Shiv walked with Keshav into the special chamber, which was high security and besides the King, only Keshav had access to the codes for the innermost chamber. The specially built section housed the most prized ornaments and artifacts passed down from generations in the Royal family. Some even dated beyond the time of Shivaji Maharaj.
The chamber was a dome-shaped Iron structure outlined by concrete, and the lone single heavy iron door opened only when the several lock combinations were correct. Keshav, too missed a couple of combinations but got it finally in the third try. They both heaved a sigh of relief as, beyond 3 attempts, the locks would realign themselves for the next 36 hours, and they couldn’t be opened no matter what.
Shiv was fascinated by the ancient system of protecting the prized possessions. The place looked eeire with only lighted torches for light. There were electrical but gave a feel of actual fire being lit. Shiv was amazed to see the technological marvel. Once they were inside, Keshav shut the door and walked him through the chamber towards the locker where the crown lay.
Keshav unlocked the locker using his fingerprint and retinal ID, and the Crown shone brightly at them.
Keshav released his breath and smiled at Shiv.
“All this trouble for nothing. The Crown is safe…look” Keshav exclaimed, pointing towards the shining tiara.
Shiv stared at the bedazzle incarnate piece and suddenly looked at Keshav.
“This isn’t the Crown… it’s a fake…” Shiv declared, and Keshav suddenly went rigid.
“What the hell are you talking about Shadow?”
“The original Crown had five joints in the tiara and six indents. This has four and five respectively… look” Shiv showed Keshav what he mentioned.
Keshav fell back on his heels, and his shoulders slumped.
“Oh Goodness… how can that happen? Only the King had access, and he gave me the password just before he left. You know that life has been so hectic here… I didn’t even have the time to get in here… How come…?” Keshav blabbered.
“Relax, Keshav, I know it’s not you. The Crown was probably switched on the coronation day, given the commotion…”
“But do you know what is the implication then?” Keshav asked him wide-eyed.
“Yes… I have heard so. Keshav, can you set contact with the King? It’s imperative he knows what is going on…”
“No one knows his whereabouts. Babasaheb didn’t want anyone to find out what he was upto. This is a difficult time for the royal family… for the province too. If the news spreads about the danger to Padma, then… I have no idea how to handle the people’s ire.” Keshav rubbed his face yet again and Shiv felt for the man. The man’s beard had overgrown, and his face showed signs of terrible stress. Keshav was struggling too.
They locked the chamber and emerged out to the corridors and then to the palace grounds taking them to the infirmary.
“Keshav… what is this scene with Seema….” Shiv asked abruptly and held up his hand as Keshav began to speak. “…Before you lie, let me tell you I have watched you two. So just be honest.”
“Seema is the daughter of the late Queen’s closest maid Shubhra tai. The lady passed away a couple of years ago, and since then, Seema has been taking care of Padma’s needs. She was a good student too and my… my best friend growing up. She is also pursuing her studies from distance learning. As you know, my engagement to Padma is only a sham… we don’t have romantic feelings for each other. But we are best friends and look out for each other….”
Keshav looked at the ICU as they approached it. “… When the King returns, I shall confess everything. I shall take the blame…” he looked back at Shiv. “…I was worried about Padma but now, I rest assured she is in the right hands…. Just… take care of her. She is a strong and kind woman but has a weak heart regarding certain emotions. Aaisaheb’s death hit her hard and she has never been the same. I think you know by now that she likes you… so don’t break her heart or you will have to answer me.” Keshav walked away as abruptly as he stopped speaking, leaving Shiv flummoxed.
Shiv was lost in thought when he suddenly saw Maanav walk up to him.
“There is something you should know, Shiv…” Maanav sounded pensive, and he used Shiv’s given name only when something was serious. “… my guy called. We found the driver, Harish…. His body, actually. From the decomposition, it was a day before the accident. It’s worse than it looks buddy…”
Shiv’s heartbeat paced, and he looked towards the ICU where his heart lay. Every time he shut his eyes his mind’s vision was filled with the picture of the Princess clutching at her locket, trying to reach her constricted throat, and he shuddered…
“She is fine now… don’t worry Shadow. But you have to up your ante.” Maanav advised him
“I have made my decision, Bullet….” Shiv said, determination surging through his body. “… I am taking her away. Away from this hellhole till we find the perps. This has been going on for too long and I don’t know how long her luck will hold up. But I am not taking any risk now…”
“Where will you take her? All those responsible will know every nook and corner of the province… Besides, she is royalty and will call for attention wherever you go…” Maanav argued.
“I shall take her to my house. The other one in the woods, left behind by my father. Its in a region not many are familiar with and the terrain is structured such that it will give me an advantage of watching who comes in.”
“Let me and a few guys accompany you…”
“…No… No Bullet. I need you here. You will be my eyes and ears here. There will be no signal up there. So I shall walk downhill to call you. I have the transmitter box and ammunition, So it should be all fine. Just help me stock up the place for the Princess.”
“Are you sure Shadow? You aren’t in the pink of health yourself…”
“I am fine Bullet… we shall wait till the doctor gives the Princess all clear. I shall then take her away.”
“What if the royal board doesn’t permit it? They are in charge here in the King’s absence. Keshav’s father can veto your decision…”
“I have what is needed… My old man made all the provisions.” Shiv sighed.
“What is it?” Maanav asked, amused.
“The ring… the Turkish make. I now know what my father meant and why he left it for me. The Queen must have given it to him….” Shive reminisced. “…that ring is like the King’s order. No one can defy it. “ Shiv spoke confidently.
Padma was brought out to the infirmary room once she was stable, and Shiv spent the next few hours glued to the chair next to her bed, waiting for her to wake up.
The same evening around dusk Padma opened her eyes and Shiv was on his feet instantly, his shoulder throb notwithstanding.
“Sha… Shadow… are you alright? Your… ha… hand…” She spoke full of concern and Shiv marveled at her composure.
“I am fine, Princess. Are you OK?”
Padma nodded and Shiv released the breath he was holding.
“Um… Shadow…I don’t know if… I dreamt but is Seema… OK?”
How on earth did she know? Shiv wondered.
“She is out of danger, Princess. Keshav is with her as we talk.”
Padma smiled. “So I had guessed right…. Keshav and Seema… liked each other… Good for them…” She looked away towards the window. After a moment, she again looked at Shadow. “…Shadow, what happened? I remember… drinking water when… I woke from a…. fitful sleep, and the next I know… my throat… God Shadow… I thought I would die… then I saw you… I thought I was dreaming…” tears gathered in her eyes and she looked so vulnerable it broke Shiv’s heart.
He held her hand. “Princess, I promised, didn’t I? Nothing will happen to you under my watch.”
They looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity, and if Shiv hadn’t looked away sooner, he would have landed up kissing her. He helped her wear the chain and her bracelet, she never let go of her body. Her mother’s memories. The doctors had taken them off during treatment. His fingers touched her neck, and he felt the electricity zip through his body.
He cleared his throat.
“Princess, they will be discharging you tomorrow. So you shall go back to your room tomorrow.”
Padma nodded and looked away, disappointment written all over her face.
Shiv met the Princess’s doctor along with Maanav.
“Here Mr. Shadow….” The doctor spoke. “…As Mr. Keshav has permitted, I am handing over the vial of the extracted water remains from her stomach. She was definitely poisoned, but I think it’s the type that disappears in a while. The Princess was lucky you got her out on time, and she hadn’t ingested much. Else it would have been fatal.”
Shiv shuddered at the thought as rage engulfed him thinking of the person who would want to harm the Princess.
Maanav left with the vial, and he would immediately dispatch it to the special unit headquarters, where their friends in forensics promised to help. Meanwhile, Shiv had to wait with Padma and inform her about his decision to take her away. He didn’t know if she would agree…
After 3-4 days, Padma’s color returned and she was moving around in the palace wing.
Shiv was never away from her, and every morcel of food and every drop of water was tested before it was given to her. Shiv also did a recce of the palace with Keshav’s help to check for different exits. He didn’t want the world to know he was taking the Princess away. Only Keshav and the Royal court consisting of select members whom the King trusted, would know.
It was strange the poison had even entered the Palace premises given the stringent security checks. Only Aarti, Keshav and Seema were allowed near the Princess and her chamber. Speaking about whom, Aarti was strangely missing. Keshav had already texted her about what had happened. Padma, too, inquired about Aarti when Keshav came to check on her. Aarti’s father informed them she was away on a college trip and out of the coverage area. But something about the woman didn’t sit right with Shiv.
He never liked the woman and knew the feelings were mutual. Doubting everyone around him was ingrained into him by virtue of his training and partly due to his upbringing. And he doubted Aarti. He relied on his gut instinct, and that had always served him well. He needed that one bit of evidence against the woman, and he would have her by the neck. For now, he decided not to let her anywhere close to the Princess.
He had to wait for Seema to be able to talk to get her version of who attacked her. She was too weak, having lost a lot of blood and injured her diaphragm. Keshav had assured him he would talk to Seema. Keshav also had to hide his affair with Seema from others, especially his father. Shiv wished he could go all out to get the information and inch closer to finding the perps.
Shiv used the time when Padma slept, to scout the Queen’s old chamber. But both the times, he found nothing indicating what the Queen was upto that resulted in her death and that of his father…
Most of all he loved the time he spent with Padma. He barely spoke, but Padma seemed to be in a chirpy mood. She wasn’t told about the gravity of Seema’s injuries. Instead, she spoke to him about her childhood with Keshav and Aarti, how she missed going to school and then college. How she missed her mother… and her dream to start a residential school for girls. Shiv hoped her dreams could materialize but before that she had to be safe.
That evening as Padma slept, he began his sojourn to find any other passage. This time he took an outer route and walked towards the far end of the palace, closest to the garden. It was where the King and Queen had their residence. The architecture was a bit strange. The earth near the palace edge was slightly raised and though covered richly by flower beds, it didn’t escape his keen eyes.
He walked inside the palace, and the security let him be as instructed by Keshav earlier. He kept walking deeper and deeper into the cul-de-sac corridors and soon took the stairs going below… underground.
The passages were dark and strangely unguarded. The mephitic odour showed neglect, yet he continued walking ahead. A small temple… having an idol of Maa Bhavani on her Vaahan but now wrapped with cobwebs, proudly presided over the cavern in the dark corner.
He reached the dead end. That couldn’t be… the King wouldn’t have gone to such ends just to have a dead end. No…
He touched the wall but found nothing unusual. But after thinking for a moment, he pushed the wall across different points and on hitting it, felt some parts hollow. So he took out his gloack hidden in his hip and hit the parts of the wall. To his surprise, that was just plaster and it gave away. It took great effort to get rid of most of the plaster but when he shone his pentorch, he was shocked to see… a tunnel door.
Even more shocking was it was exactly identical to the one he had seen in the fort. He didn’t need to think anymore. He rushed to the tiny temple and performed the same maneuver from that in the fort and the door made a screeching sound before it moved, sending still dust flying all over him.
Covering his mouth, he moved closer to the opening and it didn’t come as a surprise there lay a tunnel very similar to the fort one. As he moved closer, he heard the gushing sound… he was now sure it was the waterfall. It was relatively closer to the palace than the fort so he could hear it clearly. He was now sure the tunnel was connected to the fort and probably with the area near the waterfall as well. He needed time to explore, but anything beyond this would call for attention.
Realizing he was late, he walked back to Padma’s room.
Maanav stood from his position outside Padma’s door, and his grim look scared Shiv.
“All suspicion was right. Your woman was poisoned… thallium sulfate…or rat poison… tiny traces found. Came in through water. Enough to kill her. Had you not reached on time…”
Shiv punched the wall nearby, the pain doing nothing to reduce the rage threatening to consume everything around him.
“Bullet, I want to know how that came into the palace specifically for the Princess…”
Just then, Maanav’s burner rang, and he answered it. His look became serious and Shiv’s heart fell. What more was in store? Maanav never let anything affect him. Then why was he upset suddenly?
Maanav ended the call and looked at Shiv with concern-filled eyes.
“I think you will have to prepone that trip, Shadow. Take her away sooner…like right now.”
“Why…? What’s up, Bullet?”
“My guy called… they found a body floating near the pool where the waterfall got shallow towards Koini. The body is bloated beyond recognition, but prima facie it looks like…”
“…Like whom…?” Shiv couldn’t wait anymore.
“…Like… brace yourself, Shadow. It’s the King…”