Padma sipped the tender coconut water as Seema helped her adjust her aching back on the infirmary bed. Her wound throbbed every passing minute, and she didn’t want any more pain medicine as they would dull her senses. She didn’t want to miss anything happening around her. She seemed to be in the dark concerning everything.
Aarti updated her a while ago and gushed about the man in charge of security who sat outside unmoving from his post. Padma’s heart raced at the thought of the stranger, who she was sure she had encountered in the past. She knew he was the one who had saved her life twice before. But, who was he, and how was he present at the right place at the right time?
Seema switched off the lights and left her room on her insistence. The young woman had tirelessly been there for her for the last couple of years, ever since her mother, a royal housemaid, passed away. Since Aarti was absent because of her studies and given the pandemic restrictions, Padma was glad she got a new friend in Seema.
She stared vacantly at the shadows cast by the fan blades on the pristine ceiling; she thought about the man outside. Sleep was miles away, given her body pain that felt like she had just been run over.
His deep baritone sent shivers down her spine and set off the butterflies in her stomach. According to her father, ‘Shadow’ would be around her. How could she avoid her attraction toward the enigmatic rugged man? It wasn’t a recently acquired emotion. The man had haunted her subconscious for years. She was never drawn to anyone else like she was to him. She wished she could talk to the man and get done with her feelings… it was going to be a challenge for her to retain her sanity with him around.
Sleep claimed her late into the night.
She raced through the dilapidated moss-laden cavern. Surprisingly, the darkness didn’t scare her, but her heart was pacing for unknown reasons. She had followed someone here. There was only the gush of petrichor breeze hitting her face along with the drops of cold moisture. Unfortunately, the drops meant to soothe her were mercilessly scalding her, and she yelped in agony.. She realized she was crying too…
Suddenly she was at a dead end, and she panted in fear as she turned around. There was no one, nothing but an eternal abyss of darkness. She was sure she had heard footsteps. But where were they? Who were they?
A window opened in the wall next to her, and she saw pixelled images and blurred movements. The only clear visual was the ancient brass temple bell that rang violently as if protesting what was happening. She saw her white gown, her favorite one smeared with red liquid… Gosh, not just any liquid but blood. Just then, someone screamed and then there was silence. The only sound she heard was of her heart threatening to race out of the confines of her chest. She felt her fingers wet and in the tiny glow of the moonlight, she realised she had touched blood.
Whose blood was it? She couldn’t move as she was stuck to the hard ground. The walls began to close around her and her scream logged in her throat.
She wanted to call her mother…. Her Aai… Yes, the scream belonged to her aai…
“Aai… aaaai… aaaai…”
“wake up, princess…”
“aaii… aaai…” She continued to wail
“Wake up…” someone shook her.
“Aaai… come… please…”she tried to reach into the darkness.
“WAKE up, Princess…” she felt hard but comforting hands on her arms.
Her shoulder throbbed and she opened her lids. Goodness, she had been dreaming. These dreams had often come and gone but this time she was surprised by the intensity of the emotions evoked in her. And why did it seem like her mother’s voice? The surge of the residual feelings from her nightmare surfaced upwards, and she began to sob. She missed her mother terribly. Her birthday marked her mother’s fifth death anniversary…
She didn’t know how and when, but she was held against a taught body in a warm embrace. It wasn’t rocket science to know who he was. Shadow or whatever his name was, held her close and rubbed her back. She felt her fear dissipate and placed her forehead against his chest. The soft vanilla essence that gave her wet dreams piqued her olfactors and she snuggled closer.
He held her hands and moved her away to her utmost disappointment. She was sure she had felt his heartbeat rapidly as well. She wasn’t a good judge of people but their encounter in the temple when he saved her life was still fresh in her memory. She had read his eyes in the staccato of the lightning. They were brimming with emotion as he looked at her. She couldn’t have gotten it wrong.
“Princess, are you alright? Was it a bad dream? Are you in pain?” He asked softly in rapid succession. Every word felt like a feather touching her face before darting into her aura.
She nodded and moved away but the action caused her shoulder to throb and she winced in agony.
He held her affected sidearm and helped her lie on the bed. Then, he placed the additional pillow so that the injured part was elevated, and after about five minutes, she felt the pain subside a bit.
“Tha… thank you, Sh… Shadow” She uttered.
He nodded and covered her with the soft blanket. The rain Gods decided to shower right then and she heard the rains lash on their land. The harsh rain hitting the outer parapet send a shudder through her body. Not to mention the rumble of the clouds banging into one another as their fleed heavily pregnant with rain.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore and didn’t want to stay alone.
“Um… I mean… um Shadow… Can you call Seema please? I don’t want to be alone… I mean…” She felt embarrassed. She had never spoken about her fears to anyone in the palace in the last five years. But Shadow had seen it all…
“It’s late for her to come over, Princess. The distance is quite a bit from the palace wing and she will have to traverse the slush. I am here, Princess, to help out, and the night nurse can be called if you need anything. So don’t be scared, alright?”
The gentleness in his tone soared her blood pressure, and the feelings she didn’t know existed in her began to announce their presence. Her traitorous heart continued to race, and she knew she was a goner. She looked away and shut her eyes.
On one end, she was thrilled to have him here, but on the other end, he was still a stranger for whom she had developed strong feelings. For all she knew, he had a wife or a girlfriend waiting for him after this job… yes, she was a ‘job’ for him and nothing more. She shut her lids tightly to prevent the gathered tears from escaping. She couldn’t propagate her vulnerability to him.
She felt him move around and drag the chair closer to her bed, and though she couldn’t sleep, she liked the feeling that he was in there. She felt secure.
The following morning after breakfast, she was transferred to her room. She noticed a few modifications, though. First, the windows were sealed shut except for her favorite one overlooking the fountain. The balcony attached to her room was also locked. That was her favorite place in the world, and she loved to watch the sun setting behind the hills she could see fading into the distance.
As Seema left the room, Shadow walked in.
“Princess, I will be right next door… anytime you feel you are in danger or something you feel isn’t right just press the tiny red button on your watch. I can monitor you anywhere. Also…”
She held up her hand to pause him mid-sentence.
“…Shadow, I appreciate your dedication to this job. However, I value my privacy and nothing… no bullet or threat can deter me from doing what I want to do…” She folded her hands against her chest, and the movement caused a pull in her stiched. She grimaced, and he rushed close.
Holding her hand, he took her to the bed and helped her lie on it. The pain spasms were intense, and she gripped his palm with all her might, waiting for the pain to pass. He offered a pain killer, but she refused. As she shut her lids, she felt his hand caress her head, and she only wanted to snuggle into that comforting chest.
A little while later, she felt him move away, and a sense of loneliness began its descent into her heart. The next moment the doors opened and she saw, Keshav enter along with his father and another member of the royal court.
Shadow stood into the corner, and if not for his unnerving sense of presence in her heart, she wouldn’t have known at all. She had to give it to him. He was the perfect Shadow!
Keshav’s father and the other person checked on her health and updated her about the Royal court’s affairs since her father had left earlier day.
Padma stayed up through the motions trying to control the emotional onslaught at everything transpiring around her. She hated the feeling of helplessness. As soon as they left the room followed by Shadow, she turned towards the unaffected side and dug her head into her pillow as the dams burst. She sobbed and didn’t realise when the door clicked open and someone walked in.
The door shut again but she didn’t turn to look. Desperation set in as she realized how futile everything around her was.
“Princess?” Shadow called her.
She didn’t care to look anymore and continued to sob. Finally, she felt his come closer and felt his touch on her other arm.
“Princess… are you hurting? Should I call the doctor…?” Shadow seemed worried.
Not bothering about her tear-streaked face, she turned and struggled to sit up. She held up her hand as he came closer to help her.
“Please stay in the Shadows. That’s what you are hired for, aren’t you? The rest of me is not of your concern….” Then, in her vision blurring with tears, she saw him flinch momentarily as if she had slapped him.
“Princess, I am responsible for your safety and you also know how things are dangerous. Till we find the perp responsible for all tahts happened so far….”
“…So it was you, wasn’t it?” She abruptly spoke.
Shadow looked taken aback. “Princess, your safety…”
“…It was you in that nightclub and then in the temple who saved my life…” this time she declared.
“Princess… its important that…”
“…tell me… Shadow… it was you, wasn’t it?” she didn’t know what got into her but she felt she had to know. She was going crazy with her emotions scattered all over, and she had to find some stability.
“Please, Princess, you have to rest…” She saw him pleading and her resolve only strengthened.
“…It was you…” She softly said, and he finally looked into her eyes after avoiding eye contact for the last few hours.
“No…” He said. “…you have mistaken Princess… Now please rest…”
“…I am not mistaken…” She got down her bed on wobbly legs and took a couple of steps forward. Weakness got the better of her, and she almost fell but not before he caught her. She looked into his eyes, full of mystery and unknown emotions. She knew it was him. gripping his shirt lapels she wailed. “…it was you Shadow, I am sure. Why are you doing this to me? Who are you and how did you…”
“…I am not the one, princess” He spoke firmly splintering her heart into a thousand pieces.
She cried unabashedly. “…Don’t… I don’t expect anything from you Shadow. It just that… I am so lost with everything that’s happened. Please…” She tightened her grip. “…Tell me…it was you. I only want to thank you fopr saving my life. You don’t have to tell me anything else…. But it was you… that night…”
He held her hands and took them in his. “Princess, listen to me carefully. I am not the one. So let it go, alright? You need to rest up…”
She jerked her hands away, the pain only causing her anger to rise. “…to hell with you, Shadow. I am not a porcelain doll that shall break with a tiny shove….” The pain became unbearable and her tears took precedence. “…I don’t want anyone around me in this room at least…”
He came close and she saw concern etched on his face. “Princess… i…”
“…just go…” pain numbed her and she stumbled before blackness overcame her. She felt him lift her and lay her on the bed.
She didn’t know if she was still dreaming later that night. Her hand was in his and she heard slight snores. Then, finally, she opened her eyes and saw him seated on the chair next to her bed, holding her hand and he was asleep too.
“Whatever you say, big man…” she smiled and whispered. “… I know… it was you…”