Shiv stared at the crescent moon as he lay on the bunk bed in the gurukul. He hadn’t slept a wink for over 24 hours now, but sleep was miles away.
His heart was heavy. Emotions swirled inside, and suddenly, he jerked out of bed and rushed to the washroom. He hadn’t eaten for hours, but dry heaved and sat in the lonely bathroom with his back against the tiles and the darkness for company. As the water drops from the tap made their way into the half-filled bucket, the sound, usually redundant, that night, got amplified in his head.
He grabbed his hair in his hands and wailed. He hadn’t cried after that bout in the groves when his mother had died. Even tonight, it wasn’t about his father’s death alone. Yes, he was upset and remorseful. What if he had reached early? Could he have saved his father and the Queen? In that case, maybe the princess would have been in danger.
The poor girl had seen her mother getting killed but was so shocked that she had moved everything back to her subconsciousness. He knew PTSD was a bitch and hoped that she could get the needed treatment, or at least no one would ever know what she had witnessed. He knew since the Queen was involved, there would be an investigation done.
He had two more years for his mandatory stint in the Army special unit, after which he could choose to continue or resign. He had always thought of serving the country in every capacity till his last breath. However, he was a goner ever since he laid his eyes on Padma and held her soft body in his contrasting hard muscular arms.
There was a huge protective instinct that refused to leave him ever since he saw the princess. For the first time in his life, he wanted to hang on to something. Rather… someone. He had long ago learned not to trust anyone to remain in his life. His father had actually left ages ago when he had abandoned them, and after his mother left too, Shiv hadn’t expected anything in life. But his friends in gurukul and the Army changed that for him.
However, he longed for someone to call his own… and seeing the princess last night infused life into his heart’s dying embers. He wanted nothing more than to find the perpetrators responsible for his father’s and the Queen’s death. Through Captain Rawat’s connections, he had found out that the Queen was no more. The King had claimed both the bodies, and he knew his father would have wanted to keep their relationship a secret. Else the King would have called for him.
Shiv rubbed his face, his hand halting in his beard. Would the princess remember him? He wanted to rush back to the palace and check on her. He was attracted to her as well but reigned in those thoughts. His feelings for her were beyond physical… there was some soul connection. He had often thought he didn’t have a soul and was going through the motions of life without emotions.
Would he ever meet her again? He was to leave for duty tomorrow to someplace in Assam. The Army had been called to fend off the Ultras and protect the civilians from anticipated unrest. For the first time, he was worried if something happened to him. Who would protect his princess?
‘HIS…?’ Now, where did that thought come from? The princess did not belong to him. And why would she need his protection when she had a vast entourage protecting her? But, in that case, why did his father feel otherwise? There were too many questions and no answers.
He had to protect himself first and complete his tenure. Two years was long, and he wished they would pass soon.
He strutted back into the bed and called his friends. He knew ungodly hours didn’t matter to them. Finally, after an hour, it was settled. Each would take turns to arrange to watch over the palace in the upcoming two years. They had other contacts, too, who pledged to help if any of them had an emergency. It was decided, they wouldn’t act unless needed. Shiv decided, come what may, he would drop everything and reach the palace if the need arose.
In another hour, they arranged backups looping in their friends from the Army spread across the country. Once satisfied with the arrangements, Shiv released the breath he didn’t know he held. Gradually sleep claimed him.
The following two years couldn’t have passed slower.
Shiv was involved with classified missions and was without contact from his friends’ loop for days. But whenever possible, he made it a point to connect with them. The princess was safe, and things at the palace were uneventful so far. The King had converted the place into a fortress. Shiv was glad because it would keep the princess safe. He hoped that hole in the wall was sealed too. It was difficult for his ‘eyes’ to reach the spot, and he didn’t want to call for attention on his comrades and their associates.
Finally, at the end of two years, he called off the arrangements for keeping watch on the palace.
He now was on official leave and would take over the reins of watching over the princess on his own. But he also knew how to do it…
That night he lay on his bunk bed in the gurukul. He had just returned a couple of hours earlier and was to leave for the palace at dawn. Captain Rawat asked to meet him to discuss his father’s wishes, but Shiv wanted first to see the princess in person. He had to confirm for himself that she was safe.
He smiled. Tomorrow was her eighteenth birthday, exactly two years since he had last seen her, and he hoped he would see her in better circumstances.
He had also found that the Queen’s and his father’s murderers weren’t found as yet. Despite being a King the man couldn’t bring his wife’s killer to justice, which meant the plot was far more sinister than what he had thought. First, he had to find out what his father was up to. Only then could he work to keep the princess safe. He didn’t deserve her at all… but if the threat to her life was removed for good, he could rest assured.
The next day at dawn, Shiv dressed in his standard black overalls, figure-hugging clothes. He had to stick to his name ‘shadow’. He sprinkled a tinge of the Vanilla hues. In his work line, it wasn’t allowed as it would give away his location, and he hadn’t bothered about vanity so far. But princess Padmavati brought out the zeal to live in him, and he felt a slight tinge wouldn’t matter. He was getting amidst civilians after all…
He realized he was smiling as his reflection in the tiny square mirror smiled back at him!
He was told there would be a bash in the palace today after two years, and the King was expected to make a special announcement.
Another aspect and worry plagued his conscience. He hadn’t figured out who that man in the raincoat was from two years ago. The fact that the man hadn’t made a move meant he didn’t get a chance so far, given the tight security. But Shiv’s gut feeling said, the man may make some attempt to harm the princess tonight. That’s how the criminal mind functioned. Besides, the princess had probably seen it better than Shiv, given her line of vision that night, but he wasn’t sure if she had revealed it all to anyone.
There was no uproar, but it put her in danger… grave danger.
He reached the foothills of the mountain later in the evening and soon blended into the overgrowth. It was dark by the time he reached the palace boundary, and as he expected, the hole in the wall still existed, though the location had moved. The princess was tenacious!
He could only conclude… the princess wasn’t aware of the danger she faced. She probably didn’t remember what she saw, maybe some sort of temporary amnesia.
He could hear the loud music and wondered how the King could let caution to air and invite such a crowd. But of course, he would have had security beefed up.
Shiv sat upon a nearby tree from where he could watch the west wing entrance through the high focus binoculars. There was no movement which meant the princess must be in the venue.
He looked around the palace’s perimeter from his line of vision but couldn’t find anything amiss. He wondered if he should continue watching or leave for the night and come again… when he heard movement around the bushes near the opening.
Suddenly on high alert, he saw two women… WOMEN? Really?
Not just any woman… it was the princess with her friend. He hadn’t seen any pictures of the princess in recent times. Of course, he hadn’t allowed his friends and their men as well… to protect her privacy but what he saw now wasn’t something he had expected. The princess had grown into a woman… a beautiful woman, and in this attire that she wore, his heart skipped a beat, and his brain went mush.
The princess was accompanied by her close friend he only knew as ‘Aarti.’ They were running off somewhere. So what on earth was going on? He couldn’t reveal himself just then. It may result in him getting arrested for trespassing and endangering the royal family’s lives.
Right then, the princess halted and looked around as of she sensed his presence. Oh goodness… his vanilla tinge!!!
He stood still while the women made their escape. He soon followed them through the shadows and how the princess frequently looked in his direction as if sensing his movements, he felt like a fool…
The women reached the foot of the hill on the other side, and there was a …goddamn motorbike. Before he could get his bearings together, the women rode away….
He pinched himself to remind himself that he wasn’t dreaming. Without wasting a moment, he sprinted across the winding road towards the hutments at the foot of the hills. He stole a bicycle parked there and struggled to peddle the rickety thing down the remaining of winding road. Fortunately, he found a motorbike parked near a closed ‘dhaba’ and it was a child’s play for him to get it started. Before the owner could realize the bike missing, he was gone.
He sped for a considerable distance hoping and praying that the women wouldn’t do anything stupid. He hoped they had taken the same road spread ahead and not any detour.
He finally caught up and heaved a sigh of relief as he followed them at a distance. Then, finally, they reached a nightclub, and his head reeled at the thought of the princess exposing herself before the world where the danger lay with her name on it!
The place looked new but sent negative vibes, the scarlet hues from the lighting almost blinded him. this didn’t look good… at all.
He discarded the motorbike and took cognizance of the surrounding. Finally, he zeroed in on a vehicle he knew he would need if he had to make a quick escape.
He entered the nightclub…