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!
Yuyutsu closed his eyes, but he still saw an endless expanse of white and red and black, flowers falling in countless numbers through the air, choking the streets, landing in his mother's hair and on the white robes of the mourning princes, trampled beneath the grief-heavy feet of royalty and peasant alike, every bit as sad and dead themselves as the fallen king that they were meant to mourn.
"Don't," Yuyutsu's mother said, placing her hand on his shoulder.
Yuyutsu opened his eyes, and forced himself to look. Yuyutsu and his mother had both been given good seats at the front of the crowd, close to the palace grounds and toward the end of the funeral procession. They would not be allowed to watch the lighting of the funeral pyre on the beach below the cliff upon which the king's palace sat; but that was all right by Yuyutsu. He had no particular desire to see or to smell a dead man burning.
Yuyutsu watched the procession on the street below him through a haze of floating flowers. He saw the dead king, sleeping on his bed of kindling and dried blossoms. He saw the eldest son of the former king, Yudhisthira, his face pinched and as pale white as his robes, following his father toward the beach. And behind Yudhisthira, Yuyutsu saw - and this caused him to do a double-take - the elderly current king, Dhritarashtra, walking with his head held high and his useless eyes seeing nothing. His youngest brother, Vidura, also robed in resplendent, shining white, led the king gently, with his hand on the king's shoulder. But the king walked as if he did not need guidance, tall and strong and sure, as if he were not suffering from the diseased veins and arthritic joints that Yuyutsu knew he was suffering from.
Yuyutsu was surprised to see the king walking on the street. He felt a sudden surge of pride, watching the old man down below walking in proud defiance of the death and decay which had already claimed his brother, and was due to come for him soon.
"Look, Yuyutsu," his mother said, squeezing his hand. "Look at your father."
Yuyutsu looked at the old king, closed his eyes, and still saw his father walking among the flowers, white skin and white hair and white robes set against falling scarlet blossoms.
Yuyutsu was a prince but not a prince. He was a secret, but a secret that everybody knew about. It was kind of nice, though, being a paradox. When he wanted a family, he had a father and one hundred and one siblings waiting in the wings. When he wanted to be alone, he was alone. He had been born into a servant class and also born into the noble class. He had grown up learning how to serve fine meals and wash royal robes and clean silver and gold fixtures; his father had also assigned him a tutor to teach him about politics and economics and how to behave when speaking publicly. Not that Yuyutsu would ever be allowed to speak publicly on behalf of the royal family, of course.
The night after the funeral, the palace gardens were strung with lights and filled with the hushed, subdued conversations of milling mourners. Yuyutsu floated among the wake, watching his half-brothers whispering to each other and passing around glasses of something or other, getting more and more drunk as the night wore on. Insects chirped in the shadows and night-birds hooted in the trees, but nobody paid them any mind.
Prince Duryodhana found Yuyutsu first.
"Oh," Duryodhana said, when he spotted Yuyutsu, "this way."
Duryodhana knew without having to ask why Yuyutsu had come to the palace that night. Duryodhana understood these things about Yuyutsu, the way that he understood all of his brothers. It was a nice skill to have, Yuyutsu thought. It made it almost seem as if Duryodhana genuinely cared about his brothers.
Yuyutsu followed him. Duryodhana, unlike the others, did not appear even the slightest bit tipsy. He had a fluted glass filled with dark liquid in his hand, but carried it as if he were constantly forgetting that it was even there. Yuyutsu suspected that he hadn't taken a sip from his glass all night.
Yuyutsu liked Duryodhana. Duryodhana treated Yuyutsu as if he really were one of Duryodhana's younger brothers. Which was to say, Duryodhana largely treated Yuyutsu like a servant. But that was all right. Duryodhana would do anything for any of his brothers, including Yuyutsu. It seemed only natural that he held an unspoken expectation that he be worshiped, adored, and loyally served in return. Yuyutsu had never seen any of Duryodhana's brothers fail to live up to that expectation - himself included.
It wasn't a bad deal, having a crown prince looking out for your interests.
Yuyutsu quickened his step until he was walking beside the prince, and asked, "How is Father doing?"
"As well as can be expected," Duryodhana said, with a bitter laugh. He walked beside Yuyutsu with an easy affability, as if they were equals. Brothers. Well, they shared the same father, after all. For tonight, at least, the fact that Duryodhana was a crown prince but Yuyutsu was the son of a serving maid made no difference.
Yuyutsu's father was sitting on a stone bench beside a moonlit reflecting pool, old and hunched over and white even in the night's darkness, cupping a sweetroll that he had not touched in his withering hands, rested in his lap. Uncle Vidura was sitting beside him, his head on his older brother's shoulder. Yuyutsu had never seen Uncle Vidura with graying hair before, but tonight, beneath the white moonlight, Yuyutsu could see streaks of silver in his youngest uncle's hair.
Duryodhana said nothing as they approached, but old King Dhritarashtra still turned his unseeing eyes toward them both and said, "Ah, Yuyutsu."
Duryodhana gave him a little push in the small of his back - "Go," he whispered - and then Duryodhana was gone. Yuyutsu slowly approached his father, and knelt in front of him, his hands on his father's knees. Out of respect for Yuyutsu, Vidura lifted his head from his brother's shoulder, but other than that, did not move.
"Look at you," the king said, his hand resting on top of Yuyutsu's head. "Already grown up."
Yuyutsu shook his head, then said, "I was at the funeral today."
Yuyutsu was not surprised. His father may not have been able to see with his eyes, but he had a sharp awareness of the world around him nevertheless. "Father, I'm sorry," Yuyutsu finally said, because it was what he had come to say, as inadequate and pointless as the words were.
"Ah," the king sighed. "Me too. Me too."
The two of them were still for a moment, sharing their grief. Yuyutsu felt his father's hand on the crown of his head, heavy with both love and sadness and regret. Regret for the death of his brother, but regret for the life of his not-son as well. Yuyutsu always felt his father's regret when his father touched him. Love, and regret, and guilt for feeling regret.
Yuyutsu knew that he had been a mistake. He was neither a naive nor a stupid man, and he had made peace with that fact long ago. He also knew that his father was his father, period, end of story. The king had never tried to deny nor to hide Yuyutsu and his mother. The two of them resided in the finest servant's quarters in the palace, Yuyutsu's mother was always assigned the easiest possible jobs, and Yuyutsu himself had always been discreetly groomed to at least be more than a mere servant, if not a prince himself.
However, Yuyutsu had never, ever been in the same room at the same time as Queen Gandhari. He assumed that he would never be allowed to be.
A foot fell on the soft grass behind them. Yuyutsu turned his head and saw Duryodhana again, this time with another one of his bothers - Durmukha, wasn't it? Durmukha stepped forward, and Yuyutsu stood up and stepped away from his father. Durmukha knelt at his father's side, and the old king also placed a hand on his other son's head, and they whispered quiet words of grief to each other. Duryodhana took Yuyutsu's arm and pulled him away.
Yuyutsu allowed himself to be pulled. He understood now that Duryodhana must have been doing this all night - bringing each and every one of his brothers for their turn to comfort their father in his grief. And at the end of the night, when each and every one of them had come and gone, Duryodhana alone would have his father all to himself, and he would hug his shoulders and kiss his cheek, the way that none of his other brothers had dared to do.
"Thank you for coming," Duryodhana said, even as he pulled Yuyutsu along. "I mean it. Really. He needs... He needs us, tonight."
The two of them paused on the edge of a clearing in which more mourners milled among the lights on strings and white tables covered in sweets and drinks. Duryodhana left without saying a word, off to hunt for more of his brothers. He was at least efficient, organizing the mourning the way that he was. But that was just Duryodhana being in his element - in charge, in control, telling other people what to do and where to go.
Yuyutsu thought that he must have been hurting pretty badly inside.
Yuyutsu walked through the gardens, avoiding the other mourners - none of them seemed inclined to try to speak with him anyway. He heard a sniffle, looked down, and saw the massive figure of Prince Bhima sitting beneath a tree, with Prince Arjuna curled in his lap and crying. Yuyutsu looked away from them quickly. He wiped his own eyes and reflected ruefully that he had always been helpless in the face of sympathy tears.
Yuyutsu decided that he had had enough sorrow for one night. He left the garden, and returned to the palace, to his quarters, where his mother was already asleep in her bed. Yuyutsu bent over her and kissed her forehead, before he retired to take a shower.
Yuyutsu lay in bed and stared at the ceiling above him. He could not sleep. He kept thinking about the future, about tomorrow. Tomorrow, everything would be back to normal. Tomorrow Yuyutsu and his mother would be serving breakfast to princes, bussing plates and silverware, polishing railings throughout the palace. And in the evening, Yuyutsu's tutor would come and quiz him on ancient Kuru history.
Yuyutsu closed his eyes and thought farther than tomorrow.
Would he live as a servant for the rest of his life?
Could he be a prince? Would he be accepted as a prince?
Could he be a minister or a judge or an aide or a publicist for the royal family?
In theory, Yuyutsu could be any of these things. In theory, Yuyutsu's father would support him and protect him regardless of which path he chose for himself. Yuyutsu's father had told him as much, years ago.
And in reality, Yuyutsu knew that he could be none of these things. Not without scandal, not without uproar. The tutor had prepared him well, but he had not had the training or the education of a real prince. He would never go to a university to earn the papers needed for a real career. And he would never have the blood or the breeding to really become one of them, not truly.
So why the tutor? Why the choices dangled in front of him, tantalizingly? Why the father who loved him and supported him? Yuyutsu thought that it would be so much easier if he could just be the bastard child that nobody wanted, the dirty little secret, loathed and hidden and unloved. That would be the easier story, that would be the easier role. None of this strange limbo between worlds. None of these promises of a future that likely would never be. None of this pervasive sense that he had a father and one hundred brothers when he truly, honestly did not.
Yuyutsu squeezed a wad of his own bedsheets in his hands, and felt the ice flowing out of his palms and over the soft fabric of his covers, hardening them, freezing them. He huddled beneath his crackling covers of ice and his mind, in turmoil, asked Yuyutsu the question that it always asked him on sleepless nights like this:
What am I?!
To be continued.