MAHABHARATA STORY

by Nenena

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


CHAPTER TWO: PARTINGS


"Wake up wake up wake up wake up!"

Bhima groaned and rolled over, but it was no use - Arjuna was jumping up and down on his bed as relentlessly as he could manage with his tiny body. Bhima opened his eyes, slowly, and blinked at the sight of the gloom that had filled his bedroom. It was late in the morning, he sensed instinctively, but there was hardly any sunlight filtering in through his dark windows, and Bhima could hear thunder rumbling in the distance.

Aha, he thought to himself, no wonder Arjuna is in such a good mood.

"Come on, wake up!" Arjuna whined, having given up jumping up and down on Bhima's bed in favor of pulling Bhima's hair angrily. "You're so lazy."

"All right, Pumpkin," Bhima groaned, pushing Arjuna away from his head and sitting up slowly.

"I am NOT a pumpkin!"

"Are you sure?" Bhima asked. " 'Cause you're orange and fat like a pumpkin," he said, then he poked at Arjuna's head and added, "You've even got a stem!"

"I do NOT have a stem--"

"Oh, yes you do. It's big and green and everything."

"Bhima--!"

"What? I'm just telling the truth."

Arjuna leapt down from Bhima's bed, in a sudden panic, and ran over to a mirror on the other side of Bhima's room. "You liar!" he squealed indignantly, when he saw his reflection on the mirror. "You're a stupidhead liar, Bhima!"

"Yes, but you're the stupidhead who believed me," Bhima said as he rummaged through his closet and began pulling on his clothes.

In truth, although Arjuna was short, he was not anywhere near fat or orange, and he did not, fortunately, have a green stem. Arjuna was six years old and was still small for his age, although other than Bhima, Arjuna's other family was generally too tactful to constantly point it out for him. Still, Arjuna seemed painfully, almost precociously aware of his height deficiency. It did not help that even at six years old, Arjuna's eyesight was already terrible, and he seemed to have a natural tendency toward clumsiness. He wore thick glasses, which he resented almost as much as his nickname "Pumpkin." Although when Arjuna was old enough, Bhima knew that he would be able to get rid of his glasses and have surgery to repair his eyes. The glasses would be gone someday, Bhima knew, but the horrid nickname of Pumpkin would probably stick to Arjuna for the rest of his life.

Well, at least Arjuna didn't have to put up with being the baby of the entire family anymore.

Two years ago, Arjuna had finally gotten his own baby brothers - a pair of twins named Nakula and Sahadeva. They had been born to his other-mother, Madri. The birth of Madri's twin sons had come as a surprise to almost everyone in the palace, especially when the children had been born as devakin. Bhima had heard one or two references to "Kunti's mantra" in conversations between his Grandpa Bhisma and his father, and he had his own suspicions. But Bhima figured that if his parents chose not to reveal something to him, then it was not his place to pester them with his curiosity. Either way, Bhima had already observed that as far as Arjuna was concerned, having baby brothers was pretty great - they were small and lumpy and easy to boss around, since they couldn't really talk back to him.

However, Arjuna did not seem particularly pleased with the fact that a few months ago, Nakula had said his first word, which had been "Pumpkin." Or rather, "Pumkim," the way that Nakula had pronounced it, pointing right at Arjuna as he spoke.

Arjuna had tried unsuccessfully to popularize the nicknames "squash" and "gourd" for his baby brothers, just so that he wouldn't have to be alone in his misery. But alas, nobody else seemed to use such nicknames.

"How come you always get in here so easily?" Bhima suddenly asked Arjuna, as he pulled on his socks and boots.

"Your guards let me in because they like me," Arjuna said, sticking out his tongue.

Bhima sighed and rolled his eyes. He was beginning to no longer appreciate the fact that the guards posted outside of his chambers every night apparently had a sense of humor, or at least a soft spot where Arjuna was concerned.

"Come on, you're so slow," Arjuna whined, tugging at Bhima's sleeve.

Bhima glanced out his window and groaned inwardly. Three inches from the glass of his windowpanes, the world dissolved into a wall of water. Torrents of rain lashed at the glass and thunder rumbled in the darkened sky. Bhima knew exactly what this meant--

"Let's go OUTSIDE!" Arjuna demanded, impatiently.

"We're not going outside," Bhima said sternly, reaching down to grab Arjuna by the back of his shirt and tossing him up into the air as easily as if he were as light as a feather. To Bhima, he was. Arjuna shrieked angrily at this violation of his dignity, but then Bhima caught him in his arms and swung him up behind his neck. "And why do I have to be the one babysitting you today, anyway?" Bhima asked as Arjuna only halfway reluctantly settled into his piggy-back position behind Bhima's neck. "Where's your Nana?"

"Nana said thatyou would play with me today."

"Great. The whole world is conspiring against me."

Arjuna leaned forward and wrapped his tiny arms around Bhima's neck. "Can we go outside? Pleeeeeeease?"

Bhima sighed through his nose. Arjuna knew his secret weakness, apparently - he was helpless in the face of Arjuna's hugs.

"Why can't you just stay inside on a rainy day," Bhima said, as one last desperate appeal against his impending doom, "like a normal kid?"

Arjuna wrinkled his nose. "Who would want to stay inside on a day like today?!" Arjuna apparently still did not understand why everyone that he knew seemed to have such an aversion to getting wet.

"Outside, outside, outside," Bhima was singing gloomily as he bounced Arjuna up and down, stomping around his room. "I'm taking a stupid pumpkin outside, so that he can catch pneumonia and die and then I won't have to go out in the raaaaaaain anymore--" Bhima suddenly stopped. "Where's your coat, Pumpkin?"

"I don't need a coat."

"I suppose you don't need an umbrella, either."

"There's no point in going out in the rain if you can't get wet."


II.

Bhima led Arjuna down the palace hallways outside his quarters, and into an outdoor courtyard. "This one should be relatively sheltered from the rain," Arjuna heard Bhima mutter under his breath. But of course, it wasn't. With a sigh, Bhima opened his umbrella and stood on top of a relatively dry rock, while Arjuna jumped and splashed around the muddy puddles around him.

It's Bhima's fault that he's not having any fun, Arjuna reasoned as he splashed around. There was so much mud and so much rain, it was such a perfect day for making a mess, and stupid Bhima had to stand there with his umbrella and his coat and his rubber boots and the scowl on his face, shivering and refusing to move.

"Come ON," Arjuna finally begged, tugging futilely at Bhima's immovable leg, "Nana said you would play with me and I wanna play hide and go seek!"

"You can do whatever you damn well please, but I'm not moving," Bhima repeated. He was standing on a rock in the midst of a mud puddle and acting as if he were standing on a rock in the midst of a pool of boiling lava, as if one misstep would mean certain death. Or at least irreparably soaked and muddy boots.

Arjuna scowled. "If you just stand there, then it doesn't count as playing with me."

"Look, if you want to go inside and play hide and seek like a normal person, then I'll gladly join you. But right now? You can ruin your clothes and catch pneumonia and die and have Mama get real angry at you, if you'd like, but count me out."

Arjuna wiped his runny nose on the back of his hand and paused, furrowing his brow with the effort of deep, concentrated thought. He had to find a way to force Bhima to do something fun with him, or else the whole day would be an entire waste. Arjuna had not been alive for terribly long, but, deep within his secret heart of hearts, he had already figured out one thing, and that was that Bhima would always, always be his most favorite brother of all. Of course, he would never tell that to another living soul. But what mattered was that Arjuna knew that it was true. Not to say that his other brothers weren't also good, of course. Arjuna loved his oldest brother Yudhisthira. And his baby twin brothers weren't too bad, either, although Arjuna would never be able to forgive Nakula for the "Pumkim" incident. But if Arjuna had to choose between being as smart as his brother Yudhisthira, or being as strong and cool and as good with a sword as his brother Bhima, Arjuna would much rather be as strong and cool and as good with a sword as Bhima was. And indeed, Arjuna did make that promise to himself, often as he lay awake in his bed on uncomfortably cloudless and therefore sleepless nights - that someday, he would grow up to be a fearsome, strong warrior just like his brother Bhima. In a few years Arjuna would be old enough for Grandpa Bhisma to start teaching him how to use a sword, and then Arjuna would show them all. He was going to be so graceful and so deadly and so fearsome with his sword that nobody would ever dare to tease him by calling him "Pumpkin" ever again. Even Bhima, terrible and terrifying Bhima, would then bow down to his little brother as an equal, and he would apologize for every time that he had ever called Arjuna "Pumpkin." And then his brother Yudhisthira and his cousin Duryodhana wouldn't have to be afraid of anything because they'd have Arjuna to protect their kingdom with, and Arjuna's papa would take him aside and tell him that he had been his favorite son all along, and Arjuna would become so famous that someday people would whisper his name in the same breath with which they whispered names like Rama andHanuman and---

"Stop getting your boogers on me," Bhima grumped as he pushed Arjuna forcefully away from his leg.

Arjuna wiped his nose as his pleasant daydreams evaporated. Reality, as it was, came pouring down around him - cold and wet and muddy. Arjuna was at least six years younger than Chitraka, his youngest cousin. He was the baby of the family, and not even the arrival of Nakula and Sahadeva had really changed that. He was small and short and pathetically weak and clumsy, especially compared to his enormously tall, large, and strong brother Bhima. Even Arjuna's brother Yudhisthira, while not particularly good with a sword, at least had the advantage of being tall and looking imposing when he needed to be. Neither Yudhisthira nor Bhima had ever had to wear glasses or deal with a stupid nanny like Nana or known what it was like to be teased and picked on by one hundred cousins, all of whom were older and bigger than you, almost every single day. And Yudhisthira was always busy running the kingdom, or at least pretending to run the kingdom, and Bhima was always busy either showing off with his sword or advising Yudhisthira or studying this or that about the military, and neither of them ever had any time for Arjuna. And Arjuna's papa was always busy being sick, and Arjuna's first mama and second mama were usually around but that didn't count because mamas were boring and always telling him to sit up straight or not scratch his nose or not chew on his pens and pencils.

Arjuna's papa used to go camping in the forest with Arjuna's older brothers. Arjuna was always too little to come along, they had told him. Arjuna had deeply resented this abandonment for as long as he could remember. It wasn't fair that Yudhisthira and Bhima got to spend special time with Papa, while Arjuna didn't. But last year and this year, that had changed. Bhima had refused to go on the camping trip, and that meant that for three whole days Arjuna claimed special time between himself and Bhima, because that was only fair, wasn't it? The logic behind this idea, or lack thereof, didn't particularly bother Arjuna. What bothered him is that Nana had arranged things so that Arjuna could spend the day with his brother, even Arjuna's god-papa Indra had arranged the weather so that the day could not have been more perfect for play outside, and now Bhima had to go and be a spoilsport about everything.

Bhima glanced up at the bruised and blackened sky above him, like a condemned man taking a good long look at his own hung and ready noose, and commented, more to the Gods above than to himself or to Arjuna, "I hope that Papa isn't caught out in this."


III.

"In retrospect, we probably deserve this," Duryodhana said, gloomily.

Yudhisthira nodded glumly. He was currently standing ankle-deep in swirling mud, his clothes soaked and clinging to his thin body, his hair glued to his drenched face, and, incredibly, he was still getting wetter by the moment. The tree that he and Duryodhana were standing beneath was not doing much in the way of sheltering them from the storm. Yudhisthira took small comfort in the fact that at the moment, Duryodhana, who usually always managed to look so handsome and put-together, even after three days of camping in a cave in the woods, had finally succumbed to the forces of nature. Now the handsome prince looked more like a drenched rat than anything else.

" 'We'll be back before it starts raining,' " Duryodhana continued, mocking himself. " 'Just because it's thundering doesn't mean that it's going to rain yet.' I mean, really, why did you listen to me?!"

"It was four in the morning," Yudhisthira said, through chattering teeth. He could no longer feel his toes, which he assumed were still swimming in his waterlogged boots. "You sounded persuasive. And I had been sleeping on a rock for two nights straight."

"Come on," Duryodhana finally said, stepping out from beneath their inefficient covering of foliage. "We're soaked whether we stay here or walk back, so let's walk back."

Yudhisthira followed him glumly, stomping through the squelching mud beneath his feet.

Yudhisthira's annual camping trips with his father had become a tradition a mere three years ago, when Madri had become pregnant and Yudhisthira's father's health had taken a turn for the better. Yudhisthira remembered the first time that his father had insisted on taking him and Bhima camping in the wilderness where Yudhisthira had previously spent most of his life. Uncle Vidura and all of Papa's doctors had been horrified at the suggestion. Papa had mysteriously seemed to be getting healthier, true, but nobody had expected a few days of roughing it to be anything but bad for the former king's health. As it turned out, quite the opposite had happened. Yudhisthira's father just kept getting better and better. He gained weight, color returned to his cheeks, and his hands had stopped shaking long ago. Yudhisthira knew that his father and his mothers and Grandpa Bhisma were deliberately keeping the details hidden from him, but he had heard the word "remission" tossed around enough to be able to get his hopes up.

Yudhisthira had loved camping with his Papa. For him, it had been a long-overdue return to the clean and quiet serenity of the forest that he remembered from his childhood. That, and he had gotten to finally spend some time with his father, and with Bhima. For the past several years Yudhisthira had been so busy taking lessons with Grandpa Bhisma, meeting politicians and dignitaries, giving speeches, sitting in on Parliament debates, and worrying about which of six possible forks to use first during a formal dinner, that he hardly had time to even see his own family anymore.

Being groomed to become a king, Yudhisthira had slowly discovered over the years, was not nearly as difficult or as impossible as he had once thought it to be. But it was nevertheless all-consuming in every sense that mattered. Yudhisthira lived, breathed, and slept politics; he even dreamt about tax laws. But Duryodhana had been by his side constantly, and it was indeed true that misery loved company. Duryodhana was also kept so busy smooching with politicians and learning the ins and outs of health care reform, that he also had virtually no time to see his own brothers. He always seemed to be with Yudhisthira during his waking moments. Neither of the two of them had gotten a decent night's sleep in over four years, they both agreed that the current Minister of Conservation was a prick, and they both not-so-secretly wished that Grandpa Bhisma would just hurry up and pick one of them to be crowned king already, so that at least one of them would be able to retire from their hectic life.

Duryodhana had taken Yudhisthira under his wing from the beginning (well, almost from the beginning) many years ago. It was Duryodhana who had taught Yudhisthira how to suck up to his own ministers, how to discredit the conspiracy theorists on the evening news, how to speak in public without sounding, as Duryodhana had described it, like he had a metal rod shoved up his--

"Can't go this way, it looks like," Duryodhana suddenly said, snapping Yudhisthira out of his train of thought and back into his rain-soaked reality.

Yudhisthira looked down and saw that a small stream that he and Duryodhana had walked over that morning had now become a raging torrent of water. It was too wide to jump across, and too deep and fast-moving to be safe to wade across. Duryodhana turned his head, waiting for Yudhisthira to tell him where to go. He and Yudhisthira both knew that Duryodhana had no sense of direction in the wilderness.

"This way," Yudhisthira said, slogging up the bank of the impromptu rapids, hoping that if he led Duryodhana further up the incline of sloping land that they were currently trying to cross, he would find a point where the stream was still narrow enough to risk jumping across.

The previous year, Papa had invited Duryodhana along on the camping trip. That was the first time that Bhima had refused to come along.

Yudhisthira knew that his papa and his cousin Duryodhana had always liked each other. "Your dad is so amazing," Duryodhana used to tell Yudhisthira all the time. Duryodhana was always impressed by Pandu's stories about life in the wilderness, by his amazing archery skills, and by the memorable time that he had told off the Minister of Defense with harsh words and a rude gesture, in front of the entire assembled Parliament, no less. Duryodhana had always particularly loathed that (now former) Minister of Defense.

But Duryodhana and Bhima had not gotten along so well. Grandpa Bhisma had wisely decided some time ago that the two were never to practice with their swords at the same time; Bhima was stronger than Duryodhana and brasher and louder and more of a scene-stealer at public events; Duryodhana, in turn, was sulky and resentful whenever he had to be in the same place as Bhima for more than a few moments at a time. And Duryodhana's hundred younger siblings, out of loyalty to their eldest brother, shared his attitude toward Bhima right down to the letter. Bhima was convinced that Duryodhana was a spoiled, manipulative, and selfish pighead (which was often true); Duryodhana was convinced that Bhima was a reckless, uncouth, and moronic thundering monster (which was also often true). Years ago Yudhisthira had given up any hope of ever getting the two of them to see eye-to-eye. Yudhisthira had always silently hoped that someday Bhima would realize that he was hopelessly outnumbered in his silent, ongoing feud against Duryodhana, and that he would just, one day, give up and call a truce. But then again, Yudhisthira knew his brother Bhima's heart better than he even knew his own, and he knew that there was a greater chance of Arjuna being struck by lightning than there was of stubborn, hard-headed Bhima ever forgiving a grudge.

But even without Bhima, the camping trip last year had been great, as had been the one this year, at least up until this morning. For one thing, it was rare that Yudhisthira ever got to see Duryodhana out of his element, and the wild and rough forest hundreds of miles north of Hastinapura was definitely out of his element. On the first day of their first camping trip together, Yudhisthira quickly discovered that, even taking into account the "cabin in the woods" that Duryodhana had once mentioned to him, Duryodhana had never once actually lived, eaten, or slept in a place that wasn't climate-controlled, not once in his life. He had certainly never slept on a rock or bathed in a river or hunted for his own food before. But Duryodhana was the type of person who made a habit of exuding so much self-confidence that he regularly fooled people into thinking that he was in his element, so he had gone along gamely with everything, even if Yudhisthira had seen Duryodhana's face turn slightly gray that first time that Yudhisthira's papa had demonstrated how to skin a deer.

Duryodhana had wanted very much to impress Yudhisthira's papa, however, and this year he had already downed and skinned a deer all by himself.

Yudhisthira knew that the forest would never be to Duryodhana what it was to him. But that was all right. Duryodhana had not rejected the forest, and it had not rejected him; and this was how Yudhisthira knew, without a doubt, that his cousin Duryodhana was not a bad person. No matter what Bhima might think.

Today was supposed to have been their last day camping together. Duryodhana had woken Yudhisthira up, discreetly, several hours before dawn, whispering excitedly into his ear. The two of them should go out on an early hunt and surprise Yudhisthira's papa by bringing back a trophy as a gift for him. Duryodhana knew full well that Yudhisthira's papa had a fetish for antlers and horns and stuffed heads of whatever-you-please that he liked to mount throughout the palace at Hastinapura. Yudhisthira had thought that this was a brilliant idea - it would make his papa so happy - and at the time, neither of them had stopped to consider that they might not be able to find any decent prey before they lost their race against the storm clouds gathering overhead.

Yudhisthira knew that his papa would have been awake for a while by now, and he would be wondering what had happened to them. Well, at least Papa was safe and dry inside the cave that the three of them had slept in last night. Yudhisthira and Duryodhana were about as far from dry as they could be.

Yudhisthira kept trudging along the edge of the angry rapids that were now blocking him and Duryodhana from the direction that they needed to go, but it was to no avail. The frothing stream neither narrowed enough for them to risk jumping across, nor offered any rocks for them to climb across.

Duryodhana suddenly reached up and placed his cold, sopping hand on Yudhisthira's equally cold, sopping shoulder. "Hold up," he said, "look."

Yudhisthira turned his head and glanced across the stream, and felt his heart leap into his throat.

An old man dressed in rags was standing there, and he was not wet.

The old man had no hair and grinned at them with no teeth. He stood in the midst of a falling torrent of rain, in a clear space between two trees, and his skin was smooth and dry. His ragged clothing rustled slightly around his frame, ruffled by a gentle breeze that shared no relation with the raging winds whipping the rainwater around the rest of the forest.

"You two want to cross my stream, don't you?" the old man said. His voice was strong and clear, reaching Yudhisthira's ears as easily as if there was not the roar of the engorged stream or the thunder of rain on wood and leaves filling the space between the two of them.

Duryodhana clutched at Yudhisthira's shoulder more tightly. "Is he...?"

"Stay calm," Yudhisthira said. "He's not human." Out of the corner of his eye, Yudhisthira saw Duryodhana slowly moving his other hand toward his hip, where Yudhisthira knew he was wearing a rather large yet easy-to-throw knife. "DON'T," Yudhisthira said. Duryodhana obediently lowered his hand, and Yudhisthira whispered under his breath, "Careful, we don't know what he is. He could be anything - a rakshasa or a yaksha, or a gandharva if we're really unlucky."

"Oh," said the old man, although it should have been impossible for him to hear Yudhisthira over the roar of the storm around them, "I suppose that you could call me a yaksha. This is my stream. I intend you no harm. Please allow me to help you cross."

Yudhisthira risked another glance over at Duryodhana, who was openly boggling at the creature standing across from them. Yudhisthira supposed that this was also Duryodhana's first time meeting one of the inhuman things that populated Kuru - the ghosts and the monsters and the demons that lurked across the planet's surface, but generally stayed outside the outskirts of the centers of human civilization, such as Hastinapura. Duryodhana had heard of rakshasas and yakshas before - especially before he agreed to go on the first camping trip with Yudhisthira and his papa, since rakshasas and yakshas often made the forest their home. Yudhisthira had seen a rakshasa before, once, when he was five years old. His papa had killed it. For Yudhisthira, that had so far been his one and only encounter with the inhuman things, but nevertheless,

Yudhisthira had been raised in this dangerous forest, and he had been taught well by his father. Rakshasas devoured humans, yakshas sometimes favored and sometimes destroyed humans, and gandharvas lived by their own whims and heaven help any human who got in their way. When one was approached by a rakshasa, the proper response was to run. When one was approached by a yaksha, the proper response was to give it whatever it asked for. And if one was ever approached by a gandharva, one knew that the proper response was to think very slowly and carefully about what sort of mushrooms one might have accidentally consumed over the past twenty-four hours.

"Allow me to help you cross," the yaksha repeated.

"Why?" Duryodhana brashly challenged him, causing Yudhisthira to wince. Of all the foolish--!

"So that you may owe me a favor in the future," the yaksha answered.

"Hmm," Duryodhana pondered, suddenly impressed. "Clever. And if we don't let you help us?"

"You will regret that."

"No doubt," Duryodhana muttered.

"Duryodhana..." Yudhisthira leaned in close to his cousin, and lowered his voice to a whisper, even though he knew full well that it would likely do him no good. If the yaksha wanted to hear him, then it would hear him, regardless. Still, whispering seemed to be called for regardless. "I think we should do what he says."

"And why is that?"

"If he really is a yaksha, then we should probably stay on his good side."

"And if he's lying to us? What if he's not a yaksha?"

"Okay," Yudhisthira huffed, starting to get impatient with the way that Duryodhana insisted on being stubborn in even the most dangerous situations, purely out of habit. "Let's think about this. If it were a rakshasa, it would have eaten us by now. If it were a danava, it would definitely have eaten us by now. If it were a gandharva, it would be too vain to allow itself to appear in such a form. And if it were anything but yaksha, why would it lie to us?"

"To get us to trust it--"

"Oh please--"

"I'm sorry, but I'm not too keen on going along with any sort of monster that wantsme to be in debt to it. Aren't you the least bit concerned about that part of it?"

Honestly, Yudhisthira was quite concerned about the idea of being in debt to a yaksha, but at the moment, he was soaked to the bone and cold and shivering and exhausted and more than ready to do whatever what was necessary to be able to make his way safely back to the warm and dry cave where his father was waiting for him, probably with a good fire going, and food and dry blankets and--

"I cannot stand here forever," the yaksha said. "Please decide. You try my patience."

"All right," Yudhisthira said quickly, raising his dripping face defiantly toward the yaksha. "We accept."

Duryodhana elbowed Yudhisthira and muttered something under his breath, but Yudhisthira pointedly ignored him. Yudhisthira knew that Duryodhana did not like to be spoken for, but too bad. Yudhisthira was at the end of his patience as well.

The yaksha stepped forward, knelt at the edge of the raging stream, and slowly dipped the tip of one of his fingers into the frothing water. What happened next took less than a fraction of a second; the stream crackled, lurched once slushily, and then froze solid.

The rain pounding against the shining surface of the twisted ribbon of ice that now ran through the forest splashed and splattered against Yudhisthira's feet. "Hurry," the yaksha said, straightening up quickly. "It will melt soon."

Yudhisthira stepped forward gingerly, lowering his right foot to the slick, wet surface of the rain-splattered ice. It was no good; there was no way he could maintain his footing on this slippery surface. Abandoning his last shreds of dignity, Yudhisthira lowered himself into a crouch and began slowly crawling across the surface of the ice.

Yudhisthira heard a sound like a strangled cough. He turned his head and saw that Duryodhana, still standing on the edge of the frozen water, had not followed him.

"Come on," Yudhisthira said impatiently, and not just because he was damned if he was going to be alone in looking ridiculous as he crawled across the slippery ice.

But Duryodhana was still standing, getting more and soaked by the minute, staring down at the frozen stream with an expression of mingled horror, awe, and disgust on his face. "You have got to be kidding me," he said in a voice that was almost too quiet for Yudhisthira to hear over the constant roar of the rain.

"Duryodhana, please!" The ice was cold and painful beneath Yudhisthira's bare, wet hands.

Duryodhana slowly lowered himself to the edge of the stream, and crawled with Yudhisthira across the ice. But he winced with each movement that he made, as if the ice were burning him every time he touched it.

As he reached the opposite bank of the stream, Yudhisthira shakily stood up on the muddy ground, then reached down and helped Duryodhana up. And the yaksha was standing there, still ragged but dry as a bone, as the rain fell in torrents around them. The yaksha smiled at them both. His old-man's smile still had no teeth. "Thank you," he said.

"How did you do it?" Duryodhana suddenly burst out.

Yudhisthira bit down on his lip and forced himself to say nothing. He wasn't sure what frightened him more, the fact that Duryodhana had said something so rude to an obviously temperamental yaksha, or the fact that Duryodhana sounded so... upset. Yes, that was the word for it. Duryodhana was not one to show either fear or confusion in front of anybody, and yet his trembling voice, which Duryodhana usually kept under such good control, had completely betrayed him.

But the yaksha did not seem affronted by this rudeness. He merely folded his hands in front of him and said, almost gently, "You above all humans should not be afraid. I know that you have touched our secrets before."

Duryodhana's face seemed to drain of color, but he fell silent, saying nothing more. Yudhisthira glanced once from Duryodhana, then to the yaksha's smiling face, then back to Duryodhana, who looked as gray and as ill as he had the first time that Yudhisthira's papa had shown him how to skin a deer. Yudhisthira didn't understand the yaksha's words or why they seemed to frighten Duryodhana so. But Yudhisthira knew one thing, and that was that he did not like seeing his normally strong and self-assured cousin so pale and terrified. "Thank you," Yudhisthira said quickly to the yaksha, as he grabbed Duryodhana's cold and clammy hand and said, "But we'll be going now--"

"Wait. I must tell you the favor that you owe me."

Yudhisthira stopped, since he had no choice but to do so.

"One of you two will be crowned a king soon," the yaksha said.

Yudhisthira felt his breath catch in his throat. He had not expected the yaksha to recognize who he and Duryodhana were. Yaksha did not usually concern themselves with human political affairs.

"I believe that it is your tradition that on the day a king is crowned, a seer will be summoned to tell his fortune?"

Yudhisthira nodded, slowly. This was true.

"On the day of your coronation, allow me to tell your fortune." The yaksha closed his eyes and folded his hands in front of him. "That is the favor that I ask of you."

Yudhisthira was stunned, silent. But Duryodhana said, "Mr. Dhaumya isn't going to like that." Some, but not all, of the color was back in his voice. "He has been our family's priest for decades. If we denied him the honor of participating in my coronation, it would be a terrible insult."

"That is the favor that I ask of you," the yaksha repeated.

"You just did me a favor, and now you're asking me to repay you by letting you do me another favor? I don't like that at all, old man."

"Be not arrogant in the face of what you cannot understand," the yaksha said. His eyes were still closed, but there was a hint of menace in his old man's voice. "You will repay my favor in the way that I have asked, or else unimaginable woes will befall your kingdom, Duryodhana. Much worse woe than even you could have wrought."

Duryodhana, growing angry now, opened his mouth to say something more, and Yudhisthira clutched at his arm, trying in vain to stop him--

But it was too late. The old man, the yaksha, was gone.


IV.

By mid-afternoon, the rains had stopped, and the clouds had lightened from black to gray, thinned to the point where patches of brilliant blue sky seemed to be hinted at from just beyond where the human eye could see.

Bhisma was there to greet them when they returned, striding forward and embracing Yudhisthira's papa enthusiastically. "So I assume that everything fell completely apart while I was gone?" Yudhisthira's papa joked.

"Oh, of course," Bhisma said, pulling out of his embrace. "Your brother Vidura was watching the news all morning. He was convinced that you were going to be struck by lightning or blown away by a tornado or some other such nonsense..." Bhisma trailed off, when he was Yudhisthira and Duryodhana standing a little ways behind Yudhisthira's papa, looking silent and miserable. Bhisma whispered a query quickly to Yudhisthira's papa, but Yudhisthira's papa chuckled and said, "These two idiots couldn't be bothered to look up at the sky, decided to go out hunting this morning, and tell me that they had a run-in with a yaksha for their troubles."

Duryodhana looked down at his feet and looked very much as if he wished that the ground would open up and swallow him whole, right then and there. Yudhisthira could sympathize. He'd felt that way many times before.

Bhisma was giving both of them a long, hard look, but Yudhisthira's papa laughed again and said, "I'm going to go find Madri---"

"Actually, before that, your Ministers need to see you--"

Yudhisthira's papa's face darkened. "But I just got back," he said, a bit childishly.

"This is... somewhat of an emergency. Your brothers and Dusshasana and Bhima are already there." Bhisma gave Duryodhana and Yudhisthira a pointed look. "You two should be there, too. But they'd really like to have you as well," Bhisma added, turning back to Yudhisthira's papa.

"What is it?" Duryodhana asked quickly, immediately snapping back into business mode. "It's the Panchalan fleet, isn't it?" When Bhisma looked surprised, Duryodhana added briskly, "they were practicing war maneuvers in the outer rimcloud of our system last week, too. Those bastards."

Yudhisthira sighed inwardly. He had just returned to civilization, he was still dressed from head to toe in rain-soaked clothes, and now it looked as though he was going to be immediately thrust into more tiresome and terrible duties of kingship before he could even get a change of clothes and take a shower. Was being a king always going to be like this?


V.

The meeting was immediately less boring than usual, not only because it was in a war room, of all places, but because not just half but all of Dhritarashtra's ministers were there, as well as Uncle Vidura, Grandpa Bhisma, Dusshasana, Bhima, Yudhisthira's papa, and Duryodhana and Yudhisthira himself. The situation was so grave that neither Bhima nor Duryodhana seemed to remember that they were supposed to be sulking whenever they were stuck in a room together.

"Long-range capabilities!" the Minister of Defense was thundering, jabbing a laser pointer angrily at the grainy image being projected in the center of the room. The projected video looped over and over - light, small blips that were Panchalan subspace cruisers, swooping in close toward the rimcloud surrounding the edge of Kuru's system, until flashes of light bounced across the screen - and then large chunks of the rimcloud vanished into exploding clouds of dust.

"They're trying to provoke us," Vidura said calmly. "That's the only possible explanation."

"What sort of range are we looking at?" Duryodhana asked, brusquely. There was no room for him to sit, so he was standing, pacing tensely back and forth behind some of the seated ministers. His wet hair was still plastered to his face and his damp clothes still clung to his body uncomfortably, but he seemed utterly unaware of his own discomfort. At least Yudhisthira had been given a towel to wrap around his shoulders, but Duryodhana had refused any such comfort.

"Long," the Minister of Defense said, "Although not too long. Those ships would have to be at least as close as Kuru Six before they could fire on the surface of this planet with any accuracy."

"That's too close," Dhritarashtra said. He folded his hands in front of him, a cue to the rest of the room - the king had something to say. Everyone fell silent, but instead of speaking his own thoughts, Dhritarashtra turned his unseeing eyes first toward Dusshasana, then to Bhima. "Well?" he asked.

The two of them looked surprised, but Yudhisthira was not. He understood why Bhima and Dusshasana had been asked to this meeting, and he understood what was expected of them, what they had both been being slowly groomed toward over the last five years.

Bhima spoke first. "If we do nothing to retaliate, they'll only grow more bold next time."

Dusshasana nodded. "They are trying to provoke us. If we don't respond, we'll only come off as weak in their eyes."

A few of the ministers who knew Bhima and Dusshasana looked rather surprised to see the two of them agreeing on anything. But Yudhisthira was again not surprised. He did know Bhima and Dusshasana well, and he knew that the two of them had always been more alike than dissimilar, in almost every way that counted, no matter how loathe the two of them might have been to admit it.

"But we can't openly attack them," Yudhisthira said, evenly. "We want to deter them, not to escalate anything."

"A solid retaliation won't escalate anything," Duryodhana said, his hands on his hips. "If we show the Panchalans that we mean business, they'll back off. Let's give our space fleet something to do, for crying out loud, we never let them do anything. I'm thinking maybe some weapons tests in Panchala's rimcloud, how does that sound?"

Vidura frowned. "Too provocative. Panchala's rimcloud is closer to the inhabited portion of their system than ours is."

"Maybe we should try negotiating with them first," Yudhisthira suggested.

"No way," Duryodhana replied, leaning over a startled minister to slam his fist angrily down on the table between them, causing the projected video screen to jump and crackle. "I say mobilize the fleet first,then invite the Panchalans to talk. You know how Panchalans are - nasty, brutish people. They won't listen to negotiations unless we show them our teeth first."

"Our 'teeth'?" Yudhisthira's papa finally said. He looked amused at Duryodhana's suggestion. "Our space fleet hasn't been mobilized for war maneuvers since I was five years old. And your father and I have been cutting back on the fleet's ridiculous maintenance budget every year since then."

"Father, is this true?!" Duryodhana sounded appalled.

"...Mostly," Dhritarashtra said, suddenly looking uncomfortable.

"We've had no choice," the Minister of Finance said, quickly. "The money needed to be used elsewhere. And by several decades ago it became quite clear that our space-faring war technology is damn near obsolete anyway, so there was little sense in continuing to spend money on its maintenance when most of our ships would be better served by being turned into scrap metal--"

"You foolish old men!" Duryodhana burst out, pacing angrily around the room. "Panchala is within two light-years of us and has been all along and you all thought that it would be a good idea to gut our own space fleet?!"

"Duryodhana," Dhritarashtra said, sternly. "Watch your tongue."

Yudhisthira flickered his gaze around the room, watching the reactions of the people seated around him. Grandpa Bhisma was standing off in a corner by himself, in a shadow, watching, not participating in the meeting at all. He was observing them, Yudhisthira suddenly realized. Observing, and judging. Yudhisthira suddenly felt a nervous fluttering in his stomach. Was he being too hesitant and quiet in the face of this threat? Was Duryodhana being too brash? What was Grandpa Bhisma thinking of them both, right now?

Duryodhana was not finished with his outburst. "Well, how many space-worthy vessels DO we have left? Are our weapons any good at all?"

"Compared to the capabilities of Panchala's ships," Yudhisthira's papa said, "not really."

"And we haven't been developing anything better over the last four decades?!"

"Duryodhana, your father and I agreed that there were more important things for our scientists to focus on, and at the time, I feared sparking an arms race between ourselves and the Panchalans--"

"YOU feared?!"

"Duryodhana," Dhritarashtra repeated sternly, but Yudhisthira's papa suddenly pushed back his chair and stood up, unfolding himself to his full height and glaring down at Duryodhana with all of the grandeur and hauteur that a king could muster. Yudhisthira swallowed and shrunk a bit farther down in his seat. He had never seen his papa looking like before - like he ruled the world and fully expected anybody who challenged him to bow down beneath his feet. "Yes, I feared," Yudhisthira's papa said. "I signed the last budget cut to the space fleet into law. And I stand by that decision still."

For a moment, a single brief moment, Duryodhana seemed to falter. He was not used to being spoken to in such a way, much less from somebody whom he otherwise greatly respected. But the moment passed, and Duryodhana seemed to summon the full force of his fury, refusing to back down even the most miniscule bit in the face of his uncle's stubborn pride. "And so you allowed the Panchalans to turn the tables on us!" Duryodhana fumed. "And because of YOU, we're reduced to nothing but target practice for the Panchalan fleet--"

"I've had it up to here with your hyperbole, young man. Do NOT insult me by insinuating that I would be so foolish as to render our fleet helpless--"

"Oh, forgive me, we're not 'helpless,' we're just 'nothing compared to the capabilities of Panchala's ships'! Those were YOUR words, weren't they?!"

"That's hardly--"

That was when the first drop of blood fell down onto the table.

For Yudhisthira, it was if the world suddenly slowed down to the surreal, sluggish pace of a nightmare. He saw his father pause in the middle of his own sentence, and turn his head, slowly, looking down at the dark table and the darker drop of blood dribbling across it, with a kind of mild surprise registering on his face. He reached up and touched his own face. His fingertips brushed the skin beneath his nose, and came away dark and wet.

The room fell silent. The world fell silent. There was nothing but the flickering of the projected video, flashes of white and green light illuminating Yudhisthira's papa and Duryodhana and the ministers seated around them, in ghastly bursts of sick-color and shadow.

"Uncle Pandu?" Duryodhana asked, in a very small voice.

Across the room, Bhima had pushed back his chair and was charging across the room toward them. "Papa!" he cried out, but to Yudhisthira, this was also slow, so slow, too slow.

Too late.

The once-king of Kuru swooned forward, his mouth slack, his eyes rolling back in his head. Yudhisthira watched his father falling forward, his brain screaming at him to get up and do something, his terror rooting him in place. It was like a nightmare - everything slow, everything relentless, and none of Yudhisthira's limbs would so much as twitch, no matter how desperately he willed them to.

Duryodhana caught Yudhisthira's papa before his head could smash into the table below.

And just like that, something in Yudhisthira finally snapped. He leapt out of his seat, but he was too late - now the world was no longer moving slowly, but rather moving quickly, too quickly, too quickly for Yudhisthira to keep up with. "Uncle Pandu, Uncle Pandu!" Duryodhana cried out, helplessly, utterly baffled as to what to do with the limp man in his arms. Uncle Dhritarashtra and Uncle Vidura were suddenly there, pulling their brother out of Duryodhana's arms. The ministers were in an uproar, pressing around Yudhisthira on all sides. Bhima reached out and grabbed Yudhisthira's shoulder, shaking him, asking him "What's wrong with Papa?! What's wrong with him?!" as if he expected Yudhisthira to have an answer. But Yudhisthira had no answer - his breath was locked in his throat. And then Grandpa Bhisma was there, strong, calm Grandpa Bhisma, pushing both Yudhisthira and Bhima into a corner of the room, away from the ministers and the still-flickering, still-looping video screen, away from the roar of voices and the cries of help, into a quiet and shadowed corner. He bent down and hugged them both in his arms and said, "Don't look."

But Yudhisthira writhed free of Bhisma's arms, stepped away from his grandfather, and he looked.

He saw the crowd gathered on the other side of the room, and through the panicked crowd he heard Uncle Vidura shouting "Back off, back off, give him some room!" Duryodhana was shouting, "Call for help! Hasn't anybody got a comm? What is wrong with you people?!" Then Yudhisthira saw a white flash of his father's hand, and it was twitching in a strange, awful way.

Yudhisthira's vision began to grow dark around the edges. He swayed a bit on his feet, then grit his teeth and straightened his legs, refusing to let himself miss this, any of this, no matter how terrible it was.

Then Yudhisthira saw the darkness again, and this time it had a form. It was Yama, it was death, swooping down toward the crowd on the other side of the room. And none of them saw it - him - coming.

Yudhisthira held out his hand toward the shadow. His throat refused to work, but his heart screamed well enough, and then some.

WAIT!

The shadow paused and turned toward him. It had a face but no face - eyes but no eyes - and its not-eyes were filled with sadness. It is his time, the shadow said.

"Give him some more time," Yudhisthira pleaded, feeling tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. "At least let me say goodbye to him."

I have already given him time, the shadow said. Much time. Much more time that I should have. For your sake.

"Father, please!" Yudhisthira wept, and this time he addressed not the human man dying in the room with him, but the formless shadow that had come to finish the job. For Yudhisthira finally, in that moment, truly understood what he had only been told by priests and read in books up until that point in his life. Yudhisthira was a devakin, and his true father was this shapeless dark thing swallowing the world in front of his eyes. For the shapeless dark thing was Yama, who was death, but was also Dharma, the final and truest justice in the world. Yudhisthira had always been told that he was born of Dharma, but Dharma and Yama were one and the same - and they always had been. In that moment, Yudhisthira finally understood the tremendous gift that his deva-father had given him.

The shadow touched Yudhisthira's shoulder with what might have been a hand, and spoke, saying, I gave you and your brothers as much time with him as I could. But dharma is dharma, and...

"Please..."

No.

Yama's last word echoed with a terrible sense of finality, of negation. So this is Dharma, Yudhisthira thought. The thing that says no. The thing that negates. Death and ending.

Yudhisthira's hands fell to his sides. Yama was gone, and across the room, the crowd was growing quiet. The ministers were backing away, slowly. Duryodhana was shaking his head back and forth and back and forth and mumbling "No no no no no." Uncle Vidura was holding a dead man in his arms and rocking back and forth and weeping silently. And blind Uncle Dhritarashtra stroked the dead man's hair and leaned over slowly and kissed his forehead, then reached out and closed his eyelids.

Yudhisthira sank to his knees. He heard Bhima let out a long, slow wail of grief from somewhere behind him.


VI.

Later, there would be time for words. Later there would such an awful thing as an autopsyand a judgment of probable cause of death and everyone would say things like "But he was getting so much better!" and the word remission would be repeated over and over and over again on everyone's lips. But none of that mattered, because the results of the autopsy had the words brain and tumorand aneurysm written upon it. And later Grandpa Bhisma would take Yudhisthira and Bhima aside and tell them that yestheir father's sickness had been healing itself but no the tumor in his brain had not shrunk at all and yes he and Uncle Vidura and Uncle Dhritarashtra and Kunti-mama and Madri-mama knew about the tumor in the brain, and no, they hadn't told Yudhisthira or Bhima or Duryodhana or anybody about it, and the reasons were always different, but the results ended up the same.

Yudhisthira would be hugged and kissed by everyone that he knew, and his eyes would be red and burning but always too dry for tears. And the priests and the doctors would tell him "It happened very quickly" and "He felt no pain," and Yudhisthira would nod his head and agree with them and act comforted.

There would be a funeral.

And on the day of the funeral, the sky would be flat and gray and the world would be washed-out and dim, but there would be no rain, the skies holding back out of respect for what was to come at the end of the funeral. And Yudhisthira would be dressed in white and would take his brother Bhima's hand and would walk, solemnly and with great dignity, through the streets of Hastinapura, following his father's body laid out on a bed of flowers and carried by priests. And there would be millions of people in the streets watching them, and crying and wailing and throwing white ribbons and dyed black roses. And Yudhisthira would not cry because Kunti-mama had told him that he and Bhima were too old to cry, but he would listen to the world crying for him instead.

And in the end they would be in front of the palace, on the shore of the ocean, and Yudhisthira would walk out alone over the vast expanse of sand separating his father's body from the crowd, and there would be a flame clutched in his hand. And Yudhisthira's father would be lying on a boat filled with wood and kindling, and he would look peaceful and serene, as if he were sleeping. And Yudhisthira would look down at him for a long, long moment, halfway convinced that his eyes would flutter open at any minute, that he would yawn and stretch and sit up and scratch his face and look around, confused, and saying something stupid like What's with the sad face? You look like you're at a funeral!

Then Yudhisthira would remind himself that the lifelike color in his father's cheeks was nothing more than the work of skilled makeup artists, and that the serene expression on his face and the relaxed pose of his limbs were also calculated, sculpted, artificial, unreal. And then Yudhisthira would bend forward and touch the flame of his torch to the wood on either side of his father's head, and then he would gently push the creaking wooden coffin--

--boat---

down the wet sand and into the ocean, pushing and pushing and wading farther and farther in, feeling the cold salt water soaking into his ridiculous white funeral robes, walking along the bottom of the ocean's surface until the water lapped against his chin, the scent of burning wood and incense and burning flesh in his nostrils, until he could give one final push, and then his father would be gone, carried out into the blue-gray horizon, a vanishing flash of orange fire and black smoke.

And then Yudhisthira would turn around and rise back up out of the ocean, exhausted and dripping and feeling neither better nor worse after performing the duty that was expected of him as the eldest son. And he would look back at the crowd of mourners gathered on the beach, and he would see his brother Bhima, looking out at the ocean as grief twisted his face, and Arjuna, clinging to Bhima's leg and sniffling, his eyes squeezed shut, and Kunti-mama, who was weeping, as she was expected to be, and Madri-mama, who was not weeping, but rather staring into the sky with a sort of stunned expression on her face, while a nanny stood by her side and rocked and tried to hush her twin sons, who were wailing as if they actually understood what had happened to their father and why they had been brought out to the beach that day.

Yudhisthira would think once, briefly, that Madri-mama had been wearing that same stunned, disbelieving expression on her face for the past several days, and that was a bit strange, after all, and a bit worrisome too. But for Yudhisthira, this was a thought that came and then passed quickly, and he did not think about it again. He was too wrapped up in his own grief, in his own exhaustion, to think much of anyone else. They all were, really.

Later, Yudhisthira would have time to regret not noticing what he should have noticed earlier.


VII.

Duryodhana tossed and turned in his bed, but sleep would not come. He wondered how anybody could sleep, after an entire day spent at a funeral. He wondered how Yudhisthira was doing. He had wanted to see Yudhisthira after the funeral, but the guards and Grandpa Bhisma would not let him. Because Yudhisthira was unclean, because he needed to be isolated, because he needed to be locked away for at least the cycle of one sunrise and one sunset before he could speak to or see anybody again. It was the price that he paid for fulfilling his duty as the eldest son of the deceased. What he had done on the beach that afternoon had been necessary, but had also been a spiritually polluting task.

Duryodhana sighed and sat up in his bed. Ritual impurity had always seemed like a load of gillwash in his personal opinion, but now hardly seemed like the time to challenge it. Duryodhana reached for a glass of water that he kept beside his bed and held it in his hands, squeezing it, feeling it turn into solid, crackling ice beneath his fingertips.

Freeze, and then thaw. Within an instant, the water inside the glass was not only water again, but it was warm water, as well. Then it was frozen again. Freeze, and then thaw. Freeze, and then thaw. It was a pointless exercise, really - Duryodhana had taught himself how to master this skill long ago - but at least it helped focus his energy, relax him, and exhaust him. A few more minutes of this, and he would be able to make himself fall asleep easily.

It was dark in Duryodhana's room, but he did not need the light to see the ice forming and unforming in his hands. He could feel it. And besides, he dared not turn on a light, any light, not so long as he was doing this thing. He knew that it was wrong and he knew that it was forbidden and he knew that it was something that no human being should ever, ever be able to do. And he also knew that his life and his reputation and his career would be ruined beyond salvation if a single other living soul ever found out about this power in his hands. Which is why Duryodhana had been very, very good at keeping it a secret, ever since he had first accidentally frozen his math textbook, over five years ago.

But this was all that he could do, he reminded himself. Just ice. He had tried to perform other miracles before - he had tried to make fire, manipulate shadows, make objects dance in the air. He had heard that the asura power of maya had allowed asuras in the past to do just that. But for Duryodhana, all of his attempts had ended in failure - unless he was trying to make ice. And of course, he couldn't make much of the ice, because he couldn't change much of the world around him, either freezing or thawing. He would never have been able to change something as large and as ferocious as the mountain stream that the yaksha had frozen for him and Yudhisthira, one rainy morning that felt like an eternity ago. But for the first and only time in his life, however, Duryodhana was actually relieved to have failed at something. If he could not make fire or manipulate shadows or make objects dance in the air, then he could not really be using maya, of course. Which was good, because only an asura could use maya. Duryodhana could not really use maya, therefore, Duryodhana was not an asura, or part-asura, or anything related to an asura whatsoever. Which was just as well, because Duryodhana was rather relieved to confirm that he was just a human after all.

If you're just a human, then why can you make ice with your hands?

Duryodhana banished that thought quickly. He placed his glass of water back on the nightstand beside his bed, then flopped over on his side, struggling to find a comfortable position. Are you sure that you aren't using maya? Are you sure that you really can't do all those other things? Don't you think that maybe when you did try, you just didn't let yourself try hard enough?

"Shut up," Duryodhana whispered to himself.

Are you sure that you didn't hurt Uncle Pandu?

"Shut up," Duryodhana repeated, squeezing his eyes shut. Uncle Pandu had died of a sudden aneurysm related to the expanding tumor in his brain. Duryodhana had asked and the doctors had told him over and over and over again, that the aneurysm had been primed and ready to burst long before Uncle Pandu had ever walked into that meeting in the war room with him, long before he had started yelling at Uncle Pandu, and long before Uncle Pandu had ever starting yelling at him in return, long before--

Duryodhana felt a very unwelcome tear sliding down his cheek. He sniffled, more out of shame and anger at himself - stupid crybaby! - than at anything else. Yes, he had been angry at Uncle Pandu. At the moment, he remembered being downright furious at Uncle Pandu. And yes, the ice had come when he had lost his temper before - when he had been feeling sad or hurt or angry or nervous, the ice had come, and although he now seemed to have it under control enough so that it no longer threatened him in public, it often burst out of him when he was alone. Duryodhana had frozen his computer and his bedposts and a window in his room before, not intentionally, but in moments when he had been overwhelmed by rage or frustration or just plain cold anger, it didn't matter who or what was the cause.

"You have touched our secrets before."

Yes, but now he had the ice under control.

No, he didn't have it under control. And he couldn't be sure that the only thing he could do was ice, either.

Nonsense. He had the ice and nothing more.

You were so angry at Uncle Pandu. Don't you remember? You were seeing red, Duryodhana.

So what? It had been a fight, and not a very nice fight, but Duryodhana was old enough to understand that everybody had fights, even people who loved each other very much. Duryodhana had had fights with his papa and with Grandpa Bhisma and yes, even with Dusshasana before. And yes, he regretted with all his heart that his last moments with Uncle Pandu had been spent practically screaming at him. And yes, if he had known that Uncle Pandu was going to keel over and die in the middle of the meeting then of course Duryodhana would have said things differently, but that was all hindsight, and there was no point in dwelling on the past now.

You don't know for sure that you're not the one who hurt him. You don't know for sure that you're not the one who killed--

"Shut up, brain, just shut up!" Duryodhana hissed, pressing his hands over his ears. "Go to sleep and leave me alone!"

But sleep would not come, and his mind, in turmoil, asked Duryodhana the question that it always asked him on sleepless nights like this:

What am I?!


VIII.

It was evening, two days later, when Yudhisthira finally shed his white robes and was allowed out of his private chambers again. He wandered around the palace, which was quiet and mostly deserted at this late hour, hoping to find Kunti-mama or Bhima or Arjuna or somebody to talk to. Somebody who was likely to not hug him and kiss him and tell him how sorry they felt, because Yudhisthira had had just about enough of that over the past several days.

But Yudhisthira found Madri-mama first.

Madri-mama was sitting on a balcony, overlooking a garden, when Yudhisthira spotted her. She turned her head and smiled at him and said, "Come here." Her twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva, were dozing in her lap.

Yudhisthira came to her and knelt beside her. She placed her hand on top of his head and sighed, ruffling his hair and saying, "You're such a good son, Yudhisthira."

"Ah... Thank you."

"Hm." She let her hand fall away from Yudhisthira's head and hang limply at her side. She stared out at the garden, into the dimming darkness of the sunset, and said, in a distant, strange voice, "Yudhisthira..."

"Mother?"

"I need you to do a favor for me."

"Of course." Yudhisthira stood, and Madri-mama handed the sleeping twins to him. He took them both in his thin arms, holding them awkwardly - they were both nearly two years old, both large and heavy, and Yudhisthira marveled that neither of them seemed inclined to wake up.

"Take them for me," Madri-mama said, standing up out of her seat. "Come, sit here. Stay with them for a bit. They need you."

"Mother?" Yudhisthira sat down and shifted the sleeping twins in his lap. One of them alone would have been fine, but together, the two of them were uncomfortably heavy.

"They're sleeping," Madri-mama said, her hand momentarily resting on Yudhisthira's shoulder. "They were... They were crying too much. They wouldn't let Mama go. So Mama had to give them something sweet, so they could be happy, and so that they could be quiet." She dropped her hand from Yudhisthira's shoulder, and stood still for a moment, silent and staring off into space, while Yudhisthira watched her, a small trill of nervousness shivering up his spine.

"Madri-mama...?"

Madri-mama seemed to retreat from her reverie, at least partially. "Yudhisthira..."

"Yes, Mother?"

"Promise me that you'll always be my son, and their brother."

"Of course."

"That's my boy." She bent down and kissed the top of his head. "Do you know that song that your father used to sing? The one about the ducklings and the fox?"

"Yes..."

"Sing it for them. Please. Your father used to hold them like that and sing to them. They loved it so much."

"All right... All right, Mother."

Against his better judgment, Yudhisthira held his sleeping baby brothers in his arms, and sang to them softly, the song about the ducklings and the fox, the same one that his father had used to sing to him. The song was long, but Yudhisthira sang every verse. Halfway through he noticed that Madri-mama had gone, but was not as worried as he could have been. Madri-mama had seemed sad, of course, but that was not so unusual, since everybody was allowed to be sad right now.

Maybe she just wanted a little bit of time away from her sons, Yudhisthira thought, just a few moments of private mourning, just for herself...

Yudhisthira finished his song, and suddenly realized that although he had not been singing particularly quietly, the twins had not yet woken up.

Yudhisthira tried to jiggle them both gently. Sahadeva's head lolled, and he made a small sound in the back of his throat, but his eyes did not open. Nakula, however, writhed and moaned, "Mama..."

And then Yudhisthira finally began to feel scared. He stood up quickly, holding the heavy twins in his trembling arms, and rushed off in search of the nearest comm. He had to call somebody, the guards, a doctor, Madri-mama - he should probably call Madri-mama first - no, he should go toMadri-mama, right away, without even stopping to get help--

But by then, of course, it was already too late.


IX.

"Nana!"

Daya, or as she was known to Arjuna, Nana, was startled enough to nearly spill her chocolate all over herself. "Arjuna?" She had put him to bed nearly an hour ago, yet there he was, standing in his pajamas in the middle of her room, his hair mussed and his eyes wild. His glasses were nowhere in sight - he must have leapt out of bed without even bothering to put them on. Daya wondered how much, or how little, of the world around his he could see with his wild, half-blind eyes. "Did you have a bad dream?" Daya asked.

"No, Nana, I have to go see Madri-mama!"

"Arjuna, you need to go back to sleep--"

"I have to go see Madri-mama now!"

"Do you want some hot milk?" Daya set aside her cup of chocolate, stood up, and walked toward the young prince, her mind instantly strategizing ways she could get him to calm down and go back to bed. The poor thing had had a rough several days, and she could hardly blame him for being upset, but she knew that right now sleep was what he needed most.

"No, Nana!" Arjuna stomped his foot angrily. "Take me to Madri-mama NOW!"

"Arjuna--"

But Arjuna was already sucking in his breath, preparing to really start throwing a tantrum. And he did. "I wanna see Madri-mama NOW!" he howled, accompanied by a crack of thunder somewhere high above the palace.

Daya froze. It was not like Arjuna to start screaming in such a way, either at her or at anybody. He was clearly hysterical, and Daya could tell by looking at him that he would not calm down until--

"All right, baby," Daya said, sweeping up the little boy in her arms, "We'll go see Madri-mama, just for a few minutes."

"Thank you, Nana," Arjuna sniffled, once again as polite and well-mannered as usual. Daya set him back down on the ground, took his hand, and began to lead him through the hushed, quiet, sleeping palace. But there was an urgency in Arjuna's tiny strides that would not be satisfied with Daya's pace, and soon Arjuna was the one pulling Daya along.

The two of them were approaching the guards positioned outside what Daya knew were Queen Madri's private rooms, when Arjuna suddenly let go of Daya's hand and broke into a run.

"Arjuna, wait--!"

The guards stepped in front of him, blocking his path. "Whoa there," one said with a chuckle, and the other one said, "Queen Madri is asleep and has asked not to be disturbed."

But Arjuna would not be deterred. "I wanna see Madri-mama!" He was small and short and extremely unintimidating with his pajamas and his sleep-mussed hair. But his eyes flashed with menace, thunder rumbled overhead, and, for a moment, Daya thought she saw the devakin marking visible on the back of Arjuna's neck writhing and wriggling across his skin--

But surely that was just her imagination.

"Gu--!" One of the guards said, a sound which was not a word. He sounded frightened. He hesitated for a moment, as did his partner, both of them surprised by what they had seen in the young boy's eyes; and Arjuna took advantage of that moment to leap around the feet of the guards and dash through the doors behind them - doors which, of course, should have been locked, and indeed the guards could have sworn had been locked a few moments ago--

"Arjuna!" Daya called out again, but by then, it was too late.

From somewhere behind those doors, Arjuna started shouting frantically, "Wake up, wake up, wake up, please wake up!"

The two guards and Daya burst through the doors at the same time. They saw Arjuna, standing beside the queen's bed, clutching at her limp arm and shaking her frantically, still shouting "Wake up, wake up!" through his tears. But the queen would not wake up. She sprawled across her bed, limp and unmoving, her wide eyes glazed over and empty, staring up at the ceiling above her. On a table beside her bed sat a dark lamp, a lit candle, a folded up letter, and four empty bottles of pills.


X.

There was another funeral.

There were even more people at the funeral this time, an even more swollen crowd on the beach. They were royalty from Madra, where once upon a time, Madri-mama had once been a princess. Yudhisthira recognized their faces and their names, even if he had never met them before. Chief among them was Shalya, the king of Madra, who was Madri-mama's older brother, and Yudhisthira's uncle. Shalya and his entourage had arrived at Hastinapura two days before the funeral, and Shalya had refused to speak a word to Yudhisthira since then. He had marched behind Yudhisthira during the funeral procession, and Yudhisthira had felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling as Uncle Shalya had glared at him. He could still feel Uncle Shalya glaring at him from across the distance of sand and sea as he waded out with Madri-mama's burning funeral pyre into the ocean. When it was finally time for Yudhisthira to let Madri-mama go and turn around and wade back to the shore, he did so without being able to meet Uncle Shalya's eyes.

The twins were not there for their mother's funeral. They were both being watched over by a nanny. They had cried for their mother at first, but Kunti had explained to them, as best she could, that their mother was gone and not coming back. Eventually they stopped crying, and, rather eerily, had eventually stopped asking for "Mama" as well, even though it had only been a few days since their mother's death. The doctors and psychologists who met the twins told Yudhisthira that they would likely grow up happy and healthy and remembering none of this. Yudhisthira wanted to believe that. He wanted to believe that very much.

Yudhisthira was halfway across the sandy beach, walking slowly back from the waves behind him and into the crowd in front of him, when a shadow suddenly fell across his path. He looked up and into Uncle Shalya's eyes for the first time. Shalya drew back his hand slapped Yudhisthira across the cheek. Hard.

The crowd gasped, but nobody moved to interfere. Nobody dared to.

"You," Shalya hissed.

"Yes," Yudhisthira said, slowly reaching up to touch his reddened, tender cheek. "Me."

"She needed you and you turned your back on her." He turned away from Yudhisthira and addressed the crowd angrily, sweeping his arms in a gesture that accused all of them in turn. "You all turned your back on her!"

Yudhisthira stood in the stand and held his cheek while Shalya turned and whirled away from him, stalking back across the sand.


To be continued.