Twelfth Century, somewhere in Northern India…….
The forest resounded with bird calls, interspersed by the sound of a deer or the chattering of a simian. The clear waters of the pool shone in the golden light of the sun. The tall evergreens dappled the ground with a play of light and shadow. The figure which rose from the pool, her sheer chemise plastered to her perfect form, could easily have been mistaken for a water nymph. Her amber skin glowed with the sunlight reflected on the water droplets sticking to her sinuous body. The huge doe like eyes were downcast at the moment, as she wrung the last drops of water from her mass of dark tresses, which tumbled over her back, reaching the slightly flared hips. She flicked her hair over the shoulder, and raised her gaze, her lotus petal lips parting in dismay, as they fell on the horse rider watching her from among some trees.
Lightening quick, she picked up her clothes, holding them to her breast, her cheeks heating up with delicate color. As she looked around for a suitable place to dress in privacy, the rider continued to stare at her, his gaze taking in every detail of her appearance. “You are insolent, traveler….” she called out to him. “Lower your gaze and leave…..” she ordered, measuring the distance to the clearing where her horse was tied to the trunk of a sturdy acacia. The stranger, disregarding her words, dismounted from his steed, and advanced towards her. Reaching her with long, purposeful strides, he stood before her, arms akimbo.
“Beautiful…..” he whispered, before tucking a stray curl behind her ear.
She caught hold of his hand, as it inched towards her face again. “Do you wish to lose your head?” her eyes sparked fire. He laughed at that, his lips rising at the corners, in mockery.
“Definitely worth it,” he taunted, before drawing her against his chest with a jerk. She was unprepared for it, and the clothes fell from her fingers, as a trembling started deep inside her at the nearness to the stranger. Up close, he was tall and intimidating, his sharp classical features lending him a regal look, although the hooked nose and the hard line of the lips indicated a steely nature. A scar ran from one brow into his hairline, making him look fierce. His midnight dark hair was tied back in the current style, but she couldn’t care much, how dashing he looked. She struggled in his grasp, using all her might to push him away, but he held strong, running a finger down her arms which grew goosebumps at the action. The next moment, he dipped his head and brushed her lips with his. She felt the world tilt, at that feather like touch, her heart pounding and the blood singing in her veins. Nothing in her seventeen years had prepared her for this experience, this meeting of lips, that too with a stranger.
“Goodbye Princess,” the handsome rider whispered, letting go of her before mounting his black stallion and disappearing among the trees, leaving her spluttering with rage. From now on she would do better to bring her guard with her, rather than escaping alone from the palace. She continued staring after him for long, before dressing up hastily and guiding her own bay mare back to the palace. All the while, her mind dwelt on the mysterious man in the woods. Who was he? By his regal bearing he did not appear to be an ordinary soldier. Anyway, no soldier would have dared to do what he had done, she mused, coloring again. He had known too, who she was. Had he sought her out? The questions crowded her mind, but they would have to wait. She was almost home, and her father had summoned her at noon.
Walking into her chamber, she called for her maid. “Lalita….” she shouted, still agitated at the events in the woods.
“My lady,” Lalita came running, her veil slipping from her head in her hurry. “You have to be quick. Your father hates being kept waiting.” She nodded, knowing that however much her father might love her, he would not tolerate tardiness. It must be something important for him to have summoned her to the audience hall.
Lalita slipped off the riding gear from her shoulders, handing her a more traditional dress of ghaghra and choli, a long skirt with a fitted bodice, then draped a veil over her head, pulling it down enough to cover her mistress’ face. The clothes, embellished with the colorful local embroidery of silken threads, and glass beads, shimmered as she moved. The whole attire was paired with jewelry of beaten gold set with precious stones. It was, after all, not everyday that one was asked to present herself to the king at the audience hall which was used to hold meetings or receive important guests.
As she walked sedately, followed by her guard, her heart pounded with foreboding. What had happened that her father needed to see her formally? He was in the habit of visiting her in her chambers, just to ask her well being, specially since her mother passed away two springs ago. Since then, her father had taken extra care of her, his only offspring. She was sure it was something momentous for which he had asked her presence at this hour.
The carved doors of the audience hall were opened by the liveried guards as she approached. The sentry announced her presence once she stepped inside. Her father was pacing the hall, his demeanor agitated. He stopped abruptly as his gaze landed on her. He was a man of medium height, stocky and well built. His countenance somewhat resembled his daughter’s, though he sported a handsome pair of mustaches, a sign of his warrior heritage. At this instant, his brow was furrowed, and worry was evident in his eyes. Priyadarshini curtsied, then stood in front of him, her heart thudding with the suspense of it all.