The solid antiseptic redolence wafted through her olfactories, jarring her from some deep sleep she had after ages. Padma stirred and tried to open her heavy lids. Her left shoulder throbbed, and the excruciation reminded her of what transpired.
Her coronation, the sense of being watched, the hit on her shoulder, followed by being carried away, all rushed back to her. She finally opened her eyes to the pristine white ceiling. She knew she was in the palace infirmary. She looked around the movement of her neck causing pain, and she gasped. There was movement at Aarti rushed towards her.
“Padma… oh my God… Are you alright? We were so scared… all that blood, noise…”
“Padma, is it paining?” Keshav spoke on her other side.
Where was her father?
Aarti helped her sit up a bit on the inclined bed while the royal physician checked her vitals. Padma looked towards the door to see two security guards standing outside, and by the murmurs, she knew there were more. Her room would now be a fortress, she sighed, thinking about the new sanctions on her freedom. Frustration caused her eyes to fill. She had enough… who wanted her dead? And why?
Aarti held her as she cried. Keshav patted her head, and she was grateful for these blessings. At least she had these two with her, the only constants in her life. Her father stayed away whenever she was hurt or needed him ever since her mother had passed.
Suddenly there was some movement outside, and a guard whom she knew to be her father’s closest security personnel walked in, indicating everyone else to clear the room. Aarti, Keshav, Padma’s special attendant Seema assigned to her a couple of years ago all left the room with the doctor and the nurses.
Within a minute, the King entered the room. Her heart fell, as she saw his haggard profile. It looked like he had suddenly aged in a day. He was still in the special robes he had worn for her coronation. The beautiful silk was now creased, and she even saw a tear at the seams. What was he doing? Padma felt remorse creep up her spine as she wondered about the multitude of duties her father had to perform while she constantly expected his attention.
His guards left the room, shutting the door, and they were alone.
“Baba…?” She wondered what was happening.
Her father held up his hand, and she could see the tremors in them. He must have been so worried…
“Padma, my child…” He began, fatigue evident in his voice. “…Given the dire circumstances. I have decided something for you.”
“Baba… what is it? Did you catch the shooter? It was a gunshot, right?” She was desperate for answers fiddling with the green hospital gown she was wearing.
The King sighed as he sat on the chair next to her bed. He held her hand that didn’t have the IV.
“Padma, your life is something I cannot compromise anything with. You… my child, are far too important to me than anything else. Be it this legacy or wealth… everything pales in comparison…” She heard his voice crack even as emotions engulfed her. “…Padma, my child, my angel, you are my everything. Just remember, whatever I have decided is for your good… So please trust me OK?”
“What is going on, baba? You are scaring me…” She tried
He stood and walked towards the lone window of the room. She saw his clothes were loose-fitting. When had he lost so much weight?
He put his hand in his trouser pocket and removed a plastic ziplock pouch. It held a crumpled letter. Bringing it closer, he held it up in her view.
Her heart stilled as a chill crept up her spine.
‘THE NEXT BULLET WILL NOT MISS THE HEART. GIVE UP THE CROWN.’
The alphabets were distorted and not from the same typewriter. Instead, they were cut from different places and clubbed together to form a sentence like a linear collage.
Padma stared at it, both angry and filled with fear. She barely had powers as a queen even when she took over the reins, and there was still time. So why was the person after her? She had to talk to Keshav and get to the bottom of this, whether her father liked it or not.
As if hearing her thoughts, her father spoke.
“I am not taking any more chances…”
“..So now what? A house arrest?” She knew she sounded sarcastic and rude. But the throbbing in her shoulder, accompanied by frustration surrounding everything that had transpired in the past five years, was getting to her.
Her father stared at her.
“Padma, don’t think I don’t know about your… activities. I am not a King just in name. I am a warrior before everything else and have a keen foresight. Just because I haven’t been there in person doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s up with you.” His stern voice was back.
Padma’s heart raced… did he know about her night rendezvous?
“Padma, my child, I will be… gone away often now on. I have to work on stuff… Not many know about the plans. A handful of select ministers from the royal cabinet and Keshav’s father Devraj Chitnis from the treasury will be in charge of the administrative duties till then. Keshav will be going about his duties as well. I have been training him to take over alongside you when you become the queen. He will be a strong support to you Padma…” Her father looked away and sighed.
What on earth was he talking about? She was stunned to silence.
“Padma…” He continued. “…there is one more thing. I have assigned a… bodyguard for you.”
“But … I already have so many guards around me…”
“…Listen to me, child…” Her father held up his hand, irritated at being interrupted. “… I am not arguing on this point. This guard will stay with you 24/7 and accompany you on all your… er… adventures. I am not restricting anything, but until I get the perps responsible for the dishevel in our lives, I can’t let my guard down.”
Oh no… this wasn’t good news. Padma shook her head….
“This bodyguard…” her father continued. “…is a special one. He came well recommended, and I trust him with you. He is here right now…”
“…but baba…” She tried to speak, ignoring the pain in her shoulder.
“…he will be your Shadow, and you won’t even know he is there. Only Seema and Aarti will be allowed into your room to accompany you anywhere you wish to go. I am aware you want to pursue your B.Ed program and for that, you will have to visit schools too. But a large group of guards will call for attention, so it’s just this person. He is equivalent to many and very good at his work. He saved you last night….”
The rest of his words faded away, and Padma’s heart fluttered. She wanted to scream and make it known that it probably wasn’t the first time that man had saved her… But at that moment, she only had to get control over her breathing. Instead, a gush of emotions threatened to drown her into their depths.
Her father walked to the door and rapped upon it. The doors opened, and she felt him before she looked up.
A tall, dark, well-built, muscular guy in a hoodie walked in and bowed to her father. Her father nodded and gestured towards her.
“Padma, meet ‘shadow’ your new bodyguard.”
The man turned towards her, and her heart stopped a beat. The black orbs that had inhabited her dreams that had been the source of her strength and calm stared right back at her.
The world faded away as a soft tuft of vanilla fragrance made its gentle way into her nostrils, and she had to grip her bedsheet to get a hold of her emotions. He was far more handsome and rugged with his beard and slightly disheveled look. Her heart picked up a pace she couldn’t control.
He bowed, turning towards her.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, princess. ‘Shadow’ at your service.” The baritone sent shivers down her spine, and she only slightly nodded as she looked down at her bedsheet.
Her father came towards her.
“Padma, I probably won’t be seeing you for a while, so please listen to ‘Shadow’ and do as he says. I trust his judgment when it comes to your safety….” He then looked at ‘Shadow’ and continued. “…and ‘Shadow,’ I leave her in your able hands. I… I …” he looked away, and Padma thought she saw the moisture in his eyes. She hadn’t seen him cry even when the queen had passed.
“Don’t worry, your Highness…” Shadow spoke. “…I shall protect the princess with my life if necessary…”
The King turned towards the man and held his shoulders. The King was a tall man, but Shadow was taller, so his hands were raised, covering Shadow’s broad shoulders.
“I trust you, my man, but you have to be alive to protect her. So stay well so she will live too…” the King spoke, and Padma blinked back tears. Why did it feel that this was some farewell?
Shadow nodded, and the King walked away without a backward glance.
Shadow walked around the room, checked the walls, and touched the switches as if he was investigating her surroundings. Padma saw he was dressed in a figure-hugging black T-shirt that left nothing to the imagination about what was underneath. The loose trousers too fluttered loosely close to his toned glutes, occasionally as a second skin, and Padma looked away as she felt heat rise her cheeks.
She mentally scolded herself… her life was in danger, and all she was interested in was how hot her bodyguard looked.
“Princess, tomorrow morning, you will move back to your room. I have checked it already, and it’s clear. Seema will bring you everything you need for a week till you recuperate. After that, you can venture anywhere you want, and I shall accompany you. Here…” he handed her a phone., wait,,, it was her phone. How did he have it? “…This phone now has a tracker so I would know where you are at any given time. I can monitor your calls…”
“…Wait, hold on…” She interrupted him. “…why? Isn’t this a breach of privacy? Can’t I even speak to anyone without you hovering over my head…?”
“With due respect, princess, your life is in danger, and I promise you I will never invade your space. True to my name, I will remain in the shadows, and you wouldn’t even know. Is there anything you would like to ask? Else I shall take your leave. I will be right outside…”
“…Just one question.” She said softly and looked up at him. “…it was you, wasn’t it?”
“I beg your pardon, princess?” His solid rectangular face with a well-set jaw held no expression.
“three years ago… on my 18th birthday night at that club and later at the temple… you saved me, didn’t you?”
Shadow didn’t answer. Instead, he bowed slightly.
“I will be right outside, princess, and your new watch has a tiny sensor. If you press on the dial, I will be alerted of danger. Also, your phone has me on speed dial number 1….” He nodded again and walked out of the door.
It was then Padma released the breath she had been holding, and she looked at the watch she didn’t know rested on her wrist!