusshala wore her hair in a similar style. Bhima wondered if Hidimbi was wearing a genuinely rakshasa hairstyle, or if her braid was yet another one of her attempts to imitate the human subjects that she found so endlessly fascinating to study.
Hidimbi finished laughing, then tucked a stray strand of hair behind her hair, attempting unsuccessfully to stuff it into her braid. Her ears were a bit larger than a human's ears, but they were rounded and soft-looking, not sharp and pointed like the ears of the rakshasas drawn in the cartoons that Bhima had watched as a child. "How about this," she proposed. "Instead of you getting back at me, I'd rather make it up to you--"
"That was the plan, wasn't it?"
"I know. I did promise you." Tea and a hot meal in exchange for a peaceful conversation. The peaceful conversation had turned into a full day of speaking to each other, however. And Bhima had been the one who had provided their midday meal of roasted fish and leftover rations, chosen from among what the servants at Hastinapura had prepared for him before his trip. This evening, however, Hidimbi seemed determined to hold up her end of the bargain. "Come on in," she repeated, still holding open the flap of her tent. The interior of the tent, however, was far too dark for Bhima to peer inside of it.
Bhima cautiously stepped inside, then ungracefully stumbled down the first set of stairs. Stairs?! He caught his feet, and heard Hidimbi laughing behind him. It took him a moment to adjust his eyes to the dim lighting of his surroundings, but once he was able to lift his head and get a good look around, he nearly lost his footing again.
"I expanded this space a little," Hidimbi said, "to make it more comfortable." She sat down on a long, low couch and watched Bhima carefully, apparently waiting to gauge his reaction.
He was suitably impressed. "Is this real?" he asked. The room that they were in was large and long, the floor covered in tastefully coordinated carpets and pillows, a few chairs and couches scattered throughout the room. The walls around them were seemingly solid, and covered in charts and graphs – some of which were clearly maps, a few of which were clearly maps of areas on Kuru. There were books stacked perilously high and piled all over the room, as well as several neatly stacked boxes of datadiscs. In one corner of the room there was a small table upon which loomed what Bhima assumed was some sort of computer, although it was an unfamiliar shape and make. Lamps of every shade and shape dotted the room, providing low and colorful illumination, save for a light mounted directly above the computer-like thing, which burned hot and white. Bhima did not see any obvious communication equipment, nor a media console – maybe that was all provided by the computer-like thing? He was certainly not a technical geek like Nakula or Sahadeva, but Bhima was still curious about that strange-looking machine in the corner. He didn't care how it worked, but he wanted to see what it could do.
"Of course this is real," Hidimbi said with a laugh. She knocked the couch that she was sitting on with her fist. "I made it, after all. With my maya."
"I thought that maya was just illusions."
"Bhima, this entire plane of existence is an illusion. Not to you or I, because we're caught up in it. But it is. And an illusion within an illusion is just as real as the rest of it." She shrugged, astoundingly nonchalant about the words that she was speaking. "There aren't many humans or rakshasas who can learn to see through the illusion. Most of us, we can't see the underlying truth of things until we die. And then we get sent right back to do it all over again."
Bhima eyed her warily. He had not expected their conversation to take this turn. "You believe all that?" he asked.
She seemed startled by the question. "Well, of course." Now it was her turn to eye him warily. "I don't see how anybody could not."
"Of course I believe it," Bhima said quickly. He sat down on a pile of pillows across from her. "It's just that… What you just said. That's almost exactly what my mother would tell me when I was little. It's the same thing that Grandpa Bhisma used to teach me, too. I guess I never expected that rakshasa might have the same ideas about the world." He looked around the room again, and this time spotted something that he hadn't caught the first time, as it had been behind him. There was a statue by the entrance to the room, set into an alcove. It was a statue of a tall, slender creature with many arms. It might have been the same as any of a dozen deva statues that Bhima was used to seeing, but something about this statue was different. The face of the creature was different, and it was holding unfamiliar items in its many stone hands. But a garland of fresh flowers had been draped around the statue's head, and a plate of dumplings had been left at its feet. Just like how the Kurus honored their gods. "Is that…?"
"That is a god," Hidimbi said. She stepped off the couch and walked across the room, kneeling before the idol. "Ah. He didn't take my offering today." She regarded the untouched dumplings thoughtfully. "I wonder if I've done something to displease Him?"
"You did stalk me and spy on me when I was naked."
"That I did." She blushed slightly, although this caused her unearthly pale skin to take on more of a purple tint than not. Bhima wondered, morbidly, what color rakshasa blood was.
"Which god?" Bhima asked, suddenly very curious about that statue. When he looked at it, he could feel the devakin markings on his back tingling in a strange and not entirely unpleasant way.
Bhima stared at her. "That's not a god. That's an asura."
"As the devas are to you," Hidimbi said, solemnly, "so are the asuras to the rakshasas. The devas created a universe and populated it with species made in their image. So the asuras created their own universe, on a higher plane, and populated it with rakshasas, who were created to be the superior species when compared to humans. And we are. That's why we can use maya. And also why we can cross the gate into the human universe, but humans can never cross the gate into our universe." She gestured with her hands, moving them up and down to illustrate. "Gates between the planes – or the universes, however you want to think of it – are one-way affairs. One can only cross down into a lower plane, never up into a higher plane than that which they were born into. The plane that humans claim as their universe is one of the lowest planes of all. You humans, you can only leave your own universe through your deaths. And even then, not always."
Bhima snorted. He had learned that the asuras created a dark world, that the rakshasas lived in that world, and that rakshasas sometimes crossed the boundary between worlds solely to prey on humans. Bhima had never heard this gillwash about the rakhshasa world being on a higher plane than the human universe, however. And he certainly couldn't swallow the idea of the rakshasas being more advanced than humans. "You can't be more advanced than me," he pointed out to her, indignantly. "You've got a dog's fangs, for the love of fish."
She looked amused by his protest. "Of course I have fangs. And? So?"
So? Bhima echoed the question in his head, but couldn't come up with a good answer.
"Listen," she said, regarding Bhima solemnly again. "You've been telling me about your world all day, now let me tell you something about mine. Your gods stay distant from the world that they've created, save for occasionally dropping children like you into the mix. But my gods? The asuras? They've been meddlers since before the dawn of time. Ravana even saw fit to conquer the entire universe of the Lower World that the devas had created, since they certainly didn't seem interested in it anymore. Or at least, he tried to. The devas finally did something when they sent an Avatar to stop Ravana. That's what Rama was – not a human, not a devakin, but a deva with a human's skin and something close to a human's mind. Ravana was not evil, nor was he good. He was just a fallen god. And through his mercy, Rama showed Ravana the path back to godhood."
Bhima was silent for a long moment, staring at her, frowning. Then he said, "All right. You listen. That's not how I learned it. From what I heard, the story ends when Rama cuts of Ravana's head and then burns his body. And then it's all sunshine and rainbows after that. Except that all of the Kishkindians go extinct. Or whatever. I don't know, I wasn't paying much attention in history class."
Hidimbi laughed. " 'Kishkindians'? You mean Vanaras?"
"Oh gods. You people can't even get the terminology right." She laughed. Then she suddenly turned somber again. "All right, then. We'll try using your framework. I know that your version of the story doesn't actually end when Ravana dies."
"Yeah, well, I think there was something about Rama handing over the kingdom to Vibhishana, who was… also an asura," Bhima admitted grudgingly. "But Vibhishana broke up the kingdom and destroyed the asura seat of power. Then they went extinct. And all of the planets that Ravana once conquered are still independent today. Blah blah blah, the end. Now I'm dying to hear what kind of spin your people have put on that."
"Not 'spin.' Facts." She didn't seem angry at Bhima's surliness, however. "The asuras never went extinct. They just withdrew from the Lower World, and went back to doing what they do best – meddling in our universe." She laughed again. "It is strange, isn't it? How the same history looks completely different from two different vantage points."
Bhima shrugged. "I don't think that's strange. Doesn't that always happen?"
"You're right. It does." Something in her eyes softened. "It even happened in my own family." She glanced over at the statue of Ravana. "To some of us, Ravana is a god of peace. The message that he sends to his rakshasa children is that it is folly to believe ourselves superior to the creatures of the Lower World that the devas created. That we should abandon the idea that we were created to conquer the Lower World. That we should avoid the path of bloody conquest and instead pursue a life of truth-seeking and harmony." She tugged at her braid, a bit nervously. "But there are some rakshasas who worship Ravana for a different reason. There's a lot of… Mm. There's a lot of cultural and historical baggage on pretty much every inhabited planet in my universe. We're rakshasas, we know that our gods created us to be superior to humans. And some of us still believe that since humans are low animals, we are justified in…"
"Eating them?" Bhima finished.
"I would never," Hidimbi said, with sudden vehemence.
Bhima suddenly realized that the hair that had escaped her braid was standing slightly on end, and her eyes were glowing with some sort of angry inner light. She looked terrible, in that moment, terrible in the way that a rakshasa should look terrible. But there was something frighteningly beautiful about her anger. He stared at her, unable to help himself.
She calmed down a moment later, a visible ripple shimmering through her body as she got herself under control. "I'm sorry," she said. "This is something that I feel very strongly about."
"Well… I'm glad that you do."
She laughed at that. Bhima was relieved to see her smiling and laughing again. But his relief was quickly overpowered by the rumbling in his stomach. "Didn't you lure me here with the promise of food?" he asked.
"Oh. Yes. Of course." She stood up, walked over to the other side of the room, and began a series of complicated gestures with her hands. Suddenly Bhima smelled frying cheeses and roasted meats. He thought he might have seen the light of a fire flicker in and out of existence, but that might have just been his imagination. He could have sworn that there was nothing in that corner of the room but more stacks of books and boxes of discs; yet a moment later, Hidimbi was laying plate after plate of food on the floor in front of him, seeming to pluck the dishes out of thin air. "I've studied Kuru cuisine for as long as I've been here, but I'm still kind of new at actually cooking it myself," she said, apologetically.
Bhima stared at her, stunned. His brain was momentarily stuck on the cognitive dissonance between her use of the word "cooking" and the way that she had seemingly produced their dinner as if by magic. Then he looked down at the spread in front of him, and found himself grinning helplessly from ear to ear. The dishes that Hidimbi had produced were peasant food, nothing at all like the fine cuisine that Bhima had gotten used to in his adult life as a prince. But the dishes instantly reminded him of his childhood, the endless days he'd spent running wild in the forest, back when his brother and his father and his two mothers had been his entire world. Bhima felt his heart twist with a bittersweet combination of joy and longing as he looked down at a dish of roasted vegetables and remembered Madri taking his huge hands in her tiny ones and teaching him the proper motions for peeling a—
"Is it really that terrible?" Hidimbi asked, suddenly alarmed.
Bhima wiped a tear from his eye. "No. No. Not at all. It's wonderful."
She smiled at him, clearly flattered by his reaction. "Good. Good," she said. Then she dipped her claws into a bowl of stew and said, "Dig in."
Bhima readily did so, grinning the whole time. Here he was, sitting on the floor of a rakshasa's home and eating magical food with his bare hands, and the only thing he could really think about was whether he'd be able to pass off brushing his hand against hers as an accident or not.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FOURTEEN DAYS, AND NINETEEN HOURS AGO
When Bhima returned to his own campsite, the eastern horizon was already beginning to lighten. He stumbled into his tent, blearily, and flopped down on top of his bedroll. He would have closed his eyes right away, but unfortunately, he caught a glimpse of the flashing light on his comm right before he lost consciousness. Cursing, he reached for it and flipped it open. He had fifteen messages, all of them from Yudhisthira.
Bhima glanced at the time displayed on his comm, realized that Yudhisthira was already going to be awake, and decided to give him a call without bothering to listen to the messages first. Yudhisthira picked up on the first ring. "Bhima, you had better have a good reason for not answering--"
"I dropped my comm in the river," Bhima lied without thinking.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "So… How are you calling me now?"
"Oh. Uh… I fixed it?"
Another long pause. Bhima realized belatedly that Yudhisthira knew full well that he had no idea how to repair a damaged comm. Oh, wait, I could have told him that I'd found a spare comm. That would have made more sense. We do have a spare comm in the emergency kit. Stupid Bhima. Stupid stupid stupid—
"Anyway, I need you back here as soon as possible," Yudhisthira said, apparently deciding to ignore Bhima's transparent lie for the time being. "The Minister of Finance--"
"Wait," Bhima said. "I don't care what the new scandal is this time, whether it's that he molested his pages or is guilty of insider trading or--"
"He sold information to the Panchalans," Yudhisthira said quickly. His voice sounded more weary than angry. As usual. "Military information, which he shouldn't have been privy to in the first place. And yes, Bhima, before you say anything, that is your area of jurisdiction."
Now it was Bhima's turn to pause, scrambling to get his thoughts in order. He wondered what Yudhisthira would have said if he'd found out that Bhima had spent the entire day yesterday talking about himself and his life to a curious rakshasha scientist, and that he might have spilled a state secret or two in the process. Well, Bhima figured, Yudhisthira would probably be angry. Unfortunately, Bhima could barely imagine what Yudhisthira looked like when he was angry, since Yudhisthira's usual reactions to things that would have angered others tended to range between weary sadness to deep crippling depression. Bhima bit his lip, rationalized that he didn't want to upset Yudhisthira any further, and silently vowed to keep his encounter with the rakshasa a secret. "Fine. I can be back by this afternoon."
"Thank you, Bhima," Yudhisthira said. He sounded deeply grateful. "I'm so sorry. I know that you wanted to stay longer out there."
"It's no problem. The forest will still be here ten years from now."
"I swear to you we'll take another camping trip before ten years are up. I promise. Just you and me."
"Yeah. Sure." Bhima had several days ago given up all of his delusions of getting Yudhisthira to relax and have a good time while they were cut off from civilization. But he wasn't about to start arguing about that now. "See you soon." He clicked off his comm, flopped back on top of his bedroll, and sighed.
The events of the past twenty-four hours kept playing in a loop in his mind. Opening his eyes to find that otherwordly creature leaning over him. Feeling charmed by her words and aroused by her stares, and curious enough to take her up on her daring offer of talking in exchange for a hot meal and a few answered questions of his own. Spending an entire day talking about himself, entranced by her visage and helpless to stop answering her nosy questions, not even minding the presence of the obvious collar-recorder that she had been wearing. That evening when she had invited him into her home, the strange wonders he had witnessed in there, the few tantalizing hints about her life and her world and her gods that she had dropped, the food, the way that they had kept laughing at each other's stupid jokes, the second course of food, the way that they had stayed together and babbled at each other into the wee hours of the night, the third course of food, the bright curiousity in her eyes and the utter lack of fear in her demeanor…
Bhima rolled over on his bedroll and groaned. He'd been trying to ignore that odd feeling of mounting sexual tension that had been building in his belly ever since he'd opened his eyes and realized that an alien woman was staring at him in all of his naked, vulnerable glory. But now strange and unfamiliar thoughts of sex were crashing around in his brain with unbearable loudness. He felt like a hormonal thirteen-year-old again. Bhima had never been with a woman, had never even really been attracted to a woman before, and he certainly had a pretty clear idea that the reason for his current arousal was unusual at best, downright perverted at worst. What kind of a man got turned on by a stranger staring at him?! He laughed into his pillow, wondering what his righteous brother Yudhisthira or his morally pure Grandpa Bhisma would think if they knew that he was aroused by the thought of rakshasas staring at his bits.
Bhima rolled over on his back and stared at the top of his tent. If he wanted to make it back to Hastinapura by mid-afternoon, he needed to get moving. But he hadn't slept yet. And suddenly he didn't want to.
Thank you, Hidimbi had told him as she had walked him halfway back to his campsite. Thank you for letting me interview you. The moment that she had said the words, Bhima had understood that she was saying her goodbyes. And for being a friend. I have not shared a meal with a friend in a long, long time. She had smiled at him. We are well-met, Prince Bhima.
At the time, he had been too half-asleep to feel sadness at their parting.
But now Bhima was fully awake again. He sat up in his tent, then quickly stepped out of it and into the brightening dawn. The chill of the morning air awakened him further, giving him new energy. Or maybe he had just reached the point of utter exhaustion wherein his body was actually being fooled into giving him an adrenaline boost. Bhima wasn't sure. But he did know that he had finally reached a decision. And he also knew that he was about to do something very, very stupid.
He stumbled through the forest, back in the direction of Hidimbi's campsite. He cursed himself for his stupidity but was still unable to stop himself. You're thinking of your great-grandfather, he told himself, stop that, you stupid dolt! But he couldn't. And he was also thinking that, other than his own two mothers, Hidimbi was the first woman he had ever met who hadn't been afraid of him. And it didn't matter that she wasn't human. As far as Bhima was concerned, she still counted.
"Hidimbi!" he roared, as he neared the area where her clearing should have been. "Hidimbi!" He wondered if she was asleep and concealing her campsite with maya. No, wait, that was stupid, of course she was asleep—
Suddenly the clearing opened up around him, the trees pulling back and the leaves above his head rustling with a breathy sigh. Hidimbi stumbled out of her tent, which hadn't been there a moment before. She blinked at him, drowsily, but her face suddenly lit up when she awakened enough to recognize him. "Bhima!" She addressed him by name, of course. Not Your Highness or anything silly like that. Just by his name.
Suddenly Bhima froze, unsure if he was really able to go through with what he wanted to do.
She blinked at him, more awake now. "Did you forget something?" she asked him.
"Yes," he said. He stepped toward her. He thought of Yudhisthira, waiting for him back in Hastinapura, and the scandal with the Minister of Finance, and all of the dozens of other things that he should have been worrying about at the moment. But he couldn't bring himself to worry. Forget about Hastinapura, he told himself, laughing inwardly. Forget about the palace and his princely duties and that whole messy lot of highly overrated civilization. He was back in the forest, back where he had spent his childhood, back where he could finally be free again. And he wanted to break some rules, throw some caution to the wind, and do something truly, painfully crazy. He had been born to smash things and break rules. Life as a prince was stifling him. He loved his brother Yudhisthira and he would happily submit to being whatever – whoever – Yudhisthira needed him to be. But Bhima still needed to go crazy sometimes. He yearned to be wild and unpredictable, like the wind that had created him. He wanted to act without thinking too much about the consequences. Like now.
Bhima placed his massive hands on Hidimbi's shoulders.
She glanced up at him, utterly unafraid, completely trusting. "Bhima…?" Her hair was a mess, her face a bit too shiny. She had at least changed clothes since Bhima had left her, and was now wearing a combination of simple cloth pants and a light, silky top that Bhima assumed were her pajamas. Noticeably, however, she had not yet washed up during the past twenty-four hours. Well, that was all right. Neither had Bhima.
Bhima drew her close to him, leaned down, and kissed her.
Her sharp fangs pressed against his lips, and her lips momentarily parted in surprise. Bhima held her for a moment, his eyes closed, afraid to see the reaction on her face, but relishing the taste of her mouth and the sound of her breathing. Her dark, full lips were just as soft as he had imagined it would be.
Bhima suddenly felt Hidimbi's hands wrapping around his waist. Her claws tickled against his back. She pressed into his kiss, pressing her body against his. But suddenly she pulled her lips away from Bhima and gasped, "Oh gods. This is the least ethical thing I've ever done. The least ethical!"
Bhima grinned at her. "Am I a bad person that the thought of that is turning me on?"
She didn't say anything in response to that, but rather, stood on the tips of her too-large feet and leaned up to kiss him again.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FOURTEEN DAYS, AND EIGHTEEN HOURS AGO
She leaned her head against his chest for a long time, saying nothing. Her whole body was draped languidly across him, her stomach resting against his stomach. She let herself be lulled by the rise and fall of his breathing, the sound of birds overhead, the warm rising sun against her naked body. She swirled her maya lazily with her mind, making sure that the forest floor was as soft and comfortable for him as a real bed would have been. Finally Hidimbi lifted up her head and gazed at his face. He was smiling contentedly at her. Then his smile faded a bit, and he asked, "Did I hurt you?"
She laughed. "You can't hurt me. I don't think you could if you'd tried."
He circled his huge arms around her, holding her down to him. "That's not true," he said. "I'm strong. Stronger than a hundred humans."
She reached out and brushed one of her claws tenderly against his face. "Were you afraid that you might lose control of your strength?"
"But you didn't." She lowered her head to his chest again. "It must be hard for you, though. Always having to be so careful. I can't imagine." She silently wondered if that was the explanation for the fact that he, despite bragging about the fact that he was twenty-one years old, had obviously still be a virgin as of an hour ago. He had been so confident when he had kissed her that Hidimbi had been honestly surprised to discover that beyond the kiss he hadn't been sure what to do next. But he had been passionate, and eager, and willing to follow Hidimbi's lead.
For a moment, Hidimbi's vision swam, as the true magnitude of what she had just done suddenly dawned on her. I just fucked a human, she thought. And then, No, worse. I took his virginity. And he's a prince!
Her mind raced. Didn't the Kuru royals have strict taboos about that sort of thing? Princes sleeping out of wedlock, that was. Let alone sleeping with rakshasas. Hidimbi shivered. Most rakshasa would have considered her union with Bhima nothing more than loathsome bestiality. She had a suspicion that the humans on Kuru would regard it in the same way.
"Is something wrong?" Bhima asked, sensing her sudden tension.
She lifted her head again, and stared at him. "Bhima…"
"Wait. Wait. I know what you're going to say." Bhima spoke quickly, as if he had been rehearsing this next part in his head. "Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather Shantanu?"
"He met a deva. One day in the wilderness. He just met a deva and they fell in love and lived happily ever after. They were Grandpa Bhisma's parents. So maybe you're thinking this is stupid and we don't really know each other and we're moving too fast, but listen, sometimes something just happens and you feel a connection with someone and you know that you're meant to--"
"Bhima. Stop." She slowly climbed off of him. "You're not Shantanu. And I'm not a deva." But one look at his face told her that he'd been thinking of that story for a long time, possibly since yesterday, possibly since the moment when he'd first laid eyes on her. He'd been thinking that the gods had given him his own happily-ever-after ending with his own magical maiden in the wilderness. Hidimbi could see that all written out on his face, and she felt her chest slowly beginning to tighten as she gazed at him.
What frightened her most was that she could read him so well. That between them there was already, as Bhima had put it, a deep connection. It had happened so fast and so suddenly, it was making Hidimbi's head spin.
Bhima sat up quickly. "No, listen to me," he said. So painfully eager. "I've got it all figured out. We'll go back to Hastinapura together. There's a rule that I can't get married until Yudhisthira is married first but we can wait until then, and anyway it won't be long now since Grandpa Bhisma keeps throwing women at him--"
" 'Wait'? What exactly do you mean by 'wait'?" Hidimbi crossed her arms over her bare chest. "Do you think, for even a moment, that you can go public with the fact that you've taken a rakshasa lover?"
"Well, no, but… You can make yourself invisible, right? Or make yourself look like a human? Don't all rakshasas have that power?"
"You're asking me to hide myself? For the gods know how long?"
Bhima suddenly seemed to deflate a bit, as if he were just now realizing what a horrendous thing he had so eagerly and unthinkingly asked of her. But he still pushed on ahead, gamely. "Maybe you don't need to hide-hide, I'll think of something, I swear, I--"
"You haven't asked me if I want to stay with you," Hidimbi interrupted him.
Bhima stared at her.
She stood up, brushed the leaves and grass off her bare legs, and tried her best to glare down at him. "I love to study your world, Bhima. But it's not my home. It can never be." She wanted to sound angry, she wanted to sound definitive about her decision. But she couldn't. The look on his face was breaking her heart. And she knew that she shouldn't blame him for his insistence that they stay together. After all, he was raised in a culture where a woman did not sleep with a man unless she intended to make their relationship permanent, and Hidimbi had been stupid stupid stupid not to have considered that when she had kissed him back.
Suddenly Bhima stood up and said, "If you want to study my world, then fine. Come back with me to Hastinapura." He was desperately reaching for a new approach now, and it was so painfully obvious. "I'll let you inside the palace. I'll show you all of our state secrets. You can learn all about how the royals live. You can even stalk Duryodhana if you want, and give him anal probes and perform experiments on him, if you want to, I'm sure he probably won't mind."
Hidimbi turned away from him, feeling her stomach clench with both longing and dread. The promise that he was dangling in front of her was tantalizing. The academic within her was already drooling at the prospect of getting an up-close look at the upper echelons of this fascinating human civilization. But the more cautious part of her brain quickly overrode that enthusiasm, reminding her of the reason that she'd been unable to approach Hastinapura thus far. "I can't come to your palace," she told Bhima. "There are too many devakin there. Their combined aura hurts me. It burns."
Bhima blinked at her, surprised. "Does my aura hurt you?"
"No. And that's because you're alone, and because I've spent enough time near you to build up an immunity. I also think it might be the reason that you started being able to see me – because as I was growing immune to you, you were growing immune to my illusions." She tapped her chin thoughtfully, suddenly distracted from her more immediate worries by the resurgence of her intellectual curiosity. "That still doesn't explain how you can understand my language, though."
"Yes, yes!" he said, latching onto her offhand musing as if it were a lifeline. "We still have to figure that out!" He reached for her, pulling her close to his body, enveloping her with his enormous arms. She didn't resist. "I can protect you from the other devakin auras," he said.
She shook her head. "No you can't. How?"
"I'll think of something!"
"I love you!"
Hidimbi closed her eyes and gave in to his kiss.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FOURTEEN DAYS, AND SEVEN HOURS AGO
Yudhisthira was angry that Bhima returned to Hastinapura so late – or at least as angry as Yudhisthira could be, which wasn't much. As usual, he seemed more weary and disappointed than anything else. Bhima sat through an emergency meeting with Bhisma's cabinet, tried not to fall asleep, and for once was happy enough to let Dusshasana take charge of the crisis.
It was late in the evening by the time that the situation was under control.
"I won't be joining you for dinner," Bhima said as Yudhisthira walked him back to his quarters.
Yudhisthira took one look at the dark circles beneath Bhima's eyes, then asked quietly, "Did you sleep last night?"
"No. I went night-hunting." Bhima grinned at Yudhisthira. "Stupid, I know."
"Yes, stupid. I told you when I left that I might need you at a moment's notice--"
"I'm sorry. I told you that I was sorry."
"I know." Yudhisthira rolled his eyes. "Shall I have the kitchen staff send something to your quarters?"
"Please." Bhima took his leave of Yudhisthira quickly. He rushed back to his own quarters, quickly banished his guards and servants, then closed and locked the door of his bedroom. He then collapsed against the door, sinking down the floor, exhausted. Hidimbi wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled his neck.
"Oh gods. Oh gods," she laughed, her breath tickling Bhima's skin. "I can't believe we got awaywith that!"
Bhima groaned. His whole body ached, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. "I cannot believe I let you talk me into that."
She laughed again. "You did say that you would protect me, right?" She kissed his cheek, and as Bhima felt her fangs pressing against his skin, his aches and pains vanished.
Bhima wrapped one arm around her. "I didn't know that you had that power," he said. "That's incredible." Ever since they'd arrived at the palace, Hidimbi had, as she had explained to him earlier, concealed herself within his "space," whatever that was supposed to mean. Hidimbi had tried to explain it in terms of atoms being mostly empty space, her ability to warp the space of his universe, and the way that Bhima's rakshasa-friendly aura would protect her from the burning auras of the other devakin in the palace. As far as Bhima understood, however, he'd basically been walking around for hours with a rakshasa hidden in his molecules. The experience had been weird and draining, but worth it, he mused, now that Hidimbi was whole again and they had their arms around each other.
"I have lots of powers," Hidimbi said, conversationally. Then she stood up, straightened up her clothes a bit self-consciously, and began walking around Bhima's room, her expression marveling at everything that she saw. "Wow. Wow! I can't believe I'm here." She pulled what Bhima assumed was some sort of recording device out of her shirt pocket, and began waving it around the room. "This is fantastic. This is the type of data that I never would have dreamt I could--"
"Are you seriously taking video of my room?"
"Seriously. Yes." She turned the recording device toward him – it looked strange and alien to Bhima – and squinted, peering at him through its lens. "Mm. You're sexy when you're exhausted. Want me to fix you something to eat?"
Bhima stood up slowly, stepping toward her. "I can think of something," he said, suddenly no longer tired.
He moved fast, and she did too; their kisses were hot and passionate as they whirled each other across the room. Hidimbi collapsed onto Bhima's bed with a laugh, then sat up quickly, her legs dangling over the edge of the bed, apparently surprised that Bhima hadn't flopped into the bed with her. Then she laughed again, delighted, as she realized that Bhima was kneeling on the floor in front of her.
Bhima kissed the inside of her thighs, nibbling at the cloth of her practical and astoundingly unsexy workpants. "So are you going to take off your clothes, or what?" he asked.
Hidimbi smirked at him, and suddenly his clothes vanished.
Bhima returned her smirk, unashamed of his nudity. "That's a dirty trick."
"One moment, darling. Do you think that I would be so cruel as to let you be the only naked person in this room?" She slowly, languidly reached up and began unbuttoning the front of her shirt.
Suddenly, there was an urgent, pounding knock at the door. "Your Highness!" one of Bhima's pages called. "Your Highness!"
Bhima stood up quickly, panicked. He glanced around his bed and the floor, then suddenly remembered why what he was looking for was nowhere to be found. "My clothes!" he hissed at Hidimbi.
Hidimbi glared in the general direction of the door, clearly disappointed at being interrupted. But, a moment later, Bhima's clothes were back.
"Your Highness!" More urgent pounding at the door.
Bhima swore and stumbled toward the door, wondering what sort of emergency was about to be dropped in his lap. In his head he had already imagined Yudhisthira standing on the other side of the door. He was surprised, however, to open the door and find Arjuna peering up at him instead.
"You're back!" Arjuna said, rushing past the page posted by the door and hugging one of Bhima's legs. Then Arjuna glared up at Bhima, squinting at him through his thick glasses. "You didn't come and see me when you got back."
"I was busy," Bhima said, scooping up Arjuna in his arms and laughing. "Blame Yudhisthira. He wouldn't let me leave." Bhima quickly closed the door to his room and surreptitiously glanced around; Hidimbi was gone. He briefly considered that she might have been making herself invisible, but then rejected that idea. He could see through her illusion of invisibility. She was just gone. Either because Arjuna's aura would have hurt her, or because she wanted to give Bhima privacy, or perhaps for some other reason. Bhima felt a nervous trill in his stomach, for a brief moment, but then the moment passed. Hidimbi would be back, of course. He had no doubt of that.
Arjuna was already babbling happily away as Bhima carried him over to a couch, filling Bhima in on all of the excitement that he had missed during his vacation in the woods. "And then Grandpa Bhisma made me write four whole pages in Panchalan and I couldn't do it but Durmada translated some sentences for me and then I handed it in to Grandpa Bhisma and he said that it said 'I have a tiny tiny penis' over and over again and I cried but I think Duryodhana beat up Durmada so that's okay and then Mom yelled at me but she didn't yell for long because Nakula turned my Goobi into a rocket and launched it at--"
"Wait. Your what?"
"My Goobi," Arjuna said, staring at Bhima as if he couldn't believe how dense his brother was being. Arjuna made a gesture with his hands, and Bhima realized that he was talking about the plastic elephant toy that he had used to cling to when he was younger. At the ripe old age of ten years old, however, Arjuna already considered himself far too adult to play with toys anymore, and had several years ago packed away Goobi and most of his model cars, hoverers, and jumpers in a chest in his room. It hadn't taken his younger brothers long to find that chest, however. Over the past couple weeks there had been several incidents involving either Nakula or Sahadeva subjecting one of Arjuna's old toys to some sort of aerodynamic experiment or another. And as Arjuna was apparently far too stupid to either change the lock on his toychest or appoint more loyal (or possibly just plain smarter) guards to protect his quarters, the experiments simply continued. Bhima figured that if Goobi had recently met its demise, however, then the little monsters were surely scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of Arjuna's toys; that plastic elephant was perhaps the single least aerodynamic thing that Arjuna had ever owned. Perhaps the twins had already destroyed all of Arjuna's model jumpers and hoverers, and had now been forced to move on to less launchable toys.
"And now Nakula and Sahadeva are both grounded," Arjuna informed Bhima, emphatically.
Bhima fought the urge to laugh, because he knew that grounding either of the twins was a worthless gesture. It didn't matter that they were only six years old. They already had an uncanny knack for escaping from their quarters when they weren't supposed to. Or, when they got really desperate, they would sometimes resort to blowing up something or setting fire in their own rooms in order to escape. It had happened twice before.
Bhima's youngest brothers were unsettling in many ways. Their strange, pale-skinned appearance, their eerie adult-like intelligence, and their casual disregard for authority, safety, and common sense had made them the subject of much whispered gossip around the palace – and much fear, as well. Bhima felt sorry for the twins, though. He knew what it was like to be feared.
"I missed you lots," Arjuna said, futilely attempting to wrap his scrawny arms around Bhima's thick waist.
"I missed you too," Bhima said, wrapping his arm warmly around his brother. "But right now I'm very, very tired."
"Oh. All right." Arjuna wriggled out of Bhima's arms and off his lap. "If you're tired, then you should go to bed," Arjuna berated Bhima, firmly.
"I will, I will." Bhima ushered Arjuna back toward the door. He opened the door and gently pushed Arjuna toward the page waiting outside. "I'll see you tomorrow, Pumpkin."
"I am not--!"
But Bhima didn't hear the rest of Arjuna's protest, because he slammed the door shut as quickly as he could.
He turned around just in time to see Hidimbi falling out of his bed – literally falling out of his bed, her mass realigning itself as she extracted herself from the molecules within which she had been hiding – and clutching her stomach, laughing uncontrollably. "That's your little brother?!"
Bhima felt an instant prickling of defensiveness, on Arjuna's behalf. "What's so funny?"
"His aura, oh God, his aura – it felt like a hurricane! When he was still outside your room I was expecting him to be huge like you, but then this scrawny little kid walks through the door and--" She laughed again, struggling to stand up. "I've never seen a human that small with such an aura!" She managed to stop laughing, then looked up at Bhima seriously. "Is he a host?"
"A host. Does he have a devaweapon?"
"The priests think so, but we haven't seen it yet."
"Ah. That would explain it." She sat down on Bhima's bed. "You family is beautiful."
Bhima was immediately struck by her words – and pleased. He had been hoping that she might say something like that. "Thank you," he said, sitting down beside her, taking her hands in his. "I'm sure they'll love you too."
Hidimbi's eyes widened. "Bhima, I didn't mean it like--"
"No. I mean it. I'm serious. We should--"
"No, Bhima! You're crazy! You can't possibly be thinking about--"
They kissed again, both him and her at the same time, helpless enthralled by each other.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FOURTEEN DAYS, AND FIVE HOURS AGO
She watched his face while he slept, the peaceful smile on his face, the way that the shadows pooled across his dark skin. Hidimbi felt a deep sense of peace and happiness as she laid stretched out beside him, aware that her own face was mirroring his contented smile, and unable to stop herself.
That was a problem.
Hidimbi turned her head, and glanced toward a mirror mounted on the other side of the room. It was too dark for her to see her own reflection. Maybe that was a good thing.
"I'm a terrible person," Hidimbi whispered into the mirror. It was a mercy that the darkness of the room prevented her from having to face the reflection of her own accusatory stare.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIVE DAYS, AND SIX HOURS AGO
Things fell into a pattern. Hidimbi soon discovered that she did not have absolute freedom to move around the palace, as the combined auras of the devakin living there had saturated the space with an energy that came close to physically burning her. But inside Bhima's quarters, she was safe. His aura was somehow different, and it made the space that he inhabited different, too. Hidimbi was also safe inside Bhima's body, hiding herself in the empty spaces between his atoms, although doing so for a prolonged period of time easily exhausted the both of them.
Hidimbi could only move about with freedom when Bhima was near her side, protecting her with the simple proximity of his strange aura. And that was how they spent most of their time together.
During the day, Hidimbi stayed in Bhima's quarters, resting, gathering up her strength. At night, they snuck around the palace and the surrounding grounds, as Bhima took Hidimbi anywhere and everywhere that she requested to go. Hidimbi recorded video of both the palace kitchens and its dining halls, of its garages where a small fleet of autos and hoverers were stored, of small meeting rooms and grand assembly halls, of the libraries and art museums owned by the royal family, even of a hospital further into the city. Hidimbi concealed herself with maya the whole time, and often extended her illusion of invisibility to Bhima as well; his large frame and heavy bulk ensured that Bhima was not exactly a master of the art of quiet tiptoeing.
At night, they shared Bhima's bed. Sometimes they made love. Sometimes they were too tired to make love.
One morning Hidimbi woke up and realized that she never wanted to wake up without him beside her again. And that was a problem.
That night Bhima returned to his quarters late. Hidimbi was sitting on top of his bed, cross-legged, waiting for him. "Bhima, I can't stay like this forever," she said as soon as she saw him. "I'm a prisoner here."
He didn't seem at all surprised to hear her words. "I know," he said. He sounded deeply sad. He sat down beside her on the bed, and took her clawed hands in his. "I don't want to keep hiding you forever, either." He looked at her solemnly. "So let's stop hiding."
Hidimbi felt her stomach sink. "What do you mean?"
He was silent for a moment, as if gathering up his courage. "I want my family to meet you," he finally blurted out.
Now Hidimbi's stomach wasn't so much sinking as it was slowly trying itself into a painful knot. "Oh Bhima, no--"
"No, you don't understand. It will be all right. Yudhisthira will accept you, and if he does, then everyone else will, and--"
"No no no no, Bhima, are you even listening to yourself?! If anybody found out that you were sleeping with a rakshasa, you'd be ruined, Yudhisthira would be ruined, your whole family would be disgraced--"
"I won't let that happen," Bhima said, firmly, as if by sheer force of will he could make it so.
"Bhima," Hidimbi said, very quietly. "I can't… I can't stay in the Lower World forever. There's kind of… back home, there's kind of a war going on. There's a war between those of us who want to live in peace with the Lower World, and those of us who still believe that the rakshasas were meant to conquer it." She rushed to spill out her explanation as fast as she could. "Look, I'm on the good side. I told you I'm on the good side. And I can't turn my back on them. I owe them so much, more than you can understand. And – and I'm not saying this just to be egotistical, but – But my work that I do, it's important for our cause. I'm using science to prove that humans are self-aware, like us. And I need to keep doing that work. I can't quit. I have to keep fighting, I have to keep--"
"I understand," Bhima said. He looked Hidimbi squarely in the eye and said, "You want peace between humans and rakshasas? You want to fight for that cause? Then fine." He squeezed her hands. "Just by being together we'd be fighting for that cause. We could be an example. We could be a… uh… a radical statement. That's what Yudhisthira would call it. We could start a revolution."
The look on his face was breaking Hidimbi's heart. "No," she said again, firmly. "Bhima, you know that your brother Yudhisthira can't afford to start a revolution. He'd lose his chance at the throne. And as for me, well, you don't even know. You don't even know what I've been through, or what I have to go back to. You don't know what you're asking me to sacrifice by staying here!" Her voice was rising in pitch, but she couldn't stop herself. "And how would that even work, huh?! Even if I weren't hiding I still can't move around in this palace without you, I can't even stand too close to your brothers, I can't live like an independent person at all, I'd be chained to you for the rest of my life!" Now there were tears spilling down her cheeks, but she didn't care. Her voice was still steady, at least. "I love you, Bhima," she said. "I love you and I wanted to cherish the time that we could spend together. But you and I both knew from the beginning that I would have to leave eventually. Stop pretending like you didn't know. Please. Just stop."
He was speechless. Slowly, he let go of her hands.
I'm so stupid, she thought, watching his face crumble, helpless to look away. I'm so stupid. So selfish. I was the one who was actually pretending. I was pretending that I didn't know how seriously he was taking our relationship… I was pretending that I didn't understand what sharing a bed meant to a Kuru prince…
Suddenly, Bhima stood up off the bed. "I need a moment," he said, his voice husky. He walked out of the bedroom. Hidimbi watched him go, and made no move to stop him.
Fortunately, he returned few moments later. His eyes were slightly red and his face looked puffy, but he seemed to have gotten himself under control. He stood in front of Hidimbi, gathering himself. For a moment, Hidimbi was afraid that he would drop to one knee and declare his undying love for her, that he would swear to devote himself to her forever, that he would make more empty promises about how he was going to single-handedly make everything work out.
But instead, Bhima said quietly, "If you have to leave, then let's end it on a good note." Amazingly, he managed to smile at her. "There's one last place that I wanted to take you to. Will you come with me?"
Hidimbi realized that he was offering to take her on one final date. She stood up off the bed, took his hand in hers, and nodded.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIVE DAYS, AND FIVE HOURS AGO
At that height, the sharp wind blowing from the ocean was chillingly cold. Hidimbi shivered, then remembered to warm herself with her maya. She sent a few tendrils of maya toward Bhima, warming him too. He held her close, wrapping his enormous arms around her body.
They walked silently around the open deck of the observation tower, slowly taking in the nighttime cityscape to the west, and the liquid black open ocean to the east. There was no moon that night, and no stars; the matte black sky threatened rain. Hidimbi found the sight of the dark, seething ocean strangely beautiful.
Hidimbi rested her head against Bhima's chest. "You're sure that nobody will come up here?"
"I'm sure. I told you." Bhima led her back inside, through the sliding glass doors that surrounded the telescope room. "This thing is horrifically outdated. Grandpa Bhisma wants to tear the whole tower down and replace it with a new telescope."
Hidimbi eyed the enormous piece of machinery in the center of the tower. It was a pity, she thought, that they wouldn't be able to look through the telescope that evening. She wanted to see what the stars looked like from Kuru. But the telescope had been powered down a decade ago, and according to Bhima, turning it back on would suck up such a massive amount of energy from the palace generators that somebody would surely notice. Still, whether the old telescope was useless or not, the view from its tower truly was the best view in the palace. Bhima seemed quite proud of the way that he had gotten an access key from one of Yudhisthira's ministers, and Hidimbi couldn't blame him for his pride in that difficult accomplishment.
Bhima led her across the tower, toward where whatever astronomers had previously used the telescope had thoughtfully positioned a couch and some chairs overlooking the ocean view. They sat down on the couch, and Hidimbi let Bhima wrap his arms around her, pulling her close. She rested her head against him, and stared out the glass windows surrounding the tower, at the inky black ocean spread out in front of them.
"It's not fair," Bhima said. "If the stars were out…" He sighed. "It's a much better view when it's not cloudy."
"That's all right." Hidimbi curled her body against his. "This is still wonderful. Just you and me and the ocean." It was as good a spot as any, she figured, for their farewell sex. She wanted to leave Bhima with one last perfect memory, after all.
Neither of them said anything for a long time. But that was fine with Hidimbi. She felt perfectly comfortable, being that close to Bhima.
Eventually, rain began to splatter against the windows. Within moments, the drizzle became a downpour; the view outside the windows vanished into a wall of water, and the roar of the rain hitting the roof of the tower filled Hidimbi's ears. Suddenly the inside of the tower felt a lot warmer and closer than it had a few moments ago. Hidimbi laughed low in her throat as Bhima began to kiss her neck.
They made love slowly, savoring every moment of it. It took Hidimbi a deliciously long time to build up that intense, hungry feeling in her groin; but eventually she was close, very close, moving her body in an increasingly frantic rhythm against his, clawing at his shoulders, tossing her head back and moaning uncontrollably, feeling her entire body squeezing and trembling, moments away from release—
Suddenly, Bhima froze.
Hidimbi grasped at him, feeling a sudden bolt of his shock and horror coursing through her, killing her libido instantly. "What? What?!" Then she turned her head, following his gaze, and saw the pair of huge golden eyes staring at the both of them.
Bhima was immediately attempting to extract himself from Hidimbi. She practically leapt off him, then stumbled naked for a few steps, her sex-fuzzed brain struggling to weave the maya necessary to return both her and Bhima's clothes from where she had sent them. With another thought, Hidimbi cloaked herself in at least a passable illusion of a human woman. By then, the little boy was already running, of course; but fast as he was, Hidimbi's mind was faster. She pulled at the molecules in the air, conjuring a sudden wind strong enough to send the boy tumbling back into the heart of the tower. He cried out in protest as Hidimbi's wind pushed him into an inelegant somersault that landed him right at the base of the couch.
With another thought, Hidimbi attempted to turn on the lights in the tower. But she couldn't; there was no working power source for her to draw from. With a sigh, she conjured up a glowball and released it above Bhima's head. It didn't provide much illumination, but it was enough for them both to see Nakula's enraged face staring up at them from the floor.
Nakula stood up and dusted himself off angrily. "Bhima you are gonna be in so much trouble!" he snarled. "Wait 'till Mom finds out you have a girlfriend." Amazingly, the little boy did not seem to notice – or care about – either the inexplicable wind that had prevented him from bolting, or the glowball hovering above Bhima's head. "And you were fucking her! You know you're not supposed to fuck anybody until stupid Yudhisthira gets married first."
Bhima did not seem at all surprised to hear such shockingly adult words spilling from his six-year-old brother's mouth. Rather, he leaned over Nakula, looming in as threatening a manner as he possibly could loom, and asked, coldly, "And what, exactly, are you doing here? I know for a fact that you're supposed to be in bed right now. And I also know for a fact that this entire wing of the palace is strictly off-limits to children."
Nakula didn't even flinch. He was clearly not intimidated by Bhima's threatening stature. "I was going to scope the telescope for parts," he said. He produced a bolt-puller from where he had stuffed it down his pants and flourished it proudly. "I was just going to take it apart and look, I wasn't actually going to take any parts tonight," he said, as if this somehow proved him innocent of any crime. Then he narrowed his unsettlingly golden eyes, looking at Bhima in a shrewd, calculating way that Hidimbi had never seen any child do before. "But, you know, I don't care about the telescope anymore. I really should tell Mom about you and your girlfriend."
"You wouldn't dare," Bhima hissed.
"I would and you know I would."
Bhima stared at his little brother for a long, long time. Finally, he breathed out long and slow through his nose. Then he said, "What do you want?"
Nakula studied his fingernails. "My silence doesn't come cheap, you know." Hidimbi was beginning to find it frightening how much like a tiny adult he behaved, as if he weren't a child at all.
"I know it doesn't," Bhima said. Then he squatted down on the floor, which still didn't quite bring him down to eye level with Nakula, but it was close enough. "All right. There's a Sakata-class transport ship in the hangar right now that's scheduled to be stripped down next week. I can give you and Sahadeva authorization to take first pick among the recycled materials."
Nakula regarded Bhima evenly. "Sahadeva and I already bribed our way into first pick. We have the authorization on file. You should have noticed that by now, you idiot." He looked at his fingernails again. "Offer me something that I can't get on my own, or you're just wasting my time."
Hidimbi stared in open horror at the little monster standing in front of Bhima, too shocked to say anything. But Bhima, at least, appeared to be used to dealing with Nakula. "P-rocks," Bhima said, calmly. "I can get you P-rocks. I'm one of only four people on this planet who can authorize a P-rocks shipment."
For a brief moment, Nakula seemed to brighten up in an almost child-like display of enthusiasm. But the moment passed, and he was just as suddenly back in control of his eerily adult-like façade again. "Interesting," he said. "I've always wanted to try some experiments with P-rocks… How much can you offer me?"
"A quarter mass," Bhima said, quickly. "Any more and I won't be able to tell a convincing lie about it."
Nakula nodded somberly. "You have a deal, then." He mimed stitching up his lips with his finger. "My lips are sealed."
"They had better be," Bhima said, darkly. "Because you know what I'm going to do to you if you go back on your word…?"
Nakula rolled his eyes. "Rip out my tongue, gouge out my eyes, cut off my nose, pull off my fingernails, cut off my fingers and feed them to me." He recited this gruesome litany as if he had already heard it a thousand times before.
"No, actually," Bhima said. "This time I think I'll promise you a hearty disemboweling. A human being can survive with only a small fraction of their intestines intact, you know."
Nakula pondered this thoughtfully, as if carefully considering the question of whether his brother was serious with his threat. He seemed to decide that that was indeed the case. "I understand," he said.
Bhima held out his hand. "Then we have a deal?"
"Oh gross, I'm not going to touch you. You were just fucking, weren't you?" Nakula turned to Hidimbi, addressing her for the first and last time. "Nice to meet you," he said, noncommittally, and clearly not meaning a word of it.
Hidimbi swallowed her anger. "I can't say the same," she couldn't restrain herself from snapping.
Amazingly, however, this caused Nakula to regard her with what might have been an inkling of respect in his eyes. "Oh, you're not bad at all," he said. Then he turned back to Bhima. "Pity you can't keep her."
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIVE DAYS, AND FIVE HOURS AGO
The downpour was brutal, but thanks to the power of Hidimbi's maya, the two of them were dry. The rain, at least, ensured that they would be left alone – and well-concealed – during their final farewell.
They stood in the middle of the garden, and despite Hidimbi's maya preventing the rain from touching him, Bhima's face was far from dry. He wiped at his tears again, then somehow managed to laugh. "You were totally speechless," he said.
"When Nakula was there, you were totally speechless. That's the first time I'd ever seen you speechless." He managed to laugh again, through his tears. "Nakula has that effect on people." Then he fell silent, apparently having run out of witty observations with which to lighten the mood.
Hidimbi slowly wrapped her arms around him. Her mind was racing frantically, trying to think of all of the things that she wanted to say to him, wondering if she should apologize for how things had ended, wondering how she would ever live with herself after breaking his heart, wondering what she could possibly say to make this less painful for him. Then she realized that the best thing that she could do for him was to get their goodbyes over with as quickly as possible.
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. Unoriginal, but it worked. "I love you," she said. Her voice was breaking now, but she didn't care. "And I'll never forget you." Still trite, she knew. But it was the truth.
He grasped at her arms, too tightly. "Will I ever see you again?" he asked, still desperate for one last thread to cling to.
"It would be better – for you and me both – if you didn't."
He trembled, but did not avert his eyes. He nodded slowly. "I understand." Then he whispered, "I love you too."
She reached up and brushed his face tenderly with her claws. "Goodbye, Bhima," she said. And before he had a chance to say anything in response, she was gone.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIVE DAYS, FOUR HOURS, AND FIFTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO
The moment that Hidimbi's maya vanished, the rain soaked him instantly.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, TWO DAYS, AND TWENTY HOURS AGO
There was a familiar routine to throw herself into, once she was back on board the Pantha. And for that, Hidimbi was grateful.
"Do you think you recorded enough video?" Garimi asked as she hefted one of the many boxes of discs that Hidimbi had recovered from Kuru. "You're going to make Bahula and I watch and catalogue all of this, aren't you."
"No, I'm going to make you watch and catalogue all of it," Hidimbi said, handing another box off to Bahula, her second assistant. "Bahula is going to be transcribing all of my voice recordings."
"Joy," Bahula said, his voice muffled by the enormous pile of boxes that he had stacked in his arms.
Hidimbi laughed, and prayed fervently that her laugh sounded genuine. She had kept a small portion of her recordings separate from the material that she was handing off to her assistants. Eventually, she figured, one of them was going to ask her why her video and voice recordings stopped nine days before she had left the Lower World. Hidimbi still had some time to think of a plausible excuse, however.
Hidimbi knew that if anybody – anybody – found out that she'd had relations with a human, she'd be finished. Even here, among the community of human-positive rakshasas that lived on board the Pantha, she'd be finished. Hidimbi knew full well that even though most of her comrades supported the notion that humans were self-aware and therefore should not be hunted, many of them still did not consider humans to beings as evolved as the rakshasas themselves. To many rakshasas, the idea of relations with a human was nothing more than bestiality. And anyway, Hidimbi figured, even among the few who didn't think that humans were lowly beasts, they would still be disgusted by Hidimbi's extremely unethical behavior. What with sleeping with one of her research subjects, and all.
They would be right to be disgusted.
Hidimbi left Garimi and Bahula to sort the rest of her boxes, and quietly ducked back into her private quarters. She flopped down in her own bed for the first time in a long, long time, and sighed contendedly. The Lower World was an endless source of fascination for her, but still, it was good to be home. To Hidimbi, the Pantha was her truest home, in every sense of the word.
Hidimbi then sat up on the edge of her bed, waved her hands, and quickly materialized the box of recordings that she had hidden from her assistants. The voice recordings and videos from her last nine days on Kuru could never be seen or heard by anyone. Hidimbi held the box in her hands for a moment, contemplating whether it would be best to destroy it right away.
That truly would be the best course of action. And yet, she couldn't bring herself to do it.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to the box. "I'm not ready." The pain was still too fresh in her heart. But, looking down at that box, Hidimbi could already see her future unfolding ahead of her. The pain would dull with time, as would the memories. Eventually she would move on. Eventually he would move on, too.
Someday they wouldn't miss each other anymore.
It was a bittersweet thought, but Hidimbi knew that such was love. Bhima had not been her first love. She had fallen in love, lost, and moved on before. She knew that she could do it again.
When I know that I don't miss him anymore, Hidimbi vowed to herself as she whisked the molecules of the box into oblivion again, that's when I'll destroy those recordings for real.
FOURTEEN YEARS, SIX MONTHS, TEN DAYS, AND FOURTEEN HOURS AGO
This couldn't be happening.
"Well, there's no mistaking it," the doctor said, happily. "You are definitely pregnant." He glanced quickly at the readouts scrolling across the screen of his notepad, and continued, "We can start taking scans as early as within two weeks." Then he looked up, and saw the expression on her face. "…Ma'am?"
Hidimbi blinked, trying in vain to wipe the expression of shock and horror off her face. "I, uh…" She blinked, trying to gather her thoughts. "This is impossible," she said.
The doctor immediately looked sympathetic. "Well, even the most reliable methods of birth control do sometimes--"
"No," Hidimbi said, emphatically. "I mean this is impossible because I haven't slept with a man in over a year."
The doctor twitched. "Surely you're mistaken."
"How would I be mistaken about something like that?!" The truth, however, was that Hidimbi was deliberately omitting one important fact. She had slept with someone, and not too long ago at that. But that someone had been a human. And it was impossible for a human and a rakshasa to create a child together. It was completely, utterly impossible.
Either way, Hidimbi hadn't slept with a fellow rakshasa for over a year, and that was the only fact that counted.
Hidimbi buried her head in her hands. "No no no no no no," she said. "This can't be happening."
The doctor was silent for a long, long moment. Then he asked quietly, "Ma'am, would you like me to contact the authorities?"
"In cases like these," the doctor said, still in that quiet voice, "usually the explanation is some sort of non-consensual violation of--"
"You mean a rape," Hidimbi said. It wasn't unheard of among the rakshasa, of course. Among a species that could cast illusions and bend space and time to their will, an unscrupulous few had of course, over the centuries, perfected techniques for taking advantage of women and leaving them without any memory of any violation having ever occurred. "But nobody can get past my defenses," she told the doctor. And it was true. She had, after all, spent decades honing her self-defense skills against one of the most powerful rakshasa of all.
"Ma'am," the doctor said again, "I really think you should contact the authorities."
Hidimbi squared her shoulders. "Actually, you're right," she said. "I need to speak with Lady Jara."
FOURTEEN YEARS, SIX MONTHS, TEN DAYS, AND THIRTEEN HOURS AGO
The first thing Hidimbi thought when she saw Jara was that the other woman looked weary. Exhausted, and bone-deep weary. There were dark circles under her eyes. But Jara still wrapped her arms around Hidimbi and welcomed her warmly. "Tell me the truth," Jara whispered into Hidimbi's ear. She wasted no time getting to the point.
Hidimbi extracted herself from Jara's arms and sat down in her usual seat. "I took a human lover," she said. "And now I'm pregnant."
Jara nodded, calmly taking in Hidimbi's words in, displaying not a single sign of surprise. "Mmm. Somehow, I always had pegged you for the type."
"J-Jara!" Hidimbi spluttered. "Don't you understand how serious this is?!"
"I do," Jara said, quietly. She sat down beside Hidimbi, taking the other womans' hands in hers. "Believe me, I do. But you need to take this one step at a time. So, first order of business: Are you sure, absolutely certain, that the human is your child's father?"
"Absolutely," Hidimbi said quietly. "We can do genetic testing later, but… Absolutely. There's no other way."
"Are you going to keep the child?" Jara asked.
Hidimbi squeezed her eyes shut for a long, long moment, considering all of the possibilities. "Yes," she finally said. Then she opened her eyes and said, "I have to tell Bhima. Him. Er. His name was Bhima."
Jara frowned. "I think it might be best to wait," she said, slowly, carefully. "In case the child doesn't survive."
Hidimbi felt her heart clench in her chest. But Jara's words were true. Up until that morning, Hidimbi had considered the idea of a half-human, half-rakshasa child to be an utter impossibility. The cold truth was that it might still be an impossibility; she had no idea what sort of health complications her child would be facing, either in the womb or in the dangerous years immediately after he or she was born.
"I'll tell Bhima later," Hidimbi confirmed, for Jara's sake. Then she added, "Which begs the question… Who else can we tell?"
Jara frowned deeply, then winced and rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "I don't know," she said, wearily. "You were always the diplomat. I'm just a fighter. I don't know how to handle--"
"You're not just a fighter, you're our leader. We all follow you."
"I may be the figurehead, but you've always been the heart and soul of our side." Jara kissed her oldest, dearest friend on the cheek. "This child could be a symbol, Hidimbi. An important symbol. For peace."
Hidimbi silently thought that she wasn't so sure. Jara had no formal title, neither queen nor minister, but she was in every sense the truest leader of the rakshasa society that had formed on board the Pantha. She was also the Pantha's greatest military leader, defending the spacefaring city from strikes led by the hostile rakshasa groups who sought to eliminate the blasphemous, human-sympathetic way of living of the Pantha's people. Hidimbi, on the other hand, was the soft arm of Jara's rule. Hidimbi published her scientific studies and her literary essays, attempting to slowly chip away at the deeply-held beliefs of generations of rakshasas. Hidimbi was responsible for winning more and more hearts to Jara's side. But even Hidimbi was afraid of how she – and her child – would be treated, once the rest of the Pantha knew that they had been tainted with human blood.
"Whatever happens," Jara said, "You can't keep your child's lineage a secret. If she's half-human, that will show up somehow, right? You'll need to explain something eventually. I think that we should be honest about this from the beginning." Jara nodded to herself, quietly. "We can't afford to be seen as dishonest or secretive about anything. Neither of us can." She touched Hidimbi's cheek. "And if anybody says anything nasty about your or your kid, I will personally rip their heads off. Personally."
"Thank you." Hidimbi stood up. Then she looked down at Jara, who was still sitting, and said, "You look terrible. Is something wrong?"
Jara closed her eyes and said quietly, "Bhankor fell. Hidimba's forces took the gas planets and the moons last week. They executed Bhankor's queen today. It was all over the consoles."
Again, Hidimbi felt her heart clench in her chest. "But we were going to make port at Bhankor," she said.
"I know. I know." Jara shook her head. "We'll have to find another safe port now. And we only have enough food supplies for another month or so in jumpspace." Jara looked up at Hidimbi, and Hidimbi saw how deeply worried she was. "Your physicist friends keep telling me that the universe is expanding. But I look around, and all I can see is that it's shrinking. There are fewer and fewer systems where I can land the Pantha. We have thousands of souls on board this ship, and they're all depending on me to find them a safe harbor. Things might start getting harder, Hidimbi. Leaner and harder."
"I know," Hidimbi said, echoing Jara's words back at her. The maya that Hidimbi, Jara, and other rakshasas had mastered was bound by stricter rules in their own universe than it was in the Lower World. Organic material – the building blocks of food – was particularly difficult to create or manipulate. Simple carbons could be woven from maya, but sugar was another matter entirely. Likewise with proteins, lipids, and most vitamins. Rakshasa had to buy, hunt, or grow their own food. And the fuel that powered their jumpdrives had so far proven impossible for any rakshasa to replicate with mere maya. The asuras, in their wisdom, had created a universe without shortcuts for their rakshasa children to inhabit. In the Lower World, rakshasas who had sufficient command of maya could have created food or jumpdrive fuel out of thin air. In the real universe, however, Jara had to constantly worry about finding safe ports where the Pantha could secure precious food and fuel supplies.
"Hidimba is closing in on us," Jara said, angrily.
Hidimbi turned and left, unable to say anything else. Any mention of her brother Hidimba always managed to send her heart spiraling into a black, wordless rage. Hidimbi decided that it was best to excuse herself before she started clawing holes in Jara's furniture.
FOURTEEN YEARS, TWO MONTHS, TWENTY DAYS, AND SIXTEEN HOURS AGO
"Aaaaaaaand there it is," Garimi said, pointing to the tiny little dot of darkened film on the scan readout floating in front of Hidimbi's eyes. "Congratulations. It's a boy."
Bahula squinted at the scan readout. "How can you tell?"
"That's a penis, Bahula." Hidimbi winced again as the cold scanner pressed against her bare stomach. "Garimi, I thought you were done…?"
"Sorry, sorry. I'm still new at this." Garimi mercifully lifted the scanner off Hidimbi's belly. It had been decades since she'd had any medical training, but now, as the number of trained doctors on board the Pantha dwindled, people like Garimi, despite having taken up other careers, were increasingly being called upon to volunteer for medical tasks. Hidimbi feared that soon she would lose her best apprentice to full-time nursing duties.
"Well," Bahula said, squinting at the scan readout, "for a bunch of smeary pixels, he sure looks cute."
"You have to name him now," Garimi said, "now that we know that it's a him."
"Ghatotkacha," Bahula suddenly said.
Hidimbi laughed. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. I mean, look at him." Bahula pointed to the scan readout. "Look at the shape of his head. It's all pot-like."
Hidimbi laughed again. It was a good name, she thought. Innocent and charming. She was silently, deeply grateful for Garimi and Bahula, for how understanding both of them had been since the moment that they had found out the truth about Hidimbi's child, and for the way that they had never judged her for it. Hidimbi thought it would be fitting to take Bahula's suggestion for her son's name, if only to honor him in a small way. "I like it," she said. She closed her eyes, and rested her hand on her swollen belly. "I can't wait to meet you, Ghatotkacha."
THIRTEEN YEARS, TEN MONTHS, TWENTY-TWO DAYS, AND NINE HOURS AGO
Ghatotkacha was born after a long, hard labor. Hidimbi held her son in her arms for the first time afterward, exhausted and thrilled at what she had done. Ghatotkacha looked every bit the picture of a perfect little rakshasa baby boy; there was no outward sign of his human blood visible anywhere on his body.
But the genetic testing that had been done a month before his birth confirmed the truth: Ghatotkacha did, indeed, have human genes in his genetic code.
Two of the nurses on duty in the maternity ward refused to touch him.
But Garimi, at least, made a deliberate show of holding the baby in her arms and cooing at him. "Look at his wittle nose! Whosa cute widdle nose? Whosa whosa?"
"You're making me sick," Hidimbi said weakly. She leaned back against the pillows propping up her back and said, "I have to go back to the Lower World. Soon. As soon as possible."
Garimi frowned. "Why?"
"I have to tell Bhima. I'm a terrible person. He doesn't even know that he has a son yet."
"You're in no condition to stand up, let alone make a gateway, let alone drop into the Lower World," Garimi lectured. "And Ghatotkacha might not…" She trailed off, frowning. "He might not… Uh…"
"Might not what?"
"Well, we don't know what will happen to him inside a gateway," Garimi said, carefully. "Come on, Hidimbi. You're not stupid. You must have thought about this before."
Hidimbi clenched her eyes shut and tried not to think about it. Rakshasas could pass through the gateways that connected their world with the Lower World, but humans couldn't. It was as simple as that. Humans rather messily, gorily couldn't. Hidimbi remembered being trapped in the Lower World, and being forced to watch her brother gleefully executing humans by tossing them into the gateways that he created, laughing like a madman at the entertaining explosions of blood and gore that resulted.
The question of whether a half-human, half-rakshasa could pass through a gateway unharmed was a question that Hidimbi did not know the answer to.
"We'll have to do this scientifically," she said.
And so they did. Weeks later, Hidimbi had Bahula make a gateway for her to experiment with. She dropped her son's first claw-clippings and a few of his hairs into the space that marked the boundary between her world and the Lower World, and watched with dismay as they exploded into little puffs of dust.
SIX YEARS, ONE MONTH, NINE DAYS, AND SIXTEEN HOURS AGO
"You have nothing to be afraid of," Hidimbi said as she bent down and adjusted the buttons on Ghatotkacha's shirt. Judging by the way that he rolled his eyes in response, Hidimbi realized that she was probably saying it more to reassure herself than to placate him.
"I know, Mom," he said. Then he kissed her cheek, and an instant later had wriggled out of her grasp. He was four steps away from her when he said, "See you later!" In an eyeblink, he was already on the far end of the hallway and effortlessly absorbed into a conversation with his classmates.
Hidimbi straightened up, and tried to ignore the pop in her back. She watched the scene on the other end of the hallway for a moment, tiny rakshasa and naga heads bobbing up and down as they babbled at each other, circles of children forming and re-forming as cliques of friends were decided for the remainder of the year. Hidimbi hadn't exactly had a normal childhood, and she'd never even attended a public school before she got her first university degree. She'd been afraid that if the school system really was as socially cutthroat as she'd heard, then Ghatotkacha wouldn't stand a chance, particularly since the fact that he had human genes was widely known and discussed.
But Hidimbi's fears had been unfounded. In his first year at school, Ghatotkacha had effortlessly established himself as what Garimi referred to as a "social butterfly." He had a disarming charisma that quickly won over even his classmates who had been cautioned by their parents to avoid him. Hidimbi remembered agonizing over compiling a guest list for his sixth birthday party, as the boy had insisted on inviting nearly every child in the school, because he considered all of them to be his friends.
"Eventually we have to stop staring at them, right?"
Hidimbi turned her head toward the stranger who had suddenly addressed her. He was a naga, smiling wryly as his eyes tracked his own child through the crowd. "Ah, look. She's making the 'ugh-Dad-go-away!' face already."
Hidimbi laughed. "Mine's already ignoring me."
"You're Ghatotkacha's mother, right?" He bowed his head to her. "Hi. I think we met on Parents' Night last year, but I didn't introduce myself. I'm Moti."
"I know. I've read your writing."
She grinned at him. "Oh look, I have fans." And he wasn't wearing any of the jewelry, or sporting any of the tattoos, that indicated that he was a married naga. Interesting.
"I'm not sure if sharing an ideology can be considered the same as being a fanboy, but…" He paused for a moment, as if gathering up courage. "I think it's about time we left the kids alone already. Can I treat you to lunch?"
Hidimbi gauged him carefully for a moment, then smiled at him. "Absolutely."
Garimi had warned her that having a child would lead to pick-up attempts at the most unlikely times and at the most unlikely of places. But Hidimbi figured that Moti looked on the level, and it had been far too long since she'd last exercised her flirtation skills.
Or maybe he genuinely did want to discuss the rakshasa civil war with her, and only the rakshasa civil war.
Hidimbi hoped, however, that that would not be the case.
TWO YEARS, SEVEN MONTHS, FIFTEEN DAYS, AND EIGHT HOURS AGO
"Hey Mom, Kera and I are going over to Ti's house," Ghatotkacha said, breezing through the front door of their apartment just long enough to throw his schoolbooks aside and maya himself a snack, "and Ti's dad is going to make us dinner. Cool?"
Hidimbi looked up from the journal that she was reading. "That's fine, kiddo. But you still have to be back by twenty hundred hours."
"Got it. I'll be back." He was gone an instant later.
Hidimbi watched the front door close behind him, and muttered a prayer of thanks for the fact that her son had so many close friends. He was happy. And that was good.
Outside the bubble society of the Pantha, the world was growing smaller and more hostile. More and more planets were refusing the Pantha portage. There were fewer and fewer places for them to return to, to stock up on vital food, fuel, and other supplies. Less food was being distributed to the families on board, and that made things hard. Even worse, every time the Pantha left jumpspace, they picked up more refugees – fellow rakshasas and the occasional naga, who dared to oppose the human-eaters, and who were subsequently cast out of their homes and families. Even as Jara's ideological rebellion swelled in numbers, their position was weakening.
There was talk of crossing the Pantha over into the Lower World, in its entirety. There might be more opportunities for food and supplies down there. But Hidimbi worried that she and her son wouldn't be able to stay on board the ship if it truly attempted to go through a gateway. Ghatotkacha would surely be killed during the crossover.
Still, the kids were largely sheltered from the war that Jara, Hidimbi, and the other elders of the Pantha concerned themselves with. They knew that there was a war going on, but they didn't know how dire the food situation on board the Pantha sometimes got. They didn't know what Hidimba and his followers were capable of. They didn't know that the Pantha only kept a few outdated fighters in its hangar bays, and that those fighters had already scrambled twice in the past year, when the Pantha had emerged from jumpspace only to find hostile forces waiting to repel them from a previously safe planet.
The Pantha was a big ship. It was easy for a select group of leaders to keep facts like that away from the general public. Too easy.
And suddenly, Ghatotkacha was back again. He poked his head through the door – literally, using his maya – and said, "Oh yeah, I forgot. Can I ask you a question?"
"Did you and Mr. Moti break up for real-real?"
Hidimbi was taken aback for a moment, then she sighed. Break-up seemed like the wrong word for what mature adults like her and Moti had done. They had dated steadily for several years, and she had enjoyed his company. Ghatotkacha had grown quite close to Moti's daughter, Kera. But recently Hidimbi and Moti had both realized that they were treading water, so to speak, and had mutually decided to move on. "Yes, Ghatotkacha. We're not dating anymore."
"Oh, okay. Because you know, like, Kera just asked me to the Starlight Dance. And I wanted to make sure that we weren't going to end up as stepsibilings or anything, because, you know, that would have been really weird and gross and stuff."
"Well, then." At least he didn't seem too upset about the fact that his mother was officially broken up with the person who had been a father-figure to him for many years – and a pretty good father-figure, at that. "Are you going to miss Mr. Moti?" Hidimbi asked.
"Maybe if Kera and I get married, I won't have to," Ghatotkacha said, stepping fully back through the door. When he saw the look of horror on his mother's face, he laughed and said, "Kidding, kidding!"
"Good, because you are far too young to be thinking about--"
"So when am I going to get to see my real dad?"
The question hung in the air between them.
"You know," Ghatotkacha said, "my human dad."
Hidimbi closed the journal that she was reading, and sat up a bit straighter in her chair. "Ghatotkacha, we've discussed this. You can't pass through the gate to the Lower World. Your father can never enter this world. You can't--"
"But you can go to the Lower World any time that you want," Ghatotkacha interrupted her. He met his mother's gaze with an easy, calm determination. "So, so! I could record a video, or send him some holograms, or maybe write him a letter or something, and you could give it to him, and then he could send me something back, and then we could, um. We could talk to each other. I… I really want to talk to him. Even if just once." Ghatotkacha took a trembling breath. "I mean, why hasn't he even sent me a letter or anything?"
Hidimbi folded her hands together, hoping that he wouldn't notice the way that they were trembling. "Because he doesn't know."
"Doesn't know what?"
"Ghatotkacha, I haven't spoken to your father since I left him." Truth. "I wouldn't even know where to find him in the Lower World anymore." A lie. It wasn't like a Kuru prince would be hard to find, but Hidimbi figured that the lie might make the truth go down a little bit easier. "A long time ago, your father and I made a very, very difficult decision. I had to leave him. And he was very, very hurt. So I promised that I would never contact him again. And then I had to make another very, very difficult decision. I knew that if I ever found your father again, if I ever told him that he had a son that he could never see face-to-face or hold in his arms, it would break his heart. That's the type of person your father is, Ghatotkacha. If he was told that he could never meet you, it would have destroyed him."
Ghatotkacha stared at her with wide eyes.
Hidimbi clenched and unclenched her hands, waiting for him to say something. Well, there it was. She'd spoken to him as an adult, and she'd laid out the very adult-level truth on the table. Now all she could do was wait and see how he would react.
Unfortunately, Ghatotkacha was not yet an adult. He trembled from head to toe. "You never told him?!"
"No. I can't."
"My dad doesn't even know that I exist?!"
"How could you DO this to me?!" he cried out, his voice full of adolescent melodrama. "All these years I thought that maybe someday I could at least get a letter or something from him, and you--"
"I never said--"
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?!"
"Ghatotkacha, if I ever said or did anything to lead you to believe that your father knew--"
"Shut up! Shut up!" Now came the tears. "I'm going to Ti's!" He whirled around and flounced dramatically out the door before Hidimbi could say or do something to stop him.
Hidimbi sighed. She had faith that eventually, her son would understand. But for the time being…
She grimaced, mentally preparing herself for several weeks' worth of teenaged temper tantrums.
ONE YEAR, ONE MONTH, TWO DAYS, AND FIVE HOURS AGO
The virus was bad, albeit not the worst one that Ghatotkacha had ever contracted. Still, he was laid up for days in bed, his fever and his maya running wild. Hidimbi found it difficult to care for her son when items around their apartment kept slipping into molecular ether or bursting into flame. She tried to cook a stew for him, but stuffed animals from his bedroom kept spontaneously materializing inside the cooking pot. Finally, Hidimbi went to his room, sat down beside his bed, took his hand, and said, "I'm taking you to the emergency room."
"No no no no, Mom, I'm okay--"
"You just ruined Mr. Sniffles." She held up the stew-soaked toy.
Ghatotkacha sat up in bed, alarmed. "I did that?"
"I'm going to call Bahula, he can clean this thing down to the molecular level," Hidimbi said. "But you and I are going to the emergency room."
An hour later they were back home, but Ghatotkacha still refused to take the medicine that he had been prescribed. "It'll give me weird dreams," he said.
"Oh. Hey. I know." Kavi sat down beside Ghatotkacha on his bed, casually draping his arm around the feverish boy. Ghatotkacha didn't refuse him. "But until your brain stops melting, kiddo, you've got to just relax and take a nap. If you keep vomiting maya like this, you'll drive your poor mom crazy."
"I know. I'm sorry." Ghatotkacha looked down at his claws, which he had recently painted in black and red, a fashion statement which his friends at school had begun imitating merely days later. "Hey. Um. Are you going to marry Mom?"
Kavi froze. He looked to Hidimbi, who was leaning against the doorframe of her son's room, watching them. Ghatotkacha looked to his mother, too. Finally, Hidimbi returned her son's steady gaze and said, "Ghatotkacha, we've actually been discussing that. But we don't know yet."
Ghatotkacha nodded, sensing that he was being – at least for the moment – treated as an adult. And quite obviously pleased about it. "All right. Give me those sleeping pills."
Kavi hesitated for a moment. "Ghatotkacha, how would you feel about me and your mom getting married?"
"I think it'd be pretty great."
"That's good to hear." Kavi finished giving Ghatotkacha his medicine, then quietly left the room.
Hidimbi waited until she sensed that her son was asleep, and said, "You know, I haven't committed to anything yet."
"We're in the middle of a war."
"Jara might have to move the Pantha into the Lower World. The whole ship."
Kavi stared at her, stunned.
"We're running out of food," Hidimbi said, "and we're running out of safe ports. Jara and I have been discussing this for a while, now. At least in the Lower World, we'd be able to find food and supplies. You know that Jara is more than powerful enough to construct a gate large and stable enough for this entire ship to pass through. But if that happens, Ghatotkacha and I will have to leave. Because Ghatotkacha can't stay on board this ship if it's traveling through a gate. Do you understand?"
Kavi swallowed nervously. "This is something that you're not supposed to be telling me, right?"
"Right. It's all strictly confidential. But you need to know about it sooner rather than later." Hidimbi turned away from him. "If it comes to that – if we have to move the Pantha to the Lower World, at least on a temporary basis – then Ghatotkacha and I will stay in the Kanu system. We can disappear into the deserts on Kanu Two without anybody noticing or asking questions."
"So I'll go with you!" Kavi blurted out.
"But we need you here," Hidimbi said. "You're the only weaponsmith left on the Pantha. And we're in the middle of a war," she repeated.
He reached for her hand. "And if we don't have to move the Pantha into the Lower World? If you don't have that excuse to leave me…?"
"It's not an excuse!" she snarled at him, instinctively extending her claws. Then she grit her teeth and forced herself to draw back her hand before she hurt him.
"I'm sorry," Kavi said.
Hidimbi tried to hide the sudden trembling in her hands. Where had that come from? She normally didn't have much in the way of a temper, let alone a hair-trigger temper. "No, I'm sorry," she said. "It's just… Things have been very stressful lately." Well, that was an understatement. The Pantha was in more dire straights than Kavi could know, and Hidimbi, Jara, and mere handful of others had been shouldering the weight of that secret for as long as they could.
Once upon a time, Hidimbi and Jara had dreamed of a revolution. Once upon a time, they had begun to see that dream take shape. But in the years since then, their revolution had been beaten down, beaten back, and nearly destroyed by their enemies. Now their whole universe had turned against them, and soon they might very well have to flee into a lower dimension, like dogs with their tails between their legs.
Hidimbi wanted Kavi to stay with her. She needed to lean on him. Or maybe, in all honesty, she just wanted to cling to someone.
And that wasn't a good thing. It was being unfair, both to him and to her.
Kavi touched her arm one last time, gently. "Call me if you need anything," he said.
And with that, he was gone.
SIX MONTHS, TEN DAYS, AND NINETEEN HOURS AGO
The spaceport on Kanu Two's eastern continent – one of only two on the planet – was little more than a cleared landing area and a tiny communications shack.
Ghatotkacha was trying to be upbeat about things, though. "I mean, look at all this sand!" he exclaimed, desperately grasping for any small thing to be enthusiastic about. "Sand is… um, sand is great! The molecular structure of it is so much fun to play around with!"
Hidimbi laughed and put her arm around his shoulder. He smiled up at her, gamely. She knew that he was being strong for her sake. She wanted to tell him that she was proud of him for being so mature about this. Maybe later.
Garimi set down the last of their luggage on the ground, then straightened up, and faced Hidimbi for the last time. "We'll comm you the minute that we cross back over," she said. "We're only staying in the Lower World long enough to replenish our food and fuel supplies."
"I know. I know." Hidimbi didn't need Garimi to reassure her. She and Jara had been the architects of this plan, after all. Hidimbi glanced to her left, where the lone rakshasa manning the communications shack was watching her through a window. He smiled and waved at Ghatotkacha. Ghatotkacha grinned and waved back. Hidimbi felt relieved. This one rakshasa and this one rakshasa alone sympathized with Jara's cause; he had promised not to betray the fact that Hidimbi and her son had landed on Kanu Two to anyone who might come looking for them. Although the idea of anybody thinking to look for anybody else on Kanu Two was somewhat laughable.
Garimi turned and headed back toward her jumper. "Stay safe," she said, already stepping back into the cockpit.
"All of you, too," Hidimbi said.
"Ravana's blessings," Ghatotkacha added, folding his hands in prayer.
Hidimbi stood with her son, and the two of them watched silently as Garimi's jumper roared to life and lifted off into the sky. Then they lifted their luggage and treaded out into the sandy dunes. With the supplies that she had brought and the maya at her fingertips, Hidimbi could easily create a comfortable hideout for the two of them. It was just like being back in the field again, doing her anthropological studies in the Lower World, constructing a base of operations whenever and wherever she pleased.
Hidimbi smiled at herself, despite everything. Nostalgia always seemed to strike her at the oddest times.
"Think of something funny?" Ghatotkacha asked her.
"I was just thinking that this is kind of an adventure," Hidimbi said.
"Oh, it totally is."
They continued through the sand in a comfortable silence.
SIX MONTHS, SEVEN DAYS, AND THIRTEEN HOURS AGO
Ghatotkacha commanded powerful maya, but lacked precise control over it. He helped his mother break down the matter in the desert around them and reconstruct it into a comfortable home, but he had trouble creating a refined final product. His attempt at a couch dissolved when Hidimbi tried to sit on it, and a couple of blankets that he created had the strange habit of slithering around across the floor whenever they weren't in use. But Ghatotkacha laughed at his failures and moved on.
"Look!" he exclaimed, as sand turned to glass in his hand. "It makes all sorts of awesome shapes!" He pulled and pushed the liquid glass with his claws, forming a pretty spiral shape. "I could make a gift for Rana," he mused out loud.
"Rana?" Hidimbi stared at him. "I thought you were dating Ces?"
"Ces and I broke up, like, two months ago," Ghatotkacha said. "Sorry, forgot to mention that."
Ghatotkacha spent the days practicing his maya, making glass trinkets for his girlfriend, and trying to pretend that he wasn't lonely. Hidimbi knew that he was used to being surrounded by his many friends. The isolation of the desert was harder on him than he was letting on.
Hidimbi had to walk nearly half a day to reach a town with a supermarket. There was matter interference in the dessert that prevented her from sliding through space. As a further inconvenience to Hidimbi, the currency used on Kanu Two was, like all currency in her brother's empire, maya-locked so as to prevent counterfeit copying.
Into the town Hidimbi went, and she returned to her son late in the evening. Ghatotkacha was waiting for her with warm tea and freshly-created blankets. "These ones aren't all squirmy!" he declared proudly.
"Good job, kiddo. And I brought something for you to read." She handed him some magazines that she had picked up at the supermarket. Three were digital and loaded into a cheap, disposable screen reader. The fourth was physical, printed on paper, and cheap in more ways than one – just celebrity gossip.
"Ooooh, thanks," Ghatotkacha said, grabbing the paper magazine immediately.
"You can kill your brain cells reading that crap," Hidimbi said, "or you could use it as fuel for more maya practice."
Ghatotkacha grinned at her. "Why not do both?"
"Why not indeed."
"Seriously. Like even you wouldn't admit that…" He squinted at a name printed in a photo caption. " 'Coraldor' is hot." He showed her the photo in question. "Pretty good-looking for a naga, right?"
"Right. Sure." Hidimbi laughed. "I don't waste my time fantasizing about those things. But I'll be sure to let you know the next time I get a chance to actually date a multi-billion-credit movie star."
Ghatotkacha lowered the magazine. "But you dated a human prince once, didn't you."
Hidimbi's laughter died in her throat. She suddenly couldn't tell whether her son was still gently ribbing her, or genuinely trying to hit her where it hurt. "That's in the past," she said quickly.
"Oh. I know. In the past," Ghatotkacha echoed her, his voice carefully neutral, his face unreadable. "But what about right now? He's still my father and he's still a prince. And hey, you know what, my uncle is an emperor."
Hidimbi froze. "Excuse me, what?"
"My uncle. Emperor Hidimba."
"No!" Hidimbi hissed, suddenly grabbing her son's arm. "No, Ghatotkacha, no! He is not an emperor. He is not your uncle. He is not my brother and you will never, ever, ever call him those things in front of me ever again, do you hear me, young man?!"
"Ow!" Ghatotkacha tried to pull away from her. "Y-you're hurting me!"
Hidimbi let go of him and drew back her hand, horrified. "Oh, no… Oh, Gatu, I'm so, so sorry…"
Ghatotkacha looked up at her, looked her directly in the eye, and said, "I forgive you. And I'm sorry. You're right, I shouldn't have mentioned him."
Hidimbi suddenly wondered why her son had mentioned his loathsome uncle. It had come completely out of nowhere. They had just been arguing about Ghatotkacha's father, and then all of a sudden, Ghatotkacha had mentioned his uncle…?
Something didn't make sense. There was a connection that Hidimbi was missing.
She'd told Ghatotkacha, with full honesty, all about the deeds of her brother Hidimba. Every child on board the Pantha was taught about Hidimba. He was as integral to the history lessons that they learned in school as was Ravana or Vibishena. Ghatotkacha knew how evil his uncle was. Or at least, he was supposed to know.
My uncle is an emperor.
Why would he suddenly say such an awful thing?
Hidimbi swallowed. She wanted to ask Ghatotkacha directly why he had just mentioned her brother. But, at the same time, she was loathe to pursue the subject any further. Just thinking about Hidimba was enough to make her want to retch. And she didn't want to start an argument with her son, not when it looked like he was already prepared to forgive and forget.
So Hidimbi swallowed her worries and said, "All right, Ghatotkacha. Let's just forget about this, all right? Be a dear, help me put away these groceries."
"Are you ever going to find my dad again?" Ghatotkacha suddenly asked, bluntly. "Are you never going to tell him about me?!"
"Ghatotkacha, we've discussed this--"
"Yes, we have," he said, setting aside his magazine and his tea, standing and drawing himself up to his full height. When he faced her, he was nearly at eye level with his mother. "You explained to me your reasoning. And I love you, Mom," he said, "but I can't agree with you about this. I'm thirteen years old now, and I think that I deserve to have my own say, too. And I want to send a message to my father."
Hidimbi wondered how long he had been rehearsing that speech. It certainly sounded rehearsed. But that didn't mean that it was any less genuine or heartfelt. "Oh, Ghatotkacha," she said. "You're right. You are thirteen years old. And extremely mature for your age, young man, and I'm so very proud to be able to say that to you. But--"
"But. Of course. There's always a 'but'." Suddenly Ghatotkacha didn't sound quite so mature anymore.
"Ghatotkacha, please. We don't need to get into this right now. This is the last thing we need."
"Yeah. You're right," Ghatotkacha suddenly said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it up again, it just… I'm sorry." And just like that, he was grinning at her again. "Did you bring back any fruit jelly? What kind? No wait, don't tell me, lemme guess."
In retrospect, Hidimbi figured that she should have been suspicious, not relieved, when Ghatotkacha had backed down from their impending argument so quickly. It wasn't like him at all.
SIX MONTHS, SIX DAYS, AND TWENTY HOURS AGO
In her dream, she was back on board the Pantha. Moti stretched out beneath her, warm and welcoming, his skin smooth beneath her fingertips, impenetrable to her claws. They moved with each other, slow and sweet, and he brushed her neck with his lips. She whispered something perverted, her voice low and husky, and he laughed. She pouted, pretending to be insulted. He quickened his rhythm inside of her, and she was unable to pout for much longer.
Hidimbi awoke gradually, letting the sweetness of the dream linger in her mind. Ah, what had brought that on? She really wondered about that, as her subconscious mind normally wasn't nearly as pleasant when she was under stress. Then Hidimbi remembered the silly magazine photograph of that naga movie star, the one that Ghatotkacha had shown her. Of course, she thought, her lips curving into a smile. All handsome naga men inevitably reminded her of Moti.
Hidimbi rolled over in her bed, then sat up. She realized that she could see light filtering into her bedroom, through the curtain that marked its entrance. But it was the middle of the night. Was Ghatotkacha awake already? Or still awake, rather. Hidimbi stepped out of her bedroom and found her son sitting on the floor in the common space of their temporary home, weaving sand and glass and maya together in his hands.
"Can't sleep?" Hidimbi asked.
"Mmm. I'm kind of thinking about something."
"Is it the type of something that you can talk to your mother about?" Hidimbi tried.
"Maybe. You might get angry."
Hidimbi sat down in front of him, and looked him squarely in the eye. "I promise to listen to you, Gatu," she said. "But if you're about to tell me that you did something shameful, I can't promise not to get angry."
Ghatotkacha rolled his eyes. "It's not about me."
"Then what is it?"
"I want to ask you about Hidimba," Ghatotkacha said.
Hidimbi nodded slowly. Her son had not used the word emperor and had not used the word uncle, either of which would have been loathsome for her to hear. But just her brother's name, well, that was a different story. The name was ugly, but powerless. Hidimbi nodded again, then said, "Ask away."
"Is he really as powerful as they say?" Ghatotkacha asked. "Like, he has maya so strong that he can do whatever he wants, just like a god, or something?"
Hidimbi furrowed her brow, carefully considering her response. She didn't like to speak about her brother, but Ghatotkacha's worried question deserved an honest answer. She and Ghatotkacha were stuck together on one side of a terrible war. Ghatotkacha had every right to ask about the rakshasa who was for all intents and purposes his enemy. Hidimbi felt that she could speak about her brother only in the context of discussing a common enemy with a close ally. Well, that was all right, then. "First of all, Gatu," she said, "Hidimba is no god. He may be powerful, but he is mortal, and he has his weaknesses. Only the asuras are eternal and omnipotent. Only they are our gods."
Ghatotkacha said nothing, but set down his half-finished glass project, and listened intently.
"Hidimba's maya is potent," Hidimbi went on, "but not omnipotent. It took me a good two decades to do so, but even I was able to learn how to undo his manipulations. The way that he uses maya is somewhat unique, but it can be decoded and broken down, just like anybody else's maya."
"But that was, like, a long time ago, right?" Ghatotkacha asked. "The last time that you fought him."
"So what if he's gotten more powerful since then? What if he just kept training himself? What if, if like he found us or something, what if you couldn't fight back against him anymore?"
Hidimbi stared at her son. "Gatu, what are you talking about?"
"Like… Like maybe he's looking for us, or something." Ghatotkacha looked away from his mother. "Because we're his family."
"He is not our family."
Ghatotkacha sighed. It was a strange, weary sigh. Hidimbi realized that it was the I-knew-you-were-going-to-say-that sigh that she herself had sometimes used on Moti, Bahula, and Kavi.
"I'm sorry, Ghatotkacha," Hidimbi said quickly. "Are you really worried that Hidimba might be searching for us?"
"…It's a possibility, isn't it?" Ghatotkacha said, somewhat slowly, as if he were carefully choosing his words. "I was just thinking. You know. If Hidimba ever really did try to hurt us, I dunno if I could stand up to him. You know. Because they say that he's so powerful and all. But I was thinking, too, that maybe if he found us he wouldn't actually try to hurt us."
"I told you. Because we're his fa--"
"Ghatotkacha, stop." Hidimbi forced herself to take a deep breath before she screamed at her son. Do you know what he did to ME?! To ME, his own SISTER?! She wanted to scream at Ghatotkacha. She wanted him to know the reason that she couldn't bear the thought of Hidimba being her family. But of course, she couldn't do that. She couldn't tell her son the complete truth. He didn't have to know, and it would be better if he didn't know.
So Hidimbi went for the safe truth. "Hidimba is a murderer," she told Ghatotkacha. "A mass murderer. Ruthless, corrupt, and pure evil. He kills for sport, Ghatu. He kills for fun. Of course, if he ever found us, he would try to hurt us. He doesn't care about us being his family. He doesn't care about anything like that. He lies, and he lies, and not a word that he says can ever be trusted. But don't you worry. Don't you worry about him, Ghatotkacha. That beast will never find us here, and even if he did, your old mom can still kick his ass all the way back to Bhankor. I'll protect you, kiddo. I swear I will."
Ghatotkacha smiled, as if relieved. Then he picked up his glass trinket again. "I guess you're right," he said, pulling and twisting the glass with his maya.
"You should go to bed," Hidimbi said.
"All right." Ghatotkacha stood up and stretched. "Um… Thanks for listening, Mom."
"Thank you for talking to me." She looked away from him sheepishly. "I'm sorry that I lost my temper."
"I love you, Mom." Ghatotkacha stepped back into his bedroom.
"Love you too, Ghatotkacha. Always."
SIX MONTHS, TWO DAYS, AND SEVEN HOURS AGO
Ghatotkacha was gone.
Hidimbi searched frantically around the home that they had created, but he was gone. Most of his possessions were gone, too. There was every sign that Ghatotkacha's things had been neatly packed away, and no sign of a struggle. Hidimbi was panicking. Had he run away? What for?! She knew that Ghatotkacha was bored, she knew that Ghatotkacha was unhappy always having to hide himself within their dessert home, but she also knew that Ghatotkacha was far too mature and level-headed to pack up his things and run away because of sheer boredom.
Hidimbi cursed at herself. She'd only been in town for half a day. And then she'd come back to discover that her son had vanished.
Hidimbi realized that she was clawing at a couch. Stop, she told herself. Take deep breaths.
Ghatotkacha had packed up his things. That meant that he had also likely left a message for her.
Hidimbi forced herself to calmly search through the boxes of datadiscs in the house. Most of them were still blank. She tried the remaining ones in her handheld console, one by one, but none of them contained any message from Gatochaka. Then she went back into his room, and searched some more. She finally realized that there was a handwritten note left on the only table in his room, held down by one of Ghatotkacha's glass paperweights. Hidimbi must have looked straight at it at least ten times before she finally realized what it was. Slowly, forcing her hands not to tremble, she held the note in her claws, and read it.
I love you, Mom. The very first line of the note, the very first line that Ghatotkacha had written. The most important message that he needed to convey to her. Then, the second most important: Please don't be angry at me about this.
There's a way for me to cross into the Lower World.
Hidimba did it. He made it. He's so powerful that he really can do anything.
He did it for me. I refused to call him an emperor, I refused to acknowledge him as my uncle, but he still did this thing for me because he still loves us even though he's all twisted up inside.
He found me in the dreamspace. He got into my head when I was sleeping. I'm sorry. I could have told you but I didn't. He knows that we're on Khanu Two. He found out from me. He never tried to trick me or deceive me. The first time he appeared in my dream, he told me who he was. I got really scared. I told him to go away. But he said that he wasn't going to hurt me because in the dreamspace he can't hurt me. He said that he heard me praying. And I was praying, every night. I prayed to Ravana so that He would maybe make a miracle and help me pass through the gate. Just once. I just wanted to meet my father once. Ravana didn't answer my prayers, but Hidimba did. He said that he knew a way to get me through the gate. He said that he would do this for me because I'm his family and he is obligated to me. He said that he was angry that I wanted to go through the gate in order to meet a human. But he also said that he wasn't going to stop me because I'm thirteen years old and I can make my own decisions about what to do once I'm through the gate. I think because he said he was angry, that's how I knew that he was telling the truth about everything. If he was lying to me or tricking me, I don't think he would have said that he was angry at me.
I saw Hidimba three times in the dreamspace. Only three times, I promise. I didn't want to tell you because I know that you will never trust him and so I had to keep this a secret or else I would never be able to go through the gate. I don't trust him completely and I know that he's evil. I feel bad about accepting his help. Maybe this makes me a bad person. I don't know. What I do know is, Hidimba promised me a chance to go through the gate, and I'm going to take that chance.
I will find my father.
I will come back to you. I don't know when, because I don't know how long it will take me to find my father.
If I'm a bad person for letting Hidimba help me, then I accept my sins as my own and I will do penance to atone for them later. And you can punish me when I get back. But right now I just want to find my father. Any punishment will be worth that.
I know that Hidimba doesn't deserve to be an emperor and I know better than to call him my uncle. I know I'm not supposed to trust him, and I don't trust him any more than letting him send me through the gate. I love you lots and I'm coming back. Promise.
He hadn't signed the note.
Hidimbi set the note back down on the table. Took a deep breath. Then another. Then another.
Her rage swelled; her maya stormed; the home that she and her son had created turned to dust around her. And from deep within her came the scream that she could no longer hold back, that she no longer wanted to hold back.
TWO MONTHS, TWENTY-FIVE DAYS, AND TWELVE HOURS AGO
They had no warning. She came out of nowhere, and was unstoppable. Her claws flashed, ripping open their necks and their chests. Her maya screamed through them, boiling their blood and bursting their hearts. Dozens of rakshasa threw themselves at her and she destroyed them with a thought. She was the sister of the mad rakshasa emperor, after all. She shared his blood and his power, and now she had her rage driving her, too.
The final corpse collapsed in front of the mad emperor's throne. And then there was just Hidimbi left, covered in the blood of the slain, staring up at him with murder in her eyes.
Hidimba stood up from his throne, slowly. Calmly. He gazed down at his sister imperiously. "These were my best bodyguards," he said, as if only slightly vexed at their bloody demise.
Hidimbi licked blood off her claws.
Hidimba smiled down at her. "Of course, they're nothing compared to you. Or to me. Oh, my dear little sister. I didn't know that you still had that in you." He gazed around at the gory remains of his bodyguards, splattered about the walls and the floor. "And you still pretend that you are nothing more than a peaceful scholar?"
"Come closer," Hidimbi said, beckoning with her dripping claws. "I'll show you how 'peaceful' I can be."
Hidimba frowned. "To be honest, I had expected you to find me sooner. Were you searching for Ghatotkacha before you started searching for me?"
"You sent my son into the Lower World," Hidimbi hissed.
"Of course I did. I promised him that I would."
"And then you imprisoned him."
"Of course I did. You know me so well, little sister. Unfortunately, your son doesn't."
"How did you do it?!" Hidimbi demanded, her eyes blazing. "How were you able to let him pass through a gate?!"
Hidimba merely kept smiling at her. "Tell me, sister. Where did you go searching for your son? Did you return to the Gudda system where I kept you imprisoned for so many years? Did you go running to that bitch Jara for help? Did you search for me in the Lower World before you thought to search for me here? I am an emperor, you fool, I do not make my whereabouts secret. However did you manage to take so long to find me?"
Hidimbi seethed. She had searched in the Gudda system, it had been one of the first places that she had gone to. Of course her brother wouldn't have been so obvious as to throw her son into the same prison where he had kept her for so many years. But she'd had to check anyway, just to be sure. Then she had gone searching through all of her brother's strongholds in the Lower World, but hadn't been able to find any trace of Ghatotkacha. Only when she had already spent months searching the Lower World, only when she had exhausted her every hint and lead, had she returned to her own world to risk confronting the mad emperor directly. If Hidimbi couldn't make him tell her where Ghatotkacha was, she feared that she might never see her son again. "Tell me where Ghatotkacha is," Hidimbi growled, "before I rip your throat out."
"You once vowed that you would not be the one to kill me. You once swore before me and Ravana himself that you would never take another life."
"I changed my mind."
"Does that cunt Jara know that you're here right now, standing in front of me, attempting to steal her kill?"
Hidimbi grinned, flashing her fangs. "Does it matter?"
Hidimba regarded her smugly. "First you break your vows and slaughter my bodyguards. Next you smile and tell me that you're willingly betraying the woman who saved your life?" He chuckled. "How far you've fallen, you self-righteous bitch. I wonder what your son would think of you if he could see you now."
"Where. Is. He?!"
"Not here, if that's what you mean to be asking. I have already told you. Your son is in the Lower World, just as he always wanted to be. All I did was grant him his wish. I do care about dear little Ghatotkacha, you know. He is my nephew, after all."
"Liar! Liar!!" Hidimbi screamed at him, not caring about how hysterical she sounded. "You don't care about Ghatotkacha! You deceived him, you imprisoned him, you violated him by invading his dreams and planting lies in his head!"
"I never lied to him," Hidimba answered calmly. "I truly did hear his prayers calling out to the asuras. Any prayer that strong, any desire that powerful – I can feel all of the strongest wishes from all of the rakshasa within my empire. Admittedly, however, I was somewhat surprised at how easily I was able to connect to his mind. I was further surprised by the fact that you never once detected any trace of the connection that we had forged. You truly never once suspected that I had found your son and was able to enter his dreams? Ah, you should have listened to the warning that Ghatotkacha gave you. I've spent decades evolving my maya. You haven't."
"Oh, I have, brother. I have."
"Apparently not enough."
"I've been standing in front of you all this time, and you haven't yet struck me down where I stand, because you can't."
Hidimba's face grew dark. "Do not provoke me, Hidimbi."
"I came here to provoke you, you shitfaced cocksucker."
Hidimba tsked. "Listen to us. Still flinging childish insults at each other. Just like old times, isn't it? Next you're going to pull my hair and accuse me of stealing your dolly."
"You stole my son!"
"I saved him from you!" Hidimba countered. "Do you have any idea how deeply that poor boy wished to meet his father? How he burned for just one chance – just one chance! – to be able to see and touch and speak to his father? How many times he'd thought to himself, 'I would give anything, I would do anything, I would risk anything, for just once chance to pass through the gate'… No, of course you don't have any idea. He wouldn't let you have any idea, because he didn't want to hurt you. But I know. Oh, how I know. I've heard his thoughts, Hidimbi. I've seen his dreaming heart. I heard his mind calling out to the asuras, that same prayer, over and over again. 'I would give anything,' he prayed. 'I would do anything, I would risk anything.' He prayed over and over again. And I heard him. I am already the same as a god in this world, and so I heard him."
"You are no god. You are no asura!"
He smiled at her, pulling back his lips to reveal his sharp, sharp teeth. "I changed the rules of this universe. I created a gate that your son could pass through."
And suddenly Hidimbi saw his lie. She saw it as clear and as plain as day. She could see it in his eyes. "You didn't make that gate," she spat. "Or if you did, you're not the one who figured out how. Somebody's helping you, Hidimba. Somebody is providing you with power that you claim as your own. That's how you can hear the prayers of others, isn't it? That's how you were able to make that gate, isn't it?" She saw the look in his eyes and knew that she had spoken the truth. "Who is it, brother?" she pressed on, moving in for the kill. "Is it an asura? Are the gods meddling in our world again? Have you convinced yourself that you've become a god while merely becoming the puppet for a being far more powerful than you?"
Hidimba's self-assured grin did not falter, but his eyes grew hard and dangerous. "I am the rakshasa emperor," he said. "I have united hundreds of worlds in the true universe and six systems in the Lower World beneath my rule. I am a god. I am no puppet. If," he said carefully, "the glorious asuras have chosen to recognize my greatness and bless me with their gifts, then--"
"I knew it!"
"You know that's really not going to work on me."
"Then I'll tear your throat out," Hidimba growled, extending his claws. "That will shut you up."
Hidimbi laughed. Oh, she'd gotten him now! She'd gotten him good. And now she knew the truth. Her brother wasn't nearly as powerful as he claimed to be. There was something else, likely an asura, pulling his strings. That was good thing, though. It meant that Hidimba was still defeatable. Bad in the sense that there was obviously an extremely powerful asura invested, for some reason, in Hidimba's affairs. Bad also because now Hidimba was angry at her, and when he got angry, he got homicidal. But still good, Hidimbi thought. She'd relish any victory that she could get, no matter how small. "If you want to strike me, then strike me," she goaded him. "If you can."
"Arrogant fool," Hidimba hissed. And then he lunged for her.
She was faster than him, and she knew that she was faster than him. She slid through space, easily dodged his claws, and laughed as her feet splashed in the blood left from her slaughter. "Hidimba, Hidimba, Hidimba," she chided him. She'd spent a lifetime training herself to avoid his angry claws. "Come on, hit me," she hissed, momentarily throwing her head back to expose her neck.
Hidimba, predictably, took the bait. With a roar, he lunged for her throat.
Perfect. His claws, his hands, his arms followed exactly the trajectory that Hidimbi had predicted. Fueling every bit of maya that she could into her hands, Hidimbi swung her arms in just in time to slide the molecules of her claws right through the flesh and bone of her brother's elbows.
Hidimba tried to lurch away from her at the last minute, but it was too late. Hidimbi torn his arms apart from the inside out, with one maya-fueled, atom-splicing swing of her claws.
Amazingly, he didn't scream. He seemed to let out a slow hiss through his teeth. He backed up a step, the gory ribbons that remained of his arms hanging loosely from his shoulders. "That hurt," he said.
"Die already," Hidimbi snarled. There was blood everywhere now. Why did it take so damn long for someone to bleed to death?!
Hidimba sighed wearily. As if he were still calm, as if he were still in control of the situation. As if he weren't losing buckets of his own blood through the gaping wounds in his arms every second. "Idiot sister," he said. "I am an emperor. Of course I had hoped to be able to finish the confrontation with you alone, but… Well." His breathing was getting ragged now, but somehow he was still standing. "I'm sorry, but I do have an army for a reason."
Apparently, he didn't need to have working fingers to press the call button on the comm he was wearing on his belt. Maya could do that well enough for him.
Doorways on three sides of his hall burst open at the same time, and the mad emperor's soldiers poured into the hall, stepping carelessly over the bodies of their comrades that Hidimbi had slaughtered. "Your Majesty!" a few shouted, rushing to Hidimba's side. The rest lowered their weapons – oh hells, those were projectile rifles – and fired at Hidimbi.
She had less than a second to react. Phase, she thought, shifting her molecules, letting the maya course through her body, praying to Ravana and to all of her gods that whatever ammunition was being fired toward her body would be able to pass through harmlessly.
Hidimbi felt the bullets sliding through her flesh, sliding through the empty spaces in her body. Good, she thought. Now I have to get out of—
Something slammed into her shoulder and exploded.
Hidimbi went down with a cry. "Hold your fire, hold your fire!" she heard someone shouting. The world spun. She smelled her own blood.
The mad emperor laughed. "Don't kill her yet," he said. "We've developed one type of ammunition that she can't phase through. I'd prefer to develop quite a few more. We need to keep her alive for the necessary testing."
Hidimbi tried to stand up, but she couldn't. She clawed at the bloody ground furiously, choking on her own rage. Now there was maya holding her down and she didn't know how to decode it. Stupid, stupid! her brain screamed at her. You came charging in here on a suicide mission, you stupid idiot, what were you thinking?!
Like she'd wanted to rip her brother's throat open, that was what she had been thinking. Oh, and trying to save her son. She had also been trying to save her son.
So much for either objective.
"Do not worry," Hidimba said, looming over her. Well, leaning on one of his bodyguards, and dripping blood all over the place, but still looming menacingly nevertheless. "I will do my utmost to ensure that my researchers treat you in the most humane manner possible. You understand, of course, don't you?" Blood dripped from between his teeth as he grinned down at her. "After all, you're a scientist."
TWO MONTHS, TWELVE DAYS, AND EIGHTEEN HOURS AGO
Hidimbi sensed the familiar presence beside her even before she fully awoke. Jara's claws were tenderly stroking her face when Hidimbi blearily opened her eyes.
"Oh, thank the gods," Jara said. "I was afraid you'd never wake up."
Hidimbi blinked at her, thickly. "Wh-Where…?"
"Jumpspace. Specifically, on board the Pantha."
Hidimbi groaned. "I'm dreaming this again."
Jara sighed. "I go to all of this trouble to rescue you, and think it's a dream. Typical. Ungrateful."
Hidimbi laughed weakly, then groaned. Her whole body was wracked with agonizing pain. She blinked and tried to turn her head, but couldn't. All she could see was white ceiling above her. Was she lying on her back? It felt like it, but she wasn't sure. Hidimbi suddenly wasn't sure which way was up or which was down anymore. "Ooooogh," Hidimbi groaned.
"Don't try to move," Jara said, quickly. "Your body mass has been scrambled and re-scrambled so many times that… Well. Er."
"How bad is it?" Hidimbi asked.
"You look fine, if that's what you're asking. Pretty as a princess."
"If I look fine, then why can't I move?"
"Because your body needs to heal."
Hidimbi closed her eyes. "Where's Ghatotkacha?"
"We don't know."
Hidimbi bit down on her lip to keep from screaming. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to stop the tears leaking from her eyes.
She felt Jara take her hand in hers. "We found you in the Kerala system. They had you locked up in a very public research facility. Hells, they weren't even making any effort to hide your location."
"My brother used me as bait for you," Hidimbi croaked.
"Of course he did, just like he's using Ghatotkacha as bait for you. Good work falling right into his trap, by the way."
"I was afraid that I would never find Ghatotkacha unless I could force him to tell me," Hidimbi said. "And then, uh…"
"You got really angry and tried to kill your brother anyway?"
"As much as I would normally endorse any action that furthers my lifetime goal of seeing Hidimba's head being ripped off," Jara said, trying to sound flippant and doing a poor job of it, "I'm still rather furious about the fact that you broke your vow of non-violence, ran off without telling me where you were going, and then tried to face your brother alone, like you had some sort of suicide wish."
Hidimbi blinked the tears out of her eyes. "I'm an idiot. I know. I'm sorry."
"Well, you're also a mother," Jara said, somewhat sympathetically. "And mothers sometimes do crazy things for the sake of their children."
"How did you find me?" Hidimbi asked. The last thing that she remembered was falling down into a pool of blood in front of her brother's throne. After that, she remembered only a long, blessedly painless darkness.
Humane treatment indeed.
"I knew that you would do something as stupid as confronting Hidimba alone," Jara said, "and I was afraid that you would lose that confrontation. And then, well… As I said. Our enemies hardly bothered to keep your location a secret."
"Unlike wherever they're keeping Ghatotkacha."
"Yes, unlike that."
"So you rescued me?"
"Of course I did."
Hidimbi squeezed Jara's hand tightly. "You and who else…?"
"Oh, a small and sneaky army."
Hidimbi couldn't stand the forced casualness in Jara's voice. And suddenly Hidimbi realized just exactly what Jara's seemingly nonchalant attitude was covering for. "People died," Hidimbi said.
Jara was silent.
"People died while you were rescuing me," Hidimbi repeated.
"We're at war," Jara said, quietly. "And among our people, there are many who have read and loved your words. And among those, there were many who would gladly have risked their lives for your sake. Thankfully, not many had to."
Hidimbi felt a wave a self-loathing so intense that it made her stomach clench. "I'm so stupid," she hissed. "I was so stupid, I went after Hidimba like an idiot, and then good people had to die to save me--"
"Don't you dare wallow in self-hatred about this," Jara suddenly snapped. "Don't you dare, Hidimbi. I saved you because I need you, and if you want to do right by my soldiers who gave their lives for you, then you'd better heal yourself up and get back to work fast." Jara let go of Hidimbi's hand. "I also saved you because I love you, you idiot, I love you like a sister and I'll always need you by my side. But not just as a friend. I also need you to fight for our cause, like you always have. Now more than ever."
"I understand," Hidimbi said quietly. "I'm not ever going to stop fighting for you, Jara. But Ghatotkacha--"
"We'll save him. I swear on my immortal soul, we'll find him and we'll save him. We will. Not you. You can't do this alone."
"But you're not going to prioritize the search for my son over the needs of the Pantha, are you."
"Of course I can't," Jara said. "I'm sorry."
Hidimbi closed her eyes again.
"I'll have need of your language skills, shortly," Jara said, suddenly all brusque and business-like.
"Your language skills. You are the only person on board this ship who speaks more than a dozen languages from the Lower World. Lately we have been sorely lacking the skills of a decent translator."
"Wait. We're still… in the Lower World?" Hidimbi blinked, her mind whirling. "Why?"
"There's little left in the way of safe systems in our universe," Jara said. "And we've had more success using maya to replicate supplies in the Lower World, although still not enough success that we haven't had to resort to more old-fashioned methods of survival. Also," Jara went on, as if she were ticking off items on her claws, "your son is still in the Lower World, isn't he?"
Hidimbi felt her pain-addled brain struggling to keep up with Jara's words. "Wait wait wait. What do you mean by 'old-fashioned methods'? Why do you need a translator?"
Jara coughed. Then she said, "You should rest. I'll have Garimi give you a full debriefing later."
"Jara," Hidimbi said.
"I need to ask your opinion about something."
Hidimbi licked her dry lips. "Why did Hidimba take Ghatotkacha, do you think?"
Jara clicked her tongue, a sign of her consternation. "I've thought about that question myself. And the truth is, I don't know. Maybe just to hurt you. Maybe because he just wanted to lock up an innocent boy, because he likes to play god. He has a sick mind, Hidimbi. You know that."
"I know," Hidimbi said. "But I'm worried. I think there's something else going on here. Hidimba is planning something. Gatu might be a part of that. Jara… Hidimba has an asura."
"He has a what?"
"An asura. An asura pulling his strings. Although I'm pretty sure he's convinced that it's the other way around."
Jara sucked in her breath. "Oh, wonderful. The last thing that we need are the gods meddling in our war. Especially if they decide to meddle on the wrong side."
Somehow, Hidimbi managed another weak laugh. She wasn't exactly sure why she was laughing, though. She and Jara were losing their war, a god himself had apparently seen fit to turn against them, Hidimbi's son was still locked away somewhere and still at the mercy of her mad brother, and Hidimbi couldn't even begin to justify her own laughter in the face of the fact that good rakshasas had just died in order to save her from her own stupidity.
Then Hidimbi wasn't laughing anymore. She was crying.
Jara leaned over and wiped the tears from Hidimbi's eyes. "Stop that," she said. "Rest. Go to sleep."
"Ghatotkacha!" Hidimbi sobbed. "Oh, Ghatotkacha!"
"We'll save him," Jara repeated, again. "Now go on, get that pitiful crying out of your system now. I need you to be strong for me. Later."
"All right," Hidimbi sniffled. Then she wept as Jara held her, wept and wept until she finally fell asleep.
The long-haired, somewhat scruffy-looking man pushed the shorter man aside and spoke frantically. "We have an injured party, we're sorry, please put down your weapons, we--"
Hidimbi dropped her rifle, not because the captain of their captured vessel had told her to, but out of plain, simple shock.
Slowly, Bhima lifted his hand from the injured man kneeling at his feet. He was older, unmistakably older, with hard lines beginning to form on his previously innocent face, and a larger waist and belly than Hidimbi remembered. But it was him, all right. She would never forget his eyes.
He stared at her. "Hidimbi?!"
To be continued.