the fort’s secret…

Chapter 19

Engulfed in the throes of emotions burgeoning from the past

He spiraled out of control as evidence made him aghast

 

 

Shiv found it challenging to control the upsurge of emotions that threatened to shake the very foundations of his endurance. He wasn’t attached to his mother. In fact, for the last two years of her life, they barely spoke, and besides the occasional nightmares where he saw he hanging, he didn’t even remember her.

But what was her anklet doing in that godforsaken dungeon? He had touched the anklet so many times to get his memory revived but had failed. He knew the design was unique and there was no way his mother could have got it for herself. It had to be a gift from her paramour.

The man who used his mother and ditched her, eventually leading her to take her life, was politically well connected and the last he heard he was a sitting MLA from Koini. Shiv had followed the guy during his search years ago and had realised Rajendra Majumdar’s wealth had grown by leaps and bounds. So not only was he feared in Koini but also in the neighboring provinces. Moreover, there was a rumor that Majumdar had the law in his pockets.

Despite everything, this piece of jewelry was of royal make, which wasn’t available from local jewelers. Customizing it would cost a fortune and call for attention, and Majumdar wasn’t an idiot. He wouldn’t do something like this for a keep. So then, how did the piece of jewelry reach his mother? And the million-dollar question, what was it doing in that fort? When did his mother go there?

The music change as the princess made her entry towards the dias, brought him back to the present. Padma’s beauty spellbound him even as he stared wide-eyed at her bedazzling poise. Then, he saw her family, her fiancé Keshav and friend Aarti walk behind her, and gradually, amidst the flowery rain, she took her seat on the special throne.

He had checked out the area around the throne before the event began. As per his request, the King had promised not to let anyone know he was the bodyguard. He observed the princess, and as of he had known her for ages, he felt Padma wasn’t happy. Something told him she didn’t like the turn of events. But this was her legacy, and whether she liked it or not, she would have to go through the motions.

He had done his background check on Keshav and found the guys were clean. Whether he loved the princess was a different story, but Keshav meant well. For the moment, that was a solace. It would be difficult to handle danger from Keshav…

What he saw also made him realize he was no match for the princess and that his feelings had to be nipped in the bud. But it was all easier said than done. He had been in love with Padma for years, probably when they were kids.

But the fact remained. Padma was the crowned princess, the future queen, and Shiv was an ordinary man. The princess was in danger, and that very thought made him alert. He berated himself for losing himself in his train of thoughts.

He scanned the audience that was swelling every minute. He wanted nothing more than to stand as a human shield before the princes, but that would call for attention and look odd. Then, before he could register, he saw movement. Not the regular shifting of people but a cautious stance like he did whenever… he wanted to aim and shoot.

Goddamn… someone was aiming towards the princess. How could he get a gun inside? The man was too far to recognize, but Shiv knew he was hired. But how did he get in? There was a wolf in sheep’s clothing for sure in the palace.

He rushed towards the princess. However, he wasn’t fast enough, and he saw the princess being hit. He reached the dais before she collapsed and gathered her in his arms. Without bothering about the chaos in the background, he rushed outside. He didn’t wait for the guards and ran like a man possessed. His heart was in his throat as he felt the warm blood on his hands near the princess’s shoulder.

No… he couldn’t lose her. The very thought was unacceptable. He ran to the infirmary. Everything else could wait. Treating the princess was of utmost importance. As the princess was rushed into surgery, with trembling hands stained with royal blood, Shiv called Maanav to arrange for reinforcement that was kept ready. The immediate security detail for the princess would comprise of his selectmen. The King had already approved of the same.

He paced outside the surgical unit, his entire body tight with tension as he awaited the news of Padma’s safety. Time and again, his eyes filled as he thought of anything untoward…

The King walked in with a stride, just like a commoner. At that moment, with just two of his trusted men by his side, he was just a worried father. Rubbing his exhausted face, the King gestured to someone, and one of the men stepped forward with a ziplocked pouch. It contained a strange letter.

“Mr. Chouhan, this… came in sometime back. It was left on the throne…” the King spoke, his voice hoarse. “…I thought you should see it before the police take it away.

‘THE NEXT BULLET WILL NOT MISS THE HEART. GIVE UP THE CROWN.’

Shiv was furious. How dare someone threatens Padma? That too brazenly before a crowd. The palace exits were sealed, and the police were questioning every visitor. It wasn’t easy because there were special royal guests too.

The King sighed, and Shiv could see the man struggling between his duty as a father and the province’s King.

“You know Mr. Chouhan? Padma isn’t interested in royalty. I know it from the start. She is just like her late mother. She is very kind and simple in her way of life. She is different from all other royal princesses in the country because we didn’t let her experience life outside the palace walls….” The King stared at the doors closing the surgical unit and continued. “…But she is bound by duty because of the blood in her veins and she has to keep up. Else all this will be lost to the hungry vultures who lie in wait for the palace. They have political clout and only the ordinance that the princess is the living heir, has kept all this from going into their hands…” the King rubbed his face yet again. “… Mr. Chouhan, I don’t know for how long I can keep protecting my daughter. At times I want to let her be… But this is all not just mine. It’s come down from my ancestors and Padma deserves it all. So…” The King held Shiv’s hands in his. “…Promise me Mr. Chouhan, you will protect her. Keep her safe. I will be… gone for a while. I have to find out the traitor in our midst and the perps. I have to know who killed my wife and her bodyguard five years ago…That threat is still looming over our heads….”

Shiv bowed before the King. “Your highness, I promise you, nothing… Absolutely NOTHING untoward will befall the princess so long as I breathe.”

The King nodded, and they waited.

The princess was soon wheeled out. She was out of danger but needed time to recuperate. On Shiv’s advice, her room was converted into a recovery chamber, and Shiv took up residence in the room adjoining the princess’s. He had it checked thoroughly and felt at ease knowing he finally had control of Padma’s safety.

He only was unsure of one element… his heart.

The princess was out of surgery for over three hours, and though the doctors had given her all clear, Shiv was tensed. He would remain so till she regained consciousness.

His prayers were answered and the King walked in a while after Padma regained consciousness. Her fiancé, Keshav, her best friend Aarti, and her attendant Seema were with the princess, and they were quickly sent outside. Only the three of them were aware of Shiv’s role besides the King.

Behind closed doors, Shiv knew the King was probably updating the princess. He was soon ushered in, and as he crossed the room’s threshold, one look at the princess, and he knew she had recognized him. Her glare as she stared into his eyes felt like a blow to his solar plexus. Despite being dressed in the infirmary outfit, with tubes running through her veins, Padma was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. His heart raced, and he hoped he didn’t do anything stupid to jeopardize his role as her bodyguard.

The King introduced him as ‘Shadow,’ and the princess only stared. Shiv wished he could read the look in her eyes. But instead, he handed over her phone in which he had already placed the tracker and a sensor from his kit. He instructed the princess about the plan to move into her chamber the next day, and he struggled to hide the tremor in his voice.

As she continued to glare at him. he feigned ignorance even as the surge of emotions cumulatively reached its peak.

He rushed out of the room before the raging volcano in his heart gushed out and burnt them both together.

Shiv sighed as he stood up outside her infirmary room and walked towards the window. His burner buzzed with an incoming text. It was Maanav.

Need to talk—news time. Home is where the heart is!

Shiv knew he had to visit his old home. At 9 PM that night when the local TV channel played the news.

Padma was sleeping when he last checked and asked his selectmen to keep a watch. Shiv rushed to visit his home. It was a good two-hour drive, but he made it just in time.

Manav was unrecognizable in his attire but Shiv was proud of his friend and glad the guy had his back.

“Hey Shadow… back into the lair?” Maanav chuckled a rare one.

“Cut it Bullet… what’s up?”

“I got the news. Hold your breath, it’s shocking….” Maanav moved closer to where Shiv sat on the stone stairs. “… there was a time when the Shiv temple in the fort was a front for the Devdasi tradition. The Natraj form of the lord was worshipped. To end the tradition, Shivaji Maharaj had installed Maa Bhavani after reclaiming the fort. But guess what? Till a few years ago the tradition was ‘kept alive’”

“What the hell? How could anyone do it? And you mean the fort?”

“Yup… ‘devdasi’ tradition has to be a front. I think we can link the missing girls to this sinister ploy. No guesses where these girls were transported to…”

Shiv’s blood boiled. “Who… do you think is behind this horrific practice?”

“There is no evidence, and anyone who has a clue is scared shit. It took many glasses of hootch to get some of them to spill the beans. But the biggest guess is… our friend the MLA…”

“But the MLA was into politics for ages. So why would he do something to jeapordize it all?”

“Money my dear friend… money is the root of all evils….” Maanav sighed. “…Its never enough. The more you get, the more you yearn. In fact the police once raided the fort as well on receiving a tip-off. They were forced to act because the complainant was also influential but there was nothing found in the fort. It was clean as ever…”

“The tip-off must have gone from the Queen…” Shiv deduced.

“bingo… some say she had gathered evidence and was to present it to the police commissioner directly but…”

“…but she was killed. The evidence must have been destroyed along with her.”

“I think…” Maanav continued. “…The Queen was too perceptive and a brilliant lady from the talks around. She wouldn’t have left things without a backup. So Shadow, you have to find it. It must be somewhere in the palace…”

Shiv nodded. That piece of evidence would be crucial in putting an end to all the fiasco.

“What else did you have for me?” he asked Maanav

Maanav drew out what looked like a map. “Here is the other property left for you. You wanted the location. I asked around. No one knew so I think its more like a hideout. The place is on a hill covered by dense forest, close to the waterfall. Your father wouldn’t have got it without influence, and why would he buy it in such a place with no amenities around. Not even electricity… not to mention the few wild animals on the prowl.

But Shiv understood it … there was a link between that waterfall he had heard in that cavity in the fort and the property his father had got. Something told him, he would find out soon…

He rode his newly acquired bike on his way back to the palace and all he wanted to take a look at was the sole woman who had stolen his heart for good before he retired for the night.

 

©Priya Nayak-Gole

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