There was a roar of disapproval and protests from Yudhishthira’s brothers. The Pandava heroes threatened terrible reprisals against Sakuni and the Kauravas. But Yudhishthira ordered his brothers to keep silent. He addressed Sakuni.

“Is this dharma? Do the Vedas ordain such a shameful act?”

“My dear Yudhishthira, the Vedas ordain that a woman must marry only one husband. Do I need to say more?” said Sakuni. “This is but a challenge. You are a kshatriyan. Would you deny your antagonist a fair duel? Look at the prize. I offer an unfair advantage to you. With one win, you retrieve everything: your freedom, your brothers’ freedom, and your treasures and kingdom. After all, you are an acknowledged expert in the ways of the dice. I am but a novice. Do you fear me?”

Grandsire Bhishma, Minister Vidura and the mahagurus, Dronacharya and Kripacharya, spoke against Sakuni’s suggestion. Their words were like smoke hitting a hard rock. King Drupada of Panchala pointed a finger at Duryodhana and said,

“If you vest this dishonour on my blameless daughter, Draupadi, you will earn my everlasting enmity.”

“You’ve already lost half your kingdom to our Preceptor Dronacharya. Sit down, old man, or I’ll be happy to take the other half of your kingdom,” said Duryodhana. Angry voices erupted. Kings unsheathed their swords. Yudhishthira held up his arms and called for calm. In a soft voice he said,

“I accept the challenge.”

“Dear nephew, those are the wisest words heard in this sabha,” said Sakuni. “Let us not place Panchali on the board and reduce her to a pawn. She deserves better. One roll of the dice each. The higher number wins. Agreed?”

Yudhishthira nodded, and the Gandhara prince invited his nephew to play the dice first. The Pandava uttered a small prayer and threw the stick dice.

“Well done, Yudhishthira! A perfect six,” said Sakuni. An enormous sigh of relief escaped from the tense crowd. “That leaves me with a one-in-seven chance for a win. Aren’t you glad you took my advice and accepted the challenge?”

The Gandhara royal rubbed the stick dice in his palms. He blew into his clasped hands and rolled the dice. The elongated stick dice rolled and stopped. The assembly gasped.

Two blank dice faces.

“I win,” said Sakuni. He had rolled a perfect twelve. A small band of nobles, loyal adherents to the Kauravas’ cause, cheered. But the vast majority of kings and all the brahmanas and lay people remained glum and silent.

“Dushasana, please fetch the former empress, Panchali, so she might join her husbands,” said Duryodhana. His younger brother licked his lips and smiled.

“Is that necessary?” said Bhishma.

“Oh yes, Grandsire Bhishma,” said Duryodhana. “We should all hear her laughter, that same melodious laughter that accompanied my misfortune when I tripped and fell in the pond in the Pandavas’ Maya Palace. My apologies. The Pandavas’ former palace.”

“Duryodhana, shame her and I will—.” But Bheema could not finish his threat, for Yudhishthira ordered him to be silent.

“Oh, thank you, Bheema, for reminding me of your presence. You and your brothers made matters worse. Instead of helping, all of you including your bosom friend and brother-in-law, Krishna, laughed while I struggled and slipped again and again on the fungi as I tried to climb out of the water.”

“Do with us as you wish, but why her?” said Yudhishthira.

“Why not her? I was your invited guest; under the protection of the House of Pandu. How did your empress treat me? Instead of admonishing her, you joined in her laughter. Her father, the great king Drupada, who rules half a kingdom, has failed in her upbringing. When this assembly laughs at her misfortune, she will learn that when a person falls, he deserves a helping hand and empathy, not ridicule.”

Duryodhana gestured. With a smile and a bow, Dushasana hurried off toward the women’s chambers. Again, bellicose noise erupted in the hall. Arguments and counter-arguments flew back and forth.

The Kauravas watched and smirked as their minions hurled words at the Pandavas’ sympathisers. Everyone shouted; no one listened.

“Now you know who your friends are,” said Karna in undertones to Duryodhana.

“Almost none,” said the Kaurava imperial heir.

“Dear nephew, you’ve defeated the enemy. Now, you must win them over as allies and secure your enlarged kingdom,” said Sakuni.

“First, I must have my revenge.”

“Of course, how else can you crown your glory,” said Sakuni, and he held his nephew’s gaze.

A sharp scream pierced through the base, guttural voices of the arguing men. The woman screamed again and again.

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