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Lady Kesha looked down from her perch on the top of the carriage. She had pulled herself up there to get a better view of the fight she knew was coming when her cousin, Lord Yash, had appeared on Banamanush. A slight snort escaped her nose. No one in the family could figure out where he had come up with a name like that for a horse. Her temporary burst of amusement fled as she remembered that only a few seconds ago, the idiot in this carriage had just caused her cousin's horse to fall into the roadside gully. How dare that blue-bat fellow try to hurt a member of her family?! She was going to--- "AAAH! Crap!" She grabbed on to the edge of the bouncing carriage. "Why are they driving this rat-trap so crazily?" Leaning over, she grabbed the carriage driver by his hair. The very startled man pulled on the reins of the horses causing the already irritated girl to fall off into the mud.
"Aaah! What is wrong with you?! Can't a person ride on the roof of a carriage in peace? Dung-bat!"
"Al! What is going on with you? Why did the carriage stop? Did you forget we're supposed to be fleeing from Conland?"
"Prashant, look out the window and stop chewing my head off. I'm helping you, and you're certainly not paying me to do it." Al continued talking, muttering under his breath, "Broke, useless, fool. Can't even afford a proper blue scarf and he's insulting me! Me! Owner of one of the first air-horse powered carriages! Dostana just isn't worth this kind of insult these days."
By now the already flustered and angry Prashant had made his way out of the carriage and was looking at the muddy Lady Kesha. Her fuming face, hidden under the cover of the dark night and quickly drying mud, contorted into an inscrutable expression. Without warning, she flew at the confused Prashant, dropping him to the mud.
"That's for getting me covered in mud, and this," as she attempted a kick, "is for trying to kick my cousin." Unfortunately, just like Prashant, her aim fell a tad short, causing her to land bottom down feet up.
Seizing the opportunity, Prashant grabbed her flailing legs and dragged her into the carriage. Using the blue scarf that had been tucked into the collar of his ruffle-less shirt (for he could not afford ruffles), he wrapped it around her mouth. He smiled evilly at her, realising that he had just captured a living, breathing daughter of Scindia royalty.
"Don't try to hit me with your puny arms girl, you're just going to hurt yourself. Now sit so that I can let go your legs. Aarti, darling! Look. You have company." Shutting the door of the carriage he called out, "Drive Al! Straight on to Bua-Noncona."
Breaking out of her fugue state, Aarti looked up in shock. "Oh Lord, was he taking her to King Slyendra?"
"Prashant, we're almost to the gates of Bua-Noncona. Errm, you know what, you can keep the carriage. I'm not entering that place." With that Al, fled off into the night, leaving the carriage in the middle of the road.
"Aarti, don't you dare set foot out of this carriage. You know what will happen to that girl in Bua-Noncona if you do...and I'm sure your darling Yash, won't forgive you for that." Not waiting for a response, he got out and seated himself in the driver's seat of the carriage. Shaking the reins, he urged the horses onward. Even they seemed afraid to enter the gates of that blighted nation, and he couldn't blame them. No one in their right mind wanted to enter that place, but he was desperate. It was the only way to keep Aarti subdued, and the best way to keep that lord away from them. He could not have him figuring out that he was a deserter of the Army of Conland. Bad things happened to deserters. Very bad things. If that lord was really interested in his wife, then even worse things might happen. The horses slowed to a crawl, barely lifting their hooves as they approached the dark gates. Even with the crack of the whip across their flanks, they maintained the same pace. The animals were only too happy to stop at the guard's hut. Prashant leaned down, coming face to face with a very depressed looking guard.
"Welcome to Bua-Noncona. If you intend to become a citizen, please be reminded that all citizens are sworn to celib*cy for five years. In the sixth year, con-redemptions are allowed for married couples, and the vow must then be re-performed. Those who intend to marry are allowed by way of treaty to stay for nine months and three weeks in Conland...for obvious reasons. They are then compelled to return at the end of the specified time." The droning voice of the guard carried on as he listed the rules and regulations of the constitution. After a few gulps from Prashant, and dry heaves from the guard, the carriage slowly made its way under the dark arch of the gate. Prashant ran his fingers through his hair. The faster they were out of this place, the better.
Aarti's nimble fingers and Lady Kesha's impatient ones had quickly undone the complicated knot of the cheap blue scarf. They had both been so preoccupied that they had luckily missed the dreary introduction to Bua-Noncona. As the carriage rolled on into the heart of the nation's city, they carried on a whispered conversation.
"No, Lady Kesha. For the love of Lord...urrgh! I mean God, we cannot just run out of the carriage dragging Pareshan-T by his hair with us."
"You in there! I heard that. Do NOT call me Pareshan-T."
Aarti rolled her eyes, continuing even more quietly. "Look, I just need you to get back to Conland and tell Lord Yash not to come searching for me. I don't want Ansh to...to...be brought here. My son is only safe in Conland."
"Look nursemaid. Stop playing drama queen. I get enough of that when I'm at home. Are you sure you've spent four years at my cousin's castle? Anyway, I don't think your un-dead husband is going to want to stay here. Everyone in the DCian Antiquities knows that Bua-Noncona is the worst nation to live in. So what we're going to do is knock him over the head, stuff him back up on the driver's seat, and control the carriage from in here. I'm sure this new thing has got to have some fancy buttons somewhere. I saw Duchess Pari using one the other day."
The argument continued.
"Prakash, I'm so sorry for dragging you and your sister into this."
"It's my fault, Yash. Your mother had called us here after...after she saw you making advances at the nursemaid. I didn't know you were in love with her, or I would never have brought Tilashini."
Lord Yash paced back and forth, fingers tugging on his hair. He didn't know what he was supposed to do now. His father had already sealed him into the proverbial tower with his official decree. It was only a matter of time before he might literally lock him in the tower to keep him under watch until the wedding. His fist flew at a nearby bookshelf. Why? Why hadn't she told him before? At least he could have gotten her protection from that evil creature. Was that why she had lied about being a widow? To escape from him? "Go on to bed Sir P. I'll talk to you in the morning. Can you check on Baron Kinshuk before you head in? I'll go peek at the children for a little while." Sir P nodded, knowing that his friend only called him by title when he was in public company or...agitated.
Staring at his friend's disappearing back, Lord Yash headed to Aarti's room. He knew where the nursemaids' quarters were in the castle, but he had never been there in his entire life for his brothers and he had never needed a nursemaid. The closest he had gotten to there had been tonight...when he had gone to tell Aarti about her dress for the ball. He smiled nostalgically...she had looked so breathtaking. Those wisps of hair that had come loose from her haircomb had made him want to see the whole lot of hair fall around her face. He'd never gotten to touch a strand. Only his breath had been that blessed when he had been placing the necklace around her neck. He lifted a muddy finger to wipe a tear that threatened to escape. Looking at the mud he frowned slightly, for he had now remembered how itchy he was.
"Out of sight out of mind...except...for the ones you...love."
"Lad? You awake?"
"Don't call me lad. Mumma says I am her prince and calls me her Ansh, and so should you," came a small voice.
Lord Yash smiled down at the little lump covered by an intricate blanket. His eyes wandered over the pattern, unsure of why its symbols looked so...familiar. He gently pulled the blanket back, looking comfortingly at the little boy's tear-stained face.
"Why are you crying? Mmm? Do you want more light in the room?"
"I'm...I'm not crying. And I'm not afraid of the dark. Only mumma is. I...I just don't sleep without her." Realisation settled in. The little boy was unused to sleeping alone.
"Hey la...Ansh. Let's go check on Palak and Payal and then you can stay with me, okay? Your mumma had to run off," he smiled darkly at the choice of words, "to take care of something really important." Stretching out his hand for Ansh to take it, he lifted him off the bed.
"Why are you covered in mud?
"I had...a...errrm...teeny fall with my horse Banamanush."
"You have a horse? Hmm...you obviously can't ride him very well."
Lord Yash's chuckles filled the corridor as they headed off to the nursery. He liked the boy….He was as endearing and spirited as his mother. At the thought of Aarti he closed his eyes in pain and then bent to take Ansh's hand when he found the boy was holding something.
"What's in your hand, Ansh?"
"It's my bag and it has my mumma's picture and my favorite storybook, "Black Beauty."
"Aha…the life story of the beautiful horse. Do you like horses, Ansh? (At the little boy's nod)….Would you like to learn how to ride one?
"Yes…yes…yes….I mean, Yes please, My Lord! But who will teach me?
"Hmm….if you trust me to, I'll teach you."
"Yes…oh yes! I told mumma once that I wanted to learn…and she said, 'All princes learn to ride horses. You will too…I promise.' Can we start tomorrow?"
Lord Yash smiled at the little boy's enthusiasm. They opened the girls' room, peeped in, and found them fast asleep. Ansh watched as their father kissed them goodnight…suddenly missing his mumma. Then they both walked hand in hand to Yash's room, where Yash tucked Ansh in and said, "Goodnight, Little Prince! Is it OK if I kiss you goodnight?" He proceeded to do so when Ansh nodded an instant Yes, "You sleep…I'll come after taking a bath."
Lord Yash freshened up and came out to find Ansh asleep holding tightly onto the bag. He gently extricated it and was about to keep it on the table when it opened and the contents fell down. He bent down to pick up the things and noticed Aarti's picture that peeped from beneath Black Beauty. Another book had fallen aside in an open state. Yash picked up her picture and was struck by her beauty. She was dressed in a royal gown and smiling radiantly. He ran his finger tips through her face lovingly and that's when he noticed the emblem in front of which she was standing…It was the Royal emblem of the Kingdom of Aaryanburg. Then he noticed other things as well…the tiara and the broach that only princesses were allowed to wear. Yash sat stunned…."Aarti…my Aarti…is actually Princess Aarti of our friendly neighborhood kingdom Aaryanburg and Ansh is really a prince? That explains why she was never found. But why is she hiding? How did she get around to marry such a horrendous fellow? Why didn't she tell me? Oh dear God…so many questions. Where do I get the answers?" His wandering eyes passed over the open book and immediately snapped back to rest on a name…his name…written in her handwriting. He picked up the book and realized it was a diary.
Under normal circumstances propriety would have beckoned Lord Yash not to encroach into forbidden territories, but the circumstances were far from normal now. She was the woman he loved with all his heart and soul and she had not only been abducted but also was a royalty. He was sure that that uncouth husband was as ignorant of this fact as he was till now. "Dear God, I have to find more about her if I want to get to her fast." Yash settled down on his bed and opened the diary. Soon he was so engrossed that he didn't realize Ansh had slithered toward him and had his hand around his waist. He patted the little boy's hand absentmindedly, as he read on.
Aarti was indeed the never-to-have-been-found youngest princess of Aaryanburg.
20 March 18.. While riding through the jungle, we were pursued by the soldiers. That's when Mr P appeared out of nowhere and guided us to safety. In order to hide our identities we introduced ourselves as a commoner mother/daughter duo who worked as maids in the palace. Mr P took us to a nearby village where he kept us in his uncle's house. He told us he was an affluent traveling businessman and presented his best self to us. He was a real charmer. Shobhama was very impressed with him.
29 March 18.. I cannot tell Shobhama how uncomfortable I feel with Mr P's constant staring. His eyes follow me everywhere. When I try to bring the matter up with Shobhama, she smiles and tells me he must be smitten by my beauty. I see a satisfied look in her eyes.
05 April 18.. Shobhama is afflicted with a fatal fever…The local doctor has given up. She worries for my welfare.
07 April 18.. Mr P asked for my hand today. Shobhma agreed on my behalf as that lifted the biggest worry of her. I had no option but to bow to the promise my dying nanny had made to the man. I was honor bound to marry him.
08 April 18.. I married Mr P in the town chapel and took Shobhama's blessings.
09 April 18.. Shobhama died and with her died the only thread to my past life.
03 May 18.. I am in Mr P's village home since one week. Mr P brought me to his village and here I met Maya, his sister, and soon was faced with the dark nature of the brother/sister. I am beaten and made to slog like a slave. But I will not give up hoping for a better life. I will try to win them over. There has to be some goodness in them as well.
The next few pages described how she was tortured day in, day out and treated abominably. A few angry tears ran down involuntarily from Yash's eyes, which he brushed away roughly as he returned to the pages.
09 Sep 18.. My prayers are answered….Thank you God!! Mr P has been recalled to the war…I am pregnant with Ansh, but I have no intention of telling him this time. My previous baby was killed inside my womb because of his cruelty, but this baby is only mine and I won't let any harm befall him.
14 Jan 18.. Maya continues to ill-treat me in spite of my pregnancy. It is my good neighbor Mrs Sharma who takes care of me.
28 Mar 18.. I gave birth to Ansh a week back in Mrs Sharma's house. He is such a beautiful baby. He will be my reason to live hereon. I will raise him to be a good human being…..not like his father.
13 April 18.. Maya came yesterday with the news that Mr P had died in the war….ranting and spewing venom that my son was the curse who brought in his father's death….I cannot take any more of Maya's nonsense and fear for my son's future, so I have decided to heed Mrs Sharma's advice to leave the village and stay with her aunt who lives in Conland.
Yash browsed through the few entries of the next two year plus when she started her new life in Conland with Ansh and did odd jobs in the village to remain independent.
24 Sept 18.. Aunt Martha took me to the castle today and introduced me to Lady Arpita who was looking for a nursemaid for her daughters. I loved My lady instantly. She reminded me so much of my eldest sister, Vidhi.
17 Feb 18.. It's been three months since I am here.
I adore my little charges. Ansh too is happy in their company, especially as he
and Palak, the older one are of same age. I haven't yet seen Lord Yash…He is
away on some tour.
20 Feb 18.. Finally I met Lord Yash today. I didn't know he was back and walked into their private rooms with little Payal and came upon their embrace. Oh dear lord…I mean God…I was so embarrassed. I mumbled an apology and tried to walk away when My Lady called me and introduced us. He was polite but curt…Clearly he was upset at the interference in their reunion.
Yash skimmed through and came to the last pages….There was no doubt that she too loved him as much as he did, but her married status stopped her from being forthcoming. "Why did she let me think she was a widow when she knew she was not? Oh God, Aarti…why? (He ran his fingers through his hair in agitation.) …Darn it!! I cannot sit around doing nothing….I have to go searching for her and Kesha. Thank God…they are together." Suddenly he grinned…as the thought of Prashant having to deal with Kesha struck him. "That man doesn't know the trouble he is in…May the good God save him from Conland's very own enfant terrible!!!"
As he got up to keep the diary and go looking for Sir P…he noticed a slip of paper that had fallen out. He opened it to find it was a letter….Everything fell into place the moment he had read it. It was Prashant's sister Maya's letter to Aarti…
" I swear on my sweet God what an irresponsible, insensible, pathetically dense woman you are to have not to let me in on your whereabouts!!! I had to walk a mile to Mrs. Sharma's to coax her into giving your present address. My poor legs are still paining, all because of you. I swear on my sweet God, Aarti….what the hell are you doing in Conland? Ah, I know….must be a scullery maid. Why else would they have employed such an ugly woman? I still don't know what my beloved brother saw in you! Serves you right for abandoning me. Hope you are comfortable in their dungeons...where else would they let a maid stay? Anyway, the reason I am taking such pains in writing you is to let you know that by a miracle of God, he lives and is coming back…and when he is back, he'll want to know where you are and will come for you. Be prepared to face the consequences of running away…Ha!!! I look forward to your homecoming.
There was a knock and the very next moment Baron Kinshuk tumbled in…literally…still groggy from the fall he he had had.
"My Lord!!! We have to leave immediately. Mrs Dubey is in more serious trouble than we thought."
"What do you mean, Baron? Be clear in your say."
"That path….the path on which the carriage was on…is a short-cut to Bua-Noncona. "
Yash's heart sank…"Oh no! Aarti….."
To be continued...
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