Sakuni was pacing the room agitatedly. Dhritarashtra thought of telling him to stop. The sound of the footsteps was irritating, but he kept quiet mainly because he could understand the man’s agitation. If he weren’t afraid of bumping into furniture, he would be pacing the room too. This was not the familiar contours of his room wherein he could have paced all he wanted without any fear of bumping into anything. This was the guest mansion allotted to Sakuni, and Dhritarashtra had chosen to visit him there because at the moment he had more faith in the guards that Sakuni had outside the room who ensured they were not eavesdropped upon, than in his own. Gandhari was sitting next to him, her hand a soothing presence in his. When he thought of how close he had come to losing her, his fingers tightened on hers. She returned the pressure of his hand and she could feel her smile.
“Stop that pacing, will you?” Gandhari asked. “It’s beginning to get on my nerves.”
“How can you-? Oh never mind!” Sakuni stopped, sitting on a chair next to his sister. “It must be an infernal nuisance, having to hear things none of might even notice.”
“But useful,” Gandhari said. “I can detect even the slightest nuances in people’s voices. It comes in handy, especially since the maids lie all the time.”
“The attendants do too,” Dhritarashtra smiled. “But mostly about unimportant things, so we can let it slide.”
“And you know Vidura was lying the other day,” Sakuni said. “When he said your son- your son-my nephew- would be the destroyer of our race.”
“He didn’t believe his words any more than we did,” Gandhari asserted. “Kripa on the other hand, believed we would be doing the right thing by abandoning Suyodhana.”
“Why would Vidura say such a thing?” Sakuni demanded. “He’s the Pradhanamantrin for crying out loud. Why would he want to get rid of the future King?”
“My guess is as good as yours,” Dhritarashtra said, trying not to show how perturbed he really was. When Vidura had spoken of the omens, and his own conclusion, he’d been shocked. Of course, he remembered that night a few weeks ago when somehow some animals had made their way into the city, and filled the night with their noises. But to infer that it was the night of Suyodhana’s birth, and that it was due to his birth, and it indicated that he would destroy their race was too much. Thing was, none of them knew when exactly Suyodhana was born. The sage Vyasa had left without giving them an exact time or day, though he’d given them detailed horoscopes of all seven princes and the princess. That had been a surprise, Dhritarashtra acknowledged, though not an unpleasant one. Gandhari was over the moon at having a daughter. But seven sons ought to be enough to secure the succession, especially since all of them were as healthy as could be, after the ministrations of the sages.
“I should be getting back to the babies,” Gandhari said. “I don’t like being away from them for long. The nurses are all good, but- I feel they’re safer when I’m with them.”
“Don’t worry,” Sakuni said, his voice reassuring. “They’re guarded by the best Gandhara has. Those guards wouldn’t allow anything to happen to your children, and those nurses will die before they let anyone cause harm to them.”
At one time, Dhritarashtra would have resented the contingent of guards and nurses and serving women that Sakuni had gifted his sister. At one time he would have been angry at the implication that the Kurus could not protect their own princes, but now he was only grateful that Sakuni cared enough to give his own people. Because he had seen how abysmally bad the Kurus’ protection was when they had allowed their queen to be poisoned, and even now, no one knew how the poison had come into the possession of the man who Vidura said was behind the whole thing. Vidura said he was an assassin, but Dhritarashtra was not convinced. He might be blind, but he was not an unlearned fool. Assassins worked in pairs. Always. And this was only one man. Vidura’s best efforts had not produced his partner, and hence they had to conclude that the man had some vendetta against the Kurus.
The sage had not been too forthcoming about the details of the poison either. Which could mean one of two things. Either he didn’t know much of the poison, or he knew too much, and decided it was better not to tell them. Dhritarashtra did not know which of the scenarios he found more disturbing. He did not want to press the two sages since they had undoubtedly saved both Gandhari and the babies. Sage Vyasa did tell him that Gandhari would be unable to have any more children. Under the circumstances, Dhritarashtra could not but be glad that she’d given birth to more than one child. No one could browbeat or blackmail him to marrying again. Uncle Bheeshma had not been pleased with his decision, nor with the Gandhara maids surrounding the queen nor with the guards from Gandhara protecting the future King of Hastinapura, but Dhritarashtra was more concerned with the safety of his wife and children than with his uncle’s feelings. If his uncle had been competent, this would not have been necessary, though he did not tell Bheeshma that.
“I think Vidura’s behaviour is very suspicious,” Sakuni said. “He was too insistent on getting rid of your son. Why?”
“He hates me. He despises me.”
“I think it is more than that.” Sakuni said. “I do have a theory about that.”
Dhritarashtra suppressed a sigh. He liked his brother-in-law and he was grateful to him, but he saw a conspiracy everywhere. And he had theories about it all. Most had no basis except his fancies which appeared extremely logical to him, but to no one else.
“What is your theory?” Gandhari asked before Dhritarashtra could profess his disinterest.
“I heard Pandu’s wife had given birth to twins in the forest. If your sons are not there, his son would be the King, would he not?”
“We all know Pandu is not – let’s say- able to have children. So, whose children are these?”
“Must be born of Niyoga,” Dhritarashtra said, even as Gandhari gasped in comprehension.
“Yes, but who’s the real father? I bet it is Vidura. That’s why he wanted to get rid of my nephew!”
“You have to be joking,” Dhritarashtra said. “Vidura loathes Pandu, and Pandu despises him.”
“And Kunti hates him,” Gandhari said. “I don’t think she could stand to be in the same room with him, much less… you know.”
“Because,” Dhritarashtra said. “Vidura had always had this grudge that he was never considered for the throne.”
“Why should he have been?” Sakuni asked, perplexed.
“Well, Niyoga is the law. So, as per law, Pandu and I are the sons of Vichitravirya, but in actual fact, all three of us share the same father. So, he feels that he should also be considered in line for the throne. There’s also the fact that our real father can be considered the Kanina son of King Santanu, and that would actually make Vidura a prince, and eligible to be considered for the throne. Plus, the fact is, he is better qualified than either of us. So, he has a gripe against us. He probably thinks that without my children, he would have a chance at becoming the King of Hastinapura.”
“You know, that actually makes sense,” Sakuni said. “And with Pandu in the forest, he probably thinks he has a reasonable chance.” he paused. “But I must say that it does worry me.”
“He won’t try anything now, would he?” Gandhari asked.
“We cannot tell. You know, I think you should allow me to take care of him. And of Pandu and his sons too. There’s no saying what Pandu might try to make his son the King.”
“No,” Dhritarashtra shook his head. “I’ll not be a party to the destruction of my own family! My god! How can you even think that!”
“He only meant that we should be safeguarding our children’s inheritance,” Gandhari said “And Vidura has already tried to get us to abandon our children.”
“He hasn’t tried to kill them, has he? He’s just – venting- his frustration. And Pandu hasn’t done anything to any of us! If anything happens to my brothers or to my nephews, I swear Sakuni, I’ll strangle you with my bare hands!”
“Relax,” Sakuni said placatingly. “There’s no need to get angry. I was just exploring an idea, but if you’re not interested, I won’t do anything. I give you my word.”
Before Dhritarashtra could open his mouth, there was a knock at the door. At Sakuni’s softly spoken command to come in, a guard entered,
“Your highness,” he addressed Sakuni. “A messenger has come from Gandhara,”
“Send him in,” Sakuni said. A man entered the room. He was travel stained and weary, and his voice was shaking as he handed over a sealed scroll to Sakuni.
“A message, from home, your majesty.”
Dhritarashtra sucked in a breath, and from the gasp that came from Gandhari, he knew that she had noticed as well. Sakuni was too busy opening the message to notice the way the messenger addressed him. He read the message, and crushed the parchment in his hand.
“It seems I must return to Gandhara,” he said, his voice steady, but his hands were shaking. “My father is dead.”