She saw her aai lie on her side bleeding even as she uttered her name… yes her mother called her out. Could she have helped her? But why did she just stand and watch and not do anything? Why was she frozen to the floor… why did she look up to Maa Bhavani? Was it because aai was looking at the Goddess’s idol too? What did aai want to tell her? Did her aai see her?
Someone pulled her hand and dragged her out of the dark cavern, but she couldn’t walk much. She heard some screams that got dissolved in the torrential rains that drenched her. But she was still in her stupor.
Then she saw his face… it was Shiv… he was pretty young. He lifted her on his shoulders and ran through the woods. A little later, he sat with her, and she could sense the feeble tinge of vanilla essence. It was a massive relief from that obnoxious odour that had filled the fort premises….
What about her mother…? Was she alright? What about Chouhan kaka?
The next moment she was in the nightclub, the blaring noise they called music vibrated through her bones, and she thought she would feel them in solitude as well. But she was disoriented yet again… She had never sleepwalked before. What was happening to her? That horrible odour… she wanted to throw up her drink. And then someone grabbed her… Someone who knew her. But none knew she was here… except Aarti. Even Aarti’s friends weren’t supposed to know her identity… they didn’t recognize her. So then how did the man know?
Her head was heavy and she was drowsy…
“…That bitch deserves this… not her right…. It should have been mine…”
Who was screaming? Her head was pounding and she saw that man coming closer to her… where was Aarti? She was supposed to watch over her too. Padma looked up at the swelling crowd and saw Aarti’s dress as she disappeared into the crowd, her black gown peeking very slightly.
“…Had you done your job well… we wouldn’t be struggling like this…”
Would she stop screeching? Who is that?
The sea of people moved like the waves before her eyes even as the strobe lights of the club flickered away to glory., Padma saw Aarti’s shining velvet bag disappear along with her…. That’s it… that was the bag with the crown they found in the woods.
Did Aarti take the crown? Nothing made sense…
“…get rid of her just like the rest… she can’t see those girls… Saheb will kill us.”
Will she shut up?
Twice Padma was stuck in her senses and couldn’t move… first in the fort and now in the nightclub. And then Shiv turned up to save her yet again… He took her out, and she experienced her first kiss… the mephitic odour replaced by the pure vanilla … along with the feel of his lips…
“…She should wake up now… she has seen me…” Aarti’s voice rummaged its way through her senses.
Her eyes opened, and she found herself sprawled on the hard floor… her blurred vision cleared and fixed on Maa Bhavani idol. She was in the fort. Exactly where her aai had been…
She realised her hands and legs were tied and she lay curved in a fetal position the hard ground digging painfully into her shoulder. The place reeked of the foul odour and she realised she had been kidnapped…
But why Aarti of all the people? Her eyes filled as she thought about their childhood and growing up together… she blindly trusted Aarti. Bile rose in her throat, thinking of what had happened to her mother and Chouhan kaka… even her father.
How many people did these people kill and for what? How did Aarti fare in the larger frame of things?
“So the Princess has woken up…” Aarti walked before her, a smirk on her face. Padma had never seen Aarti in this manner.
“Aa… Aarti…? What’s…all… this…?” Her voice was hoarse.
“Shut up bitch… just shut up… I am no longer at your mercy… no longer will I wear your hand-downs or used clothes, no longer will I settle for something less good than you…” Aarti was panting even as Padma watched the spittle fly off her mouth as she fumed.
“Why…? Why are you so an… angry?” Padma was puzzled at Aarti’s weird behaviour.
“ You don’t know, bitch? You still don’t know…? Of course you are the docile Princess… so full of herself she doesn’t know anything… any…damn…thing…”
“Aarti, please… stop…”
“NO….” Aarti screamed, her voice reverberating through the limited confines. Was it day or night Padma didn’t know. She was too stunned about the turnaround by whom she considered her bestie…
Aarti moved towards her and kicked her in the shins. She yelped in pain. “You bitch do you have nine lives? Every goddamn attempt on your life and you survive… Why because of some saviour? Where do these saviours come from? Was it Shadow? Anyway he wont guess where you are. He is no longer in Koini. By the time he arrives…if at all… it would be too late… for you…” She chuckled.
“Why… Why Aarti…? Why are you doing this…?”
“Because, bitch you don’t deserve anything you own… the Royal life… the crown… nothing…”
“THAT’S ENOUGH, GIRL…” A baritone boomed and Padma heard footsteps behind her. She was facing the wall lying sideways and her shin throbbed where Aarti had kicked her.
“But Sir…” Aarti protested.
“…I SAID ENOUGH AND THAT MEANS ITS ENOUGH…” the man walked and moved in front of Padma. He was huge and well built and familiar… Of course, he was MLA Majumdar. Besides him, a man limped a bit and smiled slyly, but his crooked nose stood out in the light provided by the flame torches. There was no doubt he was the one who tried to force himself on her in the nightclub that night years ago.
So all this was planned. Did Aarti plan it?
“My Dear Princess… I have conveyed this so many times that the crown doesn’t belong to a delicate head like yours… why are you royals so stubborn? Why do you want to hold on to all the wealth in the name of legacy. Still, I stayed away but the Queen had to come and disrupt my ‘business’. So what if I took little girls away… they were so poor anyways. They would have died of hunger in the tribal belts… So I gave them a chance to live just by trading their bodies. So what was wrong with this?”
“You… You are wrong… every way Majumdar…” Padma spoke hoarsely as rage surged up her spine.
Aarti kicked her once again. Padma bit her lip to keep from screaming. She didn’t want to let them know they intimidated her. Somehow she felt stronger… was it because of her mother? Or Shiv? Their confidence in her?
“What… do you all want…?” She managed to speak amidst the agony.
“Now… dear Princess… now you have come to the point.” Majumdaar smiled, revealing a bright set of teeth making him look monstrous as the shadows danced on his face. A man brought him a wooden crate lying somewhere and he sat on it crossing one leg over the other.
“So princess…” he continued. “…As I said, your late mother had something belonging to me… and I tried every way to get it from her. Unfortunately, I had to kill her right here, where you lay pitifully. The woman was tenacious but stupid. What was the need to do all that? Was that worth dying? But I have a kind heart… I will let you go. Just give me what is mine…”
“What… what are you talking about?” Padma knew he probably meant the chip from her locket.
“Your mother wouldn’t have left it anywhere but with you… so Princess, one last chance. Give it to me. You have lost the throne anyway. The King is no more and I have the crown…. TOnce you are out of the way it won’t take me long to get the vote in my favour and abolish you Royals forever. There won’t be anyone left….” He laughed maniacal laughter.
“HEY, WAIT… THE CROWN…IT BELONGS TO ME…” Aarti yelled and Padma wondered what was going on. She still didn’t understand Aarti’s role in all this.
“Silence young girl… silence…” Majumdar raised his palms towards Aarti.
“No Sir, this isn’t correct. You promised me the crown if I got her here. I am the one who deserves the crown and not her… I got it for you. I did everything you told me…So I get to become the queen…”
“Shut-up girl…looks like you are trying to bite more than you can chew. What did you do? Drugged the Princess twice and gave us the inside intel… stole the crown, poisoned her and stabbed that maid… but were you successful? No… We wouldn’t have had this discussion today if you had done your job well… so shut up and watch.”
“You… You can kill her now and finish it all. There is no one to save her here.” Aarti spoke in a menacing tone that sent chills down Padma’s spine.
“You don’t get to make the decisions, girl… I do…”
“But she is not the legitimate heir… they chose me first…” Aarti cried out, and Padma stared at her, stunned.
Majumdar roared a hearty laugh once again. He stood up and paced for a few seconds before returning and standing before her.
“Look, Princess… I have nothing against you. I only need what your mother left with you… That’s all. I shall let you go…”
“WHAT…? LET HER GO…?” Aarti surged ahead and stood facing Majumdar. “…I deserve that life… not HER…if she lives, I won’t get to live my life… I don’t want to go back to my rotten life…”
“Aarti… what the hell… are you talking about?” Padma struggled. She had to know.
“Hello…. Quiet both of you. I am not interested in your drama. I only want what’s mine.” Majumdar roared and Aarti fumed. He turned towards Padma and gestured to his men. One of them moved and dragged her up so she could sit, holding her legs close. “So Princess…where is it?”
“I don’t know… what you are asking for…”
“I think I will have no choice but to kill you…”
Padma looked up and saw Majumdar hold a stone… where did he have it? In his pockets? Wait…. Padma remembered. It was the same stone she had seen him hit her mother with. Yes… It was now clear. Majumdar had killed her mother.
“It was you… you monster… you killed my mother… I saw you do it…Maa Bhavani will punish you for everything…”
“Shut up idiot… I don’t believe in your Maa Bhavani. I believe in money… only MONEY…money is strength and your mother took that away from me… I have struggled for years but no more. That boyfriend of yours, he thought he was invincible… just like his father. I arranged for people to take care of him… He was trying to hide in a shady motel… but my men would have killed him by now…”
“NO….YOU RASCAL….NO….” Padma screamed till she lost her voice and her throat constricted as emotion contracted her muscles. No Shiv couldn’t be dead… if he was then she didn’t have a reason to live. “…In that case… you may kill me as well… because I am not going to reveal anything.”
“Fine… go meet your mother…” Majumdar raised his hand to strike her when something hit his hand. He screamed profanities and dropped the stone next to Padma.
Padma looked up to see his hand was bleeding. In a fraction of a minute she heard clicks and the men around them fell down clutching at their hands, their weapons all lying around.
She heard footsteps and looked up to see four masked people… One of them rushed towards her and untied her hands and legs. She didn’t have to be told who he was. As soon as she was released she hugged him tightly.
“Don’t worry Princess… you are safe now.”
“Cut the melodrama…” Aarti screamed. “…you will never get the crown… I have it with me…”
“The crown doesn’t belong to you…” Shiv tried to reason with her.
“IT does…” The King and Queen had asked for my father’s younger daughter to foster and that was me. But my mother came out carrying her and the Queen chose her instead. She didn’t deserve it all… I did. This was all mine…”
“What…?” Padma couldn’t believe what she heard. Was she Bhosale kaka’s biological daughter?
“It’s game over Majumdar, we have recorded everything here… live-streamed to different law enforcement agencies simultaneously… the CRPF is on its way to arrest you…And you Aarti can dream big, living the rest of your life in jail….” Shiv spoke.
Padma looked around and saw the other three tie up the men. Shiv then nodded to one of them and he walked towards the tiger and did something. A rumbling sounded and a trap door opened. The man got down while Majumdar screamed.
“NO…NO…. DON’T GO THERE…. ITS MINE….” He screamed
In about ten minutes the man walked out with a line of teenage girls all dressed up gaudily and Padma didn’t have to be told what was in store for them. Everyone was watching the events unfold wide-eyed… when all of a sudden Aarti launched at Padma. Padma fell on the floor and Aarti raised a knife. But before she could get it down a click sounded and she screamed before dropping the knife.. Nit to give up, she picked the stone but Shiv held her hand and twisted it till she dropped it.
“There is nothing more than what destiny has in store for an individual, Aarti…” Shiv said.
In the next couple of hours, the CRPF cuffed everyone and took them away. Of course, they had to protect the prisoners from the wrath of the public that had gathered outside the fort. But somehow, the public rage subdued for years got the better of them and before they could call for reinforcements, Majumdar and his men were kicked and hit… the others were gravely injured but eventually Majumdar passed.
Shiv held Padma close to him and carried her outside to a waiting vehicle. The people wanted to talk to her, but she clung to Shiv. She had enough experience to last a lifetime. Padma saw the other three had disappeared just the way they had silently come. She was sure one of them was Maanav.
Shiv got her back to the Palace where the doctors treated her for her injuries. A little later as she lay in the infirmary with Shiv holding her hand, a slient communication between them, the door barged open. Shiv instantly left her hand and stood in attention.
She watched wide eyed as her father strode in all elegance. He walked upto her and hugged her.
“Oh my child… you are my child… I hope you understand that. We may not have sired you but we loved you… always.” He hugged her tightly and she sobbed,
“I am so glad… baba… you are alive…and for me… you are my baba…”
“I am sorry my darling for what you had to go through. But this was done on Shadow’s advice. I had to go in hiding…”
After a few moments, her sedation began to take effect and she dozed off.
Shiv walked behind the Kind as the man left the Princess’s room in the infirmary. They walked outside and stood on the lawns.
“So young man… I am proud of you.” The King spoke.
“Thank you, your Highness…”
“…Exactly. I am glad you know where you stand , young man.” The King interrupted him.
The king held up his hand.
“Your job here is done. You can now leave….”
“…It’s an order, young man. I promise to give you the best of recommendations… This is your last hour in the Palace premises. After this you will be considered an intruder. Am I clear enough…?”
The King continued. “ I have worked hard to build this all for my daughter. I will now have to get her settled. She has to marry into a good family to maintain her strength as the Queen. She will need to be with someone her equal…”
“…I am glad, young man that you understand. I hope we never meet again.”
Shiv watched the King walk away, taking his heart’s massive chunk. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He knew this day would come but didn’t know it would be a huge blow. He looked at the infirmary window once again… for the last time.
“I love you Padma… forever…” he said softly as he turned around and walked away.