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 FOUR: ROSE
It was a painfully bright and sunny day, which was why Arjuna was wearing shades and a hat, his bare arms glistening with layers of sunblock, as he pulled back the string of his bow. He frowned, trying not to think about the nasty ultraviolet rays that were already baking his skin, causing his nose to turn red and peel.
"Arjuna..." Drona said, from somewhere behind him.
"Right. Um, concentrating. I'm totally concentrating." Arjuna let his arrow fly, a whistling flash of lightning that raced across the grass and landed with a sizzle right in the center of the small wooden target, hung on a tree halfway across the garden.
The small crowd of boys and girls who were watching him from behind the nearby bushes clapped and giggled. But Drona was unimpressed. "Five steps backward," he said.
Arjuna took his five steps, but then glanced at the target and frowned. "I can't see," he complained. "The sun's too bright. Can't we do this later?"
"Rakshasas do not mind the sun. Though sunlight weakens them, they are still dangerous under any conditions. Will you be unable to defend yourself and your kingdom when a rakshasa comes for you in broad daylight?"
"Then we must stop our whining, mustn't we."
"I guess." Arjuna raised his bow again. He squinted through his shades, through the headache-inducing rays of sunlight pouring down around him. His bow, full of thunder and darkness, quivered in his hands. It had almost as much of an aversion to sunlight as Arjuna did. But Arjuna understood why Drona was working with him to change that.
Arjuna's eyesight had been improving, as if by magic (or by miracle), ever since the day, two years ago, when the bow had first appeared in his hands. Now he could see things, even far-away things, more sharply and more clearly than any of his brothers could, Arjuna suspected. He had long ago outgrown his corrective lenses, and his glasses. He had found that his eyesight was even sharper when he held the bow in his hands. But sunlight, painful glaring sunlight, still thwarted him. It clouded his vision, burned his skin, and made him nauseous and weak. That was why for the past several months, Drona had been relentlessly forcing Arjuna to practice outdoors on the brightest, most cloudless days. And Arjuna thought that his ability to function in sunlight was improving, albeit slowly. But then again, Arjuna was also eyeing a mole on his upper arm every night and increasingly convincing himself that it was growing and changing shape. And the last thing he needed was to develop skin cancer at fifteen years old.
But practicing outdoors did have its perks. For one thing, the girls – the daughters of the government nobles and palace staff in Hastinapura - gathered and watched him. Boys did too, of course, but Arjuna really only felt the gaze of the girls. And that felt pretty good, actually. Arjuna remembered how the girls had used to gather and giggle as they watched his brother Bhima and his cousin Duryodhana showing off their fencing in the gardens. Now both Bhima and Duryodhana were too busy running the kingdom to do as much anymore, and Arjuna was the new star attraction in the gardens. And he was good. He knew that he was good. Arjuna knew that he was worth watching.
And that felt good, being good at something. No, not just good at something - being the best. Drona had taught Arjuna so well that Arjuna could now hit a target the size of a small nut from hundreds of stepclicks away. Even Grandpa Bhisma had been impressed when Arjuna had shown him that trick. And Grandpa Bhisma was almost never impressed by anything.
Arjuna let his next arrow fly. It split his first arrow, still lodged in the target, in half. Five more steps backward, and another arrow. And then another, and then another. And Drona finally said, "Good," and then Arjuna knew that he was finished for the morning.
The bow vanished from Arjuna's hands, and he sighed and stretched his arms. He walked by Drona's side back through the gardens. "How are you feeling?" Drona asked, noticing the red starting to tint the skin on Arjuna's arms.
"Mmm. Burnt again."
"But less quickly than last time. We'll build up your resistance yet."
Arjuna laughed. He had never thought that training to become a Great Warrior would involve trying to give himself a decent base tan.
For the past two years, Arjuna had done almost nothing but train with Drona. This was because everybody seemed to know and understand that Arjuna was supposed to become a Great Warrior, whatever that was supposed to mean, that Drona was the man who would help him do it. At first, it had been very hard. Drona had explained to Arjuna that his bow, his devaweapon, was a part of his heart, and always inside him. But when Arjuna had tried to bring it outside and into his hands, he had gotten dizzy or sick or even passed out, at first. Drona had explained to him that this was because the bow was very big and old and powerful, but Arjuna was very small and young and weak, and Arjuna didn't even know how to use a bow properly in the first place. At first, Gandiva had been able to practically use itself - that was how Arjuna had saved Drona and Ashwatthama from the bullets on the very first day, after all. But Drona told Arjuna that as long as Gandiva was controlling him, he would keep getting sick, and hurt, every time that he used it. That was why Arjuna needed to learn how to use the bow, instead of it using him. And that had been hard, but not too hard. Arjuna had learned quickly. This was because he had a talent for it, apparently, and to Arjuna this was a new and marvelous thing. He had never had a talent for anything, not before.
But Drona hadn't just taught Arjuna how to use the bow. Drona had also taught him how to pray, how to meditate. And Drona had whispered into his ear secret mantras, secret chants. And Drona had taught Arjuna all about what to do when faced with an asura or a rakshasa. Arjuna wasn't so sure that he even believed that asuras still existed, but Drona and his family certainly believed it, and to Arjuna, this was a powerful persuasion.
Drona and Ashwatthama and Kripi lived inside the palace now, in a spacious apartment where they had every luxury that they could have wanted. Every morning Arjuna trained with Drona, and when they were finished, he returned with Drona to his home, where they ate a meal together. Arjuna loved this part of the day - he got to see Ashwatthama, for one thing, and it was good, being treated as though he were a part of Drona's family.
Ashwatthama was waiting for them when they returned, his freckled nose buried in a book, as it always was. "You're burnt," he said, as he looked up and saw Arjuna.
"Thanks, I hadn't noticed."
"Well, I've heard that red was the fashionable new color this season, anyway." Ashwatthama put aside his book as he joined Arjuna on the floor of their sitting room. They always ate like this, sitting around the floor. Arjuna had thought that it was weird, at first, but eventually it had grown on him. Panchalans had lots of weird customs, Arjuna supposed, that really weren't that weird once you got used to it.
Drona was washing up somewhere else, and Kripi was with him - Arjuna could hear the two of them speaking together, over the sound of running water. Ashwatthama spooned something mushy and yellow into Arjuna's plate and said, "You wouldn't believe what was on the console this morning."
"Let me guess... Somebody calling my brother an idiot?"
"Your brother and your cousin."
Arjuna groaned. "Not her again."
"Yes. That Darpana woman."
Arjuna poked his spoon angrily into his mush. "She's awful. I wish that she would just disappear." Darpana was the figurehead of a group of anti-royal activists who had been gaining all sorts of media attention in the past few months. It didn't help things that she was pretty, charismatic, and intelligent - and a popular pundit. And all she did was criticize, criticize, criticize. She criticized Arjuna's family, she criticized Arjuna's cousins, she criticized the High Council. Arjuna wasn't exactly sure what she stood for, only that she stood against a great deal of things.
"She most certainly is not awful," Mr. Drona said, appearing with Kripi and helping her sit down across from the two boys. "She is an intelligent woman censured merely for daring to speak out against your--"
Kripi coughed. Drona closed his mouth. Arjuna was suddenly reminded that Drona and his wife had once been – and, for all he knew, were still – loyal to Panchala. And Panchalans were the enemies of the Kurus.
Drona finally turned to Arjuna and said, "You should not worry about politics. That is the job of your brothers, however much they may fail in that capacity. Now what I would like to know," he continued, turning his head toward Ashwatthama, "is what you were doing killing your brain cells in front of the console when you should have been studying this morning."
Ashwatthama answered this in Panchalan, but Drona laughed, the skin around his eyes crinkling, and Kripi said, "Arjuna, you must be famished. How have you been? You look burnt."
"Yeah," Arjuna said. He glanced over at the book that Ashwatthama had placed aside. The spine said something about theoretical metaphysics, Second Revised Edition. It was a thick book. Ashwatthama was studying to join an order of scholarly priests that Arjuna knew his own family's priest, Mr. Dhaumya, belonged to. Arjuna watched Drona reach over and lightly ruffle Ashwatthama's hair, and the two of them laughed again. And watching them both, Arjuna felt a brief stab of jealousy. Ashwatthama was Arjuna's best friend in the whole world, Arjuna had decided some time ago. But that did not mean that Arjuna sometimes - or rather, often - did not envy Ashwatthama.
"She was being interviewed on the NCN channel, and she wasn't even making any sense," Ashwatthama was saying around a mouthful of food. No meat on Ashwatthama's plate, Arjuna saw. Plenty of meat on the other three plates on the floor. "She was going on and on about the spending on the defense drones in the rimcloud. And last week she was complaining about how somebody wasn't spending enough money on the defense drones in the rimcloud."
"No, that wasn't her argument. She was criticizing the fact that too much money was being spent on defense drones that use outdated technology, rather than developing…." Kripi sighed and stopped herself when she saw the look that Arjuna was giving her. "Let's not talk about Darpana anymore," Kripi said dismissively, waving her spoon. "I'm sure that Arjuna doesn't want to hear any more about her."
"It's okay," Arjuna bluffed. "She makes me laugh."
"I agree. The reactionary hand-flapping from the royal family is comical." Drona passed Arjuna another slab of meat. "Eat. It will protect you from the sun."
"I'd like to see what medical journal said that."
"Doctors, scientists," Drona said, waving his spoon dismissively, a perfect mirror to his wife a moment earlier. "They know nothing. You should listen to priests, we know everything. This meat, it helps you grow strong."
Arjuna and Ashwatthama exchanged glances, their eyes meeting for a moment - then they both quickly looked away, both biting their lips to keep from laughing.
After the meal, Arjuna knew, he and Ashwatthama would pray and meditate together. Drona had told Arjuna that it was important to rest and meditate, especially after a morning of training with his bow. This was because the arrows that he fired, like the bow itself, were part of Arjuna's heart. And each arrow that Arjuna fired was like tearing away a piece of his own heart. But a human's heart was strong, and if it was damaged, it could heal itself. Meditating on the gods helped, Arjuna had been told, and he also understood that this was true.
But for now there was still the meal. Drona was still piling meat onto Arjuna's plate. "Laugh if you want," he sniffed. "If this prevents you from getting skin cancer, you will be thanking me later."
Arjuna boggled at the slabs of meat glistening up at him from his plate. "You know, I did have a heart attack already."
At this, Ashwatthama finally gave up in his struggle not to laugh. Arjuna didn't think that he was being particularly funny, but it was nice, having a friend who actually laughed at his jokes.
Life, Arjuna thought, was good.
Life, Yudhisthira thought, could not have been more awful.
"I can't believe you!" Duryodhana was shouting at Grandpa Bhisma, his hands flailing angrily in the air. "This is the most evil thing you've ever done!" He turned to Yudhisthira. "You agree with me, right? Come on, give me some support here!"
Yudhisthira looked up at his cousin, then at his great-uncle-come-grandfather. "I think," he said slowly, "That this is a terrible idea."
"Which is exactly why you - both of you - need to go through with it." Bhisma folded his hands on top of his desk calmly. "Duryodhana, do I need to remind you that your father already had fifty-two sons by the time that he was your age?"
Duryodhana spluttered, angrily. "That's not a fair comparison!" He threw up his hands. "It's not my fault! I don't have time for a girlfriend!"
Yudhisthira thought silently that he didn't even have time to masturbate, as he had once been informed by a doctor that it was quite healthy to do. Although he wasn't about to say that in front of his Grandpa Bhisma. But that didn't change anything - he was just too busy to even think about girls. Yudhisthira knew that Duryodhana was in the same position that he was. For all of his good looks and charm, Duryodhana had never had what Yudhisthira's mother called a significant other. Neither had Yudhisthira.
"That's why you two are both going to make time," Bhisma said calmly. "You need this. Both of you."
Yudhisthira looked down at his hands, feeling panic clench in his chest. Twenty-eight years old, and he had never had a girlfriend. He had never even kissed a girl. He had never even wanted a girl. He had been too busy, too preoccupied, with running a kingdom, knowing that he was being watched every minute, being judged every minute, being tested and compared against his cousin--
And still no choice had been made. Both Yudhisthira and Duryodhana were effectively acting as kings now, and yet neither of them was the king, at least not officially.
It was getting quite exhausting, after all of these years.
"I don't know if you've been paying attention," Bhisma went on, a bit louder now, "but the papers are commenting, and not just the tabloids either. A king needs to have an heir, you know. Which is why a king needs a wife."
Yudhisthira listened to this, thinking that he didn't have the faintest idea what to do around a girl, how to act, how to dress, how to think--
"So I'll get a wife, okay, it'll happen eventually, just leave me alone!" Duryodhana fumed. "It's not going to happen if you force us to do it."
"Forcing? I'm not forcing anybody." Bhisma winked at him. It was an evil wink, Yudhisthira thought. He had seen Nakula give him that same wink, once - right before he explained about the designs for an orbital microwave deathray that he had finished that morning. "I'm throwing a gala, for your mother. You two will be there, that is all. As will every suitable woman in the kingdom. And just for the sake of novelty, we'll be doing the thing with the roses."
"I don't care how trendy it is," Duryodhana railed. "It's a stupid and humiliating idea!"
"Oh, it was a smashing success at your prime minister's birthday gala last month." Bhisma leaned back in his seat. "It's a simple idea, really. The only rule is that you men can't ask anybody to dance. The women have the roses, and the woman has to give a rose to the man that she chooses to dance with her. It's very fashionable, right now."
"It's diabolical, that's what it is."
"You're evil!" Duryodhana shouted. "You're the most evil person in this family, you know that?!"
Yudhisthira squeezed his hands open and shut, open and shut, breathing deeply and quickly. Just the thought of a girl handing him a rose and asking him to dance seemed to be inducing a panic attack.
"Your mothers," Bhisma finished with an evil grin, "are both in charge of compiling the guest list. For the women attending, that is."
"ARGH!" Duryodhana tore at his hair. "You're evil evil evil evil evil evil evil, Grandpa Bhisma!"
Yudhisthira clutched at the sides of his chair, to prevent himself from falling over and cracking his skull open. Then again... The idea of smashing his head and spilling his brains all over the floor suddenly seemed quite appealing, especially when compared to the prospect of what was to come at the gala.
"About time," Nakula said later that evening, looking up from his dinner. "If you would just hurry up and get married, that would save the rest of us a lot of trouble."
Yudhisthira bristled. "What is that supposed to mean?!"
"I mean that stupid rule, about how the oldest brother has to be married before the younger brothers can get any. And I do have a girlfriend, not that I've been able to do anything with her, no thanks to you."
"Nakula, you're eleven years old."
"I have a girlfriend, too," Sahadeva piped up. "We're going to get matching piercings."
Yudhisthira saw his mother put down her spoon and bury her head in her hands. Apparently she didn't even know where to start with that one.
"I don't have a girlfriend," Arjuna said, helpfully. "If that makes you feel any better."
Bhima opened his mouth to add something to this, but Nakula suddenly interrupted, "Bhima has a girlfriend, you know."
The table fell silent. This had not been known.
Bhima turned toward his brother and hissed murderously, "I'll kill you."
"You promised me weapons-grade radioactive P-rocks if I didn't tell. That was three months ago. You never got me the P-rocks. So I think it's only fair that I--"
"You have a girlfriend and you didn't tell me?!" Yudhisthira blurted out.
"Bhima," their mother said, angrily.
"I can't believe that you agreed to give your brother P-rocks," their mother finished, angrily.
"You have a girlfriend and you didn't tell me?!" Yudhisthira exclaimed, again.
Bhima flushed and drummed his enormous fingers against the table. "She's not even on the planet anymore. So it's no big deal--"
"Yes, it is a big deal. This is wonderful news!" Yudhisthira's mother pointed at Bhima with her spoon. "But you should have told your mother, Bhima. I would have liked to have met her."
"Look, we, uh, we sort of broke up--"
"I can't believe you never told me!" Yudhisthira exclaimed again, hurt.
"It wasn't--" Bhima was flustered, upset. "Look, I didn't tell you because you would have gotten angry."
"Angry?! Why would I have gotten angry?"
"Oh, Bhima," their mother said, suddenly disappointed. "It wasn't a serving girl, was it?"
"No!" Bhima exclaimed quickly. "It was nothing like that!"
"Good, because I don't want any of my sons to end up with bastards like your cousin Yuyutsu--"
"Mother!" Yudhisthira gasped, appalled.
"I saw them," Nakula said, tapping his plate with his spoon for emphasis. "They were kissing. And she was all like, 'Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh you're sooooooooo big'--"
"That's it!" Bhima snarled, throwing down his spoon and reaching for Nakula's neck.
Nakula squealed and ducked beneath the table. Sahadeva tried to grab onto one of Bhima's enormous arms, but it was no use. Bhima smashed through the table and reached down for his brother, and then the servants were there, also throwing themselves into the fray and trying to restrain Bhima, and the guards were there too, and Yudhisthira took his mother's arm and gently pulled her away from the table. "I guess that's why he thought I would have gotten angry," Yudhisthira said with a sigh.
"Oh, Yudhisthira," his mother said, patting his shoulder consolingly. "I always knew that this family wouldn't be able to last more than two weeks without ruining another piece of furniture."
Yudhisthira remembered that a previous table had been destroyed by one of Nakula's science experiments not less than eight days ago. "Right," he agreed. Then he glanced around, blinking, confused. "Where did Arjuna go?"
Arjuna was about as far away from his family as he could be. Within reason, though. Guards were following him already as he tried to make his way discreetly through the palace hallways. The guards stood aside politely, however, when Arjuna took the liberty of letting himself into his cousin Duryodhana's private chambers.
Inside, Arjuna found a war room.
Duryodhana was bent over a table covered in papers, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a smokeroll dangling from the edge of his mouth, Dusshasana and Durmukha crowded at his shoulders and advising him as they pointed as this or that printed on the papers in front of them, Yuyutsu bustling around behind them, pouring and serving drinks. Duryodhana glanced up when Arjuna stepped in front of him. His intense gaze lingered for a moment, then melted into a warm smile. "Arjuna!" he exclaimed. "Good to see you."
"What're you doing?" Arjuna asked, curiously peering at the printed papers covering the table in front of Duryodhana. Arjuna realized that the papers were covered in names – women's' names.
"Mother's guest list," Durmukha said, tapping the papers with his finger, "for her birthday gala coming up. A rough draft."
"Her fault for leaving it lying around where I could find it," Dusshasana said by way of explanation.
"Aren't you supposed to be eating dinner right now?" Duryodhana suddenly asked Arjuna.
"Yeah, but..." Arjuna trailed off, not wanting to explain. That was okay, though. Duryodhana didn't need an explanation. He was good like that. So Duryodhana nodded, which meant that Arjuna was welcome to stay, and went right back to concentrating on what he had been doing. "Her," he said, jabbing his finger at a name printed on the list. "Ugh, no. She can't be there. She's off."
Yuyutsu appeared at Duryodhana's side, and scratched off the offending woman's name with a red pen.
"Have you even thought about how you're going to convince Mother to uninvite any of these girls?" Dusshasana asked, reasonably.
"Later, later," Duryodhana said dismissively, exhaling smoke and frowning down at the guest list. "The important thing is to make sure that her name is on here."
" 'Her'?" Arjuna asked, wriggling his way beneath one of Duryodhana's arms.
"Our future queen," Dusshasana said importantly.
"Well," Durmukha sniffed, "there's no accounting for taste, but..."
"Who?" Arjuna asked.
Duryodhana finished glaring at Durmukha, then turned his attention back to Arjuna. "Only the most beautiful and amazing women ever born in this universe."
"So... So you do like someone."
Duryodhana coughed around his smokeroll.
"How come you didn't tell me?" Arjuna pouted.
"He hasn't told anybody," Dusshasana said, "thought not for lack of making it obvious."
"Who?" Arjuna asked again.
"Just take a look around, Arjuna," Durmukha huffed.
Arjuna wriggled out from beneath Duryodhana's arm, and did just that.
Arjuna saw a framed and autographed picture of a red-lipped, dark-eyed women with her cheek resting on her hand hanging on one wall. He saw a flickering projected hologram of the same woman in miniature, wearing a slinky black evening dress and singing into a microphone, resting on a shelf. Arjuna saw racks full of music discs of all sizes and formats, all with the same name written on the outside of each sleeve.
Arjuna turned to Duryodhana and said, "I didn't know that you were sweet on Darpala."
Duryodhana coughed again.
"How come you aren't telling anybody?"
"Because," Dusshasana said, poking Duryodhana in the shoulder, "he's embarrassed--"
"Shut up Dusshasana before I break your nose off--"
"I think she's lovely," Yuyutsu said, diplomatically stepping between Dusshasana and Duryodhana, "and she's perfect for you, Your Highness. What I'd like to know, however, is why you haven't yet approached her--"
"She won't refuse you," Yuyutsu persisted.
"I know. As if any woman ever would."
"Father will approve. She's noble-born, after all."
"I haven't--" Duryodhana suddenly threw his hands up in the air. "I just haven't had time to talk to her, okay?!"
"But you've had time to buy all of her albums and listen to her music exclusively and nonstop for the past three years," Durmukha said, frowning. "You've had time to drop whatever you're doing and get all swoony and moronic every time her face appears on the console screen."
Duryodhana seemed to shrink a bit. Arjuna had never seen him do that before. "Is it that obvious?" he asked, nervously.
"Yes," Durmukha sighed. He looked down at the guest list, one more time, and said, sadly, "I really don't see her name on here."
"Then we'll add it."
"How will we convince Mother? If you would just tell Mother the truth about this woman, you know that she would invite her in an instant."
"No!" Duryodhana said quickly, suddenly reaching out and grasping Arjuna's arm in a panic, even though it was Durmukha that he was speaking to. "You can't tell Mother!"
Durmukha rolled his eyes. "If you expect to marry this woman, Mother will have to know about it eventually..."
Duryodhana sighed, handed Yuyutsu the remains of his smokeroll to extinguish and dispose of, and wandered over to an armchair, which he sank down into wearily. "I asked you guys to help me, not to interrogate me," he mumbled grumpily.
Arjuna stood at Duryodhana's shoulder and said softly, "I think it's great, that you're in love. I don't see what's so embarrassing about it."
Duryodhana looked up at Arjuna, and Arjuna was startled to see dark bags beneath his eyes. "It's complicated," he said, slowly.
Arjuna took his cousin's hand in his. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"...I haven't been sleeping well lately."
"Dreaming of Dur-pa-la," Dusshasana sing-songed from across the room.
"Yeah," Duryodhana said with a wan smile, "that's why." But Arjuna could tell that Duryodhana wasn't telling the truth.
So Arjuna squeezed Duryodhana's hand, tight, and leaned over close and whispered to him, "If there's ever anything I can do to help you, please..."
"Thanks." Duryodhana grinned up at Arjuna and said, "You know that you're my man, right, Arjuna?"
"And you can hang out in here anytime."
Arjuna hugged Duryodhana once, briefly, around his shoulders. This was not the first time that Duryodhana had extended his invitation to Arjuna, but Arjuna did not mind the repetition. Duryodhana's room was the safe-haven where Arjuna retreated when he wanted to be away from his brothers or his mother. Duryodhana was the one who always listened to Arjuna's problems, who always gave good advice, who was always looking out for Arjuna, the way that a real big brother should have been. It hurt Arjuna to think that now it looked and sounded as if Duryodhana was troubled by something, but there didn't seem to be anything that Arjuna could do about it, at least not at the moment.
"Good luck with Darpala," Arjuna said, and then he left Duryodhana and his brothers alone with the guest list that they were trying so desperately to revise.
It was only three days before the ball when Ashwatthama asked Arjuna, "So there's nobody that you'd want to dance with?"
Arjuna was so startled by this question that he nearly fell over. But at the last moment, he inelegantly flung out his arms, wobbled a bit, and then managed to maintain his balance. This was no small feat, considering that he was standing on one leg, and had been for the past two hours.
"Nice save," Ashwatthama said.
"Thanks." Arjuna regained his serene posture, arms folded in front of his chest, one leg bent beneath him, and other straight and tall and planted firmly on the ground. Then he answered, "No."
"Really? Nobody?" Ashwatthama did not sway or tremble on his one leg as he spoke. Arjuna envied him the ease with which he finished these exercises. "Even among all those girls who are always following you around--"
"Most of those girls are servants. I'm not allowed to marry them. Some of the them are the daughters of Ministers, so they might be acceptable, I don't know. But I'm the third prince, so I'm not going to get much choice anyway. I have to marry somebody who's not higher-ranked than Yudhisthira or Bhima's wife, but who isn't too low-ranked to marry a prince. So. Like I said. Not much choice."
"Hmm... Suppose not." Ashwatthama closed his eyes, a picture of serene perfection standing immobile on one straight leg. "But I bet that the girls at the ball will be asking you to dance, anyway."
Arjuna swayed on his leg again.
"You probably don't have anything to worry about," Ashwatthama added.
"And what about you?!" Arjuna suddenly asked. The question came out a bit more snappishly than he had intended.
Ashwatthama opened his eyes again. "What about me?"
"There's nobody that you would like to dance with?"
"Oh, I can't. It's forbidden."
"It's what?" This time Arjuna did drop his other leg to the ground, his arms falling to his sides. "What do you mean, forbidden?"
Ashwatthama was giving Arjuna a look. "Father said to hold this pose for four hours," he said, frowning at Arjuna.
"I asked you a question!"
"And I answered. It's forbidden."
"No, I asked you why."
"Because I swore a vow of celibacy."
Arjuna stood, stupid and speechless. This was the first that he had heard of this. But while his throat stuttered, his thoughts raced through his brain. This didn't add up. Arjuna knew that Ashwatthama was studying to become Mr. Dhaumya's successor, but Mr. Dhaumya was married, his sect of the priesthood didn't require a vow of celibacy, and--
Wait a minute, why wasn't Ashwatthama studying to follow his father in the Ajagava order, anyway?
This was something that Arjuna had wondered about before, but never had the presence of mind - or the courage - to ask. But now Arjuna was more curious than he had ever been before. And so he decided to ask, starting with a question about Ashwatthama's vow at the very least. "Why would you swear something like that?" Arjuna asked. He did not have to fake any of the bafflement in his voice.
"Because it was part of my vows. I made all of my vows when I was three years old." A shadow passed across Ashwatthama's usually serene face. "Please, Arjuna. If you're not going to do this with me, then... I can't really reach a higher plane of consciousness with you standing there asking me questions."
"What vows?" Arjuna asked, insistently.
"Like what? Celibacy, and what else? You said vows. Plural."
Ashwatthama sighed through his nose. Arjuna had heard his Grandpa Bhisma do the same on many occasions. "I vowed to never drink. I vowed to never eat animal flesh. I vowed never to blaspheme against the gods. I vowed never to touch a weapon. I vowed never to take another's life or to commit an act of violence against any living creature."
Arjuna stared at his friend for a long, long time. It felt as if he were somehow seeing Ashwatthama for the first time. But now that Arjuna thought about it, things were starting to fall into place. There was a reason why Arjuna had never seen Ashwatthama eat meat. There was a reason why Mr. Drona taught both his son and Arjuna how to pray and meditate, but taught only Arjuna how to use weapons. There was a reason why Ashwatthama could not become one of the Ajagava order, and was studying to become a scholarly, non-violent priest instead.
But Ashwatthama had made those vows when he was only three years old, and Arjuna did not think that a three year old would have chosen such a life for himself at that age. And Arjuna did not think that Mr. Drona would have willingly allowed his only son to essentially swear not to follow in his own footsteps, unless there had been a reason... A very, very good reason.
How very interesting.
Ashwatthama suddenly slammed his bent leg down on the ground and snapped open his eyes, glaring at Arjuna. "Well?" he asked. "Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to leave, or are you going to be doing what you're supposed to be doing?"
Arjuna bit his lip. He had never heard Ashwatthama snap at him - or at anybody - before. But now that Arjuna was staring Ashwatthama in the face, the questions kept whirling around his thoughts, and he was helpless to stop them. Arjuna had never asked why King Drupada wanted Mr. Drona's head served to him on a platter. Arjuna had never asked why Mr. Drona and his family had fled from Panchala nine years ago and been hiding behind fake names and fake identities when Arjuna had met them. Arjuna knew that Mr. Drona was not a murderer, but he did not know why King Drupada and the rest of the world considered him one.
"Arjuna..." Ashwatthama turned away from him.
"I'm sorry," Arjuna said. And he was sorry. "It's just that... I didn't know. I feel stupid for not having known."
"Well, I didn't tell you."
Ashwatthama's shoulders were slumped and that, more than anything, made Arjuna feel bad about how nosy he was being. Whatever had happened in Ashwatthama's past, there was probably a reason why he never brought it up, and a reason why he didn't want to be reminded of it. It was none of Arjuna's business, anyway. The important thing was that one day two years ago, the storm had told Arjuna to trust Mr. Drona and his family, and Arjuna had. They were like a family to him, now. And Arjuna did not want to lose that. He especially did not want anything to come between him and Ashwatthama. So he racked his brains, desperately, for something that he could say or do to undo the damage that he had done - some witty joke or remark that would lighten the mood or decrease the tension in the room...
Arjuna opened his mouth and blurted out, "If you can't dance with any girls, then... Then at least you have it easy, you won't have anything to worry about at the ball!"
Ashwatthama turned his head once, glowered at Arjuna, then stomped out of the room.
So Arjuna went to the one place where he always went when he was feeling down. He went to see Duryodhana.
The first thing that Arjuna heard, when he stepped into Duryodhana's room, was a lilting dance melody singing from the speakers scattered around the room. Then Duryodhana swept Arjuna up in his arms and began whirling him around the room. "This!" he laughed. "This will be my first dance with her!"
"So you got her on the guest list?" Arjuna asked, as Duryodhana whirled him around his bed, his computer desk, bookshelves stacked with unread, dust-gathering books.
"Yes, finally!" Duryodhana let go of Arjuna's hands, and dramatically flopped down into the spinning chair that he kept in front of his computer desk. "Durmukha has been pouting all morning."
"Why doesn't Durmukha like Ms. Darpala?"
"Because of her sister," Duryodhana said, wrinkling his perfect nose.
When Arjuna continued to look confused, Duryodhana rolled his eyes and said, "Don't tell me that you don't know, Arjuna. Darpala is Darpana's sister."
Arjuna swallowed. "That awful Darpana woman? Her sister?"
"I just said that, idiot. Everyone knew that. And, you know Durmukha... He's such a wimp most of the time, but when he holds a grudge, he really holds a grudge. He never forgave Darpana for her interview last year on NCN."
"You mean that time that she compared you to a--"
Duryodhana's face darkened, and Arjuna quickly shut his mouth. Then Duryodhana laughed and said, "You know Durmukha. He gets so protective sometimes... It's cute."
"So you like Darpala even though she's her sister?"
Duryodhana looked at Arjuna for a long, long time. Arjuna saw something in Duryodhana's eyes that he had never seen before - something that made a tiny, tense little shiver start to worm its way up the small of his back. "The fact that my future queen is that whores's sister makes it all that much sweeter," Duryodhana said, slowly, softly.
Arjuna swallowed, hearing a dry click in his own throat.
Duryodhana gave Arjuna another of his long, searching looks. Arjuna suddenly understood why Ashwatthama had wanted to leave when Arjuna had been looking at him the same way. Suddenly Duryodhana sat up in his chair and asked, "So what's up with you?"
"Nothing, I just... I just came to hang out for a little bit, but... I have to go."
"Oh. Okay." Duryodhana sounded disappointed. "You can come in any time, you know. You're always my guy, Arjuna."
"I know," Arjuna said, as he left. "Thank you," he added, perhaps too quietly for Duryodhana to hear.
"Not that one," Yudhisthira said, dismissively, sending away the servant and her armful of clothes with one wave of his hand. "Not that one, either," he said, sending off another servant. "Ugh, no, definitely not that one... This one, you stay here." Yudhisthira pulled a shirt off the top of a servant's armful of clothes, and turned toward his brothers, holding the shirt out against his chest. "Well?"
"It looks nice," Bhima commented, noncommittally.
"Although I thought that you were trying not to look like a homosexual," Nakula added.
Sahadeva was busy filing his own fingernails and smiling vaguely down at his hands, so he said nothing.
Yudhisthira impatiently threw the shirt down on the floor and grabbed another one from another servant. "How about this one?"
"Nice," Bhima said.
"Draws too much attention to your chin," Nakula said. Then he added, by way of explanation, "You do have a rather unattractive chin, you know."
Sahadeva began humming to himself.
"None of you are helping," Yudhisthira huffed. Then he looked over Nakula's shoulder and exclaimed impatiently, "Arjuna! Where have you been?!"
"Standing on my head. For six hours." Arjuna wobbled up next to Nakula, then leaned heavily on his brother's shoulder. "I think I was supposed to be reaching an altered state of consciousness."
"Did you?" Sahadeva asked.
"I'm really not sure." It had been three days since Arjuna's almost-fight with Ashwatthama, and Arjuna had been so relieved that Ashwatthama had apparently forgiven everything and decided to act as if nothing had ever happened, that Arjuna had been able to relax and focus enough to actually hold the standing-on-his-head position for the full assigned six hours for the first time. He had been proud of himself, and really feeling on top of the world, until he had tried to get out of the position and stand upright.
Yudhisthira was frowning at Arjuna. "You don't look very good."
"I don't know about this. About any of this. This weird religion stuff that that priest is teaching you. Using your bow is one thing, but all of this standing on your head and standing on one leg and meditating until you're blue in the face--"
"Don't you have a gala to be getting ready for?" Nakula asked.
Yudhisthira turned his attention back to his wardrobe, and Arjuna squeezed Nakula's arm briefly in gratitude.
"You should already be ready by now," Arjuna's mother said, stepping out from amidst a cloud of servants.
Kunti's five sons all stopped breathing at once when they saw her. Then Sahadeva swallowed and said, "Mom."
"You look amazing," Yudhisthira breathed.
"Why thank you. And you look like you're only half-dressed." Kunti brushed a curl of her hair, studded with pearls and woven with gold threads, over her silk-covered shoulder. "Yudhisthira, am I going to have to choose an outfit for you?"
"That might not be a bad idea," Nakula said.
"I came to remind you," Kunti said, sweeping what Arjuna thought of as her mom gaze over her sons, "that this ball tonight is, officially, a celebration of your aunt Gandhari's birthday. So before any of you accept any roses, I want you to kiss your aunt's hand and tell her how much you love her. Even if you have to wait in line behind all of her sons for your turn." Then she reached out and pinched Yudhisthira's cheek and added, "And unofficially, it would make Mother very, very happy if you came home with a queen tonight." She tapped his shoulder and said, "Good luck."
Yudhisthira swallowed. "Then can you help me pick a shirt, Mommy?" he asked in a high, small voice.
Fourteen seconds left, Duryodhana thought. Thirteen. Twelve. He was watching his parents, his mother in flowing silks with jewel-studded hair cascading over her shoulder, his father straight-backed and strong, as they danced alone across the marble tiles, the silent encircled crowd watching them with hushed awe. Eleven. Ten. When the song ended, then the dance floor would open up. Then the women would come, with their roses.
Duryodhana stood watching his parents, because he knew that the rest of the crowd was watching him watching his parents. But he really wanted to look away from them. He wanted to look to his right, to Yudhisthira, who was standing beside him. For once, Yudhisthira actually looked good. Duryodhana wanted to look at Yudhisthira, at Bhima, at Arjuna, at Dusshasana and Durmada on his left. He wanted to look at his competition. But mostly, he wanted to look at her. She was on the other side of the dance floor. Duryodhana had seen her earlier, her hair swept up off her neck and her shoulders bare above her long blue gown, a matching blue-dyed rose held in her hands.
Duryodhana restrained himself from bouncing back and forth eagerly on the balls of his feet. There were hundreds of girls out there on the marble tiles, but there was only one that he wanted to hold in his arms. There was only one who, three years ago, he had decided would be his queen, and whom he had been thinking about every day since. This, Duryodhana thought, was what love felt like.
He couldn't wait to hear about Darpana's reaction when she saw the image of her sister holding King Duryodhana's hand during their wedding ceremony, plastered all over the newspapers, the magazines, the media consoles--
The music stopped. His parents bowed to the crowd, which erupted in thunderous applause. Duryodhana joined in, as Yudhisthira leaned over and whispered, "Your mother looks amazing."
"How old is she...?"
"She'll kill you if you ask her. But really, the official answer is thirty-two. She's been thirty-two for about thirty years now."
Duryodhana looked down, and saw his father kissing his mother on her lips, once, briefly - this caused more applause - then leading her away from the dance floor. The crowds parted to make way for them both, walking as surely and quickly as if neither of them were blind, and then the girls started crossing the marble tiles, heading toward the princes waiting across from them.
"Good luck," Duryodhana said.
"I think I need it," Yudhisthira breathed out, softly.
The girls came. Duryodhana didn't even recognize the first faceless no-name who gave him a rose, but he danced with her, dazzled her, then pushed her aside for the next girl. He made his rounds. The girls came at him in droves, while his brothers waited patiently for his leftovers. Duryodhana couldn't see how Yudhisthira was faring, but he assumed that it was well. Finally, after six or seven or perhaps a dozen dance partners, Duryodhana turned away the roses and picked his way through the crowd, tired of waiting for her to come to him.
Duryodhana nearly ran right into Arjuna, who was holding a glass of punch in one hand and glowering at the far end of the dance floor. "Look at him," Arjuna growled. "Disgusting."
Duryodhana followed Arjuna's line of sight, and saw Nakula with three girls hanging off one arm and four more girls hanging off the other, laughing as he tipsily attempted to serve himself some punch. Duryodhana noticed that all of the girls were at least twice Nakula's age. Which still made all of them a decade younger than Duryodhana. "Jealous?" Duryodhana joked, elbowing Arjuna.
"Mother will have a fit."
"Tell me that you've at least danced with somebody and haven't been moping over here the entire time."
"Pathetic," Duryodhana sighed, momentarily resting his elbow on Arjuna's head. Duryodhana glanced around the dance floor, searching for her. He saw Yudhisthira, nervously dancing with the Prime Minister's daughter; he saw Dusshasana holding a girl close and whispering into her ear, causing her to giggle and blush. And then he saw--
"Darpala's coming over here," Arjuna said, stating the obvious, and then gracefully stepping away without another word.
Duryodhana swallowed again. She was walking right up to him. She was looking right at him. And she was holding her blue-dyed rose in her hand.
Duryodhana met her eyes, and felt his familiar disarming smile spreading across his face. He had always had eyes only for her, and now she had eyes only for him. Good. That was going to make things easy.
Darpala stopped in front of him, her long slender fingers toying with her rose, her eyelashes fluttering over her eyes. A lock of her hair had come undone and was curling down the side of her dark, smooth neck. "Your Highness," she said, finally breaking eye contact long enough to bow in front of Duryodhana.
Duryodhana reached out and grasped her free hand, pulling her out of her bow and bringing it to his lips, kissing it gently. Darpala's skin was soft and moist and rose-scented beneath his lips. He knew that other girls were watching him, now. He knew what they were thinking. He had not kissed any of their hands.
Darpala laughed, and tried to pull her hand away from Duryodhana's grasp. For a moment, Duryodhana didn't want to let her go - the sensation of her hand twisting and turning against his, warm flesh-on-flesh contact, caused a delicious little shiver in the back of his neck, his stomach, his groin - but finally Duryodhana relaxed his fingers, and Darpala pulled her hand modestly back to her rose. "Your Highness, you flatter me."
"It's not flattery. Flattery would be insincere."
Darpala laughed again. Singers really did have the most beautiful laughs, Duryodhana thought. "Unfortunately, I've come to beg a favor of you, Your Highness."
Being coy, are we? Duryodhana stepped toward her, ready to put one hand on her waist and take her rose in his other hand. "And that would be...?"
Darpala handed the bloom of her rose to him. "Would you--?"
"--I'd be delighted," Duryodhana cut her off, resting his hand against the silky curve of her waist.
But Darpala laughed again, as if at some delightful joke, and gently lifted Duryodhana's hand off her waist. "I'm terribly flattered, Your Highness, but also terribly sorry... I was just hoping that..." She turned her head once, briefly, and glanced over her shoulder, toward the far end of the dance floor. "I was hoping that you would give this rose to Prince Yudhisthira, on my behalf. I've been trying all evening to get close to him, but have not had any luck." She pressed the blue rose petals into Duryodhana's stiff, unbelieving hand.
Duryodhana stared at her, his face frozen in an empty smile. "Yudh... What?"
"I know that this is forward of me," Darpala began, quickly, "but if you can find any kindness in your heart to take pity upon this poor girl, Your Highness, I was hoping that you would do this one favor for one of your humble subjects..."
And still Duryodhana stared at her, his fingers beginning to curl convulsively around the rose that she had pressed into his outstretched hand. And the smile, that pointless, meaningless smile, remained frozen on his face. Finally he looked at her, one last time, looked at her pleading eyes and trembling lips and the curl of hair brushing against the side of her neck, and he said, "Of course. Absolutely. I'd be happy to."
She smiled at him, a smile every bit as dazzling as he knew his own to be. "Thank you, Your Highness. I will always be grateful."
"Don't be," Duryodhana said, clutching the blue-dyed rose in his hand and turning away from her, crossing the dance floor without thinking about it, smiling without thinking about it, aiming straight for Yudhisthira without thinking about it.
Yudhisthira saw him coming, and gratefully broke off his dance with the Prime Minister's daughter, even though they were in the midst of a song. "Duryodhana!" he exclaimed, stumbling toward him.
Duryodhana's feet were running on autopilot, his face a smiling mask. He felt nothing. He could not let himself feel anything, not in front of all of these people, not in front of all of these eyes. "I've got something for you," Duryodhana said, holding his smashed and crumpled blue rose out to his cousin.
For a moment, Yudhisthira gave him a look that would have been comical, had Duryodhana been capable of recalling his sense of humor at that moment. But Duryodhana was at least pretending to have a sense of humor, so he laughed. "I'm not turning queer on you. This is from Darpala."
"She really wants to dance with you. Really." Duryodhana surprised himself by giving Yudhisthira an appropriately salacious wink. "Good luck."
Yudhisthira turned the rose over and over in his hands, wonderingly. Duryodhana didn't see what Yudhisthira did next, though, because that was when he turned on his heels and left.
He thought about leaving the gala altogether. He was halfway to the exit, in fact, when the next vacant-headed, faceless girl approached him with her rose. He took the rose and then her arms and sighed in resignation, whirling her around the dance floor. He wouldn't have been able to leave, anyway. His absence would have been missed, moreso than anyone else's.
Halfway through the second girl, Duryodhana risked turning his head, and saw them - Yudhisthira and Darpala - serenading across the dance floor, gazing deep into each other's eyes, looking idiotic and dopey in the way that only two people in love could manage to look idiotic and dopey.
Duryodhana turned away from them in disgust. He sometimes thought that someday, when he was king, Yudhisthira really wouldn't make a bad sidekick. Yudhisthira was intelligent, polite, and always giving off that particular eager-to-please vibe that Duryodhana usually found repulsive, unless it was him that it was directed at. Other times, however, Duryodhana would look at Yudhisthira and realize that he was nothing more than a weak-minded, cowardly, sniveling bookworm, and would want nothing more than for Yudhisthira to vanish from his sight and never have to befoul his vision ever again. Now was one of the latter moments. Yudhisthira didn't deserve to be serenading Darpala across the dance floor. Darpala didn't deserve an idiot like Yudhisthira. She deserved better. Yudhisthira was such a moron that he hadn't even realized that Duryodhana's smile had been an empty mask.
And still, Duryodhana danced with the pointless, idiotic girls who came at him without pause.
It was during his fifth dance with Darpala that Yudhisthira caught his mother's eye. She was watching him from the edge of the dance floor, and she met his eyes once, briefly, and then gave him a quick nod, and an approving smile. Yudhisthira understood. The other girls at the ball had already given up on approaching him, and with good reason. He didn't want to be with anybody but Darpala. Not now, not ever.
So a few steps and a quick whirl after his mother's official approval - Yudhisthira reveled in the sight of Darpala's gown swirling around her ankles, the way that she arched her neck and laughed when he spun her - Yudhisthira suddenly pulled her close to him, leaned over her shoulder, and whispered into her ear, "Stay with me."
"Your Highness," she said, trailing one finger along the line of his jaw, "I have no intention of letting you go tonight."
The following morning came shrouded in a white, thin fog that came rolling off the ocean beneath the palace. Blue-white sky was the first thing that Yudhisthira saw when he opened his eyes and gazed out the uncurtained floor-to-ceiling window beside his bed. Yudhisthira wondered briefly who could have opened those curtains, and then he remembered who was in the room with him.
Yudhisthira rolled over, slowly, overcome by a lethargy born of equal parts spent adrenaline rush, past nervousness, sore muscles, and contentment. He could smell Darpala's scent on his bedsheets. He finished rolling over and sat up, staring at her. She was sitting on a stool in front of a mirror on the far side of his room, completely nude, frowning at her reflection in the mirror as she labored to run one of Yudhisthira's combs through her hair.
Yudhisthira watched her for a moment, watched the muscles working in her shoulder blades, her arms tensing and relaxing as she worked the comb through her hair, the profile of her bare breasts trembling as she breathed in and out, softly. Finally Yudhisthira raised his head and said, "Good morning."
She turned her head toward him, the comb still stuck in her hair. "Same to you."
"The window's open," Yudhisthira said, stating the obvious, running his eyes up and down across her naked body. He had seen this before, of course, last night. But somehow her flesh looked different in the daylight. The shadows were lying across her skin differently, Yudhisthira thought.
Darpala glanced at the uncurtained window, which overlooked the windswept cliff upon which the palace sat, and the ocean below, and said with a laugh, "There's nothing out there but fish and seaweed." She pulled the comb out of her hair, stood up, and walked over to the opposite side of the room, where floor-to-ceiling curtains concealed another tall window. Her bare feet made whispering sounds against the carpet on the floor. "Now this window," she said, her eyes gleaming as she watched Yudhisthira watching her caress the silk curtains between her fingers, "This window overlooks the city, if I remember correctly--"
"Don't you dare--"
"Has anybody ever told you that you're sexy when you're panicking?"
"...No, not really."
"Hmm. Well, it's true." She strode across the room, climbed onto the bed, and whisked the bedsheets off Yudhisthira's body before he even realized what was happening. "Very sexy," she purred, positioning herself to straddle his hips. "It helps your case when you're not wearing any clothes, though."
He rose up to meet her, reaching up to run one hand through her tangled hair, brushing his lips against one of her plump, erect nipples. He whispered her name, over and over, as he caressed her breasts with his lips. She moaned softly, then bent her head down and whispered to him, "Take me, Your Majesty. Take me like you did last night."
But Yudhisthira pulled his face away from her chest, looked up at her serenely, and said, "No."
She paused for a moment, taken aback. "What--?"
"No, not now. Not like this. I need to make it right." He pulled himself out from beneath her, slid out of the bed, and padded across the bedroom on his bare feet, stopping to kneel down and rummage through a lacquered chest that he kept in one corner of the room. Now it was Darpala's turn to sit on the bed and watch him, in his inglorious nudity, walking about the room. Yudhisthira found what he was looking for, stood up, turned, and walked back toward the bed. He watched her watching him curiously. He had one hand curled around whatever he was concealing from her, and his cock, which had been half-erect a few moments ago, seemed to have calmed down and softened out, at least for the time being.
"What is that?" Darpala asked, eyeing Yudhisthira's clenched hand. "A toy? Your Highness, I never would have thought you the type."
"Actually, no..." Yudhisthira dropped to one knee beside the bed, kneeling in front of her. "This was my father's," he said, holding out his hand to her, unfolding his fingers to reveal the ring resting in his palm. "Darpala," Yudhisthira said, breathing slowly, "Would you...?"
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
"Would you...?" Yudhisthira licked his lips, swallowed, and started again. "Would you stay with me? As my wife?"
And still, she stared at him, her face blank. Yudhisthira felt his heart clench in his chest, and his breath freeze in his throat.
And then, finally, Darpala threw back her head, and laughed. "Marry you?!" She doubled over, clutching her bare stomach, her chest heaving and her breasts bouncing as she laughed. "Oh, oh gods, you want me to marry you?!"
Yudhisthira slowly curled his fingers back around the ring in his hand. "Is that a no?" he asked, his voice trembling.
Darpala laughed for a few more long, painful moments. Then she wiped tears from her eyes, looked at Yudhisthira's face, and seemed to sober up, at least a little bit. "Yes," she said, "that would be a no."
"But.." Yudhisthira stood up, now no longer kneeling beneath her, but rather towering over her. "But I thought..." He fists were trembling now, perfect little vibrations exactly matched to the trembling in his voice. "I invited you to my marriage bed and you--"
"A bed is a bed, sweetheart. If this were a 'marriage bed' then you should have put a sign on it."
"You have to say yes," Yudhisthira pouted. "We're already man and wife."
"No," Darpala said evenly, "we're not."
"Everybody saw us leave the ball together."
"One mildly good fuck," Darpala said, sliding off the bed to stand beside Yudhisthira, "does not a lifelong commitment make." She reached out and touched his face. "Your Highness," she said, "I never meant to send you the wrong message. I have dreamed about meeting you for a very, very long time. And now I have. But I never have and never will have any desire to become your queen."
"I love you," Yudhisthira blurted out, before he could stop himself.
She sighed. "You hardly know me." She pulled herself close to him, embracing him, pressing her naked body against his. The warm, enticing wetness between her legs was pressed right up against Yudhisthira's cock. But unfortunately, Yudhisthira's cock was suddenly too confused and dispirited to rally any sort of response. Probably, Yudhisthira reflected, because this embrace felt like a consoling embrace, not an erotic embrace. It felt like a goodbye. "You and I share something special," Darpala whispered into his ear, "and we always will."
Yudhisthira finally found the strength to lift his arms, to try to return her embrace. But she was already pulling away from him. She glanced from Yudhisthira's limp cock to his sad, baffled face, then said, "I think I should go." She turned and walked away from Yudhisthira, plucking her wrinkled ball gown off the back of a chair.
Yudhisthira stared at her, watching her pick up a comm unit and begin dialing to summon some servants with fresh clothes. His father's ring felt heavy and hot in his clutched hand.
Finally, Darpala finished dressing, turned, and looked at Yudhisthira one last time. Her hair was still an uncombed mess, her face blank and searching. And Yudhisthira merely returned her gaze, and said, more sorrowfully than angrily, "If I'd known that you didn't want to... Then I wouldn't have..." His voice died in his throat. He was unable to finish his words.
"I know," Darpala said. She turned away from him and finished, "That's probably why I didn't bring it up."
Those were the last words that she ever said to Yudhisthira. With that, she was gone.
It took Yudhisthira a good several hours to work up the courage to put on some clothes and leave his private chambers. But by then, it was too late. His servants knew what had happened, and they had gossiped. Word had spread. Yudhisthira walked down the hallways of the palace, followed by stares of pity and hushed whisperings wherever he went.
I need work to do, Yudhisthira thought, desperately, as he searched for the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, even the Undersecretary of Water Table Monitoring, somebody, anybody who would have a problem that they expected him to solve.
Unfortunately, Yudhisthira's mother found him first.
"Idiot son," she hissed, grabbing him by his ear and forcibly pulling him into a secluded hallway corner.
"Ow. Ow!" Yudhisthira wrenched his ear free of his mother's grasp. "Mother, I'm sorry, I thought she--"
"You've brought shame to this family." Her eyes were cold and angry. Yudhisthira had seen his mother give Nakula and Sahadeva that look on many occasions, but he had never felt it directed at himself before. "I warned you. I told you. You must never touch a woman before you both have been vowed together in marriage. Yudhisthira, there's only so much gossip that I can contain, and I--"
"But I really thought that she--"
"Your reputation is on the line! And in case you've forgotten, Yudhisthira, your reputation is what will determine whether you can become a king or not!" His mother huffed angrily, the unleashed her ultimate weapon. "Your father," she said, "would be so disappointed in you. You've done a dishonorable thing."
"Mother..." Yudhisthira bowed in front of her, supplicant. "Mother, I'm so sorry, but I thought that she-- I thought we were in love-- I gave her Papa's ring and she laughed at me!" His voice broke.
Yudhisthira's mother was quiet for a long time, then she gently placed the palm of her hand on the crown of Yudhisthira's head, and said softly, "Oh, Yudhisthira..." All of the anger was gone from her voice.
Yudhisthira straightened up, as his mother withdrew her hand. "Never again, Mother," he swore.
She looked at him, sadly. "She laughed at you?" Then Yudhisthira's mother's eyes went hard and cold again. "Whore," she whispered, under her breath. "She shall never be invited to another royal function again. Nor her family nor her children nor her children's children, either."
Kunti looked off into the distance, distracted. "How depressing," she mumbled. "Then that would make your aunt Gandhari's ball almost a complete waste."
"Didn't you hear? Duryodhana left the gala completely empty-handed."
"That really takes some balls," Bhima said, lighting the end of Yudhisthira's smokeroll obligingly, "to make a one-night stand out of the king of Kuru."
"I'm not the king," Yudhisthira moaned around his smokeroll, morosely, "and she didn't have balls."
"Well," Bhima said, trying to cheer his brother up, "at least you're not a pathetic middle-aged virgin anymore."
Yudhisthira glared at Bhima, huffing out an indignant cloud of smoke. "I don't see why Mother yelled at me," he pouted, "when you were the first one to have an indiscretion."
"Yes, but nobody knows about my indiscretion. Everybody knows about your indiscretion."
Yudhisthira moaned and clutched at his hair.
"It's not so bad," Bhima said, quickly. "It couldn't have been that bad."
"It was bad." Yudhisthira blew out a pair of perfectly-shaped smoke rings. "I was naked when I proposed to her. And she laughed at me."
"All right... That is pretty bad." Bhima massaged his brother's shoulders, listening to the birds in the garden around them singing, sounding their way through the thickening fog. It was secluded in this corner of the garden, and quiet, and peaceful. But depressing : Somewhat depressing because of the fog, moreso depressing because of Yudhisthira.
"Did you see Arjuna last night?" Bhima asked, still trying to cheer up his brother. "He danced with some girls. At least three of them. I saw."
"Good for him." Yudhisthira's shoulders suddenly stiffened beneath Bhima's hands. "And Nakula...?"
"Something like three dozen."
"That's sick. He's eleven years old. Those girls must be sick."
"Eleven going on twenty, you mean. And you know how Nakula looks. How both of them look."
"For every one that Nakula had on his arm, Sahadeva had three."
"It was fine," Bhima said. "Mother was watching them both like a hawk. Nothing happened. Nakula didn't try anything precocious. And none of the girls risked taking advantage of either of them."
Yudhisthira sighed with relief, his shoulder muscles relaxing. "And you?"
"What about me?"
"I saw you dancing."
"Nobody set your heart aflutter?"
"Hardly." Bhima frowned at himself, at the world, at nothing in particular. Not very many girls had wanted to dance with him last night. Most of them had looked frightened when he had tried to approach them. Bhima was used to this, though - most people tended to look frightened when Bhima approached them, period. But you could get used to something like that without really getting used to it, Bhima thought. It had hurt. Some of the girls had been pretty and had looked nice, but they had shied away from him. The ones who had given him roses had had an unpleasant, gold-digging smell about them.
"Let me guess," Yudhisthira said, finally cheering up as Bhima was beginning to feel glum, "you're still pining for that indiscretion of yours, right?"
Bhima's hands froze on Yudhisthira's shoulders.
"Ah-ha." Yudhisthira snuffed out his smokeroll by grinding it into the stone bench that he was sitting on, and tilted his head back and looked up at his brother. "Are you ever going to tell me who she was or what happened?"
"No," Bhima answered, honestly.
Yudhisthira's face darkened. "Bhima--"
"Please," Bhima said.
That one word - or perhaps the way that Bhima said it - was enough to silence Yudhisthira. He slumped his chin to his chest again and mumbled, "Broken heart?"
"Join the club."
The two of them sat in morose silence, the fog pressing in all around them. Bhima seemed to have lost all motivation to work on Yudhisthira's shoulders. In fact, the two of them were both so busy feeling sorry for themselves, that they almost didn't react in time when two figures stumbled through the fog and nearly fell over on top of them.
"Sorry!" Durmukha said quickly, catching his balance after nearly stepping on Yudhisthira. "I didn't see you there."
Arjuna, who was a step behind Durmukha, glanced around to the left, then to the right - but saw only white mist. "Have either of you seen Duryodhana? We've been looking for him all morning."
"No," Yudhisthira said. "Is he out here? In this fog?" Yudhisthira blinked. "I thought that Duryodhana didn't like, you know, weather."
"He doesn't. Listen, um..." Durmukha bent in close to Yudhisthira. "Look, he's still pretty upset over what happened last night, so if you see him, tell him we're looking for him. I wouldn't try to talk to him if I were you, though. He's pretty angry at you right now."
"What?" Yudhisthira blinked at Durmukha, baffled. Then his gaze flickered over to Arjuna. "Angry with me? Why is Duryodhana angry with me?"
Now it was Durmukha's turn to blink at Yudhisthira. "Are you really that dense?" Durmukha looked positively aghast. "That singer that you nailed last night. Duryodhana has fancied her for years."
"Oh," said Yudhisthira, faintly, numbly.
Bhima laughed, but Durmukha shot him an angry glare. Yudhisthira tried to meet Arjuna's eyes again, but Arjuna turned away from him, saying nothing.
"If you see Duryodhana, tell him to talk to us," Durmukha repeated. Then he left, Arjuna following him. The two of them vanished back into the fog.
Yudhisthira stood up quickly. "I have to find him," he mumbled.
"Duryodhana?" Bhima snorted. "Durmukha just told you to stay away from him. If you nailed his girl, then I would suggest staying away from him, too."
"No, no, I can't just--" Yudhisthira wrung his hands. "I'll go look for him. I have to talk to him right away. I didn't mean to-- I didn't know--"
"I think he knows you didn't know, but he's still mad at you anyway..." Bhima trailed off with a sigh, when he saw that Yudhisthira had already gone the way that Durmukha and Arjuna had gone, vanishing into the white fog.
Yudhisthira fumbled through the fog, tripping over bushes and sculptures and stone benches as he went. He cursed as his knee banged into something particularly sharp and painful. The fog had been so thin this morning, he didn't understand how it could have thickened so quickly. But then again, Yudhisthira had never exactly had time to study weather science. That he had left to his Minister of Climatic Affairs. Yudhisthira had always been too busy studying what Grandpa Bhisma had told him to focus on, politics and economics and history, with some differential calculus thrown in on the side.
Yudhisthira's foot suddenly slipped on something slick and wet. He went sprawling.
Yudhisthira cursed again, then peered at the ground, trying to see what had tripped him up. There was a slick patch of ice on the grass beneath his feet.
But the air around him, fog or no, was warm.
Yudhisthira struggled to his feet, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. He wasn't a meteorologist, but he knew that only something unnatural could cause ice on the ground in the midst of a summer fog. Yudhisthira remembered the day nearly nine years ago when he and Duryodhana had met a yaksha in the forest, when the yaksha had frozen a stream of water for them so that they might be able to cross it safely.
But there couldn't be a yaksha or a rakshasa on the palace grounds, Yudhisthira rationalized, as he continued his way carefully through the fog. They had wards that protected the palace walls. They had blessings. They had priests. And they had Mr. Drona in residence. That man may have been mildly insane, as far as Yudhisthira was concerned, but he was at least a mildly insane person well-versed in rakshasa detection skills and anti-rakshasa protection techniques.
Yudhisthira continued his way through the garden, feeling more and more slick patches of ice sliding beneath his feet. The devakin markings on his back and neck began to tingle. This was a new sensation, something that Yudhisthira had never felt before. It felt like a warning. There's something bad in this fog with you, that part of Yudhisthira that was not human whispered to him. Yudhisthira shivered. As it turned out, the part of him that was not human sounded an awful lot like the voice of the dark shadow of Death that had spoken to him once before, nine years ago, on the same day that he had met the yaksha. It was not a voice that Yudhisthira was entirely sure that he wanted to listen to.
Suddenly, Yudhisthira saw a dark shadow moving in the mist ahead of him. For a moment, Yudhisthira felt the devakin markings on his back burning hot and bright and painful against his skin. Danger! But then Yudhisthira drew closer to the shadow, and saw that it had a familiar shape. A very familiar shape, in fact. Yudhisthira sighed with relief, and just like that, his body seemed to relax, to unclench - and the inhuman part of himself, the part of himself that he had been trying very hard to silence for the past few moments, finally fell silent.
"Duryodhana!" Yudhisthira called out, and the shadow froze. Ah-ha. "Duryodhana, I'm sorry, I didn't know!" Yudhisthira blurted out, as he stepped close to his cousin.
Duryodhana paused, his back still to Yudhisthira. "Know... what?"
"That you fancied..." Yudhisthira trailed off, unable to finish his sentence. He took a deep breath, and then blurted out, "If it makes you feel any better, she's positively horrendous!"
"Oh, really?" Duryodhana turned around slowly, glaring at Yudhisthira.
"Yes! Horrendous in person and... and... horrendous in buh… buh…." Yudhisthira struggled to say horrendous in bed, but the words would not come out. Lying was a mortal sin, and Yudhisthira couldn't even bring himself to lie to spare Duryodhana's feelings.
But Duryodhana, fortunately or unfortunately, apparently understood what Yudhisthira was trying to say. He snorted. "Don't lie to me, Yudhisthira. Don't even try. You know that you couldn't tell a lie if your life depended on it."
"Well, all right, she was amazing in bed, but--" Yudhisthira saw Duryodhana's fist curling up and pulling back, and he quickly added, "but horrendous in person and she humiliated me and now I'm the laughingstock of this entire family and I hope that makes you feel better because it could have been YOU and not me!"
"Oh, so I should THANK you, I suppose?!"
"Yes! I mean, no, I mean--"
"Yudhisthira, I think that this is seriously the most pathetic apology anybody has ever tried to give me."
"I'm sorry," Yudhisthira said miserably, his shoulders slumping forward.
Duryodhana let out a long, slow sigh. "All right. That's okay." He walked over toward Yudhisthira, swung his arm around his cousin's shoulder, and said jovially, "As if I could stay mad at you for too long."
Yudhisthira laughed, relieved.
"Still," Duryodhana said thoughtfully, "I still can't believe that she chose you over me. I mean, why settle?"
Yudhisthira blinked, but said nothing. Had he heard that correctly?
"Someday I'll look back at this and not want to stab you anymore," Duryodhana said, all cheerful good spirits again, as he led his cousin down into the foggy gardens, in no direction in particular. Yudhisthira's devakin marking were no longer tingling, and the inhuman voice in the back of his head had been completely silenced. These were good signs. Yudhisthira walked beside Duryodhana happily, relieved that whatever ugly thing had been hanging between them had been resolved so quickly, and also relieved that whatever might or might not have been lurking in the fog with them seemed to have vanished, like the last remnants of a bad dream.
A bad dream. That was an apt metaphor, Yudhisthira thought. Because whatever it was, it had probably been his imagination.
Yudhisthira leaned his head on his cousin's shoulder as they strolled together, two kings of the world. There was no more ice beneath Yudhisthira's feet, and the fog lifted around them as they walked.
To be continued.