Yudhishthir kept his cool. He usually did. His name literally meant "one who keeps his cool in troubled situations". He did, once again.
From somewhere very, very far there seemed to emerge Shakuni's voice "we've won everything! Everything!"
They indeed had. They had won Indraprastha, the most prosperous kingdom in the nation, along with its gleaming riches. The magnitude of the stake they had won was enormous: it would have taken the greatest of emperors fourteen generations to accumulate such a staggering amount of wealth. All over a couple of hours of a game of dice.
He knew how shamelessly and desperately Duryodhan had waited for this day. He knew how jealous Duryodhan was of them from his stay at their humongous, imposing palace at Indraprastha. So blatant was Duryodhan's greed that everyone around him - even the blind - were aware of it. And The Blind had consented to call them over for a rather innocent-looking game of dice.
And now, this.
Yudhishthir knew that if he had backed out even now, they would get away with dignity. True, they had lost their sovereignty and affluence, but he knew that they still had the support of contemporary stalwarts like the Yadavs and the Panchals. With help from them, the Pandavs still had the capability of rebuilding everything from scratch and outdo the Kauravs yet again.
Yet, he did not stand up. It seemed as if he was in a trance.
"Nakul," an almost inaudible voice was heard. "Nakul will be my stake."
There was a general hush in the enormous courtroom. What in the name of Holy Indra and Agni was going on? What kind of a person puts his own brother at stake? True, Nakul was only a stepbrother, and despite his military exploits in West India, Nakul was never a warrior in the leagues of a Bheem or an Arjun.
But still, they had encountered so many hardships together; the years of growing up in forests in ignominy; escaping the House of Death at Varanavat; toiling along in unknown villages in search of alms for years; and helping create a kingdom of dreams: Nakul had been a brother and comrade-in-arms, however lesser, for decades now: how could someone put him at stake?
He lost. Again.
His brothers looked exasperated. Duryodhan looked elated, not at the achievement of his uncle having won Nakul's freedom, but at the sheer prospect of the unbelievable. He knew what was about to follow. Even the usually cool Karna looked tense; and the vocal Dushshasan turned silent.
Yudhisthir put Sahadeb at stake next. Sahadeb The Wise, Sahadeb The Conqueror of The South.
Shakuni rolled the die yet again. And won, yet again.
Once again, a hush. Like the lull before the storm. What next? Putting Nakul and Sahadeb as stake was one thing, but surely not Bheem and Arjun? Surely not? Surely no one could be that suicidal?
He did. Arjun The Valiant, The Greatest Warrior of His Times, The Conqueror of Many Worlds, The Son of the King of Gods: the favourite student of his teacher, the favourite son of his mother, universally popular. The only person on Yudhishthir's side who could take on the combined force of Bhishma, Dron and Karna and possibly still come out victorious; now gone, lost over a mere game of dice.
The Kauravs rejoiced this time. Even Karna, usually calm in any moment, let out a yell of ecstasy. How he had wanted Arjun to be humiliated over the years. And now, he owned him.
And now, Bheem.
Possibly the single-most feared individual by the Kaurav brethren and their father. Bheem, whom they had tried to kill as a kid and had failed miserably. Bheem, who had tormented the Kauravs time and again over the years. Bheem, whose stout shoulders had virtually single-handedly seen his brothers and mother to safety on numerous occasions in their days of woes. Bheem, who had taken down Jarasandha, the most feared monarch of their times.
The dice rolled. And Bheem was won. Bheem, who had given Duryodhan and Dhritarashtra the most sleepless of nights over the years, was now conquered. The excitement of the Kauravs drowned the exasperation of the hapless seniors in the courtyard - Bhishma, Dron and Bidur.
Yudhishthir sat like an ancient statue, transfixed on the silk board that had turned his fortune upside down in this wretched courtroom in a matter of hours. He had lost his riches, his kingdom, and now his brothers. Who would he put at stake now?
Shakuni's voice broke the silence. "What else do you have to put up as stake, Yudhishthir? Remember, one win can get you back everything. Everything you have lost." Clearly he was trying to go for the final kill and seal everything for good.
The Pandav brothers sat, their heads hung in despair. Duryodhan and Karna waited with bated breath for Yudhishthir's voice to announce the inevitable. The entire courtroom forgot to speak, perhaps even breathe.
And then, the unexpected happened. Yudhishthir stood up.
"I quit", he blurted out. And in rapid steps, he left the courtroom, without turning back.
The Kauravs sat, stunned. Then booed. They mocked Yudhishtir, uttering the filthiest of insults at the greatest ruler of their times. The great man walked out of the court, unfazed by the taunts. The Kauravs persisted for a while, then broke out into a shameless display of celebration. Obviously, no one seemed to care about Yudhishthir, a man separated from his mighty brothers and kingdom forever.
Yudhishthir smiled as he left the courtroom. Things had turned out exactly as he had planned them to be. He walked straight to Draupadi's room, asking her to come along with him, quietly.
Of course, she had the obvious questions. But his eyes told her that this was not the time. She followed him, quietly, into the chariot that was waiting for them for this purpose. Everything had been planned meticulously, well in advance. The chariot took them silently, well beyond the eyes of suspicion of Duryodhan's spies, who had turned off their vigilance as the good news had spread all around Hastinapur.
They rode past unknown villages and little-known forests. They stopped for meagre, quick meals along the Yamuna, and set off almost immediately in pursuit of some mysterious destination. The conversations were minimal. It irked Draupadi to see Yudhishthir smiling in satisfaction, and curiosity had almost triggered off a series of questions, but the wise woman knew better.
Finally, they reached. It was a cosy, beautiful, planned house - nowhere close to their Indraprastha palace as far as grandeur was concerned, but quite comfortable for two people.
That night in bed, Yudhishthir told Draupadi everything. About how he had lost everything. Including his brothers. Everything. How he had their escape planned. How he had planned out this house and its amenities over years.
As his frantic lips immersed in her sensuous throat and his hungry fingertips fumbled with her saree, he knew that it had all been worth. One could not wait four years for this to happen. He needed her every night. He did not want her to be shared. He did not want to wait for her for a single day - let alone four long years as he had helplessly watched her share a bed with someone else. Indeed, she was someone worth selling one's brothers for, let alone giving up one's kingdom.
Draupadi's insides revolted. Her heart wanted to push her man aside. She struck him with all her force and dug her fingernails in his bare back. Then the nails dug in deeper. And deeper.