Queen Gandhari stood before the idol of Shiva, palms joined. Though only a few months pregnant, her belly was already large and she was having difficulty moving around. She needed assistance in doing the most basic tasks. The King and the queen mothers as well as the patriarch Bheeshma were worried about her health, but the queen remained serene. She had faith. And she remembered the dream she had the night before she learned she was pregnant. The Lord had come to her in the dream, and had blessed her with a hundred sons. She smiled to herself at that. She did not need a hundred. One was all she required. And didn’t the sastras say that one son endowed with all good qualities was equivalent to a hundred?
She bowed her head in prayer, a prayer of gratitude and supplication, both. Bheeshma had decreed that her husband wed again, since a King needed more than one wife. Dhritarashtra had tried to object, but had been over ruled. Gandhari was now here in front of the Lord to pray that she give birth to a son, so that her position would remain supreme. Once the King wed again, that position was all she had.
“Maharani,” the maid who was standing beside her brought her out of her reverie. “It is time to go,”
“Not without the prasada of the Lord, I hope,” a mellifluous voice spoke. It was the new priest, who had suddenly and inexplicably replaced the old one. He was eager to please, too eager, thought the queen, even as she accepted the offering with a respectful smile. The old priest was a saintly man, this one was too young to contain his roving eye. His gaze made her maids uncomfortable, and had it not been for her position and her condition, Gandhari had no doubt that eye would have been directed at her too. It was times like these she felt grateful for the blindfold which shut out her sight.
Having partaken of the prasada, she turned to go, when she felt a twinge from her belly. She ignored it and took a step forward. There was another twinge, sharper and so painful she stood still and gasped. Her face had gone pale, though she was unaware of it, and her body was beginning to sweat. She put a sweaty palm on her stomach and was aware of a warm wetness creeping down her thighs.
The baby! She thought, desperately. Her tongue seemed to have cleaved to her mouth and she could not utter a word and there was a buzzing in her ears that blocked out all sound. She was unaware of the maid’s frenzied shouts and of the guards that helped her into the palanquin. Blood was dripping down her thighs, and her garments were soaked.
“The Vaidya!” said her chief maid urgently. “We’ve to take her to the Vaidya immediately.”
The face of the chief of the guards was grim as he nodded. If anything were to happen to the queen or to the royal heir, their life was forfeit. A life for a life. That was how it was with the royalty, no matter the life to be taken was the sole support of his family.
“Bring her here,” a calm voice spoke. It was a sage, one whom the guard recognized.
“Sage Vyasa!” he said. “She’s bleeding!”
“I can see that. Bring her over here,” the sage led them to a small hut within the temple grounds. They transferred the queen on to a bed. The guard noticed that the new priest stood there, looking tense and as coiled as a spring, even as he was grinding some herbs with a pungent smell. A few jars of an odd design stood in the room. They had the shape of cradles, but they were jars, and had tubes protruding from the lid.
“Suka,” Vyasa addressed the priest. “Bring the medicine.” he turned to the guard, “Leave the maids here. Send one of your men to send word to the King and to Bheeshma. You and the rest of your men to stand guard outside. No man is to set foot inside till I say so, not even the King.”
The guard swallowed, but nodded. He went outside, closing the door behind him, and gave orders to one of his men to inform the King and the Senapati of what had transpired. Then he arranged his men in two loose concentric circles around the hut. Not even a fly would get past.
Soon, there was the sound of conches and heralds were announcing the arrival of the King and the Senapati.
“What happened?” the King sounded angry, anxious and fearful all at the same time. Bheeshma looked calm, though the guard noticed that he kept his body still and his fists clenched. He was just as worried, but had more self-control than his nephew. The Prime Minister Vidura was also there, looking bored and disinterested. But then, his life was not in the line here, and it was not his wife in there. The Sthapathi was also there, sweating profusely as he directed his people to go inside with the pillows and mattresses and what-not.
“I’m sorry,” the guard stopped the sthapathi. “The sage has said no one is to enter till he said so. Your people will have to wait outside.”
“I want to see my wife!” The King exclaimed angrily.
“I’m sorry, Rajan.” the guard said stoutly. “You may execute me, but I think the queen’s life and those of the royal heir is more important than your anxiety.”
“He has a point,” It was Sakuni, the prince of Gandhara and the queen’s brother. The guard had not noticed him since he stood behind Bheeshma and stepped forward only now. “What is your name?”
“Kanika,” he replied.
Sakuni nodded, placed a hand on the shoulder of his anxious brother-in-law and said, “Send us word when the sage wills it. Sthapathi, I saw a pathikavas just outside the temple grounds. Please requisition it for the use of the King and his entourage. Perhaps the Prime Minister would need to go with, to pull rank.”
Vidura smiled, showing all his teeth. “As the Prince of Gandhara wills. The will of guests is always the command of the royals of Hastinapura.”
The Prime Minister and the Sthapathi went outside, and the King and the others followed. The guard caught the tail end of Sakuni’s words to Dhritarashtra. “…ought to be made a minister at the least.”
He wondered if they were talking about demoting the Prime Minister.