Padma’s smile dropped. She stared at the floor trying to figure out what to say.
“How… I mean…I was right here…” Padma tried to fib.
“Stop that, Padma. Do you even know what you have done? First, our engagement was announced, and you ran away as if your room was on fire. Then when I came to look out for you just an hour later, you were gone…” he rubbed his face removing his glasses, and for a brief moment, she saw her childhood friend hidden behind that mask he had put up.
“Keshav, I ….”
“…This is not done Padma…” he abruptly spoke. “…it was humiliating. I… I came to this room later, but something told me you weren’t here….”
“…I am not finished Padma. I couldn’t sleep all night. Today morning I took a walk this side to check on you and saw you sleeping on that bench. Do you know how sacred I was? What if the palace staff had seen you like that? I was about to come when Aarti reached there. What were you doing there Padma? And I got a glimpse of that dress you were wearing… what is going on?”
Padma stood and walked towards her window and stared at the fountain. She hoped the cumulative turmoil in her heart would find some solace in the soft gurgle that reached her ears once in a while.
She felt Keshav walk behind her. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened. She tried to move, but his hold got stronger.
He turned her to face him and held her shoulders lightly.
“Padma, you aren’t happy with this alliance, are you?” Keshav asked softly, his eyes boring into her soul.
Guilt overwhelmed her.
“I am so sorry, Keshav. I didn’t know… I mean… my baba, it was so unfair for us. He shouldn’t have sprung an engagement in that manner.”
“Don’t blame nanasaheb, Padma. Besides being a father, he is also the King. He has certain duties towards this province and he has been working very hard all these years. He has only faced hurdles like that MLA, Majumdar. The son of a bitch has been gathering forces within the government circles to put a permanent end to your father’s rule….”
She gasped as Keshav continued. “… yes. Though monarchy doesn’t exist, your father has a legacy to keep. YOUR legacy, Padma, and that includes this palace and its contents. Nanasaheb has never bowed before the government and has fought tooth and nail against policies detrimental for the people. If the government finds loopholes in our functioning or the majority of our population votes against us, then we may lose this palace and everything else to heritage protection. It will no longer belong to you….” He walked around her towards the window. “…Padma, aaisaheb gave up her life fighting for what is right. She lived all her life for the benefit of the population, mainly women and young girls. When she passed, nanasaheb was completely broken, yet he has held up so far…”
He walked back to a stunned Padma. “…look Padma, I am forever indebted to nanasaheb for funding my education and being a great friend to my father. He has always helped my family through thick and thin. So I am here now with all my qualifications to ensure this palace and all your estates run smoothly from the financial point of view, and trust me, it’s very bleak now. This palace needs very expensive upkeep and given the current treasury status, this won’t last for more than a year. So I have to step up my game Padma. I have to involve myself in estate affairs, and I can’t take charge unless I am related to the royal family. So Padma…”
He stopped and sighed again, looking at her sombrely.
“Keshav…” Padma said, swallowing the lump in her throat. “… I knew things weren’t so good but didn’t know the gravity of the situation. But marrying for this purpose doesn’t sound right for both of us.” She looked away, blinking back tears. Her heart felt a strange void.
“Padma, I need 2-3 years to streamline stuff. After that, I shall form a company that your father will officially outsource the palace upkeep in partnership. He has already drawn the papers and needs the approval of the royal trustees. But this will all take time, and meanwhile, our alliance will help this to proceed.”
“What do you mean Keshav? We will be…”
“…Yes, Padma, we will be engaged in name only. So keep up this farce for the next few years. Complete your studies till then. Let me get things on track… we can then officially break up.”
“But Keshav, what if the royal trustees refuse to pass the decision in favour of the partnership?” Padma asked
“I hope my work will do the talking and convince them…. For instance, I have convinced nanasaheb to rent out the tiny cottages in the outer perimeter of this enormous estate. I have also suggested the visitors will get a free guided tour of the palace. This would add to the income. Then I have got on board a couple of horticulturists who will guide us on the beneficial plantations around the enormous estates and other land belonging to your father.…” Keshav beamed
Padma blinked back tears.
“Keshav, I feel bad about this… I think I am just taking advantage of you.”
“Don’t worry Padma, you know I have adored you for ages. You will always be my good friend irrespective of the outcome of all this. Just promise me one thing.”
“What is it?” Padma asked, sniffling tears away.
“Promise me that you will protect the special crown…it’s beyond all jewels.”
“What crown are you talking about? Even aai didn’t use one. I don’t even know if she had one.”
“Padma, aaisaheb was a simple woman and never the one to go after opulence or any show-off. There is a special crown made entirely of diamonds passed on from generations. It was last handed over to aaisaheb by her mother-in-law after marriage. The crown has a special significance. It has the blessings of Maa Bhavani. The bearer of the crown has many rights which if fallen into wrong hands can bring about destruction…. I thought you knew about all this.”
Padma wondered how much her parents had protected her. Even Keshav knew so much more than her.
“Keshav, I have no idea about where the crown is. But I will check with baba soon.”
Keshav nodded. “Good. It should be with you on your coronation day on your 21st birthday.”
Padma shivered and hugged herself at the very thought of what awaited her in 3 years. She knew nothing and had to up her mettle.
After Keshav left she stared at the fountain. She clutched the turquoise pendant feeling her mother close by.
‘Aai, what should I do? Please give me some hint… where is that crown? Why didn’t baba display it along with other pieces if it were here? Why did I never see it in the jewelry room? Why was I never told about it?’ she spoke into the air.
As she went to bed that night staring at the speckled moon gleaming brightly, she touched her lips. Who was that man? How did he appear out of nowhere…?
She last saw those beautiful black orbs eager to play hide and seek with her as sleep claimed her…
Silver-streaked hues smiled upon them
Spreading a canopy of amorous solace
He dragged her off absolute cataclysm
The veiled buzz of flutters set to surface.