Read The Aryavarta Chronicles Kurukshetra: Book 3 Online
Authors: Krishna Udayasankar
Dharma smiled. ‘An admission that denies me the authority that I believe was rightfully mine; mine by destiny and divine will. That I may not have used it in a manner you approve of cannot change the fact that I had the right and the power to do what I did. But you would have me deny it, and you would have me opppose my kinsmen, the very people who share my beliefs.’
‘Will you?’ Govinda asked, his voice guttural as he threw his head back to empty the goblet.
‘Why should I? Why would you want me to, if you believed what I did was wrong.’
‘Because to let it stand unquestioned would be worse. You
exceed your authority. But that is no excuse for Syoddhan to assume your role. Aryavarta was built as an alliance of nations, an empire of freedom and free will. It is for the leaders of this alliance, the willing vassals and tributaries to decide whether you ought to remain Emperor, and if not, who ought to be Emperor in your stead. At the very least, calling the rest of Aryavarta to arms will show us what they truly think.’
‘And if the vassals are divided in their opinion? If they do not agree to support us? Already the Yadus have chosen to side with Syoddhan. Vasusena, Asvattama and their vassals are a given for him too. King Dhrupad’s allegiance to us, our spies report, is suspect, and I am inclined to agree. The very same Dhrstyadymn who rejoiced to see me take the throne of Matsya now refuses to respond to our messages, yet he gathers his forces at Kampilya. If the Panchalas stand against us, it not only questions the legitimacy of our cause but also leaves us severely outmatched in diplomatic and martial terms.’
‘That is a risk we must take. One that I shall do my best to counter. But I make no promises and would not have you believe otherwise.’
‘And that is why I say you’re a different man. Where are your reassurances, your confident assertions? Where is the man who always has a plan?’
Govinda twirled the empty goblet in his hand. His eyes remained on it as he said, ‘I told you that I saw an emperor who would place righteousness and the interests of the people before himself. By that assessment, I still stand. As for the man with a plan… He is asking his emperor to step forth and do what is needed for the people. Will you?’
‘Yes, I will.’ Dharma was resolute. He said, ‘I have made mistakes, Govinda. Just not the kind you think I did. And I want the chance to set things right, to do my duty. I failed to protect evil from itself, but I shall not make that error again. I cannot risk that my obvious love of peace becomes cause for strife. If I do not stand firm against Syoddhan, who knows what ancient horrors, what forgotten Wright weapons the various kingdoms pull out from hidden coffers, either to please or to defy him. You may think Dwaipayana Vyasa – my grandfather and the greatest ever Firstborn scholar – kept the truth of his mother’s identity hidden out of shame, but I tell you this: He kept it hidden because he knew evil had to be guarded from itself. The fact that he was born of a Firewright womb was not a blight but a weapon, and a powerful one in the hands of those who would wield it.’
‘Like your cousin Syoddhan?’ Govinda prompted.
‘Like many men who would taint his intentions with their advice,’ Dharma said. ‘Now that you have shattered the former Vyasa’s secret, who is to be the conscience-keeper of Aryavarta? Even as we speak, I am sure that Vasusena, Jayadrath, and many others search nook and cranny of the realm for the famed final creation of the Firewrights – the Naga-astra. Who can now hold them back? Certainly not the Firstborn! As for Grandsire Bhisma, Acharya Dron – these men are bound by their oaths of allegiance, the very Divine Order that Syoddhan and his cronies now threaten. They are slaves to their own nobility, and I do not hold it against them. But I…I am not beholden to Syoddhan, or to anyone else. If anyone stands against him, it must be me.’
‘I understand, Dharma.’
‘Be sure that you do, Govinda. I will agree with what you say, for the present, because I see the reasoning behind what you propose. Remember though that even the best of intentions can’t be without limitations. We will follow your plan, for as long as we can. But the one thing we shall not do is go to war.’
Govinda stood up and carefully stretched his arms above his head, at the same time stifling a yawn. ‘Don’t worry. We won’t. It is only in street corner plays and bards’ songs that wars are fought on battlefields as soon as they are declared. In reality, it takes a long time to prepare for them. Much happens before that, and that is often a war in its own right.’
‘What do you mean?’’
‘Wars cost money, Dharma. Wars take soldiers, weapons, horses and various other arrangements that you are only too familiar with. But what you might not know, given your royal birth, is that eventually men, money and materials, all come not from the royal palaces, but from among common citizens, the men and women who truly make up this realm, though they have no say in any of its matters. At the end of the day, though it may be Syoddhan Kauravya and Dharma Yudhisthir who meet each other in battle, the real war will be fought throughout the fifty-odd nations of Aryavarta. Taxes, rains and harvests, coffers that have been emptied or filled, old enmities and new ambitions…there are many, many things that will determine how things play out. No, Dharma, open war is a long way off, and I have no intention of letting things come to that.’
‘You finally sound more like yourself, Govinda,’ said Dharma. ‘But how can you be so sure? How can you be sure that there remains room for bargain?’
‘Because that is how the system of vassal allegiance works. I believe it is called Divine Order.’ Before Dharma could respond to the obvious sarcasm, Govinda was striding towards the door. He called out over his shoulder, ‘Now sleep, you look like you need it.’
Dharma’s response was a motionless silence that could have meant acquiescence. Govinda, however, had no doubt that his last advice would go unheeded.
ABHIMANYU YELPED AND JUMPED BACK AS A HARD ELBOW
dug into the side of his stomach. He could not see his attacker’s face clearly in the dim light of the wick lamp, but then he did not have to. ‘What was that for?’ he hissed, his eyes gradually getting used to the near darkness of the tunnel he was in after the brightness of the room he had been peeking into through a spy-hole.
‘That,’ Uttara Vairati replied, ‘was for not keeping your bony knee to yourself!’
Abhimanyu thought to argue about how it was her fault for not letting him peer through the peephole at what was going on in Dharma Yudhisthir’s room, but he decided on another ploy. ‘How do you know,’ he teased, ‘that it was my knee that you felt?’ He let the implications hang in the air, relishing what he imagined was a look of disgust on Uttara’s face.
‘You’d better hope it was, because this would hurt a lot more… elsewhere.’ She landed a hard kick with the heel of her foot on Abhimanyu’s left knee, making him yell as his leg buckled under.
‘Why you…’ He grabbed out, trying to remain standing by holding on to her, but was successful only in making her lose her balance.
‘The lamp! The lamp!’ Uttara warned as they both toppled over, but it was too late. The small wick lamp, chosen over a more resilient torch for its discreet light, hit the ground and immediately went out.
‘Oh, well done!’ Abhimanyu complained before Uttara could turn on him. She ignored him and began to feel her way to the wall to her right. ‘Stay as you are,’ she instructed. ‘If we can figure out which wall the keyhole was on, then we can align ourselves and feel our way back to the entrance. The passage is narrow, so we can…’
Her hand landed on the bare skin of Abhimanyu’s taut abdomen, and he groaned with pretended excitement. ‘Oh, don’t stop!’ he added for effect.
Uttara pulled her hand back, muttering indistinct words about slapping his face if only she could find it in the dark.
‘You’re rolling your eyes at me, aren’t you? I know you’re rolling your eyes!’ Abhimanyu baited her, knowing full well she had little patience with what she considered excessive and dramatic displays of emotion.
‘Vathu! Shut up!’ Uttara finally said, and returned to the task of feeling around, a little more cautiously, for the wall that had been in front of her. Despite her instructions to the contrary, Abhimanyu stood up and she could feel the warm skin of his arm brush hers as he did so. This time, Uttara did not complain. She knew Abhimanyu’s touch had not been intentional.
Both she and Abhimanyu had submitted to their marriage to each other given the political importance of the alliance it forged between the Confederacy of Matsya and the Kingdom of Western Kuru, to the extent that the exiled Emperor Dharma Yudhisthir could still be called king. Also, the wedding had been an important element of Govinda Shauri’s plans to reestablish Dharma as Emperor of Aryavarta, or so Panchali had explained. Uttara had agreed, but not without anger, and certainly not without condition. As far as the world, the political audience for whose benefit this arrangement had been proposed, would know, she and Abhimanyu would appear blissfully wedded. But between them, there would be nothing, not even friendship or civility. And so the young couple endured each other’s company in public with smiling faces, all the while exchanging jibes under their breath and letting out sighs of relief when the ceremonies were over.
Despite the understanding between them, Uttara had arrived in her rooms on their wedding night to find Abhimanyu there. She had been livid and far from restrained in her response to him.
In response, for the first and last time in the months that she had known him, Abhimanyu had also shown open rage. ‘You think I wanted this? You think I like this? Did you ever bother, Princess, to consider that I too had plans for my life, that maybe I loved another woman and wanted to marry her? By Rudra! I thought you were a different kind of person, but you…you’re just another self-obsessed, spoilt royal brat!’
Uttara had hoped that the dispute would be enough to make him leave her rooms, but was shocked as he had proceeded to make himself comfortable on her bed. ‘What? Did you want this side?’ he had asked when she had glared at him, but then had turned over and gone to sleep without waiting for her answer.
The next morning, to Uttara’s amazement, Abhimanyu had apologized for his choice of words to her, but not his actions. She had felt compelled to reciprocate in kind. After that the two of them had tried to meet as little as possible and to altogether avoid speaking to each other. It had taken the fiery couple only a week to their next argument, after which both of them realized that it was easier to maintain snide interactions than it was to not acknowledge each other at all. Thus, a new routine had set in, which had turned out to be not at all unpleasant. Whatever graces Abhimanyu may or may not have had, Uttara had to admit that he did not lack humour and, despite his constant complaint that Uttara was unduly opinionated, Abhimanyu found her to be a most sporting companion, who could hold her own against him in every way. Still, their relationship was far from amiable and, standing close together in the tunnel, Uttara wondered – as she suspected Abhimanyu did too – whether outright hostility had not been preferable. One of the advantages of anger, she realized in retrospect, was that it had blinded her to the fact that Abhimanyu was an exceptionally attractive man.
Abhimanyu lacked the burly frame of both the Kuru and Yadu clans, and took his height and build from his maternal uncle Govinda. His features, however, were his mother Subadra’s. He had her golden skin, her large doe eyes fringed with long lashes and, Uttara suspected, he had also had Subadra’s rounded face till manhood had chiselled his jaw into strong, determined lines. A child of the turbulent times his family had faced, Abhimanyu had been relentlessly trained by Govinda and his son Pradymna, and had a strong body to show for it.
It was not, Uttara reasoned with herself, that she had not encountered handsome men before, nor had they failed to tell her what she already knew – that she was not lacking in beauty. But there was an allure about Abhimanyu that stirred her attention, and she knew that he felt the same way about her. She had seen him struggle with himself, caught between discretion and brazenness when he looked at her. A part of him also struggled with the seeming redundancy of finding her attractive, given their animosity towards each other. Yet, when she and Abhimanyu were together in public, it was not too difficult to regard each other with what onlookers would interpret as affection and desire.
To all impressions, the two of them made the perfect pair. If it were not for the circumstances of their wedding, Uttara suspected, she and Abhimanyu could have been friends. In fact, she noted, they were friends enough to have decided to eavesdrop on Dharma and Govinda’s conversation by means of the secret passages in Chief Virat’s palace, all of which she knew like the back of her hand.
‘What’s the matter? Can’t find another excuse to get your hands on me?’ Abhimanyu said.
Immediately, Uttara regretted the instant of goodwill she had felt. Glaring at him, though the action was wasted in the dark, she said, ‘This way.’ She began walking towards the doorway to the tunnel, hands on the walls on either side for a sense of direction. She did not stop to check, but knew Abhimanyu was behind her.
‘We’re going in the wrong direction,’ he said after some time. ‘We didn’t walk for so long when we came in…Oh!’ The exclamation came as he walked right into a stationary Uttara. The force propelled them both into the wall ahead, Uttara having the presence of mind to brace herself with her hands instead of being driven into the wall. Breathing hard, for more reasons than the close call, the two stood in the darkness.
And then, Abhimanyu whispered, ‘Uttara…’
His throaty voice sent a shiver through her. Afraid that she might just give in to the sensations she felt at that moment, Uttara began to frantically run her hands over the stone that blocked their way, searching for the small catch that would release the door set into it.
‘Uttara, I…’ Abhimanyu bent down to take in the smell of her hair, grazing her neck with his chin. Closing her eyes, Uttara began to lean back into his chest. She tried hard to think of the numerous matters of importance in the world outside, the impending war – or not – among them, but right then politics seemed a distraction. Everything seemed a distraction except Abhimanyu, except the feeling of being held by him, against him. Her hands retreated from the stone; she meant to sink them into Abhimanyu’s thick hair, but at the last instant her right hand grazed against the door catch and her finger hooked around the small mechanism. Abhimanyu pulled her gently to him. Before she could let go of the catch, it gave with a click and the stone door slid open.