Shiv watched the retreating back of the Princess, and he released his breath. It had taken every ounce of his self-control to make her back off. Not just was she engaged to someone else, but she deserved someone a lot better than him.
He was in love with her, and with every moment spent with her as she took care of him these last few days, he was caught in the quicksand of emotions from where it was a point of no return.
No one had ever cared for him. Neither his parents, for whom he was an obligation, nor anyone else. Thanks to his father, he wasn’t in touch with his extended family, and no one even knew he existed.
His friends were there for him, but he always wanted someone to share his life with. He had first felt an iota of the feeling in that mango grove years ago when little Padma had unknowingly consoled him in her sheer innocence. He had almost given up on life itself that day, but she gave him the right impetus to live.
Whether coincidently or not he often encountered Padma and now was completely head over heels for her. He knew she was way beyond his league, given the vast difference in their social status. Not to mention the threat to her life. He wanted her to be safe; he would then go away for good with fond memories of their time together.
The thought killed him, but that would be for the best for Padma, who should have a bright future with Keshav. Speaking of which he remembered a couple of times, he had seen Keshav sneaking into the royal garden’s far end. The movement was so subtle in the dark that it would have missed anyone’s eye. But Shiv was trained to filter out the enemy from the earth’s darkest corners, and he rarely missed anything. And after diligent pursual last evening, he had seen Keshav emerge stealthily and was soon followed by Seema. He had been shocked to see them, but he also knew Keshav and Padma didn’t spend any time together.
He was concerned for Padma. She needed to marry Keshav to keep up her legacy, and though it sounded messed up to the core, he knew Padma would also want the result. So he had to have a word with Keshav and encourage Padma to get closer to her fiancé.
But before all that, he had to eliminate the threats, their very existence. Then, he would spend the rest of his life in peace… alone.
He blinked back tears, surprised that he even shed them. But that was the impact of his feelings for Padma. And he knew even before she confessed that she liked him. So he had to discourage her, and for that, he would go the extra mile… even hurt her in the process.
An incoming message from Maanav alerted him. Despite being on the bed for a couple of days and despite his shoulder being dislocated, his hand in a sling, he was alert to any changes in their environment. So far, so good.
He knew Maanav would be trying everything to find out about the accident that he was sure wasn’t one. He was sure the brake line was cut. The police declared it an accident, mainly because they didn’t want the media to get a whiff of the situation given the upcoming assembly elections. The local politicians would have their hide if the region got negative publicity. For instance, the crowned Princess being attacked!
Shiv was sure the police wouldn’t bother with an investigation as it would call for attention, and the King not being around would be convenient.
He opened the message box
‘car tampered… driver still missing,’ Maanav had typed from his burner.
In the incident, Shiv had damaged his burner, and Maanav left another one with him in the hospital without anyone’s knowledge. It was ingrained into them that work came first, even before their lives, and they all took their work seriously.
Shiv had asked Keshav to look into the driver Harish the day after he regained consciousness. Harish had been thoroughly checked out, and Shiv wondered what had happened because the young man had to know about the tampering. He was in charge of the vehicle, and its upkeep and Shiv knew he was diligent. He couldn’t be such a wrong judge of people. He hoped Harish was safe.
That night he couldn’t sleep. He was off painkillers and his shoulder throbbed, but he was worried about Padma. Was she alright? Mentally?
It was around 2 AM and he was staring out of the window looking over the vast spread estate when he heard something. He was sure, it was from the adjacent room, the Princess’s room.
He walked out and saw the corridor around her chamber clear as he had requested. He moved slowly towards her door and knocked in his select pattern.
He knocked again and hearing the sounds but no answer yet again, he got anxious. The door was locked and it was no ordinary wooden door. He couldn’t break it open. He went back to his room and decided to use the other option he had ready just in case. But he hadn’t expected to be on a sling.
He took the sling off and took to the attached balcony railing. Though he had shut the balcony for the Princess’s access in her room, he had access for emergency…like today.
He climbed into her balcony, which wasn’t difficult for him, but the next step involved moving the wooden frame he had wedged at the entrance to her room to block it tentatively. He could remove it easily in his typical physical status, but with only one fully functional shoulder and arm, it would be a Herculean task.
The sounds continued to come in, and he was getting angsty with every passing second. He held the part he had grooved into the frame only for him and with all his might, he lifted it. His injured shoulder screamed and was in danger of dislocating again. The hairline fracture and the wounds on his body screamed in agony.
Finally he thought he would faint in pain when the frame moved. He squeezed himself in the gap created and entered the room. It was dimly lit but as his eyes adjusted to the sudden onslaught of light from the darkness outside, he saw the Princess lying on the floor. She was clutching her chest and neck. He saw beads of perspiration as she… gasped. Her jug of water lay strewn and the water had pooled around her hair, matting the curls to her forehead. Her wet silky nightgown stuck to her body as she lay grimacing, her body contouring as she struggled for breath.
“PRINCESS…” he yelled her name and rushed towards her, his discomfort all forgotten. Her eyes rolled up into their socket. He knew this was a classic case of poisoning. He picked up the intercom without wasting time, but it was dead…
He then took out his burner, thanking God that he had the good sense not to leave it behind in his room. He called the infirmary and sent an SOS text to Maanav. He had to think fast. Things were going out of hand.
He didn’t wait anymore and lifted the Princess in his carry, ignoring the throbbing of his wounds. He opened her door and rushed, screaming at the orderlies and the guards. A few of his men stationed nearby rushed to help him, but he would have none of it. He ran like a man possessed and met the medical staff midway. On the pavement, they lay the Princess on the stretcher and inserted an IV.
Her pulse had dropped to alarmingly low levels, and the medical staff tried to resuscitate her right there. Shiv thought his breath stopped as he watched the proceedings in horror. The Princess lay still like a log…lifeless.
Shiv fell on his knees even as his tears flew unhindered. His wounds had opened, his shoulder probably dislocated but nothing mattered any more than the almost lifeless body of his Princess.
Yes, she was his… he declared to himself. He couldn’t let her go… Never.
He stared blurringly as she was taken away into the ICU segment of the palace infirmary and he couldn’t move.
“Shadow…?” He heard Keshav call out and jerked back to consciousness.
“…uh…huh…?” he muttered incoherently.
“What happened?” Keshav looked alarmed. His disheveled clothes looked hurriedly worn. Someone must have informed him. A couple of men he knew were the critical members of the Royal court, and other orderlies slowly arrived, and a little crowd began to form.
“Po… poisoned… She was poisoned… Keshav… its Seema… she got water… for the Princess…” Shiv blurted.
“What? Seema? No.. No it isn’t possible. She would never do that Shadow…” Keshav looked around to see others didn’t hear their conversation.
“Princess didn’t have… dinner. Only water…” Shiv tried to explain.
Keshav stood to his full height and rubbed his fatigues face.
“In that case Shadow, lets go and check with her. Are you upto it?” Keshav put his hand forward.
Shiv clutched it and stood on wobbly legs and they began their walk towards the quarters where Seema lived.
Keshav, the Staff supervisor, and Shiv stood outside Seema’s room and knocked. But there was no response, and the room was locked.
The Staff supervisor used the master key and as they opened the door, they saw Seema lying in a pool of blood. She was stabbed in the abdomen and the knife lay nearby. As a frantic Keshav called the medics, Shiv checked for a pulse. It was very weak and Shiv used her bedsheet to stop the blood flow.
As the medics came and took her away after the emergency first-aid, Keshav slumped to the floor crying like a baby.
Shiv touched his shoulder.
“I told you… it cant be Seema… she loved Padma, loved me… she knew I loved her back. She… also knew we could probably never be together… but she was OK with it… She is an innocent and pure soul… She cant do something… like this…” Keshav wailed.
“In that case, Keshav, we need to figure out the culprit. This one is closer home…”
They walked back to the infirmary and Shiv popped in Painkillers. Maanav arrived and sat beside him outside the ICU where Padma was still being stabilized.
Maanav didn’t say a word, but Shiv knew the guy had his back.
“Don’t worry Shadow… she is tenacious… she will make it.” Maanav spoke after a while.
“I am scared, Bullet…” Shiv whispered as his voice cracked. “…For once in my life… I am scared… I can’t lose her…”
“You won’t Shadow… I know you won’t. Your love for her will get her out of the jaws of death… I know I sound cliched at the moment.” Maanav chuckled.
Shiv must have looked surprised as he glared at Maanav.
“What…?” Maanav asked smiling slyly. “…It’s written all over your face, buddy, and I have known you long enough to see you worry this much for some ‘project’. But, it’s fine, Shadow, I am happy for you.”
“This… isn’t right, Bullet… she deserves better and I cant give her the life she deserves.” Shiv rubbed his face for the umpteenth time.
“Now listen carefully buddy… I have some intel.” Maanav suddenly spoke seriously, and Shiv knew the guy meant business.
“what is it?”
Maanav looked around and cross-checked if they were the only two in the location he then bent ahead and spoke.
“Our MLA Majumdar wants to field his son next year for his seat in Koini. Our old man has his eyes set on Delhi. The party high command had demanded he show something dramatic here in this belt. So he wants to discredit royalty and get to scrapped totally. If it happens the entire province will be taken over by the government and will be included in Koini district. Do you know what that means Shadow?” Maanav asked.
“That means… Koini will not only become the largest region but also rich in vital minerals available and nurtured in this province. That also will mean the asshole politician can exploit the resources as he wants and become richer….”
“Absolutely…” Maanav agreed. “…the rumor is that he is still doing it as we talk, but there is no proof. Just like the disappearing women. We still haven’t understood how Majumdar got his dirty hands on the Royal Jewelry… like the anklet, he gave your mother.”
“But… Bullet, one thing doesn’t make sense… Why kill the Princess?”
“Because like I said earlier, she has the evidence of Majumdar’s misdeeds that can put him behind bars and if made public, the people of Koini will slay him alive.
“She… the Princess doesn’t seem to know anything about the evidence… I even checked with the King indirectly and once when I could break into the jewelry chamber…. There was nothing. I even got into the Late Queen’s chamber twice, unnoticed. But there was nothing. No dairy, no jewelry, disks, nothing.”
“Have you checked the crown? The one she was to wear on her coronation day?” Maanav asked.
Shiv tried to remember the coronation day… in the commotion that followed; he was focused on taking the Princess to safety. He didn’t bother about the crown and hoped the King would have kept it away safely. It sure cost a fortune.
“I think his highness, the King kept it carefully…”
“It’s not about the cost Shadow…” Maanav probably understood what Shiv thought. “… It’s also about its authenticity. The grapevine doing rounds is that the original crown is stolen and that would be one of the chief reasons to discredit royalty. Its no ordinary crown…” Maanav stressed.
Shiv thought for a while.
A little later, they got the news that both Seema and the Princess were out of danger. Seema would take time to recover but Princess was showing a speedy recovery.
One of the medics also dressed Shiv’s wounds.
Shiv held Maanav’s shoulders. “Do me a favor, Bullet, stay here and hold the fort. I need to check something.”
“What is it now?”
“I have to check the crown placed in the special room. I have to talk to Keshav and get access to it….”
“Be careful, buddy, all this just got murkier…” Maanav warned as Shiv signed off.