Padma had lost her appetite. She only stared at the balcony whenever she wasn’t forcing herself to study. Her fieldwork had been postponed indefinitely, and she gathered the few children of the Palace aides to teach them. Teaching was something she loved the most. She realized she was born to be a teacher.
Padma sighed as she stared at her favorite fountain. How she wished she could give this up. Royalty was not for her. She didn’t have it in her to be the Queen. Even her aai never liked it and her baba never forced aai… But her parents never shared the conventional couple relationship. Whether it was because they were Royalty, she didn’t know, but she didn’t want to have such a formal relationship with her partner.
Her thoughts immediately drifted towards Shiv. It was almost a week since she last saw him, and she missed him like hell. She hoped he would at least talk to her. Keshav had met her that morning, but he hadn’t heard from Shiv either. She prayed Shiv would be fine. He had to be…
She looked at the fountain yet again. The water gurgle in rhythm soothed her but also increased her turmoil as she recalled her time near the waterfall. She would give up anything to be with Shiv just once at that place…
Padma felt the cold breeze on her cheeks and realized she had been crying. Wiping away tears, she began to prepare for the upcoming class for the children. Thank God for those blessings; these children distracted her from her splintering heart.
Nights however, were the worst. She missed Shiv’s warmth, his touch, his voice… just about everything. She would hug her pillow close to her chest and cry her heart out.
Aarti, too was conspicuous with her absence. Where was she when Padma needed her the most?
Shiv paced across his room in the motel. The tiny shady place was the only location Maanav could manage close to Koini. He couldn’t risk staying in his old house because he knew there were people keeping an eye on the place. His cover had blown already, and he couldn’t put the Princess in further danger.
Padma… his Princess, the love of his life. He wished to drop everything for just a glimpse of her at that moment. She had confessed to him, but he had held back. He almost told her twice the last night he met her but refrained the last minute. He couldn’t give her false hopes. He had no future. She was all set to become Queen, and the road to the same had been paved for her. So she would need to marry into a family of repute fit for the Queen. He was nowhere close.
His background had nothing to boast about. His father was never there and his mother was… well, lesser said the better. He had grown on the wrong side of the town and had rage filled in his soul till Padma had come along and doused the flames with her tenderness… by her mere presence. Something about her calmed him. He had become a better person. He had seen horrible stuff worldwide in his stint in the Special Ops and had been damaged from within. But Padma had reversed it all and made him want to live.
But what would life be without Padma? Would he go back to special ops? His superior had sent in a word through Razor… to reconsider retirement and join back.
To be honest to himself… he was tired of running around right from childhood. He wanted to settle somewhere, put down his roots, and have a family where he would be a good father in the best ways possible. The thought brought in a vision of Padma standing against the palace balcony with her belly filled with his child…. No… he had to rein in his thoughts. All that couldn’t happen.
Guilt engulfed him as he thought of the moments of passion in her arms, and his heart churned. He shouldn’t have done it, but he lost control even when he returned the locket to her. She did that to him every time…
She was his breath, his elixir for all emotional conflicts. How would he live without her?
There was a knock pattern on the motel door, and he knew it was Maanav. As he opened the door, both Maanav and Avinash ‘Razor’ walked in, shutting the door behind them.
Shiv dismissed all other thoughts and got back to the game. He had to get his bearings together if he had to save Padma for good.
The door knock came in the pattern once again, and all three looked at each other, surprise etched on their faces. Was it…?
Maanav rushed to open the door, and like a duft of breeze, the lady in black rushed in, taking her place on the couch without any greeting formalities. There was a deep recovered gash on her cheek from one of her accomplishments in Baghdad. That was Anadi ‘Lolita’, Avinash’s twin and their fourth close friend.
Shiv got her a glass of water that she gulped in a go.
“Anandi, what are you doing here….?” Avinash asked her. “…weren’t you in Uganda?”
Anandi shoved her palm aside and stared at the blank wall of the motel as if focussing on the mold lining the corner. The other three knew it better than to pester her for an answer. But Shiv was happy they were all together after years.
Maanav spread open a map on the rickety center table.
“Here…” he said, pointing towards Koini village, a small uneven drawing. “…this is our current location. Koini. Now, as per the chip details that my tech guy managed to decipher only yesterday, hoards of ‘packages’ were delivered at this point all those years ago. The packages consisted of young girls in their teens and barely above twenty. They were then taken to the fort for the cleansing process… and the gullible parents were told they were the select ones to become Devdasis. The parents and guardians were given some money to keep quiet about it, saying it was the wish of Maa Bhavani and anyone going against them would incur Her wrath….”
He halted as Anandi strutted and sat on the adjoining couch, watching the proceedings intently.
“…these girls were then shifted to the cities and sold into flesh trades. A couple of those came in few years later and tried to complain… but were silenced permanently.”
“How come all this went unnoticed by authorities? However corrupt they are, these cant be hidden for long. Why did no one notice the transport of these girls through Koini….?” Anandi asked. Shiv noticed she was fuming. He knew this hit a nerve. There was some dark history behind her weird behaviours, but none discussed their childhood details in the Gurukul.
“That’s because they didn’t take the usual routes. Instead, they took secret routes…” Maanav replied, showing the marking on the map.
“…through the fort” Shiv completed his statement.
“Yes. This is the path you discovered when you stayed near the fort, behind the falls.” Maanav pointed to the area on the map.
“But this is all from the chip from years ago… what about recent times? No news?” Anandi asked again.
“That’s because…” Shiv continued. “…the Queen had threatened to expose them all with proof. She had caught wind of their activities. But the Royals didn’t have direct jurisdiction. However, later she must have found out about the clandestine activities in the fort that belonged to her family, which she had inherited. So she must have taken charge. But eventually was killed. However no matter what the perps didn’t find and evidence on her. Also after the Queen’s death, the vigilance tightened, and the fort was inaccessible for years because the King was on the case….However, there was news about the package very recently, and the fort will be used once again for the rendezvous. Only, this time the girls aren’t local…”
“Who is the bloody monster?” Thundered Anandi.
“It’s the upcoming MP Rajendra Majumdar… The evidence in the chip points towards him. There are many other details like illegal quarrying, land grabbing, initiation of riots etc. He had to keep his image clean after getting the ticket from the high command party. But cash flow has dried up, and he has been stirring things again….” Shiv sighed and continued. “…The only other way to access funds was through the royal treasury. If he got everyone to vote against the King, then the Government would eventually take over by default, which means he gets to lay his hands on the Royal Booty…”
“So, what is the plan?” Anandi asked, impatient as ever.
“Well, we have the plan in place. The girls are being held somewhere else but they will be brought to the fort. Its done when the Moonlight is at the lowest, usually on the Amavasya nights as per the evidence in the chip. That means…”
“…Tonight”. Anandi completed.
All nodded, and there was a moment of silence as each was lost in thought.
“There is one thing I don’t understand here…” Anandi spoke, skepticism evident in her voice. “…while I would enjoy torturing those demons, why can’t we just hand over this evidence to the high authorities?”
“That’s because…” Shiv explained. “…the safety of those girls whose locations are unknown is priority and also… the Princess… we have to know who is trying to kill her. It’s an insider.”
Anandi crossed her hands and stared at Shiv.
“Don’t tell me… are you…do you love this lady? The Princess?” Shiv saw a trace of a smile on her face.
He felt Avinash trying to control his chuckle while Maanav held up his poker face.
“Alright, alright…” Anandi shook her head and continued. “…I am sure you have a plan. I can bet on my life that you already know who that insiderSo spillSpill it all out and lets see how we can give our best.”
In the next half, an hour the four of them brainstormed the pros and cons of their plan.
At the end of it, Maanav asked. “Shadow, are you… sure about this?”
Shadow inhaled deeply. He knew there was a huge risk involved for what he had planned but that was needed to end this permanently and get to the bottom of everything. The law required concrete evidence and he would provide it.
They began to get ready for the night showdown, even as Maanav mobilized their team and the gadgets!
Padma rested on her bed after a light early dinner that she had taken only on Seema’s persistence. There was a knock, and Aarti entered.
“Where were you, Aarti?” Padma asked
“I had put my life and reputation on the line for you Padma… I thought enough was enough. I had to find details for you. By the way…” Aarti stopped and shut the door, latching it from the inside. “….Padma, I found out who killed Aaisaheb.”
Padma sat up straight, all alert. “Wha… what are you talking about, Aarti?”
“I got to access files, and through a friend in cyber security, I got the police reports. Babasaheb had got it classified because it would bring dishonor to the family…”
“Come to the point, Aarti…” Her head was spinning with the deluge of emotions with every passing moment.
“The point is… aaisaheb was murdered by none other than her bodyguard…. Chouhan kaka….”
“…what rubbish, Aarti… do you even know what you are talking about?”
“Its you who is in the dark, Padma. First, the father screws up everything for the Royal family and then the son arrives out of the blue and completes the honours….”
“That’s enough, Aarti… enough… I won’t hear anything more against Chouhan kaka or Shiv. You are mistaken.” Padma was panting by now.
“If you chose to live in the fool’s paradise, then so it be, Padma. But just think. Only Chouhan kaka had access to everything the aaisaheb did. She trusted him blindly. He was probably killed by his cronies when something must have gone wrong… As for Shiv or Shadow… where was he all this while. Where was he when his father worked here? And why did he come suddenly, leaving a lucrative career? What is the vested interest? You need to get your head out of the sand, Padma and think.”
“No… I don’t believe all this… this is all false…” Padma wailed.
“In that case, why don’t you confront your Shadow or Shiv?” Aarti declared.
“What? But… where is Shiv? Do you know?” She was worried about Shiv all the more.
“I do, and that’s why I said he is not who he claims he is. He is a cheat, out to get the best compensation for his father, who apparently died in the line of duty…. By the way, I have to show you something as well. For that, we have to leave through our secret passage. Are you game?”
“Fine…” Padma stood up. “… let’s go. I want to meet Shiv in your presence and clear it all. You will know it’s all a misunderstanding.”
“lets see, Padma, lets see…” Aarti spoke, folding her hands as Padma began to change her clothes.
They escaped through the Palace’s west wing the same way they always did and came to the perimeter wall.
“Hey, wait… Aarti… camera.” Padma gasped.
“Don’t worry, Padma, it doesn’t work.” Aarti chuckled.
What? How did Aarti know all this? And why was the perimeter camera not working?
Padma pushed the doubts to the back burner. At the moment, she needed to meet Shiv. She had to make things clear to Aarti…
Padma was surprised to see the hole in the wall? She had thought it was all sealed. The barbedded fence too was broken… But before she could think, Aarti nudged her.
“Come on Padma, let’s move before someone sees us…”
Half-heartedly, she passed the area, and they were soon in the adjoining woods. The only light source was Aarti’s mobile phone torch, and soon in the piercing sounds of the night breeze and the crickets making a racket, they reached a spot in the center.
“What are we doing here Aarti?”
“I followed Shiv once and found him dig something here. I was too scared so I couldn’t tell anyone or confront him… today let’s see what he has hidden here.”
Aarti began to dig with her fingers as Padma held the torch. Every passing moment, her heart increased its pace. Her heart told her Shiv wasn’t in the wrong, and Aarti had misunderstood everything in her concern for Padma…
Aarti was digging furiously, and soon there emerged a velvet bag… Aarti pulled it out.
“What is this?” Aarti spoke aloud and opened the rope tying the bag.
Wait… Padma had seen that bag somewhere…
Aarti opened it and in the light of the phone torch, their eyes fell on the gittering stones of the Royal crown…
“Oh My God… Padma…here is the missing crown…that means that asshole Shadow had stolen it… It was easy for him to do it in the commotion on the coronation day. He is such a scoundrel…”
Padma dropped the mobile phone and held the nearby tree trunk as the world swayed before her. She wanted to throw up… no… this couldn’t be happening.
“Relax Padma…” Aarti helped her stand straight. “… be thankful that we got to know about his misdeeds. We will hand him over to the police soon. Who knows, he may be the one who got you shot… then acted like he was your savior. His eyes must have been on the crown all the time… the one who has the crown has the power…”
Aarti drawled on but Padma wasn’t listening. She slid down on the damp mud wanting the earth to open up and swallow her that instant.
After a while, she saw Aarti place the crown back in the bag and then in her backpack… Padma hadn’t even seen her bring her backpack.
She wasn’t convinced Shiv could do this. No… her mother couldn’t trust the wrong man and her gut feeling told her Shiv wasn’t at fault. Then who wanted her dead? Who would benefit from her death besides the perps who killed her mother and Chouhan kaka…
“…You should get moving Padma… let’s contact the police and…” Aarti continued.
“…NO… WAIT…” Padma held up her hand. A strange kind of an odour swarmed into her nostrils. Again it was very familiar.. where had she experienced it? She hated the putridity so much she wanted to gag…
“What is it Padma? How much more proof do you need?”
“No Aarti… I know it cant be Shiv or Chouhan kaka for that matter…”
“You are an idiot Padma… come on…” Aarti held her hand and jerked it. “…lets go to the police…”
Padma released her hand with a jerk and replied, “…No Aarti… I am not going anywhere. I will wait for Shiv to come and tell me the truth.”
Padma turned to go towards the palace, the mephitic odour growing by the instant… something was wrong.
“No, Padma… you cant do this…” Aarti’s tone had changed and she held her hand yet again.
But before she could resist a hand held something against her nose form behind her and the world began to spin.
Before she was engulfed into the throes of darkness…. She suddenly remembered. This was the same odour she had experienced that night, when her mother died…