Padma was panting as she struggled to breathe. The adrenaline from their escapade from the safe house came crashing down now that they were running in the wilderness, sticking to the canopy of shadows formed by the lush flora…
Shadow… Shiv, and how she loved the name. Right from his name, he complimented her every step of the way. He had been her support even before she had known him. He had been her savior.
Even now, as he dragged her, looking ahead for dangers and clearing the path for her, he was an epitome of focus. She was very slow and lagged in pace, but not once did he complain.
They had run for a long time, and she had lost track of time. Her legs were numb, and she thought she would collapse any moment. But she didn’t want to complain, knowing Shiv was thinking, planning and running for the two of them…
He suddenly came to a halt, and she realized they were in a little clearing. The place reeked of decaying foliage, but she was OK with anything with Shiv by her side.
Shiv cleared a little area and made her sit. He then offered her water and a granola bar that she wolfed instantly. He sat back on his haunches and lifted her foot. She gasped at the sudden surge of arousal at his touch. His calloused palms against her soft calf ignited the unsatiable longing…
To avoid making a fool of herself, she glances up towards the sky. The beautiful aquamarine spots peeking through the marquee of glittering trees and their offshoots. The gentle breeze that found its way through those gaps refreshed her filling her with hope. But she knew, a lot of it was because of this man before her who was nursing a wound on her foot she didn’t even know existed.
He tied another handkerchief around her big toe. She was bleeding and she didn’t even know about it.
“Princess… it must have been so painful. Why didn’t you tell me to stop…”
“Shiv…” she loved the feel of his name on her lips. “…It’s just that I didn’t want us to stop… you are working overtime and facing dangers. So instead of fighting for me, I prefer you stay away from them…”
He stared at her, his expression somewhere in between anger and kindness. Finally, he stood up and held his hand ahead. She placed hers in his even as he pulled her up.
“It’s a short distance now, Princess… Maybe another half an hour. I think…” he looked around. “…We have left them far away to trace our scents!!”
“But… Shiv… where are we headed to?”
“We are going back to the Palace, Princess… you will be safe there….”
Her heart fell. That means he would leave soon. He must have sensed her change in mood.
“Princess…” he held her shoulders. “… you are a warrior too. Despite everything, you have held up so well. I have the clues and will work to end this once for all. But I need you safe before that and the Palace is the best bet for now. So I have arranged security there…”
“…the safest place…” she interrupted him. “…is right next to you Shiv. I feel confident when you are around. But I understand… I may only be an obstacle.”
“No Princess… it isn’t like that. I wont be able to take this battle to its logical end if you are in danger.”
“But Shiv, if something happens to you, I won’t be able to live. I can’t lose anyone anymore.” She wailed.
She felt his grip on her shoulder tighten as if he was indecisive.
They walked towards the Palace; she supported herself with his hand as he held her close. Would this be the last time he held her? She didn’t know but decided to make the best of the remaining moments with him. At the moment, she wasn’t a Princess. She was an ordinary woman in love with the enigma beside her. A girl could dream, after all.
She could finally see the topmost structure of the Palace at a distance, and mixed feelings engulfed her. She was glad to get back home in a familiar and predictable situation, hopefully, see her baba… But on the other hand, she wondered if this was the last time she would see him.
“Princess… there is something I need your help with.”
“What is it, Shiv?”
“I need that… locket. I want to check it out. It may have something left behind by your mother.”
She saw that Shiv was hesitating and though it was otherwise difficult for her to part with the locket, she handed it over to him.
He twisted and turned it over till the tiny diamond stone in between pricked his thumb. He pressed it further, and to Padma’s surprise, the locket cracked open.
There was a chip in it, and Shiv carefully placed it in a box in his backpack. Then, turning towards Padma he said, “Princess, promise me you will stay put. It would help if you didn’t trust anyone except Keshav and Seema.”
Why was he doing this, Padma wondered, but she nodded.
They soon reached the road leading to the Palace, and she saw Shiv stiffen and go on instant guard. She had seen the other side of his personality and a softer and romantic one at that, and hoped he would feel free to live his life away from the dangers he faced.
She was lost in her thoughts as the short distance was the longest in her heart. She was getting teary that she would not be seeing him anymore…Why would he stay back after he found the perps… if he did. He wouldn’t want to be saddled with her and her Royal baggage.
Suddenly a gust of wind blew, shaking her out of her reverie, and Shiv instantly moved to cover her. His gesture touched her. He was always there to protect her in every way. What would happen from now on?
She recovered soon enough as they continued to walk ahead, and it was then she saw torn banners and stone strewn on the roads.
“What is all this Shiv? And why is my baba’s picture on those banners?”
Though they were torn, she could make out her father’s pictures.
“Princess, let’s get inside the Palace first. You can’t be out like this…”
She stood rooted to the spot.
“Shiv… please stop this. Right at this instant. Stop hiding stuff from me, especially since it concerns me. Tell me about all this, and don’t feign ignorance because I know you are aware of it all.” She was trembling inside, but she had to hold on to the façade of being strong enough.
“No Shiv… I deserve to know. What is all this?”
“Fine… then listen…” Shiv began. He was visibly irritated as he continued. “…His Highness was found dead…”
The ground under her feet gave away and she swayed. Shiv caught her but she was numb. No… not her baba…
“Princess… please… stay strong, dear…” he spoke softly, but they only fueled her anger.
“Since… since when have you known this, Shiv?” She blinked back tears and questioned him.
Shiv rubbed his face and looked away. “Shiv… please tell me…” She sounded desperate.
“Princess… please…” he swayed his arms.
“ITS AN ORDER, SHADOW…” she screamed using all her energy and saw him look stunned at her outburst. But she was frustrated.
“Princess, it was… the day we left the palace…”
She fell behind and raised her hand when he came closer to support her.
“So… all this while you knew and yet you chose to hide such an important matter… I didn’t even get to see my father…” She sat on the road and held her head in her palms.
“Princess… I am sorry. But we have to reach the Palace soon. This place isn’t very safe given the unrest.”
“No place is safe anymore for me, Shiv. I am not going anywhere now till I find what happened to my father and mother.” She declared, not knowing what took over her grieving mind.
“Princess…” Shiv came closer.
“Stop it Shadow… I will not allow you anymore to interfere in my life… I shall take it from here….” Padma was shattered as she uttered the words.
“Princess, I won’t leave till I finish this…”
“Shadow… I don’t permit this. You may leave…” Her chest constricted.
Shiv took out a tiny box from his pocket.
“I am sorry, Princess, it had to come to this, but I am authorized to protect you and do my duty already by someone higher than you.”
Padma frowned and looked on as he opened the box and produced a beautiful signet ring… oH GOD… it was the one missing from her father’s finger.
“How the hell do you have this Shadow?” She was finding it difficult to breathe as anxiety got better off her.
“The King himself gave it, and it’s proof that he wanted me to protect you. So, Princess, I won’t be leaving you alone by order.” Shiv spoke in a lethal neutral tone, and Padma felt the shivers run through her body.
She stood on wobbly legs, and Shiv texted something as he supported her to walk ahead. They soon reached the Palace’s outer gates, and Kesha was there to welcome her. The Royal ambulance van was ready, and she was frisked away into it. She heard Keshav call out to Shadow, but the IV inserted into her veins began its job faster, and she was plunged into darkness.
Padma woke up to the soft music playing in the background and instantly knew she was in her room in the Palace. She saw Seema rush towards her and text someone. Probably inform Keshav that she was awake.
Seema supported her to sit upright and helped her to sip water. Her body felt as if she had been run over by vehicles.
Keshav rushed inside her room.
“Padma… are you alright?”
Suddenly the moments before her walk to the Palace swarmed before her eyes.
“Keshav… did you know about… baba…?”
He silently nodded while Seema avoided eye contact. Padma’s eyes fell on the teasing bit of her bandage seen through a gap in the buttons of Seema’s shirt. The woman was still recovering.
“Padma… Babasaheb… left us all…” Keshav rubbed his eyes and Seema sniffed back tears.
Padma held her knees to her chest as her dams broke. She sobbed, held close by Seema and Keshav.
She had lost everything that mattered to her, including a chance at her first and only love. She was remorseful about having the time of her life in the wilderness, unknown of the fact that her father was no more…
Dusk was setting in, and Seema had helped her with her dinner.
“Seema, do you remember the face of the person who did that to you?”
Seema shook her head.
“No, Your Highness, I couldn’t see the person. He was covered entirely in black, including a black facemask. But the guy wasn’t very tall or hefty… in fact, he was a little taller than me and frail. But had tremendous strength….”
Just then Aarti barged into the room and Seema bowed to move aside. Aarti gave the young woman a scornful look as she exited the room.
“What is this Padma. I am away for a while and everything here is topsyturvy… So sorry to hear about Babasaheb… I couldn’t believe it…” She sat close to Padma and hugged her.
Padma was relieved to see her best friend.
“I missed you Aarti… so much.”
“Don’t worry Padma, I am here for you. I am not going anywhere.” Aarti assured her and continued, “…By the way, where is that hotshot, Bodyguard… Shadow or whatever his name is.”
“He left…” Padma whispered. She couldn’t tell Aarti how much she missed him every second of the time she was awake. She was angry too, but her love for him eclipsed everything else.
“He turned out to be such a coward…” Aarti looked at her for a few seconds. Then, “…wait… you are in love with him?”
Padma looked at Aarti suddenly. “What…? What are you talking about?”
“I can make out Padma…we are best friends, remember…?” Aarti took her hand in hers. “…But Padma he isn’t the right man for you. You know nothing about him.”
“Aarti cut it out… I will probably not see him anymore…” Every word further inundated her core, submerging her in the waves of grief.
“But Padma… did you give him anything?”
“I mean… I don’t trust the man one bit, and I hope you haven’t given him anything besides your heart…” Aarti griped her hand further.
Did Aarti know something she didn’t? Padma wondered.
“Aarti… please tell me… what do you know about all this? You were busy finding answers… weren’t you?”
Aarti looked away and then nodded.
“Yes, Padma, my college trip was just an excuse because I had to find some answers. That man Shadow… he bothered me a lot so I checked him out. It took a lot of internet surfing to connect the dots and I finally hit the jackpot… yesterday.”
“What is it? Who is Shadow?” Padma’s curiosity had touched the zenith, and she didn’t care to switch on the lights as darkness enveloped them, with the only luminance provided by the sole oil lamp placed before her mother’s photo.
The pale shadows danced softly, haunting her to the core as Aarti spoke.
“That man Shadow was here for his revenge…”
Heart pacing Padma tried to clutch the non-existing locket. “What revenge… Aarti?”
“Revenge for his father, Padma…”
“Who… is his father?” Padma could barely hear her voice as grief and anger clogged her throat. Even Aarti knew more than her.
“Padma, brace yourself dear…” Aarti closed the distance between them and gripped her hands yet again. “…That Shadow is Shiv… his real name…”
“…Real name is Shiv Ranjan…” Padma blurted.
“Padma, his real name is Shiv Ranjan Chauhan… does the surname ring a bell?”
Padma’s head began to reel… The house in the mountains, where Chauhan kaka visited, Shadow knew all about her and her mother… everything now made sense, including her father’s ring with Shadow…
“Aarti Shadow is…”
“…yes, you guessed it right, Padma. He is Chauhan kaka’s son. He is from the Army and has returned on sabbatical to extract revenge for his father…”