Five years ago
Shiv made it to Koini in the dead of night. He didn’t want anyone to know he was back. He had never seen the place after he had left with his father in a hurry. Eight years had flown in a jiffy…
He slowly made it to his old home that night laden with a backpack containing his meager belongings.
In place of his house stood a dilapidated structure screaming of neglect. The gossamer cobwebs’ silvery strands fluttered as he showed his flashlight around what was once his home. The place wasn’t visited by anyone, let alone claim the property. He knew the villagers were superstitious and didn’t want to visit, fearing his mother’s ghost. After all, she had killed herself. His mother in her death, had saved the house that she hated with every breath. But surprisingly, he didn’t hold a grudge against her. He was devoid of emotions…
The mango grove was no longer there and in place of the mulching carpets of foliage stood a colorless mass of dried and decayed nature, its malodor permeating the air from a distance. It was as if a missile struck the place. He teared up as he missed his grove. It held all his memories. He didn’t miss his parents as he missed his grove.
Immediately his thoughts were filled by his doe-eyed beauty. There was no mention of princess Padmavati anywhere online from the innumerable searches he had done all these years, and he knew it was to protect her from the world.
He sat on the broken steps in the darkness, effortlessly blending with the proliferating shadows in the half moonlight. The gentle night breeze patted his head, and he began to devise a plan of action. First, he would meet his father the next day and gather information. Then, he could find a way to protect the Royals with his contacts.
He didn’t know the emotion he felt for his father, but a strong sense of duty engulfed him. He rested his back against the wall of his old house and rested staring at the landscape spread across his line of vision. Would the princess agree to meet him? How would she look now? Given that the Queen was a beautiful woman, the princess was probably good-looking. Would she remember him from years ago?
He woke up with a jerk at dawn, hearing the rooster. He had a fitful sleep with the usual monsters making their way into his grove, where he hid and ended with the vision of his mother hanging from the ceiling. He placed a hand on his chest to calm himself. He had to cool down. He had to focus on his work right now… yes this was work as well. He had been alone all his life, and even to meet his father now, he had to take up a journey.
Captain Rawat was the only one who knew about his decision.
“Are you sure, Shiv?” Captain Rawat had asked the earlier morning when Shiv was all set to leave the gurukul.
Shiv had only nodded. He rarely spoke. Like his nickname, he preferred being in the shadows, unheard and unobtrusive.
“Shiv, here take this…” Captain Rawat handed a fat brown cover. “…its money. I know you don’t keep credit cards or even a phone, but you will need cash to sustain till you meet your father.”
“I can’t accept this, Captain…” Shiv had protested. But Captain Rawat had held up his hand to silence him.
“…This is a part of the money your father accumulated for you with me. There is a lot more, but the important details are in a locker, and the passcode for the bank deposit locker is with me. Whenever you need it, you can take it. And Shiv…” He patted Shiv’s shoulder. “…Don’t resent your father. Always remember, he has provided backup. ”
Shiv had stopped feeling emotions in the last few years, but his eyes had filled after a long time.
Hearing the birds chirping around him in his old home, Shiv drifted back to the present and patted the thick brown envelope in his backpack. It had 50000/-INR.
He walked for an hour towards the nearest town. The shops were closed as no one in the sleepy town woke up that early or stayed up beyond 8 PM.. He couldn’t afford to lose time anymore.
He walked towards a mobile phone store and picked the shutter lock that had seen better days. It was a piece of cake for him. He had already checked and knew there were no CCTV cameras around. Technology was yet to influence this town.
Using his torch, he quickly scanned the place and picked up three old mobile phones. The smartphone influx hadn’t hit the town yet, though there were myriad options. He chose the ones which were kept post repair. So he knew they were in working condition. The simple townfolk would take a while to register a missing complaint, or they would never do it. He just needed a day and hoped to meet his father at the end of it.
Tomorrow he would be in the palace if all went well. Today was princess Padmavati’s sixteenth birthday, and he hoped to catch a glimpse of his savior all those years ago along with the Queen who had been responsible for his presence on earth!
He quickly made a smooth exit from the store, shutting the half-lifted shutter behind him, and stealthily made it towards the nearest bus station. The place had started to fill, and milk and vegetable vendors were ready to board the earliest bus to the closest city to sell their wares. There were a couple of men with huge baskets filled with live poultry.
He had to get down at the third town and take other vehicles in the direction of the royal province.
The state transport bus rattled on the rugged, craggy state highway making Shiv even winder of the government knew the meaning of the work ‘highway’. Despite his experience of living in substandard places, this was back-breaking. He thought he could have run and reached faster. But he had to save all his energy since he had to trek through the dense woods to reach the palace unseen. He would then analyze the situation and ask for his father. He had memorized the map, and all he had to do was behave according to his nickname.
As per plans, he alighted the bus and covered his face to prevent the accompanying duft of mud from entering his nostrils. He quickly walked towards the diagonally opposite pavement and hitch-hiked a couple of tempos and a truck until he reached the mountain’s foothills, which hoisted the palace.
His heart raced in anticipation of meeting his father and… the princess as he cut through the wild foliage. He began his ascent late afternoon, hoping his attire camouflaged him well. The arboreal breeze whispered the directions he had to take as his training came into use. He could sense the direction of the winds and take the paths with his eyes shut, without banging into any solid objects, a skill he had mastered from childhood. The canopied bouquets of denseness grew in proportion as he scaled the heights literally.
It was dusk when he reached the area directly below the outer perimeter of the palace, and he knew they would be well guarded. He could blend and hide from everyone but the palace hounds and their strong sense of smell.
He looked around, and on a nearby hill, he could see the fort’s dilapidated but proud outer ruins. It started to drizzle, and he knew that it would pour heavily from the petrichor earthy fragrance. These regions received rainfall suddenly, and before the arrangements were made to arrange cover, the sun would smile brightly once again.
He decided to take a detour to the fort and wait for the grand celebrations in the palace to be over, following which the security would be weaned a bit. Then, his father too would retire for the night, and his chances of meeting up with his old man would be greater.
He was soaked to the skin by the time he reached the approach road to the fort. It was dark and he liked it like that. He thought of resting and munching the last of his energy bars. The rainwater had refreshed him and he was glad he had a waterproof backpack to keep his contents dry. He would change into one of the two pairs of additional clothing he had got along.
He used his pen torch to see the pathway. The fort screamed of neglect, and the dense growth around wasn’t a surprise. He didn’t want to be surprised by nocturnal attacks whatsoever and was trying to look around when his eyes fell on something peeping out of the nearby bushes.
Curiosity got the better of him as he crouched ahead and it was… a car. An ambassador model with a blue beacon. There was a Maa Bhavani sticker on rear window, which meant only one thing. It belonged to the Royal family. But what was the car doing here? He touched it, and it was warm and dirty, which meant it was recently placed here and dirtied by the slush.
Innumerable possibilities gathered in his mind as he made his way towards the fort entrance. He had to be careful because of the loose stones that could result in him falling and breaking his neck, and no one would know about him.
Right then it began to pour again, and he saw yet another something in white. Was that a cloth? He couldn’t make out in the blurring vision. Except that ‘something’ was moving inside the fort. It was then he realized there was a slight glow coming from the depths of the fort.
He was on high alert as he crouched ahead. It was then he heard some noises. As if people were moving together. Who would be visiting this wreck in this downpour?
Something was just not right. His leg hit a jutting rock, and mother of all pains seared through his body. Holding back a whimper, he made it up to the level from where he thought he heard the noises.
He thought he was dreaming but there stood a shivering Padmavati dressed in a white silk gown ruined by slush and torn.
Despite everything, she was breathtakingly beautiful, but at the moment, the look on her face was as if she had seen a ghost. He moved closer, but she seemed lost to the world as she stared wide-eyed through an arched window.
He closed the distance and peeped from the next window only to see a group of men gathered around a woman bound and lying on the floor. She was injured… she was… the Queen. And right across he saw another battered human tied and the man’s limbs were bent at weird angles. From what he knew, that would have to pain like hell but that man lay still.
His heart skipped a beat as he realized the man was dead…and recognition dawned in slowly.
It was his father.