She had not known the palace had held such number of women as were walking now to the pyres to see beloved faces once before the god ate their flesh. There Duryodhan’s brides, the youngest still bearing on a worn cheek the roses of youth; there Duhshala; and there, at a seemly distance, three widows clasping each other close by a pyre that burnt with the radiant heat of the midday sun.
“Whose,” she asked, “is that?” and nodded careful indifference of the answer. Nought to her, that Daanveer Karna burnt in a steady flame that cooled all other fires.
He had turned from them, in the end, though never enough to term it aught but betrayal, for all his brothers softened the blow with other names, fragrant as the sandalwood they smeared on his frowning brow, and reeking each of the corpses mounting Kuru pyres on the Kurukshetra fields, each with an arrow through his heart that should have relieved the Pandava lines of a warrior. His lines, now, his men, his brothers who most suddenly loved him; forgave him all his insults, trivial and soul-carving; the times without number he’d loosened death-bearing arrows towards them; forgot the soul-deep love he had borne Duryodhan. Perhaps they would remember, once the throne was won; perhaps they remembered yet, and forgave in their great-hearted ease a coward’s petty jabs. Perhaps they even pitied his ruinous collapse.
A thought to clutch close, through that barren year, and glance at askance every time a smile tipped into mockery, or a conversation extinguished upon his arrival. But a cold certainty, in the cold splendour of his bed under the close scrutiny of the woman with whom he had plunged suddenly into the stolid stupor of a middle-aged marriage, having never known new-wed passion, having only ever been refused till he was suddenly so utterly accepted. And yet, yet so had his brothers once been, and political exigencies were much the same, whether one had newly tripped from a fire or was plodding with weary limbs towards one. At least his was a marriage as in truth as any of her others, and to him as easily she gave the gift of unfailing honesty.
He asked, “Do you still, Panchali, hate me?”, every dawn and dusk one year of every six.
And every dusk and dawn she answered, laughing with the sun, “yes, my lord.”
The thought splintered unrealised; to chase its fluttering brightness through her mind would call for too much effort, and she had spent her all upbraiding those solemn statues in the Hall of Justice. And before that she had tried to stop Duhshasan from dragging her from her quarters, and before that she had woken in the dawn to see her stomach bloated with blood. And after that. It flew from her grasp again, as all thoughts of After were fleeing. After that did not bear thinking of, she had flung every thought of it resolutely away. It helped nothing to think of after.
At least the children were safe, and her father and her brothers would care nothing that they were children of slaves. The two eldest would have to be told the truth at once, and the others in the space of a very few years, but they would, at least, be free to hear it. Her husband—her husband who was—had not bet his sons on a throw of weighted dice, though he had sundered her Afters from theirs. She would think of them joyously as from a different life, where Draupadi was Queen in Indraprastha; it seemed already a different life, in the dank rust of the dungeons.
The light grew radiant to her eye grown so swiftly used to the gloom, and seeming different from the torches—a steadier light, dimming them. One man alone she knew who walked in his own golden gleam in the darkness—once, when she was a bride, as in another age of the earth, she had leant from a balcony to watch him lighting his friend home and hidden a regret deep in her blossoming heart. Now he had come to light her to further ruin.
He made unto her the exaltations correct to a different Draupadi, as though his words had not pulled her from that high station down but hours ago. She coiled herself neatly to await his moods, but could not yet police her first flinch as he reached out a hand. He withdrew in ordered retreat.
“Draupadi of Panchal,” he said, treating with her as with a captive princeling, “will you wed me?” Ah, that mockery. Yet something in the voice made her rake eyes up to his luminous eyes. “The Pandavas are alive,” he said, and, “on your yes they can be free.”
An exchange of hostages, then. But he had no need of it—the Pandavas were in his friend’s power, and she. But he could have her fire-bound and gods-blessed, if he thought to grip her closer so.
“I have begged you as a prize from my prince,” he said, and grimaced. “For your husbands, there are those who will be blamed.”
“Yes,” She found a seeming-true smile for him.
The Pandavas free, her sons free, and Draupadi Queen in Anga, bound to a man foolish enough to wed her for love. A different after to thread her thoughts on.
The bow creaked, tight with disuse, a ponderous thing that could as easily be used as a club in dexterous hands as to wing arrows on their way: perhaps with greater ease, after so many years spent as simple decoration—not a toy for spoiled princelings, who had never handled aught but weapons honed to their hands. While the other groups had jostled for prime position, thinking to win Panchali by being the first to exhibit skill, he had ruthlessly dragged the Hastinapura contingent to the lowest seats fit for princes—no man, however dexterous, could properly handle an unknown instrument without close observation: with this monstrosity it was demonstrably folly to try.
Duryodhana, throwing himself back into his seat with red welts rising on his hands, said, “And what have you learnt from that, friend?” He had learnt that the Prince of Hastinapura was best suited to cudgelling his enemies with a mace—no weapon he met could be as easy in his hands, and he had an unfortunate tendency to try and turn all unfamiliar weaponry into the same—but even their friendship would hardly maintain his head upon his shoulders should he speak such folly.
“Nothing,” he said instead, fingers tight on Duryodhana’s wrist, “to compare with the lessons these others have taught me,” and resumed watching as Duhshashana made himself a fool and an exhibition instructive in lack of balance. The bow was, doubtless, bespelled—some of those princes were formidable in battle; for the Kaurava princes, at least, he could vouch himself. Yet every mistake was in amplification of a deep-held flaw: Duryodhana’s swagger turning pompous; Duhshashana’s tendency to list to the right when stringing his bow swinging it wildly off-target. A bow for a preceptor to use, to teach: to show his students, magnified, the flaws that shone in his experienced eye. Drupad would make enemies for this, and with his lacerated kingdom could scarce afford it.
The long line of Kauravas petered out, the youngest—barely men, yet, and barely treating this as a chance for marriage—looking only relieved that Dronacharya had not accompanied them. Perhaps it was a bow bespelled to defeat all but its true owner. Perhaps, perhaps. Most of the younger fools were failing because they kept darting anxious glances at Draupadi watching them with a quiet smile playing over her mouth, great eyes sombre like an elder statesman.
In his own hands the bow felt resistant, slow, pushing against his grip like a sulking friend anxious to be coaxed into smiles. Time ran slow, every movement creeping at a snail-slow pace, sluggish like treading water—his own great flaw, outside the heat of battle, had always been an excess of caution. The old curse, bearing down on his shoulders, making him look around, hunted, for a crack in his shield, an edge of rust to his sword—for a Brahmin, who knew what a Kshatriya’s worst moment was? Better caution than death.
Draupadi’s eyes had wandered from his face to her brother’s leaning close in whispered consultation; he chanced a glance towards her as she looked back. A warrior’s face, jaw too set for mere prettiness, eyes too alight with something very far from maidenly, lips parted in a prelude to speech. Behind him Duryodhan’s head came up, his fist came heavily down; a murmur coiled amongst the princes. And still time bled slowly past, his hands burdened by the great bow. He should have strung the bow faster, shot at the mark, better a fool because of an arrow off-target than humiliated for a princess’ idle amusement. They should have stopped him at the gate.
Draupadi said, “My Lord of Anga,” and stopped; raked eyes over him lightly, like a dealer at a horse-fair, like his own father at a horse-fair, so the mane, so the eyes, so the neck, the shoulders, the teeth. “My Lord,” she said, “do not keep us so long waiting.” No tutored warning, that—her brother’s fair face crumpled into a frown; amongst the watchers, Vasudeva Krishna bestrirred himself. The girl smiled again, challenging.
He tore eyes from hers and dipped them into water to track the glowing eyes of the fish.
It was spring in the gardens, the night redolent with jasmine and alive with fireflies darting close enough to rest bodies against their skin. Shikandi had a circlet of lights in his hair, drifting apart and closer again. He looked, to her, like a gandharva come questing through mortal realms, in his silks and fragrant sandalwood and living crown, and nothing at all like a Prince in Panchal, Councillor to their father.
Once, when she and Dhristadumnya had just entered the nurseries, years already after Shikandi had left, she had thought him unreal, replete with overheard rumours from nurses whose eyes ran unseeing over her. Dhrishta had been already solemn, already shy, and had refused to run with her through the grounds to greet their brother and let him swing them laughing into his arms. They had grown each two together, her brothers circling warily around and about her. Her other sisters she had known ever only distantly, and had—must have had—unnerved their mothers enough to keep them strangers all, even before they were wed. They were the youngest, she and her twin the Prince, and had been these last years alone in the inner rooms, save their father grown steadily further from his children, and save Shikandi grown more beautiful with every year.
Once, the year he had wed, she had asked her brother, lilting and hesitant, “but my nurse dubs you a woman?” and held her breath till he laughed. It had not been the best of questions, with her new sister by marriage newly introduced to her husband’s siblings, and all the other Princesses had drawn sharp breaths, and Dhrishta had kicked her hard on the ankle, but Shikandi, Shikandi had only laughed, and wrapped a hand securely around his bride’s wrist and kissed her fondly on her bejewelled forehead.
Draupadi had been eight, then, Shikandi a new-minted twenty-one. Ten years gone, and still he retained the slenderness of youth—Dhrishta bid fair to outdo him in height and the breadth of his shoulders—and for all their evident joy, no children had graced his marriage. Dhristadumnya would be King in Panchal after their father, and never Shikandi. They were two together, watching their brother walk towards a world they could only tread the margins of—he childless, and she a girl among others. Two years ago, Dhrishta had walked through the sacred fires to become their father’s Heir, Crown Prince in Panchal, and that night Draupadi, selfishly curling around her own hurt, had slipped into Shikandi’s chambers and let his wife cradle her heavy head till dawn.
Two years gone, and she would be eighteen in a day, and her brothers were sitting with her in the gardens, hand in hand in hand. Dhrishta said, voice gravelly with burgeoning adulthood, “You’re to be married.”
It should be only a surprise that it had taken such years to come to this—all the sisters she had barely known had been wed within two years of Shikandi, for all that the youngest had been five years her senior. Eighteen was old, for a girl whose father needed allies, and she had thought, foolishly, fondly, that her father desired only to keep her close. She had thought, nearly sixteen, and then again as eighteen drew close, with a despairing hope, that she might be made Panchali, in time, and be allowed to keep house for her father and brother. She knew from Shikandi that Panchal had fought back from Dronacharya’s desecration, too young though she was to remember the travesty of it as he did.
Shikandi shook his head to drive the fireflies away, dropped both hands into her hair streaming loose over his lap, stroking. “It has been a thought for a year and more, now. We had thought of the Yadavas at first,” he said, voice low and melodious, hand tight in her curls and dipping her head back against his thigh till she could see only the leaves, night-dark, guarding them from the stars. “But they are too tangled, still, with Sishupal, and we can hardly afford to involve ourselves in that. You remember the embassy from Dwaraka?”
She remembered Krishna, and his infuriating ability to create and retain affection, maintain an illusion of propriety while riding rough-shod over every scrap of protocol he adjudged unnecessary. He had spent hours in the women’s rooms, propped on his elbows by the lotus-pond and telling her increasingly incredible stories about his childhood exploits and dragging Shikandi away for close conversation from which he shooed her and Dhrishta away with great amiable finality. She nodded, Shikandi’s hands catching in her hair.
Dhrishta laughed. “All our women do, brother.” He caught her fist as she twisted to hit him, ran a callused thumb over her knuckles. “Peace, love.”
Shikandi said, “We decided a treaty with Hastinapura was the more immediate need, in the end.”
Her throat caught on an indrawn breath. “But father...”
“Never fear, child.” His hands turned caressing, soothing. “Our father’s hatred burns an ever-lasting flame. He’s offering you to a vassal.”
She nodded again. It was more in line with policy, allowing Drupad to foster alliances and enmities in an ever-tangling web, trap his in-laws into fighting their lords. “Who to, then?”
Shikandi stilled, hands cupped in benediction over her head. “To Karna, King in Anga.”
She would be Queen in Anga, though never Panchali.
The Pitamaha had said, smiling at his surprised eyes raised over the dossier on Panchal, “It is permissible for you to be selfish, Vasusena, once in a great while.”
He, mind racing already to thoughts of couriers sent in secret to his brothers, and which rishi he could coax and coerce into bearing a message, and which allies might most easily be dragged half-willing into discovering the Pandavas’ miraculous escape—for which the Kauravas would be thrice-blessedly grateful and Duryodhana would sulk for weeks and it’d be a headache but not his—and how best to coordinate this with the swayamvar, had bitten back layered rudeness that was truly not permissible, especially not from a favoured grandchild, and said instead, “I’m not in the line of inheritance.”
It had transpired that, useful as a treaty with Panchal would doubtless be, especially written on the body of Panchali, nobody had any intention of handing Drupad a Prince Regnant for his son-in-law, and it was thus not merely permissible, but highly desirable that Karna be selfish in his desire for marriage and for the world’s most beautiful woman—they were always all the world’s most beautiful women—to walk his life with. Letting Duryodhana enter an alliance with so volatile a power would only prove fatal to the delicate balance of court life, still and always apportioning duty and power in unequal halves though the Pandavas were most remarkably and grievously presumed dead. To have him marry the girl rendered Drupad clawless, handed Hastinapura a hostage to fortune and—and he had suspected always that the Pitamaha’s formidable political acumen was simply a facade behind which to stow his terrible, ruthless love—it declared the Princes of Hastinapura formally eligible.
“We hoped for Arjuna,” the Pitamaha had said, watching him watch the chariots made ready for their journey, and before that could sink fangs deep into his heart—that he had spent a year and more waiting in the great hall of Hastinapura while his brothers, his mother, languished in forests and fought savages for shelter was a thought to shudder away from—had laughed his lion’s laugh, and added, “but it will be easier by far to reconcile Duryodhan to this marriage.”
In a terrible way—for the reasons that had made Duryodhana demand his company on the night his brothers went to their deaths, that he had never looked too closely at—it had been, and in later years he might come to regret how little he returned to Duryodhana of the joy the Prince showed when his arrow pierced the eye of the fish: he regretted, bone-deep and blood-deep, every occasion he had turned his face from Duryodhana’s bright and terrible visage. He had thought to do it in the long revelry after he garlanded Panchal, after the treaties were signed and old men in silken rooms had changed the world to their own desires. After that there would be time enough—he had thought, even taking the garland from her attendants—to soothe away Duryodhana’s inchoate hurts.
And he had turned to scan the faces in the crowd in a manner that would have been combative before and was now merely valedictory—happiness too uncertain an emotion with a stranger bound to him for a life’s long duration, but pride, ah pride was easy after such a feat—and seen faces he had every night for months folded to his heart in dreams and found, for all his elaborate stratagems, that his breath caught in his throat and he could only look helplessly around at Krishna Vasudeva, who favoured him with a swift smile and disappeared from amongst the watchers.
He had long wondered how strange life looked for those who were not privy to the tedious conversations preceding policy decisions, and thought now that it must feel like this, like Krishna tilting his head towards a passageway after the marriage-rites were over, and like a puzzled Draupadi and an affable Drupad accompanying him from the chambers, and, perhaps, when he had sat nights with the Pitamaha and Chancellor Vidura and planned even the angle at which the elephants should lift their trunks in salutation, perhaps then the result looked to the idle watcher as miraculous as walking through a door and finding his brothers ranged there, unfamiliar in saffron garb and weary after their travels, but present and hale and beautifully alive, and he had known, of course, but oh, to have Yudhishthira’s smile so hesitant at his side, and to hold Arjun close and feel their hearts shuddering in time, and to see the twins blink away rapid tears.
Panchali—and he felt hot shame to have doubted her—matched steps to his down the thorny path to the cottage where his kin had subsisted a month on alms, her face resolute and too quiet for joy. A strange wedding, to a groom more concerned with his brothers than his bride, and her stern acceptance too felt a reproach impossible to answer. There would be time enough to coax her mouth into smiles like the one she favoured him with as he garlanded her, bright and unafraid and terribly lovely.
Arjuna, a glance at her and then eyes lit on his face, motioned them to a stop. “Let me,” he said, and “she hasn’t smiled in months, and now this. Come, Bhima.”
They had not, he realised—his mind was limping along, still, in the wake of it all, too too slowly—been unhappy in the forests, with their childhood joy in it, and their relief in being away from the strategies and manipulations of Hastinapura; they felt themselves in place here, amongst the trees and beasts and the birds singing in their nests, quiet and peaceful. Yudhishthira bestowed another smile upon him as they stood watching their brothers climb to the cottage and hammer on the door, shouting for their mother to come and see what their brother had brought home.
“Share it amongst yourselves,” Kunti said, and, ducking outdoors, stared wide-eyed at her eldest. “Vasusena. Princess.”
He wanted nothing, suddenly, more than to nod to assent to all her commands, to fold his weary length down and rest his head on her beautiful feet and remain there—too long she had been his only truth in life for disobeying her to be in any way easy. But the girl trembling in rage beside him had laid eternal claim to his protection, so he laughed, and said, “Mother, my bride is to be feted, not feasted upon,” and watched peace ebb urgently from his life.
In a land outside time, legend already in legends, a god sat on a mountain peak in the shadow of the cliffs he was lord over, and stared at a devotee. He was an austere god of shadows and ashes, and unaccustomed to being sought out by young maidens of high rank and being asked to find them husbands. In a time even further past, in a different age of the earth, another maiden had thus sought him out, but she had been herself a god, and the only husband her heart had sought had been him—and there had been those who had gone to their deaths, before he had assented to pass his head beneath the yoke of matrimony, nor was their great marriage lacking in strife.
Princess Nalayini, eyes closed in prayer, was a strange new thing, indeed, for all that she seemed as stern as any sadhu. Eldest child and only daughter of doting parents as wise as wilful, whose valour was famed and whose beauty, the princess had been—as princesses are in stories—raised in splendour and stinted nothing. The privations of long penance had brought her to a sacrifice nearly of herself, her lissom body stripped to its bones, the long curve of her ribs laid bare to the eye, and the sweep of her spine. She looked to have inherited nothing at all of her mother’s far-famed beauty, but by some ill-wished magic to have found her skin imprinted with the grotesque for her father had taken up in sport and in disguise. Everywhere starvation had dimmed the fire in her, made of her a dull, dun thing that mingled easily with the mountains, save in the lustrous eye that shone with pleasure as she lifted her head to perceive the god. She had lain months in wait for this, distressed her friends and disobeyed her father, and words came gracelessly flooding to her tongue like a flock of ingénues trampling rhythm underfoot in their eagerness to be seen dancing.
“Give me a husband, my lord,” she said, waiting not even to know of his pleasure in her prayers, and, her judgement overwhelmed by fate, again, “a husband, my dread lord, give me a husband, a husband, a husband.”
The god laughed, shuddering avalanches. “Why, Princess, have your parents not sought out a groom for you?”
She lowered her lashes, her heavy head, her hands clutching each other with pale protruding knuckles. They had, oh, dragged a line of princes through the court since the day they deemed her grown enough for even the first thoughts of marriage. And Nalayini, who nobody had thought stubborn, had shown in her sweet self every morsel of Nala’s wilful nature, every scrap of Damayanti’s sternness. She had averted her eyes from every suitor as she did now from her god, and affixed them on ground and sky and promising young saplings. Nothing would do for her but her parents’ great love, and she felt betrayal deep in her heart to be offered less, to be expected to find a life of joy with a man who wed her for her father’s power or her brothers’ help in war. That the line of princes dwindled had brought her only pleasure, so sure had she been, still, that her marriage would eclipse that of her parents. But her brothers had wed, and her cousins, and had all found an ordinary joy, all save Nalayini who had sought above all to be happy. Even her god, who she had worshipped so far from home and all the beloved faces, so long—her nephew would be walking, the hesitation gone from her niece’s voice, grey threaded through her mother’s hair—even he on whom she had so desperately pinned her fraying hopes, was laughing at her, for daring to seek by design what only her father’s determination had brought swooping into her mother’s life.
Yet it had been a gentle laugh, and when she dared raise her eyes again to his, his eyes too were kind. And she had come to the end of her abilities—she could only go home, after this, and the weary inevitability of it was etched into her bones and blood, the pity of it, the side-long glances, the unbearable kindness. If she failed it would not, she swore, staring into that implacable face, the snow seeping through her clothes, her swathes of fur, it would not be for cowardice. “I think, my lord,” and her voice, she noticed distantly, did not waver more than the cold might account for, with her life in the river’s verdant lap, “that you might find me a better.”
He opened one soot-stained palm in invitation, and she wondered again what pleasure her prattling gave him, that the most enraged of gods was so kind, so willing—like a doting father, and almost as willing as her own—to hear her hold forth about her desires. “Let him,” she said, “let him be wise, and learned in the ways of dharma. Let him be powerful, with the strength of elephants in him that no man may withstand him in battle. Let him be valiant, and let the ways of men in battle be to him as simple as the air we breathe. Let him be famed for his beauty as great as that of the gods. And, oh, let him love me.” That above all, though she had hidden it beneath all her other demands. Let him be perfect, and then let him love me.
The god laughed again, his eyes in a gentler dance. “Princess,” he said, and his voice was gently chiding, “to find a man to fit your specifications is indeed a difficult task. I pity your father, almost.”
The road home stretched long and faltering back, down the mountain, over terrain that been already inhospitable on her outward journey—and through it all her charioteer and her nurse trading concerned glances and low words. “Let him,” she said, and stopped a moment to rally courage, “let him be a man like all men, but let him love me. Let him love me above all living things.” As her father had loved his wife, whom yet he had left sleeping, alone in the naked forests, as her mother had loved her husband, whom yet she had left in doubt of her love in planned revenge. “Let him love me above even his own high honour.”
“Princess,” the god said, and there was thunder in his voice, and a shaking of the earth, and the harvest-parching drought—a god come to judgement, swearing by his own sacred name, “you shall have your husband. I lend my breath to your words, and so above all living things he shall love you, though they come from your body and from his and you grow to love them more, and even though he be treated by all men as a traitor, above his kin and clan and even greater than his own pride he shall prize you. You begged him of me five times, Princess, and so you shall have him in five lives as your husband, fire-forged and gods-blessed.”
“How shall I know him?” She knew, distantly, that she was piling sacrilege on sacrilege, seeking to conspire with the god as with a beloved friend, but the distance grew greater with her every breath. Already she could see the shimmering form of her husband grow nearer, gain sharp form under her guiding hands.
“My child,” he said, and there at last was the blade unsheathed in his smile, “you will never know him, for he will be a man like all men, and only chance can bring you two together, though he will shadow all your many lives.”