Two years later
“Padma…? Where are you…?” A high-pitched voice screeched through the walls of the ‘Raje wadi’ palace in the Jawar province. Staring tall atop the hill directly facing the enormous Western Ghats in Maharashtra, the palace was a sight to behold.
Padmavati Raje, the princess of Jawar stirred and stretched as she pulled the soft pillow over her face. Why was Aarti screaming? Didn’t she know Padma couldn’t sleep late into the night? Her sleep was abounding in nightmares… something she couldn’t tell anyone, especially her father, Wamanrao Raje, the honourary King of the province.
The nightmares seemed so vivid; she wasn’t sure if it was simply the chimeras or something she had witnessed. They were bleak black and white blurring images. Padma chuckled softly, thinking how a Bollywood director would have a field day using her story.
“Padma… sleepy eyes, its 7 AM” Aarti barged inside her elaborate room and jerked the curtains open.
“Oh, Aarti, why on earth are you waking me up so early? Haven’t I said not to disturb me before 9 AM? I was studying late last night.” Padma wailed.
As Padma sat up, leaning against the bed’s backrest, Aarti held a rectangular gift-wrapped item towards her.
“Happy birthday, princess…” Aarti singsonged, swaying to the imaginary beats, and despite everything, Padma smiled.
Aarti was her father’s closest ally, Anand Bhosale’s only daughter, and childhood friend. As someone who had grown up with her, Aarti followed all the restrictions and rules levied upon Padma by default of being a princess.
Unlike the royalty in the rest of the country, Padma’s life was different. She didn’t have the freedom to move outside the palace premises, let alone abroad, for education.
As kids, Aarti had played with her running around the palace walls hiding behind the pillars as they played hide-and-seek or rushing towards the kitchen to taste the special culinary treat of the day. Aarti had regaled her with stories from school as Padma had been homeschooled since five.
Aarti had held her as she had cried when her mother had passed two years ago…
Aarti had also been there for her, staying back in this room when frightening mirages had confronted her after her mother’s untimely demise. Motherless since birth and a year younger, Aarti had been Padma’s shadow forever. But off late Aarti had started junior college in the nearby province, and her visits to the palace had reduced.
Padma missed her friend dearly.
Aarti waved a perfectly manicured hand before her, getting Padma back to the present. She yawned and opened the gift. It was a beautiful pen with her name embossed on it.
“This is a small gift to my studious friend to remind you to pursue your lost passion… poetry.” Aarti declared chirping.
Padma’s smile fell. “No, Aarti. Ever since aai passed, I haven’t been able to get rid of this mental block. I can’t write anymore. You know how much aai enjoyed poetry…”
Padma looked at the framed portrait of her late mother, Gayatri Raje. The golden embossing on the frame brought out her mother’s beautiful black and white hues, and when the sunlight fell on the portrait, Padma felt her mother’s presence close by. Dr. Gayatri Raje had been a doctor, an obstetrician and ran a charity hospital for the province but was frequented by patients from across the state.
Padma blinked back tears. She shared her mother’s looks and love for poetry. She was currently doing her BA in English literature via distance learning and aspired to be a teacher someday.
“You should start writing again Padma… Aai saheb would want the same for you.”
“No, Aarti… I simply can’t. Thank you so much, though, for being there for me always…” Padma spoke wearily as she yawned and got off the bed.
“er… Padma, there is something I want to share….” Arti avoided looking at her.
“What is it Aarti?”
“Um… Nana saheb has thrown a party in the evening today. To celebrate your coming of age and… as per the customs, er… there will be a few prospective grooms coming with their families too.”
“What nonsense is this…?” Padma fumed. “… aai died on this day barely two years ago and I am just… just 18. What is baba thinking?” Padma stared at her favourite framed picture of her parents taken during their wedding that she kept close to her bed. Her mother was the most beautiful bride she had ever seen…
“Padma, it’s just a formality. Nana Saheb is the King, and though monarchy no longer exists in the true sense of the word, he still has certain rights and duties. You of all the people should know that…” Aarti reasoned. Sighing, she continued. “…Padma, your father loves you so much. He misses his wife too. But he has placed grief aside and plunged into his duties for the benefit of this province. So, can’t you humor him? You will be officially the crowned princess today. You only have to be present at the bash. Your saree is ready too…”
The rest of her tirade fell on deaf ears as Padma’s eyes filled again. She missed her mother every single day and especially today.
Two years ago, on her 16th birthday, her mother had died, brutally murdered along with her bodyguard cum driver in the fort that she loved so much and dreamt of restoring someday. That evening, Padma had waited for her mother to arrive before cutting the cake. The rest of it was all a blur…
Padma’s birthday had always been an event to rejoice and celebrate. Born to her parents a decade after marriage, she had been the apple of their eyes. Her mother belonged to the lineage of the Malsures, who were close to the warrior king Shivaji Maharaj. Her father was no less a warrior himself and held a modern outlook as he supported her career and social causes with equal enthusiasm.
Padma had always wanted to become a teacher and had hoped to build a residential school for girls who didn’t get the opportunity back home or had to travel miles for high school studies. Through those girls, Padma wished to live her missed school life.
But most of all, Padma didn’t aspire to become a queen. She was not interested in politics, and before her death, her mother had pledged to support her daughter. The King had grieved in his way but held up a facade of strength to ensure he carried out his duties. He barely spoke with Padma in the last couple of years.
It also included following up with the police to discover what had happened that fateful night in the fort. Who had murdered her mother, the queen, and the dear doctor of the province? Her bodyguard was one of the best then what happened and where was the rest of the security that evening? There had been no evidence that could corroborate any suspicions.
As a result, the palace security had been tightened, and Padma was forbidden to leave the palace premises without a security entourage.
Padma, however, wanted to venture out and ask around the hospital spearheaded by her late mother. She was sure her mother was up to something. She wanted to visit the fort, which was now off-limits for everyone. She felt claustrophobic within the palace walls. Even today, the feeling of hopelessness crept up her spine…
She clutched at her turquoise pendant shaped like a canine tooth… her mother’s last gift to her. Her mother had gifted it on the morning of her 16th birthday.
“Padma, my child, this will remind you of me even when I am gone… this is my legacy. It’s all me. Remember, you are never alone. You will be carrying this weight around with you…”
Padma hadn’t understood the cryptic speech, but her mother always had been like that. She used to throw up riddles for little Padma to solve and gift her with titbits whenever she was successful. Padma wished to go back to those carefree times…
Padma now had a single goal in life. She had to find her mother’s murderer. But only if it were that easy…
Her mind a dark road of despair
Bisected by steady flashes of fear
The perennial sense of impending danger
Heart threatening to burst out of the chest chamber