Shiv was woken from a fitful sleep by a shove the following morning, making him fall off the cot on the hard floor. Then, before he could get his bearings, he was jerked upright.
“Come on, pack up whatever you want. We have to move in ten minutes…” His father’s gruff voice echoed in the sparsely furnished room. The outer door was shut, and the room was dimly lit. Shiv was disoriented. Was he still dreaming? No, the burning bruise on his knees where he had just fallen was proof that he wasn’t.
He was stunned into silence and only glared at his father, who strew around the meager stuff lying in the house. Then, he picked up Shiv’s school bag, the only sturdy material in the house, and filled it with his few clothes.
Before Shiv could even fathom what was going on or ask his father, the latter dragged him by the arm outside to a waiting car. His father threw his bag into the back seat. Then shoving Shiv in the passenger seat, he got into the driver’s seat and swerved the car away. Shiv only stared at the blowing dust in the side mirror while the only house he had ever known became a speck till it completely disappeared.
“Pa.. papa.. where are you taking me?” He finally managed to utter.
His father maintained a stoic silence but kept driving, his eyes not wavering from the road ahead. The man looked tired as well. In the two years that Shiv hadn’t seen him, his father had aged. The greys in his temple, the additional wrinkles on his face, and wait… Shiv saw scratches on his father’s hands where the shirt sleeves were rolled up, and Shiv’s keen eyes didn’t miss the slight purplish tinge on the knuckles.
His father just handed over a chocolate bar, and Shiv ate it, not realizing he was voraciously hungry. He knew his father would speak whenever the time was right, and he had no option but to wait. He rested his head back on the seat as sleep claimed his tired body.
He woke up when the car came to a halt. They were outside a large gate. It was a school… an army prep school of some sort. His father got out and took his bag from the back seat where he had thrown it earlier. Shiv realized they had been on the road for the last eight hours. His stomach growled in hunger. He hadn’t eaten for a long time now. And it was dusk…
The gates opened when his father spoke something on the attached security system, and the duo walked inside. Shiv was transported to an all-new world. In the sanguine halo of the evening light, the bushes filled with varieties of flowers glowed, reflecting a strange aura of freshness, and the trees swayed gently in the breeze. Groups of children across age groups were running around, adding to the cacophony of the avian mates flying back to their nests. Shiva loved this scenario as it reminded him of his favorite mango grove. His eyes filled thinking about the neglect of his grove….
A loud metallic bong sounded, and the children rushed to one of the many cottage-like structures. His father led the way to an adjoining building, one of the two three-storeyed buildings.
They entered an office, and Shiv read, it was a residential school belonging to the Army Welfare Association, and he was somewhere near the Matheran hills. To his surprise, he was relieved to escape the rut back home.
He waited outside the office till his father spoke with the concerned authorities. He looked at the spotless white walls on the ground level, occasionally interrupted by paintings involving children in various physical activities. There was a wall filled with affirmations.
A moment later, Shiv was called inside the office. A tall, middle-aged man with broad shoulders dressed in a white full-sleeved shirt and crisp black trousers was standing next to his father. His fitness screamed from the contouring within the clothes. He walked towards Shiva and placed his hand on his head.
“Welcome to the Sainik gurukul Shiv. I hope you learn and grow to become a responsible citizen of the country….” The deep voice vibrated through his lean body, and Shiv only stared at the man in amazement as he continued. “…Your dorm shall be allotted to you, and you shall start schooling from Monday. Take a day to get acclimatized with the rules here.”
Shiv nodded, and his father signed some papers.
He walked out with his father, and something told him this was the last time he saw his old man.
His father placed a hand on his thin shoulders.
“My child, I am sorry that your mother and I haven’t been the best of parents to you. I hope someday you will be able to forgive us. But, son, don’t keep hatred in your heart; it will only weigh you down. The world is now open to you. I hope you fulfill your dreams, and this place here is the first step. There is only one thing I would wish you keep in mind….”
His father sighed and looked at the now dark sky filled with stars spread like diamonds glittering in pride. Then, he looked back at Shiv with moisture shining in his eyes, for the first time since Shiv had known.
“My dear son, you are my pride. I could never have a better son than you… It’s just that I have bequeathed my life to the royal family. Particularly the Queen. The King and the Queen helped me complete my studies, and when I ran from home, they supported my decisions. Whatever I have achieved is because of them. I would have been dead in the garb of honour if not for their indirect interference. You don’t know, but your mother had a tough time during labour and the Queen, a doctor, saved her. You were born premature and had slim chances of survival. Your mother was fragile and malnourished as well… But the Queen saved you both. The great woman sat through nights and took care of you in particular. She knew my reasons for staying away from the family and respected it though she wanted you to live in the quarters. I am currently on a vital mission for the Queen, and it’s dangerous. That is the reason I have been hiding you and your mother. Shiv, I want you to stay hidden and achieve your dreams. My life’s mission is to protect the Queena and the little princess. I shall send money to the principal, Captain Rawat whom we just met… May Lord Shiva and Maa Bhavani bless you, my child…” His father gripped his shoulders and suddenly dropped his hands, walking away in long strides.
Shiva stared at his father’s retreating back as tears rolled down his cheeks, instantly chilling him in the evening breeze as he watched the car fade away into the distance.
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Come on, my boy; you must be hungry. Join us for dinner.” Captain Rawat smiled and led him to the mess.
Later that night, as he lay in his dorm, he shared with two other boys of his age; he couldn’t sleep despite being deprived for long. His life to date flashed before his eyes. He realized he didn’t have much to miss in his old life, except for his mango groves and the little girl with the most beautiful expressive eyes brimming with innocence. Would he ever meet her again? Would his father be meeting her in his line of work?
He reminisced his father’s departing words, and realization dawned. The Queen may have saved him during birth but the little princess, in her innocence, saved him from taking extreme steps or drowning in grief.
The next few years were spent completing his studies, and after his twelfth grade, he enlisted for training while simultaneously completing his graduation. His roommates and now his best friends Avinash Thakur and Maanav Deshmukh followed suit. Along with Avinash’s twin sister Anandi, they were directly recruited for ground duty after graduation. They made it a point to meet in the Sainik gurukul whenever they took a break.
A couple of years later, the trio was selected for special missions based on their unique skills. All three were well versed in combat, but Shiv was an expert in ‘shadowing’ and got the nickname ‘Shadow’ for his missions. Avinash was a martial arts expert with razor speed moves and received the nickname ‘Razor’. At the same time, Maanav specialized in firearms and received the nickname ‘Bullet.’ Anandi was a femme fatale but lethal with combat and got the nickname ‘Lolita’.
Their initial training, along with other selected candidates, mirrored the US SEALS. 90% of the recruits gave up in the first couple of months. But the four of them persisted and were now established in their area of expertise. Though they were placed in different missions and once in a while together, they often kept in touch via specialized untraceable accounts, and each knew the other had their back.
As ‘Shadow’ he conducted stealth operations and spied for the government where regular legal channels didn’t tread. He soon polished his skills, and since there was nowhere he could return during holidays, he worked throughout the year. He had fulfilled his dream, rather a part of it. Most of the time, he was engaged in combat or planning as per instructions from his superiors. Still, occasionally, when he was idle during the slack period, he remembered his angel…
When he was around 23 years old, his father called him one day in the Sainik gurukul where he had gone visiting. Though he regularly received money from his father, the man had never spoken to him. Shiv’s instincts screamed at something amiss…
“Shiv, my child…” He felt his father panting. “… something is wrong… drastically wrong. I think I made a grave mistake… an error of judgment.”
“Calm down, papa… tell me what happened.” Shiv tried to find out.
“…My child, the royal family, mainly the Queen and the princess, are in danger… I will lay down my life to protect them, but I think it’s not enough.” He had never heard his father being more frantic.
“But papa, don’t the royals have more manpower?”
“My child, there is something that the Queen has to protect with her life for the princess, and can’t involve outsiders… I can’t tell you everything… but… but promise me something.” His father was now breathing heavily, and for once, he worried about the man.
“What is it?”
“Promise me that whatever happens, you will protect the princess….”
“But papa, even if I go there, why will they recruit me? No one knows about me, do they?”
“My son, I have made the arrangements years ago… in case of my untimely demise, I had thought it would take care of you. But you never needed anything to date… My son, I am proud of you. I know I can trust you… but if you don’t want the responsibility, I will understand. It’s just for some time till the princess is safe… you are free to lead your life. I know I don’t have the right to ask you…”
“…I will do it, papa.” Shiv interrupted. “…I hope you never need me for the reasons mentioned, but I will do it.” He didn’t know why but the urge to protect the princess came up strongly, and the thought tightened in his chest.
“Son…” his father’s voice cracked. “…if something happens, meet up with Captain Rawat. He will guide you on how to reach inside the palace…”
After the call ended, Shiv ran till he was exhausted and fell on the hard mud ground. Something told him he had to be at the royal province. He had to meet his father at least once. Find out what was going on.
He researched a bit and found out it was princess Padmavati’s 16th birthday bash coming up soon, and he had heard it was an occasion of celebration in the palace. So he was sure this was an excellent opportunity to meet his father.
As he typed his request for a vacation to his reporting officer, he realized meeting his father was an excuse.
He wanted to see princess Padmavati…