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“What are you going to do with me?”
Nalini’s gaze fell despondently onto the thick ropes chafing her wrists raw. The rope had been attached to the saddle of the pony she was riding. The animal looked so pathetic she doubted she could push its pace to a gallop even if she tried. She knew it was deliberate, in case she tried to ride off when they weren’t looking. Of course, that could never happen considering she was surrounded on all four sides by soldiers on horseback. Clearly Karna was taking no chances.
“Not much, for the moment,” Karna said from ahead of her, not bothering to turn back as he spoke. “You’re very valuable as you are, but you’ll only prove really useful when the time comes. Until then, I must admit, I haven’t really thought about what we’ll do with you.”
As he turned his head, he grinned. “But if you fear us, don’t. For what it’s worth, I give you my word neither me nor my subordinates would ever lay a finger on you.”
She frowned, and when she did, she felt the skin on her forehead tighten under the bandage wrapped around her head. She hadn’t looked at herself in a mirror since that night and didn’t know what she looked like right now. I must be hideous. God only knows how bad my forehead is now.
“Why would I fear you?” Nalini said, averting her eyes from his hideously handsome face, balling her fists until they were white and numb.
“Why would you fear me?” he said. “What a brave girl you’ve been all this time. No, truly, I admire your resilience, Nalini, I really do. You’re truly your father’s daughter. What a man he is!”
“Were you the one who had Prakash killed?” Nalini said, her head bent, eyes downcast.
“Well, that’s the interesting bit,” Karna said. “I asked for both of you dead, actually. It was supposed to look like he tried to rape you, and you fought him back and managed to kill him. Before you succumbed to your injuries, of course.”
Karna slowed his pace, the soldier to her right moving away from her so he could ride abreast of her.
“But our dear assassin friend grew a brain of her own while she was on the mission. Only got the job half done, brought you back. It’s risky, but it worked. Now Bhagiratha thinks Prakash tried something funny and you gutted him and ran off. Neelkantha, understandably, thinks you staged the whole thing to avoid getting married, and now you’re off somewhere, living the spinster’s dream. Now isn’t that wonderful?”
“You’re a heartless bastard, Karna,” she said through gritted teeth. She yanked at her bonds, but that only made the rope scrape her skin harder, and Nalini gave out a whimper pain.
Karna chuckled to himself, casting a glance her way. Nalini couldn’t bring herself to look up at him.
“If you knew the things your father’s done over the years, princess, I wonder if you’d still call me that.”
“Pray tell, Karna, what things?” she said, her words sharp with contempt. “Aside from rule the Pallava kingdom as not even his forebears have in the centuries past. What are these horrid things you speak of that could compare to the atrocities you’ve wreaked on this kingdom, all because you couldn’t stand to see someone better than you on the throne?”
“Oh, so many things, princess. Too many things. He was a good king, at least in the beginning. It’s a pity we disagree on some fundamental things, though. The things we could have done together.”
Nalini looked at the lord sharply.
“Disagree on some fundamental things?” she said, her voice rising. “People who disagree on things go to court and settle matters with the king, not start a war!”
Karna chuckled. “That’s exactly what your father told me, you know that? Three months ago, before the battle at Vatsala. We’d ridden out onto the battlefield, just the two of us under our white flags. Just as a last attempt at conciliation. That’s what he told me when I tried to make him see it my way. He couldn’t. It’s funny how kings have this almost allergic distaste for reason.”
“How could he possibly see it your way?” Nalini snapped. “All you want to do is raze this kingdom to the ground, destroy all that my father and his fathers built! Don’t speak to me of your reason.”
Karna simply watched the narrow road ahead of him, a pitiful smile twisting his lips.
“Have you nothing to say to that, Karna?” she said. “Are you so easily perturbed?”
“Perturbed?” Karna threw his head back and let out a loud, throaty laugh. “Do I sound in the least perturbed, Nalini? No, that I am not. I’m just a little disappointed how little you know about your own father.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Karna?” she spat.
“Are all women of royalty this clueless and naive?” Karna said. When he turned to face her, his expression was unreadable. “Or is it just that you are blind?”
“Why would I believe the lies you tell the people about my father?” she said. “Why would anyone? All you’ve ever sought is to pull him down to the ground and cover him in your slanderous filth. You wouldn’t know the first thing about my father.”
“Oh, but it’s hardly me, princess,” Karna said, shaking his head. “No one would believe me if all they had was my word to go on. But when you have lords and soldiers and nobles who all say the same thing, people start to see the truth in it.”
“What truth?” Nalini said, her eyes narrowing. “What are they saying?”
“Besides,” Karna said, ignoring her, “it’s not as if I could start a rebellion all by myself. I would need a reason to want to oust him. The lords backing me in this rebellion wouldn’t side with me if our king had done no wrong. And I need their power behind me if I’m to have even the smallest chance of breaking the Pallavas.
“Think about it for just one moment, Nalini. They’ve sworn allegiance to the man, signed trade charters with him – the only things, mind you, keeping them from being overthrown themselves. If your father is this great man of limitless virtue, with no faults marring his great name, what would drive his loyal subordinates to forfeit the Pallava name?”
Nalini felt the chafing in her wrists more acutely now. They felt as though they were being rubbed raw, down to the bone, and she didn’t imagine it would be long before it did.
“How can you call them loyal subordinates when they betrayed my father like that?” she said, her voice strained. Nalini grimaced at her mount’s every hoof-fall, wishing the pain would end, and she kept seeing visions of riders bearing the Pallava emblem bursting forth from the trees and riding Karna and his rebels down.
“No one has infinite patience, Nalini,” Karna said. He swung his horse around a tree in his path, then returned to Nalini’s side. He chuckled. “My allies started off as loyal subjects to Bhagiratha, unwaveringly so. I can’t say I know exactly what happened, only he knows that, but I believe he let the power get to his head.”
“My father is NOT a tyrant!” Nalini yelled, prompting several soldiers to turn her way. She was about to speak, but Karna cut her off.
“I never said he was,” he said, the annoyance poorly concealed in his voice. “Let me finish when I’m speaking, Nalini.” He paused for a moment, and it seemed to her he was composing himself. “Your father isn’t a tyrant. But he isn’t the man he was. He’s ever been impetuous and wont to ignore those he doesn’t agree with, but it was his reign that saw the best years of the Pallava kingdom. Trade was more open than it’s ever been before, ports have been the wealthiest they’ve ever been because of him. And the string of strategic conquests in the few months after he became king only compounded all this.”
“And you still chose to rebel against him?” Nalini said. “Despite all this that you yourself acknowledge as true. Despite everything, this is the way you chose to repay him.”
If Karna had bothered to look at her, he would have seen the look of abject loathing on her face.
“You’re not letting me finish, Nalini,” he said, growing very slightly impatient. “All that I just told you? Those years are long past. We haven’t seen that king again since nine years ago.”
“What happened nine years ago? Was it the year he was foolish enough to decide you were fit to rule one of his districts?”
Karna gave a crooked smile at that. “No,” he said. “That happened thirteen years ago. This was something very different.”
Nalini watched the lord as he ran his fingers through his hair, gripping the reins with his left hand. He took in a deep breath, as if about to recount a tale he was reluctant to tell.
“You must have been eight or nine years old then,” Karna began, and at every pause he made the silence was filled with sound of clopping hooves. “An envoy came to the palace from the far north, the Ordos kingdom. He brought a proposition from their king to strike a trade deal. They would export silk and weapons to our kingdom, and we would give them gold and iron from our mines. The people of Ordos have always been known for their superior arms, and the king wanted to strengthen the army.
“To put it mildly, the lords running the mining and smithing districts weren’t thrilled to hear the news. Mining iron and fashioning weapons from it is no joke, let me tell you, and those were without doubt the richest districts in the kingdom. They came to the palace and spoke with the king, asking him to call off the deal. They threatened your father they would shut down the mines and smithies if he continued with Ordos.”
Karna smiled almost ruefully, his eyes downcast, gently tugging at the reins of his mount, guiding it along through the trees.
“Bhagiratha didn’t take that very well. He had those men executed, all five of them. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I hear he didn’t so much as bat an eyelid when he gave the order. I don’t know what got over him. Was it that his authority was being questioned for the first time in so many years? I don’t even know if he knows.
“After that day, something in him changed. He’s grown erratic, even volatile. He levied heavier taxes, took a larger share of foreign trade to feed his treasury. Twice famine struck the farmlands in the northwest, and he did next to nothing about it, all because their crops hadn’t been yielding enough.”
Karna shook his head sadly.
“Counter-productive, I know, but he said he wanted to ‘teach them a lesson’. He fought an expensive war with the Chakshu kingdom and lost, and thankfully their king agreed to a truce between us, only God knows how many more would have had to die on that futile campaign. He doesn’t heed his ministers if their counsel conflicts with his desire. They say the fairer the king’s hair, the paler his legacy. Your father’s no different, Nalini. Bhagiratha’s grown increasingly…difficult.”
The silence that followed stifled Nalini’s breathing, and she felt as though a pair of firm hands were circling around her throat, tightening their grip, making each breath harder to draw than the last. She didn’t know where to look then, least of all at Karna’s face. She’d never heard of any of this. How could this be true? Her father had always been a just king, a king all his subjects loved…hadn’t he?
“How do I know what you say is true?” Nalini said, so soft it was almost a whisper. She didn’t know what else to say.
Karna snorted in amusement. “Why would I lie to you? I don’t care for having you on my side, Nalini. You’re an important bargaining chip to me, and no more. Believe me or don’t, it makes no matter. I’m only telling you all this because we still have a ways to go before we reach my stronghold, and conversation comes scarce on these journeys.”
“Why do I not know of any of this?” she said, more to herself than to him.
“Who was there to tell you?” Karna said. “Bhagiratha would never want to tell you the things he does, and everyone else would be far too scared to so much as breathe a word of all this. Princesses rarely know what’s going on around them. That’s just how it is.”
Nalini forced her eyes shut for several seconds, trying to cobble together everything Karna had just told her. It was just so much to take in. She raised her hand to her temples, but was stopped short by the rope tying her hands. Sighing, she let her arms go limp, eyes downcast, not bothering to look where her mount took her.
“Untie her bonds,” Karna’s voice ordered. She looked up in surprise as she saw the soldier to her left reach over and tug at the knot, pinching it with his nails. She looked at Karna, but he was already moving ahead of her, back to where he’d been riding before. The soldier who’d been at her right came once more next to her, just as the other man pulled the knot undone and slipped the rope off her wrists. She looked at the sore skin, red and raw. She hoped it wouldn’t swell.
Her eyes wandered from her hands to the renegade sitting atop his horse, riding not ten paces in front of her.
Were those things he said actually true? No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
But what if it is? What sort of man is your father? Do you even know Bhagiratha? Is the man you know to be your father all a façade?
I can’t let this man control how I think about father. What he’s told me might be true, but Bhagiratha’s still a good man. He’s a good king, and I couldn’t ask for a better father.
And yet he wanted to sell you off to some foreign prince in exchange for his army. You haven’t forgotten that, have you? And what of the other things he’s done? Executed five men for protesting against his decision. Let people starve because their crops failed. That’s not the Bhagiratha you know. Karna’s reasons for staging his rebellion don’t seem quite as unreasonable as they used-
Enough! That’s enough! I can’t take this anymore. I can’t think about my father now or I’ll go mad. I don’t care what Karna has said, I just…I just want to go home. I want to see my father again. I want mother. I want them to hold me tight so nobody could ever take me away from them. I didn’t deserve any of this. I just want to go home.
Tears formed in her eyes, slowly rolling down her cheeks, dripping languidly onto the saddle under her. She watched as the drops splashed on the brown leather and when she closed her eyes, all she could think of was home.
“Have you seen how Shashi looks? She’s like those witches from all those stories.”
“She looks like a madwoman.”
“Stop that! How could you be so heartless? The poor girl’s dying inside not knowing what happened to the princess. You’re all horrible!”
The three girls were sitting under a tree by the servants’ quarters. Vidya glared at her friends who seemed more interested in clearing the tangles from their hair than the princess’ disappearance.
“Don’t you care at all for the princess?” Vidya said. “God knows what’s happened to her, and you…you people act like there’s not a thing wrong in the world!”
Preeti rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to tell me when I need to be worried and when I don’t, all right? I never cared much for the princess. She never spoke to me, we never knew each other. It was always her and Shashi. What do I need to be sad about? Besides, what difference would it make, anyway? It’s not like they’d take me on any of their search parties, even if I wanted to go with one.”
Navya looked at her friend with a smirk. “‘Always her and Shashi’? Is that jealousy I smell?”
“Of course not,” Preeti said indignantly. “It’s Vidya who’s been badgering us about Nalini all this time. Why do you always have to pick on me?”
“Be quiet!” Vidya whispered, gesturing at them wildly. “I can see her coming out!”
Shashi emerged from the servants’ building, her eyes red-ringed and her nose pink from crying. She’d tied her hair back, but it was still in disarray, and she wore a simple, pale saree, worn hastily. It was as though she’d just come from mourning. As her eyes found the three girls sitting under the tree, their gazes immediately dropped to the ground and they seemed to develop an inordinate interest in the grass.
They care not one whit that Nalini’s gone. They were indifferent to it from the beginning. And I thought I could call them my friends.
She swung her head away from them, walking at a brisk pace towards the palace.
Vidya’s gaze followed her as she stormed down the empty pathway until she turned around the corner of a wall, disappearing from sight. She sighed, turning back to the other girls.
“If you care so much about her, why are you still here?” Navya said, raising her eyebrows innocently as she twirled her hair around a finger.
“Oh, shut up, Navya,” Vidya said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Shashi shuffled silently down the path towards the palace. Every little gust of wind sent shivers through her body, her skin rising in goosebumps. She could barely bring herself to raise her head to look which way she was going.
God, Nalini, where have you gone? What did he do to you? Why did you run away?
She didn’t want to so much as wonder if the princess were capable of murder.
But there was another question on her mind, one that she tried to hide away in some dark corner, deep inside her mind, where not even she could find it if she looked for it. And she didn’t want to look for it.
Nalini, what did you do?
The sound of bees flying from one flower to the next through the gardens wrested her from her thoughts. Shashi had walked through here so many times with Nalini, and even as children, this is where they’d played together. Running from one fountain to the next, hiding behind flowering bushes, squealing with surprise when one of them found the other. She remembered when they’d been five or six, and while she’d closed her eyes to count to ten, Nalini had run off into the great flower patch by the garden. Shashi had looked for her everywhere, and just when she thought she would never find her, and her eyes had begun to fill with tears, there she was, sitting cross-legged behind a huge bush of lilac, nibbling the flower petals one by one and eating the sweet nectar, their little game all but forgotten.
That brought a smile to Shashi’s lips. As she walked, she passed by that same bush, now even bigger than it had been before. She stopped.
Bending over and craning her neck, Shashi peered at the other side of the bush. She half-expected Nalini to burst out from hiding, shouting, “Got you!”
But there was no one there. Just the little patch of grass Nalini had once sat on all those years ago, and no Nalini.
Shashi shook her head, feeling a little foolish. She continued towards the palace, trying to smooth down her hair and clothes a little before she came near. As she walked, there was just one thing Shashi couldn’t stop thinking about. Why had Nalini run?
It didn’t make any sense. What would make her run away like that? Shashi could think of nothing that would make Nalini do something so foolish. Would she?
That’s when she had another thought, one that was infinitely more frightening.
Was she kidnapped? Did someone kill Prakash and take her away? But why would they do that? No, that couldn’t be possible…
She stopped walking, her head dropping as she massaged her temples. So many questions. God damn it, there are so many things I don’t know!
Shashi grimaced under the unbearable weight of her own incomprehension. Tears welled in her eyes once more, but she fought them back. I can’t cry again, I won’t. I’m not weak. I’m not a child.
Hastily wiping her tears, Shashi glanced one final time at the lilac bush. Slowly she turned away, not because she wanted to, but because she had no choice.
I refuse to spend any more of my time moping like this. I must find my answers or…or I may never see her again.
Shashi left the gardens, following the path back to the palace.
The servants around the palace were visibly on edge, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The king had been in a constant, unrelenting fit of rage, and even the smallest mistakes were met with a barrage of profanity. Few people lingered around King Bhagiratha now, and those that did measured every breath they took, for there was no telling what could set him off.
All the guests had left the royal compound, nearly half of them following Neelkantha in his hunt. The king’s own search parties were already abroad, scouring the land for the missing princess. But Bhagiratha knew his position was precarious. Even the guests who swore their loyalty and alliance with him didn’t seem as forthcoming with it as he’d expected. But none of that mattered until they found Nalini.
As Shashi entered the palace, she spotted Tejasvi speaking to whom recognised as the treasurer’s assisstant. Tejasvi was the servants’ governess, and her word was the law among the palace workers. Seeing her speaking with the treasurer’s assistant so seriously piqued her curiosity. Making sure she wasn’t seen, Shashi approached the two of them, their conversation becoming gradually clearer as she went closer.
“How could the treasury refuse to pay?” Tejasvi said, trying to keep her voice low. “Navaneet, you have to understand, there was nothing we could do. I agree, we had a budget chalked out for the wedding, but the temporaries we hired stole from the palace. You remember the chaos here that day, don’t you? Each of them could easily have made off with a few silver candlesticks and gold frames, and there’s nothing we could have done. How can you ask us to pay for their thievery?”
Navaneet rolled his eyes, pursing his lips in exasperation. “Look, Tejasvi, I’d wish for nothing more than to empty the coffers onto your temporary hires and their numerous transgressions, but unfortunately, neither the treasurer, nor common sense will allow it. It was your responsibility to ensure the servants you hire behave as they’re meant to, and it’s my responsibility to make sure they get paid for it. They don’t behave well,” Navaneet shrugged nonchalantly, “they don’t get paid.”
“But you did pay them, you imbecile!” Tejasvi snapped.
Navaneet held up a finger as if in warning. “You can’t speak to me like that-“
“Oh, I can speak to you like that and I will. Do you know why? Because it’s my servants who clear your chamber pots every morning. It’s my servants who cook you your three square meals every single day, until, of course, you get married, which I sincerely hope you don’t afflict on some poor girl. And finally, it’s my servants who are the reason you’re living you life of comfort today instead of being made to scrub dishes in the kitchen in your spare time. So tell me, are you paying for all this, or do you want me to seek the king’s audience on this? I can guarantee you he hasn’t been in a very good mood these days.”
Navaneet looked up at Tejasvi, an expression of forced submission on his face. His lips quivered in outrage, but she knew she had him.
“Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll speak to the treasurer about this. But he won’t be ready to agree to this, I’m certain of it.”
“I don’t need him to be ready,” Tejasvi said, “I just need the money paid.” She spun around and walked away without a glance behind her.
It was then, just as Navaneet was leaving and she saw Tejasvi drawing closer, that a thought struck Shashi’s head like lightning. Without even stopping to think for a moment, she ran to Tejasvi’s side.
“Tejasvi, wasn’t it you collecting the thumbprints of all the temporary hires two days ago?” Shashi blurted.
The governess started, glaring at the young girl as she ran up to her.
“What did you say?” she said, genuinely confused.
“The night before the wedding, when…” Shashi lowered her voice, “when Nalini disappeared. Wasn’t it you who wrote down the names of every person who comes to serve as a temporary hire?”
Tejasvi’s eyes narrowed in bemusement. “Yes, I was there that night. Why do you ask?”
“What did you write their names and put their thumbprints on?” Shashi said more impatiently.
“There was a register, a great thick book. I always list their names there, but-“
“Please, Tejasvi, I need to take a look at that book. Right now. I have to!”
“Whatever for?” Tejasvi said, waving Shashi off with her hand. “I don’t have the time for this sort of nonsense, Shashi.”
“It could help us find Nalini.”
Tejasvi’s eyes widened as she swung her head toward Shashi.
“What was that? Find Nalini? How is that possible?”
“I don’t quite know myself. But please, Tejasvi, I need that book!”
Tejasvi frowned, but reluctantly nodded.
“It’s right over there,” she said, pointing to a table six paces away. “I brought it here to talk to Navaneeta about-“
Her eyes narrowed, and she turned to look at Shashi. “Wait, were you eavesdropping on me?”
“Tejasvi, please,” Shashi said, folding her hands together, “we don’t have the time for this, I need to see this book now.”
“All right, very well. Just give me a minute and I’ll open the right page.”
The governess went over to the table, opening up the book and leafing through the thick pages. She went faster and faster, skipping several pages, until she stopped.
“The names start here,” she said, gesturing to the open book.
“Thank you,” Shashi said, hurrying to it. Her eyes scanned the pages as quickly as they could, reading through the names, their thumbprints, the amounts paid to each one. She finished the first page, went to the second. Nothing. Turned to the third page, the fourth. Still nothing. Her eyes blazed through the letters and numbers, trying to see if she could find something, anything. Anything at all.
And then she stopped.
“Tejasvi,” she said slowly, her eyes not leaving the page she was looking at. “In all of the functions that have needed extra servants, temporary ones, I mean, have the people always collected their dues?”
Tejasvi folded her arms together, thinking for a moment. “Yes,” she concluded. “Every single one. You see the two thumbprints next to every name there? One’s for when they’re hired, and one’s for when they’re paid.”
“How do you know if they’re the same?” Shashi said.
“Well, it’s not perfect, but I have a few girls use this special glass that makes everything look larger than it is. They go through every set of prints and make sure they’re all genuine.”
Shashi didn’t reply immediately, completely absorbed in that one page of the book.
“Sounds like a lot of work,” she said absently, still not lifting her gaze from there.
Tejasvi shrugged. “These girls have a lot of free time. At least this way no one else gets to steal someone’s pay.” She craned her neck to see what Shashi was concentrating so hard on.
“Why? What do you see?”
Shashi moved aside for the governess to take a look at the page. She placed a finger against one of the thumbprints.
“You see this one?” she said. “There’s just the one thumbprint. You said no one ever misses their dues right?”
“Yes, of course,” Tejasvi said. “They’re poor, living on what little they can find. They would never just forget to take money they’re owed.”
“Exactly,” Shashi said. “And no one can steal someone else’s pay, can they?”
“Well, they can, I suppose, but it wouldn’t be that easy,” Tejasvi said. “Most of these people can’t even read. They wouldn’t take chances with cheating the royal treasury. Then again, nothing’s perfect, not even my methods.”
“So why does this name have only one thumbprint?” Shashi said.
Tejasvi looked at the lone thumbprint, the name and wage scribbled to the left of it. The governess ran her finger along the line, as if to be certain the name corresponded to the right thumbprint.
“That’s odd,” she said with a frown. “Kannika. Why didn’t she take her pay?”
“Perhaps,” Shashi slowly said, measuring every word before she said it, “she never waited. You paid these people the next day, didn’t you? Perhaps she left that very night. The same night Nalini disappeared.”
Tejasvi’s eyes widened. “Are you saying Nalini disguised herself as a servant-woman?”
“What?” Shashi said, incredulous. “No, of course not. No, I mean, what if she’s the one who…” She looked at Tejasvi, as if waiting for her to complete her sentence.
The governess watched Shashi for several seconds. “I really haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
Shashi sighed in frustration. “Fine,” she said. She softened her voice to a whisper. “I mean, what if this Kannika, if that’s even her name, was the one who kidnapped Nalini? What if Nalini didn’t even run away at all?”
Tejasvi’s gazed fixed on Shashi for a moment, and she could tell the older woman was mulling this over in her mind.
“But couldn’t this just be a coincidence?” she said finally. “Maybe something went wrong. There could be so many reasons why she couldn’t collect her dues.”
“And yet, in all these years, the first time a servant has been unable to take her wages from you is the night Nalini disappears and Prakash is murdered. Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?”
When she looked at Tejasvi, Shashi could see the scepticism in her eyes.
“Look, Tejasvi,” she said. “No one else has found any leads to where Nalini might be. It’s entirely possible what we’ve found is just as useless. But what if it isn’t? What if this is the only way we can find the princess and we ignore it because it seems like a coincidence? At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to find out more about this. For Nalini.”
Their eyes locked in place, Shashi not daring to break their contact. Whatever storm of emotions Tejasvi had inside of her she knew was nothing compared to the roiling, churning desperation she felt deep within the pit of her stomach.
I cannot stay idle. Not when Nalini’s out there somewhere. I…I have to find her. She’s the only one I have in this world.
“Very well,” she said. “We’ll find out more about this mysterious Kannika. I’ll help you in this. I don’t know who could have done this, or why but, God forbid, I just…” Tejasvi covered her eyes with her hand for a moment.
“I just hope she’s safe. I just hope they didn’t…hurt her.”
To be continued…