I open the palace doors and hold my breath. Udaigarh was stunning; the sun was already up, illuminating the whole kingdom. "Are you sure about this, khanom?" One of the servant girls ask. "How many times do I have to tell you not to call me khanom?" Khanom meant 'lady' which served as a means of respect. "My lady, you are the heir to the throne! Future Queen!" Another servant girl pipes up. "Call me Maya, please, girls." I walk down the steps as quick as possible. The training would have already begun.
Even this early in the morning, people were wandering about doing their business. "Sobh be kheyr, shaahdokht!" People greeted me. "Good morning!" I reply, hurriedly making my way to the stadium. Everyone referred to me as princess. Not one person in the Kingdom addressed me by my name. I had to constantly remind them that I didn't expect them to praise me. I wanted to be treated normally. I pass through the narrow dirt paths of the town. Everyone was close-knit and knew each other well. I would give anything for my kingdom and the people that inhabited it. "Shaahdokht! Maya!" I hear a man call. I put a face to the voice and nearly freeze in my tracks. I didn't want him to catch up to me. "Maya!" Raghav calls out again. Raghav was my suitor, meaning he was betrothed to me. He also happened to be my second cousin. I try to ignore him and continue down the path. "Shaahdokht, I've been meaning to talk to you," A woman says to me. "Netra, I would love to help- but I have to go to training!" I say to her. "Will you be free after the training, khanom?" Netra asks. "Definitely." I turn into an alleyway and take the shortcut to the stadium. The stadium was very spacious and almost always in use. About three times a month there were competitions- between anyone who wanted to duel, in the stadium. Seats around the pit were plentiful and usually full of spectators for the competitions. Dheeraj almost always participated in these duels and remained unconquered. When I reach my destination, I turn around to find that Raghav is not on my tail. I sigh with relief. If there was one thing I did not like, it would have to be Raghav's constant pestering.
"Khanom, I didn't think you'd make it," Dheeraj greets me. "I told you to expect me for all the sessions." "Can't blame her for loving the warrior life," One of the young warriors says. "I have never seen you around- who are you?" I ask him. "Pravit Chuturvedi, nice to meet you, khanom," He introduces himself. By this point Dheeraj had made his way to the end of the stadium. "Are you related to Dheeraj?" I ask the boy, quietly. Pravit looks at Dheeraj with a smirk, "Dheeraj is my older brother." "Oh right- I remember now," I say, examining Dheeraj. He was everything a man should be: confident, beautiful, funny, smart, and dreamy. "I live with my grandmother. Dheeraj thinks I'm too young to be at training, but recently he seems more willing." Pravit looked a lot like his older brother what with the same silky black hair and dark eyes.
Half way into training, just as I was learning how to shoot a bow and arrow properly, a man came running in. He looked tired and scared beyond words. "What is it?" I heard Dheeraj ask him. "T-the Muslims are going to attack!" He announced. "Where did you hear this?" Dheeraj asks, with a sense of urgency in his voice. "One of our men from the Sunnigardh kingdom told me. Naqueeb has his eyes set on Udaigarh," The man says, with deep sorrow in his voice. "When are they going to attack?" "A few days, at most… Dheeraj, you need to train as many warriors as you can. We have to be ready for them!" The man says. "Did you tell the King?"
"I have yet to see His Highness."
"Go speak to him," Dheeraj orders. The man nods and runs out of the stadium.
Dheeraj takes the sword from me. By now, all the warriors had retired to their houses. "What time does training start tomorrow?" I ask, trying to find any excuse to stay with him. "I don't think you should waste your time at these sessions," He tells me. I start to grow angry, "Why not?" "You heard what Hari said earlier! An attack is going to happen. I don't want you to be foolish and get hurt," Dheeraj says. "If I train well enough, I won't get hurt," I point out. "This is no joke, Maya," Dheeraj says, seriously. I was taken aback for a second; he had never called me by my name. "Do you think it's a joke that my mother died, ten years ago? I don't want to be like her. I want to train to protect my people. I am not going to sit back and let you do all the work." He stares back at me with a hard gaze. He looks frustrated but I can see awe and admiration, in his eyes, as well. "So nothing I say will convince you?" "Nothing," I reply. He grabs my wrist and pulls me towards him, placing a sword by my neck. This was highly unacceptable and he was taking a very big risk by doing this. If anyone saw what was going on, they would surely report to my father and Dheeraj would be banished from Udaigarh. "I don't want you to get hurt," He says, from behind me. "I have a good teacher. I won't get hurt," I assure him. "How would you get out of a situation like this?" I use my other hand to grab his arm and pull out of his grasp. I twist his arm and swiftly take the sword out of his hand. "Like so," I reply, holding onto his hand for a while longer. He turns to look at me and touches the side of my face, ever so gently. Just when I think he is going to lean in and kiss me, he says, "It's getting late. You should go back to the palace." "I-" I start. He puts a finger to my lips, "I'll see you here tomorrow morning at five."
Raghav ambushed me as soon as I stepped out of the stadium area. "What was going on over there?" He asks. "Training." "Maya, you should stop with the training. It does you no good." "How would you know, Raghav?" I ask, walking down the sandy path. "You are not going to fight the Muslims! You are going to be my Queen soon- so you better start acting like it!" He shouts. "Don't you dare use that tone with me." He seems startled by my response. Women did not talk back to men; it was an unspoken rule which I found stupid and wrong. "What does your father say about this? Does he know you're spending after hours with that good-for-nothing warrior?" "Dheeraj is an amazing warrior. You have no right to say anything about him." "I am your husband!" Raghav counters. "You are not my husband, Raghav. I am not married to you. I do not have to listen to you!" I say, stopping in front of a house. He grabs my shoulder and turns me towards him. "Look Maya, you are spending way too much time with that stupid soldier. He doesn't know anything…" "Netra?" I call, ignoring Raghav. I knock on the wooden door and wait for Netra to show up. "I don't want you to go to these sessions. I don't want you to see him." "I don't need to listen to you!" I spit. "Shaahdohkt? Is that you?" I hear Netra ask. "You wanted to talk to me?" "Maya-" "Raghav, leave me alone. I'm busy!" I say, making my way towards Netra.
The usual clutter of servants was absent. I walk down the maze-like hallways of the palace and find myself in the atrium. My father's advisor sat on the floor in front of me with his eyes closed. It looked as if he was meditating or chanting a prayer of some sort. "My child, come here," He called. "What is it, Oha Nirvan?" I ask him. I always found it astonishing that his name was Oha Nirvan which literally translated to 'true knowledge and bliss'. "Are you aware that an attack is about to take place?" He asks, calmly. "Baleh, I am aware," I tell him. Yes. "Your father is concerned about your adamant tendencies. Why do you insist on fighting alongside the warriors?" "They are here to serve us and protect our kingdom, are they not?" I ask Oha Nirvan. "Baleh," Yes, he says. "Isn't it also my duty to protect the kingdom? Is it not my responsibility to go to any extent to guard my people?" "But Maya, you are merely a-" He starts. "No Oha Nirvan, not you out of all people. I know I am a girl, but I know I am capable of much more than our people believe. I am not weak like my mother!" I say to him. "Offer some prayers to Lord Bhairava," Oha Nirvan tells me. I pick up some flowers and mumble a small prayer under my breath. I throw the flowers at the dark statue of Lord Bhairava. "May God bless you, my dear," Oha Nirvan touches my head.
The army was undergoing some extremely difficult training. Dheeraj looks too concentrated to bother with me. I stand in the sidelines, mastering the moves by myself. After about an hour of non-stop sword fighting with the air, I feel a hand on my shoulder. "Take a break," I heard Dheeraj's cool, soothing voice say. "Am I doing it right?" I ask. "I think you're doing much better than some of the guys here," He says with a smile. Dheeraj rarely smiled and when he did, he lit up the world. I was dying to know if he felt the same way I felt about him. I started noticing him when he took up the 'Head of Warriors' role, five years before. In the beginning, he did not have the time of day for me. He went about his business while I stalked him, helplessly. I did not express my feelings to anyone, in fear of what my father would say. "You've been working really hard- I think you should take a break. Come back in an hour," Dheeraj tells me, his hand still on my shoulder. I look up and find Raghav staring down at the both of us. "Will I be missing out on anything?" I ask, turning my attention back to Dheeraj. "Nothing, I assure you." "Okay. I'll be back," I tell him. I back out of the stadium. "I'll be expecting you," He calls after me.
As I had anticipated, Raghav was speaking to my father. I stand by the door and eavesdrop on the conversation. "Shaah, I don't think it is right!" I hear Raghav say with his nasal voice. "I am quite apprehensive about the fact that she is taking up this intensive training. It worries me, Raghav," My father's booming voice replies. "What worries me more is the amount of time she is spending with Dheeraj!" "She is just training. You do not have to worry about Dheeraj!" "He has the name of Bravest Man in Udaigarh and you hold the utmost respect for him- but little do you know that he is scheming to trap Maya!" "Raghav, my boy, you don't need to get worked up over this. Dheeraj does not possess such ideas! He knows his place." "He is crossing the limits, Shaah!" "How so?" Father asks, with amusement in his voice. I peek in to take a look. Father was sitting on his throne while Raghav stood on the podium, pacing. "I do not wish to go into detail, agha," Raghav says, calling my father 'sir'. "Would you like me to speak to Dheeraj? Would that lighten your mood?" Father asks. "Baleh! Finally you are thinking as a normal father should think!" "Raghav, do not tell me how to raise my daughter!" "I am not, Shaah. I am simply stating the obvious." "I think that is enough, Raghav. Please leave me alone." "As you wish, agha," Raghav replies. I quickly run into my own room and shut the door.
A few minutes later, I find myself standing in front of my father. "Why are you not training?" He asks, surprised. "I was told I could take a break." "Maya, listen to me… why don't you take a full break from this whole thing? You do not need to train. I am not going to let you fight in any war," He says to me. "You cannot hold me back, Father!" "I am not willing to lose you." "I want to protect our people, padar! I will fight as much as I can." "I lost my wife… I can't afford to lose my daughter as well," He says. "I am not weak! I am not going to sit around and watch everyone around me die! I am training to protect my Kingdom." "Stories are circulating about you and Dheeraj," He says. "Padar!" I say. Father! "I did not say I believe it, my dear." I turn around to make sure that the door is closed. I did not want anyone hearing this. "I do not want to marry Raghav." "You are betrothed to him, Maya." "I was betrothed to him when I was born, Father. You wanted to continue the 'royal blood line'. But I do not like him! He is not who you think he is." "Maya, Raghav is my only cousin's son. I promised her that her son would become your husband and I am not letting my word go in vain." "She is dead, father. His father is also dead. All Raghav wants now is power. He does not respect us and he treats me wrong. I refuse to get married to someone like that!" "I think you have to get to know him." "He behaves wrongly with me, padar! Do you not understand?" I ask. "Everyone has their faults. He is just excited to get married to you." "He is going to overthrow us when he gets married to me," I tell my father. "That is enough, Maya." "I will not get married to him. I do not want to get married." "You are twenty years old, Maya. You are going to get married to Raghav in less than a year. I do not want to get into another argument with you… please leave," He says. "It will not happen!" I shout, before making my way out of his room.
I was feeling very depressed after the conversation with my father. He was not open to me marrying outside the blood line. I did not put my full effort in the training. I did not focus and found myself thinking about all the misfortune that would come about if I did marry Raghav. I knew for a fact that Raghav would never fully love me. I heard he slept around with some of the teenage girls in the kingdom. He treated women like dirt and all he wanted from me was power. He was evil and I knew it. "Chi shod?" What's wrong? Dheeraj asked me. I looked around my surroundings and found that it was dark and that the army was departing. "Hich chi," I replied quickly. Nothing. He gently took my arm and led me to a seat. Touching the Princess was not acceptable in any way. Why was he taking this unnecessary risk? "You usually have a beautiful smile on your face, Maya. Something is clearly wrong," He says. "My father insists I get married to Raghav," I whisper. I did not want anyone to overhear. "You are betrothed to him, are you not?" Dheeraj asks. "Yes, but that does not mean I want to marry him! I despise him!" "Why, my lady?" "Dheeraj… I- I'm in love with someone else," I say to him. He looks almost shocked, "Have you spoken to your padar about this?" "He does not know that I am in love with another man. He does not hold the blood line which means Father may not allow it." "Wh-who is this mystery man?" Dheeraj asks. I find Raghav patrolling the streets. He is seconds away from finding us. "I'll tell you later!" I say, jumping up. "Wait Maya," Dheeraj says, grabbing my hand. My heart nearly skips a beat. "I have to go, Dheeraj. Lotfan. Please!" I reluctantly pull away from him and run out of the stadium.
Raghav grabs my arm. "Where have you been?" He snarls. "Stay away from me!" I hiss. "You are my wife." "Have you been drinking? You dirty-" I start. He pushes me, "How dare you speak to me in that manner? You have no right!" He shouts. We were in the safety of my room. No one can hear us in here. "You have no right to be in my bedroom!" I shout back. "Maya, Maya, Maya, you keep forgetting that you are mine." He puts his hands on my shoulders. "I am not an object! I am not your wife and I never will be!" I hiss. "I love how aggressive you are- makes me want you even more." "You are disgusting." "Get used to it." "I wish my father could see this side of you," I say, trying to pull out of his grasp. "He is an idiotic man in power. He does not know what is good and what is bad. He needs constant help from you and that ancient Oha Nirvan. Now if I was king-" He smiles a crooked, evil smile. "You will never be king, Raghav. I won't give you that satisfaction." "You cannot do anything to stop me!" "I will do anything and everything to stop you," I counter. "Come with me," He says, grabbing my wrist. "Where are you taking me?" I ask, pulling away. "I can't resist any longer." "Leave me alone!" I shout. "No one can hear you, Maya. You are mine!" He snarls. Suddenly the double doors open and Dheeraj appears. "Get your hands off her!" He warns. "Why are you in the palace, you dog? You are not supposed to be in the Princess' room at this time of night!" Raghav shouts, advancing on Dheeraj. "I could say the same to you, sir. You are not allowed in here." "I guess you were invited, then?" "I am here to serve and protect. My duty is to protect the Princess, Maya. I need you to get out of here." "You don't tell me to do anything!" Raghav shouts. "Do you prefer to leave by yourself or by force?" Dheeraj asks. Raghav stares at Dheeraj with deep loathing. "I will get back at you!" He warns, before clumsily walking out of the room. "Thank you so much, Dheeraj," I say to him. "Anything for my- I mean, Princess," He stutters, walking away. "Wait," I call after him. He turns around, "Get some rest. We have a long day ahead of us, tomorrow." "Will you accompany me to my mother's tomb, in three days?" "You will have much protection. No need to worry," He replies. "I want you to be there, Dheeraj." He looks at me with a curious expression. "As you wish, khanom," He says. "Can we talk tomorrow?" "Get some rest!" He replies, shutting the double doors.
I sat on the podium and watched over the hundreds of people present for the meeting. "As you all may or may not know, we are in terrible danger. The Muslims from the neighbouring kingdom, Sunnigardh, are planning to invade Udaigarh. We have survived numerous attacks and wars from before and I assure you this will be no different. At this time I would like to call on Dheeraj Chaturvedi, noted as the bravest man in all of Udaigarh," Father announces. Dheeraj makes his way to the podium and greets everyone. "The warriors have been going through vicious training and we are getting ready for the Muslims to attack. We do not know when they will make their move, but we have to be prepared. It is safe to guess that their first destination will be the palace. In the midst of the attack, please stay away from the war zone," He pauses and looks at me, "we will be victorious!" Everyone roars with cheers and approval. I survey the crowd and find that Raghav is nowhere to be seen. This was a mandatory meeting and one of the members of the royal family wasn't present. I found this quite surprising and made a mental note to ask my father.
Before heading off to the stadium that afternoon, I paid a visit to my dear father. "Have you changed your mind after the meeting?" He asks. "No, I have not. I just wanted to talk to you about something…" "I wanted to talk to you as well, Maya." "About what, padar?" I ask him. "I spoke to Dheeraj this morning." "What did you talk to him about?" "We spoke about you. I asked him whether he thought you joining forces with the army was a good idea. I also spoke to him about your relationship," Father says, painting a picture. He always had an interest in painting but after Mother died, he spent almost all his alone time painting picture after picture of her. "What did he say?" I ask, gulping. "Dheeraj thinks you are a great asset. He said at first he was apprehensive and didn't know whether it was for the best. Over time, he claims, you proved to him that you are capable of anything you put your mind to. He thinks you would truly be great a help because he has seen you train… but he also said he was worried about your safety." I stand there shocked, in silence. I hadn't expected Dheeraj to support my interest in fighting alongside the army. "When he expressed his concern… I asked him whether he looked at you more than just a… trainee," Father says to me. "Why would you do that?" I ask. "I wanted to know, my dear." I stare at my father's back, waiting for him to continue. "He told me he respected you and that he was only concerned for your safety. He told me he knew you were betrothed to Raghav and that he would support whatever decision we decided to make." "How would you feel if he wanted to get married to me?" "He is respectable and I knew his father. Your mother wasn't part of the royal bloodline herself. If you two wanted to get married, I would have no objection. But I made a promise to my cousin, all those years ago. You are betrothed to Raghav." My heart skips a beat. My father would be okay with me getting married to Dheeraj! "Did you speak to Raghav after you spoke to Dheeraj?" I ask him. "Yes- he didn't take it lightly. He was enraged and left the room in a hurried frenzy. I don't know where he went." "He wasn't present at the meeting," I point out. Father turns around for the first time since I had stepped into the room. "I noticed, my dear. I just hope he doesn't get himself into any trouble. He has gotten himself into problems, in the past." "Where do you suppose he went?" I ask. "Someone told me he took his horse and left the grounds. I do not know where he went. I am sure he will be back. I am guessing he wants some time alone. Now, you run along." "Okay father."
Dheeraj was galloping around on his horse. The other warriors were training on the other side of the stadium. "That was a good speech," I say to Dheeraj. He stops his horse, Kajal, and jumps down. "Thank you, Shaahdohkt," He says. "My father said you spoke to him?" "He is concerned about the training." "He told me you have no problem with me being part of the army." "As I told you before, I do not want you to get hurt." Just before I can ask him why he is so concerned, Pravit runs over. "Khanom, is it true that you are going to fight in the war?" "Yes it is, young Pravit," I reply. "I have never met a queen like you!" "She is not a queen yet, Pravit," Dheeraj says. "When are you going to get married?" The young boy asks, excitedly. "I'm not sure." "Are you really going to get married to that bad man?" Pravit asks. Dheeraj suddenly grabs Pravit harshly, "Pravit! Don't say things like that!" "But he is a bad man! He hurt Tamasa, remember?" Pravit cries. "Who is Tamasa?" "She is an orphan, like us. She lives with my grandmother," Dheeraj explains. "Will he become King?" Pravit asks, in discomfort. "Pravit, please go back home. I will see you later. Lotfan. Please." Pravit stares back at his brother, sighs, and walks away. "Is Tamasa okay? Did Raghav really… hurt her?" I ask. "He raped her- couple of nights ago. She is still recovering. She is only sixteen." "That is disgusting. I cannot believe…" I shake my head. "Can she tell my father? He could banish Raghav from Udaigarh." "No, grandmother doesn't want anyone to find out. Please don't make it public." "Was she close to you?" I ask. "Grandmother tells Tamasa everyday that we will eventually get married. Tamasa really admires me." "Do you want to marry her?" I ask. "I think it is time to get back to training."
The next morning, the palace was unusually quiet. Again, I found Oha Nirvan sitting on the atrium floor, chanting. I tried to pass him quietly but he stopped me, "Maya." "Yes, Oha Nirvan?" "Troubled times are ahead of us. We are all in grave danger," He says. I take a seat in front of him. "What do you see, Oha Nirvan?" Sometimes Oha had visions of the future. "It is not good, my girl." "What do you see?" I repeat. "I see betrayal and treason. I see courage and a great act of bravery, from your part. You will be united with your true love- forever," He says in a hoarse voice. "I- I don't understand." "This cannot be understood." "Do you know when it is going to happen? We will have to warn the army… we can't let anything happen to the people!" "Go train, girl! Profess your love and train! You don't have much time!" Oha Nirvan shouts. "Wh-what do you mean, Oha?" "You need all the practice you can get, Maya. You will do great when the time comes. You also don't have much time to spend with your lover. Go confess how you feel!" "Is he going to die?" I ask, getting scared. "He will kill many before he himself dies. He will truly be the mightiest of all of Udaigarh." "He won't die! I won't let that happen!" Dheeraj meant the world to me- I couldn't let him die. "You don't have much time," Oha repeats. "When will this take place?" "It is all blurry, Maya. I cannot give you any clear answers." "H-how did you know about me and…?" I trail off. "I know everything, my girl. Do you not know that about me yet?" "Will you tell Father?" "He already knows you love Dheeraj."
I spent the whole day training with the other warriors. Everyone was on guard and serious; there was no time for socializing. I had kept my mouth glued together and had not revealed to anyone what Oha Nirvan told me. "You are very serious about this, aren't you?" Dheeraj asks as I help him clean the stadium. Some of the warriors had gone home while others took up posts around the palace. "Yes, I am very serious." "You have been working really hard. I appreciate it," He says. "You are a very good teacher." "You are a good student, Maya," He says. He puts a long sword in a knife sheath on his belt. The stadium was completely deserted now. It was getting quite windy which was surprising because we had just spent the day in the scorching sun. "So tomorrow we visit your mother's tomb?" Dheeraj asks, walking towards me. I was sitting on one of the seats. He takes a seat in front of me. "Yes- are you coming?" "I am journeying with you, yes." "Tomorrow will mark the ten year anniversary of my mother's death." "It will also mark the ten year anniversary of the most unforgettable Sunnigardh attack… and my parents' death." "Oh, sorry… I forgot-" "They left both Pravit and I alone. My father killed hundreds of men before dying himself," Dheeraj tells me. "That is the Chaturvedi legend. All the men in the Chaturvedi family kill more than a hundred men before going to eternal rest." "I can only try to be better than my father and forefathers. I need to do everything I can in my power to protect the people of this kingdom," Dheeraj says. "You know, we are a lot alike," I tell him. "How so?" "We both love this kingdom. I'd do anything for the people who live here… and so would you." "You are a remarkable princess. We are lucky to have you." "I need to know the truth, Dheeraj…" "About what, khanom?" "Please stop addressing me so. I am Maya, just Maya." "You are the Princess." "I want to speak candidly with you, Dheeraj." "What would you like to speak about?" "I have to tell you something… I have been meaning to tell you this for a long time…" He waits for me to continue. "Is there anything you would like to tell me?" I ask him. "You were just about to say something!" "I love you Dheeraj." My heart was beating and I felt light headed. I did not know what to expect. He opened his mouth to say something, but he closed it abruptly. "You love me?" "Yes, for a very long time now." "I- don't know what to say, Princess." "Do you not feel the same way?" I ask, with a pang of hurt. "You are betrothed. I can never desire to be with you. I am merely a loyal servant," He whispers. "Don't say that-" "I am sorry," He says. "But Dheeraj, I spoke to my father. He is okay with everything. He-" "You should go back to the palace, khanom. We have a long day ahead of us." "I don't want to marry Raghav. I do not want to be with him. I want to be with you!" I say, pouring my heart and soul out to him. "I am sorry, my Princess. The feeling is not mutual," Dheeraj replies, bowing his head. I stand up, shaking in anger and confusion. "Why? Is it Tamasa? Do you feel obliged to marry her?" I ask, in disbelief. I had been almost completely sure that Dheeraj felt the same way back. I did not think it would hurt this much to be rejected by the one man I had ever loved. "I do not feel obliged to anything… I am very sorry, khanom. I didn't mean to give you the wrong message…" "I've heard enough. I am leaving," I say, starting up the stairs. "Maya-" He calls. I do not stop to hear him out; I was too hurt.
The journey up the Aravali Mountains to my mother's crypt was a long one. I sit in a palanquin while Dheeraj travels beside me on his horse. I could see him looking intently at the sandy road ahead of us. He keeps his eyes off of me and does not look up at all. In frustration and confusion, I turn away. My mother's crypt was in the clearing, up ahead. I only visited this crypt once a year, on the anniversary of her death. My father had gone the very first year- when I was eleven years old- and refused to attend any time after that. He never told anyone why he did not want to make the trip up the Aravali Mountains to mother's burial place. Instead, every year for her death anniversary, Father locked himself up in the prayer room and offered prayers to all of the gods mother used to worship. "We have arrived!" One of the warriors announces. The bearers lower the palanquin and I climb out. Oha Nirvan sits on a platform in front of the crypt. "Maya, proceed inside. I will sit out here for a while," Oha tells me. Only a handful of warriors had travelled with me while the rest stayed back near the palace and around town. Oha was silent all morning and said nothing when I asked him if everything was okay. I noticed him embrace Father before we left, which I found odd. Oha never physically touched anyone- not even his closest friend, my father. "Be safe," Father had told me before I left the palace. "Khanom?" I hear someone call. I shake my head and meet Dheeraj's eyes. "We will stand guard out here. You go on inside," He says to me.
A few of the servant girls had come with me for company. They did not bother me while I stood in front of a statue of the Goddess Durga. I always found this quite ironic, as Durga was the warrior goddess. My mother was definitely not a warrior, yet she had worshipped Goddess Durga every day. I close my eyes and mumble a prayer under my breath, hoping it would reach my mother. I did not have a chance to say goodbye to her, all those years ago. I remember that day very clearly…
I push Raghav away from me, playfully. He falls onto the floor and cries out at me. I laugh and push open the doors leading to the front atrium. My mother was shouting for guards. I could hear loud footsteps around the palace. Suddenly, I become aware of the screams and shouts coming from outside. "What is going on?" Raghav asks me. "I think-" I start. Raghav is knocked to the ground by a man twice his size. Raghav stares up at the man, in fear. I nearly jump in between the man and Raghav, but we are all distracted by a frenzied shout, "GAZALAN!" The man attacking Raghav kicks him hard and then runs into the atrium. I peer into the atrium and find another man standing in front of my mother. Father was not in sight and I briefly wonder whether he is safe or not. Everything seems to unravel, in front of my eyes, in slow motion. Raghav's attacker, Gazalan, hands the other man a sword and backs away. My mother shouts out again for guards. "MOTHER GET UP!" I shout. "Kill the child," The man spits. "Not my daughter! Please!" "DIE!" The man shouts and stabs my mother. I hear her scream in pain. "MOTHER!" Someone grabs Raghav from the back and drags him out the door. "RAGHAV!" I shout. I fall to the floor, in tears. My mother was dead… she was dead… Someone grabs me by the arms and throws me over their back. "LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME!" I shout. "Hush child. I am protecting you," A man tells me. His voice is comforting and soothing. I believe him- but only for a second. "NO! I need to go! I need to find my father! Put me down!" I say, kicking and squirming. Finally, the man puts me down. We are now situated in a small, dim room. "Where am I? Why did you bring me here?" I ask. "Dheeraj, come here- take care of her," I hear the man say. "Who are you!?" I demand. "My little princess, I am Veer Chaturvedi. I won't let anything happen to you," The man says to me. This time, I can't help but believe him completely. I nod my head and he turns to the boy beside me. "I have to go, son. Take care of her- always." "Yes padar." The man kisses the boy's forehead and leaves the room. "Where is my father? Where is Raghav?" I ask the boy. He looks about one or two years older than me. "Calm down, princess. They are safe. They are with my grandmother," The boy tells me, calmly. "What is going on? Are you not scared?" I ask him. "The Muslims are attacking. They have gained forced entry into the palace. I'm not scared for myself… I am scared for our people," He replies. I look out the window and find the sandy, narrow streets empty. On closer inspection, I find body after body on the ground. "Get down, princess. We can't risk being discovered!" The boy says to me. "Who are you? Why do you care about me so much?" I ask him. "I am Dheeraj, Princess Maya. I am a warrior here, in Udaigarh. I promised my father I would always protect you and I am just keeping my word," He responds. "MAYA!" I hear someone call. It is my father. I jump up and run into my father's arms. Raghav runs into the room as well, panting, "Dheeraj- your mother…" Dheeraj runs out of the room. When he comes back inside, the boy is carrying a baby in his hands. Dheeraj looks as if he has seen every possible evil in the world. "What is wrong? Who is this baby? What happened?" I ask, suddenly very interested in the boy. "They are dead… my parents are dead…" He says. "What?" I ask, running over to him. "My mother left him with me… I don't know what to do," Dheeraj says, trying very hard not to cry. "Stay strong, son," Father says to him. "I will," Dheeraj says, looking up at father with a newfound resolve. I fall to the floor and cry. I can never be as strong as this boy who had just lost both his parents. My mother was gone…
"MAYA!" I hear someone shout. I am pushed to the floor. I look up in shock- what was happening? Had I really just zoned out? "MAYA go! GO!" Dheeraj says, getting off me. Why had he pushed me, just now? I look around the crypt and find some of the servant girls on the floor with their throats slit. "What is happening?" I ask, still in shock. "GO HIDE! Please! HURRY!" Dheeraj says, grabbing my arm. "I'm not going to leave you!" I say to him. "This isn't the time Maya." "Oooh! Look who it is!" A man says. He is standing outside the crypt with Raghav. Oha Nirvan is nowhere in sight. The man in front of me is sporting a green salwar kameez and a black keffiyeh on his head. Raghav is eyeing me with a deranged smile. "Who are you?" I ask the man. He looks frighteningly familiar. He is a Muslim- I could only tell that much. "You look so much like your mother," The man says. "How do you know my mother?" I demand. "Maya- please," I hear Dheeraj say from behind me. I turn around to find Muslim soldiers on the floor, dead. Dheeraj had just fought them off. I was standing in the middle of a battle ground. I see more Muslim soldiers venturing up the mountains. In due time, they would surround the crypt. "You look scared, princess. Are you frightened?" The man asks. "Who are you? Raghav what is going on?" I ask. "I am Naqeeb Hussain- commander in chief of the Muslim army of Sunnigardh!" The man roars. Someone grabs me from behind and Naqeeb starts laughing. "I didn't get to kill her the last time," The man behind me leers. "Gazalan! Leave her!" Naqeeb shouts. The name triggers something in me. "Maya- I'm coming!" Dheeraj says to me, fighting off more men. The man behind me, Gazalan, laughs an inhuman laugh. And just like that, everything falls into place. Gazalan was Raghav's assaulter from the attack ten years ago… which meant his leader, Naqeeb, was my mother's murderer. "I want to slit your throat like I did to those girls in the tomb…" Gazalan hisses in my ear. I kick his leg and duck, pulling his arm at the same time. He doubles over in pain. "You aren't going to slit my throat, you sick bastard!" I say, plunging his own knife into his heart. Gazalan's eyes open in surprise and he wails as he hits the floor. "GAZALAN!" Naqeeb shouts. Dheeraj touches my shoulder, "Maya that was- amazing," He says. "No time for chit chat," Raghav shouts. The Muslim army is being stalled by our army. I see lifeless bodies on the ground and nearly run over to help the warriors. Dheeraj grabs my arm. "You're not going anywhere," He says.
"Where are you going to go from here?" Raghav asks. "I need to save my people… I have to go to my Father!" I say, trying to pull out of Dheeraj's grasp. "What people?" Naqeeb snorts with laughter. "The people of my Kingdom!" "They are dead, Khanom," Raghav replies, laughing with the commander in chief of the Muslim army. "DEAD?" I ask. "We were just there, Princess. We made sure not to leave anyone behind!" Naqeeb sneers. "Oh- but wait… we have a treat," Raghav says, pulling someone from behind a boulder. "PRAVIT!" Dheeraj shouts. "Dheeraj! Help!" The little boy calls. "Let go of my brother!" Dheeraj commands, starting towards them with a sword. "Oh, we'll let him go. Just listen to our story first," Raghav says. "Raghav, why are you doing this?" I ask him. "For you, my dear Queen. I want to rule this Kingdom with you forever!" He proclaims. "We paid a little visit to the palace. Your father- the King- was in a room all by himself. Raghav, here, cleanly chopped his head off. Show them the sword to prove it!" Naqeeb says. Raghav holds a bloody sword in the air and laughs manically. I cringe, visualizing this scene in my head. Tears start forming, but I will myself not to cry. I couldn't show them a sign of vulnerability; I had to remain strong. "With the help of my army, we killed the worthless warriors situated around the palace. And the townspeople were the easiest. They cried and made a fuss- all the better," Naqeeb laughs. "You sadistic beasts!" Dheeraj was growing impatient and angry, beside me. I touch his hand as a reassurance. "What happened to you, Raghav?" I ask my second cousin. "I made a deal with Naqeeb that if he helped me become King… I would convert all of Udaigarh to Islam! Where do you think I went after speaking to your father? I went to Sunniardh to meet Naqeeb!" "You wanted to kill my father?" I ask. Two Muslim warriors run at us, but Dheeraj fights them off. "I've wanted to kill your father ever since I turned 20, my darling," Raghav says with a sly smile. "We didn't want you to die without knowing the whole truth," Naqeeb says. "You are going to kill me?" I ask, speaking to Raghav. "Why would I ever kill my beautiful queen?" "We are going to slaughter this warrior whom you keep so close to your heart… but not before we torture him…" Naqeeb says, with a scary smile. "You are NOT going to touch him!" "Get away from him, Maya. Come here!" Raghav says to me. "I'd rather jump off that cliff," I spit. Naqeeb places a knife on Pravit's neck. "NO!" I shout. Dheeraj who had been fighting off the Muslim warriors suddenly stopped and started towards his brother. Pravit squirms and cries out for his older brother. "Get your hands off of him!" Dheeraj shouts, pushing Raghav aside. Naqueeb presses the knife deeper and slices the little boy's throat. Dheeraj shouts out in anger and jumps onto his brother's murderer. Raghav grabs my arm and drags me away from Dheeraj and Naqeeb. "How was that?" I hear Naqeeb ask Dheeraj. I pull away from Raghav and pick up a long sword lying on the ground. Naqeeb stabs Dheeraj's leg and laughs manically, "You're going to die, you worthless warrior! You couldn't even save your brother!" Naqueeb taunts him. Dheeraj screams out in frustration. I examine the dead body of Pravit. He was only a child. How could this man be so heartless? He was a cold-hearted monster. Naqeeb rolls on top of Dheeraj and laughs madly again. I take the sword and stab him straight through the back; this savage did not deserve to live. I kicked Naqeeb off Dheeraj and helped him up. "Are you okay?" I ask, pulling the knife out of his leg. I take off my scarf and wrap it around his leg. "We're going to be okay," I say firmly. "Look out!" He says, pushing me. But it is no use- the sword has already plunged into my stomach. I cry out in pain as I realize Raghav has stabbed me. "MAYA!" Raghav shouts, touching my arm. I try to pull away, but find that I have no energy. Dheeraj holds me up, "You're going to be okay. I won't let anything happen to you," He whispers, giving me a kiss. "Give her to me! She is my Queen!" Raghav shouts, looking around for another weapon. I see warriors from our army attack Raghav from the back and then my vision goes blurry. Dheeraj struggles to hold me up as I sway from side to side. "Go, Dheeraj… go fight," I whisper. "I- I can't leave you," He says. "Please go… kill him!" Dheeraj places me on a platform and runs into the battle zone. I look around and find Oha Nirvan sitting at the top of the cliff. I slowly crawl towards him. I cannot tell if he is alive or not. "Oha!" I call out to him. "My child! My dear, dear child," He replies. "It's awful, Oha. They killed all the people… they decapitated father… our whole Kingdom has been destroyed!" I cry. "I saw this coming, child." "Why didn't you warn us, Oha? WHY?" I demand. "There is nothing that could have been done! This was going to happen no matter what," He says to me. "What happens next, Oha?" I ask. "Look," He says, looking at the battle zone. More and more bodies hit the ground with a thud. I desperately look around for Dheeraj. He has been stabbed a few more times, but he is still fighting to his full capability. I wish that I was as strong as him. "This can't be the end, Oha! We can't die like this!" "There are some things that cannot be changed." "Is everyone really dead?" I ask, letting the tears fall down my face. I had lived and fought for my people- what was the point of living now? "Yes, my girl. Every single person in our Kingdom is… dead," Oha replies, weakly. "How-" But before I can finish, Oha is stabbed with a long sword. He doesn't say another word; his small, frail body simply falls off the cliff. I turn around to find Raghav standing there with a pleased grin on his face. "Come, my Queen. Let us go to our throne," He says, almost delusional. "You SAVAGE! Who are we going to govern? Everyone is dead! Who am I going to live for? There is no life for me down there!" I shout at him. "Maya… we will live together and for each other. Don't you understand? I love you. I want you!" Raghav says to me. "You will have no power! Who are you going to reign over?" I ask. "We will create a new kingdom!" He says, trying to convince me. "HOW RAGHAV? You killed innocent people down there. You are a sadistic monster! I don't want to be with you! I hate you!" I shout.
I hear Dheeraj before I see him. "DIE!" He shouts, beheading Raghav. His head rolls onto the ground and Dheeraj tosses his body to the side. Dheeraj collapses next to me and cries out in pain. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," I cry. I wipe my eyes and look at my surroundings. Men were lying on the floor, bloodied and lifeless. I could see the palace from my place at the top of the cliff. Everything was ruined. Everyone was dead. There was no point in living. I was dying. Dheeraj was dying. Udaigarh would exist no longer. How could the dynamics of things change so quickly? "You did great out there," He tells me. "I didn't do anything! I couldn't save my Father! I couldn't save my people! I was so close- I couldn't save Pravit. And I couldn't save Oha Nirvan. I'm useless." "You can't blame yourself. I could have saved all those people too…" He points out. "I cannot believe that sick bastard killed Pravit like that," I say, bursting into tears. Dheeraj wraps his arms around me, "What's done is done." "How are you so strong? I can't do it, Dheeraj- I really can't," I say, putting my head on his chest "You are so strong, Maya. You… you were extraordinary. If only you saw yourself. The way you killed that guy who was holding you around your back… and the way you stabbed Naqeeb. I am so proud of you," He tells me. "You kept the Chaturvedi legend alive," he pulls me closer to him, "by killing more than a hundred men, out there, Dheeraj. You far exceeded your father and forefathers. You were brilliant. You truly are the bravest man of Udai-" I break off. Udaigarh no longer existed. I stifle a cry and he kisses the top of my head. "Are you hurt?" I ask, turning around to look at him. "I'm fine," He says, standing up. "No you're not! Look-" I say, touching his chest. He had multiple stab wounds and a long gash across his forehead. "I don't know how long we are going to live… but-" He starts. "I'm not scared." "I love you, Maya," He tells me. I stare back at him. Did we have to go through all of this for him to confess how he truly felt? I didn't ask him any questions; I just pulled him close to me. When we finally pull away from the embrace, he looks at the floor. I follow his gaze and find Raghav's lone head sitting meters away from us. Dheeraj kicks it off the cliff and slips. I reach out to grab him, but it is too late. "NO!" I shout. He holds onto the end of the cliff and looks up at me. "I guess this is it?" He asks. "No- give me your hand… I'll hoist you up!" I say. "There is no use, Maya. I am too weak… I am going to die," He says, his voice dropping. "You're not going to leave me, Dheeraj." "I have no choice, Maya- I can't hold on forever." "Please, please don't leave me!" I say, holding onto his shoulders. I didn't care that half my body was dangling off the side of a cliff. "I love you Maya." And with that, he lets go of the edge of the cliff. "DHEERAJ!" I shout, letting go of him. I see his body swiftly falling into the unknown. I look around me and find a deadly massacre. There was nothing for me here. I jump off the cliff after the love of my life. "I'm coming, Dheeraj." Oha had said I was going to be united with my true love forever… was this what he meant?