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When the nights grow long, and the rains force the princes of Mahishmati inside, Bhalla’s boredom drives him to cruelty more often than not. Sometimes he criticizes the low company Baahubali keeps; sometimes he mocks Baahubali for always being Mother’s pet. But his favorite taunt is usually the easiest to make: “Whoever,” he sneers, “would want a soulmate like yours?”

As always it’s difficult to argue with what Bhalla says. Baahubali has never demanded blind adoration,, but he does not think an introduction slightly more complimentary than Standing tall as palm trees but hiding among women: aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? too much to ask. 

That is not his only reason to doubt the sanity, or at least the sense, of his soulmate: no one has been able to accuse a prince of Mahishmati of anything approaching cowardice in generations. Nothing but spite or stupidity could prompt such a statement, and Baahubali, even at the tender age of ten, cares for neither. 

At such a time, Mother is his only solace; oh, Uncle tries his best, but such topics discomfit him and there is only so much well-intentional bumbling and babbling that even Baahubali can tolerate. Mother, though, allows him to sit beside her in blessed silence, and once the first sting of Bhalla’s words fades, she says, almost casually, “Not one man or woman in a hundred meets his or her destined one.”

Her words are soothing, but their import even more so: a reminder that he need not burden himself with worry over something that might not even come to pass. Baahubali relaxes, and allows his curiosity to get the better of him.

“Did you know anyone who did?”

“A handful.” Mother’s face is grim. “Without fail, they each died young.”

Baahubali cannot help but shudder. He thinks, sometimes, that soulmates must be something like kindling and a spark; brought too close together, they would inevitably be extinguished all the sooner by it. The royal priests, though, promise that such connections are gifts from the gods, and Baahubali knows better than to speak such sacrilege aloud.

But Mother looks at him, keen and bright, as though their minds are one. She always does. 

“The measure of a man is not determined by the words he bears,” she reminds him, voice firm. “You are worth so much more.”

He believes her. He always does.

*

The older Baahubali grows, the more he realizes he must have received the worst soulmate in the world. 

Take Mother’s, for instance. True, her words are written plain and clear just above her toes, impossible for Baahubali to ignore whenever he touches his feet in greeting: but the script is fluid and foreign, the meaning conveniently obscured. 

As for Uncle’s and Bhalla’s, their words--if they even have any--are located somewhere that can be easily hidden out of public view, as is only proper, without causing too much difficulty.

But Baahubali? Baahubali has that wretched sentence scrawled across his chest, a claim staked long ago by a stranger he’ll never know. It forces him into shirts on the most sweltering days, while Bhalla saunters by bare-chested; every morning, the mirror reminds him of its presence. 

Bhalla doesn’t mock him any longer; Bhalla doesn’t have to. Baahubali is well aware of the disadvantages of his intended match. 

But.

He knows every uneven slant and crooked curve of the letters by the time he’s fifteen, the writer’s hand oddly familiar after all these years. Out of….forbearance, he supposes, or a sign of fortitude. 

Certainly not fondness.

*

Eventually Mother’s advice turns practical. “You’re more fortunate than most,” she reminds him. “There are fools who develop a—fondness for those who have left their marks upon them, who spin fantasies and fancies for one they’ll never meet.”

“What happens to them?” Baahubali asks, more because he feels he’s expected to than out of any real curiosity. He has heard this lesson too many times to count. 

“They do their duty,” Mother says, “and marry where they must, and eventually they learn better.” Her tone is bitter, and for the first time Baahubali thinks to wonder if she speaks out from experience. The words she bears are incomprehensible, to be sure, but doesn’t Mother know more languages than most? It is not impossible that she might have read them once, waited for and wanted her soulmate to approach her as Baahubali never had. 

He cannot ask her; no matter how much he adores her, and trusts that she adores him, he is a child no longer and knows some questions it is kinder to suppress. This, at least, he can do for her and the pain she must have once felt; he can shrug his shoulders and say, “At least they might still treasure the memories of such a bond. Is that not something?”

But Mother takes no comfort from his poor attempt, and instead her face hardens. 

“You will marry a princess worthy of you, my Baahu,” she says sharply, “rather than be yoked to an insolent stranger as a steed or steer might be. I want better than that for you, and, before all else, I will obtain it for you.”

Her eyes burn, and again Baahubali reminds himself how fortunate he is that she seeks to protect him so.  Nevertheless, as he falls asleep that night, it occurs to him that be she ever so clever or charming or accomplished, no princess will ever make him smile so surely as the sharp words he bears. 

He never mentions this to Mother. That, he is certain, she will never understand. 

*

At twenty-five Baahubali falls in love, entirely in love, so in love that even as he hears the words that have haunted him since he has been born tumble from the lips of the Crown Princess Devasena—

(Yoked to a stranger as a steed or steer might be—)

(You are worth so much more. )

(Without fail, they all die young.)

—he can’t bring himself to care.