"You don't say? A Baron? Your beau is a Baron? That's splendid, Sanju!...And he says he loves you and wants to marry you. Ummm?..are you sure, my friend? I mean I hope his sincerity doesn't bear a question mark."
"No, no, Aarti...he really does love me and (blushing) so do I. He says once his kingdom's deal with His Lordship is through, he will himself ask My Lord for my hand. He proposed the night His Lordship returned. You remember? He caught us when my love was walking me back to the castle. In spite of knowing he was from the enemy camp, he let Baron Kinshuk leave as he saw how much in love we were, and that he really did want me as his life partner."
They were sitting in the nursery, stealing these precious moments of a long-pending conversation before the Ball began. The children were sitting near the far window, chatting and waiting to spot the first chariot to enter the Castle gates.
"But that's wonderful," Aarti was thrilled with this development in her friend's life. "Where did you meet him? Where is he from? Tell me all...Quick! Before we get our calls to be in attendance."
"Well...I met Baron Kinshuk last fall, when he came here as an ambassador of his king to talk truce with My Lord. You were not here. You had accompanied Palak and Payal on a visit to their grandparents. Remember?(Aarti nodded.) We first met when in a hurry to take the Tea to his rooms, I tripped, and toppled the entire tray over him. I was petrified, but he was the sweetest. He said he hadn't taken offense and that it was an accident. We again met in the Apple Orchard where I had gone to pick apples for the pie. He later told me he had followed me to further our acquaintance and that he had fallen in love at first sight." Sanju stopped to take a breath...her eyes all dreamy.
"Really? Oh...that's so romantic!"
"Isn't it? He is coming to the Ball you know, along with his king. Oh, I omitted to tell you. He is from the court of the kingdom of Bua-Noncona. He told me he wants to cross over and settle in Conland and be in attendance to our Lordship, as he is so kind and just. He says his monarch is very cruel. He told me that a few years back, his monarch, King Slyendra annihilated the whole kingdom of Aaryanburg, murdered the entire royal family, and burnt the castle to the grounds just because the noble King Anshuman wouldn't give his youngest daughter's hand in marriage to his wily son. They say the youngest princess was never found, even though the king sent his search parties in the entire region to find out if she were alive. She is thought to be dead now."
While talking, Sanju had walked over to the full-length mirror in the corner to adjust her gown, so missed out on her friend's reactions. Aarti had gone white and her face reflected grave pain and anguish. This was the second occasion in the recent times that her past had come calling, and that seemed ominous. Just as quickly she masked her emotions and turned to face the maid who now stood at the door calling her.
"Mrs D.? Your gown is ready. Shall I keep it in your room?"
"Yes please, Mansi. Thank you. Would you look after the children while I get ready?...Sanju, we shall catch up later. I have to go and get ready. I am so happy for you, my sweet friend," Aarti rushed out after giving a quick kiss to the children and a hug to Sanju.
She locked the door after getting inside her room and stood with her back to it for awhile, hand clasped at the bosom, eyes closed. A few tears escaped the corners of her eyes, which she brushed away before they fell. She was not going to be weak...not now...not when she may have to face her dark past once again.
Her eyes fell on the gown, and she caught her breath at the sheer beauty of the garment. Slowly she moved forward and ran her fingers lightly through it. It was exquisite. He has good taste, her Lord!! The gown was light peach in color and came with a short train, the neckline wide and square with white and pink lace ruffling the hem and sleeves. Small white pearls were embroidered in the bodice and the folds of the satin skirt fell gracefully in added colors of very light pink and lavender, with ribbon embellishments patterned intricately. A pair of beautiful peach-coloured shoes, studded with pearls and crystals, lay on the rug next to it. Aarti was overwhelmed... it seemed eons since she had laid eyes on such magnificence; she dressed up quickly. She tied up her hair with a ruby, pearl and diamond hair comb fashioned with a tatted lace butterfly, but couldn't stop soft curls from tumbling down and framing her lovely face. The comb belonged to her mother and was among a handful of things that she could bring away. She finished with teardrop pearl earrings, inlaid with tiny circles of rubies. After putting on the shoes, she hurried out of the room.
On her way to the nursery, she couldn't help taking a detour to the Ballroom, just to spend a few private moments in the splendor and grandeur of the room before it became crowded. It used to be her favorite time of the ball for as long as she remembered, and her sisters always teased her for it. Nonetheless, she would always get ready early and sneak to the Ballroom so as to embrace its lonely beauty, spending a few private moments twirling some steps of her own. The room looked heavenly...with gold and maroon drapes and cream-coloured sweeping laced curtains adding a dreamy aura to the glow emanating from the many candle-lit sconces and blazing chandeliers. The light from the crystals in the chandeliers reflected on her gown, and prancingly enhanced the luminosity of her skin as she softly twirled on her toes to get an eyeful of an ambiance that was so reminiscent of the bygone times...times that had slipped away from her. But for the moment she felt like a princess once again...a moment that was soon over. Sighing she turned to leave and froze.
He stood there leaning against the door, watching her with an inscrutable expression. She felt a warm blush creep up her neck and colour rise in her cheeks at having been caught in an improper act...once again. She tried to explain but words stuck in her mouth...so she did the only thing she could and always did, turned and sprinted out of the other door and just as soon was halted by a hand gripping her left wrist from behind. She felt him close in on her, and her heart raced.
"Why do you always run away from me?" He whispered into her ear.
"Let me go, my Lord...please." She whispered back.
"Not before you answer me."
"My Lord, I...please...leave me."
"Not this time. I need you to answer, and I need you to answer now."
She turned to look at him then. Her eyes beckoning him to understand.
"Please, my Lord. Not now. I promise I shall respond to all your queries after the Ball."
Suddenly they heard voices outside, coming closer, and he let her go.
"Fine. Go. I shall hold you on to your promise. Please bring the children down after half an hour."
She nodded and turned to go.
"Aarti?" This was the first time he had called her by her name. "You look beautiful."
Could something good be happening to her for once? Aarti...you look beautiful. He had said it with so much warmth, heat, perhaps...lo..."
"Aarti, hurry up. The royal procession is almost lined up to go down the staircase. You cannot keep royalty waiting." Sanju whispered breathlessly. With a backward glance at her friend, Sanju hurried off to find Baron Kinshuk.
"Deep breath, Aarti. Shoulders back, spine straight, head held high, just like Shobha nanny taught you. Think debutante ball. Think coronation walk." She muttered softly to herself as she adjusted the children's clothing one last time. Both girls were adorned in the colours of their kingdom, maroon and gold ball gowns, bows trailing from their backs; Ansh moved excitedly in his deep purple dress-coat and breeches, embroidered finely with gold and silver thread, little fingers tugging at the white ruffles of his shirt. He stretched out his elbows for the girls to put their fingers on lightly, just like Aarti had shown them. She smiled down proudly at him, wistful; her little prince looked so much like her father had so long ago. They moved together, along the lighted walls, forming a tight line as they approached the opulent staircase.
The slight buzz of the crowd below unconsciously made her step into the ingrained walk she had learned from childhood, light steps which made her appear to float gracefully. Her eyes remained focused on the party of royal members quietly murmuring, searching for him. He wasn't there as yet. What could have kept My lord Yash away so close to the beginning of the ball? He was never late for anything. As the last worried thoughts flitted through her mind, she saw him approaching with lady Kesha on his arm, smiling indulgently at the chattering girl. He looked up, catching Aarti in his admiring gaze-- she reflexively touched the wrist he had held, heart stilling for a beat. Glancing at lady Kesha, lord Yash excused himself, walking toward her with quiet assurance, eyes still holding her own. Slow heat spread across her skin, eyes lost in the dark pools of her lord...The moment was interrupted by the excited children showing off their new garments; Aarti looked away, blushing, afraid to stare at him again. Her ears remained tuned to the smooth tone of his voice, hardly listening to the words.
Aarti's eyes fluttered upward in shock as he covertly pulled her into one of the alcoves in the wall. How had he gotten so close? Had she been so lost in his voice that his approach had gone unnoticed? Had anyone seen? Her thoughts fled as his warm breath blew the strands of her hair away from the back of her neck, his fingers replacing them.
"I thought you might like this," he murmured as he gently placed the necklace, soft skin caressing her slender neck. "It belonged to my grandmother. She gave it to me before she passed away, whispering that I was to give it to the woman who matched its fire and warmth."
Aarti drew a sharp intake of breath, looking down at the elegant setting of rubies, pearls and diamonds that decorated her throat with understated beauty. The light danced off the precious stones, casting a fiery glow about them.
"It has never been worn by anyone other than her and now I know why." He rested his lips briefly above the necklace's clasp, stubble tickling her neck. He breathed in her strawberry scented bathwater, whose fragrance always pervaded her skin, before disappearing as quietly as he had come.
Aarti's hands reached out to the wall, supporting her frame as she felt her knees weaken from the surprise, heart beating joyously in her chest.
"His Majesty King Casanova Pratap Scindia, and Her Majesty Queen Gayatri..."
The line of royalty moved slowly down the marble staircase, jewellery and crowns reflecting the light of the candle-lit sconces and chandeliers. All family members wore the colours of the House of Scindia- Her Majesty Queen Gayatri and His Majesty King Casanova moving with stately bearing at the front of the line, smiling warmly at the invitees; His Highness Prince Pankaj following closely behind, Her Highness Princess Vidhi glowing beside him as she looked on at the crowd gathered at the bottom of the staircase. His Highness Lord Yash treaded lightly in their wake, embodying regalia as he patted his cousin lady Kesha's arm reassuringly- his daughters walking proudly in the rear on the arms of little Ansh. Palak looked back to smile excitedly at Aarti, who walked farther behind, slightly in front of His Highness Duke Prateik and Duchess Paridhi.
Aarti's heart sprinted under her ribs, chest tightening as she heard the quiet whispers running beneath the polite applause. Perhaps she should have insisted that she and Ansh wait near the platform of thrones rather than moving with the royal procession. This was drawing far too much attention toward them. Aarti forced the thoughts away, determined to enjoy the few hours of enchanted atmosphere. She attached her eyes firmly to lord Yash's dark hair, using his presence as a shield until they had travelled through the crowd and crossed the raised platform of thrones. With each step she took toward the thrones, memories came closer to the surface, fighting each other. She could see her mother's loving smile, hear the animated chatter of her sisters, and feel the calm her father's deep voice always brought. She struggled to control the tears threatening to fall, looking up instinctively at the troubled face of lord Yash. How did he manage to look back at her just when she needed it? She smiled at him, silently urging him to not worry. Smile firmly planted on her face, she stepped aside, allowing the Duke and Duchess to ascend first.
A hush fell over the hall while the family seated itself, lord Yash's eyes remaining on Aarti's curtseyed form, a pained expression in them. His fingers clutched the arm of his gilded throne tightly, willing himself to maintain the necessary decorum. As frustration wrapped around his stomach, he looked across at his happy daughters, frowning slightly at Ansh's standing form. He knew that the child would have to remain that way until King Casanova had finished his greeting speech.
Lord Yash sighed in relief as Ansh finally sat on the little bench set one foot lower than the girls' thrones but his frown returned as he observed Aarti walk the rest of way up the platform. She stood in the rear of the girls' thrones, leaving him with a strange feeling in his throat. The sooner he settled things with her, the faster all of this differentiation could end. His eyes settled on her noble form, glowing in resplendence under the light of the wall sconce above her. He couldn't tell how long he had been staring at her when he felt his mother's eyes fall on him. Meeting her steady gaze staunchly, he acknowledged her with a respectful nod of his head. There was something worrying about her expression.'..He shook his head to erase the ponderings, rising to take Palak and Payal to the center of the ballroom, and motioning for Aarti to bring Ansh along.
With Payal relegated to Ansh and lord Yash dancing with Palak, Aarti moved herself to the edge of the ballroom, hidden in the shadows. An unexpected burst of affection poured itself into her being, moving from her heart, carrying warmth to her fingers, her toes, filling her stomach with joy at the lovely sight before her. She watched patiently as dance after dance, her lord and her little prince passed Palak and Payal between them, moving with the perfect timing for each waltz, cotillion, mazurka, gavotte and quadrille the dance-master led the crowd into. Not once did the children falter; until an hour after the the agreed upon bedtime, lord Yash led the exhausted children off the dance floor. She had been apprehensive about them doing anything this strenuous, but they had held up well for their first time at such a young age. She laughed, remembering how her own sisters had stepped on her father's toes at every second step during their first time. She followed the tired group to the refreshment sitting room, standing back as lord Yash fed the children-- chatting with them until one by one their sweaty little heads fell forward, eyes closed tightly in sleep. He motioned for the servants to carry the children up to bed, and finally turned toward her.
"I believe your dance card has been taken by me, Aarti. I apologise for not fulfilling my duties." He stepped closer, offering her his arm, leading her slowly back to the ballroom. "It seems I owe you a Grand March and the First Waltz, alas two pretty little ladies stole my attention." He chuckled lightly beside her, enjoying the pressure of her fingers in the crook of his arm.
"Hopefully no others will ever have the right to take my dances my lord."
He glanced at her, surprised once again by her bold tongue. His good-natured laughter filled the bustling hall.
"I'll do all in my power to prevent it my lady, unfortunately two other ladies must each take another dance off your card this evening. My cousin, lady Kesha, and Sir P.'s sister, Miss Tilashini."
He felt her stiffen at the mention of Sir P.
"Aarti, I swear, you shall have the last waltz. A gentleman only dances the last waltz with his lady and if you're willing to accept it, you're mine. It will proclaim your rightful position to all this evening."
The words stuck in her throat, trapping her response, yet her mind raced with painful thoughts. Why had things changed so wonderfully now, only for it all to be taken before her very eyes? There was no way she would be able to move forward when the Dark One was still alive. To lose someone close again...could she handle it? The pain began to eat away at her joy, forcing it all back. She managed to hold it together as he walked back onto the dance floor, lady Kesha on arm. With half an eye on the dance before her, she walked toward the open windows framing the cold night air. The dark sky lit up with lightening, succumbing to the presence of the oncoming storm. As the caliginous clouds closed in, blocking out all trace of the stars, the tears began to fall, finding companionship with the raindrops outside. The darkness remained unbroken, save for the flashes of lightening overhead. With one last despairing glance into the night, she wiped her tears away, willing strength back in to face the night. Shoulders lifted, she turned to find lord Yash, and the woman she assumed was lady Tilashini approaching her. Next to her lord was a tall gentleman, tanned, and robust. Her brow twisted in confusion, wondering who the man was. All three beamed at her, looking energetic from their time on the dance floor.
"Aarti, this is Sir P., better known as Sir Prakash Singh, and this lovely lass on my arm is Miss Tilashini Prakash Singh, his sister."
Realisation hit her, erasing all fear from her mind. It wasn't him! It wasn't Mr. P, that dark devil.
"It's a pleasure to meet you both." A dazzling, disarming smile blinded both men, and caused an equally enchanted Miss Singh to smile warmly in return.
"I believe this is where Aarti and I bid you both good eve my friends." Nodding at the siblings, lord Yash led the relieved Aarti to the dance floor.
"Finally, your dance...the all- important last waltz...for the one who shall be last to capture my..." He cleared his throat, deciding to hold onto his thoughts for a few more hours. Suppose she thought things were moving too fast for her? Or God forbid... that he wanted her as his mistress? "The most special dance I have always thought it." He winked at her as they stepped into place at the centre of the dance floor, unaware of all the eyes on them. This was no time for delays he decided...he could only hope that this dance would help to convey what he had finally acknowledged.
"I still owe you an answer my lord, but I'm just so excited right now. Thank you for this." she glowed up at him as his fingers settled around her waist. He pulled her closer whispering, "I'm happy."
******Play while reading below*******
Their fingers entwined tightly, her soft skin burning from the first taste of extended contact. Her eyes looked up at him, their vulnerable depths drawing his face closer. Their bodies began to move slowly to the sound of the waltz, feet following the intricate melody. With each movement of the melody she was drawn further into the spell. When had everything become so beautiful again? As the iridescent material of her gown caught the radiance of the overhead chandelier, a luminous glow surrounded them. It threw its gold and crystal highlights across lord Yash's black curls, reflecting in his dark irises. She felt the fear melt away...there was no place for that while being lost in his enchanting eyes. Her fingers tightened their grasp on his coat. She smiled...softly cocooned in their world. In this moment, he was hers...only hers...there was no past...there was no future...only now.
Lord Yash twirled her in a graceful arc, drawing her back to him, leading them around the centre of the dance floor. One by one, the surrounding couples moved away leaving the floor clear, mesmerised by the enchanted duo. Only he and she remained. The overpowering urge to pull her into his arms, and simply stand still with the world...at peace, filled him. The music played on quietly, prompting another graceful arc arresting the thought. He leaned in, nose moving along the length of her hairline, nuzzling her ear, tickling the line beneath the bend of her throat. He lifted her lightly, and spun her away from him, momentarily chilled by the loss of her presence. Possessively he drew her back in, head once again dropping to her ear. Her head leaned back, allowing his nose to trail against the scented flesh of her throat, as he leaned her backward, pulling her up again slowly. His body kindled registering her closeness, heart stopping as she came under the glow of the chandelier again. The dancing, incandescent candlelight ignited the rubies and diamonds at her throat, illuminating her pulsing blood. She looked so ethereal...a precious gem to be adored and cherished. Lord Yash moved across the floor, wrapped in the aura emanating from her, lost in the light. Holding onto the tips of her fingers, he spun her around him, letting go unwillingly, watching her spin. She twirled smoothly into his arms again, her breath fanning his lips. Such beauty... She raised her eyes, conveying what was yet to be whispered as he stepped away, taking her in a full circle, gliding side by side. He held her tighter, while she leaned in closer as they passed by each other, the music encasing them.
Aarti closed her eyes, heart pattering rapidly. He kept looking at her so...lovingly. Her entire being flooded with happiness. Such a giddy feeling after so long. Without effort, she glided on the dance floor, heat spreading up her back as the pressure of his fingers tightened. Her lower stomach still pulsed from the moments his nose had spent sliding across her throat, she smiled shyly, the light blush enhanced by the yellow glow. They floated, he leading her, holding her so close that even through all the layers of clothing they could sense each other. She whirled out from him again, dancing lightly on her toes. She felt her knees weaken as he stepped up to match her treads, arm moulded against her waist in a bolder hold. A slightly breathless giggle escaped her throat when the memory of his shocked face at her wet figure crossed her mind. She shook her slightly, ignoring the question in his smoldering eyes. This moment was far too precious to waste with words. Who knew how long this night's fairy-tale would last...
Twirling...Spinning...Sinking...Falling...The rain made its voice heard above the music for a moment and with the flash of lightening, and its duet with the thunder,something had changed. Love...love had returned. It's very essence. Why had he not noticed how she really made him feel? They danced on to the rising tune of the music. Feeling the slowly burning intensity its tone evoked. With each step, he kept them twirling on and on, eyes glazed over...sharing some unseen vision with her. Unthinkingly, lord Yash paced them closer and closer to the open balcony door. As the music trailed off from his consciousness, he stopped smoothly in the center of the balcony, pulling her up against him.
The rain that had remained unnoticed during the dance wet the fabrics of their clothing, weighing them down, but neither felt it. Slowly, as if afraid that she would run off again, he bent his head to her lips. The rain pelted against their skin, filling the slight gap that remained...waiting to be closed. His eyes rose from her lips to seek her permission, and with the softest of pressures he placed his mouth on hers. The cool water warmed quickly beneath the light, chaste kiss until its sensation disappeared completely. He opened his lips slightly, tickling her bottom lip before tasting the raindrops, pulling away from the kiss. Even though it had been so innocent, he noted that both he and she had been left breathless. He rested his forehead against hers, basking in the heat of their bodies as the raindrops continued to pelt around them.