“They’re like fish,” she tells her step-son, and is pleased to see a smile gleam past his careful watch. Good. It is a pleasure to see him smile—all her maids tell her he used to laugh every moment and yet she has seen him only ever frowning, only ever solemn and splendid and terrible, and it hurts her to know that he was a cheerful boy before his father took a bride scant months older than him, that he was joyous and she has blighted his happiness, and that through no fault of her own. It is good to see him smile and she counts it every moment as a victory won. But it is better to be understood, to know that she is not entirely wrong about this city of elephants, that she has not swum to so distant a shore that she cannot make herself understood.
“The big ones eat the little. Yes, my mother.” And she wonders for a moment where he learnt so very much about her world, and he—and already she knows how great a hunter he is, how promising a warrior—says, quick to capture her surprise, “My own mother came from the river; I lived out my childhood by its banks.”
How strange, she thinks after he leaves her—his father in his apathy had shrunk from all duties of the state, and is—and they tell her this with a simpering smile—still too lost in his new marriage to care for his people, and so it falls still to the Prince—that they should have grown both like lotuses in the river’s mud, to be placed in the golden bowl of Hastinapura to bloom. Stranger, she supposes, that she should have made such affable friends with her stepson, but it is impossible to dislike Devavrata, so lightly does he wear his great martyrdom, and so little concerned does he seem about it. Rather he seems—for all the stories she has heard about his valour and his prowess in the art of taking lives—like a young rishi, filled to the brim with some greater power than simple life and caring as little about the concerns of mortals. His father, she knows, has given him the gift of choosing his own death, and she thinks, after she sees him spend an hour deciding which peasant gets a plot of land, that he will live like an aged crocodile guarding Hastinapura long after she and her sons are ashes in its sky—he loves the kingdom with the passion his father reserves for her, and there is something violently pleasing in having a man show her the intricacies of the lady he loves best.
In the matters of the inner court neither of her men can come to her aid, and she finds them in complete disarray, the maids inclined overmuch to gossip and their minders inclined overmuch to condescend to a girl who is, after all, only queen because the King in Hastinapura has a known desire for women he finds by the river, and who is, after all, only a fisherman’s daughter. The intrigues of court are beyond her, where on a smile the fortunes of a clan might change, and the littlest lord is as above her as the King is above him. They have had no mistress since the Prince’s mother, and she a lady not given to controlling her maids and maidens with anything beyond a quelling look, the twin of which the Prince uses to browbeat weathered generals into obedience. A formidable weapon, but one she hasn’t in her own arsenal, nor one she thinks she can gain by painstaking attempt—she is not, after all, a Kshatriya, nor has she come to court wreathed in the breath of the supernatural: her predecessor, the mother of the Prince, had been the mother of eight Princes, and had slaughtered all but him before taking him from his father to live by the river; she does not think to equal her stories, nor to cut short her life in Hastinapura to assuage bruised pride. She is, after all, only a fisherman’s daughter, and very like her father who had trapped the Crown Prince of Hastinapura into renouncing his title with only his own high honour as hook and his father’s beloved as bait—she has his eyes and something too of his mind behind them, where thoughts flash for a moment like a shoal of gleaming fish beneath the dark, limpid surface of the river.
Then, too, the court at Hastinapura, as she told the Prince in a moment of pleased epiphany, resembles nothing so much in its glittering convolutions as a river in full spate, with shoals of fish dodging through and past each other, all uncaring when one of their own found death or apotheosis. All their planned cavorting looks to her aimless, possessing not even the focused goal of fish swimming upstream to lay eggs, nor anything but its palest shadow. The men, she thinks, must have been kept in hand by passing generals and neighbouring wars, but the women, ah, the women have had no mistress nearly the full length of her husband’s life, and he older than her father, and if a goddess had chosen not to discipline them they hardly look for it from her. But she plans to birth sons to Hastinapura’s throne, and to raise them as best she can to resemble their father and the great Kings in Hastinapura of whom she has heard more this past month than in an entire life living on the fringes of the kingdom. She plans to live out her life—and she prays the gods send her a long one—in the inner courts of Hastinapura as it Queen, and not a snivelling, silly girl to whom nobody defers and who is beloved only till her husband tires of her charms.
When next her stepson visits the inner courts she asks him of the history of the great lords of Hastinapura, the Councillors and Generals. He favours her with another quick smile, and says, “It is an under-fished stream, my lady mother; I have thought so often.”