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 and Steelehearts for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
It was always night in the city of Anga.
That was not to say that the sun never rose or set, but the sky was always dark, and the stars were always visible, regardless of the sun. This was because Anga had no atmosphere with which to produce the illusion of a blue sky during the day. In Anga, the air was always thin, and the transparent domes that protected the city from the harsh cold of the lunar landscape and the near-vacuum of space around it sometimes seemed slightly thinner. Which was not to say, of course, that Anga was an unpleasant place to live; the terraformed land inside the domes was always pleasantly warm and comfortable, and the sight of Kuru rising and setting in the dark sky every day was something of a wonder that not even the oldest and crustiest inhabitants of the city could ever really take for granted.
Mostly, Anga was a pleasant place to live because nothing unpleasant every really happened there. This was largely because nothing much ever really happened there, period. Anga paid its taxes to the throne in Hastinapura, and occasionally hosted sporting events in the low-gravity arenas outside the domed city. Other than that, it was largely ignored and forgotten by the people of Kuru. Which was fine for most of Anga, a city which had originally been built by those who wanted someplace quiet and far away from the surface of Kuru, and, over the centuries, had largely stayed just such a place.
Which is why whenever a shuttle traveled between the surface of Kuru and the city of Anga on Kuru's moon, it tended to be somewhat of a big deal.
Karna had seen the shuttle that morning. Everyone had seen it, flying low over the dome of the city. But Karna had not expected the shuttle to be carrying anyone important. What sort of an important person would travel all the way out to Anga on an errand, when they could just get a servant to do it for them? It was a servant, after all, who had delivered the broken bow to Karna's father two months ago, and they had - all of them - expected a servant to come and pick up the bow when it was ready.
Great, just great, Karna thought morosely when he peered out the front window of his father's shop and saw the motorcade pulling to a stop right in front of them. There was an expensive-looking hoverer and no less than three small, black autos behind it.
"Karna," his mother said.
"I know, I see them." Karna withdrew from the window and retreated to the back of the store.
"Is it the prince? Is he here - himself?" his mother asked.
"That's probably him."
"Oh. Oh, my," Karna's mother said, as if she were unsure whether to be terrified or delighted.
It's just some rich kid, Karna thought, contemptuously. "Mom, let me handle this."
Godhika stepped out of the hoverer and sniffed. The street was dirty and the buildings were run-down, especially compared to the glittering streets of Hastinapura. Why, these Angans even built their houses of wood and brick instead of steel and glass! It seemed like insanity to Godhika. Weren't they the least bit concerned about fire hazards, especially living inside an enclosed dome?
Gunavanta leaned over and whispered to Godhika, "All eyes seem to be upon us."
Godhika glanced around quickly. The narrow street that they had stopped on was crowded with houses and shops. Although it appeared to be silent and deserted all around, Godhika could see dozens of pairs of eyes peering at him, from behind curtains and otherwise tightly-drawn blinds.
"Mr. Godhika? Mr. Gunavanta?" Prince Durmukha climbed out of the hoverer slowly. "Is everything all right? Why is it so quiet?"
"It is nothing to be concerned about, Your Highness," Godhika said quickly, bending down to kiss the prince's hand.
"Is this the place?" Durmukha asked, eyeing the small home across the street from them.
"Yes, Your Highness."
"I didn't expect it to be a house," Durmukha commented, already halfway across the street to his destination.
"Many of these peasants operate businesses out of their own homes," Godhika explained quickly as he hurried to catch up with the prince. Durmukha was Duryodhana's third brother and, in Godhika's opinion, every bit as headstrong, stubborn, and as talented a future warrior as was his oldest brother.
Durmukha paused in front of the door of the house in question. There was an engraved sign beside the door and a series of symbols - bows and crossbows and rifles. " 'Adhiratha'," Durmukha read. "This must be it." He pressed a buzzer beside the door.
The door slid open. Godhika was momentarily impressed - he hadn't expected anything to be automated in this primitive backwater of a moon colony. "Come in," a voice from inside bid them, which Durmukha did, followed by his two servants.
To Godhika, it appeared as if the entire first floor of the house had been converted to Adhiratha's business. Everything was bright and well-lit, and spotlessly clean, which was far more than Godhika had honestly expected. The walls were lined with glass cases displaying gleaming bows and crossbows, some modern, some archaic, as well as rifles and guns, some of which were open to better display their internal mechanisms. The floor space was mostly open, save for the racks of carefully organized spare parts and tools toward the front of the store. And in the back of the store was another glass display case filled with parts and tools, on top of which sat a computer and a register, behind which sat a boy.
"You must be here for the bow," the boy said.
Godhika was shocked. The boy had not even bowed his head or in any way acknowledged the presence of the prince in his shop.
"It's ready," the boy went on. He appeared to be one or two years older than Durmukha, tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and dark eyes, and was wearing a brown high-necked sweater, despite the warm climate both inside and outside the shop. A pair of golden hoop earrings dangling from his slightly-distended earlobes. It was the earrings that made Godhika decide instantly that he disliked the boy. He marveled that a child in such a poor community would be vain enough to wear the sort of jewelry usually reserved for royalty - or at least for the better parts of society. Either the boy had delusions of grandeur, or the earrings were tawdry fakes.
"It's right here," the boy went on, hefting Durmukha's crossbow up onto the glass counter in front of him.
"Wow," Durmukha gasped, stepping toward the counter. "It looks as good as new!"
"It's better than new," the boy with the earrings said, finally showing a hint of a smile on his otherwise reserved face. "I molded a completely new latch mechanism and re-filed and polished the bolt track. It should fire better than it ever has before." The boy cocked his head at Durmukha. "This bow really is something. They haven't made a model like this for at least a hundred years."
"It's an antique - it was my grandfather's. It's sort of a family heirloom."
"You must have taken very good care of it," the boy said, touching the brace of the crossbow lightly, almost reverently, with his fingers. "It's kind of rare that we get one this beautiful to work with."
Godhika wasn't exactly sure which annoyed him the most - the fact that this presumptuous child was chatting with Prince Durmukha as if they were school chums, or the fact that Durmukha was encouraging him even though he should have known better. Or perhaps what annoyed Godhika the most was the fact that Adhiratha was insulting all of them by letting his clerk, or apprentice, or whatever, handle royal property like the crossbow. Not only that, but Adhiratha was furthering the insult by actually having this lowly clerk attend to their transaction instead of doing it himself, in person, as was the proper thing to do.
Godhika stepped forward suddenly, pushing himself between Durmukha and the bow. "Excuse me, boy," he said, as politely as he could manage, "ButPrince Durmukha and I have traveled a very long way in order to see your master in person. Is he around?"
"My... My what?"
"You are Adhiratha's apprentice, aren't you?"
The boy looked baffled for a moment, then he smiled and shook his head. "Adhiratha is my father."
Godhika clenched his fist at his side. He did not appreciate being laughed at, and there was laughter behind the boy's smile. "Is he around?" Godhika asked, through gritted teeth.
The smile vanished from the boy's face. "No, sir," he said.
"What do you mean, no?"
"My father is very ill," the boy said, carefully, as polite and reserved as he possibly could be, although something in his stance suddenly seemed tense, and guarded. "He's in a hospital."
"Well, that's unfortunate," Gunavanta said, stepping up beside Godhika. "Prince Durmukha insisted on coming all this way to personally thank Adhiratha for his work repairing this bow. We brought our business to Adhiratha," Gunavanta added, pointedly, "because we'd heard that he was the best at what he does."
"My father is the best at what he does," the boy said, bluntly. "He's the best weaponsmith in the system."
"And I see that he has imparted to you the virtue of modesty," Gunavanta replied.
The boy said nothing, but if anything, his expression was even more guarded than before.
"This simply won't do," Godhika said. "Prince Durmukha wishes to speak with your father, to thank him for--"
"Oh, but my father never touched this bow," the boy said. "I repaired it."
Godhika momentarily faltered. He wasn't even sure where to start comprehending the rudeness of the boy's statement. "Boy," he said, "What is your name?"
"Karna, can you tell me why when your king's son specifically requested your father to repair a family heirloom, your father, instead of fulfilling his promise to us, passed the work onto his less-qualified son, instead?"
Karna's shoulders tensed up more, but he said politely, "My father has the shaking sickness. He can't hold his hands still, and he can't repair weapons. But, sir, my father has already taught me everything he knows. I can do anything that he can do - even better. Just ask any of our other clients--"
"Your father should have told us that," Gunavanta said. "We wanted Adhiratha to touch this bow, and Adhiratha alone. If we'd known that Adhiratha was incapable of doing what we asked him to do, we would have taken our business elsewhere."
"Um, um," Durmukha was saying, trying to push himself between Godhika and Gunavanta, "This is fine, really. It's fixed, isn't it? Better than new."
"But, Your Highness--"
"This is fine, Mr. Godhika," Durmukha said, finally sticking his nose in the air the way that only a real prince could.
"Yes, Your Highness," Godhika said, bowing his head, chastised.
By that time, Karna was busy typing something on the computer in front of him. He tapped a few keys, and then turned the monitor toward Godhika and said, rather coldly, "If that will be all, then?"
Godhika stared at the figure displayed on the blue screen of the monitor in tall, white numbers. "And... what is that, exactly?"
"The amount that you owe our humble little shop, sir."
"Owe?" Godhika asked. "Boy, do you know the make and manufacture of that crossbow?"
"It's a Kaumodaki DHA4300. Of course I know. I told you, Kaumodaki discontinued these models over a hundred years ago."
"Yes, but then, you should also know that the DHA4300 comes with a lifetime warranty. A lifetime warranty that the parent company still enforces."
Karna sighed, obviously sensing where this was going. "Sir, a warranty will only pay for your repairs if the weapon itself is faulty. The man who dropped this bow off with us two months ago mentioned something about an accident--"
"That was my little brother, Mahavahu," Durmukha said, sheepishly. "He tried to turn it into a musical instrument, and tore up the firing mechanism."
"Kaumodaki 's warranty," Karna said, glaring at Godhika coldly, "certainly does not cover inflicted damage such as that."
Godhika's fist twitched at his side. "You hardly know what you're talking about, boy."
"No, sir. My father and I have been repairing Kaumodakis for years. I know their warranties inside and out, like the back of my hand."
"Mr. Godhika, please just pay him the money," Durmukha said, sternly.
"With all due respect, Your Highness, I hardly feel as if we owe--"
"Mr. Godhika, that is an order," Durmukha said.
Godhika had been serving the royal family all of his life, and he was used to hearing children younger than his own sons giving him orders. But that didn't mean that it didn't still rankle, at least somewhat. Durmukha was twelve years old, soon to be going on thirteen, and as far as Godhika was concerned, Durmukha's behavior today - responding to Karna's rude treatment with kindness, and then giving in to the peasant boy's unfounded demands for money - demonstrated that Durmukha still had a lot to learn about the proper role of a prince.
"Mr. Gunavanta," Godhika said.
"Please escort Prince Durmukha back to the hoverer," he said. "I'll be along in just a moment."
"Come, Your Highness," Gunavanta said, taking Durmukha's hand.
Durmukha allowed himself to be led out of the store. He had always been a follower, never a leader, Godhika knew from experience. None of Duryodhana's brothers were leaders. They always followed, followed, and did as they were told. But at the last minute Durmukha turned his head, glanced over his shoulder, and said, "Pay him, Mr. Godhika, and give Adhiratha my regards."
Then Godhika and the boy Karna were alone in the store.
"Listen, boy," Godhika said, leaning over the glass counter toward Karna, resting his hand lightly on the crossbow that had started all of this trouble. "Warranty aside, the fact that your father agreed to repair this bow himself, and then was unable to fulfill that promise to us, makes it sound an awful lot as if I owe you no money whatsoever. Don't you agree?"
Karna stood his ground, glaring defiantly up at Godhika. "No, sir. I don't agree."
"Surely you don't think that I should pay such an exorbitant amount for the work of a rank amateur such as yourself?"
"I am no amateur, sir. I've been helping my father work since I was old enough to hold a bow." Karna tapped the crossbow on the counter. "I even test-fired this one myself. It works far better now than it could have before. A fifteen percent increase in accuracy and arrow speed compared to an unmodified DHA4300."
Godhika felt his hand on the counter clenching into a fist. "You... You test-fired it?"
"Yes, sir. My father and I test every weapon that we repair before we return it to its owners."
"You touched a royal heirloom with your filthy worker's hands?"
"My father's filthy workers hands," Karna said, his voice soft and low and dangerous, "were certainly good enough to touch that bow when you wanted him to repair it, weren't they?"
"You are a weaponsmith," Godhika growled, "not a weapons user. Only royalty and the military are allowed to own and use weapons like these, not peasants like you. You repair the weapons, but you do not use them. Is that understood, boy? Didn't your father teach you as much?"
"You owe me this amount, sir," Karna said, tapping the computer screen.
"Are you listening to me, boy?"
"You owe me this amount, sir."
And then, something in Godhika snapped. "Idiot brat!" he snarled, his hand reaching out - almost of its own accord, almost as if it had a will of its own - and clutching at the collar of the insolent boy's sweater. The boy gasped, finally showing some surprise, but by then, it was too late. "IDIOT BRAT!" Godhika roared, jerking his hand forward. The boy's chest and face slammed into the glass counter, which cracked but did not shatter beneath him. The boy cried out and clawed at Godhika's hands, both of which were now wrapped around his neck, but his struggles were futile. Godhika lifted him up and slammed him down into the counter, up and back down, up and back down again. "You presumptuous, arrogant, rude little brat! It's time that someone taught you your place, boy!"
Godhika let go of the boy's neck, barely noticing that his hands, again as if acting of their own accord, had torn the collar of the boy's sweater wide open as they pulled away from him. Godhika turned and saw an elderly woman standing near a door toward the opposite side of the shop. She was wearing an apron stained with grease over a worn pair of coveralls, with a pair of goggles pushed back high over her thin, graying hair. "What are you doing to my son?!" she demanded, marching toward Godhika. "You monster! I'll call the police!"
Godhika sniffed. "Your son was trying to swindle me. Do you even know who I am, Madame?"
"I don't care if you're His Majesty Dhritarashtra himself, I'm going to call the police right now--!"
"It's okay, Mom."
Karna's mother turned toward him, sharply. "What?"
Karna was slowly, shakily pushing himself up off the top of the glass counter. His hair was mussed and his lower lip split and bleeding.. "This fine customer and I were just... Getting into a dispute about a warranty." Karna finally straightened himself up, straightening his neck proudly, as his torn sweater fell down partly around his left shoulder, and part of his undershirt - also torn by Godhika's eager hands - fell away from his neck. "He was just leaving, mom. It's okay."
"Oh, Karna," his mother gasped, her hands flying to her mouth in dismay.
For a moment, Karna seemed baffled. "Mom? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Good Gods," Godhika added, equally as stunned.
For a moment, Karna seemed utterly lost. Why were they both staring at him with such horrified expressions on their faces? Then he realized since his sweater and undershirt had both been torn open, that meant that the skin on his neck and on a bit of his left shoulder was now exposed for anybody to see. And the curling, looping marks crawling up his shoulder and neck were also exposed for anybody to see.
"But that can't be!" Godhika said, for a moment stunned, then suddenly furious. "You're a peasant! Devakins are never born to low families such as yours!"
"It's not what you think!" Karna's mother said, pleadingly, as Karna, his cheeks suddenly flushing a deep shade of red, tried in vain to tug the torn remains of the top of his sweater over his exposed skin, mumbling, "No, see, it's just a mistake, I'm not--"
And suddenly Godhika understood why the boy had been wearing a high-necked sweater despite Anga's summery weather. It appeared as if Adhiratha's family had a dirty little secret that they had been trying very, very hard to keep hidden. And they had succeeded. Until now, that was.
"Madame," Godhika said smugly, pulling a comm out of his robes, "I think that it is I who should be calling the authorities."
Things seemed to happen very fast after that. The police came and then Godhika left. Everybody knew everybody else in a town like Anga, which was why Karna already knew Mr. Parvata and Mr. Naabhi, the policemen. But when Mr. Naabhi came in and put handcuffs on Karna's mother, Karna was too stunned to ask why. Mr. Parvata put his hand on Karna's shoulder and steered him out the front door of his own home into the street outside, where a police hoverer was waiting for them. Mr. Parvata was saying things like "Don't be afraid" and "It's all right" and "You're not in trouble for anything," but Karna wasn't listening to him. Karna was watching Mr. Naabhi push his handcuffed mother into the back of a different hoverer. Karna craned his neck, trying to meet his mother's eyes, but her head was bowed and her hair was falling over her face and she was looking away from him, her shoulders hunched in shame.
Karna became vaguely aware, at this point, that although there was nobody else on the street, there were dozens of eyes watching him from behind closed curtains and blinds and slightly cracked-open doorways.
Karna climbed into the back of his hoverer, numbly. He thought, in a sort of detached way, that he really should start asking questions right about now. Why was his mother in handcuffs? Why was she in a different hoverer? Where were they taking her?
Karna sat in the back of the hoverer and watched Mr. Parvata sit himself in the driver's seat. There was a metal grating separating the back of the hoverer from the front, but Karna could still see Mr. Parvata just fine. Karna absent-mindedly tugged again at the torn fabric of his sweater, but it was no use. The markings on his neck and shoulder had been exposed for the whole world to see.
The hoverer started moving, and Karna sat very still for a very, very long time. "Where are we going?" he finally asked.
"We're going to see Mr. Chandraka. Just for a little bit."
"Oh," Karna said. Mr. Chandraka was a priest. Karna had never really decided whether he liked Mr. Chandraka or not. Karna had liked Mr. Naabhi very much until a few minutes ago, when he had seen Mr. Naabhi putting handcuffs on his mother.
Mr. Naabhi was in charge of Anga's canine unit, which really only consisted of one dog, named Muddy. Muddy was not a fierce name for a dog, and Muddy himself had never been particularly fierce. Mr. Naabhi used to bring Muddy in to Karna's classes at school and lecture about how dangerous it was to experiment with drugs. Karna was too old for Mr. Naabhi's lectures now, of course, and he hadn't seen Mr. Naabhi bring Muddy into one of his classrooms since he had graduated primary school, many years ago. But he had always thought that Mr. Naabhi was okay, because he had Muddy and Muddy listened to him, and Karna knew from experience that a good dog would never listen to or obey a man who wasn't good himself. So Mr. Naabhi must have been all right.
Until he had put Karna's mother in handcuffs, that is.
"Here we are," Mr. Parvata said, pulling the hoverer to a stop.
Karna got out of the hoverer when Mr. Parvata let him. He glanced around quickly and saw that the other police hoverer was nowhere around. They were in front of one of Anga's few temples, and Mr. Parvata quickly ushered him inside, past a statue of Ganesha and a few people praying, and into a back room, where Mr. Chandraka was waiting in a small study full of books and candlelight and a large, comfortable chair that Mr. Parvata steered Karna toward and made him sit down in.
Karna folded his hands in his lap and swallowed. He was still painfully aware of the ragged appearance of his torn sweater.
Fortunately, Mr. Chandraka was either too polite to stare at the markings on Karna's neck, or at least too embarrassed to risk even glancing at them. He was sitting behind a desk and jotting things down in an open notebook as he spoke with Karna. "Well, Karna," he began, jovially enough, "I heard that you've been keeping a very important secret from me. Is that right?"
"Where'd Mom go?" Karna asked.
Mr. Chandraka glanced at Mr. Parvata, who was standing in the doorway of the study. "Your mother's fine," Mr. Parvata said. "We had to take her to the station to answer some questions, but she's not in trouble."
"Then why'd you put handcuffs on her?"
"Karna, I really think that you should speak to Mr. Chandraka now."
Karna looked down at his hands, which were slowly curling up and clenching into fists.
"Karna, would you look at me, for a moment?" Mr. Chandraka asked.
Karna looked up at him.
"It looks as though something happened to your lip."
"Somebody hit me."
"Who hit you?"
"...Just some jerk."
"Karna, are you a devakin?" Mr. Chandraka asked, bluntly.
"And you've never told anybody?"
"No, sir. Only my mom and dad know. They told me never to tell anybody."
"And why did they tell you not to tell anybody?"
"Because if people found out then they would take me away from Mom and Dad."
Mr. Chandraka suddenly looked very sad. "That's..."
"It's true, isn't it," Karna said, coldly, bluntly. "You're going to take me away."
"Karna, it's not, please Karna, it's not that..." Mr. Chandraka trailed off. Then he answered quietly, "Yes, Karna, I will be taking you planetside in a short while. You'll be with me the whole time, and they'll be nothing to be afraid of. The Council of Brahmins just needs to see you for a little bit, and test you, to make sure that your Gift isn't going to hurt anybody."
"That's stupid. My Gift would never hurt anybody."
"Do you know what your Gift is, then?"
"Then the Council will have to--"
"That man hit me, you know!" Karna suddenly burst out. He whirled toward Mr. Parvata, glaring at him furiously. "He tried to choke me! He tried to break stuff in my dad's shop! You should arrest him, you know. That's assault!"
"Karna," Mr. Parvata said wearily, "if the man who hurt you was a retainer of Prince Durmukha, then there's nothing that we can do--"
"But that's not FAIR!"
"The laws of man may not always be fair," Mr. Chandraka said, firmly, "but you needn't worry too much about this brutish retainer, Karna. Whatever harm he may have done to you, that karma will come back to haunt him soon enough."
Karna stared at Mr. Chandraka skeptically, as if not quite sure whether he wanted to believe that or not.
"Sometimes it may not seem like it," Mr. Chandraka said, smiling softly, "but the gods are up there and they are watching over us." Mr. Chandraka leaned over toward Karna, and said conspiratorially, "Just between you and me, do you honestly think that Lord Vishnu is going to let that awful man get away with what he did to you?"
"Yes," Karna answered bluntly. Mr. Chandraka seemed taken aback, but Karna went on ruthlessly. "Some jerk walks into my father's store and tries to steal my money and break my father's things and beat me and strangle me, and HE gets to walk away from all of this while my MOM gets put in handcuffs and I get kidnapped and taken planetside forever and never to return here ever again?! How is that FAIR?!"
Mr. Chandraka sat back in his seat, silently. He had no answer for this. And Karna sat in his chair and sulked and kicked at the air in front of him, hoping that if he put on enough of a show of being angry, then Mr. Chandraka and Mr. Parvata wouldn't notice the wetness prickling at the edge of his eyes.
Radha sat in the bare, brightly-lit room with her hands folded in her lap. She was well aware of how she looked - dirty, greasy hair, oil-stained coveralls, a fresh red burn already busy leaving a new callus on the side of her left hand. She had been working in her husband's workshop, welding parts, when Prince Durmukha and his retainers had appeared at her home. Karna had been manning the counter all day and had been much more presentable than his mother in the first place, which was why she had retreated back into the workshop and left her son alone to handle the transaction. It was a decision that Radha was now coming to regret.
"Which one of you is his human parent?" Naabhi asked, sitting on the opposite side of the bare table between him and Radha.
Radha took a deep breath, and pushed a lock of her dirty hair away from her forehead. She had been using her safety goggles to keep her hair out of her face, until the police had taken them away from her. Now she was left with nothing to keep her bangs from falling into her face. "Please, Mr. Naabhi," she asked, "I really would like to call my husband."
Naabhi shook his head, slowly, sadly. "Listen, I'm telling you this, not as a police officer, but as a friend-- It's better for you to be honest with me right now, than it will be for you to keep trying to hide things from--"
"I'm not trying to hide things. I'm trying to protect my privacy."
Naabhi sighed. "Radha," he said, calling her by her first name.
Radha looked down at her hands. She knew Naabhi and Parvata, and everybody else at the police station, who were probably watching the two of them from behind the mirrored glass panel that took up a large portion of one wall of the otherwise bare interrogation room. She had attended worship and festivals and concerts and theater performances with these people. Her husband and her son had often repaired the policemen's weapons and even sold them new ones over the years. These men were her friends. And now they had just found out that she had been lying to them, and to everyone, for years.
And they still didn't have a clue just how much Radha had lied to them, about everything. But they were about to find out.
"Which one of you is Karna's human parent?" Naabhi asked again, patiently, coaxingly.
Radha swallowed her fear, and then looked up at him. "I can't answer that. Please. Don't make me. Not yet."
"Because..." Radha's voice broke, and she buried her face in her hands. "Because if I tell you the truth, my son will find out that I've been lying to him for all these years, too."
Radha trembled for a few moments, but she sensed that Naabhi was still there on the other side of the table, still waiting for her, and that he would not leave until he knew what he needed to know. So Radha took a deep breath, and composed herself. There was no use in delaying the inevitable, she thought.
"I'll tell you everything," she promised, brushing a tear from her cheek with the back of her burned hand. "Only, please, don't tell Karna what I'm about to tell you. I... I want to be the one to tell him."
"Oh, Radha," Naabhi said softly, but he still sat still and quiet, waiting for her to continue.
"My only son is a devakin," Radha began, struggling to keep her voice from shaking, struggling to keep her chin held high, struggling to cling to the last shreds of her dignity. She would not break down again in front of this man, friend or not, she vowed silently. "My husband and I have kept that hidden from the world for as long as we possibly could. We know that devakin aren't born to peasant families like ours. We know that if anybody ever found out about our son, he would be taken away from us and shipped down planetside to remain in the custody of the priests. My husband and I aren't stupid, Mr. Naabhi. We know that it's happened before."
Naabhi remained stony-faced, but he did not bother to deny the truth of Radha's statement.
"Because devakin can only be born to royalty and to priests," Radha said, unable to keep a tremble of anger out of her voice. "Because a god or a goddess would never let his or her divine blood be intermingled with the blood of commoner like you or I. And apparently only royalty and priests can be trusted to raise them properly, as well."
"Radha, this isn't the time for--"
"My husband and I always told Karna that he was special, that he was a devakin," Radha went on, cutting him off. "And we always told him to never, ever let anybody find out that he was a devakin. Because if they did, we told him that he would be taken away from mommy and daddy. So we raised him to be careful. We taught him to always cover up his devakin markings, ever since he was old enough to dress himself. And he always has. He's been very good about it, very careful about it, since he was old enough to understand much of anything. And it's always been hard for him, really. He can't go swimming with his friends, when he was little we wouldn't let him sleep over at a friend's house, and he... He's just been very good about it. Very careful," she repeated, not caring how many times she had repeated those exact same words in the past minute.
"And that's why Karna never told anyone that he was a devakin. And that's why my husband and I never told anyone either, and why we never had him registered with the Council."
"Which is a grievous breach of the law," Naabhi said.
"I knew that I was breaking the law," Radha said, "by not having him registered." Her hands trembled in her lap. "But I couldn't bear the thought of losing him."
"Does Karna have a Gift?" Naabhi suddenly asked.
"He must!" Radha said, fiercely. "Only... He's not quite old enough for any Gift to manifest itself, yet."
Naabhi sighed again. "This is unbelievable," he said, more to himself, than to Radha. "I mean, I've watched Karna grow up since he was just a baby, and I never knew - I never once suspected - I mean, I always thought that he had talented hands and was kind of special that way, but I never--!"
"My son IS special," Radha said, vehemently. Then she added, bitterly, "Since he's a devakin, I suppose that makes him a bit too special to be raised by the likes of me and my husband, isn't that right? That's what you'll be telling me in a few minutes, isn't it? 'Devakin are born for better things' than the life that I or my husband could offer him. A devakin shouldn't spend the rest of his life repairing antique weapons in a moon-colony backwater that is seldom mentioned and more seldom cared about planetside. That's what you're going to tell me when you take my son away, aren't you?"
"We're not yet sure what--"
"And you'd be RIGHT!" Radha suddenly burst out. "My son WAS born for greater things than what I could ever give him. I've known that since the moment I first held him in my arms! Since his father became ill Karna has already had to drop out of school to maintain the shop with me, and he's never once complained. He's never known anything but Anga and the shop and how to follow in his father's footsteps, but if he knew more I know that he would want more - and he would deserve more!"
Radha buried her face in her hands again, ashamed of her threatening tears. So much for her vow not to break down again.
Naabhi sat still for a while, watching Radha weep softly. Then he stood up, pushed back his chair, and said awkwardly, "Well, then, I'm going to have to report this to the Council immediately, and--"
"Wait," Radha suddenly said, lowering her hands from her face again.
Naabhi sat down again, quickly.
"I promised that I would tell you the whole truth, didn't I?" Radha said, her voice steely and determined, despite the redness around her eyes. "And I will. Now. Because some of what I just told you was a lie."
Naabhi sucked in his breath, quickly. "Radha--"
"I've always told Karna that I was his human parent," Radha said, "although I could never tell him the identity of his deva-parent. I told my son that his father and I prayed every single day for a child, and that part was true. And I told my son that the gods eventually heard and answered our prayers, and that part was also true. When Karna was old enough to start asking questions, I told him that one night while I was lying in bed alone, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of heavenly creatures surrounding me, and that my entire body was bathed in this lovely soft, warm light. And that when I woke up, I knew that I was pregnant. Sounds like a nice story, doesn't it? And because I felt as though I had been visited by many instead of one heavenly creature, I told my son that no, I could never say just for sure which god might have been his deva-parent."
"And... And that part was the lie?"
"Yes." Radha took a deep, shuddering breath. "What's true is that I could never tell my son the identity of his deva-parent, because I just didn't know. And the reason that I didn't know wasn't because I was visited by heavenly creatures or any other such nonsense. The truth is that I don't know because I'm not Karna's human mother."
"Oh," said Naabhi, unable to say anything else.
"Fifteen years ago, my husband and I were still living and doing business planetside. We lived in a village far away from Hastinapura. We had a good life, and a good home, on the very edge of our village. I remember, there was this little stream that used to run along the edge of our property - my husband always liked to work outdoors and wash his tools in that stream.
"I remember that one morning, my husband was doing just that - washing his tools in the stream - and he told me that he heard a faint crying. He looked and saw an infant boy wrapped in blankets and floating in a basket in the stream," Radha said, shakily. She had never said these words to any other living soul before, and they tasted strange in her mouth. "He told me that he knew instantly that the baby had been abandoned. My husband took him into our home and unwrapped his blankets and saw the deva-blood markings on his body. He also saw that the baby was wearing golden earrings, a pair of tiny little golden earrings stuck through his ears, and my husband knew instantly that the baby must have been the blessing from the gods that we had both been praying for. He brought the baby up to me - I was lying in bed, feeling very ill. A week ago I had contracted a bad stomach virus and had been pretty much bedridden since then. I remember that the baby was crying, he was hungry. The instant that I saw my husband appear before me, holding that crying child, I felt my illness vanish. It was a miracle. I held out my arms for the baby and my husband gave him to me without saying a word. I held the baby and rocked him, and he stopped crying. I remember thinking that he was so beautiful, so perfect. I held him in my arms, and I touched his hair, and he looked up at me with these eyes - these incredible, pleading, hopeful eyes - I'll never forget that look in his eyes, not for the rest of my life. Then I felt a wetness inside my nightdress. I pulled down a part of my nightdress, and I saw that my breast was swollen and dribbling with milk. I suckled the baby, and I remember my husband just staring at me with this look on his face, like he couldn't believe a thing that he was seeing, like he thought that he was dreaming. And I smiled at him and I said, 'This is just a miracle, that's all.' Because I knew that the baby was our son, he was meant for us, he was our gift from the gods. The transformation of my body was proof enough of that."
Radha looked down at her hands. "At first, my husband was afraid. He and I both knew that the child was a devakin, and that if anybody ever found out about it, our son would be taken away from us. So we knew from the start what we were getting into. We knew that we would have to keep the fact that our son was a devakin a secret from the world, for as long as we possibly could, likely forever. But we also decided, back then, that we never wanted our son to know that he had been abandoned and found in dirty little stream behind our house. We didn't want him to grow up knowing that he had once been abandoned, wondering who his real parents were, possibly someday running off and doing something very stupid, and very foolish, trying to find out the truth about himself. We didn't want him to grow up burdened like that. Well, that sounds noble and all, but the truth is, my husband and I may have been a bit jealous, too. The child was ours and was meant for us, we knew that for certain, but I don't think that either he or I could bear the thought that our perfect, beautiful son had actually been born to some other man or woman first. Perhaps we wanted to be the only mother and father in Karna's heart. I don't know, it's difficult to say for certain - it's all hindsight now, I suppose. But we vowed never to tell Karna that he had been adopted by us. I always, always told him that I was his real mother. As far as I'm concerned, I am. My son drank the milk from my breasts, he grew up playing on my lap, he ate the food cooked by myhands, and he--" Radha's voice trembled for a moment, then she forced herself to continue. "I named him Vasushena. But because of his earrings, my husband nicknamed him 'Karna.' Then the name just sort of… stuck. For all intents and purposes, that's his name now. Karna."
"And you and your husband moved here fifteen years ago," Naabhi said, as if suddenly remembering something.
"Yes," Radha said, "because we had no choice. Nobody in our village would believe that Karna was our real son - they had all seen me in the months leading up to the day when we found Karna, they knew that I had never been pregnant. So my husband and I did what we had to - we ran. We ran away to this obscure little moon colony, where we would be far from the High Council and all of the planetside priests, where we could introduce ourselves to neighbors who had never seen us before and who would certainly never suspect that I had never shown any signs of being pregnant with my new son."
And then, Radha surprised herself by laughing. To her ears, however, her laugh sounded bitter.
Then she looked at Naabhi and asked, "Will I be charged, then?"
"We'll, uh..." Naabhi looked stunned, as if he were still trying to digest everything that Radha had told him. "We will have to charge you, ma'am. Failing to register your devakin son with the Council is a criminal offense."
" 'Ma'am'? But you were the one who told me that I was your friend. Since when was I a ma'am to you, Mr. Naabhi?"
"Unregistered Gifts can be dangerous. We have to send Karna planetside to get him tested and registered right away."
"Ma'am, it's the only safe thing to do."
"Please," Radha pleaded, "please let me see him, one last time. Just once, before he leaves. I want to tell him the truth. I need to tell him the truth. If I hurt him, then I'll hurt him, and I'll deserve anything that he says to me afterward. But I couldn't bear the thought of him finding out the truth from some stranger--"
"Listen, it's not as if you'll never see him again--"
"You know as well as I do that I won't!" Radha's fists were clenched in her lap, her eyes blazing. "They'll take him planetside and hand him over to the Council, and then that will be the end of it! The priests won't give him back to me, and you know that as well as I do!"
Naabhi looked at her for a long, long moment. Finally he said, "All right. I'll do this for you, since you're a friend. I'll call Parvata and have him bring your son over right away. But we can't give you long with him. I've already got a shuttle prepping to run your son down to the surface."
"Thank you," Radha said, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes. She felt momentarily relieved at Naabhi's words, but only momentarily. She knew that the most difficult part was still to come.
Karna was surprised when Mr. Parvata took him not to the spaceport, but to the police station instead. Karna's mother was there, and Mr. Parvata and Mr. Naabhi left Karna alone in a room with his mother.
Karna's mother threw her arms around her son and whispered into his ear, "Oh, my baby..."
Karna wrapped his arms around his mother and said nothing, willing himself not to cry. He understood now that this was their goodbye.
"My precious baby," Karna's mother said, running her hands through her son's hair.
" 'S okay, Mom," Karna said, even though he knew that it wasn't. But he was trying to do the manly thing, at least. "Tell Dad that I'm sorry."
"No, No, Karna, I'm the one who's sorry." Radha pulled herself away from her son and said, very slowly, "There's something that I have to tell you."
And then she told him everything. And her voice shook, but she did not cry. And when it was all over, Karna looked down at his feet and said, "Oh. Okay."
For a long moment, Radha stared at him, silently. Finally she asked, "Is that all? Is that all you have to say?"
Then Karna looked up at her and Radha was taken aback by the fierce, fiery anger she saw blazing in her son's eyes. But his anger was not directed at her. "What else am I supposed to say? I don't care, that's all there is to it! YOU'RE my mother and DAD is my father, and nothing that anybody could say to me could ever change that!"
"You're my mother," Karna said, his voice hitching, as he threw his arms around her one last time, "and nothing's going to change that, no matter how far away we have to be, okay?"
After a long, long minute, Karna finally extracted himself from his mother's arms and said, "Goodbye."
Then he left, and Radha felt her eyes burning as she watched him go.
Mr. Chandraka held Karna's hand as they walked through the spaceport, something which Karna did not appreciate in the least, but at the moment, he felt too numb and hollowed-out and strangely exhausted to raise any protest. Mr. Chandraka had not even allowed Karna to go back home to pack up any of his belongings. He was being taken down to the surface with nothing but the clothes he was wearing (which, by the way, were still torn and tattered), likely never to return to Anga again.
"Sit down here," Mr. Chandraka said, guiding Karna over toward a bench. "Our shuttle will be ready soon."
Karna sat down, and Mr. Chandraka sat down beside him. Mr. Chandraka, at least, had packed himself an overnight bag while Karna had been at the police station with his mother. But Karna understood why he himself had not been allowed to pack anything. There was no longer any need for him to own anything. He belonged to the priests now.
Mr. Chandraka touched Karna's shoulder. "How are you doing?"
"Okay," Karna answered. What else was he supposed to say? That he was angry, hurt, scared, or shocked so much by the events of the past couple hours that his mind had succumbed to a strange sort of cold numbness? Karna did not want to leave without saying goodbye to his father. Karna did not want to be taken down to the surface and possibly assigned to a new, more fitting family - a family of priests or royals or military elite, perhaps - to spend the rest of his life with.
Karna suddenly looked down at his feet and thought, I might have even come from one of those families in the first place, you know.
Karna clenched his fists and grit his teeth, viciously banishing the thought from his mind. His mother was his mother and his father was his father, and that was the end of that. Karna could never have and could never love a different father or mother, no matter what.
But doesn't it make you just the last bit curious? a voice in the back of his mind whispered. Knowing what you know now, can't you not help but wonder...?
No. He couldn't let himself wonder. If he wondered about that, he would be wondering for the rest of his life. And that was a burden that Karna just couldn't bear. Besides, why would he want to track down his birth parents, if they had abandoned him to die in a backwater stream the way that his mother had described to him? If Karna's birth parents had truly been so heartless, then he knew that he would never want to see either of them face-to-face. Never.
"I know what will cheer you up," Mr. Chandraka suddenly said. "How about a snack?"
"No thank you."
"You might get hungry or thirsty while we're on the shuttle, so why not at least buy something now?"
"You can if you want to."
"I bet you like chocolate," Mr. Chandraka said, standing up. Then he added, "Stay right here, I'll be just a moment." Then he bustled off in search of a snack bar.
He must really trust me to not run away, Karna thought. Then he realized, morosely, that he had absolutely no intention of running away, regardless. It was pointless, wasn't it? Where could he go, anyway? Anga itself had few places to hide, and if Karna tried to venture outside of Anga's domes, he would surely get himself killed, or possibly gruesomely exploded from the lack of atmospheric pressure on the moon's surface. Besides, Karna looked around and could see that although Anga's single spaceport was, at the moment, mostly devoid of people, it was crawling with security cameras and a few security bots rumbling along on their outdated, squeaking treads. Karna knew that if he tried to run, he wouldn't get far.
Karna swung his legs back and forth and sat, pondering not his fate, which was in the future, but last night, which was in the past.
Before the prince and his retainers had come and ruined everything, there had been last night, and last night had been good. Since his father had fallen ill, Karna had been forced to drop out of school and work all day every day keeping his father's shop in business. But Karna had good friends, and they had never forgotten about him. Tejas and Plavaga had shown up on his doorstep a few minutes before midnight, when Karna had still been closing down the register and filling out the logs for the day. They had taken him to a park and nearly everyone from school had been there, drinking and laughing and sitting on blankets and gazing at the stars glittering through the domed sky above them. "You need a break," Tejas had told him. And Karna remembered that Shrutakiirti had been there with her friends, and that he had watched Shrutakiirti pouring drinks for her friends and clapping her hands when Plavaga had begun strumming his guitar, her dark eyes and smooth skin illuminated by starlight and painted with nighttime shadows.
Karna finally felt a lump in his throat when he remembered Shrutakiirti. Shrutakiirti's parents were grocers who lived just up the street from Karna. Shrutakiirti had used to steal fruit and chocolates from her parents' store, and run over to Karna's home, and then sit on the fence surrounding the yard behind his house, watching as Karna and his father test-fired the weapons that they had finished repairing. And then Shrutakiirti would give Karna a chocolate and tell him that he must have been the greatest marksman in Anga, and Karna remembering thinking that Shrutakiirti's neck moles were kind of gross and that she always smelled like a girl, and Karna also remembered looking at Shrutakiirti one day and suddenly realizing that her moles had been beautiful all along, and that he was an idiot for not having realized it sooner.
Karna wondered where Shrutakiirti was, and what she was doing at the moment. News traveled fast in Anga. Karna knew that half of his neighborhood had seen him and his mother being dragged by the police out of their home and into the street, Karna's mother in handcuffs and Karna's sweater and undershirt torn and exposing his neck and shoulder markings for anyone to see. Surely Shrutakiirti must have heard the news by now. Karna wondered what she thought of him, now. Did she care that he was a devakin? Was she angry that he had never told her? Was she at all sad that he was being taken away? Would she miss him? What if she didn't miss him? What if he never saw her again?
"Get your hands off me, I know where I'm going!" somebody suddenly shouted, crankily.
"Old man, you are six shades of crazy if you expect us to trust you after that little stunt that you pulled at the station," a familiar voice replied. Karna recognized the voice - it belonged to Mr. Vihanga, another police officer. Karna craned his neck and saw, behind him, that Mr. Vihanga was grasping an old man's arm and forcibly dragging the old man towards the area where Karna was currently sitting. The old man had white hair and a long beard and yellow teeth and mottled skin, and was wearing a closed and fastened and obviously-too large brown overcoat, and a pair of brown boots, and, Karna assumed, rags underneath.
Karna knew that it was rude to stare, but he couldn't help himself. The old man looked like a renunciant, and Karna had never actually seen one in the flesh before, let alone one being dragged along by a uniformed police officer.
Mr. Vihanga led the old man over to a bench right next to Karna's, and sat him down forcefully. "I need a bottle of water if I'm going to get on board that dusty dry deathtrap!" the old man wheezed, angrily. Mr. Vihanga frowned, but then let go of the old man's arm and turned around, marching off in the direction that Mr. Chandraka had gone a moment earlier.
Aha, Karna thought. The old man must have been a renunciant, or else Mr. Vihanga would not have been required to pay him the respect of giving him what he asked for.
The old man suddenly turned his head and fixed his blazing, wild eyes squarely on Karna. "You, boy!" he barked. "Are they deporting you, too?"
Karna was startled by the old man's attention, but he decided not to be afraid. "Yeah," he said. "Kind of."
"Oh? And what crime did you commit?"
"I was born."
The old man immediately doubled over, clutching his stomach and laughing a phlegmy, rattling laugh. "Oh, oh!" he roared. "You and me both!"
"...It's really not that funny."
"No," the old man said, cutting off his own laughter sharply, "I suppose not."
"I'm Karna," Karna said, bowing his head slightly, because he had been taught better than to be rude to renunciants.
"Well, Karna, you look like a mess," the old man said, his eyes falling upon Karna's torn sweater. "Did you pick a fight?"
"I picked a fight, that's why I'm here now," the old man said with a wheezy chuckle. "Damn brat deserved it, though. And can you believe, boy, the nerve of your goldbuttons! They tried to put me in HANDCUFFS as if I were some type of filthy criminal! ME! It's certainly not MY fault that I was placed in this world to punish the wicked. How am I supposed to do my job if your goldbuttons keep getting in my way?"
"And the OTHER me!" the old man continued, jabbing a knobby finger angrily in Karna's general direction. "I wasted my one and only comm session trying to call up the other me, the one down on the surface, but the timing's all wrong - all wrong! - and they told me that he's only two years old and that his parents are dairy farmers, can you BELIEVE the absurdity of it all? So the other me can't help me and your goldbuttons think I'm crazy and now I'm being deported, deported, deported like some common criminal!"
Now Karna really didn't know what to say. He had never been face-to-face with a genuinely insane person, either. I can't believe I'm going to have to spend three hours on a shuttle with this geezer, he thought with an inward groan.
"Boy. Devakin," the old man rasped.
"You're the boy who fixes weapons, aren't you? I've heard of you."
Karna was taken aback by this, but the old man simply went on, "I can see those calluses on your hands, though, and I can tell you that those calluses aren't the type that you get from fixing weapons. You'd have to have been firing a bowstring for at least a decade to get calluses like that."
Karna looked down at his hands and mumbled, "Yeah, kind of."
"Even though a weaponsmith like you is never supposed to actually use a weapon?"
Karna said nothing.
The old man grinned at Karna and said, "I bet you're good."
Karna still said nothing, but he could see out of the corner of his eye that the old man's teeth were crooked and yellow.
"I bet you're real good," the old man said, standing up slowly.
"Well, Karna? Aren't you a good marksman?"
"What do you prefer to shoot with? Rifles? Guns? Lasers? Crossbows?"
"Um... I know it's kind of old-fashioned, but..."
"But..?" The old man stepped toward Karna and then stopped when he was standing right in front of him.
"I kind of like to use a wooden longbow. Not a modern one that's all metal and glass, but a real old-fashioned one, the wooden ones, the ones that give me splinters," Karna said, helpless to tear his eyes away from the intense gaze of the old man staring down at him.
"I thought you would say that," the old man said in his rumbling, phlegmy voice.
"Why?" asked Karna, rather calmly, although his mind was whispering fervently to itself, please don't come any closer please oh please don't come any closer you're a scary old man and you smell like dangerous oh please oh please don't touch me.
But the old man reached out with his dirt-crusted, bony finger, and rested the ball of his finger on Karna's forehead. "You have a Gift," he said.
Karna winced, but found himself unable to draw away from the old man's touch. "Mister, please--"
"I know what your Gift is, Karna. It's a devaweapon."
"It's a devaweapon, given to you by your deva-parent. Why don't you show it to me?"
"Mister, I don't know how--"
"You, what are you doing?!" Mr. Chandraka's voice suddenly shouted, from what seemed like very far away. "Get away from him!"
But Karna could not turn his head to look at Mr. Chandraka, who now sounded as if he were running toward him. Karna could only feel the old man's warm, dirty finger pressed against his forehead, and could only see the old man's fiery, crazed eyes locking his own in their intense stare. "I think you do know how, Karna," the old man said, "so show me."
And then everything was fire.
Karna felt the heat screaming inside of him faster than he could think. Then he breathed and there was orange and white fire exploding out from his hands, racing around the edges of the bench that he was sitting on, swirling around the old man's feet and legs, dancing on the floor around him, racing up his own arms. It was hot and it burned and it was too bright and Karna closed his eyes and heard shouting and screaming around him.
Then Karna felt the world around himself lurch - and something inside of him seemed to lurch, to move, to heave and shift as well.
Then Karna opened his eyes, and he was no longer sitting. He was standing in front of the bench, holding out his arm, and there was an arc of white flame flowing through his clenched hand. Karna breathed again, and the flame thickened, slowed, and deepened from white to yellow to orange to red to a glossy, burnished brown. And then Karna was holding an enormous, creaking wooden bow in his grip.
There was a thump, and the sound of glass breaking.
Karna turned his head, slowly, and saw Mr. Chandraka standing frozen a few steps away from him, his arms held out and trembling, two broken bottles of soda at his feet. "Th-th-that's Vijaya," he said, his eyes widening. "A weapon of the gods."
Karna looked at the bow in his hands. It was old and worn, and its string looked frayed. It was also large, and it certainly should have felt heavy, although it was light in Karna's hand.
Some bow, Karna thought. Now where am I supposed to get an--?
A lick of flame danced across Karna's other hand, and then he was holding a long, sharp
Karna looked around, then, and realized that the spaceport had fallen utterly silent. The old man was standing at Karna's side, looking smug. Mr. Chandraka was standing in a rapidly-spreading puddle of soda, oblivious to the fact that his feet were getting soaked. Mr. Vihanga was standing a few feet away from Mr. Chandraka, equally as flabbergasted, his jaw hanging open in shock. The few other passengers in the spaceport, even the security bots, were frozen and staring at Karna, too.
Karna swallowed. Another glance told him that there was no trace of fire left anywhere on the ground or on the bench where he had been sitting a moment ago. Nothing appeared to be the slightest bit burnt or charred.
"I knew it would be a bow," the old man said, clapping a hand on Karna's shoulder.
"That is Vijaya," the old man said, solemnly, "your Gift. A god gave it to you when you were born, and now it will be in your hand any time that you desire it to be. It is a devaweapon, a part of your heart. It can never be separated from you. But you must be careful, Karna," the old man said, touching the arrow that Karna had clenched in his other hand, "for Vijaya's arrows are made from small pieces of your heart, too. Every time you fire an arrow, you lose a piece of yourself. This is the price you pay for wielding the power of Vijaya."
"But," Karna said, swallowing, "does that mean that someday I'll run out of arrows?"
"No," the old man said, kindly. "The human heart is an amazing thing, Karna. It can heal itself no matter how badly wounded. But you must be careful, of course. Never use too many of your arrows at once. Do not use your Vijaya blindly or in a rage."
Karna felt faint; he felt his head swimming. He closed his hand, and felt Vijaya - and the arrow that he had been holding - suddenly vanish from his hands, leaving behind only a flash of warmth and a faint tingling in his chest. He slumped back down onto the bench where he had previously been sitting, suddenly exhausted.
"You're not ready yet," the old man said.
Karna opened his eyes, slowly. "No. I'm not."
"Karna! Karna!" Mr. Vihanga rushed forward and was suddenly kneeling beside Karna, trying to push a bottle of water into his hands. "Drink this," he said, then turned his head toward the old man and snarled, "You! What did you do to him?!"
"I awoke his Gift," the old man said. "Although it probably was too early for him."
"Go over there, and SIT!" Mr. Vihanga shouted, pointing at a bench several rows down.
"Very well." The old man stepped away from Karna.
But, with a tremendous effort, Karna lifted his head and pleaded, "Wait!"
The old man paused in mid-step, then turned his head back toward Karna. There was still that smug smile on his withered old face. He had clearly been expecting this reaction.
"Help me," Karna croaked, his throat suddenly drier than it had ever felt before. "I don't know how to… V-Vijaya, I…"
The old man stepped back toward Karna. "Are you asking me to teach you how to use your devaweapon?"
"I accept your request."
The old man made as if to sit down next to Karna again, but Mr. Vihanga suddenly stepped toward him angrily. "Leave the boy alone! I told you to go sit over there!"
"I can't leave this boy," the old man said, haughtily. "He's my apprentice."
Mr. Vihanga clenched his fists angrily. "You're a criminal! You can't just--"
"Enough," Mr. Chandraka suddenly said.
Mr. Vihanga fell silent, and Mr. Chandraka stepped forward slowly, solemnly, pushing Mr. Vihanga aside.
Then Mr. Chandraka bowed low in front of the old man, and touched his feet, reverently.
Mr. Vihanga choked and spluttered with surprise, but Mr. Chandraka simply said, "If you ask for the boy, he is yours, my Lord."
"Ah," the old man said, grinning his sparse-toothed grin. "I like this one," he said to Vihanga, pointing down at Mr. Chandraka, who was still kneeling at his feet. "This one can see what you can't. Wisdom. You should try it sometime."
"However, my Lord..." Mr. Chandraka began, hesitatingly. "It is a law that Karna must be scanned and registered by the Council of Brahmins at Hastinapura..."
The old man sighed. "If that is such a terribly important law, then I suppose we have no choice." He glared at Mr. Vihanga. "I've already seen how much trouble I can get myself into by disobeying your meaningless, silly laws."
Mr. Vihanga opened his mouth, clearly preparing to say something angry, when Mr. Chandraka quickly cut him off. "Come with us, my Lord, to meet with the High Council. Once they lay their eyes upon your Lordship, they will surely understand why the boy should go with you."
"Wait a minute!" Karna finally find the courage to interject.
The old man turned expectantly toward Karna. "Yes?"
"I, er… I don't even know your name."
"I am Parashurama," the old man said, "and I will teach you to use your Gift, and I will make you the greatest archer Kuru has ever known."
Karna glared at the old man, sullenly, suspiciously. A moment ago he had been begging for the old man's help, but now that he had had a few moments to calm down and collect his thoughts, Karna was beginning to have his doubts again. Vijaya was terrifying, of course, but Karna was beginning to think that, with some time and effort, he would be able to master the divine bow on his own. Why had he begged this obviously crazy old man for his help? Karna didn't want to be anywhere near the so-called Parashurama anymore.
"You were born for greatness," the old man said. "But there's nobody on Kuru or Panchala or anywhere else within hundreds of light-years that could teach you to use that bow properly. Nobody but me."
Karna crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe I don't want greatness," he said, stubbornly. "Maybe I just want to say here and fix weapons with my father."
"Oh? You don't want fame and greatness?" Parashurama's eyes twinkled mischievously. "You'd rather stay here as a peasant for the rest of your life, fixing weapons for royals and military elite who treat you like dirt, unable to ever fire or legitimately own a weapon of your own, even though you are - or you could be - better at it than any and all of King Dhritarashtra's sons put together? Well, I suppose, if that is your choice, then... But what a pity, Karna, that the world will never know that you are the greatest archer of your era, what a shame that the world will never see and tremble before your Vijaya."
Karna looked down at his feet.
"You were given Vijaya for a reason," the old man said. "You'll never master Vijaya, you'll never fulfill your own destiny, if you stay here."
Karna took a deep, shuddering breath. Destiny. It was a grand word, both exciting and terrifying. He didn't want to particularly fulfill any sort of grand destiny, as far as he was concerned. It would have been better, safer, to just stay in Anga for the rest of his life, to stay with his mother and his father and their little shop with Shrutakiirti just down the street and the domes over his head and--
And now that he had heard the word destiny, Karna knew that if he turned his back on it now, the thought of all of that unfilled potential would haunt him for the rest of his life. If he never fulfilled his destiny, he would never know what his destiny was, and the weight of Vijaya and all of his unanswered questions would burn in his heart until the day that he died.
"All right," Karna said, standing up slowly, shakily. "I'll go with you, old man."
"Call me by my name, boy."
"If you think you deserve to be called as much."
Parashurama laughed his rattling old-man's laugh. "I like you, boy!" he said. "You have fire in your heart."
Mr. Chandraka was standing upright again, brushing the dirt of the spaceport floor off his knees. "Wonderful, then, it's settled! It's off to the High Council for all of us." Mr. Chandraka was, for some reason, grinning like a child at a festival. "Just wait until they see you," he gushed excitedly at Parashurama. "It will be a celebration like you've never seen before!"
Parashurama took Karna's hand in his. "Well?" he asked.
"Okay, I guess," Karna said, as Mr. Chandraka began walking toward the gate where their shuttle was likely already awaiting them, and Parashurama and Karna followed. "But, sir? Why does Mr. Chandraka call you 'my Lord'?"
Parashurama started. "What... you can't see it?"
"My obvious divinity," Parashurama said, without a trace of joking in his voice.
"Ah, my boy," Parashurama said, "then you still have much, much to learn."
To be continued.