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Two gunshots rang out loud and clear. They ripped the air, and set wings and hearts aflutter.
Princess Chandramukhi had definitely taken after her grandmother. The rebel blood had skipped a generation. Her father, the staid king, His Highness Rajtilak Kulasreshtha, never quite understood the two most-loved women in his life.
His mother, the erstwhile queen Chandravati, had decided to go riding one frosty morning, when he was a little boy of seven, despite repeated protests by her husband (the mild-mannered King Praveer) and never returned. Whether their favourite Rani had died or eloped or met worse still fates, became the favourite stories of Vayupur's many generations. Some lanes tittered with gossip about how the Queen had left her now 'non-performing' husband for another man (possibly the Nawab of Mirajgarh), and was living a rather hedonistic life under an alibi. Some whispered how the Rani was depressed, and had ridden off the cliff, unable to bear the fetters of Vayupur's restricted life. While some other believed their Queen was possessed by evil powers and had vanished under a mysterious spell. The stories never really stopped, and Raja Praveer died soon after of loneliness and a broken heart for the love of a woman, who never really belonged to him.
The young Prince Rajtilak was initiated to bear the royal burdens at a tender age of 12, under his mentor, the royal commander, Purushottam. His young mind tried not to heed the stories, and he drowned himself in the royal duties. He had married young too, but never gave his heart to the beautiful Princess Latika. He couldn't have it broken again. But, the day he first set eyes on his beautiful little daughter, he knew his heart was his no more. He named the apple of his eye, after his beautiful mother, and called her Chandramukhi.
But the good King Rajtilak wondered, today, if naming his daughter after his mother had been a very good idea. She had inherited not just her legendary beauty, but also her legendary temper and impetuousness. He had raised her with as much care as deserving of a princess, and more. She was, after all, his heir apparent. He had no desire of a son, and had refrained from having any more children after Chandramukhi, for fear of loving her less. Queen Latika had only to quietly acquiesce.
There Chandramukhi was, practicing fencing, this frosty morning, quite like the one many, many years ago, with her favourite 'uncle', Purushottam. The royal commander was now retired from the army, but could never quite take leave of his sworn allegiance to the royal family. He was a grey, old man, but still an agile swordsman. He dodged Chandramukhi's attacks with ease, smiling at the efforts of his best student. The young princess was so much more fiercer than her father. 'She has so much more spirit... just like the Badi Rani, Chandravati', he couldn't help thinking, and lost a moment's focus. Chandramukhi swung her sword, and stopped it just short of her uncle's neck. King Rajtilak smiled from his balcony. He had seen this scene so very often. Purushottam always let her win. His daughter would now really 'fight' with him.
Chandramukhi knew that look in her 'Kaka's' eyes.
She dropped her sword and said, "I know, I know, I remind you of daadi. But kaka, can't you fight seriously with me?" she admonished him lovingly. "You say I fight well. Why won't you attack me? I'm a big girl now, kaka!"
Purushottam guffawed and said, "You sure are a big girl and an excellent warrior to the world. But to me, you're still my little princess. Now spare this old man," he said, and sat down under one of the many neem trees that lined the sugarcane farm. 'The yield has been good this year,' he observed and closed his eyes for a brief repose.
Chandramukhi rolled her eyes. She was tired of being mollycoddled by her elders. They all seemed to want to protect her from something. She knew it was her grandmother's shadow they didn't want her to colour, but she was beyond redemption. The little wooden chest in her room had many souvenirs of the Queen Chandravati's life, that she had collected from the palace over the years. Her favourite pastime was to stare at the regal painting in the palace hall, and coax old servants to tell her stories of her mysterious grandmother. Her father had often chastised her, when he found her chatting thus, but he knew not of the deep engravings in the little girl's heart.
But it was time. It was time.
The swish of the flying spear pierced the frost, and the pitiful bleating of the goat tore through the field. Purushottam awoke with a start, and clutched at his sword. He ran towards the direction of the sound, slashing through the thick crop. He stopped short of the dying animal, still bleating, bleeding, and released the animal of its torment with one swift blow to its neck. Something was amiss. The Raja heard the cries too, just as he was returning to his chamber. He turned around and ran to the balcony. No Purushottam! No Chandramukhi! He grabbed his sword from his room, and ran out in to the field.
Purushottam bent down, inspecting the spear. It had royal initials; quite unlike that of Vayupur. But he remembered the inscriptions from a few weeks ago at the Swarnarath festival. The vast red flags of Naagdwar had been one among the many at the festival of the gold chariot. Every year, neighbouring kingdoms participated in the chariot races. This year, the Prince of Naagdwar, Vikram, had won the tournament. Though Naagdwar was an enemy state, all were welcome to the tournament. The victorious Naagdwar flag had waved jubilantly, before Princess Chandramukhi's beautiful and sullen face. She had not taken the defeat very kindly... 'Princess Chandramukhi... where was she?' He looked frantically around. She was nowhere to be seen. 'Oh my dear God...' Purushottam's lips said a scared, silent prayer.
Raja Rajtilak had, by then, reached Purushottam.
"Where is my daughter?" he demanded, his face white with fear.
"She must be here somewhere, my king. But lie low. It could be an enemy attack. Look here, Naagdwar's symbol on this spear," Purushottam said in hushed tones. "Naagdwar? But..." the Raja was cut short, as a second spear came flying in their direction, and missed the king's head by a few inches. The spear struck the tree and got lodged in it; it had a red flag tied to it.
Chandramukhi had heard the spears too. Their ring was unmistakable. She ducked in a thicket, and held very still. She sucked in air with her mouth, afraid, her breathing would give her away. Beads of sweat appeared on her brow, as she sat and waited in anticipation. She only hoped her father and uncle would be safe. She prayed they would leave, as she clutched at her sword.
"My liege, I pray you go back to the palace. There could be danger. Send reinforcements for me. I shall try to find the princess till then," Purushottam said.
"I am not going anywhere without my daughter," the King said. "You go and send soldiers; I will find my daughter.
"But your Highness..." the old commander began in protest, but was cut short.
"Enough," Raja Rajtilak said, "you have my orders."
Purushottam bowed low and turned to leave, when two shots rang out loud and clear. Two gunshots rang out loud and clear. They ripped the air, and set wings and hearts aflutter.
Chandramukhi's body stiffened, and her knuckles grew white with clutching her sword. Suddenly, his hands grabbed at her waist, and turned her about to face him. "Vikram!" she exclaimed. "What's wrong with you? Why did you fire?" she barked at him.
"They were taking too long, my love. I couldn't wait," said Vikram, pulling her into his arms.
"Oh, I couldn't wait either," she said, half-laughing, half-crying.
Vikram pulled her down to do what he had come for. Chandramukhi's young body was a drug he had gotten addicted to, since after the day of the Swarnarath races. Their acrid competition had turned into a violent, passionate love. Since she hadn't a chance to go out alone in the last week, an impatient Prince Vikram had devised this desperate plan today. They would have enough time before anyone came looking for her. He had scared them away. Today, he would take her away for good. She was his.
The gunshots did not deter King Rajtilak. He was not going to lose his daughter. He walked towards the direction of the gunshot sounds. He walked up cautiously to the spot where the crop seemed to be disturbed. He peered through the plants, not to find enemies in wait, but a sight of two young bodies writhing in the throes of passion. He looked away in shame, and muffling a cry, turned around and started walking away. Tears streamed down his face, as he cried without restrain. He cried like that 7-year-old prince from years ago, who had seen his mother do the unthinkable, in a field like this. His heart ached with the burden of another secret he would have to carry forever. His heart broke once again.