A huge ball of grief was stuck in his throat as he began to hyperventilate. He was frozen to the hard, jagged ground with the droplets of rainwater falling on him from the crevises of the ruin. He didn’t care anymore, and before he could gather himself, he saw some movement.
The thunder raged, muting the voices, but a huge man covered by a black raincoat walked near the Queen whose eyes stared daggers at the man. All happened in quick succession and before he realized the man in the raincoat dripping with water landed a blow on the Queen’s head.
By default, Shiv’s training set in and was on high alert. He had to save the Queen as his father would have wanted to. So he made a quick mental calculation. Six men, including their leader and he could manage to contain them. But before he could move, a soft gasp alerted him to his side.
He watched her with expressionless eyes and vain tears streaming down her cheeks, and his heart caught in his throat again. But why didn’t she scream or react, and what was she doing here instead of being in her birthday bash in the palace? He realized she was shocked and hoped she didn’t do anything that would put her life in jeopardy. From his experience on the field, he also knew it would be detrimental to try to shake her out of her trance. He decided to have a go at the hooligans first and try to save the Queen, though he knew it would be futile by its grotesque looks.
But he had to do something for his father.
Before he could make his move Padma’s hand that had gripped the rusted bar on the window accidentally touched a loose stone that had been displaced, and the stone rolled down, landing next to the Queen, who was now gasping for breath. Shiv ducked instinctively and from the corner, watched in horror as the men looked towards the window. There was barely any light except for two flickering flames from the torches hooked in the walls.
The murky hues of mixed facial features danced before his eyes as Shiv tried to work around the mess just caused. He couldn’t immediately recognize them, but the raincoat man was very familiar. But there was no time for analysis. The princess was in danger. He didn’t know if they had recognized Padmavati.
His intuition weighed heavily, and he didn’t think anymore. He quickly pulled Padmavati away from the window, prying her hands away from the bars trying not to call for any more attention.
Instead of protesting, she lost consciousness, and he hoisted her lithe body on his shoulder. He moved away from the place even as he heard footsteps. It would take a while for them to reach him, so he carefully treaded on the slippery stones, his knee throbbing where it had hit him earlier.
He landed on the soft exit, his boots digging into the slush, pain shooting through his leg. But at that moment, nothing mattered. He had to get Padma to safety, and the only place where she would be safe was the palace. It was a long hike, and he didn’t know how to sustain it, given the erratic downpour and the darkness. His backpack was biting into his skin, but he couldn’t leave any traces behind though it didn’t contain anything that linked it to him.
He rushed through the trees, disappearing into the dense growth, tracing back how he had arrived. His lungs burned, and his knees screamed. Yet he continued his sojourn with the sole aim of getting the princess to safety. At the back of his head, he wondered about the funeral arrangements for his father, who was likely to be disowned, but his father wouldn’t have wanted him to shirk this responsibility.
He halted beneath a tree deep into the forest, the palace still a steep hike ahead. He had to gather his energies. Fortunately, the rainwater must have washed his footsteps. He knew by instinct that he wasn’t being followed anymore. He held Padma like a child in his arms as he slid down with his back against the tree trunk. It was pitch dark, and as he settled, he ignored his screaming muscles to turn around to release his backpack and took out the torch. He shone it upon Padma’s face as she lay lost to the world on his lap.
Her beautiful face was a blow to his solar plexus. She was only sixteen, but her beauty was unparalleled. He looked away, berating himself for having such thoughts. He had no right to do so. He reminded himself he was doing his duty towards his father.
Just then, Padma stirred and turned towards him. Her lids were still shut but there was a slight frown on her pale forehead.
“Aai…. Aaai….” She groaned, calling out to her mother.
He wondered how much she would remember. He was sure she wasn’t in her senses completely when she witnessed the gruesome event unfold. For someone who had always lived a sheltered life, this would have been a massive shock to her. She would probably face PTSD for a long time unknown to her.
He instinctively held her closer to comfort her but she snuggled into his broad chest and wrapped her thin arms around his shoulder. He held her further close not wanting to let her go. Though she was covered in mud and her clothes were soiled, her inherent sandalwood fragrance was intact. His heart raced as she dug her face deeper into his rib cage. He placed the torch back into the backpack and rubbed her head till she fell into a deep slumber.
After a few minutes, when he had gathered his wits, he stood up yet again, and unwrapping her hand, he hoisted her back on his shoulder. He was fiercely attracted to Padma and swore aloud at his indiscretion. She was only 16 for crying out loud and way beyond his league.
He had slept around to satiate his physical craving, but nothing satisfied him, so he had abstained from any such contacts for the past year. In addition, he was never emotionally involved with any woman he had slept with before.
He now confirmed his suspicions. He was always attracted strangely towards the princess ever since he had seen her eight years ago. She held a special place in his heart no one could replace.
Of course, it wasn’t physical attraction then. But tonight, as he traversed through the challenging terrain, he realized he was a goner. He didn’t know what love was but what he felt for the princess was something he had never felt for anyone else before.
It was barely dawn as he reached the perimeter and as expected, the palace hounds were not in place; else, there would have been loud barking by now. He strutted painfully towards the wall. The princess had to have found a way to escape the palace confines; otherwise, she wouldn’t have escaped given the tight security. The fact that the palace was still brightly lit meant no one knew the princess was missing.
He knew it was vital that remained like that and no one should know what she had witnessed. It would put her in danger if his father’s last call was to be believed. There was something sinister going on that had cost his father his life and probably the Queen’s too.
He found a hole in the wall part that was slightly zigzagged and instantly knew it was where the princess had her escapade. He dropped his backpack at the entrance and slowly squeezed the princess through the wall, and his heart skipped a beat as she fell with a slight thud. He quickly followed her though the hole wasn’t big enough for him.
Fortunately, Padma had fallen on the flower bed, and he gently lifted her as she remained asleep. As he walked towards the palace garden, he was on high alert. He had only known the princess lived with her parents in the east wing.
Shiv saw a thick flower garden close to a fountain and laid the princess gently on a stone bench nearby. He wanted to drop her into her room, but it would alert security.
As he straightened up, she stirred.
“No… don’t go… don’t leave me please…” she cried in her sleep, and a tear escaped her eye. He wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms, and the intensity of his feelings surprised him. Not wanting to do something he would regret forever he moved away, and eventually, as he squeezed out of the hole in the wall, he felt as if a large chunk of his heart was left behind in the place garden.
As he raced towards the foot of the mountain, he knew what his father meant. He would continue the crusade started by his father.
He couldn’t save the Queen, who didn’t stand a chance against the blow but he would protect the princess with his life till the danger passed. He would get to the bottom of the plot to find out who planned to harm the royal family and why.
No harm shall befall the princess; he promised as he walked towards the nearest bus station. He was already on the phone, finally getting a network. He placed a call to the police and ambulance. They had to know what transpired in the fort.
He blinked back tears and prayed for the departed souls as he walked along the stony path.
The dull cerulean canvas of his life
Never witnessed a moment of bloom
Would there be brightness, the slightest whiff?
Or was he destined to sink into fathomless grief?