“I thought he was a great king,” Krishna says disconsolately one morning as the sun drenches golden every wall of Rohini’s favourite room in Vasudev’s palace. The garden outside is fragrant with a dozen bushes of champaka flowers reaching for the light, and resounding with the laughing voices of Vrishni children and youths.
On such a day in Gokul, in Vrindavan, Krishna would be dancing through fields at the head of the pack, creating mischief and music in equal part. He used to come home along moonlit paths and worry Yashoda, whose heart was more tender than Rohini’s hard-shelled own.
In the ordered gardens of Mathura he skulks into the council-chambers of kings and nobles who have survived Kamsa’s scourge, and sulks in Rohini’s chambers.
Rohini, who has missed Mathura’s high towers for longer than he has been alive, understands his longing only too well. Among the laughing children in the garden are the sons and daughters of women she befriended as a young bride, children who have never known her, who regard her sons with awed suspicion.
“King Ugrasena,” she asks now, careful to keep weariness from her voice. “He was, years ago when we were young and he was in his prime. But he had a grown son who kept him imprisoned, and deprived him of the joys of consorting with his grandchildren.”
“I meant my pitamaha King Shurasena,” Krishna says, and urgently adds, “I would not trivialise my matamaha’s suffering, or that of my parents, nor their resilience.”
“No,” Rohini assures him. “I misspoke. You have been kind to them as to a day-old calf.”
That is praise he understands, and Krishna’s face blooms with joy. Her wild, wicked youngest. Her poor boy, whom they have transplanted into such strange soil.
“Will you say of pitamaha too, that he has suffered much, and is an aged man to whom I ought be kinder?”
He says it as though he knows the answer already, and comes quietly to sit at Rohini’s feet when she beckons him. If it is all so unfamiliar now to her, the floors of white stone, the fittings of brass, the plenitude of silver and gold, how much stranger must it be to him?
“We heard his praises, when I was a child,” she begins. “That he had been a great warrior in his youth, and was favoured by the gods. And it is true that he has had his own sorrows, with his queen dead from grief for your father, and with his eldest daughter sent to fill the nursery of a friend. Then too, without his son at home he gave your aunts in marriage to kingdoms that have not prized them as they ought be, and it is a great burden to any parent to know their children unhappy without hope of rescue or redressal.”
“However?” Krishna puts in, and grins wide and wicked. If she hadn’t known him since Yashoda brought him to her house to play with Balabhadra, she would think him sincere.
Well, he has been battling monsters since he was a suckling babe.
“When I was a handful of months older than your brother is now, and there was first talk of me wedding your father, my uncle spoke to me of the household I was to enter. Your pitamaha is an amiable man, you’ve seen this already. He is chief among the Vrishni, who are not the most peaceful of the Yadavas. You are too clever, surely, to not know how a man of sweet temper might become chief of such rowdy princes?”
“He was the man all could agree upon,” Krishna says on a sigh, and she rewards him with a hand smoothing over his hair. He wears it still in a mass of curls barely restrained by a fillet, but it is of bronze silk now, and not the undyed ribbons he had used to steal from unwary girls. Good, he's learning; to take aught from a Vrishni girl unawares rarely bodes well.
“He was given to pleasing men and creating compromises that nobody else could. It is a necessary skill, and your father had it also. Perchance he still does.”
“Do you doubt it?”
“My mother used to say when I had climbed too high in a tree or gorged myself on mangoes in summer heat, that we have a share in the world’s joys and might spend it too soon and find ourselves in sorrow’s shadow.” It is strange now to think of herself as a child, when her mother’s hair has turned grey, silver, white with age and yearning in distant Bahlika without Rohini around to care for her, when she had been given in marriage to Shurasena’s son because the Vrishni let their wives travel often and her mother could not bear to part from her for long. In the first five years of her marriage she had visited often, rarely in the seven unhappy years that followed, and never in the seventeen that have since lapsed.
“You’ve said it to us often enough,” Krishna points out, and when Rohini looks down she finds that he has turned his head under her hand and is fixing her with a stern eye. “Do you think it is the same for a skill?”
“They tell me skill in war increases with every battle. I know little of war, and even your father never won Devaki with his own prowess. But a singer can sing herself hoarse, and a callous herder milk a cow dry. Your father kept himself alive while helpless, and kept your mother alive while she posed a great threat to your uncle, and he kept them together when solitude would have driven them wild.”
“You think him brave!”
He is so young, Krishna, for all his valour and all his wit. So young, even though it seems most days that he knows all the things there are to know, that they are alive only by his grace. But he is sixteen, scarcely, and she is near fifty years of age. He has hardly seen anything of the world.
“I think him clever,” Rohini says. “Valiant, too, but not in the way of warriors who gain great renown in battle. He crossed the Yamuna in full flood for you, dearest, and then returned to Kamsa’s prison where he saw every day for sixteen years the spot where six of his sons had had the life smeared from them.”
“I might have had brothers,” he says, and flashes her an apologetic smile. “I know I have one, but even that knowledge is new to me. I never thought I could love him more dearly than I did all my life, but in this I am happy to be proven wrong. But I might have had more.”
“Kirttimat would have been twenty-five,” Rohini says, more to herself than him. “We would have been hunting out a bride for him. Then Sushena and Udayin and Bhadrasena, what strength they would have lent us in council, perhaps in war if they more closely resembled your matamaha than your father. Rijudasa and Bhadradeha would have still been in the care of their preceptor, and Balarama preparing to take Rijudasa’s place. And then you, youngest and most indulged.”
“Aren’t I so still?” Krishna laughs, and she thinks that this would not fool anyone who knows it well, that it would knife through Yashoda’s tender heart were she to hear it.
“You are the jewel of Mathura, best-beloved of an entire city,” she assures him. If there are rumours, they will be quieted soon. Of course there are rumours. Rohini has not lived in the city in years, but she knows still too well how the bees buzz in their hives, how gossip sings through the streets on the fleet wings of the mynah.
“You might have had more sons as well,” Krishna says, as though he likes the thought of being rendered insignificant by a horde of elder siblings, of being safely the infant of the family instead of the lauded hero who has battled demons and killed grown men.
“I would have liked a daughter,” she tells him, trading truth for truth. In Vraj she had looked at lissome young Radha and thought, if only Vasudeva had given me a child the year we were first wed. She had delighted in Radha’s friendship with Krishna, her amused tolerance of the boy following her around and sharing her chores: rare forbearance from a woman fifteen years his senior but oh, understandable.
How could anyone resist Krishna’s laughter and his tricks and his charm? Yashoda and Nanda had never disciplined him; Rohini herself, who could rain recriminations upon stolid Balarama while the sun ran from morning to noon, faltered before she could devise a punishment for Krishna.
“You might still,” Krishna offers. “I should like a sister.”
“If the gods will it,” she says repressively, as much to ward off her own blushes as his impudence. She has missed love, and Vasudeva’s arms around her are still the best home she has had, even though they are grey, even though imprisonment has sapped his vitality.
“You missed him, all these years,” Krishna says, because he has always been far too perceptive. When he was a child he had mostly used the knowledge to ferret out butter and ghee that had been stored out of sight; what uses he will find for it in a squabbling nest of nobles hardly bears thinking of.
“I’ve known Vasudeva since I was a girl climbing into womanhood and he was a boy proud of his first beard who could persuade a roaring council-hall into acquiescence. We were wed for years before Sini won him your mother’s hand,” she tells him. “Of course I did. But I had Balabhadra, and I had a share in you, and I had my duty before me.”
“Duty,” Krishna says, desolate again, and younger in his silk and gold than she’s ever seen him in torn cotton and mud. “And now I must do mine, when so many have given their lives for mine.”
“So many have had their lives won by you,” Rohini corrects, and stoops to press a kiss into his curls.
He smiles up at her as she straightens, but it is still a wan little thing and melts her heart as none of his sulking ever has.
“Come,” she says, “you have months yet till you must go to your preceptor. It does you no good to intrude on your elders' councils.”
“What would you bid me do instead? I can hardly herd cattle in this fine city, and there seem no demons about for me to defeat.” He looks so quietly unhappy, her heroic son, her child who has lost the mother who raised him and cannot yet love the woman who bore him.
“You might have had more brothers if the gods had not wished them away,” she says instead of offering platitudes he would only despise, “and it is your right to mourn them. But you have cousins you might grow to love, who will be your allies as all of you grow to take your part in grihasthashram.”
“I thought they were in exile,” Krishna says, but now at last something is sparking to life behind his eyes. “My aunt Pritha and her children, I thought they were wandering in forests with King Pandu.”
Of course he thinks first of the ones deprived of their rightful homes, the ones who might be discomfited by palaces as he is himself.
“You have other aunts,” Rohini says in lieu of laughter. “Your pitamahi Bhojya had many children, and though King Shurasena was generous in giving them to such of his friends and cousins who—childless—were fated to roast in the hell, Puta, yet he kept his eldest son your father, and he kept his daughters Shrutadeva and Shrutashrava.”
“Their marriages are unhappy, you said.”
“And yet not childless,” Rohini says carefully. “Your aunt Shrutashrava has borne Prince Damaghosha of Chedi an heir, and I must visit if your mother cannot. We may travel without too large an escort of guards.”
“You would have me come with you?”
“Only if you wish it as well. Then, too, Bahlika does not lie so very far from Chedi, and... Krishna, as you are in part my son, so too can I offer you a share in another matamaha and matamahi. My parents are old, and shall soon proceed into sannyasashram, but they are hale and they have always been happy. King Ugrasena is a great man, but...”
“Mother,” Krishna says, snatching up her hands and covering them with quick, fervent kisses. “You give me the sweetest gifts.”