"Did you ask for me, My Lord? Mr Ram said it was very very urgent. Why is it that everything is always so urgent for you? If you have indeed asked for me...would you hurry up, please...I have to go...I am busy... and your inopportune calling only..." Aarti clamped her palm on her mouth, stopping herself from blabbering further. But the damage was done. She watched fascinated as Lord Yash slowly rose from his chair, akin to a panther getting up to attack his prey, eyes narrowing, looking straight at her, nostrils flaring a little, a faint flush beginning from his temple down to the aquiline jawline, shoulders squared, hands on the desk,
"You...!!! How. Dare. You. Speak. To. Me. Like. That? You...a mere..."
"Nursemaid? Yes, yes...I know that," clearly she had made a split-second decision that offence is the best defense, "but if you don't tell me what you have to say in a hurry, the children will drown in grapes, and then you will again shout and..."
"What?" His Royal Highness, Lord Yash Pratap Scindia, was bereft of words once again. The woman seemed to play havoc with his speech abilities a lot these days. And what in the name of God is she saying...whoever drowns in grapes...and why is her skirt all purple...and Good lord, is she walking bare feet now?
"What are you saying?"
"Tch...I have no time to explain, My Lord...you'll have to come to the winery with me." With that she picked up her skirt and ran out. Yash had just enough time to register the beauty of dainty ankles peeping out, with feet all purple. He rushed after her. The sight he came across arrested him on the spot. He saw three little purple figures hopping around in a large vat of grapes making all sorts of yelping and squealing sounds and Aarti kneeling down beside them laughing her heart out.
"Mrs D! Why did you go away? This is fun! Come in again!"
"Mumma...come...we have alot of wine to make."
"Poppa...poppa...look I stomped so many!"
"What the...? What is going on? My little princesses... What are you trying to make them do?" he sounded more surprised than angry.
"Having fun, My Lord...that's what they are doing," came the nonchalant reply. Something you seem to have forgotten to do after My Lady passed away she wanted to add, but of course didn't. Instead she asked, "What did you want to speak to me about, My Lord?"
"What...oh... that. I wanted to inform you that I have planned to hold a ball after three weeks, on the last Saturday of the month, so you can get some dresses ready for Palak and Payal...and your little boy as well. Also, please get them cleaned..they do look as if they have taken a plunge in a grape river," the last said with a half grin. With that he strode away, leaving her with a strange lump in her throat.
Lord Yash walked back into his study, pausing to take a long look (or was that a look of longing?) at two smallish purple footprints near the door. He stepped ahead and stood in front of the large portrait of Lady Arpita, something that he was shying away from doing of late. He himself didn't know why...or perhaps didn't want to analyse why. Yet, now as he stood...instead of the sense of guilt he expected to feel, he felt profound peace wash over him. He closed his eyes and whispered, "Thank you, Arpita."
"That's it, my sweet Payal...that's the right way to curtsey. Now...both of you girls together. Wonderful!!" Clapping she knelt and embraced the girls. "And now, it's your turn Ansh...show me the most gentleman-like bow...No, no...the right hand...yes... on the chest...like this. Very good!"
He had been watching them from the upstairs window for a while. They were on the terrace below, a semi-circular projection through the French Windows of the Ball Room. He watched as she taught the waltz steps first to Palak and then to Payal...and once again he was captivated by the regalia of her stance, the grace in her movements, the elegance of her bearing in that dowdy gown...almost as if she was born with all these qualities. Yash mused over the thought. There was something quite not right about her; he had always felt it...she was much more spirited than how a mere nursemaid should be. He had watched her interact with other maids of the castle with her usual friendliness and cheer...yet there was something that made her stand apart.
"Okay, Ansh...hold my right hand with your left...yes, just like that...now put your right hand behind mumma...not there Ansh, much above...below my shoulder...Shhshh girls, no giggling. Don't clutch the gown...just place your palm straight...yes, now you have mumma in your arms, my prince...let's dance." She had placed a small round table at the center of the terrace, on which Ansh now stood. "Put your left foot forward...yes...and now bring your right foot forward...and then..."
She was so engrossed in what she was doing that she almost jumped at the slight tap on her shoulder, and a low, deep voice saying, "May I?"
Aarti turned around to find her tormentor standing with his left hand extended and a slight smile on his handsome face. "Gentle lady, may I have the pleasure of this dance?" Without a word, she placed her hand in his, taking in the faint scent of lemons surrounding him. From then on their bodies spoke a language of their own...so in sync were they with each movement that any onlooker would have sworn that they had been dancing together for ages. Aarti felt herself floating in a different space where nothing mattered, except them and the moment. She followed him wherever he took her. Not once had he shifted his eyes from hers...it was as if he was seeking something deep down into her very essence. His warm breath fanned her face...his lips were the most beautiful shape she had seen...her own parted involuntarily, making him take a sharp intake of breath. Her spell was broken when she heard the sound of children's clapping. Horrified at her indiscretion she stepped back...her eyes large, moistening; she stuttered, "My Lord...th..thank you. Children I...I'll be right back." With that she turned and ran, but not before Yash had seen the treacherous tears fall down her lovely cheeks.
Aarti tucked Ansh's shirt into his breeches, and adjusted the ends of his coattails. He had grown so much already, and there were so many things that she would have to explain to him if it was Mr. P who had come to the castle that day. She fiddled with the ruffles under his chubby face nervously, before finally smiling up to him and pronouncing him ready.
"Mumma, don't I look very handsome?" he asked, winking at her.
Aarti laughed pinching his cheeks.
"Mumma's prince always looks handsome! Now let's go get Palak and Payal before they dirty their pretty, new dresses, okay?" She stretched her hand out for him to hold as they walked along.
"Yes, Ansh? she responded, still laughing quietly to herself.
'"Why don't you have anyone as handsome as Palak and Payal's poppa? He's almost as handsome as me." Ansh looked up at his mother, waiting for an answer.
A startled Aarti looked down at her curious son. Why was he asking this now? She'd never heard him voice a question like that one before. Good lord...arrgh...God! What was going on around her these days? Was there some special plague-Aarti demon roaming around the DCian Antiquities?
Aarti looked up in relief at the interruption, only to find herself facing lord Yash again. Sigh...was she ever going to be able to avoid this man for more than a few minutes? Either he summons her or he himself makes his royal appearances...a lot. Whatever happened to all the other wings of the castle? Had they taken flight?
"Yes, my lord?" she responded, dropping to a curtsey.
He looked at her, leaning his head to the side forehead creased.
"Aren't you coming to the ball? The children will only be there for an hour and a half, so I...well...I thought that you might like to dance once they were in bed."
Aarti looked up at him, surprised by the open invitation. Her brows furrowed in deep thinking. Was that a trick question? Why was he suddenly being so magnanimous? Especially after the other evening when they...Oh well!! Her hesitation didn't go unnoticed.
"You don't have to join us if you don't want to. I hadn't really factored in the dress and all those other female things, but my cousin lady Kesha went shopping for ball gowns, and I...errrm...I got something I thought might fit you when I...errm...accidentally ended up in the women's store." Lord Yash looked off to the side, a blush beginning to slowly spread across his face.
Aarti's face wrinkled in confusion. She knew for a fact that no member of the royal family ever went shopping for clothing in stores. Whatever was he talking about? Did he...did he order the royal dressmaker to make her something? Not to mention...lady Kesha?...Being convinced to shop for dresses? She was the most impatient Scindia female Aarti had ever met in the royal family. It was far more likely that the girl had tortured the poor dressmaker to create a dress that magically fit without her ever seeing the dressmaker. She was sure the girl had been the one to sneak a snake into Prince Pankaj's soup the other night after he had embarrassed Her Royal Highness, Princess Vidhi during another one of his drunken singing sessions. A small smile spread across her lips as she nodded in acceptance, secretly enjoying what her deductions suggested.
"Good. I'll send lady Kesha with the dress. She should be finished by now. If she is not, I just might find a pair of those fancy con-heeled shoes flying out the door at me." He muttered to himself as he walked off.
Aarti looked at Ansh, but she couldn't hold it in any longer. Her laughter followed the blushing lord all the way up the corridor. She doubled up, unable to constrain the lightness she felt, struggling to breathe as the poor lord tripped over his own feet and loudly crashed into a suit of armor in his rush to escape her laughter. Her friend Sanju stepped out of her own room, drawn by the loud commotion, but happy to hear the sound of her friend's mirth.
"Aarti, why are you leaning over in the corridor looking like you're about to give birth? Share the joke, please?"
"Mumma's been asked to dance by someone almost as handsome as me, Aunty Sanju!"
Immediately, Aarti straightened up breaking in before Sanju could comment. No need to embarrass lord Scindia with news of his accidental con. The last rattle of a collapsing helmet brought out fresh gales of laughter, forcing her to struggle for control.
"Sanju, why are you dressed like that? You're going to the ball? I thought that you would have to work in the kitchen tonight managing the ball's refreshments. That is a beautiful dress by the way. You look stunning!"
Sanju now brimming with some excitement of her own, and forgetting the mysterious jalebi bhai dance of the normally still armor, dragged Aarti along to the nursery. Somehow in the hectic weeks following the preparations for the ball, there had been no time to discuss anything and Aarti could tell that she intended to take full advantage of these few minutes. Sanju had been busy planning the menu and organising the kitchen staff, and Aarti had spent all of her time teaching the children more dance steps for the ball, thus keeping them away from each other. Aarti now caught up in her friend's mood and the young lord's gesture completely forgot the real purpose for hinting to lord Yash about the ball. Nursemaid, son and friend traipsed along happily, unaware of all that was to come.