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!
What he liked best about these visits, Shalya thought, was seeing the looks on their faces.
His nephews did not disappoint him this year. "Wow!" Nakula exclaimed, throwing out his arms and listening to his voice echo across the gold-and-marble-tiled hallway. "This is amazing, Uncle Shalya! It's even bigger than the last one!"
Shalya watched him, a thin and slight preteen with flaming red hair and striking golden eyes, momentarily acting like a normal human child, taking off his shoes to slide around on the slick marble tiles in his stocking feet. Sahadeva also watched him for a moment, then with a shrug, pulled off his shoes and joined his brother.
"It's nearly a sahasra-click long," Shalya said. "I had it specially designed for the journey between Madra and Kuru. Thirteen levels, self-sustaining climate control, and--"
"The engine?" Sahadeva asked, sliding around his uncle on his socks as if he were skating across an iced-over pond.
Shalya grinned to himself. Other children might want to hear about the athletic facilities, or the five-star chefs in the kitchen, or the video game and media console screen so big that it took up three levels of the aft portion of the ship. But his nephews wanted to hear the specs on the engine of the vessel. "Our Chief Engineer knows more about that than I do. But I will say that our engine has four times the normalspace fuel efficiency of the Samudra models that Kuru's still using."
Nakula whistled. "Can we see it?"
"Later," Shalya said, ushering his nephews down the marble hallway. Servants appeared out of nowhere to carry the boys' shoes for them. "Let me show you to your rooms."
Rooms, plural. Shalya understood how much his nephews coveted each having their own room. That was something that their adopted mother would never understand. "The jump will be shorter this time, because the engine on the Madri IV is nearly three times as fast as what we used last year."
"Who wants a short jump on a ship like this?" Nakula asked, sliding along in his socks, eyeing the paintings hung on the walls around them, probably thinking about the wiring beneath them.
"This is so neat," Sahadeva marveled, for once enthralled enough to sufficiently divert his attention from whatever other world he normally inhabited. "Kuru doesn't have any ships like this. Not even close."
"That's why you should be proud," Shalya said fiercely, "to be Madra royalty."
"We are," Nakula said noncommittally, having paused to pry behind a picture frame.
Shalya and his servants made no move to stop Nakula. These annual trips were, after all, about Shalya's nephews, and all about Shalya's nephews - and if they wanted to break a few rules, well, then the rules were there to be broken.
Every year, Shalya made the journey from Madra to Kuru to pick up his nephews, to return them to Madra, where they rightfully belonged. To keep them for exactly one week on the planet where, had things gone differently, it would have been their destiny to one day rightfully rule. Every year, a different luxury cruiser. Every year, more amazing things to introduce his nephews to - slices of a life that they would never be able to lead on a backwater fishing planet like Kuru.
Every year, another opportunity to insult Queen Kunti and her three biological sons by not inviting them to join Nakula and Sahadeva. Not that the twins seemed to have picked up on that aspect of it, at least not yet.
But this year was different. This year was special. This year, both twins were about to turn thirteen years old - and about to become, in the eyes of the law and of society, grown men.
Shalya wanted to make certain that this year would be a visit that neither of his nephews would ever forget.
"Chocolates," Shalya said as Nakula tore the wrapping paper off another box, "from King Shakuni of Gandhara."
"Thanks," Nakula said, already tearing into another one. "Where's that circuit board you promised me?"
"It's in there." Shalya folded his legs beneath him, settling on top of his nephew's bed, where the two of them were currently tearing through Nakula's traditional pile of presents. "You don't like chocolates?"
"Chocolates are for eating," Nakula said contemptuously. "Meanwhile, I've got a fully functional servant robot prototype without a brain."
"I'd love to see it," Shalya said. Not really, but Shalya was damned is he was going to be unsupportive of his nephew's genius the way that Kunti was.
"Good, because I brought it in our trunks." Nakula looked up at Shalya, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. "Sahadeva and I have this project," he began. "We're building a torso and a pair of arms that can fire a bow and an arrow the way that a human would be able to. We've been studying Arjuna every day during his practice. He gets all nervous about it, but when we're finished, it'll be great. Really amazing. Nobody's ever been able to build robotic arms like that before. Because of the hands. The hands have to be incredibly precise. The androids that we use on Kuru have only minimally functioning hands when they have hands at all. Also, the speed! We're really going to try to imitate Arjuna's speed if we can. But I don't know if we can do it. Sahadeva tried to record his shooting on video before, but even with the best equipment, all we can see are blurs where his arms should be…"
Shalya did not bother to ask what the point of building a pair of artificial arms that could fire a bow and arrow could possibly be. But instead he looked around and asked, "Where's your brother?"
"Sahadeva? He wandered off a while ago." Nakula tore into another wrapped box. "A laser cutter!" He threw his arms around his uncle and kissed his cheek. "Uncle Shalya, you are so awesome! Grandpa Bhisma took away my last one."
"I found the kitchens," Sahadeva suddenly announced, having appeared out of nowhere.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Shalya said, turning toward his other nephew. He was used to Sahadeva's constant appearances and disappearances by now.
Sahadeva's face was carefully blank. "There was a lot of food in cold storage," he said.
For a moment, Shalya's smile faltered. "What were you doing wandering around in cold storage? Sahadeva, that's dangerous--"
"I saw a lot of food. Enough for three weeks." Sahadeva blinked at his uncle. "But it only takes a few days to reach Madra from Kuru. Two days total in normalspace with a three-hour jump in between."
Shalya reached out and ruffled Sahadeva's sunset-colored hair. "I don't suppose you'd want to open your presents now, would you?"
"You better not have stuck my circuit board in Sahadeva's pile," Nakula commented around a mouthful of chocolates.
"I think that might have been what happened," Shalya laughed as he eyed the decimated pile of torn wrapping paper and open boxes piled in drifts around Nakula. "There's one more thing, though..."
"What?" Nakula stopped fiddling with his laser cutter long enough to look up at his uncle.
"A special present. Just for you."
Nakula looked around. "Where is it?"
"It's not here, not right now," Shalya said quickly. "It's a surprise." He gently pried the laser cutter out of Nakula's fingers, just as Nakula was about to finish cutting a star-shaped hole in one of the bedposts. "Come to the third-level dining hall tonight. Bring your formal wear."
"My swimsuit has smiley faces printed on it," Sahadeva commented. "They glow in the dark."
Shalya understood that this was Sahadeva's way of asking something specific, so he answered, "You can both go swimming in the mineral pool after dinner."
Sahadeva leaned over the observation window, watching the blue orb of Kuru receding in the darkness behind them, humming to himself tunelessly and tapping his feet. Nakula brushed a lock of Sahadeva's hair over his ear and said impatiently, "We're going to be late for dinner."
But Sahadeva grabbed Nakula's hand and waved it up and down, as the two of them still faced the window. "Wave goodbye to Mom," he admonished.
Nakula waved but replied moodily, "She can't see us, you know."
"And wave goodbye to the fishes. It's a good idea to stay on their good side."
Nakula peered at the blue mass of ocean covering Kuru's surface, and frowned. He hated fish. Nasty toothy dangerous animals, they were. Nakula had been told that his real grandfather (not Grandpa Bhisma, Grandpa Bhisma was his fake grandpa) had been eaten by a fish. Well, as far as Nakula was concerned, that was his own fault for sporting on a windsurfer over the deep water, anyway.
Sahadeva, still holding Nakula's arm by the wrist, turned and began walking toward the dining hall. Nakula followed, quietly. Sahadeva set a good pace. Both twins were wearing their swimming trunks beneath their formal robes, which felt deliciously subversive and fun. Nakula thought that they would never have been able to get away with that on Kuru. Uncle Dhritarashtra would have heard the swishing of the material of their swimming trunks between their legs, or Mother would have found out about it somehow, because mothers had a cursed sixth sense like that.
There were many adults already seated and waiting when Sahadeva led Nakula into the banquet table. Nakula vaguely remembered the names of all of the aunts and uncles and cousins who wanted to hug him and kiss him on the cheek. Which they did, until he and Sahadeva were finally allowed to sit down, one on either side of their Uncle Shalya, who sat at the head of the table, because he was a king.
"Where's my present?" Nakula asked before the first dish was even set down before him. Sahadeva was already busy folding his cloth napkin into an elaborate facsimile of a long-legged waterbird.
"After the food," Shalya answered patiently. Nakula poked at his food and noticed that everybody seemed to be watching him. The grownups all around him were eating and talking, but they were also watching him at the same time, out of the corners of their eyes. Nakula ate his food slowly, suddenly self-conscious about his own chewing.
"Aren't you excited?" some minister or official that Nakula didn't even recognize finally asked him.
Nakula swallowed the last bite of his dessert. "Excited about what?"
"To be turning thirteen. To become a legal adult."
"That's not until two weeks from now," Sahadeva answered for Nakula, as he used his finger to swirl the sauce left on his plate. "Mom is planning a big ceremony for us. We're going to get our future told. Like Arjuna did."
Nakula choked back a snorting laugh at the memory of Arjuna's coming-of-age ceremony. Until recently, Arjuna's "Great Warrior" title had been somewhat of a family joke. It was still pretty funny to Nakula, even if it was really starting to become true. It was still funny because Nakula remembered the look on Arjuna's face when the priest had said--
"You've grown up so much since I last saw you," the same man said again, interrupting Nakula's thoughts. Nakula frowned. He couldn't even remember having ever seen this man before.
"That happens to people," Sahadeva said. "They grow up."
"Which is exactly why I think," Shalya said, "that Nakula here is old enough for his present."
For a moment, Nakula cheered up at the thought of a present. But then an sudden hush fell on the table, and he felt that undercurrent of nervousness again. It wasn't just his own nervousness, either. It was everyone eating at the table, everyone in the room. Waiting for him to see his present, waiting to see if he liked it.
A servant stepped forward, and bowed in front of Nakula, holding out a gold ring resting on a pillow.
Nakula took the ring, peering at it intently. It was plain and felt old. It wasn't such a great present, really. Nakula didn't even like to wear rings. How was he supposed to do delicate work with a circuit board and a laser finisher when he was wearing jewelry on his hands?! But Nakula didn't want to disappoint Uncle Shalya, so he slipped the ring on his finger, turned to his uncle, and said, "Thank you."
The table seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. But Sahadeva, suddenly tense and stiff, looked to his uncle and said, almost accusingly, "That's not just a ring, is it."
"No." Uncle Shalya beamed at both of his nephews. "That ring belonged to my great-great-great grandfather. It is a family heirloom, passed down from one king to the next."
Nakula felt his dessert suddenly trying to crawl back up his throat.
"Follow me," Uncle Shalya said, rising from his seat and indicating that his nephews should do the same. "You two and I need to have a private talk."
"So. I'm listening." Nakula settled himself down imperiously upon the chair that his uncle had provided as if it were a throne. He felt a bit silly, wearing his swimming trunks beneath his robes and pretending to act like a king, but the occasion seemed to call for imperiousness. The gold ring on his finger felt hard and cold as he rested his chin on his fist, trying to appear thoughtful.
"When a king of Madra turns thirteen years old," Shalya said, settling down on a cushion below Nakula, "traditionally, the king's coming-of-age has been held at the temple of Manikaran--"
"That's in the Border System," Sahadeva protested. "It will take over a week to make the jump there."
Shalya smiled at him, patiently. "Yes. It will."
"But we told Mom that we'd be back in a few days." Sahadeva pouted. "She planned our coming-of-age ceremony. She worked really hard on it. She'll be hurt if we miss it."
"I had thought of that, Sahadeva. But the choice belongs to Nakula." Shalya turned toward the young prince, bowing his head in supplication. "You could return home to Kuru in a few day's time, and complete your coming-of-age in Hastinapura. But your future there will be uncertain. Your line may or may not inherit the throne. And even if your eldest brother is chosen for the throne over your cousin Duryodhana, even then... You will be fourth in line for the throne, living and working as one of your brother's lackeys for the rest of your life. Or you could come with me to Manikaran. Claim your rightful place as the king of Madra, and rule our kingdom as you were meant to."
"I was never aware," Nakula said coldly, "that I was meant to be your successor."
"You are the eldest son of my sister," Shalya said, "and I have no children of my own. Who else is there worthy for me to pass my crown to? Who else is it that carries our royal blood?"
"Sahadeva." Nakula rolled his eyes. "We're identical."
"But you were born first." Shalya stood up, looking down at his seated nephew. "Surely you've thought about this before."
"Honestly? No. You never told me." Nakula glared up at his uncle. "Have you talked to my brothers or Mom about this?!"
"You know that they would never let you have this. You know that they would never have let you come with me this year if they'd had any inkling of what I planned to give you." Shalya gestured, and a servant appeared out of nowhere, this time reverently carrying something silver and gold in his hands. It was a crown of twisted metalwork, delicate lattices and curving curls looping over and over and over themselves. Nakula thought it looked kind of girly, like something his cousin Dusshala would wear. Shalya took the crown, and set it down, not on top of Nakula's head, but in his hands.
"Please think about this," Shalya said. "We don't have to decide which direction to jump the ship until tomorrow afternoon." He placed his hand on Nakula's head. "Think about whom you truly owe your allegiance to. Think about the blood that flows in your veins. You could live as a servant to your not-brother for the rest of your existence. Or you could rule the world from which you came."
"He is right about that," Sahadeva said, wading idly through the steaming mineral waters, drawing his own rippling patterns of waves with his hands. "If Yudhisthira gets the throne, we don't get much of anything, except a lot of responsibility to work for him. If Yudhisthira doesn't get the throne, then we don't get anything, period."
Nakula sat on the edge of the pool, his bare feet dangling in the water, watching his brother. Uncle Shalya had called Yudhisthira his not-brother. It was a true word, but a cold word. Legally, Nakula and Yudhisthira shared the same father. Truthfully, they had been born of different deva-fathers, and different human women. They were not brothers. They were not even related. Nakula had no memories of the human father that he was supposed to have shared with Yudhisthira. He had no memories of real mother, either. But he had plenty of memories of his not-mother, the one that he called Mother and Mom even though she wasn't, and most of those memories involved her yelling at him.
"Even if he's our not-brother," Sahadeva said, lowering himself into the water and effortlessly picking up on Nakula's thoughts, "He does a good enough job of acting like one."
"Always telling me what to do," Nakula sulked, kicking at the water, "always telling me what not to do."
"That's what big brothers are supposed to do." Sahadeva swam around idly, keeping his head bobbing above the water. "Then again, if you were a king, you would never have to listen to him again."
"And wouldn't that be something," Nakula said, turning his face upward, toward where a shielded glass plate in place of a ceiling gave a clear view of the stars spinning around them, and the gaseous mass of Kuru Six passing by the side of the ship. By tomorrow afternoon, they would be out of the Kuru System and clear to make a jump to Madra. Or to the Border System. "Wouldn't that be something," Nakula said again, "if I got to be a king and Yudhisthira didn't."
"I think Uncle Shalya would like that," Sahadeva said, pulling himself up on the edge of the pool beside Nakula with a wet thump. "Even if it's not a very nice thing to want."
"I also think it's because of this." Sahadeva traced the markings on Nakula's bare back with his wet, wrinkled fingertip. "People are weird around devakin," Sahadeva said, conversationally. "Sometimes they're scared of us. But sometimes they like us and they want to have us around. Sometimes they like to collect us. Like how Duryodhana wants to add Arjuna to his collection of brothers. Like how the King of Kuru and the King of Panchala both have devakin children. Like how Uncle Shalya wants to be able to pass his throne on to a devakin, maybe just to say that he did, to say that he did just like Drupada and--"
"What's so great about being devakin?!" Nakula hissed. He glared up at the glass ceiling, and at the stars visible beyond it, balls of burning nuclear fire in which his deva-father might or might not exist, Nakula wasn't really sure He had always felt more comfortable with the concrete and the real - metal and lasers and circuits - than he had felt around the divine and the unknowable. "Not when you have a lame Gift like ours."
"It's not a bad Gift," Sahadeva said.
Nakula grumped again. He and Sahadeva had been born of the Ashvins, twin solar gods who watched over the inhabited worlds in the universe. Their one and only Gift was that neither of them would ever have to worry about being sunburned.
"This isn't just about you," Sahadeva suddenly said. "It's about challenging Yudhisthira. And challenging Mom." Nakula turned, and saw Sahadeva peering at him intently. "I think Uncle Shalya wants you to challenge Yudhisthira. Someday. Or maybe Duryodhana. It depends."
"There have been wars between Madra and Kuru before." Sahadeva grasped Nakula's arm, fearfully. "They think that because you're a devakin you'll be able to conquer other worlds."
Nakula snorted. "I don't know how to fight a war."
"Yes, you do." Sahadeva touched the markings on the back of Nakula's neck again and said, "The part of you that isn't human knows how."
It was a false, artificial midnight on board the Madri IV when Nakula finally decided to leave the pool and retire to bed. He threw a robe on over his swimming trunks, and shuffled through the quiet passages of the ship, no longer feeling much like sliding around on the slick marble floors. Sahadeva had gone to bed some time before, leaving Nakula alone with his thoughts, and alone with the cold metal ring that he still wore on his right hand.
Nakula paused in front of an oil painting of the ship's namesake - his mother. He remembered this portrait from previous ships, from previous years. It was hardly the largest portrait of Madri on display within the ship, but it was the prettiest, in Nakula's opinion. His mother was sitting on a low couch, a silk shawl draped around her shoulders, her hair spilling in dark waves down her back, her eyes bright and clear despite being made of dashes of paint. Nakula thought she looked very young.
Nakula thought of his blood-family, and thought of his not-family. He thought of how his not-family was the family that he lived with every day, and how his blood-family was dead or gone or unremembered or rarely seen, close, or real.
"What do you think I should do?" Nakula asked the painting.
Nakula thought that if the painting could talk, it would tell him that once upon a time, his mother had married his father for a reason.
"We can't stay drifting out here forever," the captain said the next day, trying to appear as respectful as he could in front of the king, trying very hard not to tap his watch impatiently. "We need to make a jump. It's too dangerous to stay this close to the rimcloud for too long."
"I know," Shalya snapped impatiently. "I know!" He turned to his aides, who had clustered around him, awaiting his orders. "Find my nephews and politely tell them that we are all awaiting their answer."
"But we already searched--"
The aides left. Shalya rubbed his forehead, and walked slowly back to his private quarters, feeling the tension knotting up between his shoulders. Why was Nakula hiding from him? Why was Nakula taking so long to make this decision, anyhow? The choice seemed clear-cut to Shalya. His nephew had everything to gain from accepting the tremendous gift that Shalya wanted to give him. He had everything to lose by refusing it.
Shalya left his ever-present bodyguards outside his quarters, stepped inside his study, and flipped on a light switch.
Nakula was sitting on a chair, Sahadeva standing beside him.
Shalya jumped when he saw them both. "I've been looking all over for you two!" he admonished them, angrily. "How did you two get in here--?!"
Sahadeva smiled blankly at his uncle, but Nakula stood up out of his chair and said, "I came to tell you that I made my decision." His golden eyes were solemn, and heavy.
Shalya said nothing, and waited.
"I don't want the ship to jump to Madra," Nakula said. "And I don't want this ship to jump to Manikaran, either. I want this ship to turn around and head back to Kuru."
Sahadeva rested on hand on Nakula's shoulder and glared up at his uncle. Shalya stood staring at them both, silent, stunned. "Nakula--" he said.
"We want to give these back to you," Sahadeva interrupted, taking his hand off Nakula's shoulder, and bending down to pick up the crown and ring, which had been sitting on the floor at his feet. He held the gifts out to his uncle. "They don't belong to us."
"Yes they do!" Shalya exclaimed, angrily. A dark shadow passed over at his face. "You two would rather remain your false brother's pawns than--?!"
"I will never be a pawn," Nakula interjected, coldly, calmly. His golden eyes never flinched away from Shalya's. His voice was steady, his chin held high. "I will never be a servant or a lackey. I will never be a pawn, not to my brother, and not to anybody. Least of all to you." Nakula trembled and repeated, "I will not be your pawn."
Sahadeva continued to hold out the crown and ring, one in each hand. But Shalya would not touch them. So finally Nakula stepped around his uncle and headed out of the room. "Mother will be happy to see us back early," he said as he left. After a moment, Sahadeva dropped the crown and ring back to the floor, and followed his brother.
Shalya turned to watch them leave. "Nakula," he finally said.
Nakula stopped, but did not turn around to face his uncle.
"I gave those gifts to you," Shalya said, "because there is nobody else whom I want to have them." He swallowed. "You are my blood and my heart. Never my pawn."
"I know," Nakula said, still not turning around. "And this way, it will stay that way."
With that, he left, and Shalya was alone in the room, his own crown tossed at his feet.
To be continued.