Padma shut the book she was reading. She hadn’t read beyond the first line in the last half an hour. Where was Shadow?
He hadn’t left her side all these days. But that evening, she wasn’t very sleepy, just reacting to medicines, and had dozed off only to wake up in 15 min.
Her heart paced rapidly as if giving her a premonition of something amiss. She clutched at her locket.
“Oh Aai… please help me… what is going on?” She prayed looking at her mother’s life-size portrait as if finding answers in them.
There was yet another attack on her and she should have been used to it by now, but the feel of ones throat getting constricted to the extent that she couldn’t breathe… it was terrible. She tried calling Shadow but knew he was recovering as well. She had almost given up the hope of surviving when Shadow had barged in…literally.
He was her knight in shining armor in the true sense of the word. He had been gravely injured, but that didn’t deter him from going all the way to save her life. He had gone way beyond his capacity as a bodyguard. Did he have feelings for her? She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
Shadow never spoke about himself, but she knew behind the eyes that attempted to smile at her was a dam containing his emotions. She wondered if his floodgates would ever open.
This was all getting too serious and beyond the realms of her comprehension. Earlier it was only her, but now Seema was hurt because of her. She couldn’t wait for Seema to start talking again. She would do everything in her capacity to punish the person responsible for all this… She had lost too much.
She faintly remembered being carried towards the infirmary. Before blackness engulfed her, she had heard Shadow scream hoarse… was he worried about her so much that the usually composed man went ballistic?
She was touched but only wished he would open up more or at least tell her he liked her, and she wasn’t a fool to hope in vain.
She had been only too happy to see him when she had regained consciousness. He had been holding her hand despite being in agony himself.
Besides her mother, no one had ever been there for her in this manner. To the world, she was a Princess with everything at her disposal, but she was lonely and only when Shadow had come into her life at regular intervals had she felt a sense of belonging.
She wished she could give up the Royal life. She wanted to live an ordinary life… would Shadow like her then?
She knew Shadow was hellbent on finding the perps but her feelings were paradoxical. On one end, she was glad he had taken things in his hands, but she knew he would disappear once all this was over, and the thought broke her heart.
She had already decided to make the best of his time with her.
Speaking of which, she looked at the wall clock yet again. It was almost 9 PM. Her dinner was due, and Shadow got it for her every day ever since she was attacked.
A commotion outside her room jarred her out of her thoughts and Padma was about to open the door to check when Shadow barged in. His clothes were dusty, and his friend, whom he addressed as ‘Bullet’ was there as well. Padma knew Bullet’s actual name was Maanav and hoped Shadow would tell her his given name someday.
Shadow looked at Bullet and some kind of communication passed between them, after which Bullet left.
Shadow walked in, shutting the door. He held her shoulders. Looking at his expressions, she knew something was amiss….
“Princess, we have to leave… immediately. I know I should have prepared you, and it’s all of a sudden but… the situation demands it… we have to rush now….”
“Shadow…” Padma blinked back tears. “…I will gladly follow you to the end of this world. I trust you. But the Royal court needs to be told… can you tell me what just happened out there? Why was Bullet there?”
“Princess, please… don’t ask me anything. I promise I shall tell you everything. I will take care of everything. But right now… we should leave. Just take a backpack with minimal clothes. No phone…” Shadow instructed her even as he walked towards the window and shut it.
Suddenly the room felt smaller, and Padma felt claustrophobic, given the series of events in the past few days. Finally, she slumped to the floor as if all energy had been snuffed out of her.
Shadow rushed to her and gathered her into his arms. She clung to his lapels as if her life depended on it. It did. Shadow rubbed her back as she began to calm down. Something about his touch was like a balm to her bruised soul.
He kissed her head, and she looked up into his eyes at that moment. The light source behind his head made a halo around his head, and at that moment, nothing else mattered.
Her hands moved to his rough stubbled cheeks, and she hesitated as she pulled him closer. She didn’t care anymore if he was covered in dust or whether he would push her away. But there was no resistance this time, and he closed the remaining distance as he kissed her.
It was just a peck, and he withdrew, looking at her. She couldn’t make out his expressions because of the light’s positioning but knew what she wanted at that moment. She raised her chin, and he captured her lips.
Padma gripped his shoulders where her hands had found their way and pressed her chest to his muscled torso. The kiss was all-consuming. It was as if they both needed to vent.
As he devoured her lips, he pulled her closer, and she gasped, giving him the opening he needed. His tongue slid inside her warmth, and as it met hers, her breath stopped. Her fingers dug into his shoulder and circled his neck. She almost drowned in the moment of passion engulfed by his vanilla essence when a vibration jolted them apart. It was his burner.
Shadow rubbed his face as he cursed and checked his phone for the incoming message, his hold on her not loosening a bit. Then, placing the phone back in his jacket, he turned towards her.
Placing a calloused palm on her cheek and still holding her body closer, he whispered, his warm breath on her face making her toes curl.
“Princess… I want nothing more than to linger at this moment, but we have to go. Please Princess, I have to protect you, and that’s priority…”
Padma nodded, wondering what she was thinking. She knew Shadow was right. He was doing his duty. Then what was that moment they just shared?
In the next ten minutes, Shadow put on his backpack and held Padma’s and walked down the stairs but instead of taking an exit, he held her hand and walked towards the other end of the Palace.
Padma didn’t question him. She had worn her oldest Salwaar Kameez on his instruction and grabbed a few of Aarti’s clothes which were a bit tight-fitting but looked way ordinary compared to her wardrobe.
They ran through some corridors she had never seen in her life before and Padma wondered how much she knew about the Palace she had grown up in.
They soon reached a dark tunnel-like structure and she was surprised to see an unkempt temple of Maa Bhavani in a dark corner. She clutched at her locket as she remembered her mother. Her mother would never have let the temple stay neglected in this manner. Did her mother build this place? All these years, after her mother passed she wondered if she even knew her parents.
Shadow dragged her across the place, and she watched wide-eyed as he did something to the tiger, which was the vaahan of Maa Bhavani. He dropped their bags and ran towards her taking off his jacket and covering them both as a loud rumble vibrated through the place. She hugged him, digging her head into his chest while he placed his face in her hair in the darkness.
A minute later, the rumble stopped, and he moved to reveal an opening beyond the dusty fog. He gave her a mask and, gathering both their bags, he held her hand, and they were into the tunnel. Once inside, he switched on his pen torch, and the entire area looked straight out of a horror movie. Shiv shut the door behind them, and the sound reverberated heavily in the musky environment of the tunnel.
The tunnel was giant and brick layered. She stumbled over pebbles despite wearing running shoes as he had instructed. Shiv pulled her closer and before he hesitated further she wrapperd her arm around his torso. He chuckled and held her close as he maneuvered his way through the never-ending place. As they walked in, it was getting hotter but strangely, it wasn’t suffocating. Padma wondered from where the air circulated in there. There was some kind of a gushing sound too… was it the noise from the waterfall? Were they that close to the area? She was clueless. By road a trip to the waterfall took almost 2 hours…
The waterfall noise overshadowed their laborious panting after about half an hour of moving through the tunnel. Shiv halted suddenly and shone his torch over the part of the wall where the noise was maximum. He touched it all over and located a point. He made her stand away along with their bags. Then, he began to hit and kick the wall part using his gloack, which she didn’t know he had. Soon it gave away, and there was a door beneath the plaster.
Padma was stunned to silence. Was this a part of her Palace? where she spent a lifetime and never knew this existed?
There was a latch unlike the other door she saw earlier, and Shiv used all his might to move the latch as she held the pen torch for him.
The door finally gave away after pushing for what appeared to be ages. The sudden rush of breeze and the noise of the roaring falls deafened her, but she was only too thrilled to get out of the claustrophobic tunnel despite stepping out into pitch darkness. Shadow shut the door back, and in the feeble torchlight, she saw a lot of foliage around it; probably that was why it took Shadow a lot of effort to push it open. Finally, he covered it back with the foliage and once again, grabbing her hand, made the climb up the hilly region parallel to the waterfalls…
The darkness compounded by the nocturnal creatures’ silly sounds and the falls’ roar, scared her. But she felt safe because Shadow was there with her.
Padma was thrown back to the few times she had visited the place in the daytime with her mother and her mother’s driver. She was very fond of Chauhan kaka… He had told her this place was a slice of heaven, and whenever she was here, she would be living a fairy tale.
Her last visit was a year before her mother, and Chauhan kaka passed. Kaka had been like a father figure to her. She clearly remembered his words that day as she sat next to him on a rock nearby, watching the enormous waterfall.
“Choti Rani Sahiba…” He addressed her lovingly. “…you aren’t weak. You are someone who will carve her path just like that waterfall. And do you know why that sound is so melodic?”
“Why Kaka?” Padma had innocently asked.
“That’s because of the multiple rocks impeding its journey and the time it takes to shape them for a smooth path ahead… without rocks the sounds wouldn’t calm you!”
Padma blinked back tears as she fondly remembered her mother and Kaka. The man had also died in the same location as her mother. He was a brave man and most trusted by her parents, especially her mother. She didn’t know much about kaka, except that he had been in the Palace from the time she had become aware of her surroundings.
He had once told her about his little family when she was very small. She had cried because her father had gone away for days together to another province and she missed him. Her mother had a few emergencies in the local hospital where she worked and had to stay back. Padma had refused to eat anything. Kaka had been summoned and he had taken her to the palace garden.
“Choti Rani Saheba… you shouldn’t cry over little things as these. You are made for a greater purpose. You will rule this place someday. My son is older to you and is all alone… he never cries. Do you know that?” Kaka had declared proudly.
“What is his name kaka?” Little Padma had asked innocently
After a couple of minutes, Kaka looked away into oblivion and rubbed his face and said, “He is the embodiment of patience, sacrifice, and synonymous with the Lord of those hills there…” Kaka had pointed towards the hills lining the waterfall on the other side.
As Shadow and Padma climbed the hill further, she began to pant, falling short of breath. She was yet to regain her stamina after her attack and every step more was becoming tedious and tough. It was well into the night, and she couldn’t even watch her step. If not for Shadow’s support, she would have tumbled down the hill.
After about an hour of emerging out of the tunnel, they reached a house in a thicket. There were tall bamboo shoots all over towering around the single-storied cozy cottage-like structure. It looked straight out of a horror movie in the enormous darkness. It was made of wood and if not for witnessing it herself, Padma would never have known such a structure existed even a few metres away, even in the daytime. Such was the camouflage.
Shadow opened the lock with a strange key he already had. Padma knew better than to ask him about all this. But, surprisingly there was a light bulb that flickered on when Shadow switched something. A beautiful living room was very simple by the palace standards but straight out of her dreams sparcely furnished with a few wooden chairs and a wooden table. There was a pantry attached to it with a common latrine. Shiv helped her to her room upstairs. His was right next to hers.
She glanced around the tiny room, lit by a humble lantern that Shadow just placed there. There was a rexin bed without a cloth mattress on the floor. The cottage wasn’t very clean but not very dirty either. Shadow gave her a chocolate bar that she gobbled not realizing she was starving. He had also carried a water bottle which they finished. Fortunately it was very breezy and they didn’t need a fan, not that it existed anyway.
“Princess, please rest. I shall keep watch.” Shadow told her gently.
Padma looked around, and fear got the better of her.
“I… Please Shadow, can I stay with you… in your room? Just for tonight?”
“…Please Shadow… I am scared…and let’s take turns. Wake me up after a couple of hours, and then you can rest while I keep watch…”
Shadow smiled and made a place on the rexin bed in his room. She lay there, and as soon as her head hit the towel pillow Shadow had rolled for her, she was fast asleep…
She was woken by some noise and realised it was morning. Shadow’s jacket covered her. She pulled it closer, and despite it not being clean, she loved the vanilla essence…it did strange things to her heart.
She walked outside the room and went downstairs to see Shadow brooming and trying to clean the place. She picked up a cloth lying around and began to dust the window panes. Shadow rushed and caught her hand midway.
“Please, Princess, these hands aren’t meant to do…”
“…Stop it Shadow… I am not an invalid. This is the least I can do to help after all you have done for me… Let’s do this together, shall we?” She spoke and saw something shift in his eyes.
“Princess, will you be alright for a few hours alone here?”
What was he talking about? Alone? In the middle of nowhere?
“Don’t worry Princess, I have to collect the essentials from someplace. It can last us for some time”
Padma knew she wasn’t in a position to do another hike down the hill and up again. She would also slow him down. She nodded. He walked up to her and pushed a stray curl behind her ear.
“the waterfall is very closeby and there is a small tank built here. There was water in it, but I have added medicines just in case. You can drink it now… its safe. There are a couple of chocolate bars too. I shall be back by then. Just… don’t step outside… Ok, Princess?”
Padma nodded as he kissed her forehead, his eyes lingering on her lips longer than usual.
As she saw Shadow retreating back, she hoped she could keep up the façade of bravado until he was away…