Chapter 175: Acting On Her Words
"Where are they?" Lady Deviyani was saying, "They are supposed to be here," she looked around, "We simply cannot proceed with the wedding without their presence."
Both the Raizada and the Gupta families were assembled before the white altar of the South Temple, while crowds of villagers and well-wishers assembled on the Temple grounds at the foot of the many marble steps that led to the Temple grounds. The bride and groom were led to stand behind white curtains on either side of the platform, to remain there until it was time for the wedding ceremony to commence.
As soon as the marriage procession had reached the Temple, the bride's mother had received the groom as per the ritual with a glass of wine. After sipping a little from the wineglass, he had kissed her hand and she blessed him by kissing him on both his cheeks, the sequence of events that symbolized that he was part of the bride's family.
"I'd seen Chotey talking with Miss Kushi on the Castle grounds when we were preparing to begin the procession," Lady Anjali mused on her grandmother's enquiry, "I had presumed they would follow us when they were done discussing whatever that had kept them occupied."
"Well, then, where are they?" asked an impatient Lady Manorama.
"They will come, my dear," said Lord Manohar, "There must have been some pressing need that required their attention before they joined us. They won't keep us waiting for long."
"Hai Re Nandakishore! That Kushibitiya always gets into one or the other scraps when we are not watching her," said Mistress Madhumati to Garima and Nani, "I just hope she won't slip into any nuisance on her sister's wedding night!"
"Now, now, Mistress Madhumati," Nani said with a smile, "I know your neice well enough to understand she won't do anything rash. She is a sensible girl, I must say."
"Oh but, good Lady Mother," Garima addressed Nani respectfully, "You do not know how prone she is to make things haywire when we least expect it. Though she doesn't mean it, she has always had this flair to surprise us uncannily."
"Surprise or not," said Lord Manohar, "We shall wait until they come. Unless we-" he was interrupted by the sound of a horsecart speeding to the Temple.
"Well, just in time," said Lord Manohar with a smile, "Here they are!"
Everyone smiled relievedly only to have their expressions fall on seeing a little boy leap out of the cart instead of the expected two.
"Why! Its little Ram! I was wondering where he'd disappeared to!" Lady Anjali stepped forward, seeing the little boy run up the red-carpeted flight of stairs to the Temple platform, "But whatever is he looking so pale for?"
The boy raced up the stairs and without pausing, he made way through the curious crowd on the Temple platform, bowing hastily without looking at any face until he was standing before Master Shashi Gupta who had been conversing with the hermit about the ceremony proceedings while they waited for Kushi and the First Lord to come.
Everyone watched in silence as Master Shashi looked down when he felt the little boy's hand brush against his wrist.
"Ram?" Master Shashi smiled warmly, "What is it, young lad?"
Panting from the running, his face pale but flushed, Ram wordlessly handed Master Shashi the wrinkled parchment he had clutched in his little hand all the while.
Eyeing the boy curiously, Master Shashi took the parchment and opened it, noting that it was wet in the corners, being held in the little boy's hand all through his jounery as though his life depended on it.
The families watched as Master Shashi, with his back to them, read the letter while the boy waited beside him, his little face focused on the white Temple floor.
"So?" Garima asked for the sake of the assembled, "What is it? Who is it from?"
They saw Master Shashi lift his head and look ahead of him, somewhere at the wall. They heard him sigh and clutch the parchment in his hand.
"Babuji?" Payal asked concernedly from behind the curatin where she stood watching all that was happeneing.
Master Shashi turned around to face the assembled, and Garima gasped on seeing how painfully determined his face looked.
"Are the parents of the groom here?" he asked, his eyes on the pillar before which they stood.
"Yes, ofcourse," Mistress Madhumati frowned suspiciously, "Why do you-?"
"Are the parents of the bride here?"
"What a stupid question!" Mistress Madhumati said, "Ofcourse, they are!"
"Are the bride and the groom here?"
"Are you alright?"Garima blinked worriedly, and then she looked at the parchment he held crushed in his hand, "What does it say that it has got you asking all this absurdity?"
Her husband ignored the question and asked, his gaze cast to the ground, "Is a hermit here to validate their wedding rituals?"
"Certainly, sir," assured the hemirt warmly, feeling the tenseness in the air and knowing something was not right.
"That is all that is needed," Master Shashi said finally. He looked at them fixedly, "Let the marriage begin."
They were all stunned by this response but he turned around to face the hermit without another word.
Nani interjected, "Master Shashi. It is required by ritual that the unmarried siblings of the would-be spouses be here."
Master Shashi looked at Nani and bowed to her before answering, "True, good Lady Mother. But we can overlook that clause if waiting for their presence means the auspicious time of the wedding will pass away."
"It is from them, isn't it?" Garima asked him, voicing the questions of all the assembled, "What does it say? Why are they not here? Why won't they make it to the marriage of their own siblings?"
"I am afraid I do not know the answer to it," he said, "And now, we shall wait no more. Time is fast passing. They will come when they can."
Standing behind his curtain, Lord Akash frowned: why had his brother kept himself from the Temple? What urgent need had come upon him that he and Miss Kushi must exempt themselves from a moment they knew held much value?
Holding her bouquet in one hand, Payal pressed the other hand to her heart and looked up at the white ceiling of the Temple: Please Goddess Mother, watch over my little sister. May no harm befall her...may tears not mar her life anymore...This is the moment where I bind myself to a man and become his...I cannot be there for my little Kushi like how I could in the past. I wish I could run and find her for I know if she misses my wedding, she is missing it because something unwanted hinders her path to me...she would never choose to keep away. She loves me too much.
Payal looked through the curtain at the hermit who was blessing the rings. He looked up and announced that the bride and groom could step out from the curtain and stand before him.
Payal felt her heartbeat race. It was time.
With the bouquet held in one hand, Payal raised her other hand to move the curtain away, her mind flooded with only one wish, Please Kushi, come to me. I'm scared. I need you...
"What a horrible night!" muttered Lady Manorama as she saw her son, in his magnificient tuxedo, step from behind the curtain and stand before the hermit, while Master Shashi brought the white-veiled Payal to stand beside her bridegroom.
"Manorama?" Lord Manohar looked at her and spoke in a low voice for only her to hear, "Why are you so annoyed? I thought you were fine with the wedding taking place."
"Whether I am fine or not never matters, for nothing I feel can change the way my lovestruck son feels for that Brusied Beauty!"
"Are you telling me you are against this just before your son is about to put the ring on his bride's finger?"
Lady Manorama sniffed, her head lifted proudly, "Only one son have I and look what I get for wedding him off. A village specimen for a bride and an incomplete ceremony!"
"The girl he is taking as wife is the most suited for him," said Lord Manohar deftly, "I would not have seconded my son's choice if I myself hadn't approved of the girl and you know it."
Lady Manorama frowned at her husband, "The omnicient husband, are we now? Well then, tell me, where is Arnavbitwa, eh?" Lady Manorama grumbled, "I don't care if that foul Rags is not here but where is my nephew! Everyone is proceeding with the wedding as though nothing is wrong but I am the mother of the son whose is being wedded here. I CARE that there is someone in the family missing! Arnavbitwa should be standing RIGHT BESIDE my son when he takes his bride!"
"There must have been some reason-"
"Whatever reason exists, this one's a ruined wedding to me, I tell you," Lady Manorama hissed, and then she groaned, "And to think that weddings like deaths happen only ONCE in one's life!"
Lord Manohar shook his head, "Every wedding is pre-destined."
"Not this one, I am sure," muttered Lady Manorama and then she fell silent for her son was taking his vows.
The ceremony of the rings followed subsequently at the end of which the hermit blessed them and Lord Akash kissed his wedded wife. Payal's eyes filled with a gentle light after Lord Akash kissed her and lifted his face from hers with a smile.
"Divine!" smiled Lord Manohar, his tear-filled eyes on the couple at the altar, "My son is a husband at last."
Lady Manorama sighed, and tears filled her eyes too, but she said nothing.
Master Shashi's heart feel heavy.
Though he stood closer to the altar than the rest of the family, he was held down by a sense of foreboding he was not sure of and felt distant from all that was happening.
He looked down and read the wrinkled parchment in his hand again.
Babuji, No matter what happens, even if I am absent, the marriage must happen.
I love you, Babuji. I am scared. Lord Arnav
His gaze slid to the floor and absentmindedly tried to make sense of the truth that was too heartbreaking to take in. Lord Arnav had come to ask his daughter's hand in marriage. He had even consented though he didn't see the need for the hurry...
There were rituals to complete before the actual wedding and, foremost, the union needed to be consented by Garima, Madhumati , Lady Mother, Lady Anjali...
Master Shashi was worried. Had he done something he shouldn't have by consenting to Lord Arnav's request? Had he awakened a fiery volcano by his feather-tickle of a nod to let his daughter be wedded to the man she had always said she hated but had slowly come to admire?
He sighed. He trusted the First Lord. He didn't know why. Was it because Lord Akash was marrying Payal that he consented to Lord Arnav's request? No. Then why? On what sane reasons had he been willing to affirm his daughter's hand to the First Lord's sudden proposal?
Then he sensed it again...that feeling of a foreboding which kept gnawing at his insides. There was something that was wrong in all the things.
Some of his memories failed to satisfy his knowledge.
He felt as if he were lost at sea if he tried to dig further.
But he was strangely certain of something: that this incompleteness in him was a consequence of something he was doing in defence of his daughter Kushi.
Why Kushi? Why not anyone else? He was not sure. He could not remember.
He wanted to save his Kushibitiya but he knew he was not the preson who could for he had become too weak and vulnerable...
There was something dangerous out there, he could feel it.
He felt it in his dreams: the fear and the cold. And he knew for certain that it was Kushi who needed protection the most in his family.
And it broke his heart to realize that her own father could no longer protect her.
A memory crossed his mind.
Kushi, when she was barely eight, a few weeks after she was found, rushed one night into the bedroom of her parents .
But instead of entering, she halted at the doorway and stood there uncertainly.
Shashi had not yet slept so he had heard her coming and he sat up in bed slowly so as not to wake his wife.
He looked through the darkness at the small face at the doorway.
Moonlight shone on the glistening tears on her pale cheeks and her beautiful watery eyes looked at him, afraid to speak.
"What happened, bitiya?" he asked warmly.
She spoke nothing. Only stood there, relieved to just see him.
"Did you have a bad dream?" Shashi asked warmly.
Kushi nodded and confessed feebly, "The river came to me."
"Did it now?" Shashi stood up and walked towards her.
He bent down and crouched on the floor, before her, until they were facing each other head to head.
"And what did you tell the river?"
Kushi shook her head.
"You should have told it to go away," whispered Shashi.
"But its too strong and when it comes, it comes," Kushi said, new tears falling down her cheeks, "It took Amma and Babuji."
"Now, now," Shashi pulled Kushi to his arms and pressed his cheek against her little wet one, "When it took your Amma and Babuji, it took them to a garden below the sea."
"Why didn't it take me with them?" she sniffed.
"Because it knew there was another Amma and Babuji waiting to love you... And a sister to care for you and play with you..."
"I love Jiji," said Kushi against his hair.
"Come, then," Shashi stood up, lifting her up easily in his arms, her head still pressed against his shoulder, "Let's take you to your Jiji."
Shashi carried her back to the little bedroom where the girls usually slept and lay her on the bed beside the sleeping Payal.
He draped the blanket over Kushi's legs and chest and kissed her on the forehead.
"You know what to do next time?" said Shashi.
"Tell the river to go?" Kushi looked up at his face eagerly.
"And what if doesn't go and it is still coming?"
Shashi leaned forward, "You can swim yourself through it."
"But I don't know how to swim..." Kushi's voice was feeble.
"Nonsense!" said Shashi firmly, "It's a dream. Everyone knows how to swim in a dream!"
This knowledge seemed to have lightened Kushi's fears and she smiled at him.
"That's my girl," said her Babuji, "Always beautiful and smiling."
The memory faded away and the heaviness in his heart returned.
I thought I always would, that I always could... But this time, he needed help. Help to take care of Kushi, to protect her from the hidden harms...
Master Shashi nodded, Yes, that is why I consented to Lord Arnav's request. Because I know, that if Kushi is safe anywhere, it is in the Castle, with him as her husband...He will keep her safe from the unknown that I fear.
Suddenly the clouds raged wild with the winds and the temple bells in the South Temple rang aloud. Everyone looked around as though sensing something sinister in the air.
Nani frowned at the bells tolling in the restlessness of the wind and then she looked at Fortune who was perched on her shoulder, "What is the meaning of all this?"
Fortune shrugged his white bird shoulders and sat still.
The wind was still wildly blowing and all those before the Temple murmured, wondering about the situation, when suddenly the wind stilled.
Silence settled in the Temple and the breeze was gentle as it blowed about.
The white parrot was instantly alert.
He looked over his little shoulder to the darkness beyond, in the direction of where the North Temple stood in the dark distance.
General Shyam Jha was scanning the familial crowd until his eyes fell on Fortune and he looked towards where the parot was gazing.
He frowned at the darkness across the lands, suspicious.
The General looked back at the parrot, but the bird had already returned its focus on the wedding.
Lady Anjali sighed painfully.
It was beautiful: the wedding of her beloved cousin. But it was also worrying: the absence of her brother and Miss Kushi...
She looked around again, in search of their faces in the crowd, and met the gaze of her husband who was standing beside her.
He shook his head and whispered, "I do not want you to look sad at a moment like this."
"I cannot help it," said Lady Anjali, "I can't enjoy the wedding like how I expected to."
"Worry not," said her husband, looking forward at the altar, "All is well." She didn't see the way he scowled for a moment.
"Nothing will be well until Chotey and Miss Kushi come here," said Lady Anjali.
She looked at the faces of the two families assembled before the altar and realized that everyone was going through mixed emotions like her. Even the couple at the altar.
"Oh dear!" Lady Anjali sighed, "My first chance to get out of the Castle premises and there is only sadness everywhere." She looked up at her husband's face, "Will you do something for me?"
"What is it, my Lady Queen?" he looked at her.
"The wedding rituals are almost over, " she said, "And the Crowning ceremony will begin only after a few minutes. Could you...go and see if you can find them?
The General looked at her and saw the sad yearning in her eyes, "Do you doubt they will come?"
"No," said Lady Anjali, "But I can't help feel a fear inside of me for they would never miss Akash's and Miss Payal's wedding unless something-"
"I'll find them then," said the General, "If you will promise to take care of yourself and not worry too much."
"I will, my love," beamed Lady Anjali, with tear-filled eyes, her hands pressing upon her husband's gratefully, "But do hurry."
The General nodded and stepped back into the shadows.
Lady Anjali turned to face the altar again.
The General stood in the shadows, preparing to leave, giving one last glance at the assembled. He paused when he noticed Master Shashi clutch the parchment in his hand.
The General frowned. There was something in that letter that hinted why Kushi and Arnav were absent... If only Lady Mother and the rest of the them were not respectful to the confidentiality of the letter by the one it was addressed to...
His fists gripped in a furious rage. Something was not right.
He turned on his heels and climbed down the steps of the Temple, the hair over his forehead blowing in the wind. as he took his determined strides through the clueless crowd.
"Lightning," he whispered anxiously, as he mounted on his white horse that was stationed near the forest, "Why do I fear I have judged their sibling-love wrong..."