Two years later
Padma stood before the full-length mirror she had acquired from her mother’s room last year. It was her twenty-first birthday and also the day of her coronation. She adjusted the saree pleats of the specially ordered ‘paithani’ Her long lustrous mane was rolled into an elegant bun touching her neck and the corner locks were joined at the top of her head to form a loop. Floral chains of the ‘mogra’ specially ordered from Karnataka adorned her crown, also spreading their fragrant hues all over her body and soul.
The maids stood watching the dresser arrange her pleats and she finally tucked in her saree. The saree itself was woven in silk and golden ‘zari’ highlighting its traditional border and a grand Pallu. This mesmerizing piece was in midnight black shade with an elegant designer blouse in scarlet red to add a classy appeal to it. The raised motifs adorning the blouse’s arms were custom made for today’s ceremony, studded with rubies and golden embroidery. The shape of the adjoining saree part moving towards the palloo was fixed so that her fair hourglass waist was accentuated.
She had worn her mother’s Kundan set. The neck piece had huge leafy round and oval shape golden metal with flower pattern tinted in cream, red and green colour while the opposite face had pure kundan. The necklace had dangling grey pearls. At the centre was a dense triangular pendant with a hollow in it. The hollow probably nestled a stone…
Aarti had commented how the missing stone was an eyesore but the Padma had wanted something that belonged to her mother on this special day. The triangular pendant resting a little above her nape line lay next to her turquoise pendent that she refused to part with even for this day.
The adjustable back golden nylon threads of the necklace embedded a dangle of pearls and acrylic red-green stones.
The chandelier-shaped dangling earrings also had the same pattern as the necklace.
The bangles she wore were handcrafted to match her necklace and earrings. The only difference being each of them had a couple of classic black onyx gemstones to match with her saree.
Her make-up was very light with a dab of rouge and blush. Her fishtail eye-liner design brought out the shape of her eyes. Her lips were a bright vermillion.
As everyone left the room, letting her stand alone, she slipped her feet in the specially ordered heeled ‘mojri’ with delicate embroidery with dancing peacocks and radiant flowers all over.
She stood staring at her fascimilie in the mirror blinking back tears as she missed her mother the most. She still had time before Aarti would come in to escort her to the coronation hall. She could hear the beats of the assorted drum essemblage and the traditional trumpets being blown. Her heart paced in anticipation of what was coming up…
Today evening was her coronation and she would be officially the legal heir to the province, after her father.
The last three years flashed past her eyes.
She remembered that night of the puja, when she had been escorted back safely to the palace. She had thought her father wouldn’t speak to her as usual but to her surprise he called her to his chamber the very next evening.
She remembered taking the painful walk down the East wing towards her parents’ study. She had never been there after her mother had passed except to collect some of her mother’s paraphernalia.
That evening after dinner, she knocked on the wooden brass door and the king hollered her in.
She walked in with trembling legs partly because of what had transpired the earlier evening and partly because of her memories in the wing… she could feel her mother’s presence and missed her even more. Blinking back tears, she stood before her father with a huge mahogany table between them. Her father was seated on the massive revolving office chair specially ordered by her mother. The study set was different from all other pieces in the room but her father never refused his wife…
He indicated Padma to sit, and she tried not to show her fear as she took a seat on one of the two soft cushioned chairs.
Her father stared at her and she realised he had aged beyond his years and more in the last two years. She wished she could comfort him and be of help but knew the archaic royal blood running in her father’s veins wouldn’t let him do that.
The King sighed. “Padma, my child… I am sorry that you had to face it all.”
She quickly glanced up. Was her father apologising?
“I understand baba… Its not your fault…”
Her father raised his palm indicating her to stop.
“Hear me out, child. I am not only apologising for yesterday… its… its for your fate for having born into this household….” Padma watched stunned as he continued. “…If not for being a part of this family and heir, you would have led a better life and had all the freedom your heart desired. I know you aren’t happy with the engagement announcement but child, besides being your father, I am first and foremost the King who has a lot at stake if things go wrong…. There are things you don’t know and at this juncture I can’t reveal anything….”
The king’s hand was up still and it was then Padma saw his middle finger missing its ring… the untanned ring area was prominent. She always remembered seeing the handmade ring on sterling silver with greenstone. It was a gift from the Turkish ambassador when he had visited them years ago.
“…Baba… your ring?” she pointed towards his finger.
The king was taken aback at the subject change and watched his hand. He then looked up at Padma.
“Just remember child, you cannot trust anyone around you. But the bearer of this ring will be authorized and endorsed by me… at a personal level. So you can trust the person blindly.”
What was her father talking about?
The king must have sensed her restlessness. He stood and walked around the table and touched her head. He then moved towards the large window and stared at the blackness ahead.
“Padma, my dear, your mother and I always wanted the best for you. We wanted to give you a life free from the bindings of the royal rules, but your safety is of utmost importance. And no matter what, I won’t compromise of anything. What happened yesterday wasn’t a mistake, and I don’t want to hide anything from you. We were attacked despite everything and we lost three of our guards. So in the wake of things heating up, I have made some decisions….” He turned towards her. “… From now on you will NOT venture out of the palace grounds without permission… you will go out only when things die down and when I feel it will be safe enough…and …there will be no more discussion on this.”
The king resumed his reading from the multiple files and folders on the table and it was a clue for her to leave.
Padma walked back in a daze, unsure of what the future held in store for her. The palace walls were suffocating, and that night she cried herself to sleep… desperately wanting the comfort of those strong hands.
She barely saw her father after that night. As expected, she was not allowed to venture out again. So instead, she plunged into studies and began her quest to gather knowledge on finances and administrative issues pertaining to the palace with Keshav’s help.
She also found that the police suspected Majumdar to be involved in the attempt on her entourage in the temple but without proof, he was let off. She had no updates about the man later…
Aarti started her graduate studies as a day scholar in the plains and rarely appeared. Keshav helped her gain access to social media using an alias. Though she didn’t chat with anyone, she was in tandem with whatever her classmates were upto. Keshav turned to be her best friend and now that they had sorted their relationship, they were comfortable with each other. He took her once in a while to a nearby plantation on his motorbike, and a security entourage followed them from a distance. It was close to the palace and on the hills, so it was relatively safe. She looked forward to those outings as she could enjoy barrier-free sunshine. She got the needed ‘me time’ as Keshav left her alone for a couple of hours.
The last two years were extremely taxing because of the pandemic as far as the revenue was concerned. Despite Keshav’s Herculean efforts, the revenue had dropped drastically and they were forced to release some staff. The King had arranged for their employment with his acquaintances in other provinces so they didn’t suffer. But overall it was bleak.
In the last few months, however, things looked up with good crop in their fields and Keshav hoped agricultural yield would sustain them for a year till things got back on track.
Padma smiled as she continued to stare at her form in the mirror. There was a secret no one knew, not even Keshav. Her clandestine escapes into the wild, behind the forest. She had learned to ride a bike with Aarti a couple of years ago and had arranged for one, which she hid in a cove-like structure painstakingly made over a period of time using dried foliage. She kept adding more dried branches to it and no one suspected a bike to be hidded there. She often rode late into the nights at least once a week. She hated hiding it from Keshav but she couldn’t help it. It was blissful during the lockdowns as there was rarely anyone on the road. She felt the thrill like never before.
She often visited the fort where her mother was found murdered, but her fear got the better of her and she couldn’t cross the perimeters marked shut by the law enforcement tapes. Her father had insisted on the closure of the place strictly, and there was nothing she could do.
However, the sense of being watched irked her and at the same time gave her a sense of security as well. In these two years that she had escaped the palace clutches late into the night while the world slept, her trips had been uneventful. She had tried to visit the hospital her mother had started, but it was difficult to seek information without revealing her identity. Also besides the pandemic restrictions, her father’s dikkat also proved to be her path’s impediments.
Besides all these, her nights were often filled with the usual nightmares soon replaced by the calming black orbs. She read a lot of romance novels stealthily brought into the palace and to her surprise Keshav encouraged her to read all she wanted and do whatever she wished to. He went out of his way to arrange stuff she needed. Whether for her occasional painting interests or embroidery. It was sad that she didn’t feel for him the way she was to feel even after three years of her supposed engagement.
Was she destined to marry him? What about the feelings like her heart fluttering as she had read in books? She didn’t know these even existed in real life till she had experienced it with the mystery man who had saved her twice… the man was a ghost and she was half in love with the enigma. Would she ever see him again?
She was expected to marry whenever she had to ascend the throne officially. Fortunately, her father was living and there was no hurry. But someday, she had to take over, and the royal laws’ amendment to remove the marriage clause was still not in place. She hoped it would happen soon now that regular functioning had resumed.
Aarti entered the room along with a group of Padma’s special attendants and they escorted her to the room brimming with people. The palace was decorated like there was no tomorrow.
As she descended the round carpeted stairs towards the coronation hall, Padma recognized some of the faces. There were ministers from the state cabinet, sitting MLAs, the sarpanch from the villages in their province, and also the neighboring regions. Everyone assembled roared as they welcomed her amidst the cacophony of the myriad instruments playing juxtaposed by chants in the glory of Maa Bhavani and also ‘Long Live the King’, ‘Long live the Princess’…
Padma looked around, even as she was showered with marigold and rose petals and saw the crowd swelling, the hall bursting at its seams. Did the King invite so many people? Was the security in place? She felt like a sitting duck….
Shading her head to drive away untoward thoughts, she walked towards the specially designed dias with a ‘throne’. The golden throne studded by precious stones belonging to the Maratha regime was displayed only on special occasions.
She sat on the velvety cushion flanked by Aarti and her attendants; she felt that sense of being watched yet again. She felt the goosebumps rise on her arms. Was the person watching her all these years present in the hall now? Why didn’t he show himself?
The royal family priest chanted the holy ‘mantras,’ and she saw an attendant holding the golden plate on which was placed a Diamond-studded Tiara. Was this the one Keshav had mentioned all those years ago? The one she had to protect? The dazzling beauty of the tiara blinded her and the world went still as if she was having a private conversation with the head adornment.
Right then she felt movement in the corner of her eye and before she could react and turn she felt a piercing pain in her left shoulder as she was jerked behind. She touched her shoulders which had turned numb with pain and her palm drew back with a wet redness… Blood… she was bleeding.
She didn’t know if there were screams all over, but a heavy hand dragged her away, and she was hoisted up on someone’s strong shoulders… familiar shoulders with that overly familiar vanilla essence.
That was the last thought amidst the excruciating agony and the world went blank…