Padma freshened up and walked towards her window overlooking the most beautiful garden around the palace. The ornate fountain stared back at her. The glorious marble foundation surrounding the fountain had been specially commissioned when Padma was born. It had the hardened imprints of her palms and feet embossed on its edge.
Padma blinked back tears as emotions threatened to engulf her into their tentacles. It had been like this as everything around her reminded her of her mother.
Sighting movement in the corner of her eye, she looked towards her right to see Aarti chatting with the royal cook’s daughter, probably reprimanding her about the extra spice in the curry last night. Padma smiled and thanked her blessings.
When Padma was born, she was the inevitable heir to the province, the future queen. There was a boy, her older brother who was kidnapped as an infant and later found dead floating in a pond near the plains below. The perps were never found though there were rumors that someone who didn’t want a heir apparent had done the gruesome deed.
As a result, her parents were forever overprotective following suspected threats to her life. She wasn’t allowed to venture outside the palace walls and barely had friends. One was Aarti and the other was Keshav, Devraj Chitnis’s only son. Chitnis was in charge of the royal treasury and accounts. Back after finishing his post-graduate studies in Business Management from the UK, Keshav had been involved with the administration of the vast palace estate. The King had also inducted Keshav into the royal advisory committee.
Padma knew that the King intended to make Keshav his son-in-law to keep everything within the family. Keshav, too was in love with her for a long time, but she had always fended off his subtle advances. Nevertheless, Padma didn’t want to lose her childhood friend and the beautiful memories of their growing-up years.
A sudden pocket of air hit her face, bringing her back to the present with a jolt. She could feel the walls closing in on her and knew she had to get out… out of the palace.
Dressing up in her black jeans and black t-shirt, tying her luscious mane into a high ponytail and rushing it into a black bandana, she quickly wore her sneakers and rushed downstairs stealthily. She looked around for guards and exited her end of the enormous palace, finding no one. She ran across the lawns staying in the shadows and hiding from the CCTV. She knew the blind spots well, having practiced this drill umpteen times. She sprang into the specially grown Dandelion bush, taking care not to trample on the flowers, but her sneakers sunk into the wet earth.
Swearing under her breath, she made her way to the end of the garden, where she had slowly and steadily made a hole in the wall for the last couple of months. Every time she made a hole it would eventually get repaired and she had to start all over again.
This time she had been careful to hide her craftmanship well. This was her only secret kept from Aarti. The rain had worsened the job, and the soil was wet, making it very slippery, but Padma didn’t care. She had to get out.
She slowly stepped out, half her outfit already muddy and probably her face too. But vanity was the least of her concerns, and she was glad to get camouflaged. She sprinted across the tree groves, more than half of them planted and nurtured by her mother when she had arrived as a new bride into the palace. One of them in particular, a mango tree right at the center of the artificial forest, was planted where they had buried Padma’s pet dog years ago. For the last two years, she wasn’t allowed to visit this area and hence she had to resort to coming in hidden.
She climbed up the tree swiftly, glad that her skills hadn’t gone rusty in the last two years. The ruffling of the heavily laden tree leaves welcomed her amidst the boxwood fragrance of their freshness. Her restless heart calmed down instantly but suddenly, there were some strange flashbacks. She had ventured this place two years ago, that night… she had set out to look for her mother…..
The branches of the trees lumbering downward had brushed her as she had run; the heavy rain had made the ground slippery and slushy. Her birthday outfit was totally ruined and wet, sticking to her body, the shivering giving her a premonition of something wrong.
But why was the rest of it a blur? Padma only knew she had woken up the next day on the cold bench in the palace lawn, and the royal maids had carried her back to her room. The King had been busy looking for his wife and had not noticed her missing.
Unfortunately, Padma remembered nothing beyond this grove. Her nightmares often had bleak black and white images that were somewhat pixeled and blurred. She couldn’t make out anything clearly, just that she was scared to death. What were they?
She settled onto one of the branches watching the vast expanse of the wet earth and the trees around her, the shining dew on their leaves smiling at her like long-lost friends. A faint memory from her childhood surfaced when she had newly learned to climb up the tree along with Keshav and Aarti and some palace helps.
As she bit into a juicy mango after rubbing the stalk free of the sap, she was thrown back to that day in her childhood when she had first learned to bite into the fruit directly. Those glorious dense black eyes high on the proud tanned face resting heavily on the tall lean body stayed with her….
She had once accompanied her mother during her rare visits outside the palace to a house in the adjoining province. There was a some crying, and people had gathered, she now knew was a funeral, but she was barely eight years old then. She remembered the lone house though cozy; it lacked the richness she was used to seeing growing up.
She had slowly walked towards the adjoining garden, mesmerized by the rose shrubbery adorning the borders. In the chaos, she had given her guards the slip and ventured into the area inside the garden. She saw colossal mango trees all around and continued to walk, glad to be away from the scorching sun.
Then she heard muffled cries and walked towards the direction from where she thought it came. Instead, she saw a young boy huddled into a tree sobbing uncontrollably.
“What happened…” She asked, gently touching him and moving behind as he startled. “…Why are you crying…?”
Those shiny wet black orbs pierced her little heart as they stared at her, tears still streaming down his cheeks. She went close to him and sat next to him on the boulder, unmindful of her spotless salwar kameez getting dirt on it.
The boy didn’t answer, so she continued.
“If you tell me what happened, I shall tell my aai and baba. They will help you and… they will drive the ghosts away…”
The boy shook his head and smirked at her. But she was persistent.
“Do you want to eat mangoes?” she asked him, and he looked at her as if she had grown two horns.
“I don’t want anything. Just… go away from here.” He spoke in a voice that bordered between a high and a low pitch, something like between an adult and a child. She saw his tears begin their journey yet again.
“Do you want to be my friend? I have only two friends, Aarti and Keshav. You will have fun too… you will not cry then.” She blurted out.
The boy shook his head yet again. He was much older than her, and as he stood up, dusting his clothes, she saw he was taller as well.
“Go away from here before anyone sees you. Here take this….” He gave her a mango from a basket nearby, rubbing the sap. “…you can directly remove the top portion…like this here and chew the rest. Go…” He turned to pick the basket wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his thin cotton shirt.
“But why were you crying?” She couldn’t contain her curiosity.
“My mother died today… anything else?” He abruptly said, and her heart fell. She couldn’t imagine being without her mother, and her eyes filled.
“Come home with me…” She said tearfully, holding his thin hand. “…Be my friend. You shouldn’t be alone.”
The boy tightened his grip and sobbed aloud as she held his hand and cried with him. Finally, he dropped her back to the rose shrubbery after a while.
“Go on….” He said hoarsely. “…Everyone must be worried about you, dear princess. You have been gone for long.”
Before she could reply, he disappeared back into the thicket. It was then she realized she hadn’t even asked his name…
That she thought was a memory thread
Turned out to be a façade instead.
Was there an ounce of reality
Or just an illusion with no clarity?