Night was falling when a stranger approached the gates of Hastinapura. He was dark, not very tall, but not short either, and wore the red robes of a sage. He was adorned with bracelets of Rudraksha beads while a long chain of Rudraksha beads hung down to his navel. His Uttariya was wrapped around his torso crosswise and its end was draped over one arm. His hair was matted and some of it was piled on top of his head in a knot. The rest hung down to his back. His beard and moustache were thick and hid the lower part of his face with his thick lips barely visible. His beard was tangled and reached down to his chest. His black eyes were fringed with thick bushy lashes. His age could not be determined, for though his face was unlined, and his hair untouched by grey, his eyes looked old. Though not tall, he carried himself straight and with authority. He was barefooted and carried a Yogadandu in one hand.
The guards at the gates stood straighter as they saw him, and their Nayaka addressed him respectfully, saying,
“Welcome, oh great Krishna Dwaipayana. Senapati Bheeshma has been awaiting your arrival anxiously since afternoon.”
“I was delayed,” said the sage. “I shall go to my brother immediately.”
“But you must be wanting to refresh yourself first,” said the Nayaka.
“I am above the needs of flesh,” said the sage, “There’s no need to accompany me. I know the way.”
“Of course,” said the captain bowing as the sage made his way through the crowded thoroughfare.
“Who is he?” asked one of the young guards. “Why does he call Senapati Bheeshma as his brother?”
“That is the sage Krishna Dwaipayana also known as Veda Vyasa,” said the Nayaka. “He is the son of our former Maharani Satyavati, and hence brother to Senapati Bheeshma.”
The guard digested this in astounded silence. Then, “But he looks very unclean and uncouth, doesn’t he? And that stink! How can he be allowed entry in the royal palace?”
The Nayaka smiled. “And who’ll bar him entry? He’s more than just another sage, more even than the son of the former Maharani.”
“What do you mean?”
But the Nayaka only shook his head. “It’s my head on the block if the spies carry tales to the Mahamatya. I’ve spoken too much, as it is. Look sharp. A group of men are coming.”
The guard nodded as he turned to his duty and the Nayaka too turned to questioning the leader of the visitors.
The subject of their discussion was, in the meantime, wending his way sedately towards the royal palace. He was aware of curious eyes of other passers by on him, and of the wide berth given him by them. It was only partly due to respect. Part of it was the fear of incurring his wrath if he was jostled. If the sage found anything odd in their fear, he did not show it. His visage was calm, and his eyes too were serene. The crowd thinned as he approached the better part of the city. Here, the roads were wider, and chariots could be seen passing by. Most people walked on the stones on the side of the street. The streets here were lined with shady trees and houses were set at a distance from the streets. Side streets led to normally bustling markets, which were all empty now, and gave a forlorn appearance at this hour.
Groups of guards were patrolling the streets. Though some stared at him as he turned to the wide street that led to the palace, none stopped him. The palace gates were closed, though at his approach, the gates opened and the Nayaka came forward to greet him.
“Welcome, O great one. I have been ordered to show you into the palace.”
The sage inclined his head, an amused smile curving his lips, though all he said was, “Lead the way,”
The path to the palace was as wide as a street. There was width enough for two chariots to go side by side. The path was lined with shady trees and flowering creepers had climbed on the trees to create a thick canopy. Flames covered with glass with a small hole on top were kept at regular intervals on pillars that were chest high. Beyond the trees lay wide expanses of lawns and gardens, though all were in darkness now. The sound of water flowing over stones could be heard and the sage sighed deeply. As they approached the palace, the lighted pillars became more frequent and the sage was led up the steps, where waited Bheeshma himself.
“Bhrata,” said Bheeshma coming forward and bending to touch his feet.
“Ayushman Bhavah,” the sage blessed him. May you have a long life. Something like a grimace passed over Bheeshma’s face at the blessing.
“I shall show you to the chambers allotted to you,” said Bheeshma, ignoring the maids who were strewing flower petals at their feet. “You shall refresh yourself and rest. We shall talk in the morning.”
“And yet, you were anxious for my arrival,” said the sage.
Bheeshma sighed deeply. The sage could notice that the lines on his face looked more pronounced while there was a definite slump to his shoulders. “I think…. some matters are better discussed during the day.”
Krishna Dwaipayana nodded. “I understand.”
“You must be grieving too,” said Bheeshma.
The sage shook his head. “I hardly know him. Besides, I’m a sage, and above all attachments.”
“And are you?” asked Bheeshma softly.
A faint smile graced the dark face of the sage. “We’re all human,” he replied, though he remained quiet the rest of the way.
He was led into a large chamber which was bare of all furnishings, except for a wooden cot on which was spread a straw mattress. A small table holding an earthen jug and goblets stood near the cot. The walls were all bare and a deer skin was spread near one of the walls.
“I hope that isn’t the deer,” said the sage.
Bheeshma gave a chuckle. “No, it isn’t.” he paused and looked at the sage, sobering. “I didn’t want to do it.”
“I know,” said the sage. “You had no choice. I understand.”
Bheeshma nodded and he left the room after ensuring that the sage was comfortable. Once he had left, the sage stood in the middle of the room, looking around. He smiled again, a smile tinged with amusement as he crossed to the deerskin and sat down on it in the lotus pose, and closed his eyes, the faint smile still lingering on his face.