Long years have caused Rukmini to forget the pain of prolonged travel—laughable, she knows, in a maiden who once begged to be spirited hundreds of yojanas from her childhood home. But chariots jostle so, cushions always manage to somehow slip from one’s seat, and no amount of curtains can protect against the winds.
Almost as tiresome as the fuss everyone makes upon an arrival—Subhadra, eyes wide, exclaiming, “But you never come anywhere!” and even Panchali herself startled into the momentary imperfection of a gasp. Really, Rukmini ought to be forgiving; it’s not anyone’s fault that the risk of stumbling against one of the Emperor’s partisans have limited her to Dwaraka’s palaces. Easier, really, to send Satyabhama in her place, who actually enjoys indulging in the good spirited gossip and generosity that can be found in good measure here in Indraprastha.
Today, though, today is different. Today is the day of the Rajasuya, when all the kings of Aryavrata will be gathered before her.
Subhadra chatters away happily, sweeping her along the balconies where queens and princesses gather to watch as Yudhisthira is proclaimed Emperor. Queen Mother Kunti preens in their midst, surrounded by her daughters-in-law, and Panchali loosens her dark hair in preparation for a dip in holy water. This is the result of twelve years of grit and gumption on their part, twelve years spent wresting a city of wonders from a wildland. Dwaraka was every bit as downtrodden not so very long ago
A clamor of voices come from the assembly hall below as Grandsire Bhishma gets to his feet to point out his choice for the guest who should be first honored among his equals—and he, sage and silver-haired, indicates Rukmini’s husband. Panchali smiles, Subhadra claps with glee, and even Mother Kunti nods her head in agreement; but even that is not enough to drown out the grumbles from below. Why a Yadava, when so many nobler lineages are present? Why a cowherd, when the Kuru elder ought to respect tradition?
Loudest among them is a voice that Rukmini hasn’t heard in twenty years, but still remembers.
There was a time, to her horror, when she had imagined she would have to wake and sleep to its shrill sound, its every petulant complaint.
“You would have us honor this common thief?” Shishupala bleats, and Rukmini bares her teeth.
She has known Shishupala since she was fifteen and he the gangly thirteen-year-old her brother brought home with him, in yet another attempt to win the Magadhan Emperor’s love. Rukmini had pitied him then, stiff and stumbling over every other word, fawning over and flattering the most ordinary adornments, staring at her family with greedy eyes. She’d thought it was because he wanted something of their warmth, their closeness with one another—until she’d stumbled across him bullying her tutor Sunanda.
Then it had been all too clear that Vidarbha was little better in Shishupala’s eyes, only a prize whose freedom and finery might be bartered to his foster-father Jarasandha.
Then she’d known, even before she had sworn to die before marrying him, that her life’s work would mean ensuring his destruction.
Rukmini has always been a great believer in knowing her enemy, and it is no great difficulty to enlist Sunanda in researching Shishupala’s family tree, the better to find a vulnerability she might someday use. That is how his disgraceful and despised cousin first comes to her attention—Shishupala’s opposite in every way possible, and a thousand times the better man.
She writes to him, because she can’t help but wonder what sort man might so offend sycophantic Shishupala, and she doesn’t regret an instant of the lifetime that follows.
Below, Shishupala sneers: “What man would have it be known that his wife was once desired by another?” and quickly, subtly, her husband’s eyes dart up to meet hers.
Krishna remembers all Shishupala’s offenses, but Rukmini counts them. One by one, from least to greatest, each one worth its weight in blood.
When Dwaraka is burned by Shishupala’s forces, it’s Rukmini who bites back her tears and barters her jewelry to pay for its repairs; when King Bhoja’s men are kidnapped and forced into slavery, it’s Rukmini who negotiates their release with half a dozen dignitaries, arguing until her voice grows hoarse.
When Shishupala abducts poor Bhadra of Visala, it’s Rukmini who tends to the princess afterwards, listening to her tears.
Later she goes to her husband, face drawn. “Kill him,” she commands, voice hollow. “What’s your word to the men and women who suffer at his hands? End it, now.”
If she meant it—if she forgot what months and years of planning had led them to conclude— he would obey. Rukmini knows that, just as she knows why he cannot.
“Count it thrice,” she offers instead. “Once for Bhadra’s pain, once for Karusha’s pride, and once for my own anger. Let the hundredth offense come all the sooner.”
Krishna nods, and reaches out to draw her close. Into her hair, he whispers, “Not soon enough.”
Krishna reaches for the chakra he always wears—a cowherd’s weapon, not significant enough to confiscate in an Imperial court—so quickly that most onlookers miss it entirely. Rukmini does not; Rukmini rises to her feet in a glory of gold and silk, for this one instant once more the most beautiful woman in all the world before Panchali had taken her place.
Shishupala looks up at her, his face as twisted as his soul, and she stares down. She ought not to hate him any longer, not when she need not fear being trapped in his presence until the end of her days; but in some corner of her soul, perhaps left over from her last birth, she feels the weight of anger still press down upon her.
Wretched woman, he had dared write to her after her marriage, under the guide of paying congratulations to his cousin; someday you’ll realize the magnitude of your foolishness in marrying a mere cowherd when you might have had the Emperor’s dear one himself. By then it’ll be too late. I won’t want you; I wonder that anyone will…
The chakra finds its mark; it always does. Rukmini’s hands tremble with relief. But below her, the kings of Aryavrata exclaim in surprise and bow their heads before her husband, to whom mighty Hastinapur itself defers, and look up at her, his Queen, with newfound respect. No more will they whisper of poor Vaibharbi, who threw herself away on a pauper out of sheer lust; no more will they imitate Shishupala by setting their sights to attack Dwaraka without expecting retribution.
Now, when they remember Shishupala, they will think of a fool who met a well-deserved end. When they think of Rukmini, they will remember one who gambled and gained everything by it.
She reaches for the conch she carries at her side, bringing it up to her lips, and blows a note of sweet victory into the hall below.