Inside the servant quarters, dozens of girls sat around on their beds, some of them changing into their nightclothes, others playing games or gossiping. The great room was filled with voices all speaking at once, punctuated by high-pitched laughter. Oil lamps hung from the ceiling all around, suffusing the air with a dull orange glow that made it seem as though they were all seated around a great bonfire.
It looked like it would rain outside. Perfect. There was nothing better than watching the rain pour away outside while they sat in their big hall, huddled together, singing and dancing late into the night. Lalita had even managed to get Manja to fry a huge batch of hot bajjis for all of them! Everyone wondered how she’d managed that.
The door was flung open and all their heads turned in shock, the room falling completely silent. The soft light somehow made her face even more intimidating as she set foot inside the hall.
“I need your attention for a minute,” Tejasvi said, hands at her hips. With Tejasvi, even simple requests sounded like orders.
She moved aside and Shashi stepped inside. It was clear she hadn’t done much to make her hair or her clothes any more presentable. If Tejasvi hadn’t been there, they would have jeered at her for certain. They’d never much cared for Shashi or her closeness with the princess.
“Girls, there’s something very important I need to ask you,” she said with a little trepidation. Shashi felt extremely conscious then, wondering how foolish she must be looking, standing in front of all them, haggardly dressed, about to ask them a question even she almost knew would bring forth no answers. The fact that there were more than two dozen girls there and all of them were watching was not comforting, either.
“On the night the princess disappeared, did any of you notice anything different, anything strange? Anything at all. You saw the temporary recruits, didn’t you? Was anyone…behaving oddly? Skulking about, acting suspicious?”
“The temporaries?” one of the girls said, leaning back on her elbows atop her cot. “There were scores of them. We couldn’t possibly recognise any of them even if you were to show us their faces.”
“Is that what she asked?” Tejasvi said, stepping forward. “Anything strange, she said. No one’s asking you to identify them.”
“Girls, this is important,” Shashi said, her eyebrows furrowing. “It’s possible that someone kidnapped Nalini. We need to know if anyone saw something suspicious that night. We have nothing else to go on. None of the search parties has found anything, and we can only imagine what Neelkantha would do to her if he found her. And if she were kidnapped…”
Shashi felt Tejasvi’s hand clasp her shoulder, and she stopped speaking. She looked expectantly at the girls sitting around the hall. She wasn’t even sure what she wanted their answer to be. If they had seen this Kannika, and Nalini was at her mercy, how was it any better than her fate at the hands of Neelkantha? Neither prospect boded well for her.
But if Neelkantha did find her, he’d at least treat her humanely, wouldn’t he? After all, he doesn’t know if Nalini killed Prakash, so he couldn’t hurt her without the other kings objecting. He’d be forced to stay his hand, and when he realises she had nothing to do with , he’ll have to release her.
An impossibly soft, dread voice echoed from the back of her mind, a place she’d elected to steer clear of. Until now.
What if Nalini isn’t innocent? The girl you’ve called a friend all your life…what if she’s the killer?
But she’d have had to have a reason for it! She wouldn’t have killed him in cold blood!
Does that make it better? For her, for anyone?
The only reason she could have had is self-defence. Against what? The strip of cloth from Nalini’s saree dangled before her eyes. The hairs on the back of Shashi’s neck stood on end. This wasn’t the first time she’d thought of that, but she’d never considered the magnitude of the situation. Her heart plunged.
“Shashi…Shashi…” came a distant voice, and she felt her shoulders being shaken.
“Hmm?” she said absently, turning to find her face inches from Tejasvi’s.
“Shashi, what’s gotten into you?” she said. “Why did you freeze like that?”
Still a little disoriented, Shashi shook her head, frowning as it took her a few seconds to regain her focus.
“I did what?” she blurted.
“Come with me, foolish girl,” Tejasvi muttered under her breath as she pulled her by the arm outside. They were followed outside by hushed laughter until the governess slammed the door shut. She grabbed Shashi by the shoulders, forcing their eyes to meet.
“What happened to you in there?” she said, genuine concern in her eyes. “You were frozen like a statue. For several seconds. Shashi, I need to know if you can handle what we’re doing here. You’re too…close to all this.”
Shashi shook her head in disbelief. “Tejasvi, I don’t know what happened, I’m so sorry. But I can’t stop because this causes me pain. I have to find out what happened. I have to find her.Nalini means too much to me.”
The governess stood straighter, full of pity for the distraught young woman before her.
“Maybe that’s the problem.”
Shashi shook her head stubbornly. “I don’t care anymore. You can come with me if you like, but I’m going.” She met her eyes and Tejasvi saw the unshakeable resolve in them. And there was anger there as well. Boiling, frothing anger that her narrow, dainty frame seemed incapable of carrying.
“I won’t stop, Tejasvi. I don’t care what people say. You know why? Because they never do anything. They talk, all of them. They feign concern, they hug me, they hold my hand, and they think that helps? I may be a lowly handmaiden, but I have no delusions. People will continue to do nothing, and then what? Nalini dies. Or worse. Those girls in there,” she said, pointing to the door. “They’re apathetic, hedonistic, and they are of no use to me. To anyone, for that matter. Let them giggle and laugh and spend their days doing what they’ve always been doing. I’m sick of this false sympathy.”
She whipped around, her braid swinging behind her as she stormed off towards the palace. For a few moments, Tejasvi watched her walk away. A small smile cracked her lips. And then she set off down the path, following the handmaiden wherever she was going to lead her.
Starting from the palace guards by the feasting pavilion, Shashi and Tejasvi asked everyone they met, every servant, guardsman, soldier, gardener, artisan, priest, teacher, stableboy and cleaner. The palace complex was abuzz with activity now, in no small part because of the king’s foul mood, and there were scores of people busy at work or just pretending to be so they didn’t have to go near Bhagiratha. Shashi flitted from one person to the next like a bee in search of a flower she just couldn’t seem to find. She had to calm herself every time she met someone new, for they asked her for an explanation, and she’d already said the same thing half a hundred times before. Tejasvi did her share of the talking as well, but Shashi found her patience wearing thin with every minute she spent speaking with people.
The sky had begun to darken, threatening rain even as servant women walked down the paths, lighting oil lamps hanging from tall iron posts. As she got farther away from the lawns surrounding the main palace, from the distance the grass seemed to have meandering ropes of pale yellow lights like a line of glow worms crawling across the lawn.
Even as her feet begged for her to stop, she forged on, walking through the corridors attached to the palace walls. One of the queen’s personal attendants was walking towards them. Shashi picked up her pace, not hearing Tejasvi groan behind her.
“My lady!” Shashi called. She knew the queen’s haughty attendants wouldn’t so much as look at her if she showed her no respect, and so she forced herself to mask her quivering frustration in her fraying, threadbare cloak of patience.
“My lady, just a moment. Please!”
The woman barely slowed, deigning just to cast a momentary glance her way. “What do you want, girl? I have places to be.”
“I won’t tarry you long. It’s about the princess. I have but one question!”
The attendant sighed as Shashi stopped before her, scrunching her face up in exasperation. “One question and no more. Understand?”
“Without doubt, my lady,” Shashi said, nodding her head vigorously. “The night princess Nalini disappeared – did you see anything suspicious? Specifically, was there anyone, maybe a woman, who was behaving strangely that night? Someone who went to the guests’ apartments?”
The woman’s expression was incredulous. “You stopped me for an urgent question, just to ask me that?” She looked up at the governess. “Tejasvi, who is this girl? What are you doing letting her roam around the palace, asking people inane questions like a madwoman? I hope to god she’s not one of yours.”
There was a sharp sound like a crack, and the attendant’s head whipped to the right. She put a hand to her cheek, covering the spot where her skin was slowly turning hot red, burning like a brand. She slowly turned her face to look at Shashi, eyes wide with disbelief, outrage.
Yes, maybe I ama madwoman!” Shashi screamed. “Maybe I am insane and asking people questions that make no sense! But I’m the only one who seems to care around here! What are you doing about it, woman? You strut around like you own the damn palace, but where is it you’ve got to go? Huh? What’s more important than getting Nalini back, god damn it! What do you-“
She was pulled sharply aside, both her arms encircled by strong fists she couldn’t break loose from.
“Now you’ve really gone mad, Shashi!” Tejasvi said, not bothering to lower her voice. Her nose flared as she glowered at the girl. “Come with me!”
“No!” Shashi said, trying to force her wrist out of her vise grip, but to no avail. “Leave me be, Tejasvi! Why are you-“
“Because you just went too far, Shashi!”
She shouted so loudly that the girl was startled into silence. Tejasvi turned to the attendant, who was seething now, her pride marred by the red bruise on her cheek.
“Roop, I’m deeply sorry for what she just did,” Tejasvi said. “I don’t know what got into her. I’d never have allowed it-“
“Have that little bitch thrown in a cell, Tejasvi! Have her flogged! I swear to you, if I see her face ever again the queen will hear about this.” Roopa took two steps towards the governess, leaning towards her. Her eyes narrowed malevolently. “And the queen doesn’t appreciate it when her women are slighted. So don’t push your luck with this. You’re not the indispensable one here.”
She swung around and stalked off.
Shashi struggled against Tejasvi again.
“Let me go!” she protested, gritting her teeth, but she wasn’t nearly strong enough.
“Come with me, foolish girl,” the governess said, yanking her arm as she pulled her along. Shashi realised there was no point fighting her, and protesting anymore might even get her beaten.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked indignantly. “To the cells? Are you going to flog me?”
“You are tired, you are losing your mind, and you need to rest,” Tejasvi said. “But first, you’re going to eat.”
Tejasvi and Shashi sat to one side in the kitchen, hungrily scooping rice into their mouths as though they hadn’t eaten in days.
“You’ve got some appetite, girl,” Revathi said, sitting cross-legged before the two of them. “I couldn’t eat half that much when I was your age.”
“After the day we’ve had,” Shashi said between mouthfuls, “I could eat an elephant whole. And then some.”
“Well, you’re lucky we had any food left here. We’re cleaned up all the way through on most days.”
“It’s delicious, Revathi,” Tejasvi said. “Couldn’t have asked for a better meal.”
“Why come here so late, though?” Revathi said. “What were the two of you doing all this time?”
Shashi sighed, and for the first time that day, Tejasvi saw the exhaustion in her eyes. Her forehead was wrinkled like she’d aged five years in five hours, and her shoulders slumped as if from bearing a burden too great for her small frame. She couldn’t bear to have to explain it one more. The governess’ expression of worry softened. There was far more than the day’s weariness that weighed on her mind. Which was worse, she did not know.
“We’ve been trying to find clues,” Tejasvi said, turning to Revathi.
“Clues?” the cook frowned. “About what?”
Tejasvi recounted the day’s events, telling her their hunch about this mysterious woman Kannika and her connection to Nalini’s disappearance. At this point, even Shashi didn’t bother asking her if she knew anything about any of it.
“A temporary hire, you say?” Revathi said, nodding as if in deep thought. “Well, there was this strange woman…”
“Wait,” Tejasvi said, startling the cook, “do you know anything about this woman? What did she do? Where did she go?”
Revathi shook her head, holding up her hands to slow Tejasvi down. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she said. “But there was this servant woman I knew was a temporary. She came much later than the rest did and we gave her a plate full of roast vegetables to serve the guests. I didn’t see her after that. She never came back.”
“Why do you remember her especially, though?” Shashi said. She’d stopped chewing her food.
“What do you mean?” Revathi said, as if the answer were obvious. “She was carrying a silver plate, girl. A heavy solid silver platter you could almost sit on. That’s no ordinary steel we serve our more royal guests with, especially not with that sort of handiwork. Only one silversmith in the whole kingdom does work so fine, didn’t you know that?”
“And she disappeared with it?” Shashi said.
“So we all thought. When she didn’t show up for a long time, Manja and I smelled something and had two guards search the area for it. They found it much later in the night, behind some bushes. It was smart of her not to steal it. The king’s men would have found her in days.”
Tejasvi and Shashi looked at each other, dazed from what they just heard.
“You’re sure about this woman?” Tejasvi said, speaking faster. “You’re certain you didn’t see her return?”
“No, I’m certain,” Revathi said. She looked a little unsettled by the sudden interest they were showing in what she was saying. “We would have asked her about the platter, wouldn’t we?”
“And did you see where she went after that? Do you have any idea at all?”
“No, but hold on, let me ask Manja if he knows anything about her.”
Revathi called out to Manja who appeared from around the corner, a questioning look on his face.
“Manja, you remember that temporary who we thought had stolen the silver platter? The one we found behind some bushes?”
Thinking for a moment, he nodded his head. “Yes, the woman we never found. What about her?”
Revathi gestured towards her guests. “These two were just asking me. Do you know anything else about her? Where did she even go that day?”
Manja shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Why, did she steal something else?”
“We think she might have kidnapped Nalini,” Shashi said. The room fell utterly silent.
Manja looked at her, wide-eyed, his face the picture of disbelief. “What are you saying?” he whispered.
“I can’t think of a reason why Nalini would run away from her family without telling anyone,” Shashi said, straightening. There was an implacable stubbornness in her eyes. “Without telling me. Whatever happened, whatever Prakash may have done to her, she wouldn’t have stayed silent about it, and she definitely would not have run. And I could never, ever, in a thousand ages, believe she was capable of murdering him. And for what? Not wanting to marry him?” She shook her head. “No, Nalini’s not insane.”
She pushed herself off the mat, standing up as she faced them. “That leaves only one possibility. Someone must have taken her.”
Silence followed her words once more. They looked at Tejasvi, hoping she would tell them that it’s all nonsense, that this little girl was just a fanciful fool who wasn’t in her senses. But Tejasvi only nodded gravely. Moving aside to wash her hands, Shashi stood in front of the cooks once more. Manja was massaging his temple with two fingers, ruminating with eyes that spoke the turmoil raging in his head.
“If what you’re saying is true…” he said under his breath, “then the woman who kidnapped the princess and murdered Prakash…she came into my kitchens. She took the food I cooked from my own hands. Under my own nose…”
“Don’t blame yourself, Manja,” Tejasvi said. “You couldn’t possibly have known. But that doesn’t matter now. We could all just sit around here, anxiously wondering what could have happened, or we can go and do something.”
“Do what?” Revathi said. “What can we do? Besides, we have our responsibilities at the palace, Tejasvi.”
“I don’t mean we actually go out in search of the princess,” Shashi said. She went closer to them, lowering herself onto her knees, looking at them both with pleading eyes. “But we have to tell the king. He needs to know about this. We’d all of us considered a kidnapping, but until now we had nothing to suggest anything of the sort. Now we have something. I know there are still many unanswered questions, and I know we still have too little information to go on, but it will be worth less than nothing if we don’t tell the king. He needs to know. He’ll think of something.”
Revathi and Manja didn’t look won over. They alternated between looking at her and exchanging doubtful glances.
“The king…” Manja said weakly, “he’s been impossible to talk to these last two days. He’ll surely not listen to us, and even if he does…” He wrung his hands in apprehension.
“Nalini’s life is on the line here,” Shashi said softly. “What if we could save her? Won’t that be worth facing the king’s anger?”
Finally, Revathi sighed, scrunching her face up in distaste. “All right. Fine. We’ll come with you.” She threw up her hands in helplessness. “Let’s speak with the king.”
To be continued…
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