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 beta-ing this chapter! Please note that this chapter will likely be revised later; but I wanted to break the far-too-long stretch between new chapters, so here's a temporary upload. Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
CHAPTER THREE: THE GIFT
It was over even before Arjuna had a chance to defend himself. He thrust toward his opponent's chest, but his opponent was too fast for him; a parry and a twist, and Arjuna suddenly had a sword at his throat and his feet sliding out from underneath him. The humiliation was completed and perfected when he fell, ungracefully, landing on his behind.
"I told you not to leave me such a wide opening," Grandpa Bhisma said, a bit impatiently, tossing aside his practice blade and pulling back his helmet. "And I've been telling you all morning."
"Yes, sir." Arjuna's cheeks were flushed with shame and frustration. It didn't help that the clear faceplate of his helmet hid nothing from his snickering cousins who were watching him from a few feet away.
Durmada and Vikata, both Arjuna's seniors by over a decade, were among the most talented swordsmen in the royal family (not counting Duryodhana and Bhima, against whom there was simply no comparison). When Arjuna had turned eight years old, Durmada and Vikata had been assigned to teach him how to use a sword, for Grandpa Bhisma himself was finally growing too old and too tired to handle another young pupil. Now, five years later, Arjuna was still every bit as clumsy and unskilled with a sword as he had been on his very first day of lessons. Durmada and Vikata had given up on him long ago, Bhima was always too busy running the kingdom's defenses to tutor his younger brother in a hobby as silly and pointless as swordplay anyway, and now even Grandpa Bhisma - who had finally agreed to teach Arjuna, despite his stiffening joints and encroaching arthritis - couldn't do anything to save Arjuna from his own lack of talent.
It didn't help things that Durmada and Vikata liked to show up and watch Arjuna's practice lessons with Grandpa Bhisma, either. In theory, they were there to help out Grandpa Bhisma if he ever asked for help. In reality, they were there to amuse themselves.
Arjuna stood up shakily, pushing back his helmet and wiping sweat from his brow with his hand. At least he didn't have his glasses to worry about anymore. Now that he was thirteen years old and an adult, his mother had finally allowed him to wear soft lenses over his eyes. But Arjuna still needed glasses to read with, and in reality, his eyesight without his glasses or lenses was so abysmal that Nakula often joked that Arjuna should be declared legally blind. Or at least, that was the joke. Arjuna suspected that his mother would not let him take an eye exam for fear that Nakula's little joke would be proven true.
Arjuna lowered his helmet again, and assumed a ready stance. "Okay. Go."
Grandpa Bhisma had his sword pointed at Arjuna's chest before Arjuna had barely moved.
Durmada snickered, but Bhisma turned toward him angrily and said, "If you have nothing of value to contribute, Durmada, I suggest that you and your brother leave now."
"We're going," Vikata said, pulling Durmada by the arm. "No point in watching the Pumpkin make a fool of himself anymore, anyway."
They left, And Grandpa Bhisma pulled off his helmet and said to Arjuna, "Don't listen to them."
"Kind of hard not to."
Arjuna had assumed his ready stance again. "Come on. One more time!"
Grandpa Bhisma looked at him for a long moment. But finally, instead of putting back on his helmet, Grandpa Bhisma walked over to a nearby bench and set down his helmet, then began removing his elbow protection. "No, I think that you've had enough for today."
"But Grandpa Bhisma--!"
"In fact," Bhisma said, sternly, "I think you've had enough, period."
Arjuna tore off his helmet, angrily. "Are you telling me to give up?!"
"Yes." Grandpa Bhisma turned his head and looked Arjuna squarely in the eye. "You haven't managed to do a single move right since the day that you began. At this point, I think it would be a far better idea for you to give up this pointless hobby - and it is a pointless hobby, dear, no matter what your brother Bhima or your cousin Duryodhana might say - and focus your energies on something that you can actually be good at."
"And what would that be?" Arjuna asked, not spitefully, as he had intended to ask it, but rather mournfully, the way that it had just slipped out of his mouth.
As far as Arjuna was concerned, there was nothing else that he was good at. He was competent with his lessons but just barely that; reading anything gave him headaches, anyway. He blamed his poor eyesight. It was easier than admitting that reading about economics confused him and reading about history frightened him in a way that he couldn't quite explain in front of Grandpa Bhisma. He was short and thin and moved in a particularly clumsy way; he was not charismatic, as had been made gently clear to him by his oldest brother's advisors, and likely not cut out for handling any sort of job that required frequent public appearances. He had neither the cleverness nor the subtlety nor the ability to be manipulative that a behind-the-scenes career required. He was a prince without a future. He was not cut out to be a minister or an advisor or even just a pretty-looking figurehead.
Arjuna had turned thirteen years old a few short months earlier. On the day of his thirteenth birthday, Mr. Dhaumya, the officially appointed priest of the royal family, had shared with the family a message that he had received when Indra had appeared to him in a vision: that Indra's son, Arjuna, was to become the greatest warrior that Kuru had ever known.
Upon hearing this, Arjuna had never wanted so badly to crawl back into his bed and never, ever come out again for the rest of his life.
Indra, the king of the devas. Indra, the lord of war. Indra, the rainstorm. Indra, Arjuna's deva-father, whom he had never seen or spoken to but had only tasted in the electric air beneath a breaking thunderhead. Indra, who rode around the skies in his chariot of lightning and had understandably lost touch with the modern world, in which wars were fought and won by fleets of metal ships in space, remote-controlled missiles and armored tanks, even hand-held laser weapons that could burn a hole through a man's chest when fired from half a mile away.
There was no need for Kuru to have a great warrior in a time of peace. Panchala's military hadn't dared to stir since the incident seven years previously. There was no way that Arjuna could be a great warrior, anyway - he could barely hold a sword upright in his own two clumsy hands. And there was no way that a sword would be any use against an orbital tank and its long-range microwave lasers, anyway.
Great warriors knew how to program said orbital lasers, or knew how to aim and fire said remote-controlled missiles. Arjuna could barely get his own personal computer to turn on or off, let alone do things like open up word-processing documents or data spreadsheets like it was supposed to do. He always had to ask his little brother Nakula to help him.
Obviously hopeless with handling modern technology, Arjuna had at least clung to the hope, however slim, that he might still, someday, somehow, figure out how to do something as admittedly useless, yes, but at least as impressive and as respectable as using a sword. His hopes had briefly gone up when, after his thirteenth birthday, Grandpa Bhisma had agreed to become his sword teacher.
Arjuna realized now that he shouldn't have gotten his hopes up. He probably also shouldn't have agreed to let someone as famously, brutally honest as Grandpa Bhisma become his sword teacher.
Grandpa Bhisma, who had had a lifetime's worth of experience telling his young charges things that they did not want to hear, said, as gently as he could manage, "Arjuna, I'm sure that you--"
"Yeah, whatever," Arjuna suddenly said, cutting Grandpa Bhisma off before he could say something really sympathetic. Arjuna didn't want to hear it; at the moment, all he wanted was to be alone. So Arjuna turned away from Grandpa Bhisma, quickly pulled off his helmet and protection, and then, without waiting to be dismissed, trudged gloomily into the locker room adjacent to the gymnasium where he and Grandpa Bhisma had been practicing.
Arjuna showered and changed his clothes, alone. Wherever Grandpa Bhisma had gone or not gone, he had not followed Arjuna into the locker room.
"You didn't see me," Duryodhana said quickly, sitting down beside Arjuna beneath the shade of the ancient tree pushing out the garden walls behind them, "and I was never here, got it?"
Arjuna looked up from his math homework and sighed. He had gone outside after his practice session with Grandpa Bhisma in order to relax and clear his head, but the sunshine and the hot air had made his head hurt, and he had taken refuge beneath the coolest and shadiest tree he found. He had not expected Duryodhana to appear out of nowhere, unannounced, and suddenly sit down beside Arjuna. Duryodhana was glancing around the gardens furtively, as if hoping to spot his oncoming bodyguards before they spotted him.
"And you don't see me doing this," Duryodhana added, pulling a smokeroll out of the inside pocket of his fine coat and lighting it with a gold-plated lighter.
"Where are you supposed to be right now?" Arjuna asked, out of curiosity.
"Meeting with the Minister of Education. I told him I needed to use the restroom." Duryodhana inhaled from his smokeroll and then glanced at his watch. "I'll give myself three minutes. You watch out for the darksuits, okay?"
"Okay," Arjuna said, reluctantly setting aside his homework.
Duryodhana must have noticed that something was wrong. Arjuna would not normally be reluctant to set aside his math homework. "Bad day?" he asked.
"Grandpa Bhisma said that he wouldn't teach me the sword anymore."
Duryodhana exhaled a puff of smoke. "That's terrible," he said. He made no attempt to feign surprise, but he was not unsympathetic, either.
This was why Arjuna liked talking to Duryodhana. Duryodhana understood things. Duryodhana somehow always knew the right thing to say to make Arjuna feel better, even if the right thing to say wasn't always a nice thing to say. Arjuna's own brothers were different. Yudhisthira was always too busy to say anything, or too concerned with not hurting Arjuna's feelings to say the honest thing, even though Yudhisthira could not lie and always ended up saying the honest thing anyway, but doing so in a somehow patently miserable way. Bhima was honest, like Duryodhana, but he also had high expectations for Arjuna, which was sometimes worse than having no expectations at all, like Grandpa Bhisma did.
"So the sword just isn't your thing," Duryodhana said with a shrug.
"I guess not."
"But who cares, anyway? It's a completely useless hobby. I mean, unless the crazy old king of Panchala ever challenges me to a duel, I'm probably never going to use my own sword for anything other than a wall decoration."
"But, see..." Arjuna fidgeted with his hands, a habit that he had unwittingly picked up from his oldest brother. "I think I'm supposed to be good with the sword. The gods said so. Um."
"What, that crazy prophecy thing?" Duryodhana waved his hand dismissively.
"I have a devaweapon. The priests said so."
"So maybe," Duryodhana said, holding up a finger, "your devaweapon isn't a sword. And that's why you can't handle a sword. Because you weren't meant to."
Arjuna wrinkled his brow. "But what else could it be?" His deva-father had said that he was to be a Great Warrior. All of the Great Warriors of lore used swords. There was just no other weapon that a hero or a king could respectably wield.
"An automatic rifle would be nice," Duryodhana said.
"But the gods don't give people enchanted automatic rifles as devaweapon. They give them enchanted swords."
"Maybe they've given you an enchanted orbital laser-firing satellite."
"I would probably just program it to blow itself up," Arjuna said, morosely.
Duryodhana looked at him for a moment, then clapped one of his hands on Arjuna's shoulders and said, "Why don't you talk to Durmukha? He's got that antique crossbow that he's pretty good with. I mean, talk about archaic and useless, but you know, whatever floats your boat."
"A crossbow?!" Arjuna was horrified at the thought. "Aren't they, like..."
"Completely useless in a war scenario? Yes. But Durmukha tells me that they're quite handy to go hunting with."
Arjuna paled. The very thought of hunting an innocent animal for sport made him sick to his stomach. Sure, he knew that his human father and his older brothers and even Duryodhana were quite into that particular hobby, but Arjuna himself could never bring himself to kill anything as graceful and beautiful as a deer or a bird or--
"Gotta go," Duryodhana said suddenly, after a panicked glance at his watch. He dropped and ground his smokeroll beneath the sole of his shoes and said, "You know, just because some old priest says you have to be a great warrior or something, doesn't mean that you have to be. I don't know if you missed the memo, or what, but you and me, we're royalty, Arjuna, and we can be whatever the hell we want to be."
Then Duryodhana left, vanishing around the corner of a wall of hedges as quickly as he had appeared, and Arjuna thought to himself, But maybe I want to be a great warrior, because I know that it's the only thing that I can be. Because even the gods themselves - even my deva-father - have pretty much said that it's the only thing that I can be. Right?
Arjuna stood up, brushing grass and dirt off his legs, leaving his math homework sitting in a pile at the roots of the tree behind him. He squinted off into the distance, as far as his miserable eyes could see, and realized with a sinking heart that less than two steps in front of him was about as far as his miserable eyes could see.
A crossbow - or any type of bow - any type of projectile weapon at all - would probably be a bad idea, then.
Arjuna wanted to go back indoors. The sunshine always made his head ache and his body feel slightly weak and nauseous. What horrible weather, Arjuna thought gloomily, as he trudged back across the palace gardens.
Unfortunately, Arjuna found the hallway between where he was standing and his private quarters blocked by a half dozen madly scurrying, scuttling metal contraptions with clicking metal legs and more-than-slightly-menacing metal pincers.
"Catch them catch them catch them!" Nakula shouted furiously, pushing Arjuna aside in order to dive to the floor and pounce on one of the contraptions. Somehow Nakula managed to close his grip around one of the metal things while at the same time holding it at an angle so that the furious little robot couldn't quite manage to pinch his hands with its pincers. Nakula managed to twist himself and jump back into a standing position before the other robots could turn on him, then completed the move by leaping up onto a pedestal which, a moment before, had been supporting an imported ceramic vase from Madra. The vase went tumbling to the ground, smashing into a dozen pieces; this at least momentarily distracted the robots on the ground, giving Arjuna time to clumsily step away from one of the robots which had looked just about ready to sink its pincers into his ankle.
"Don't just stand there!" Nakula fumed from his perch on the previous vase-stand. Both of his hands were occupied with the madly flailing robot in his grip, rotating it this way and that as Nakula's fingers fumbled for its control switch. But Nakula wasn't even watching what his own hands were doing; his attention was fixed squarely on Arjuna. "Either catch one or get out of here! They have a taste for human flesh now!"
Arjuna opened his mouth to ask a question about that, but then got his answer when Sahadeva strode up behind him, calmly, and bent down, scooping up one of the crab-robots with one hand and pressing the control switch on its undercarriage before the robot even seemed to realize what had happened to it. Sahadeva tossed the suddenly-stilled robot over his shoulder, dismissively, and bent to pick up another one with the same hand. Sahadeva's other hand was wrapped in a bloody bandage.
"It's easy," Sahadeva said, holding out the flailing robot toward Arjuna. The robot's clicking legs and slightly-more-loudly clicking pincers veered dangerously close to Arjuna's nose. "Just grab them between their legs, and they can't pinch you. Then push this switch, and you're done." Sahadeva tossed the dead robot over his shoulder again, while at the same time bending down to pick up another one that was busily trying to claw its way through Sahadeva's thick boots. Arjuna figured that Sahadeva did not usually wear such thick outdoor boots when walking around indoors.
Arjuna bent down and tried to pick one of the robot crabs up, but as usual, his depth perception seemed to fail him, and when the robot's pinchers lunged toward the soft flesh between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he quickly drew his hand back. Sahadeva snatched up the robot instead, with a calm smile on his face. "You have to be careful," Sahadeva said, holding his bloody hand out toward Arjuna. "See what happens when you're not careful?"
Arjuna swallowed, nervously.
"They wouldn't have gone berserk like this if YOU hadn't bled all over them!" Nakula shouted, jumping back and forth between the floor and his perch on the pedestal, scooping up robots in his hands and defying certain death from a metal pincer through his wrists at each moment.
Sahadeva bent over and grasped the last robot, snapping its control switch and tossing it to the ground in one expert motion. "Come on," he said. "I would like very much to find the rest of my finger. This should be interesting. I've never had to have a part of my body sewn back on before. Also... I think I'm going to faint."
"Don't," Nakula said sternly, kicking aside a switched-off robot. "We have to clean all of this up before Grandpa Bhisma or somebody sees--"
"What in the hells are you doing?!" Arjuna finally found the voice to ask.
Nakula blinked at him, as if suddenly remembering that Arjuna were there. Nakula and his identical twin Sahadeva both had striking golden eyes, and red-gold skin, and red-gold hair the color of the setting sun. They would have stood apart from Arjuna and the rest of his darker-skinned relatives easily, even without the added fact that they were, both of them, painfully and excruciatingly beautiful to look at. It didn't matter that Nakula was often too absorbed in himself to give anyone the time of day or that Sahadeva was, well, a little weird to talk to in person. Nakula and Sahadeva were the two princes who were the most frequently stalked by paparazzi photographers, the most often breathlessly gossiped about in tabloids, the most often subjects of long and elaborate articles in magazines sold to teenage girls. Or sold to older women, for that matter. Arjuna had even heard rumors that certain people, whoever certain people were supposed to be, sometimes said or thought or insinuated that Nakula and Sahadeva were even more handsome to look at than Duryodhana was. The fact that Duryodhana was over fifteen years older than the twins did not seem to help his case much.
"We're experimenting," Nakula said, defensively, in answer to Arjuna's question. "I designed them," Nakula went on, pointing proudly to the robots scattered around his feet, dropping his defensive tone in exchange for a transparent sense of pride. "They were supposed to run off a wireless connection to a central computing unit in that one," Nakula said, pointing at a robot that to Arjuna looked no different from any of the others. "But when Sahadeva opened up its casing to adjust its wiring, he cut his finger on the edge of the casing and--"
"--And then I bled a bit all over the poor thing's central wiring." Sahadeva shook his head, as if mourning a fallen comrade. "Which must have caused something important to short-circuit, although I didn't have time to figure out just what. That was when it went berserk and pinched off my finger. Actually," he said, cheerfully, "I was quite impressed. The central one broadcast its misfiring nerve signals to all of its companion units. And anyway it was my fault for leaving them on but idle, instead of just turning them off like I should have."
"But why?" Arjuna asked.
"Why make such horrible things?"
"They're not horrible," Nakula said, defensive again. "They're brilliant."
"We asked mother for a pet crab," Sahadeva said, still smiling at nothing in particular, "but she wouldn't let us have one. So we did this instead."
"These would be better than a real pet. You wouldn't have to clean up after these or change their water. And there was no point in making just one when we'd acquired enough material to make a dozen."
"What are you going to tell Mom about your finger?!" Arjuna asked Sahadeva.
"I'm going to tell her that it hurts very much."
"No, I mean, how you lost--"
"Oh. The truth."
"NO!" Nakula protested. "She'll ground us for a year! You know Mom, she's completely irrational when it comes to things like this! She grounded us that time we took the glass out of the windows on the fortieth floor to make that laser cannon, remember?!"
"To be fair," Sahadeva said, gently, "I think that was more an issue of mother being attached to those particular windows, than of her being opposed in principle to us having a laser cannon. Arjuna, would you be so kind as to hold me? I really do think that I'm going to faint this time."
Arjuna scrambled to catch a hold of Sahadeva's shoulders while his little brother swooned, mumbling softly, "It was wonderful, you should have seen it. They moved in a pack, just like insects..."
Arjuna was about to open his mouth say something about how insects did not move in packs – he had at least retained that much information from his lessons – when he suddenly heard a shout from the other end of the hall. "HOLY BLOODY HELL!"
Arjuna turned his head and saw not one, but two palace guards standing at the end of the hallway, surveying the scene in front of them with gaping jaws and bulging eyes.
Nakula cursed underneath his breath. "We weren't fast enough," he said. "I knew we should have gotten out of here faster."
Arjuna thought that it must have been the first time in nearly a month that his entire family was all together, in one place, at one time. It was unfortunate, however, that the place was a hospital, and that the time was late at night.
"Look," Sahadeva said, holding up his severed stump of a finger to anybody who came near, "You can see my bone." He somehow seemed quite pleased with himself. In reality Sahadeva's finger was covered in so many thick layers of bandages that the exposed bone was impossible to see. But Sahadeva had seen his bone earlier that day when the nurses had been treating him, and this brief glimpse of his internal anatomy seemed to have for some reason brought him great happiness.
Arjuna was sitting beside Sahadeva's bed, which was uncomfortable, because it was inside a hospital room, and hospital rooms were uncomfortable, but at least it was better than being in the hallway outside the room, which Arjuna could see clearly through a glass panel in one wall. Arjuna's mother was twisting Nakula's ear and yelling furiously at him, Yudhisthira was pacing back and forth and wringing his hands and looking for all the world like he wished that he knew what to do but hadn't a clue, Bhima was stomping around behind Yudhisthira and telling him something that Arjuna supposed was a half-command to stop pacing, and Grandpa Bhisma was there too, which made things even worse, because Arjuna knew that Grandpa Bhisma would have never have left the palace if it hadn't been a very serious matter.
"Nakula is in trouble," Sahadeva said, worry showing on his face for the first time.
"Yeah, well, it looks like Mom is giving him an earful. Or trying to twist off his ear."
"That's not fair. It was my project, too."
"Yeah, but you're the one who lost a finger. So you get sympathy. That's how it works."
"Do you think they'll find my finger? The rest of it, I mean." Sahadeva looked down at his own mangled hand. "I like seeing my bone," he said. "It's not every day that I get to see my bone. But I think that, if I had a choice between being able to see bone forever, or having a finger forever, I would rather have a finger. Forever."
"Oh... I'm sure they'll find it," Arjuna said, for lack of anything better to say.
"Hmm," Sahadeva said thoughtfully, folding his good hand over his other hand. Then he turned his head and fixed his slightly intense, unsettling, golden-eyed gaze on something just over Arjuna's shoulder. "Hello. Did you want to see my bone too?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" Duryodhana asked, stepping up beside Arjuna. Arjuna was startled. He hadn't even heard his cousin come into the room. But then again, Duryodhana seemed to have an odd talent for being able to sneak around when he wanted to. Arjuna was immediately grateful that Duryodhana was there, however. He understood that Duryodhana had come to do his particular version of damage control - Arjuna had seen him in action before. Intervening between Nakula and Arjuna's mother, calming down Yudhisthira, flashing his charismatic grin left and right and doing his best to lower everyone's collective blood pressure. Arjuna could guess that Grandpa Bhisma had probably called him over for that purpose.
But that would be in a few moments. For now, it would have been impolite to not stop by and see the injured party.
"Look," Sahadeva said, holding his bloody, bandaged stump of a finger out to Duryodhana, "you could see my bone."
"Kiddo, that's not something to be proud of."
"I don't understand why not," Sahadeva said, genuinely confused.
Duryodhana laughed, then slung his arm around Arjuna's shoulder, and leaned over and whispered into Arjuna's ear, "How are you doing?"
"Me? I'm not the one missing a finger."
"No, I mean... Just in general. How are you doing?"
"Mm." Arjuna could tell that Duryodhana had not forgotten the conversation they had had earlier that day. "Better," he said. "At least I still have all of my fingers."
"That's perspective for you." Duryodhana gave Arjuna's shoulder a brief squeeze, then he pulled away from Arjuna and said, "Well, it looks like I have to stick my neck into the bloodbath out there." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the hallway behind the room.
"Arjuna should go with you," Sahadeva suddenly said. "The first thing you have to do is separate Mom and Nakula. Arjuna, you can use your hands and pry them apart if you have to." Sahadeva leaned back in his bed, again, and closed his eyes, again. "I'd like to dream for a little bit," he said.
Arjuna looked up at Duryodhana, who was giving Sahadeva a funny look. Arjuna had seen Duryodhana give this same funny look to both Nakula and Sahadeva on occasion, before. It was a slightly suspicious, slightly worried look. Arjuna had seen Duryodhana give his younger brothers this look when somebody had remarked on how unnaturally beautiful the twins were; when either Nakula or Sahadeva said something so intelligent or sophisticated than a nine-year-old child could not possibly have uttered it; or sometimes, when Sahadeva said something just so weird that for an brief moment it felt as if one could feel the entire world of Kuru tilting this way or that, spinning a way that it was not supposed to be spinning, that there was something slightly wrong and slightly off in the universe around them.
"Come on," Duryodhana said, "Let's get this over with." He led Arjuna out into the hallway, which was, of course, filled with chaos.
Arjuna loved his cousin Duryodhana, maybe almost as much as he loved his brother Bhima, but Arjuna was also quiet and observant and was not oblivious to the fact that Duryodhana was vain about his often-lauded handsome looks. Arjuna sometimes wondered how Duryodhana was going to feel, ten years down the line, when he was growing middle-aged but the twins would be only just reaching the peak of their young adulthood, and all of the reporters and photographers would be lavishing attention upon the beautiful twins instead of upon Duryodhana himself. Arjuna thought that if he were Duryodhana, he wouldn't exactly be happy about it. That was why sometimes, Arjuna felt a little bit sorry for Duryodhana. He wished that he could do more, could be more, for Duryodhana. Sometimes, deep within his secret heart of hearts, Arjuna silently wished that Duryodhana could be his oldest brother, instead of--
"Arjuna!" Yudhisthira had his hands around Arjuna's forearm almost immediately. "You were there with them, weren't you?! Why didn't you--?!"
"Easy now," Bhima said, prying Yudhisthira's fingers off Arjuna's arm. "Nobody deserves blame for this but the evil little monsters themselves."
"I'm not EVIL!" Nakula shouted. "Just misunderstood!" He twisted his own ear out of his mother's grip and railed angrily, "I mean, I built a robot! A robot! Don't people normally get awards and stuff for building robots as smart as mine?!"
"I'm not sure about a reward," Grandpa Bhisma said, looming over Nakula crossly, "but I certainly agree that you deserve something for ripping out half of the electrical wiring in the boiler room of the east-wing basement."
"I needed parts."
"How did you manage to rip wiring out of the wall, anyway?" Bhima momentarily sounded more impressed than angry.
"It was easy. A retard could have done it--"
"Nakula, watch your mouth!"
"All we had to do was use a laser-cutter to peel off the--"
"A laser-cutter?! Where did you get a laser-cutter?!"
"What is this, an inquisition? I don't understand why I'm in trouble. It's not illegal to build robots."
"You're in trouble," Arjuna's mother said, in the low and dangerous voice that she only used when someone was really in trouble, "because if it hadn't been for you and this ridiculous project of yours, your brother would still have all of his fingers."
Ouch, thought Arjuna, watching Nakula's cheeks redden and his lower lip beginning to tremble. If Nakula had a weak spot, it was Sahadeva. "It's not my fault!" Nakula protested again, his voice breaking. "I never meant for him to get hurt." Nakula sniffled, finally and for the first time that evening looking and sounding like the nine-year-old child that he actually was. It didn't matter that Sahadeva didn't blame his brother, nor that Nakula knew that Sahadeva didn't blame him, as he knew all of Sahadeva's thoughts and feelings. Nakula still blamed himself, and that was all that mattered.
"Come here," Arjuna's mother said, resting her hand on Nakula's shoulder and trying to pull him in toward her. But Nakula angrily shrugged off her touch and said, tearfully, "You should have just gotten us that pet crab like we asked for!"
"But that would have been letting the terrorists win," Bhima said, without a trace of humor in his voice. He took his mother by her arm and she clutched at him, gratefully. "Let's go," he said, quietly, by Bhima standards. "Either the doctors can help Sahadeva, or they can't. There's nothing we can change by being here or not. And if Sahadeva still doesn't have a finger by tomorrow, then that's really his own fault."
"Bhima! What a terrible thing to say about your brother."
"You're only saying that because you're a mom and it's what you're supposed to say."
Arjuna's mother sighed, but said nothing more as she allowed Bhima to lead her away.
Which left Nakula, who turned his tearful golden eyes up toward Yudhisthira and Grandpa Bhisma, imploring his fate.
"Grounded," Yudhisthira said.
"That's not nearly enough," Grandpa Bhisma said. He sounded impatient with and disappointed in Yudhisthira.
"Grounded, and he has to replace all of the wiring in the basement that he ruined," Yudhisthira tried again.
"Not just him. Both of them. Whether Sahadeva has nine fingers or ten."
"But the robots were good," Nakula sniffled. "Tell me that they were good."
Yudhisthira sighed and rubbed his temples. To Arjuna, he looked very pale, and very tired. Grandpa Bhisma led Nakula away and Yudhisthira followed; that left Arjuna and Duryodhana alone.
Arjuna turned to Duryodhana and said, "You never said a single word." It was normally not like Duryodhana to hold his tongue for more than a few seconds at a time.
"Oh. No. But it was just so entertaining to watch. I didn't want to interrupt."
Thunder was rumbling low and incessantly in the sky that night. Which meant, naturally, that instead of sleeping through the night, Arjuna jumped out of his bed at three in the morning, threw on a coat, and eagerly ran out into the palace gardens. He whirled himself around in the flowerbeds, his arms and fingers spread wide, feeling the electricity in the air, waiting for the taste of rain on his tongue.
Then Arjuna heard a cough.
Arjuna froze in mid-whirl, his sense sharp and alert. His eyesight might have been miserable, but his ears were good enough, and he could hear voices, distant and low. Arjuna crept through the bushes and the flowers until he spied two shadowed figures sitting on a bench below a hanging lamp, burning low and casting dim shadows over them. They were Bhima and Yudhisthira. Arjuna would have recognized Bhima's enormous profile anywhere. Arjuna hunkered down behind a bush and watched them, silently, holding his breath.
"I'm just saying, that's your third one in the past hour," Bhima said, his normally loud, rumbling voice restrained to what passed for a Bhima-whisper.
"I know," Yudhisthira said, inhaling deeply from the smokeroll in his hand. "And believe me, I'm not smoking them because I like these awful things."
Arjuna bit his lower lip. He hadn't known that his oldest brother smoked. Was this something new?
"Grandpa Bhisma told me that I would never be taken seriously by my own Ministers if I couldn't share a smokeroll with them," Yudhisthira said, smoke rolling out of his mouth and nose as he spoke. "That's what I'll tell Mother when she finds out."
"Maybe you should stop listening so blindly to Grandpa Bhisma."
"Grandpa Bhisma is a great man," Yudhisthira said, vehemently.
"I know," Bhima answered, a few shades short of dismissively, "but even great men can give bad advice."
"Duryodhana has been using these for years, and he's fine. They're not going to hurt me. They just taste terrible."
"Yes, but Duryodhana doesn't ever smoke three of them in the space of an hour."
Yudhisthira sighed. "Bhima..."
"Sometimes I think you have an addictive personality."
"What is that supposed to mean, anyway?"
"I don't know, I heard it on the media console."
"I can't even remember the last time I watched the console," Yudhisthira said, blowing a smoke-ring out into the ominous, rumbling night.
"Well, you've been busy."
"Yes, busy," Yudhisthira mumbled. "Busy meeting the Ministers at six in the morning, busy being debriefed on security matters at seven, busy with charity breakfast for earthquake victims at eight, busy with recording a public address at nine, busy with Parliament members kissing my feet at ten, and so on, and so forth, too busy and too important to ever be able to see our mother or our brothers until one of them has to go and lose a finger, oh yes, so important are we." Yudhisthira fidgeted with his smokeroll in his fingers. "Grandpa Bhisma didn't even bother to give me the 'you're responsible for your brothers' speech this time."
"Because he understands that you're busy. Because it's largely his fault that you're busy. He's the one giving you all that stuff to do."
"Or maybe he's just given up on me." Yudhisthira lowered his head, his long bangs falling over his face, casting it in shadow. "Why not just be honest about it? Madri-mama trusted those two to me, and I've hardly been there for them since. Now Nakula is a sociopathic monster and Sahadeva is maimed for life--"
" 'Sociopathic monster' might be a bit of an exaggeration--"
"How many nine-year-olds do you know that build a hoard of attack-robots just for fun?!" Yudhisthira burst out, gesturing with his dwindling smokeroll angrily. "When Arjuna was nine years old, he was drawing with crayons and making paper-mache elephants for fun! That's what normal nine-year-old boys do! They don't go around stealing the electrical wiring from walls or speaking with the vocabulary of graduate students or using words in their sentences that even I don't understand!"
Bhima stared at his brother for a long, long time. Then he said, "You're afraid of them."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Yes, you are. Mother is too. That's probably why she had those three shots of lickfire when I was with her tonight."
"Look at me," Bhima said, and both Arjuna and Yudhisthira looked. Bhima was tall - at least two heads taller than Yudhisthira, who was tall to begin with - and broad-shouldered and thick-limbed, a giant among men. He always had to duck when entering doorways and always had to fold his legs awkwardly when entering autos or hoverers. Because of his Gift, Bhima could easily lift an auto above his head, bend metal with his bare hands, or cause the ground to tremble and shake when he walked, if he forgot to control himself. Bhima could never blend into a crowd and could never pass unnoticed anywhere. "I'm used to people being afraid of me," he said. "But you never were afraid. Because you're better than most people."
Yudhisthira shook his head vehemently. "Bhima, don't--"
"Don't get all mushy on me."
"I wasn't going to. I was going to point out that you're not being better than most people right now, you're just being a fearful idiotic prat like all the rest of them. Look, I know that Nakula and Sahadeva can be scary. They're devakins, but they're in a whole different league than you or me. I mean, you and I can at least act like humans most of the time. But Nakula and Sahadeva are just inhuman and there's no way around that. And that's why they really need you. Especially Nakula. Believe it or not, I remember what I was like when I was nine years old, and it wasn't all that different from the way that Nakula is now, only without the robots. Sometimes I was scared of myself. Sometimes I was afraid that I was so strong that I might hurt you or Mama or Papa without meaning it. Sometimes I look at Nakula and I see that he's so smart and so restless that he doesn't know what to do with himself, but he's at least smart enough to figure out that he's not supposed to be as smart as he is, and that scares him. When I was nine years old, I had you, and you kept me grounded. You kept me human. Nakula doesn't have you, and without you, he's going to keep playing the role of monster He's especially going to keep playing the role of the monster if that's the expectation that you have of him. It may not look like it, but he is looking up to you, you know."
"You're the one who called him a monster and a 'terrorist' today," Yudhisthira said, defensively.
"I was joking. You're sitting here being serious."
"So what am I supposed to do?! You said it yourself. I've been busy." Yudhisthira rolled the end of his smokeroll between his fingers angrily. "Grandpa Bhisma gave Duryodhana the same amount of work that he's given me, and Duryodhana still has time for all of his brothers. I don't know how he does it."
"Oh, that's easy," Bhima answered. "Duryodhana has ninety-nine brothers to delegate his princely duties out to. You only have me."
"Bhima, you've been a tremendous help, but--"
"I know I've been," Bhima said, "but if you want time to see Nakula or Sahadeva or even, you know, eat or sleep, you're going to have to start delegating too."
"And who am I supposed to delegate to?"
"The 'great warrior'?" Yudhisthira laughed. "He's still just a kid."
"He's thirteen years old, that makes him a man in the eyes of the law. He can step into any post that you appoint for him."
"Bhima... Be realistic. Arjuna has neither the knowledge nor the intelligence nor the charisma needed to step into any post that I could give him."
Bhima made a noise in the back of his throat, as if he were trying to say something, but then fell into an uncomfortable silence.
"Besides," Yudhisthira went on, when the silence had apparently become too awkward for him, "you heard the priest at his birthday. Arjuna is supposed to become a great warrior."
"Grandpa Bhisma made him quit the sword today," Bhima said, with uncharacteristic softness for Bhima.
Yudhisthira jerked his head up, suddenly. "He did?"
"Oh." Yudhisthira took one last inhalation from his smokeroll, then said, in a very soft voice, "It's about time, too. Kind of painful to watch him keep trying, wasn't it?"
Arjuna pressed his burning cheeks to the grass beneath him and felt angry tears trickling down his face, runs of snot dripping from his nose. But he could not sniffle. He couldn't give himself away, not now.
"I don't know, it's just..." Yudhisthira snuffed out the stub of his smokeroll with his fingers. "I trust Mr. Dhaumya. If he says he had a vision, then he probably had a vision. But sometimes I don't trust them." Yudhisthira pointed up at the rumbling black sky above them. "The gods must be crazy if they think that Arjuna is cut out to be a great warrior. Do you remember the last time we tried to take that poor kid camping? He wouldn't even kill a spider that he found on his bedroll, let alone come hunting with us. Not that I would have trusted him with any of our rifles, anyway. Not with eyes like his." Yudhisthira looked down at his hands and said, "And sometimes I think the gods must be crazy if they think that someone like me was born to be a king, or whatever such nonsense."
"That's why kings have brothers!" Bhima repeated, exasperated. "You can't expect to keep doing almost everything by yourself! Father didn't rule like that."
"So maybe I should ask Arjuna to start doing more." Yudhisthira stood up, and stretched his arms over his head. "But what am I supposed to ask him to do?"
Bhima frowned, pondering this. Finally he said, "Hey, it's Pumpkin, remember? He's never let us down yet."
"I hope you're right." Yudhisthira looked up at the sky and said, "And I hope that I'm not setting him up to fail. The gods should know that he's likely had just about enough of failure by now."
Bhima stood up and blew out the hanging lamp. Then the two of them walked back through the garden, toward the palace, through the darkness.
And Arjuna still lied in the grass beneath his bush, his eyes burning, his breath trembling in his throat.
Finally, he forced himself to stand back up, brushing dirt and grass off his pajamas, wiping away his snot with his sleeve, indulging himself in a nice, loud sniffle.
I wish I could do more for them, Arjuna thought furiously, I wish I could be more for them.
But he had nothing to offer his brothers. Neither a warrior nor a statesman, lacking in both strength and smarts, blind as a bat during the day and clumsy and useless with his hands.
Arjuna wandered through the darkened and deserted gardens, feeling the storm growing in the sky above him, deriving no joy from the otherwise delicious shiver of anticipation in the air. He walked with his fingers splayed out, lightly touching the leaves and the flowers that he passed as he walked, thinking dark thoughts. Arjuna didn't even realize that he was at an outer wall of the palace compounds until he nearly walked right into it.
Arjuna looked to his left, then to his right. He saw the security cameras mounted on the wall. He thought of the guards posted outside his own bedroom, who knew that he was out in the gardens and would not expect him to come back inside until well after the storm had broken and he had had his fill of the rain. They knew him well, those guards. Which meant that, say, if he were to go somewhere, he wouldn't be missed for a while...
But the security cameras.
Go where?! Are you crazy?!
Arjuna walked along the length of the wall, letting his fingertips trail along its cold bricks, thinking to himself, there had to be something that he had to offer to his brothers, to everyone. There had to be some meaning to what the priest has said, to what his deva-father had proclaimed. There had to be some reason that he had been given the unknown devaweapon, the unknown Gift, slumbering inside of him.
But whatever Arjuna's answers were, they were not to be found among his family, or even within his princely palace. Arjuna knew this more certainly than he knew anything. The storm was whispering it to him.
I could find what I need to find, Arjuna thought, looking up at the pitch-dark sky, if only the cameras wouldn't catch me going over the wall--
He wished, and the storm obliged. There was a crack of thunder and a sudden flash of lightning streaking down from the sky; and then an explosion of sparks as the lightning smashed into an antenna soaring high above the royal palace. A sudden wave of darkness descended upon the palace, and the gardens, rolling out to engulf the entire city of Hastinapura.
For a moment, there was nothing but darkness, and the sound of wind.
Arjuna was already halfway over the wall. He knew that he only had a few precious seconds before the palace's backup generators kicked into gear, before electricity was restored to the palace and the city around it. But a few seconds were all that Arjuna needed. For once, his clumsy hands and feet seemed to obey his every command. By the time that the city's lights came bursting back into life, Arjuna was already over the palace wall and scrambling down the shadowed, sea-splattered cliff below the palace, making his way toward the beach and then the city down below.
At the southern base of the cliff upon which the palace sat, a small amount of space had been set aside as a wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary: a marsh sheltered by the rocks above, and a scrubby forest along the edge of where the coastline turned from rock to sand. Arjuna made his way through the cold and damp grass beneath the trees in the forest, the cuffs of his thin pajamas soaked through with night dew, shivering in his coat. He was beginning to realize that going on a middle-of-the-night quest to find himself while wearing nothing but boots, pajamas, and a coat was actually a rather bad idea. Well, at least he had had the presence of mind to slip his corrective lenses into his eyes into his eyes before he had left his room earlier that night. Which meant that he could at least see as well as he normally could see, which was to say, not very well.
If not for the storm blanketing the sky, it would have been dawn soon. Arjuna was also beginning to realize that very soon it would be morning, and then he would be missed, and then there would be all sorts of trouble. Arjuna couldn't even begin to imagine how much trouble. He had a reasonable idea, however, that whatever he was supposed to find for himself, he likely wouldn't be able to find it in the space of just a few hours.
Arjuna closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the dry, scratchy bark of a tree. Father, what am I doing? he asked. He wasn't sure which of his fathers he was asking for guidance. But as usual, he heard no answer.
Arjuna listened to the storm in the sky above, rumbling and flashing its threatening lightning, but still refusing to break, holding out for some strange reason. Arjuna thought of the storm as the storm and himself as part of the storm, but did not think of the storm, or of some mythical king of the Gods named Indra, as his father, not the way that he thought of the man that he remembered as his father. Arjuna's father, his real father, was the one who had held his hand the first time he had been taken to a temple to pray, who had kissed his forehead to make him stop crying that time when he had fallen and scraped his knee at the beach, who had taken him out on the ocean in a boat for the first time, who had exclaimed over his largely incomprehensible crayon drawings as if they were profound works of art. Arjuna also remembered mother, or rather, mothers, because he had once had two of them, hadn't he? But then one of them had--
white cold flesh empty eyes dark shadows nana screaming
No, mustn't go there.
Nobody ever spoke of what had happened that night. Not Arjuna's mother, not Arjuna's brothers, not anybody, which was good, because it at least saved Arjuna the indignity of pretending not to remember what he had seen. It was just so annoying, having his mother and Yudhisthira fussing over him as if he might have been traumatized, or something. But Arjuna hadn't gotten the worst of the sympathy. No, that had been reserved for Nakula and Sahadeva. For all the good (or harm) that it did them. Today, neither Nakula nor Sahadeva had any memory of their mother Madri, and Nakula seemed rather cold-heartedly (in Arjuna's opinion) dismissive of her, whereas Sahadeva seemed as detached from the idea that Kunti was not his real mother as he was from most cold, hard, concrete facts in life.
Arjuna stepped away from the comforting tree bark and continued on his way.
Daylight, struggling to break through the clouds blanketing the sky, began, slowly to filter into the air around Arjuna. Arjuna smelled the electricity in the air, the impending threat of lightning, and let that guide him. Still, neither the weak dawn light nor the currents in the air could be much of a guide in that dark, murky forest. Arjuna fumbled among the blurred shadows of trees and scrub, stumbling several times over unseen somethings, until--
Arjuna finally tripped over something soft and warm. He went sprawling, of course. Face-down into the dewy, damp grass.
It took Arjuna a few moments to realize that he was now lying across someone's lap.
Arjuna quickly rolled away from the warm body beneath him and sat up, brushing wet grass off his pajamas and coat. In his haste, he somehow managed to get his own two feet tangled up beneath him, and he quickly stumbled, and then fell again, this time landing on his behind, back down into the wet grass.
Well, now at least he was sitting across from whomever he had previously tripped over.
Arjuna squinted through the murk of the stormy morning, and could vaguely make out the shape of a human, sitting cross-legged in the grass--
"Hello, there," the mystery shadow said.
Arjuna was startled to realize that the person sitting across from him was a boy who must have been close to his own age.
"I'm sorry," the boy said. "Are you hurt?"
Arjuna finally found his voice. "No," he answered, honestly. "Um... Are you?"
"I'm sorry," Arjuna said, quickly. He stood up again, and this time managed to succeed in staying standing. "I didn't mean to interrupt, um--"
"That's all right. I've already been sitting here for a while now. It was probably about time that I took a break anyway." The boy stood up in one fluid, graceful motion, which Arjuna thought should have been technically impossible for a person who had been sitting in one position for a while to do. The boy stepped toward Arjuna and said, "Are you... Are you lost?" He cocked his head, a blurred motion of shadow. "Forgive me, but are those your... pajamas?"
Arjuna knew that he had poor eyesight, but he also knew that the forest and the morning were dark, and since he could hardly see a single feature of the boy standing only a few feet in front of him, he wondered how the boy could possibly see anything of him, let alone his clothing. Arjuna licked his lips. "Yes," he said, and then, "Can you really see me?"
"Yes," the boy said, "I know how to see." He tapped the center of his forehead, as if this explained everything. Then the boy asked again, "Are you lost?"
"No, I was just... looking for something."
"Then you've lost something."
"No, I don't think I had it before--"
"Ah. A quest." The boy said quest the same way that Arjuna thought a normal person might say buttered toast. The boy, his face and features still in shadow, tilted his head and said, "And you're wearing your pajamas." Then the boy tilted his face upward and added, "You probably should have brought a raincoat."
"Oh no, I'm, um, I'm okay in rain."
"Not in your pajamas," the boy insisted. He took Arjuna's hand and began pulling him through the woods. "Come," he said. And Arjuna followed, for lack of any better choice.
As light slowly filtered into the gray dawn around them, Arjuna was finally able to make out some features of the boy who has now leading him by his hand. The first thing that Arjuna noticed was that the boy was naked from the waist up. The second thing Arjuna noticed was that elaborate, interlocking whirls of shadow laced across the boy's back, shoulders, and neck. Arjuna had the same markings on his body. They were the markings of a devakin.
"Are you a priest?" Arjuna asked, even though it was a stupid question, he already knew the answer. Who else but a priest would be mediating half-naked in the woods in the middle of the night?
"Someday," the boy answered, with a light laugh. Arjuna could see more of him, now. He was thin, probably pale - it was hard to tell in the not-light of the stormy dawn - and his head was topped with a crown of closely-shaven, reddish-brown hair. His hair and skin color clearly marked him as a foreigner. The boy turned toward Arjuna and asked, "And you?" Arjuna noticed that the boy had something funny on his forehead, a birthmark or a scar, a funny teardrop-shaped shadow curling down between his eyes.
"I don't know what I am," Arjuna answered, honestly.
"Well, that makes sense, if you're on a quest." The woods were beginning to thin around them. Suddenly the boy led Arjuna around the side of a tree and into a clearing full of dim, moist light. They had crossed the boundaries of the nature preserve and were now on the outskirts of the city surrounding the palace on the cliff high above them. In the poorer section of the city, Arjuna noted. The houses here were small and ramshackle and pressed close together, huddling among the rocks and the dirt at the edge of the forest.
It was still early in the morning, and the world was silent.
The boy led Arjuna carefully across the unpaved dirt streets leading into the makeshift town in front of them. Arjuna noticed that the boy's feet were bare, but well-callused. The two of them walked together in silence, their hands laced together, until finally they paused in front of the door to a home which, to Arjuna, looked no different from the rest of the small homes all around them.
"In here," the boy said, leading Arjuna right in through the front door, which was unlocked. The boy stepped through the door and glanced quickly to his right, where Arjuna saw some hooks which might have normally held someone's coat and hat. But the hooks were empty. Arjuna stepped in behind the boy and squinted through the darkness of the home he was now intruding upon. From the entrance he could see two rooms set off to either side of him. One was a living room, with a couch and a media console and shelves upon shelves of neatly-lined-up but dusty books covering every available surface of the walls. The other was a kitchen, where counters and a table and chairs and hanging pots and pans all jostled for space, old and cluttered but clean except for a single used glass that someone had left sitting next to the sink, waiting to be washed.
As soon as Arjuna had removed his boots, the boy took his hand again and led him wordlessly up the steep wooden stairs behind the living room. The stairs creaked and groaned beneath them as they walked. "My father has been gone for a week," the boy explained, "since he was called out on assignment from the Council. But he should be home today. I don't know what time. My mother works uptown. She leaves before the sun rises. She'll be back when the sun sets."
"So we're all alone here?"
They entered what Arjuna assumed was the boy's bedroom. It was small and narrow. There was a narrow bed piled high with quilts sewn in exotic, alien patterns Arjuna had never seen before. There was not much more in the room, save for the photographs taped up all over the walls - a family of three, mother and father and son, smiling and posing for the camera, over and over again. They were old-fashioned photographs, the kind that were printed on paper, not the more modern holographic images that Arjuna's family favored. Arjuna squinted at the photographs. The mother in those photographs had dark skin and shining dark hair, as did most of the members of Arjuna's family, as did most of the people of Kuru. But the father in those photographs was, like his son, pale-skinned and pale-eyed, with dusty red-brown hair and slight wrinkles around his eyes. Arjuna realized with a start that in most of the photographs, the boy and his parents were wearing strange clothes, the likes of which Arjuna had not seen before - thick furs and woven scarves around their necks.
The boy drew back the shade across the only window in the room, flooding it with stormy early-morning almost-light. Then he flipped a switch and turned on the light embedded in the ceiling, which flickered and buzzed and finally decided to flood the room around them with harsh, glaring brightness. Arjuna blinked in the sudden light, then finally got his first really good look at his host. The boy was slipping on a shirt, covering up the markings across his back. But then the boy turned slightly toward Arjuna as he buttoned up his shirt, and Arjuna saw the boy's forehead clearly for the first time. There was a blue mark curling down from beneath the part in his hair, curving across the height of his forehead and finally fading away right between his eyebrows. The mark was neither a scar, nor the splotchy imperfection of a birthmark - it simply was, the way that a tattoo simply was on the surface of a person's skin. In short, it was exactly the same as the devakin markings across the boy's back, as well as across Arjuna's back. Arjuna realized with a start that the mark on the boy's forehead looked like a closed eye, turned on its side.
"Here," the boy said, opening a closet that Arjuna hadn't even noticed and tossing out shirts and pants on top of his bed. "If you're going to go on a quest, you at least need some real clothes to do it in."
"Thanks," Arjuna said awkwardly, holding up a shirt to examine it critically. It was thick and warm and embroidered all over in those strange, alien patterns. Arjuna put down the shirt and turned to the boy and said, "Why are you helping me?"
"Hmm?" The boy looked startled, as if Arjuna had asked him why the sky was green. "Because you're supposed to help people who need help. Especially when they fall directly into your lap. That's not exactly a subtle sign that the devas meant for me to help you."
Arjuna laughed. He liked this boy. He wondered if all priests, or all priests-in-training, rather, saw the world in such perfectly sensible terms. "But I don't even know your name," Arjuna said. "You let me into your home and I haven't even told you my name."
"Okay, then. I'm Ashwatthama."
"Um," Arjuna said, since he had now picked out a shirt and a pair of soft pants, but wasn't exactly sure how to ask Ashwatthama to turn away from him while he changed.
"Oh," said Ashwatthama, getting the hint. "I'll go downstairs and get us some breakfast."
He left, leaving Arjuna alone with his new clothes. Arjuna threw off his coat and pajamas, folded them neatly, and stood for a moment, naked save for his underpants, breathing in the warm and close and nice air of this house. He turned his head and noticed that Ashwatthama had left his closet door open. Sitting on a shelf inside the closet was a bronze statue of Shiva, his dozen arms outstretched, his feet frozen in dance. Arjuna did not think that a closet was a very respectful place to put a statue of Lord Shiva, but then again, there did not seem to be any other space outside the closet for the statue to go. Inside the closet door was hung a faded and old poster of a singer whom Arjuna did not recognize. At the bottom of the poster was written something in a script that looked as alien to Arjuna as the patterns on the boy's bed and on Arjuna's new shirt. Arjuna squinted, squinted hard, and realized finally that the script on the bottom of that poster wasn't entirely alien after all. Arjuna had studied it before, once, long ago, at his Grandpa Bhisma's request. It was one of the writing systems used on Panchala.
Arjuna slipped on his new clothes, which were pleasantly warm, and gingerly made his way back down the creaking stairs. Ashwatthama was clattering around in the kitchen, grilling bread in what to Arjuna looked like a painfully antique toaster oven, slicing more bread with an enormous knife. Another statue of Shiva – this time done in a tasteful gold – watched over the kitchen from its perch on a shelf near the only window.
Arjuna pulled open the door to the small refrigerator unit set in the base of a wall, and asked, "Do you have any milk?"
Ashwatthama dropped his knife with a clatter.
Arjuna hurriedly closed the refrigerator unit, baffled at Ashwatthama's reaction - his hunched shoulders, his drooping head. "Um," said Arjuna, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." Arjuna still wasn't sure what exactly he had done wrong, but apologizing seemed to be the right thing to do.
Ashwatthama bent down and picked up his knife. "No, I'm sorry," Ashwatthama said, dropping the knife into the sink and choosing a new one from a drawer. He turned his back to Arjuna and began slicing bread again. "We have no milk. Nor eggs."
"Oh," Arjuna said. He did not understand why a person would not or could not have milk or eggs, but he could see that Ashwatthama was ashamed to not be able to provide for his guest. Arjuna opened his mouth to say something more, but he never got the chance. Because that was when the sirens high on the cliff above them went off.
Ashwatthama dropped his knife again. His eyes went wide. "Is it a tidal wave?!"
"No," Arjuna said, his stomach sinking to his knees. "Tidal wave is two short and one long... A continuous sound means a state of emergency. Lockdown."
"Are we being invaded?" Ashwatthama said in a small voice. He ran over to the living room and peered out the windows there. "There are soldiers in the streets!" he cried out, alarmed.
And now Arjuna could hear them clearly through the thin walls of the house, stomping in formation through the streets of the town.
"This is bad, this is bad," Ashwatthama fretted, drawing the curtains over the living room window and trembling. "Lockdown means we can't leave the house, right?"
Ashwatthama turned toward the media console and switched it on. "Please don't let it be Panchala invading," he pleaded as the console flashed on.
The blank console was immediately filled with the image of a woman reading urgently from an unseen teleprompter, as flashing letters scrolled across the bottom of the screen, and--
Arjuna groaned as a picture of himself appeared in the upper right corner of the screen. It wasn't even a good picture.
Ashwatthama switched off the media console with a click. He turned slowly toward Arjuna, his eyes wide. "You..."
Arjuna buried his head in his hands. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
" 'Juna.' Of course."
Arjuna turned away from him, listening to the sound of soldiers marching all around them, separated from Arjuna only by thin wooden walls and a single curtain drawn across a window. "I'll go now," Arjuna said, quickly. "I won't let them get you in trouble, so--"
"Wait," Ashwatthama said, suddenly reaching out to grasp Arjuna's hand, just like he had in the woods not too long before. "You are Prince Arjuna, aren't you? For real?"
"Then you don't have to go, if you don't want to." Ashwatthama seemed nervous, but earnest. "I don't know why you ran away, but I know that you have a reason. And I know that there's a reason why I found you. Please... let me try to help you. I don't know if I can, but I want to try. It's what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to help people. That's the type of priest I'm training to be... It's kind of complicated, um, but that's what it is that I do."
Arjuna shook his head. "My mother, my brothers, they'll be worried--"
"I know." Ashwatthama let go of Arjuna's hand. "Forgive me, Your Highness. It was presumptuous of me to--"
"No, it was kind of you." Arjuna walked away from the door and sat down on the couch in the living room, and said, forcing himself to give a confident smile, "I'm staying right here." He wasn't sure if Ashwatthama could help him or not, but he did know that he didn't want to leave this house yet. And that was enough.
Ashwatthama smiled with relief, then without a word, ran back into the kitchen to fetch their now slightly-burnt breakfast of grilled bread. Then he and Arjuna ate together, their hands clasped in prayer over their food, as the sirens on the cliff above sounded into the morning, and the soldiers filled the streets around them, and the unfulfilled promise of a storm rumbled in the sky above them.
"I don't even know why I left," Arjuna said as he picked idly at the edge of a pillow on the couch. It was now late afternoon, and he and Ashwatthama had been sitting - or rather, hiding - in the living room all day long, whispering to each other and nibbling ceaselessly on bread and a few spreads, almost all of which Arjuna found rather bland, but of course he could not tell his host that.
Mostly they talked about nothing in particular, movies and music that they liked, books that Ashwatthama had read. But only recently had Arjuna found the courage to broach the subject of the reason, or rather, the vague non-reason, why he been wandering through the woods in his pajamas and boots earlier that morning.
Ashwatthama was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Arjuna, nodding as he listened attentively. The sirens from the cliffs had stopped, but they could still hear soldiers stomping and the whirr of military hoverers patrolling the neighborhood around them every few minutes. "You told me that you were looking for something," Ashwatthama said.
"Maybe." Arjuna closed his eyes and squeezed the couch pillow to his chest. "I just want to, you know, be something... Or find whatever it is I'm supposed to be." He suddenly opened his eyes and looked at Ashwatthama and said, "I envy you."
"Yeah. It's easy for you. If your father is a priest, then you become a priest just like him. I know that's how it works."
Ashwatthama looked away from Arjuna. "It's not that simple," he said, in a quiet voice.
Arjuna suddenly wondered if he had made another rude mistake. "Your father isn't a priest?"
"He is, but..." Ashwatthama turned his head back toward Arjuna, forcing himself to smile. "Since you're a prince, I hardly think that you should be envying someone like me. I mean, you get all the choices in the world, right?"
"Yeah, but... Not really. You heard. Even the gods said that I'm supposed to be a warrior."
"So be a warrior."
"I don't think that I want to be."
"Then don't be a warrior."
Arjuna frowned. "You're not helping." He squeezed his pillow tighter. "Besides, I can't be a warrior anyway. I can't use a sword. Even Grandpa Bhisma had to give up on teaching me."
"Then maybe you need a different teacher. Or maybe you need a weapon that's not a sword." Ashwatthama's eyes suddenly lit up. "Have you tried using a bow?"
"You sound just like my cousin Duryodhana." Arjuna sighed grumpily. "Besides, I can't see. I could never use a bow."
"My father," Ashwatthama continued eagerly, ignoring Arjuna's protests, "just let him show you, he's the greatest archer on Kuru, he can teach you--"
"Listen, I don't think--"
Suddenly both boys fell silent, distracted by the sound of voices approaching the front door of the house.
"This is my home!" a man's voice, deep and thickly-accented, protested loudly. "I have the right to be walking to my own home!"
"Lockdown, sir, you're supposed to stay indoors--"
"I'm traveling on authority of the Council of Brahmins!" There was the sound of shuffling, struggling. "My papers--"
"Get his papers--"
"Hide!" Ashwatthama suddenly hissed, urgently.
Arjuna froze, glancing to the left and to the right, in a sudden panic. He could see no place to hide.
"Beneath the couch!" Ashwatthama hissed again.
Arjuna lifted up the fabric flap at the base of the couch and saw that it was indeed high enough off the ground for him to squeeze under. Taking a deep breath, Arjuna dove into the layer of dust beneath the couch and then wriggled around quickly, trying to position his face so that he could peek out and see what was going on--
Ashwatthama was hurriedly cleaning up the last traces of their ongoing meal-cum-snack-cum-meal-again, and rushing back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. Suddenly Arjuna heard the front door swinging open, and as he peeked out from beneath the fabric flap concealing him, Arjuna saw a middle-aged man in a hat and coat being forcibly marched through the door to his own house by two fully-suited soldiers. Arjuna recognized the man from the photographs in Ashwatthama's bedroom.
"Father!" Ashwatthama gasped, frozen halfway between the kitchen and living room with a plate of breadcrumbs in his hands.
"Ashwatthama! What are you doing--?"
"I heard the sirens and I came back--"
"His papers check out," one of the soldiers said, handing a sheaf of documents and what Arjuna thought might have been a passport to someone on the other side of the door. The two soldiers on either side of the man let go of his arms; he harrumphed angrily, and smoothed down his coat. "Indecent. Outrageous," he muttered. "Treating a priest like a criminal."
"Just following procedure, sir," one of the soldiers said, stepping around the man and further into the house. "We are the middle of a lockdown, sir."
"What are you doing?! Get out of my home!" Ashwatthama's father demanded, angrily. But the soldier ignored him, stepping around Ashwatthama and peering through his visored eyes at the living room. The soldier on the other side of Ashwatthama's father followed him, as did the one from behind Ashwatthama's father, stepping through the door and around the priest to join his companions, still holding the priest's papers and passport in his hand.
Ashwatthama asked his father something in a language that Arjuna vaguely recognized as being at least passingly similar to High Panchalan. One of the soldiers immediately turned toward them both and shouted angrily, "No foxspeak!"
Ashwatthama paled, but his father flushed with anger. "How dare you use that word in front of my son--!"
"What? You try to tell the kid that you're not a dirtfox?" The soldier laughed and turned away from them both. His companions were already busy rifling through the bookshelves in the living room. Arjuna held his breath and tried to silently slide farther back beneath the couch. He no longer dared to peek out at what was happening in the room around him, but he could hear well enough.
"Old man, bring me a flashbulb," one of the soldiers demanded.
"To test this passport of yours. I need to see if it has the right watermark."
"You said my papers were fine."
"Fine at first glance, but you can never trust a filthy dirtfox."
There was a long pause, a heavy silence. Arjuna thought he heard Ashwatthama sniffle. Then Arjuna heard footsteps, the sound of Ashwatthama's father walking into the kitchen. The sound of drawers opening and closing, rummaging around. Finally, Ashwatthama's father returned. "Here," he said.
"Father," Ashwatthama said, in a thin, high, trembly voice.
"It is all right," Ashwatthama's father said, in a low, almost urgent voice. "We have nothing to hide. Not anymore."
There was another pause, while Arjuna heard a soldier - the one standing right in front of the couch in front of him, no less - clicking through the different settings of the flashbulb Ashwatthama's father had given him. Arjuna could imagine the soldier holding the passport up in the air with one hand, holding the flashbulb behind it with another hand, squinting, peering at the hidden watermark that was surely there--
There was another long silence.
Then the sound of flipping pages. "Well, well," the soldier said. "This thing says you landed on our planet seven years ago."
"There's no watermark on this, dirtfox," the soldier said. "It's a fake."
"You are not looking at the right page." Ashwatthama's father sounded calm. "Contact the High Council itself if you wish to verify my credentials. They have employed me for seven years without a complaint, and would not have continued to employ me if I had ever once lied about myself to them. There are seers on the High Council who can see through lies."
"And I've heard that there are rogue priests who know how to lie so well that they can fool even other priests."
"Like that one who caused so much trouble on Panchala seven years ago," another soldier added.
Another pause. The sound of nervous breathing, from Ashwatthama.
"I've been patrolling this ghetto for ten years," one of the soldiers said, "and I've always had a hunch about you, dirtfox."
"But never an excuse to demand my papers until today?"
"Smart for a dirtfox."
"Or stupid," the first soldier added. "He was the one walking out and about during a lockdown."
"Fake passport," the second said, stepping toward the entryway where Arjuna assumed Ashwatthama and his father were still standing. "That ought to be enough grounds to arrest--"
That was when the soldier's voice abruptly cut off, replaced by a startled, choking gurgle. Arjuna heard a heavy thump, flashing footsteps faster than his ears could comprehend, then two more thumps. Then silence, until Ashwatthama cried out something in Panchalan again.
"We run," Ashwatthama's father answered, hurriedly. "Put on your shoes."
Ashwatthama babbled something else in Panchalan again. His father answered in Panchalan, and for a minute, there was a rapid-fire back-and-forth between them. Arjuna listened, his heart in his throat. Were the three soldiers dead? Had a murder - three murders - just occurred in the room he was in?!
More footsteps, running. Then silence. They were gone.
Arjuna scrambled out from beneath the couch, clumps of dust in his hair and all down the front of his new - stolen! - shirt. He nearly tripped over the first soldier, who was lying on his side right in front of the couch. Arjuna lowered his head and listened to the sound of the soldier breathing, watched his chest fall up and down. He wasn't dead. The other two weren't either. But they were out cold. There were signs of a struggle in the room - spilled books, an antenna snapped off the top of the media console.
Then Arjuna heard the commotion outside the house.
Without thinking, he ran headfirst through the front door, which was still swung open. Arjuna saw a dozen flashes of light, bright white then red and glaring. He saw an unbroken wall of masked and visored soldiers, a dozen rifles raising at once, Ashwatthama screaming and his father throwing himself over his son--
"Stop!" Arjuna cried out. "HALT!"
But it was too late. Safetylocks clicked back, triggers snapped; bullets were flying before any of the soldiers even realized that they were about to gun down their prince.
And still Arjuna's feet did not stop. He ran, pelting forward, headlong into the death flying toward him--
And then there was lightning in his hands.
Arjuna ground to a halt in front of Ashwatthama's father, feeling the spray of rain and tasting the rumble of thunder as he pulled back the string of his new bow. He braced the weapon against his chest, as expertly as if he had been handling a bow all of his life, his hand gripped firmly around its wooden body, which flickered like lightning and ran like water in his hands. Arjuna pulled back the string and an arrow was there as soon as he did so. His eyes burned. He let the first arrow fly. It was a flash of lightning screaming across the path of the bullets headed toward him, suspending them in arcs of spasming electricity. Arjuna let fly another arrow, a spray of water that washed the bullets out of the air. Another arrow, and another, and another - all flying from his fingers, the bowstring twanging melodiously in his ears over and over again, his fingers nimble and dexterous and a thousand times faster than the bullets flying toward him, as impossible as that should have been--
"STOP!" somebody screamed. "That's the prince, you idiots, you're shooting at the prince!"
The bullets stopped, and so did Arjuna. The bow stopped first - it simply vanished from his hands, it stopped being altogether - then his thoughts stopped, shut down completely from sheer shock and exhaustion. Then his heart stopped, and his knees buckled beneath him. He swooned backwards, but somebody caught him. Arjuna looked up and saw Ashwatthama's father, holding him. Then Arjuna's eyes slid up back into his head, and he knew no more.
To be continued.