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!
Bhisma slid the open file across the table toward Drona. "This is your real name, isn't it?" he asked.
Dronacharya always thought that his name looked odd when rendered in the alien script that these Kuru people used on their official documents. But he could not deny that it was indeed his name. "Yes," he said. "But I am never called as such. I am only Drona."
"Right," Lord Bhisma said, pulling the file back toward him. "Your wife is already in our custody," he said, "as is your son. We will harm neither of them, as long as you cooperate."
They must have already contacted Panchala, Drona thought. They were already running DNA tests on the blood they had drawn from his finger a few short minutes ago. There was no way for him to pretend that he was not who he was any longer. "And the prince?" Drona asked. "How is he?"
Lord Bhisma narrowed his eyes. "What interest do you have in him, anyway?"
This man thought that Drona had abducted the prince. Drona realized that it was probably useless for him to ask for a lawyer at this point. "He saved me and my son," Drona said carefully.
Lord Bhisma said nothing.
"Please," Drona said, "please tell me how he is. I wish to know."
"He's in a hospital. His heart stopped." Lord Bhisma flipped through the pages of Drona's file without looking at any of them. "You're lucky that he's awake and that he insists that you never harmed him. That doesn't change the fact that you seem to have gotten yourself into quite a lot of trouble already."
"I have never hurt anyone," Drona insisted, hating the sound of his own accent in his ears. "Save for those who stood against my king," he corrected himself.
"You've been at the top of Panchala's planet-wide most-wanted list for almost a decade."
"I never killed anyone, not without Drupada's orders," Drona persisted. "Everything I did, I did for my son. Please. Please understand that."
"I'm sure." Bhisma flipped Drona's folder closed, stood up, and exited the room where he and Drona had been sitting.
"Are you sure it's safe to leave him in there like that?" Vidura asked, pacing anxiously back and forth in front of the two-sided mirror which gave them a clear view of the room where the Panchalan fugitive was now sitting, his hands folded in his lap. "He's not even restrained. Listen, the man I talked to from Panchala said that he was dangerous, a Class-A criminal."
"If he tries anything, we gas him," Bhisma said, coldly. "Until then, just surveillance. He won't try anything as long as he knows that he can't get to his wife and son." Bhisma turned toward Sanjaya, who was standing in a corner beside Vidura, waiting to be asked to report. "So what do we know about this man?" Bhisma asked, impatiently.
"He is actually a priest, for one thing," Sanjaya said, "at least of sorts. He's apparently a member of the Ajagava order on Panchala, although he's registered with the Kuru High Council as unaffiliated. He has forged birth records from Kuru and no birth records from Panchala. In his house we found texts written in a language used by a very small percentage of the tribal people who live on the ice shelf around Panchala's southern pole. DNA tests would seem to confirm that he belongs to those tribes. They're known for being Shiva-worshippers and training their priests in the military arts. Historical evidence would seem to indicate that the Ajagava order originated from these tribes. But other than that, the people from that region tend to have very little contact with the other peoples of Panchala."
"So we could be dealing with another axe-wielding religious fanatic. Like Parashurama," Vidura mumbled, darkly. He turned worriedly toward Bhisma. "But why would he have a reason to hurt Arjuna?!"
Bhisma said nothing, but waited for Sanjaya to continue.
Sanjaya did. "He was a member of Drupada's court and close to King Drupada, personally as well as professionally. He was the king's personal advisor, and, er, bodyguard of sorts. Very high-ranked, I would assume. The unhelpful Panchalan gentleman whom I spoke to wouldn't tell me what his official job post or ranking was. But I've heard rumors before. This man, ah... There were rumors, that he was the king's agrapani."
Bhisma sighed through his nose. He knew that Drupada had, at one point, had an agrapani. He had never been able to determine the identity of that person, though. He wasn't exactly sure that Drupada's agrapani could be a man who had a wife and a son, though.
"But that couldn't be," Sanjaya was saying, correcting himself. "Only the asura kings could claim the right to an agrapani. No human king would ever be so arrogant--"
"This is Drupada, though," Vidura cut in, suddenly. "I think that he would be so arrogant."
Bhisma was suddenly reminded that there were things that he and Dhritarashtra had kept secret even from Sanjaya. The existence of Drupada's rumored agrapani was one of those things.
"Dronacharya married a Kuru diplomat stationed on Panchala," Sanjaya continued, "twenty-four years ago. The two of them had no children until thirteen years ago, when the wife gave birth to a son, who was a devakin. He's the boy that we have in custody right now. His name is Ashwatthama."
Bhisma felt sorry for the boy, really. He had been panicked and terrified during the brief time that Bhisma had seen him.
"Five years after the birth of his son," Sanjaya continued, "the man went berserk. He broke into the Council's research facilities, destroyed billions' worth of equipment, and murdered a highly respected doctor. Then he and his son and his wife vanished." Sanjaya shook his head, regretting that he had no more information to give. "That was as much as Panchala would tell us. This man has been on the top of their most-wanted list for the past seven years, largely because of the reputation of the doctor that he killed. Also, because Drupada does not take betrayal lightly."
"Does anybody?" Bhisma glanced down at the file in his hands. For the past seven years, this criminal had been using a fake identity and fake papers to live as a traveling exorcist in the city of Hastinapura. His wife had also taken a fake name, and had worked as an inventory clerk in a department store in the wealthy uptown district of Hastinapura. This Dronacharya was obviously skilled at lying and manipulation, if he could have passed himself off as a fake person in front of the High Council's inquisitors, who oversaw the employment of exorcists on Kuru.
"Are we going to hand him over to Panchala?" Vidura asked. "Drupada wants him. Badly."
Bhisma sighed. In fact, King Drupada was on the long-range comm with Dhritarashtra at the moment, and had been for hours. It was a good thing that Dhritarashtra was skilled at stalling for time. "I don't see any reason not to... save for the fact that Arjuna has been throwing a fit about it ever since he woke up." Bhisma tapped his foot impatiently, glaring at nothing in particular. So Arjuna insisted that the Panchalan fugitive and his son were both under his protection. This was only making things more complicated for Bhisma.
Without saying a word to either Sanjaya or Vidura, Bhisma strode back into the room where Drona was sitting. Arjuna was a child who could throw all of the tantrums that he wanted, but Bhisma was damned if he wasn't the one to have the final say on whether this man deserved protecting or not. "You realize, of course," Bhisma said, sitting down across from Drona, "that I can never trust a word that you say. You've already lied to me once this evening."
"I have not."
"You told me that you have never killed anyone without your king's permission. But Panchalan authorities tell me that you've freely murdered before."
Drona closed his eyes again and said, softly, "I never murdered anyone human."
"The doctor that you killed was a human."
"No, he wasn't." Drona opened his eyes and stared at Bhisma with his strange, penetrating gaze. "It is just that the rest of the universe believes he was human."
Bhisma sighed. He could predict where this was going.
"He was an asura," Drona explained, calmly, although it sounded as if he were already resigned to the fact that Bhisma was not going to believe him. "They still walk among us, the darkest of the dark. They have only fooled humans into believing that they are extinct. They can inhabit human skins and deceive us into thinking that they are of us. But they are not. They still prey upon humans and still plot against us." Drona folded and re-folded his hands in his lap. "The asuras are all around us, among us, hidden."
Religious fanatic, Vidura had said. And apparently, he had been right.
"I will tell you everything," Drona said. "Whether you choose to believe me or not is up to you. Although you already seem pre-determined not to believe a word of what I say."
Yudhisthira buried his face in his hands and sighed. The good news this morning had been that Sahadeva's severed finger had been found and could easily be re-attached to the rest of him. The bad news had been that Arjuna had vanished without a trace. And then in the afternoon, more bad news - Arjuna found, Arjuna had a heart attack, Arjuna wasn't waking up no matter what anybody tried. Then, good news - Arjuna was awake. Then, bad news - he was insisting that the illegal immigrant whose life he had saved was under his royal protection, even though the man had turned out to be a wanted fugitive from Panchala.
And nobody seemed to be able to talk any sense into Arjuna, not even his oldest brother.
"You can stop pretending to hide from me, now," Arjuna said, stubbornly.
Yudhisthira lifted his face out of his hands. "You exhaust me, Arjuna," he said bluntly.
"I'm not trying to." Arjuna glared at his brother. He was pale and slightly sweaty and very sick-looking, especially seeing as how he was wearing a hospital gown and reclining slightly in a sterile white bed. But somehow, Arjuna still managed to exude an air of princely entitlement. Yudhisthira would not have thought, twenty-four hours ago, that his brother was even capable of appearing dignified at all, let alone royally dignified.
"Arjuna, we can't protect that man," Yudhisthira said, for the fifteenth time. "He's a wanted fugitive. Drupada wants his head. If we try to protect him, Panchala will rise to arms."
"Let them come." Arjuna raised his chin defiantly. "It would be wrong to hand Mr. Drona over to that bloodthirsty tyrant. He's innocent. The right thing to do will be to protect him. You're the one who's always going on about doing the right thing--"
"Arjuna, what part of murderer don't you understand?!"
"Mr. Drona is no murderer!"
"How can you even know that?!"
"Because I know!"
"You're a child who knows nothing!" Yudhisthira suddenly snapped.
"I'm not a child!" Arjuna crossed his arms angrily over his thin, small chest. "And don't you dare do anything to hurt Mr. Drona, or so help me I'll--"
"You'll what, pray tell?"
Arjuna faltered, for a moment. Then his face darkened. "I'll hate you forever."
Yudhisthira sighed again.
"Let me speak to Drupada," Arjuna demanded.
"I hardly think that will--"
"Let me speak to him."
Yudhisthira started. He had never heard Arjuna sound so imperious before.
And finally, Yudhisthira looked down at his hands, and nodded. "All right," he said. And if you can't get your way, then let this be a valuable lesson for you, he silently added.
It took some time (and some serious convincing of some highly reluctant nurses) to get Arjuna out of bed and into a wheelchair, and then back into the wheelchair when he insisted that he was well enough to walk, and then back into the wheelchair when he still insisted that he was well enough to walk, and so on until Yudhisthira and the nurses and the doctors finally gave up on the wheelchair altogether. Arjuna was allowed to put on some decent clothes, and then he marched, with his chin held high, right out of the hospital, as Yudhisthira followed behind, worrying and fretting.
Arjuna was silent during the ten minutes that it took a hoverer to transport him and Yudhisthira back to the royal palace. But his jaw was set and his shoulders straight. Yudhisthira thought that, in profile at least, he looked quite determined and confident. It was only when one saw him from the front that one realized how very drained of color Arjuna's face was.
At the palace, there were people, and there were questions. Arjuna brushed them all aside, even his own mother and her worried mumblings about "up and about after a cardiac arrest as if he had just skinned his knee," striding confidently through the crowd of the curious and the concerned who stood between him and Drupada.
Until, finally, it was Yudhisthira and Arjuna, alone in a room with their blind uncle.
Dhritarashtra wearily stood up from the seat where he had been sitting, his bones creaking as he gestured for Arjuna to take his place. The seat was surrounded by glimmering black screens, some of which flickered with static, others of which merely droned emptily. "We have no visual, or so I've been told" Dhritarashtra explained as he leaned wearily on Yudhisthira's arms. "Rimcloud interference. But audio transfer is fine."
"Indeed," said the disembodied voice of King Drupada, listening in on their conversation from across an expanse of light-years of emptiness. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, deep and gravelly, filtering out from speakers both seen and hidden all about the room.
"Thank you," Arjuna said, settling into his seat as if it were a throne. Yudhisthira led Dhritarashtra out of the room, glad that the blind king had not been able to see Arjuna's hands shaking.
The first thing that King Drupada did, as soon as Arjuna was alone in the room filled with his voice, was laugh.
"So!" he laughed, as if greatly amused. Which he was. "You're the Kuru prince who found my old friend."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Arjuna said. "And I want you to let Mr. Drona live on Kuru in peace. Him and his wife and Ashwatthama."
"If you are a prince or a man," Drupada said, gravely, "you will understand why I cannot do that."
"Yes, because you think that he betrayed you. But he didn't."
The king laughed again. It was not a nice laugh - it was a mean laugh. Arjuna could tell that the king was laughing because the king thought that Arjuna was stupid. "Oh ho! And you think that you know this man better than I do?"
"No, Your Majesty. But I know that he did not betray you."
"And how did you know that?"
"Because the storm told me so, Your Majesty. And my bow told me that I must become a follower of this man and learn his teachings. So he has to stay here, with me. I can't let you take him away and hurt him. I'm sorry."
"Well. The storm told you. Indeed."
"I'm a devakin."
"So I've heard." The king paused, then added, "My own three children are devakin as well, little Kuru prince. But none of them would ever say anything as foolish or silly as 'the storm told me so.' "
Arjuna bit his lip. He hated being made to feel foolish. He experienced that often enough in his life, and the last thing that he needed was to feel like a fool in front of King Drupada, who was the most dangerous enemy of Duryodhana and Yudhisthira and all of Kuru, really.
"This man that you would protect," Drupada's voice thundered, "is a priest of the Ajagava Order. Do you know what that is, prince?"
"No, Your Majesty."
"They are a dangerous order, little prince. They are not like the priests in your kingdom. Your priests learn ancient languages and rituals. My Ajagava priests learn how to fight for me – and how to kill for me."
Arjuna said nothing, only waited.
"And this man," Drupada rumbled on, "is my agrapani. Do you know what that is, prince?"
Arjuna started. "No, Your Majesty. I've never heard of--"
"Ask someone when you are older, then. But know that so long as Drona is my agrapani, his fate is mine to decide."
Arjuna rankled. He really hated being made to feel ignorant. Finally, Arjuna swallowed, and said, "Your Majesty and I both want Mr. Drona for a reason." He took a deep breath, and continued. "I want him to be my teacher. You want him for revenge. So let's... Let's negotiate."
"Negotiate?" Now King Drupada sounded really amused.
"I will pay you something," Arjuna said, as calmly as he could, "if you will let me keep Mr. Drona and his family under my protection."
"There is nothing," Drupada replied, his voice deep and dark, "that you could offer me to cancel the cost of my betrayed trust."
"Water-mining rights," Arjuna blurted out, before Drupada could laugh again.
And Drupada paused, thoughtfully. Arjuna's heart thumped nervously in his thin, small chest. He knew that Panchala was a dry, arid planet whose people endured constant shortages of water. Arjuna also knew that Panchala's ruling government spent a fortune every year importing water from Madras. Kuru was much closer to Panchala, of course, and covered in more water than anybody knew what to do with. But no Kuru king would ever let a Panchalan mine water from Kuru's surface. It was simply unheard of.
Yudhisthira is going to KILL me, Arjuna thought silently.
The speakers around Arjuna buzzed with the drone of silence. Finally Drupada's voice returned, slow and thoughtful. "You are in a position to offer me as much?"
"Yes," Arjuna answered, even though this was a lie. There were about two hundred and seven people in the royal family with the power to override his decisions, and about two hundred and six of them would rather have cut off their own hands and feet than let a Panchalan, any Panchalan, steal any of Kuru's abundant water.
"All because you want my murderous friend to become your teacher?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"You are a foolish boy, prince. You are investing yourself in a dangerous, unstable man."
"I do not think so, Your Majesty."
"Obviously not." Arjuna could hear Drupada breathing out through his nose. "So let's talk, prince. If my people and I can benefit from your idiocy, I see no reason why we ought not to."
As the minutes stretched into hours and Drona still had nothing to stare at but white walls and his own hands, he began to feel some of the numbness in his brain wearing off. This was good. This meant that he was thinking again, at least. And he was thinking of his son. If Drona and his wife and Ashwatthama were sent back to Panchala, as they surely would be any moment now, it was Ashwatthama who would suffer the most. Drona had told his story to Lord Bhisma and tried to make the other man understand at least that much. But Lord Bhisma had not believed him. Nobody believed him.
Drona was glancing around now, to the left, to the right, to the mirror on the side of the room that was obviously not a mirror, at least not on both sides. Drona knew that he was being watched. Which was why he suddenly looked down at his hands again and tried very hard to look like he was not thinking.
He was going to save Ashwatthama, no matter what the cost. That much he had already decided. It was just a matter of figuring out a way how...
A wall on the side of the room suddenly grew a seam and split itself into an open doorway. Lord Bhisma stepped through. "Get up," he said. "This way."
Drona stood up and followed Lord Bhisma out of the white room. He was immediately surrounded by dark-suited guards. Quite a lot of them, actually, pressing close to him on all sides. But still, Drona was allowed to follow behind Lord Bhisma with his hands unbound, completely free of any restraints. Drona was grateful for this small dignity.
They walked for a long time, and then Drona heard a shout and saw his wife Kripi pushing aside another group of dark-suited guards and running toward him. They embraced and kissed without shame in front of all of the shaded eyes watching them. Drona clutched at Kripi tightly for a moment, tangling his fingers in her hair and breathing in her scent. But neither of them said a word to each other. They couldn't, not in front of these hostile strangers. Then Kripi pulled away from Drona, but continued walking beside him, holding his hand.
Drona thought about asking where he and his wife were being taken, but figured that it would be pointless to ask. He was going where he was going. He only hoped that he would be able to see Ashwatthama again, if just for a moment, before they boarded the shuttle that would ship them back to Panchala. If he could just have Ashwatthama in his line of sight, even if for only a single moment, then he would be able to do something that would give his son the chance to escape--
And there was Ashwatthama, holding the hand of Prince Arjuna, both of them running forward, looking flushed and excited. Ashwatthama let go of the prince's hand and flung his arms around his father. "It's okay!" he said, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, "It's okay, everything's going to be okay, we're staying here!"
Kripi clutched at Drona's arm. "Ashwatthama," she said, and then stopped, because that seemed to be all that she could say.
"You're allowed to stay, provided that you make yourselves useful," Bhisma said, glaring at both Drona and his son.
"Grandpa Bhisma--!" Arjuna began, a temperamental whine in his voice, but Bhisma silenced him by holding up his hand. "Arjuna, please, let me talk to the crazy man."
"You do as I say, young man, or else I really won't let you go through with this."
"Yes, sir," Arjuna agreed, moodily.
"My spoiled and self-entitled grandson," Bhisma explained to Drona, as Arjuna stood beside him and bit his lip angrily, "has convinced your friend Drupada to call off the substantial bounty on your head. In exchange, Arjuna would like you to become his teacher."
Arjuna knelt to his knees in front of Drona's feet. "Please, sir," he said, humbly. "My bow... It nearly killed me today. I don't know or understand how to use it. But it spoke to me and it told me that you could teach me."
And the prince stayed like that, bowing low and touching the ground in front of Drona's feet, while Drona stared at him, for a moment too surprised for words. Then Drona felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down and saw Ashwatthama, mouthing silently at him, no other choice. And Drona knew that this was true, so he closed his eyes and said, "Yes." Then he opened his eyes and said, "You were the one who saved me from Drupada, and the one who saved me from the bullets this morning."
"But it was my fault that--"
Drona hushed Arjuna by placing his hand on top of the boy's head. "Then I will show you my gratitude," he said. "I swear that I will make you the greatest archer Kuru has ever known."
To be continued.