AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti and Steelehearts for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
PROLOGUE: WORLDS THAT WERE
The king left behind three sons.
"We're cursed," proclaimed the middle son, Pandu, with all of the solemnity that his slight ten-year-old self could muster. "Grandpa was eaten by a fish, too."
"Grandpa," corrected the eldest son, Dhritarashtra, "drowned. He fell off the yacht, had his arms and legs bitten off by a carnivorous purplegill, and then he drowned."
"I'm never going on a boat again," Pandu said resolutely. Then he took a deep, shuddering breath, and covered his face with his sleeve for a moment. When he felt that his voice had steadied enough, he continued, "I'm never going to the beach again, either."
"Don't be stupid," Dhritarashtra said, but he put his hand on his younger brother's shoulder anyway. Dhritarashtra was three years older than his brother. This meant, as his late father had often told him, that he was responsible for making sure that his younger brother's natural inclination toward stupidity never got the better of him - at least not in public. That was what big brothers were for.
Vidura, the youngest, who had said nothing for a very long time, suddenly said, "I hope Papa is reborn as someone who doesn't taste good to fish."
Pandu nodded solemnly, in agreement with the wisdom of this utterance.
"I'm never going to hunt fish again," Pandu declared, even though his father had already introduced him to the singular pleasure of harpooning the toothy creatures on their many previous boating vacations. "I'm never going to eat fish again."
Dhritarashtra rolled his eyes. "Then what are you going to eat?"
"I dunno." Pandu fell silent for a moment. Dhritarashtra couldn't tell whether Pandu's silence resulted from the effort of thinking very hard, or from the effort of trying very hard to be a man and to not blubber in public. "Seaweed."
"You'll get sick," Vidura said, disapprovingly, in a prissy voice that Dhritarashtra often thought was only a taste of how insufferable his youngest brother was sure to become as he grew into adulthood. "And your skin will turn green."
"Oh, oh, there you are!"
All three brothers turned at once. "Uncle Bhisma," Dhritarashtra said, since as the oldest, he was expected to speak for all three of them.
Bhisma, who had graying hair and wrinkled eyes and who, as everybody always commented, looked absolutely nothing like his recently deceased brother, swept toward the three princes. "Pandu, young man, where is your tie?!"
"It looked stupid," Pandu mumbled.
"This is not the time for- Vidura, you can't wear those socks with-! Pandu, don't you dare make that face at me, not today, not today of all days-"
"What's wrong with my socks?" Vidura questioned, with genuine innocence.
"Papa loved purple."
"Vidura, princes wear white to a funeral."
"Papa wore purple to Mama's funeral-"
During all of this, Dhritarashtra squeezed Pandu's shoulder gently, and said one word: "Tie."
"Right," Pandu mumbled, reluctantly. Dhritarashtra heard his fingers fumbling in the pockets of his dress trousers, digging out his white necktie. Dhritarashtra figured that Pandu had kept the tie in his pocket because he had known at some point he would have to put it on anyway.
Bhisma then turned toward them both and gestured sharply enough that his hand actually caused the air around it to whistle with urgency. "Come on," he said. "We're late." Then he turned on his heel and marched away, clearly expecting his nephews to follow him.
"Okay," Pandu said, taking a deep breath. "We can do this."
Vidura went first, then Pandu, and then Dhritarashtra, with his hand on Pandu's shoulder. Pandu led his eldest brother in this manner, anywhere and everywhere they went. This was because Dhritarashtra had been born blind.
Once there was a great vast emptiness of dark space speckled throughout with some very old planets and some even older stars. There were humans on many of these planets. Nobody could say how they got to be there or where they had come from, but they were there. Humans had wondrous technology and fantastic metal ships that allowed them to travel across the nothingness between planets. And yet, very few humans ever did so, because there was simply too much to occupy oneself with on one's own planet. Likewise, space travel itself was often considered quite dangerous. Everybody knew that gods and demons lurked in the empty dark matter between stars.
Now, as the old people often said with a sort of self-righteous fatalism, the stars were dying out, and with them were crumbling the civilizations on the tiny planets orbiting them. Worlds were growing isolated. Ships were rarely seen streaking across the skies. Languages were dying. Scholars were losing the most ancients texts of their own civilizations, or forgetting how to translate the slightly less ancient. New blood came to none of the planets, and the old blood grew thicker and slower with each generation. Darkness was already encroaching upon the outermost known worlds. There were whispered rumors of stars dying out, or even going supernova - although the treacherously slow speeds of light would not reveal the truths of these rumors, to either the naked eye or the most sophisticated telescope, for centuries yet. In the meantime, few were brave or foolish enough to board a starship and confirm for themselves the fate of these distant and, in the minds of many, unimportant worlds. Meanwhile, the humans on each planet had their morning newspapers, their workplace banter, their families, their children, their auto insurance bills. This was happiness, to many.
And the very fact that in the face of all of the crumbling decline and growing darkness there were still planets teeming with life and creativity and civilization at all, was quite extraordinary.
One of these many marvelous planets was called Kuru by the people who lived on it, a small ball of rock and ocean orbiting a yellow star edging toward the center of a spiraling galaxy. Kuru was, as any of its natives would gladly tell you, home to the oldest and most advanced civilization in the known universe. (The fact that the inhabitants of Panchala, a planet in a nearby system, often made this exact same claim, was rarely acknowledged with anything more than a derisive snort by any decent self-respecting citizen of Kuru.) The people of Kuru had colonized their own moon so far back in their own history that they had lost all record of when and how it had exactly occurred. Kuru's three small continents offered both soaring mountains and lush green valleys; windswept desserts of both sun-baked sand and freezing ice; rainforests and pine forests and rolling meadows of wildflowers. The people of Kuru were usually quite proud of their forests and flowers, and would often bring up these lovely natural assets in the face of detractors (often Panchalans) who liked to point out the honest truth - that Kuru was more ocean than land, and that eighty percent of the planet's surface reeked of salt water and the unpleasant, toothy things which had evolved in Kuru's sometimes too-fertile waters.
Salt-stink and man-eating fish aside, the people of Kuru did have one thing that they were perfectly justified in boasting about - Hastinapura, a capital city so lovely that even Panchalans were not ashamed to write poems about her soaring buildings that gracefully hugged breathtaking seaside cliffs, her warm subtropical climate and sweet-smelling ocean breezes, sights and sounds and smells. Hastinapura's art museums and theater houses were the envy of not just the rest of Kuru, but many other planets as well; at the mention of Hastinapura's libraries, academics from near and far were known to start salivating; Hastinapura's annual boat, balloon, and speedbike racing events were attended even by the rare visitor from worlds in other quadrants of the galaxy.
And above the boat races and the automobile speedway, above the theaters and the libraries, above the universities and the science laboratories, above all of Hastinapura, on the highest cliff overlooking both the city and the warm yet treacherous and stormy ocean that it bordered, sat a palace so magnificent and so ancient that many believed it had been there even before the cities had appeared on Kuru's moon. And from this splendid palace, since time immemorial, a single king had ruled over all of Kuru.
This story begins with Hastinapura's king. Specifically, it begins with the death of the king.
When Dhritarashtra had been born, the priests within the palace had all unanimously agreed that the blind child could not succeed to his father's throne. "It is too inauspicious," one had said. "It is a sign from the gods that his baby must not be a king," another had said.
Bhisma, who had taught himself to read the raised, bumpy system of writing that the blind used so that he might, in turn, teach it to his nephew, had always told Dhritarashtra, "The Lord may not have given you sight, but he gave you many other gifts that others will never have."
Dhritarashtra thought of these things as he sat through his father's funeral, Vidura's head on his shoulder, Pandu's rough hand clutched in his. It was better to think of these things than to think of his own father being eaten alive by a redfinned lacegill.
Dhritarashtra and his brothers sat at the very front of a crowd of thousands. Dhritarashtra could not see them, but he could hear the electronic hum of broadcast camera and tastefully hidden microphones all around.This is being broadcast on media channels, he thought numbly. All the more reason not to cry.
Dhritarashtra could feel an occasional hot flush appearing and then receding from Vidura's cheeks as they rested against his shoulder. But so far, he had heard no sniffling, which meant that for the time being, Vidura was keeping his composure.
Purple socks, Dhritarashtra thought. The thought cheered him up, because he knew that his father would have appreciated purple socks on a day like today. On the other hand, Dhritarashtra was still mildly dismayed to think that he did not really understand what purple was, or why in the Lord's name his uncle Bhisma would find something like a color so very offensive.
When it was over, Bhisma pulled the three princes aside. Then he knelt down until he was at eye level with Pandu, and said very quietly, "The priests would like to crown you tomorrow. We'll wait until next week to have a public ceremony." Pandu gulped, but Bhisma patted him on the shoulder and said cheerfully, "It will be a splendid coronation. Just you wait."
"I'll-" Pandu choked for a moment, then quickly composed himself. "I'll have to wear a stupid hat, won't I?"
"Oh, yes. And ridiculous-looking robes. And you'll have to wave around the most ludicrous-looking scepter we have among the royal collection. And the crown will likely be far too large for your head, but..." Bhisma shrugged.
Pandu laughed, weakly.
Bhisma hugged him once, quickly, then straightened up and turned away from the princes. "I'll fetch you tomorrow," he said. Then he left, and they were alone.
A moment later, Pandu suddenly grabbed Dhritarashtra in a fierce hug and, burying his face in his older brother's chest, mumbled "It should be your crown."
"Don't say stupid things like that," Dhritarashtra snapped, rather more testily than he would have liked.
"I AM stupid. You've always been better at-"
Dhritarashtra pushed Pandu away from himself, angrily. "You're the king now, you can't throw baby tantrums anymore-" When Pandu sniffled, Dhritarashtra threw his arms up in the air and said, exasperated, "Oh, come on, it's not like you have to do or decide anything important, Uncle Bhisma will take care of everything, you just have to sit there and wear a damn crown-!"
"Oh," Vidura gasped, very small and quiet.
"What?" Dhritarashtra snapped.
"I've never heard you say a bad word before," Vidura said, honestly.
"You're mad at me," Pandu said. He sounded very hurt. "I knew it."
Dhritarashtra sighed. "Why would I be mad at you?"
"Because... Because you're the oldest and because I've never been as good as you at studies or homework or anything and because Uncle Bhisma has always liked you better and because even Uncle Bhisma thinks that you're smarter than me and because I get to be king and you don't."
For a long, long moment, Dhritarashtra said nothing. Then he said, "That's not true."
Pandu grew very quiet. Dhritarashtra could feel his younger brother's wide, teary eyes on him, searching, seeking, squinting, probing carefully. Finally, Pandu said, very shakily, "Swear honest?"
"Swear honest. That's not true," Dhritarashtra lied.
"Okay," Pandu said, his voice wavering with teary relief.
" I just want to go to bed," Dhritarashtra said. He reached for Pandu's shoulder. "Let's go, all right?"
"Right," Pandu agreed, content to have cleared the air of the matter. He started back in the right direction, Dhritarashtra following, Vidura trailing behind them.
Dhritarashtra could feel Vidura's eyes staring at his back as the three of them moved silently through the palace. Dhritarashtra knew that Vidura was as observant - and as skeptical - as Pandu was trusting.
Suddenly, Pandu abruptly stopped walking. "I want to make you a promise," he said, turning his head toward Dhritarashtra.
"I'm going to be the best king ever."
Dhritarashtra raised one eyebrow at his brother. "Why are you making this promise to me?"
"I don't know." Pandu hummed for a moment, thinking to himself. "To make it up to you, I guess."
"Make up what, exactly?"
Dhritarashtra laughed, but it was not a mean laugh. Pandu laughed with him, and after a moment, began resolutely marching forward again, Dhritarashtra's hand still pressed to his shoulder.
Only Vidura did not laugh at this joke. The three of them walked in silence for a few more minutes, then Vidura said, "Nobody can be the best king ever."
"Well," Pandu said defiantly, "I'm going to try."
"Dhritarashtra, do me a favor..."
"Put on some sunglasses. Just looking at you is making my eyes hurt," Bhisma said wearily as he leaned back in his creaking chair, one hand trailing down idly over the edge of his seat and playing with the fine grains of sand below.
"What for?" Dhritarashtra asked.
"Ultraviolet radiation can damage your eyes-"
"That's a moot point," Dhritarashtra said. He could feel shallow licks of salt water swirling around his feet and small, sharp, crawling things burrowing into the sand between his toes with every breath of the tide.
"It is not," Bhisma insisted. "There's a new surgery-"
"Not today, please," Dhritarashtra said. "We're on vacation." He knew that Bhisma had never really given up hope of fixing his defective eyes. They had certainly tried everything - lasers, cybernetic implants, a trial of an artificial optical nerve in his left eye. They had used the finest doctors and tapped into the most advanced medical research available. Beneath his fine brown hair, Dhritarashtra's scalp was riddled with thin, small scars from numerous surgical incisions. And nothing had ever worked. The artificial optical nerve, for instance, had mysteriously died before Dhritarashtra's anesthesia had even worn off. Lasers had had no effect, and nobody had been able to explain why. The priests had said this was because the gods had already decided that Dhritarashtra was not to see in this lifetime. By this point in his life, Dhritarashtra was inclined to agree.
Dhritarashtra turned his head toward where he knew Pandu and Vidura were sitting, far back in the dunes that were a good, safe distance away from the edge of the water. Pandu was building a sand castle with dry sand, which Dhritarashtra supposed was not working out very well for him, and pouting. He had spent the entire morning loudly explaining to Bhisma that he would much rather spend his vacation hunting in the woods than slopping around in the hot, scratchy sand and cold, smelly waters of the beach. But Bhisma had been adamant, and eventually Pandu had finished his protests and resumed a sort of quiet, cold sulking. And Vidura was there beside him, plugging away at their doomed sandcastle, because Dhritarashtra suspected that Vidura was more than a little bit afraid of the water himself.
As if on cue, Pandu's voice floated toward Dhritarashtra from across the dunes. "Don't go too far in!" he called out, worriedly.
Dhritarashtra waved cheerfully in Pandu's general direction, and then returned to ignoring him. A redfin lacegill, Dhritarashtra recalled, was a monstrous fish, nearly the length of an ocean-going liner, and weighed several hundred thousand mass units. At the moment, Dhritarashtra was standing in water up to his ankles. He doubted that any sort of man-eating fish would be able to sneak up on him in this shallow water.
Then one of those small pointy creatures beneath his feet suddenly jabbed Dhritarashtra's left toe with one of its claws. Dhritarashtra took that, more than Pandu's warning, as his cue to get out of the water. With his cane shuffling the sand in front of him, Dhritarashtra made his way back to where his uncle Bhisma was lounging on a chair beneath a large umbrella.
It was cool beneath the umbrella. Dhritarashtra sat down on a blanket and folded his legs beneath him. "Thank you," he said as somebody unnamed and unseen (always for him, unseen) knelt down beside him and offered him a drink. Somewhere behind him, he could hear the sound of plates and silverware clinking against each other, and he could smell fish just beginning to roast. Dhritarashtra estimated ten, maybe fifteen minutes before he and his brothers would be served lunch.
"You're seventeen now, aren't you?" Bhisma said, suddenly.
"That means that you're old enough to try cybernetic-"
"NO," Dhritarashtra said quickly. "No. We talked about this. I don't want robot eyes."
"They're not 'robot' eyes-"
"You used to tell me," Dhritarashtra hissed, "that God gave me these eyes for a reason. Since then I've let you and your doctors stick a lot of needles in my skull, but I'm NOT going to let you scoop out my eyeballs and replace them with some useless machines that you and I both know aren't going to work anyway!"
"Watch your tongue, young man-"
"Ah, thank you!" Pandu suddenly said, snatching Dhritarashtra's drink out of his hand and downing it in one gulp. He handed the empty class back to his brother and said loudly, "That was good, what was that, redberry juice-?"
"And lickfire," Dhritarashtra said. He had been so wrapped up in arguing with Bhisma that he hadn't even heard his brother approaching behind him. But he was instantly grateful to Pandu for breaking up the fight.
"Uncle Bhisma, Uncle Bhisma," Vidura said, pulling at his uncle's hand and eagerly changing the subject, "Does this sunburn? This, here?" Dhritarashtra could imagine Vidura pulling his uncle forward and then pointing at the markings scrawled across his back.
Dhritarashtra had heard Pandu describe these markings to him before. They were dark brown and in some places mottled black, in some places a bit lumpy, like scar tissue, but in most places as smooth and as silky as normal skin. They spread across the expanse of his uncle's back, curling up the right side of his neck, covering his right shoulder and extending down his right forearm. They formed curves and loops and spirals, elaborate patterns of interlocking ellipses radiating out from each other, curving around each other, eclipsing and consuming each other. The effect, as Pandu has once described it, was much like an unusually large and lovely tattoo.
But this was not a tattoo. (And Dhritarashtra had never seen a tattoo anyway.) Bhisma had been born with these markings, as were all devakin.
"It does sunburn," Bhisma was saying to Vidura. "The bit on my neck even turned purple once." He sat patiently as Vidura traced the patterns on his back with his finger, something which he had done dozens of times before but which he still seemed to find utterly fascinating nevertheless. Dhritarashtra knew that Bhisma was used to his markings being a source of fascination for his nephews.
Then Pandu sat down beside Dhritarashtra, sharing his blanket. "You're sunburned," Pandu said, elbowing his brother. He smelled of sunblock and sweat.
"So are you," Dhritarashtra said. He could feel the heat baking off of his brother's damaged and no doubt reddening skin.
Pandu ignored this comment and turned his attention back to Bhisma. It was time for him to ask the inevitable question, because the rules of their little game was that the inevitable question always had to be asked at times like this. "Uncle Bhisma, Uncle Bhisma," Pandu said, crawling over Dhritarashtra and re-positioning himself so that he was kneeling beside Bhisma's chair, his chin resting on Bhisma's armrest. "What's your Gift?"
Bhisma laughed. "I already told you."
"Tell me again."
"You know how when you stay in a bath for too long, your fingertips get all wrinkly and pruny?"
"That's even worse than the last lie you told." Dhritarashtra could hear Pandu's frown in his voice.
Bhisma laughed again. He clearly enjoyed this game. "It's true. That's my one and only Gift. I swear."
"If that were true, that would be the lamest Gift, ever."
Dhritarashtra tapped his fingers against his empty glass and frowned. Devakin were increasingly rare among the human population of Kuru, and they had been rare to begin with. Devakin were the children of a union between a human and a god - born as a human in every respect, save for the fact that they had those unusual markings on their body, and the fact that each was born with a single Gift granted from their divine progenitor. In his studies, Dhritarashtra had learned of famous devakin throughout history who had inherited extraordinary Gifts - a man who could breathe fire, a woman who could create illumination with a thought, an artist who could sculpt water.
His own uncle Bhisma was the only flesh and blood devakin that Dhritarashtra had ever met, and the only one that he even knew of. Bhisma had never actually told his nephews - or anybody, for that matter - what his Gift was. Dhritarashtra knew that he and his brothers were hardly the only people in Bhisma's life who had made a game out of guessing what the Gift could be. Sometimes Dhritarashtra wondered whether his uncle would take the secret to the grave with him.
"Okay, I'll tell you for real this time," Bhisma said, although the smile in his voice betrayed his intentions.
"Yes. Listen. My Gift is that I don't ever have to die until I choose to."
Pandu was quiet for a moment, then said, hesitatingly, "Er, really?"
"So you could live, like, forever?"
Bhisma laughed. "When you start to get old, you'll understand why nobody would want to live forever."
Dhritarashtra sat silently, mulling this over in his head. His uncle was lying - he had to be lying - his tone of voice was so very transparently his lying tone of voice. But if it was a lie, it was a much more convincing lie than any he had ever told before about his Gift.
"So when are you going to die?" Pandu asked.
"After I see my great-grandchildren married," Bhisma said casually. He ruffled Pandu's hair. "You will give me great-grandchildren, won't you?"
"Of course," Pandu said. "And when I have kids I won't make them do homework and I won't tell them lies when they ask me questions and..." He paused for a moment, then added, "And I definitely won't get myself eaten by carnivorous fish."
"You smell nice," Dhritarashtra said. Then he added, "That's unusual."
"Ha, thanks," Pandu said, fussily adjusting his coat buttons. He turned toward Vidura. "How do I look?"
"Marriageable," Vidura said. "Very marriageable."
"I was hoping for 'handsome' or 'dashing'-"
"Do you even know this girl?" Dhritarashtra asked again.
"Never met her before. I heard she's nice, though." Pandu turned back toward his mirror, as the tailor crouching behind him quickly sewed up the finishing touches on his trousers. "It'll be more of an adventure this way."
Dhritarashtra shook his head. He had never understood the appeal of a groom-choosing ceremony, but Pandu seemed determined, and anyway he generally seemed to have bad luck with the girlfriends that he did meet on his own.
"This is so strange," Vidura suddenly said. He was sitting on Pandu's bed beside Dhritarashtra.
"In what way?"
"In the way that you're running off to some distant planet to attend a party for a princess that you've never even met before, and when you come back tomorrow morning you could be married. Married. As in, with a wife."
"And it's about time," the tailor mumbled from beneath Pandu's trailing silks.
"Have I mentioned that I think you're insane?" Dhritarashtra added.
"Eighteen times in the past ten minutes." Pandu hissed with frustration - he was fiddling with a rebellious lock of his hair. "You should try getting married yourself."
"I can't believe you're telling me that. You're not even married yet. You haven't even been able to keep a girlfriend for more than a few weeks at a time-"
"Which is why I'm getting married. So that I don't have to worry about switching off anymore. Er, if she chooses me, that is." Pandu jerked at his rebellious lock of hair with his comb, an action which sounded very painful to Dhritarashtra - he hated the sound of hair being pulled. "Why don't you marry that girl you've been writing to for what, like, two years?"
"She's just a friend. I haven't even met her face-to-face."
"She's Gandharan royalty, isn't she? We could use an alliance with Gandhara."
"Spoken like a true king," the tailor said as he tugged at Pandu's trousers.
Dhritarashtra sighed through his nose. He often found that he liked Pandu more as a meddling little brother than he did as a meddling king. He also thought that it was about time somebody started getting on Vidura's case about this whole marriage thing. He certainly got enough from both Pandu and Bhisma, and he wished that they would start bothering somebody else about it.
"When I have kids," Pandu was telling his mirror, "I think I'll teach them to hunt game rather than harpoon fish. I hope this Princess Kunti likes living in the woods, because that's where we'll be taking all of our vacations. And-"
"But harpooning your first redfin is a family tradition!" Vidura gasped, scandalized.
"I'm thinking maybe fifteen or so sons, a couple daughters thrown into the mix. I hope she's up to it," Pandu continued to babble, to nobody in particular. "Three hours in subspace to get to Madra?! I've never even been off the planet's surface before-! Well, at least she's holding her groom-choosing on Madra instead of Kunti. Kunti is way too far away. And who names a princess after her own planet anyway?! Maybe sixteen sons, I'd rather have an even number."
"You're not," Vidura said suddenly, "just doing this so that you can get away from the filibuster in Parliament and the protestors outside the palace demanding protection for those endangered redhoof deer up north and the fact that the head of the High Council was just caught having sexual relations with a ten-year-old boy?"
Pandu froze, his comb still stuck in his hair.
"Or the fact that Lord Jayawanta was in your office this morning telling you to drop trade sanctions against Panchala and that Lord Arunaashva was in there five minutes later threatening to resign his post if you did so?" Sensing but not seeing the shocked look on Pandu's face, Dhritarashtra waved his hand vaguely and said, "I know you were planning to tell me later, but you forget that I have better ears than yours - in more ways than one."
"Okay," Pandu said, "Okay, so maybe it would be nice to forget about all of that for one night. So maybe it would be nice to finally have a royal wedding around here and at least make people forget that I'm supposed to solve all of their problems for one lousy day, maybe two. Is it a crime to do any of that?"
"No," Vidura said. "But do you want my opinion about Arunaashva?"
"Let the bastard resign. You should appoint Lord Makaranda as your Minister of Economics. He actually understands what a dividend tax is."
"And fire that priest," Dhritarashtra added, "and push the law to protect that silly deer. No, wait, skip the Parliament. Just issue a decree, it's within your rights. And it'll appease more people than it will upset."
"Thanks." Pandu turned toward his brothers. "What would I do without you guys?"
"Probably something stupid like running off and marrying some princess that you've never even met before."
"That's nineteen times now."
Pandu left shortly thereafter, and returned with not only Princess Kunti as his wife, but Princess Madri as well. Dhritarashtra was not particularly surprised - as stubborn and as single-minded as his brother could be about some things, he was often famously indecisive about others.
It was the custom that, among royalty, a man was allowed to take more than one wife. Hastinapura was more than willing to celebrate not just one, but two royal marriages in a row.
Pandu's wife Kunti had dark eyes and a soft smile and spoke his language with a lilting, melodic accent. She was polite and reserved but nevertheless always quite clear in her opinions, which she offered frequently to her husband, on everything from matters of health care to the reform of Hastinapura's crushingly bureaucratic public education system. Within days after her wedding she had installed herself as head of the royal household, and ruled over the minute details of draperies, decor, and napkin colors and silverware placement with a firm fist. Pandu's other wife, Madri, seemed fully aware of and yet content with her position of deferring to Kunti. Madri was, in the opinions of many (particularly the sectors of the media that liked to gossip about such things) much prettier and more delicate than her counterpart Kunti.
Thankfully, neither of them particularly minded vacationing in the woods, as long as there was a log cabin's roof over their heads and plenty of servants along to make life comfortable.
Three years after Pandu's double marriage, however, there was still no heir to the throne.
Bhisma cornered Pandu one evening and, when he was reasonably certain that they were out of earshot of anybody but the dark-suited bodyguards lurking in the shadows behind them, asked him bluntly, "How often are you trying?"
Pandu seemed to choke on nothing in particular, and then he coughed.
"Now is not the time to be embarrassed," Bhisma hissed.
Pandu looked to the left, then to the right, seeking some escape from this interrogation,. Finding none, finally hung his head and mumbled, "Often. Every night. Sometimes in the mornings, too."
"And... nothing?" Bhisma sounded incredulous.
"Not even a false alarm." And then, anticipating Bhisma's next line of question, Pandu continued, exasperated, "And we're saying all the right prayers and doing the right pujas and Madri even got some pills that're supposed to help and we've tried every position and, and this is so very much NOT a conversation that I want to be having with you-"
"Maybe you should see a doctor," Bhisma said very quietly.
Pandu shook his head. "No, I don't need-"
"Your wives have seen doctors. I've seen their medical files."
"They what-?! You saw-?!"
"If there's a problem here, it's not their problem. Understand?"
"I dare you to be less discreet about this," Pandu hissed, eyeing the nearby bodyguards nervously, all of whom were wearing shades and stony expressions, and all of whom were probably listening with great interest. "Fine. I'll see a doctor."
"Great. Wonderful!" Bhisma clapped his nephew on the shoulder. "You are going to give me grandchildren, aren't you?"
"Of course," said Pandu. For years he had been waiting for the sons and daughters that had not yet come. He wondered how much longer he would have to wait.
Dhritarashtra was having dinner with the portly Minister of Defense when Sanjaya leaned down and whispered into his ear, "You should come."
"Your uncle needs to talk to you."
"Ish it an emergenshi?" The Minister of Defense hiccupped, having overheard the whispering messenger. "Come, come now. We've jusht uncorked a twenny-year-old-"
"It is an emergency," Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra's closest aide, said tersely.
"Right." Dhritarashtra stood up quickly. "Terribly sorry," he mumbled as he turned his back to the Minister of Defense, reached for his cane, and followed Sanjaya out of the room. They passed through crowded hallways, down stairs, and outside into the cool night air. Dhritarashtra realized that he was being shuffled into the backseat of an auto - one of the long, sleek, black, quiet ones that were kept around the palace specifically for the purpose of transporting royalty on particularly discreet errands. "Where are we going?" he demanded. "Where's my uncle?"
"Uni-Med," somebody said, and for a moment Dhritarashtra was utterly baffled, until he remembered, with a sick feeling of dread in his stomach, that this was the way that most people referred to the university hospital located in the center of Hastinapura.
"Pandu, Vidura," Dhritarashtra croaked hoarsely, clutching at somebody's sleeve. "Are they-?"
"Fine, they're fine, nobody is hurt."
"Oh," Dhritarashtra sighed, sinking with relief into the back seat of the auto that had apparently been arranged just for him. Sanjaya had not come with him. But the sick feeling of dread would not leave his stomach alone. He was being taken to a hospital. It was an emergency. This couldn't be good news.
The drive seemed to take forever. When they arrived, Dhritarashtra was pulled out of the car and led immediately into a cold and sterile place that reeked of antiseptic and polished metal and the underlying smell of blood. His stomach lurched again. The smell of the hospital was dredging all sorts of unpleasant memories up out of his subconsciousness, memories of a childhood spent with his head in bandages and blood running from his useless eyes, so many stays in the hospital, so many worthless surgeries, so many failed cures-
Dhritarashtra followed until Vidura was suddenly there, as if he had appeared out of nowhere. "There you are!" he gasped breathlessly, clutching at his brother's arm. "I was hoping you would get here sooner - maybe you can stop it - they've all gone insane, every last one of them-!"
"What exactly is going on here?"
"You have to talk to Uncle Bhisma, maybe you can convince him that he's being a prat-"
"Uncle Bhisma is not being a prat," Pandu suddenly said, rather defensively.
Dhritarashtra was not sure of the exact moment when he and Vidura had transitioned from being in a hallway to being in what obviously sounded and smelled like a hospital room. But suddenly they were no longer walking, a door was closed behind them, and there were a lot fewer people in the room with them. Dhritarashtra identified Pandu's voice and the sound of Bhisma's distinctive nosehair-ruffling breathing.
And there was someone else in the room, someone unfamiliar. Two someones, Dhritarashtra thought, after he took a moment to get his bearings. One was breathing quietly and smelled of rubbing alcohol - a doctor, then. And there was someone else who smelled like pine and woodsmoke.
"This is the right decision," Pandu said, "And you know it very well, Vidura."
Dhritarashtra shook his hand angrily away from Vidura. "Will somebody please-"
"I'll explain, Your Majesty," the unfamiliar man who must have been a doctor said.
Dhritarashtra fell silent, feeling his own blood suddenly run cold. His brother Pandu was the only one addressed as "Your Majesty." That was the way it had always been. That was the way that it was supposed to be. That was-
"These scans and these X-rays show that - er, sorry, I mean, well, if you could see, that is - during a routine examination of, of, er, of-"
"Of my bloody important royal balls," Pandu supplied helpfully.
Bhisma coughed, but the doctor struggled onward bravely. "We found some, er, abnormal cell formations. Further inspections revealed that this was an infection present in the intestines, liver, and most alarmingly, in the frontal lobe of the brain. We believe that it began in the lymph nodes many years ago-"
"Infection? What kind of infection?"
When the doctor said nothing, Pandu again stepped in. "Cancerous," he said, with cheerful bravado.
"We can remove the growths in the testes and liver and the intestines, but the growth in the brain is..." The doctor trailed off, then took a deep breath and continued. "But that won't solve anything, really, because more growths will surely appear - the lymphatic system is completely ruined, and spreading infected cells throughout the body every moment, and... and..."
"And I'm as surprised as anybody," Pandu said, again with that odd cheerfulness. "I mean, I've never felt healthier in my life. There's no pain at all."
"The pain will come soon," the doctor finished, quietly. "And then, honestly, you won't have much longer."
"Oh," Dhritarashtra said weakly, feeling his knees turning to jelly. Somehow he managed to stumble forward and, leaning heavily on the rail on the side of Pandu's bed, reached out and touched his brother's face. "Oh, Pandu, I'm so sorry-"
"In retrospect, this explains a lot," Pandu said, still smiling his odd, forced smile beneath the curve of Dhritarashtra's hand. "The doc says my sperm has been useless for the past five years, that's why we haven't had any children yet."
"Kunti and Madri-"
"They're on their way here right now," Vidura said.
"But you needed to be told first," a deep, rumbling voice said. Dhritarashtra straightened stiffly and turned slowly toward the owner of that voice - the last person in the room, the one who smelled like a forest night.
Dhritarashtra licked his lips and said, very slowly, "Why me?" Then he frowned and added, "Who are you?"
"Vyasa," the forest man answered.
Dhritarashtra's breath caught in his throat.
"A hermit," Vidura snorted.
"A wise man," Bhisma countered, forcefully. "Your father and your grandfather always did well by his advice."
"Lord Pandu is no longer fit to be a king," Vyasa went on, his throaty voice rumbling. "I would know this even if Lord Vishnu had not told me. A king must be of sound body. A king must be able to produce an heir."
Dhritarashtra was already shaking his head. He already knew where this all was going. "No, no," he said, "I couldn't-"
"But Vidura should-"
"You are the eldest and the first son."
"The gods don't want me on the throne. That's why they never gave me eyes. The gods chose Pandu-"
"And now they have chosen you."
"It should have been you all along," Pandu suddenly said.
Dhritarashtra suddenly pulled his hand away from his brother's face. "Don't SAY that!"
"You were always better at all this king stuff - all this economic and diplomatic and history and political stuff - than I was. You've been practically running the planet up until now anyway. The people love you." Pandu's voice was very quiet, but very still, and very calm. "You have to do this for me."
"I can't do this to you!"
"For me," Pandu corrected him. "Because I have to go away."
"This is where the insane part comes in," Vidura said from somewhere behind Dhritarashtra.
"I'll go into the woods, with Kunti and Madri," Pandu continued, very calmly. "I would rather end my days there than anywhere else."
"That is insane." Dhritarashtra fumbled for the right words. "That's - That's exile, that's what that is! You can't just send yourself into exile because of-"
"The Lord Pandu is cursed," Vyasa rumbled. "He must not stay in the presence of royalty. He must leave you. There is to be no more contact between him and anyone within this royal family, including his own brothers."
Dhritarashtra angrily snapped his head toward the source of this maddening voice and the even more maddening stink of an old man from the forest. "If I AM the king now," he hissed, "then you should best stopinterrupting me." Then he whirled back toward the bed where his brother was sitting. "If you're sick, then the last thing you should be doing is running off into the wilderness where we can't-"
"Prolong it?" Pandu asked, darkly.
"Your Highness," the doctor said, somewhat timidly, "If you were to stay here, we could do much to ensure that your remaining time is, well, er... comfortable. We have many ways to ease the pain, and with some very minor surgeries we could possibly grant you many more years of a healthy, pain-free life-"
"No," Pandu said, firmly. "No drugs. No prolonging the inevitable. And especially no cutting off my balls," he finished angrily. Then he snorted and mumbled under his breath, " 'Very minor surgeries' my foot."
"Your wives," Vidura said. "You can't make this decision for them."
"It's within my rights."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean that it isn't wrong."
For a very long moment, nobody said anything. Then Pandu sighed and said, "I'll let them decide whether to come with me or not. But I'm going, regardless. Whether you call it exile or not, it really is how I'd always imagined I'd like to spend my retirement. I was hoping that it would be a few decades further down the road, but... Well," he said definitively, as if that were the end of the matter.
"I agree," Bhisma said. "You should go." Then he addressed Dhritarashtra sharply. "I'll handle the press conference tonight. You'll be coronated tomorrow. Tomorrow is, believe it or not, an auspicious day for a coronation anyway."
Dhritarashtra's hands clutched convulsively at the railing of his brother's horrible, cold, metal hospital bed. He opened and closed his mouth, searching desperately for some last argument that he could bring up, some last way that he could protest any of this, something to say, anything to say. He could feel Vidura's eyes boring into his back.
Then Pandu reached out and touched Dhritarashtra's white-knuckled hands. "It's up to you to produce a heir to the throne," he said, bluntly, but not uncheerfully. "You should marry that nice girl you keep writing letters to. Have a big wedding party. It will make you feel better."
It was at that moment that Dhritarashtra knew that he was defeated. He and Vidura both.
Dhritarashtra opened his mouth to say something else - Don't leave me, perhaps, or even worse, I never wished for this, even though he knew that Pandu already knew that it was true.
But at that moment, Dhritarashtra was saved from having to say anything at all, because a commotion on the other side of the locked door behind them signaled the arrival of Kunti and Madri. Dhritarashtra heard the doctor take a deep breath, steeling himself for having to deliver his explanation all over again. He would probably be even less willing to openly mention the king's testicles in front of his two wives.
"She'll never marry me," Dhritarashtra said, for the thousandth time that morning. "You know that. This is pointless."
"You're a king. Who wouldn't want to marry you?" Vidura fussed with the lapels of his brother's coat one last time. "I'd marry you."
"I'm more horrified than comforted at the thought."
"You've known her for, what, how many years now?"
"Known but not met-"
"Well, that's quite a bit more than Pandu could say when he..." Vidura trailed off, then apparently decided that Dhritarashtra's lapels needed a bit more work. Vidura and Dhritarashtra's brother had been gone for months already, and his absence was still painful. Dhritarashtra reflected silently that everywhere around him seemed so much quieter now - probably because his brother had always been somewhat of a loud person, in more ways than one.
A door creaked open behind Dhritarashtra, and he turned his head. There was a rustle of clothing and the sound of hands being clapped together - a bow. "Your Majesty," a stranger said, "Her Royal Highness awaits."
Dhritarashtra walked forward slowly, holding his head high. Vidura followed behind him. Dhritarashtra held his cane but did not use it. Through one door, down a hallway, through another door - past another stranger bowing. Gandhari's servants, no doubt. Then Dhritarashtra caught the scent of a woman's flowery perfume on the air, and knew that he was in the right place.
Again, that rustle of clothing - somebody standing up. Somebody curtseying. "Your Majesty," a low, rich alto voice greeted him.
"Your Highness." Dhritarashtra noted that Vidura was now standing at his side.
There was the sound of a fan fluttering in Gandhari's hand. She suddenly laughed, low and bright. Then she addressed Vidura. "Well?"
Vidura put his hand on Dhritarashtra's shoulder. "She's beautiful," he said.
"I can hear that," Dhritarashtra said. He walked slowly toward Gandhari, reached out, and touched her hair, her cheek, and brushed his fingers against the curve of her neck. He wondered what she was wearing, what sort of material it was made out of, but he was afraid to touch her at all beneath her bare collarbone - to do so would have surely been utterly inappropriate.
"Oh, now don't be shy," she laughed again, and suddenly grasped Dhritarashtra's hand in hers and pressed it against the side of her face, guiding his fingers over the curved hollow beside her eyes, down the incline of her nose, toward the softness of her lips.
"Right, so, um, I'll be going now," Vidura said, rather loudly, as he hurriedly exited back through the doorway through which he had come. Dhritarashtra heard the sound of other footsteps as well - more of Gandhari's silent servants, discreetly taking their leave of their mistress. Finally, a door closed behind Dhritarashtra, and the two of them were alone.
Dhritarashtra said nothing for a moment, his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth. Then he felt a flutter of eyelashes against the palm of his hand - Gandhari was closing her eyes. "Is this what it's like for you?" she asked, reaching out with her own hands, fumbling blindly toward his face, finding it and then proceeding to explore the ridges of his eyebrows and the shape of his nose with her slender fingertips. Then she asked, bluntly, "Why didn't you ever send me a picture?"
"I've been told by reliable sources that I'm not much to look at."
"Who would say such a thing?"
"My brother Vidura."
"Then off with his head. He wouldn't know handsome if it smacked him in the face."
"He did just call you beautiful."
"Well, then, just for that, I'll have to spare his life," she said airily. Then she laughed again, and Dhritarashtra decided right then and there that Gandhari's laugh was the single most beautiful sound he had ever heard in his entire life. She was tracing the line of his jaw with the ball of her thumb. "I kind of like this," she said, "touching instead of seeing. You have a very nice face to touch, has anybody ever told you that?" She suddenly slid her hand around the back of his neck and began pulling him forward, as if to-
Dhritarashtra suddenly pulled away from her. "You do know why I invited you here, right?" he asked.
"I have a good enough guess."
Dhritarashtra took a deep breath. Then, realizing that there was no sense in delaying the inevitable any longer, he asked, "Will you marry me?"
"Goodness." Dhritarashtra heard her fluttering her fan in front of her face. "I shall tie a blindfold over my face and never uncover my eyes again."
When Dhritarashtra stood silently for a few seconds, unsure of what to say in the face of such a proclamation, Gandhari folded up her fan with a snap and said, impishly, "That was a yes, Your Majesty."
"All right... All right, then. That makes it okay to do this." And then Dhritarashtra leaned forward and kissed her.
After an eternity, she pulled away from him and gasped, "Tongue!"
"Well, yes, was it... too much?"
"No, it was perfect." She pulled herself close to him, and breathed against the nape of his neck, then slid forward on her tiptoes and nibbled at his earlobe. "I felt like I saw you with that kiss," she whispered huskily into his ear, "with that taste. On our wedding night, I'm going to close my eyes and I'm going to see every inch of your body," she breathed, "by tasting it. That's a promise."
"But you were joking about the blindfold thing, right?"
"No." She rested her head against his neck. "From this moment forward, I swear to you that I will only experience the world the way that you experience it - all taste and touch and sound and smell. It's good to be with you and to touch you. It's a better type of seeing than I ever imagined it could be."
He wrapped his arms around her, finally able to run his hands against the silky material of her gown, over and up and down the curve of her back. "You're strange," he said.
"I love you."
He was quiet for a moment, then he said, "You can't do that for me. I'll never be able to do something like that for you. Never."
"Who said that you have to? Love doesn't work that way."
"I can't let you blind yourself-"
"I love you," she repeated, as if this were enough to finish any argument about the matter. And Dhritarashtra realized, suddenly, that it was.
"Will this do?" Bhisma asked, as he rolled the last of the ungainly melons into Dhritarashtra's overflowing arms with his stiff, cold hands. "They've been frozen since last year, but it's the best the kitchen staff could find for me, and you know these things are out of season right now-"
"I know. She knows. Come in," Dhritarashtra said, hugging six of the icy cold orange melons to his chest and hoping that the forces of gravity and friction would keep the other six piled on top of them in place. He turned around, began stumbling awkwardly toward the bedroom that he shared with his wife. "Love?" he called out, listening to the footsteps of Bhisma following behind him.
"In here, darling, and by the way, tell Lord Bhisma that he's a saint among men," Gandhari's voice came from what sounded like very, very far away. But it wasn't far at all - Dhritarashtra rounded a corner, and he was in the bedroom.
"Oh," said Bhisma, coming up behind Dhritarashtra. "Your Majesty... You do not appear well."
"Not what a lady likes to hear, darling," Gandhari said from her perpetual (permanent, Dhritarashtra was beginning to fear) half-sitting, half-lying position on top on one side of their shared bed. "Even at three in the morning. I believe you've just forfeited your sainthood. You do realize that there's a special level of Hell reserved for men who insult a lady's lovely face, don't you?"
Dhritarashtra was just realizing that there was no sane reason for him to have brought his armful of melons into the bedroom in the first place - he should have fetched a servant to take care of them - when Gandhari suddenly said, "Oh, just toss me one of those and drop the rest on the floor. I feel like I could eat all of them right now."
"They're still half-frozen-"
Gandhari snorted derisively. "I've been carrying this baby for ten bloody months, I think I can handle a little frozen melon."
"Well, you're the queen," Dhritarashtra said, opening his arms and unceremoniously dropping a dozen half-frozen melons around his feet. He bent down, picked up a particularly cold and frosty one, and tossed it toward his wife. She caught it, as he knew she would, despite her blindfolded eyes. "Next time you have a midnight craving, do you think you could make it for a food that isn't six months out of season?"
"My baby is one month out of season," Gandhari grumbled. Dhritarashtra was partly amazed, and partly not surprised at all, when a moment later he heard the wet, ripping sound of his wife's fingers tearing into the rind of her still-not-entirely-thawed melon.
"I'll get a knife-" Bhisma suddenly said.
"Don't bother. I've got it." Gandhari was using her left hand to scrape handfuls of frozen melon meat into her cupped right hand, and then shoveling it into her mouth. "Yes. Right. Now this is what I've been needing."
Dhritarashtra toed at one of the frozen melons at his feet. They were all covered in frost, which was already beginning to melt into his plush bedroom carpeting. He could only imagine the mess that his wife was making all over their sheets. He sighed, then turned his head toward Bhisma and nodded, a gesture which they both understood meant that Bhisma was dismissed.
But Bhisma did not leave. Instead, he stepped gingerly around the bed and toward Gandhari's side, where he knelt beside her. Gandhari paused in her devouring of her barely thawed melon, and made a small gasp of surprise when Bhisma suddenly reached out and rested his hand on her swollen belly. "You're a blimp," he said.
"You DO remember what I just told you about that special level in Hell, don't you?"
"This isn't natural."
"It's an overdue baby. It is perfectly natural. It happens to women all the time. Not as though you would know."
"Most women don't get so big that they can't even get out of bed-"
"It's going to be a big baby."
"Look, I know that you want to do this whole natural birth thing, but..."
"But we have doctors for a reason," Gandhari said, imitating Bhisma's tone of voice so perfectly that for a moment, Dhritarashtra shivered. "I believe that my husband has discussed this with you before. My mother had me without ultrasounds or epidermals or drugs or anything of the sort, and I'll be damned if I'm going to subject this baby to any of that."
"We're not even going to find out if it's a boy or a girl," Dhritarashtra reminded his uncle, holding up his hands. "She's right, it really is more exciting that way." Although he knew that he sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.
"Look," Gandhari said, impatiently, "I'll be the first to admit that it's been no picnic, what with the vomiting every morning, my bladder being squeezed to death, the swollen ankles and all, but really, and this is probably something that your extra Y chromosome won't let you understand, but there really is something to be said for enduring all of that... It makes it more, well... You wouldn't understand."
"Excitement is all fine and good, but..." Bhisma stood up with a rustle of his damp, ice-splattered clothing. "This isn't just your baby, you understand. This is Kuru's future prince or princess. This could be the next heir to the throne. You can have your fun and talk about how exciting and rewarding a natural birth is all you want, but the fact remains that you can't - you shouldn't - you mustn't do anything that could endanger the health of this baby. Right now, the baby is overdue. Very overdue. And I'm worried. People are worried. Everyone is worried. You think that the tabloids aren't already spreading rumors about this 'freak baby'? My advisors have been getting calls from doctors on the other side of the planet telling them to get me to get you to do something about this baby. At least..." Bhisma threw up his arms in frustration. "An ultrasound or a scan of whatever it is they do to take pictures of babies! Just to make sure that it's all right and that there are no problems-"
"Radiation from those machines can harm the fetus," Gandhari said, her mouth full of half-frozen melon.
"You're as stubborn as Dhritarashtra is about his bloody eyes!" Bhisma suddenly snapped. "LOOK at you! You're a bedbound woman with a ten-month-fetus in your belly and a blindfold over your eyes eating a frozen melon that you clawed open with your bare hands and you're telling me that an ultrasound machine is going to radiate your baby to death?!" He suddenly snapped his head up, toward Dhritarashtra, who was staring at him, wide-eyed, from across the bed. "And YOU. You're her husband, you're this baby's father, you can't just let her get away with-"
"Do you honestly think that the baby is in danger?" Dhritarashtra asked, calmly, but rather coldly.
"Honestly? Yes." Bhisma stepped around the side of the bed and began shuffling towards the bedroom door. "If you would at least see a doctor and get a scan... It would make your Uncle Bhisma very happy."
Dhritarashtra held his breath for a moment, then let it out in one long, slow hiss. "Fine." He said. "We'll go see a doctor."
"Well then," Gandhari said, licking melon juice off her fingertips, "It's your fault if the baby is born with a freakish third arm or something."
"Any freak baby that you or I bring into the world will be right at home in this family."
Gandhari paused for a moment, then thoughtfully plopped another piece of melon into her mouth. "True," she said. "Very true."
"Honestly? I've never seen anything like this before," the doctor said, nervously.
Dhritarashtra recognized his nervous voice and demeanor. It was the same doctor who had told Pandu that he had cancer in his balls (and just about everywhere else in his body as well). Dhritarashtra thought that it was rather impolite of him to not be able to remember this particular doctor's name. But then again, this particular doctor always seemed to have bad news. Dhritarashtra didn't particularly want to remember his name.
Dhritarashtra tapped Vidura on his shoulder. "Tell me what it looks like again," he said.
"It looks like a bunch of white, tiny specks. A lot of white, tiny specks."
"And that's not what an ultrasound of a baby is supposed to look like?"
"No," the doctor said. "Because this is obviously not a baby."
"Don't be ridiculous. Gandhari has felt it kicking. I've felt it kicking. I've felt its heartbeat!"
"A heartbeat? Are you sure?"
"You stupid man, I can hear better than any of you here!" Dhritarashtra hissed. "She hasn't seen this yet?"
"She's in the other room, napping," Vidura said. "We called you first. Uncle Bhisma is bringing Vyasa-"
"Not HIM again!"
"I know, I know," Vidura said quickly. "But he's the only one who might be able to save your baby-"
"That is NOT a baby," the doctor said again. He sounded frightened, and not necessarily of the reaction from the king that he was giving this news to. "That can't be natural, whatever it is. There's no possible way it could be human-"
"Don't say things like that!" Dhritarashtra snapped.
"True that it's not a baby," a low, gravely voice said from behind Dhritarashtra. "It rather looks to be many babies, if you ask me," Vyasa said, striding right past Dhritarashtra and toward whatever infernal scan or image the doctor had been showing Vidura, hanging on a wall. He brought the smell of damp leaves and dirty feet into the room with him. "But first, are you absolutely sure that this is not an equipment malfunction?"
"C-Certainly not," the doctor stuttered. "We tried it a dozen times on more than one machine. I think she wanted to throttle me by the fourteenth or so scan - and the picture always stayed the same-"
Dhritarashtra realized that Bhisma was standing behind him. He heard Bhisma whistle, low and awed, when he saw whatever it was that Vyasa was now examining very intently. "That's-"
"Many fetuses," Vyasa said. "Very, very many fetuses." He was tapping points on the scan. "Each of these pale specks is a developing zygote. They all appear to be human. Although they'll certainly die or be miscarried if left inside the queen's uterus for much longer. She will likely die as well."
"How many?" Vidura asked faintly.
"Seventy? Eighty? Perhaps more."
"That's insane and impossible." Dhritarashtra glared with his useless eyes in Vyasa's general direction. "Are you even a doctor? Have you ever been to medical school or read a textbook or, or anything?"
"No and no," Vyasa said, dismissively. Then he went on, "The reason that each fetus is still so small and undeveloped, even after ten months, is that there are so many of them in the first place - they must have been competing for resources from the mother's body, and have been developing at an abnormally slow rate. Also at an uneven rate, I might add." He was tapping points on the scan again. "Some of these fetuses are already somewhat advanced - this one even seems to have arm buds. Others - this one here, it's only the size of a dot - surely no more than a ball of undifferentiated stem cells. There may be more that are too small to see with our naked eyes and this image."
"So what do we do?" Dhritarashtra asked. "Can they be saved?"
For a moment, the room fell deathly quiet. Then Vyasa asked quietly, "Saved... Your Majesty?"
"Yes. Can you do anything to help my children come to term? You know, be born?"
Again, that silence. It seemed to stretch out forever. Then Bhisma said, very softly, "You can't be serious."
"What is this nonsense, now?"
"This," Vyasa said, thumping his fist against the photograph or scan or ultrasound or whatever it was displayed on the wall, "is not natural. This is an abomination. This is something utterly horrific. This is something that surely would have killed your wife had you allowed it to go on much longer. There is no possible way that something like this could have happened without the interference of some power beyond your or my ability to comprehend."
"And not the divine kind of power, it would appear," Bhisma said.
"Stop it," Dhritarashtra said through gritted teeth.
But Vyasa went on. "I've never seen anything like this before, not this specifically, but I know the work of a demon's hand when I see it-"
"STOP," Dhritarashtra shouted, holding out his hand. "Do NOT say things like that! Not about my children!"
"You don't UNDERSTAND," Dhritarashtra shouted, not caring that he was shouting, not caring that everyone in this particular wing of the hospital could probably hear him by now. "They'll KNOW if you say things like that about them. My children will KNOW. It doesn't matter if they haven't been born or if they've just been born or if they're not supposed to remember these sorts of things - those words will STICK to them for the rest of their lives and they'll KNOW, they'll always KNOW what you said about them-"
"Calm down," Vidura said, trying to grasp at his brother's shoulder, but Dhritarashtra angrily slapped him away and whirled to face Bhisma. "I would KNOW," he snarled, "and YOU should know better than this! Don't think that I don't know what they said about me when I was born! Don't think that I don't know that they called me a demon child and that the priests said I was cursed but YOU and Father told them that they were wrong and YOU were always there for ME and now YOU want ME to damn my own children before they're even born? Before they even a chance?!"
"Y-you..." Dhritarashtra had never heard Bhisma's voice shake so badly before. Bhisma licked his lips, then mumbled, "There's no way you could remember any of-"
"Any child, even an infant, would remember being labeled as a demon."
"That was different, then," Bhisma said, now sounding defensive. "There was nothing unnatural about your being born blind. People were just being superstitious-"
"THIS IS NOT NATURAL!" Dhritarashtra snarled, jabbing his own fingers angrily toward his own eyes. "You know that as well as I do! That's why it could never be cured! And that's why you made Pandu the king instead of ME!"
"I WON'T LET YOU KILL MY CHILDREN! I WON'T!"
That was when Vidura grabbed his right arm and Bhisma grabbed his left arm and Vidura tried to plead with him, "Calm down, for the love of-!" but Bhisma took the most direct route. His hand slapped across Dhritarashtra's cheek hard enough to knock the breath out of him.
"Are you done screaming yet?" Bhisma asked, his voice chilly enough to cause a shiver to creep up Dhritarashtra's spine.
"Only if you're done trying to murder my children," Dhritarashtra answered with equal coldness, shrugging off Vidura's grip and using his free hand to gingerly touch his already swelling cheek. A moment later, Bhisma let go of his other arm and slowly stepped away. "I could have you arrested for that, you know," Dhritarashtra said.
"Don't be daft. I'm your uncle. I raised you, young man."
"I know." Dhritarashtra turned his attention back toward Vyasa. "What can be done to save my children?" he asked, more calmly now.
"It is possible..." Vyasa paused for a moment, then said, "Will you first listen to something unpleasant that I have to say?"
"Go ahead, if you must."
"You said as much yourself - that this problem with your eyesight is fundamentally unnatural and utterly inexplicable by any of the medical sciences. And now, we have this equally unnatural and utterly inexplicable pregnancy of your wife. Now, assuming that the children do turn out to be yours and not the offspring of a wayward asura-"
"My wife would never- has never-"
"The point is that the problem may lie within you," Vyasa said, ignoring the king's interruptions, as usual. "Have you ever considered as much? That there might be something evil within you? A curse or a mark, or..."
Dhritarashtra took a deep breath. "And if there is? So what?"
"I could help you," Vyasa said. "I could teach you techniques that would rid you of-"
"I'm a king. I don't have time to sit around meditating and singing nonsense hymns to the Goddess," Dhritarashtra snapped. "I have more important things to do - like running people's lives. And raising my eighty or so children, if you'll just go ahead and do your job."
"Right," Vyasa said. "We'll have to remove the fetuses from the queen's body as soon as possible. They'll die or they'll kill her if left in there much longer. Then I suppose that each will have to be brought to term in an artificial incubator - the technology certainly exists, but-"
"But we don't have that many artificial wombs," the doctor, who had been silent throughout all of this, suddenly spoke up. "We have twenty in this facility and there are ten more at Adarsh on the other side of the planet. But that's it."
"Build more. I will provide whatever funds you need." Then, at that moment, Dhritarashtra suddenly decided that he needed to be somewhere else, anywhere else, other than in that room at that moment. "That is all," he said, and turned on his heel and left.
Vidura followed him out, silently. Dhritarashtra made his way toward nowhere in particular, ignoring the stares of all the slipper-footed hospital staff and paper-robed patients that passed by him. He could feel their eyes crawling over him - he wondered how many of them had heard his little shouting episode a few moments earlier. Finally, his cane bumped against the leg of a bench, and Dhritarashtra gratefully sank down into the hard, uncomfortable cushions placed on top of it. A moment later, Vidura was sitting beside him, squeezing his hand. Dhritarashtra could already hear his dark-suited bodyguards surrounding them, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
"Do you think it's my fault that Pandu got sick?" Dhritarashtra suddenly asked.
Vidura started. "What in the world-?"
Dhritarashtra squeezed Vidura's hand - probably hard enough to hurt, but Vidura made not a sound - and took a deep breath. "I always wished... I mean, I always thought, secretly, that I should have been... And Pandu was always saying it too," he added quickly, "He was always saying 'You should be the king' or 'You know I'm not as smart as you' and I just..."
"I know. He did say that a lot."
"But I never, ever, ever wished him any harm!" Dhritarashtra said, his voice trembling. "I just thought it would be nice, if, if..."
"If everybody came to their senses?"
"...Something like that." His hands trembled. "What if what that Vyasa said is right?" Dhritarashtra asked. "What if there is something wrong with me?" He licked his lips. "Maybe the gods took away my eyes because they needed to punish me. But there's something inside me that just keeps hurting other people-"
"The gods didn't take away your eyes," Vidura pointed out. "They never gave them to you in the first place."
"You're not helping."
"Then listen to me. What happened to Pandu had nothing to do with you. It couldn't have. You're his brother. I know, everybody knows, how much you love him. And that's a powerful thing. That's a protection - not a curse."
"Not a good enough protection, apparently." Dhritarashtra trembled for a moment. "I miss him so much."
"I know. I do too."
Fully a year after whatever had been growing in Queen Gandhari's womb was removed from her body, her first son was, for lack of a better term, born.
"He feels so beautiful," the blind queen said, stroking her infant son's downy hair as he slept in her arms.
"He's a lot more beautiful now that he's stopped screaming," Dhritarashtra agreed, sitting on a cushioned bench beside her. There had been no need for either of them to stay in a hospital, seeing as how their son had been born from a machine and not from Gandhari's body. Dhritarashtra touched his wife's shoulder and asked, "Are you ready?"
"Yes." Holding the baby carefully, she slowly stood up, as did her husband. The crowd of servants, photographers, reporters, and cameramen milling in front of them fell silent. A few lone flashbulbs flashed audibly, and microphones hummed. The baby awoke and stirred slightly in Gandhari's arms, but made not a peep, as if sensing the solemnity of the moment.
Dhritarashtra leaned over and whispered a name into his infant son's ear.
Two weeks later, the first of Duryodhana's many brothers was born - the one named Dusshasana. And for months and years afterward, more and more brothers were born, at first one every few days, and then one every few weeks, then one every few months. By the time that he turned six years old, Duryodhana had exactly ninety-nine younger brothers and a single sister, named Dusshala.
"Like this?" Duryodhana asked, his fingers clicking rapidly away at the funny, bumpy keyboard of his father's computer. "Uncle Bhisma is a great dumb prat," the computer read his typing back at him in its usual lilting, pleasant female voice.
"Now Duryodhana, why would you ever type something like that?" Dhritarashtra asked, reaching over his son's shoulder and fumbling for the delete key.
"Because it's true. Do you know how much math homework he gave me yesterday?"
"And you're playing with Papa's computer and not doing your homework because...?"
"Like a king really needs to know long division." Duryodhana stabbed petulantly at the keyboard, and the computer obediently read back what he wrote. "L. L. L. L. L. L."
Dhritarashtra laughed. Duryodhana had always been fascinated by "Papa's special computer" and had always loved to run his hands over the strange, bumpy keys on its keyboard. But Dhritarashtra had not let him play with the computer's word-processing program until today. "Is there a way to make it stop talking?" Duryodhana asked.
"Well, then it would be just like your computer, wouldn't it?"
"How can you write anything if it's always telling the whole world everything that you write in it?"
Dhritarashtra leaned over toward his son and whispered into his ear, "That's why Papa always uses his headphones when he types on his computer."
"Oh." Dhritarashtra heard his son scratching his nose - a habit which indicated that he was deep in thought - and then he said, "What's that?"
Dhritarashtra was quiet for a moment, waiting for his son to remember that he couldn't see what he was pointing at. Then Duryodhana quickly elaborated, "That round black thing with all the lights inside of it."
"Ah, that." Dhritarashtra crossed the length of his study and carefully picked up the object in question, crossing back over toward his computer desk and handing it to his son. "That's a map of the known universe. It was my brother's."
"No, my other brother... You haven't met him. He died a long time ago." Dhritarashtra forced himself to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. He had never been able to see the electronic map within the globe that his son was now holding, of course. But when he and Pandu had been about Duryodhana's age, Pandu would spend long evenings holding the globe in his lap and describing all of the shapes, sizes, and positions of the stars and galaxies to his brother.
Duryodhana was quiet for a moment, then he said, "I've never met anyone who died." He handed the globe back to his father. "It sounds like it would be sad."
"It is very sad." Dhritarashtra held the globe to his chest for a moment, but then Duryodhana was back to spinning himself around in the chair in front of his father's computer desk, and a moment later he stopped his spinning and pointed at something else enticing. "What's that?" he asked.
"Young man, you really should be doing your homework."
"But I wanna stay here," Duryodhana said, spinning in the chair again. "You're here."
Dhritarashtra suddenly turned away from his son, crossing back over to the other side of his study to place the electronic globe, so utterly useless to him, back in its base on the shelf where it belonged. "Papa's busy," he said, reluctantly, although it was true. He had been busy, listening to his computer read him a week's worth of electronic mail from his advisors and cabinet members and allies on other worlds, when Duryodhana had intruded upon his study and wriggled his way between his father and the keyboard, begging to be allowed to play with the computer.
"You're always busy," Duryodhana said, not poutily, unfortunately, but rather with a sort of resigned sadness that stabbed straight into Dhritarashtra's heart.
"I'll tell you what," Dhritarashtra said. "You can I can be busy together. You can bring your homework in here, and..." Dhritarashtra trailed off, perking his ears toward the door. Somebody was approaching the threshold of his study. It was Bhisma - Dhritarashtra recognized the way that he always knocked on any door. "Come in," he said.
Bhisma entered and bowed to Duryodhana. "Why, if it isn't my truant prince!"
"I was gonna do my homework!" Duryodhana said quickly. "I swear I was gonna! Papa told me to-"
"I know you were going to." Bhisma reached and out and absent-mindedly ruffled Duryodhana's hair. "Right now, though, I was actually sent to find you. Your mother wants to see you."
"Yes, sir." Duryodhana slipped off his father's endlessly entertaining swirling chair and ran out the door. Bhisma closed it behind him and then asked, quietly, "He wasn't bothering you, was he?"
"I really do wish you could see him," Bhisma said. "That face! He'll grow up to be a ladykiller, mark my words. But then again," Bhisma continued with a chuckle, "he surely must have gotten that from his mother. Nobody in this family has ever been that handsome."
"I'm going to throw this book at you," Dhritarashtra threatened, his hand resting on the spine of a particularly thick and heavy volume.
"You wouldn't beat and batter a senile old man, now would you?"
"You wanted to see me about something?" Dhritarashtra asked, in effect stating the obvious.
"Duryodhana will be nine years old in less than a week."
"I know." Dhritarashtra had already established a tradition of not making a terribly big fuss over any of his son's birthdays - there were simply too many of them throughout the year for any sort of elaborate celebrations to be practical. But nevertheless, he had been mulling over ideas for a gift for Duryodhana for the last several weeks. Dhritarashtra wondered if that was what Bhisma had come to him to discuss.
"I'd like to see him start learning the, er, gentlemanly arts," Bhisma said instead.
Dhritarashtra was confused. "But he's known how to handle a eighteen-piece place setting since he was six. And he knows how to bow and address his elders. He doesn't even pick his nose in public anymore. Which is more than I can say for his brother Sama."
"Not those sorts of gentlemanly arts, but, rather..."
Suddenly Dhritarashtra saw where this was going. "You mean, war games?"
"He should at the very least know how to handle bow and a sword, how to fire a rifle, how to-"
"What silly, useless nonsense."
"So is harpooning fish, but, it's a tradition, Your Majesty."
"He's already harpooned his first redfin, I think that's quite enough useless tradition for one prince."
"I think it would be good for him," Bhisma said, rather quickly.
Dhritarashtra raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Do you remember when we took him out harpooning? He loved it. Because he was good at it. I put a harpoon in his hands for the first time, and he handled it like a seasoned professional. I have a hunch that he'll be an outstanding fencer. And I think..." Bhisma took a deep breath, then apparently decided to take the plunge. "I think that it would be good for him to have something that he's, ah, good at."
"Oh," Dhritarashtra said softly.
"He's not like you," Bhisma went on, rather quietly. "He struggles with reading and writing, and math always seems to utterly befuddle him. He wasn't meant to be bookish, but he just... He tries so hard. Sometimes I feel like he's trying so hard to please me. But there's a lot of pressure on him, you know. The others are always following his lead and always looking up to him. And they're always asking him for help with something, a math problem or a book report, and he can't always, well, provide it."
"But he's not even nine years old."
"He's older than his years and you know it," Bhisma said, firmly. "Having younger brothers does that to a child. You were very much the same way."
Dhritarashtra was quiet for a moment, then he said, "Always trying to please you, is that it?"
"Come over here," Dhritarashtra said, gesturing toward the window that took up most of one of the walls of his study. Bhisma followed Dhritarashtra over toward the window, and Dhritarashtra pushed open a pane of glass, inviting the scent of summer grass and flowers into the room. The king's study overlooked a grassy hill that swooped down toward the palace gardens, dotted with trees and a small terraced pond in which several exotic, decidedly non-carnivorous fish swam. Today the hill was covered in laughter and the sounds of small feet stamping in the mud and grass; Dhritarashtra had been listening to his children play outside the window throughout his entire conversation with Bhisma. "What do you see?" he asked his uncle.
Bhisma leaned toward the window. "I see the Queen," he described for Dhritarashtra's benefit, "and about fifteen of your sons playing a game of tag. Duryodhana is sitting beside his mother, working on something... It looks like he has a book in his lap. A book and a pencil. The Queen is talking to him, but it doesn't look like he's listening. She's wearing a necklace of flowers. I would guess that your sons made that for her a bit earlier. The gardeners will have a fit when they find out what your sons have been doing to their flowerbeds."
Dhritarashtra chuckled at the thought.
"Why show me this?" Bhisma asked.
"Just so that you could see that they're good kids," Dhritarashtra said. He closed the window, sealing out the sound of laughter and running feet - for Bhisma, at least - and stepped away from the window.
Bhisma hesitated for a moment, then spoke again. "He's not very bright and he likely never will be," Bhisma said, bluntly. "Is he a nice kid? Yes. And a born leader - I've seen the way that he handles his younger brothers. He's just a little slow on the uptake - and he struggles and gets frustrated with complex concepts. He's just not very bright. But then again," Bhisma added, "neither was your brother, and he was a fine king. He had advisors like you, after all. Someday Duryodhana will have the same."
Dhritarashtra walked over toward his desk, and sat down in the twirling chair that Duryodhana loved so much. "And I remember a time when you told me that they were all demons and that I should destroy each and every one of them."
Bhisma was utterly silent.
"Thank you," Dhritarashtra said.
"For being honest. I wanted to hear what you thought of him." Suddenly he smiled and said, "That's it, then. I know what to give him for his birthday next week."
"His grandfather's sword."
"I think you're right, Bhisma. There's so much pressure on him - he's growing up so fast - " Dhritarashtra held out his hands, and then he shrugged. "Swordplay may be useless and dangerous, but that at least makes it play, doesn't it? And Duryodhana could use some play. Besides, as you said," Dhritarashtra finished with a sigh, "It might be best for him to have a hobby that he is actually good at."
An interruption of a cabinet meeting rarely happened except in the most dire emergencies. Which was why, when a harried-sounding Sanjaya burst into the meeting room and demanded the king's attention, Dhritarashtra's first panicked thought was that either a giant meteor had been discovered racing toward Hastinapura, or that Panchala had declared war, or that one of his sons had been eaten by a fish.
"It's your brother!" Sanjaya said.
For a moment, Dhritarashtra was dumbfounded, utterly baffled. "Vidura is right here," he said, as beside him, Vidura echoed helpfully, "Right here."
"Your other brother," Sanjaya gasped, "on the voice comm - we can bring a receiver in here if you'd like, Your Majesty-"
Dhritarashtra was still confused. "Pandu is dead," he said, for lack of anything better to say.
"Is Lord Pandu still alive?" the Minister of Health demanded to know. Immediately, the entire cabinet was abuzz, Vidura was standing up hurriedly and shouting something, and Dhritarashtra said again, more to himself than to anybody else, "But Pandu is dead-"
"Your Majesty!" Sanjaya shouted over the uproar in the room. "The connection is from a remote area and highly unstable-!"
"Coming," Dhritarashtra said, instantly fighting his way through the crowd even as the calmer, more rational part of his brain kept quietly insisting that Pandu was dead, Pandu was dead, Pandu was dead, there was no way that he could have survived for all of these years, he surely must have died at least a decade ago-
"Your Majesty," somebody said, placing a comm receiver in Dhritarashtra's hand. Somebody else was pushing the crowd of Ministers away from him, and yet another aide was saying, "This way, Your Majesty-"
Dhritarashtra followed the aide for a few steps, his trembling hand clutching the receiver he had been handed, holding it down at his side, terrified of what he might hear if he brought the receiver up to his ear. Is this a call from beyond the grave? he thought, thinking of the late-night horror movies that his sons liked to watch on the media console.
"We'll wait outside, Your Majesty," another aide suddenly said, and that was when Dhritarashtra realized that he had been brought into another room - and then left alone, in privacy. A door closed. Dhritarashtra swallowed, and then slowly brought the receiver up to his ear.
"Do I have to call you 'Your Majesty' now?" a familiar voice asked from deep within the receiver.
"Pandu. Pandu!" Dhritarashtra clapped a hand to his mouth, suddenly terrified that he would start blubbering like a child. "Is - is it really you?"
"What, do I have a clone that I should know about?"
"Are you dead?" Dhritarashtra suddenly asked.
"Yes. I'm a ghost and I'm coming to for your sooooooooooul."
"This isn't funny!" Dhritarashtra hissed, clutching the receiver so hard that his knuckles turned white. "I thought that you were dead! We all thought you were dead! How could you have survived with that-?!"
"Well, I'm still alive, at least for a little while longer," Pandu said brightly. "Sorry to disappoint."
"It's been fifteen years!" Dhritarashtra almost shouted into the receiver. He wasn't sure whether he was angry or overjoyed or terrified to be hearing his brother's voice again - especially after he had long since finished the painful process of grieving for his brother's death. "If you've been alive, why haven't you - why haven't you called, or written, or something?"
"Exile, remember? I'm not allowed to have any contact with any of you."
"Then why are you calling me now?!"
"Because I'm not in exile anymore!" Pandu laughed. He seemed to be immensely enjoying his brother's reactions to all of this. "Guess where I'm calling from? Okay, I'll give you a hint. It starts with a 'gas' and ends with a 'station' and it's seven hundred clicks from where you are right now."
"I'm not following you-"
"I'm coming home."
"Why?" Dhritarashtra asked, now beyond baffled. "Are you cured? Did it - did it - what do they call it? - did it all go into remission?"
"I don't think I have much time left," Pandu suddenly said, all trace of joking in his voice gone. "And there's something that I have to do before I go. There's someone... Oh, I can't tell you this right now. Not like this. Not over the comm lines in a gas station in the middle of Godless nowhere. Listen, let me tell you this. Something absolutely marvelous happened to us-"
"Kunti and Madri and I."
"They haven't left you yet? After fifteen years of exile in the wilderness?"
"Har, har, very funny. Just for that, I'm definitely not going to tell you anything right now." Pandu instantly seemed to brighten up again. "You just wait. I'll be back at the palace by this evening. And I have the most amazing, wonderful surprise. You're so not going to believe it."
"Wait a minute, Pandu-"
"Oh, balls, I don't have another coin for this thing," Pandu suddenly said. "Listen, my paid time is up, but-"
Then the comm went dead, and Dhritarashtra was left with nothing but an unpleasant buzz in his ear and a mechanical voice telling him that his caller's time had expired. Dhritarashtra slowly lowered the receiver from his ear.
I have to tell Vidura, he thought, fumbling toward the door of whatever room he had been left in.
There were voices on the other side of the door - a whole crowd of people. Dhritarashtra opened the door and, instantly ignored the dozens of questions being shouted at him, pushed his way through the aides and ministers and the first few of no doubt what would soon be many reporters who had already managed to sneak into this wing of the palace. "Vidura!" he barked. "Where is Vidura?"
"Right here," Vidura suddenly said. Then, utterly oblivious to the dozens of pairs of eyes watching them, Dhritarashtra threw his arms around his startled brother and, hugging him fiercely, said, "Pandu's alive and he's coming home. Tonight." Dhritarashtra realized finally that there were tears streaming down his cheeks.
"You're not joking?"
"Would I joke about something like this?" Dhritarashtra sniffled.
Vidura was silent for a moment, digesting this news. Then he said, "Pity he couldn't have come back a week earlier. Then he would've been here for Duryodhana's thread ceremony."
"Duryodhana!" Dhritarashtra suddenly gasped. "I have to tell him about - I never told Pandu about-! Do you think he knows? I mean, he has been living in the wilderness for fifteen years, but you'd think in all that time he might have seen at least one newspaper or-"
"Then it will just have to be a marvelous surprise for him, won't it?" Vidura said. Then he seemed to reconsider, and said, "Best not to bring out all the children at once, I would think. The shock wouldn't be good for him. I mean, there are one hundred and one of them. I'm sure he'll be very surprised."
"There are a lot of people with cameras," Duryodhana described helpfully as he led his father past the throngs of reporters and cameramen roped off to either side of them. "And there's another carpet on top of the usual one. It's bright red."
Dhritarashtra heard a flurry of cameras snapping, and he squeezed his son's hand more tightly than was strictly necessary. "Smile and wave," he whispered, although he knew that Duryodhana was probably already doing just that - he was a natural in front of crowds. And very photogenic, as many had often commented to Dhritarashtra.
"Don't see why we have to be all dressed up in these stupid robes," Dusshasana complained from a step behind his father.
"Because this is a special occasion," Duryodhana, who did not at all mind dressing up in elaborate princely robes, explained firmly.
Dhritarashtra heard the rest of his sons whispering among themselves as they followed along behind Dusshasana. Gandhari and Dusshala would be bringing up the rear of their impromptu procession in a matter of moments. Dhritarashtra wished briefly that Gandhari could have been at the front of the line with him. But Duryodhana holding his hand made him feel safe enough, at least.
"There's a door," Duryodhana said. "Do I keep going?"
"Yes," Dhritarashtra said, and Duryodhana pushed through a heavy wooden door and stepped into a broad, open lobby that was blessedly free of milling reporters and flashing cameras. "In here, in here," Dhritarashtra said, ushering the rest of his sons through the door. He could hear Duryodhana running back and forth, steering the younger ones this way and that and threatening to punch Sama, who was picking his nose again. Last came Gandhari, who pushed Dusshala gently in front of her, closed the door behind her, and breathed a sigh of relief. "We have to go back through the lions, don't we?" she said.
"That's the idea. Privacy now; smiling for the cameras later."
"HEAD COUNT!" Duryodhana suddenly shouted.
The children began counting off, and when Dusshala finished by shouting "Ninety-nine!" with a knowing giggle, Gandhari groaned and muttered, "We lost two."
"They could be anywhere between here and the east wing of the palace."
"It's my fault," Duryodhana interjected. "I should have been- I can go back and-"
"We don't have time," Dhritarashtra said, hearing a commotion from the other side of the lobby, where another door stood, closed and for a few moments at least, still silent. "Wait here," he told his children, "stay with Mama until I tell you to come forward. Except you, Duryodhana. You come with me."
Dhritarashtra started forward, clutching his cane, as Duryodhana followed nervously just a few steps behind him. Dhritarashtra tried to walk in as stately a manner as he possibly could, but when he heard pounding footsteps on the other side of the far door, he simply threw his cane aside and broke into a reckless run. He barely had time to register the sound of the door being slammed open and the rush of air that accompanied this when Pandu was suddenly tackling him head-on, throwing his arms around his brother and gasping "I missed you so much, so much, so much!" He showered Dhritarashtra's cheeks with kisses.
Dhritarashtra squeezed his little brother as tightly as he could and whirled him around, laughing. Well, maybe there was nothing so very funny about the fact that Pandu was as light as feather and the way that Dhritarashtra could feel the barest hint of his ribs from beneath his skin and clothes. But then Pandu grasped a handful of his brother's hair and gave a healthy tug, gasping, "You've got GRAY hair!" as if this were the most astounding discovery in the history of Hastinapura, and Dhritarashtra laughed again, all thoughts of Pandu's unsettling lightness forgotten. Then, as if on cue, both he and Pandu began babbling at each other at once.
"Back that way, talking to the paparazzi jackals."
"We snuck in the back way-"
"I knew you would-"
"I think I gave the guards a heart attack, one of them actually clutched at his chest when he saw us!"
"Where are Kunti and-?"
"-Coming in a minute, oh, you're not going to believe this, we have the most wonderful- Geh?"
Dhritarashtra blinked, momentarily startled by his brother's uncharacteristic lapse into silence. Then from behind him, Dhritarashtra heard Duryodhana say, "Hello, sir."
Pandu said absolutely nothing for a long, long moment. Then he suddenly clutched at the front of Dhritarashtra's robes and asked, in a strange, hoarse voice, "Who is that?"
"Ah." Dhritarashtra could feel his involuntary grin stretching from ear to ear. "This is my eldest son, Duryodhana."
"H-Hello sir," Duryodhana repeated, although he sounded much less sure of himself this time around. Dhritarashtra wondered what sort of expression his son could see on Pandu's face.
Pandu suddenly grasped both sides of Dhritarashtra's face in his hands and hissed, "How old is he?!" The question sounded urgent, even panicked.
"Thirteen," Dhritarashtra answered, bewildered, and beginning to feel a sick knot of dread forming in his stomach. This was not at all the way that he had imagined this moment playing out in his mind. "He had his thread ceremony last week."
"Last... week?" Pandu began trembling, his hands slowly falling away from Dhritarashtra's face. "Oh, no. Oh, no." His voice suddenly sounded muffled, and Dhritarashtra realized that he had buried his face in his own hands. "This can't be happening. Yudhisthira turned thirteen last week, too."
"Who's all that behind you?" Pandu suddenly asked, and before Dhritarashtra could answer, he heard another voice - a child's voice, coming from somewhere behind Pandu - asking, "Who are all these people, Papa?"
Pandu grasped his brother's arm and said, shakily, "We need to talk. Now."
To be continued.