The night was warm, though the room was at a comfortable temperature. But Bheeshma tossed and turned in his bed, unable to sleep. He should have been sleeping peacefully today. For, he was in Indraprastha where his grandson was conducting the Rajasuya.
He could blame it on the long journey from Hastinapura. He could blame it on the excitement. He could blame it on the unfamiliar surroundings.
Or he could be honest and blame it in the shock of seeing a pair of dark eyes and the hatred burning in their depths.
“Sikhandi, our brother-in-law, elder brother to Panchali,” Yudhistira had introduced the owner of those eyes who’d bowed gracefully and yet, managed to express his contempt even in that bow.
Sikhandi! The son of the King of Panchala. Nay, the daughter of the King of Panchala, for it was rumoured that he’d been born a woman and been brought up as a boy by his parents. They even found him a bride. And the trouble had started then.
Bheeshma still remembered all the reports his spies had laid before him. There had been threats of war from the bride’s father, till somehow, Sikhandi turned into a man. His father-in-law was appeased and Sikhandi had even fathered a few sons.
But the eyes that looked out of that handsome visage belonged to Amba. Behind the masculine body, hid the feminine soul that thirsted for one thing only. Bheeshma’s death.
Bheeshma sat up. It was no use fighting this any more. He would nor be able to sleep. Not tonight. Not as long as Sikhandi and he lived under the same roof. But lack of sleep bothered him less than the presence of Amba’s reincarnation at such close proximity.
He went out of the door, the guards looked at him in question, but made no attempt to follow him. He was grateful for that. He did not want a retinue of body guards while he took a stroll around the garden. Even less did he want his grandsons to learn he was unable to sleep. And he definitely did not want them to learn the reasons for that. A day might come when he might tell them about Amba, but that day was not here yet.
It was cooler in the garden. The moon was a pale sickle in the sky and the garden lay more in shadow than in light. Somehow, Bheeshma did not mind it. The night was mostly still, with an occasional breeze stirring the leaves of the trees that bordered the path.
Bheeshma’s feet carried him to the pool that lay in the centre of the garden. It was surrounded by flowering shrubs and the path leading to it was lined by trees laden with fruits. Some of the fruits had fallen on to the path and Bheeshma could feel his shoes squashing them underneath.
There were carved seats near the pool from which one could watch the ornamental fishes frolicking in the pool or the fountain that played, creating rainbows in the sun. In the night, the pool was still and lay without a ripple. There were no rainbows in the night.
Bheeshma sat down on one of the seats, his eyes lingering on the shimmer of the water, reflecting the pale moon. He wished he could be as serene as that water. But his mind was in turmoil. By focussing on his surroundings, he was trying to forget the reason for his disquiet.
“What happened, old man? Could not sleep?” The mocking voice jarred his ears, breaking the silence of the night so rudely.
Bheeshma did not turn to face the speaker, not even when the man seated himself on a nearby seat. He did not want to look at Sikhandi. He did not want to see Amba’s eyes looking out from behind this stranger’s face.
“Sleeplessness is common among the elderly, I’ve heard,” the mocking voice continued.
“So it is,” agreed Bheeshma. “What is your excuse?”
“I came to meet you. I came to your room but saw you slipping out and I followed.”
Bheeshma frowned. He had not noticed. And such a thing was rare. He had been too distracted, he thought. He’d been careless.
“Why did you want to meet me?” He asked now.
“To renew our acquaintance.” Sikhandi was on his feet and was leaning over Bheeshma. His arms were on the sides of the seat on which Bheeshma was sitting and his face was inches away. Bheeshma found he could not look away from those eyes. Amba’s eyes. Thus had she looked at him the last time he’d seen her, just after his duel with his Guru. The same fire burned in her eyes. The fire of hatred, of revenge. Bheeshma shivered in spite of himself.
“Are you afraid, Devavrata Bheeshma?” Sikhandi whispered. “I can smell your fear. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of ghosts? Or of death?”
“I do not fear death,” Bheeshma’s voice was steady enough. “Nor ghosts.”
“Good,” Sikhandi murmured. “I do not want you afraid. I want you as you were the day you abducted me. I want you as you were the day you defied your own Guru.”
“My Guru asked the impossible,” said Bheeshma. “I would have laid down my life had he so commanded, but I cannot break my oath.”
“Your life is all I wanted then,” whispered Sikhandi. “Your Guru never saw that. He thought he could make you marry me!” He snorted. “All I wanted was your death! But he loved you too much to demand it! But now I need no one. I will kill you myself! And when the day comes that I stand before you in battle, not even your father’s boon will protect you!”
“If that is my destiny, then so let it be. But if you think that I will face you in battle ever, you are deluding yourself.”
Sikhandi’s eyes narrowed. “What game are you playing, old man?” He demanded harshly. “You think because your grandsons are married to my sister, we would never meet each other in battle? It will happen, I assure you! Even if I have to wait for another lifetime, it will happen!”
Bheeshma shook his head. “I could never raise arms against you. Sikhandi is only a cloak. You are Amba. And I would not lift arms against a woman.”
“You’re a fool, old man. And your foolishness is going to get you killed one day!” Sikhandi grated out. “And make no mistake, I will be there facing you on that day!”
He straightened, turned and left, as lithe and as silent as when he came, leaving Bheeshma alone and still in the night.