Story

In Your Palace

There was silence in the room. Mallika felt displeased with the discussion around her. And more so because Nandana would be staying for longer than she expected.

When the Queen ushered her daughter to come outside at the pavilion , the chariot race was ready to begin. Mallika came forward and stood facing the sunlight. Her armlets shone in the dazzling rays, the look on her face defied morality as was understood during her father’s reign. Queen Shravana had reconstructed the entire empire all over again. The ministers had undermined her ability, calling her incapable, but the queen’s soulful power bound each pillar with the strength of love. Mallika saw a huge crowd, like every year, surrounding the race course with cheer and curiosity. Each time she spectated, it came to her cognizance of the similar exterior of people. The toughness they evoked during a competition led their sight to the winning marker. The sound of conch shells gave way for the participants to assemble near the marker with their respective chariots.

All seven participants took their respective stands with their chariots. The long field was an applicable spot right in front of the pavilion. It mostly remained empty throughout, which is why upon the Queen’s order, they used this plot to conduct the event. The beating of drums raised a sudden sense of anticipation among the crowd.

Keenly observing the members in the race, Mallika liked to read people along with their mysteries and after the first three participants, her eyes fell on a figure that appeared more obscure than others. This one particular candidate already raised debates among the crowd because of a covered face. No one in the last five years made such an appearance. She found her own attention diverting from others, and landing on that one face which she could not see clearly.

‘What do you think?’ Queen Shravana questions softly with a glint in her eyes.

‘There can be hidden treasure.’ Mallika replied with a smile without taking her eyes off the course.

Near the pavilion, the participants started soon after they heard the last beat of a drum and drove their chariots as if they were being pushed by consecutive huge gusts of wind. The horses ran with great contempt, their feet almost disappeared in the roaring dust which arose from the land. All of them looked straight ahead towards the finish line, and Mallika could not help but let her gaze follow the one in fifth place, face covered, only letting eyes portray fierceness.

One by one, this uncommoner left other chariots behind and went ahead to race against the final one who seemed to give a tough competition to the rest. A rush of excitement passed through Queen Shravana, and Mallika locked her eyes on the uncommoner’s chariot. The rest failed to match their speed, and both those chariots ran parallel to each other, igniting a burst of apprehension; but before the finish line, a tumult made Mallika step down the stairs of the pavilion. And then a loud noise came from the other side. There was dust everywhere, people could not decipher who made it first to the finish line and stood in confusion. The Queen stood up and as she ordered her footmen, an attendant came running towards her.

‘Maharani, one of the chariots collapsed against a tree, and the charioteer is missing.’ He spoke while taking deep breaths.

The crowd rushed towards the site of danger, and Mallika followed her mother through. Making way towards the hazard, she remembered the eyes of the uncommon rider, and felt a tint of restlessness. After the finish line, there was a tree with a massive trunk, and underneath its strong branch lay a disheveled chariot, with a wheel detached. But according to one of the Queen’s men, no one was injured.

A few feet away, there lay another chariot unnoticed, equally damaged like the one before and no one seemed to acquire any injury. The men were bewildered. As the Queen made her way through the crowd, she caught sight of the two charioteers, sitting on the ground, with one attending the other. Mallika saw one of them appear dizzy, and it was not the rider whose eyes she recognized immediately and paused at her place with surprise.

A woman sat on her knees as she took care of the other charioteer. Her face was not covered anymore; while attending him she turned around her head. And then quickly got up her feet when she saw the Queen.

‘What happened here?’ Mallika came forward.

The woman was taken aback at that question. It was prevalent on her face that she wished to talk to the Queen herself and was rather dismayed.

‘It is unfortunate,’ the woman began, turning towards the Queen. ‘That this happened. I am entirely at fault for this. But if I hadn’t noticed his jagged chariot wheel, he would have been injured gravely.’

Everyone looked at her with profound curiosity. A small hubbub was heard. Mallika walked a few steps towards the woman and enquired, ‘Your name?’

The woman let out a small breath. And with that, the hardness on her face faded a little.

‘Nandana.’

Mallika continued. ‘This is a race where the finest charioteers have competed and created their mark. No one looks out here for others. We race to win.’ Nandana squinted her eyebrows.

‘Distraction is not an example for a skillful charioteer.’ Mallika spoke sternly.

‘I am sorry to undermine proficiency but this wasn’t deliberate. This man could have lost his life. If he fell, no one would know because there was too much dust around. He would have got run over.’

‘It is not necessarily a choice you can make in the middle of an event. Hundreds of people have participated and acquired injuries. You broke a decorum.’

Nandana raised her eyebrows in surprise. She looked down and saw the man still heaving, looking up at them with a certain fear in his eyes. She turned to face Mallika again.

‘If saving life breaks a decorum, then I should have known I was participating in a death event.’

Enraged, Mallika stared at her. Before she could say anything, the Queen interrupted them. Nandana broke eye contact and bowed in front of the Queen who was rather quite taken aback at Nandana’s sympathy.

‘Please pardon my daughter’s statement. We all wished for a fruitful event and never thought it would end up like this. But I must say you saved a life, and me along with my people, are very grateful to you.’

The sincerity expressed softened Nandana and she bowed again. A small smile came to her lips.

‘It is impressive how the Queen has preserved her empire,’ Nandana began in praise. ‘It will remain a wonderful example in the long run.’

Mallika stayed by her mother’s side, staring at Nandana.

Since no one had officially won the race, the Queen decided to award them equally for their honor and requested Nandana’s stay at her palace for a couple of days. The royal ceremony brought all the members together for a dinner night. Mallika was also present in the gathering; she busied herself as she talked to the members and in that conversation, she saw from the corner of her eyes, the presence of Nandana, who was busy speaking to the man she saved today. She wore a churidar and around her waist, a dagger was strapped. Her hair was tied in a knot and she wore earrings. Her attire was not anything feminine in particular, but the dagger raised confusion. Where did she come from?

A little later, the Queen came and addressed the attendees of the royal feast. ‘It is an honour to have all of you together here. I am thankful to each one of you for coming to Narajgar and participating in the race course. Since, for the first time, there is no winner, I would like to take a moment and appreciate all your efforts with a token of remembrance from my side, and also in praise of one person who saved a life today.’

Upon hearing the announcement, Mallika decided to go inside the palace. Why was her mother so smitten with Nandana?

As she walked into her room, followed by her maid, almost absentmindedly she asked, ‘Do you know where Nandana has come from?’

The maid had started to take off the bangles from Mallika’s hand. ‘I heard Maharani saying that she is from Kundalpur. The land of the famous Manipal Rao.’

‘Is she related to him?’

The maid looked at her blankly, stating she had no idea.

Queen Shravana entered her room soon after, followed by Nandana. Mallika stood up and glanced with a questioning look towards her mother.

‘I requested Nandana to stay a few more days here. It would be nice if you could accompany her and show her around.’

Before Mallika could answer, Nandana interrupted. ‘Pardon me Maharani, but I do not wish to cause any trouble to any one as I stay. I am grateful for your invitation.’

The Queen smiled at her. ‘Now tell me,’ she said as she gestured to Nandana to take a seat. ‘How is Maharaj Rao?’

Standing straight as a line, Nandana stepped forward, carefully keeping her hands behind her.

‘He has never been better. The moment he heard of my arrival here, he sent me letters requesting me to make contact with the Queen. And it so happened that Narajgar was organising the race. So I thought of making an acquaintance like this.’ She smiled.

‘How clever of you to hide your face!’ The Queen laughed while Nandana let out a small chuckle.

‘My father would have been happy too.’

Mallika looked at Nandana with sharp seriousness.

‘My father too had built an empire by himself, with every bit of his blood. I still remember his constant toil while leaving for battle against the English soldiers. A smile stayed on his lips while he promised that he would return soon.’

There was silence in the room. Mallika felt displeased with the discussion around her. And more so because Nandana would be staying for longer than she expected.

‘Emotions are our enemies. You should not dwell in it longer than necessary.’

Nandana was lost as she spoke about her father. Mallika’s reply made her look at her sternly.

‘I did not understand you.’ Nandana remarked as the queen herself stared back at her daughter.

‘No battle can be fought if one is overcome by emotions. It is a sign of losing.’

‘Compassion never falls on the losing side,’ uttered Nandana, looking in the direction where Mallika stood.

‘But it implies your weakness.’

‘How?’

‘The way you speak of your father, there is a deep emotional entanglement. Nothing can be scarier than living with emotions, always expecting the worse to happen. Attachment altogether speaks of your inability to fight.’

Nandana kept quiet. Mallika went on.

‘No one should manifest their vulnerability in the field of race and battle. You end up losing, as you might have noticed today.’ She turned around and directly met Nandana’s eyes, who stood stiff, unmovable.

Mallika thought that she settled her word with her own wisdom. But this time, Nandana let out a small chuckle.

‘I pity you.’

Mallika narrowed her eyes. A small speck of anger rose in her heart. The smug smile vanished from her lips. ‘You should learn from your mistakes,’ Mallika tried to recover. ‘No more of those feelings.’

‘As you might already know, I don’t take orders to do or feel anything,’ snapped Nandana. She noticed the surprise on her face.

‘And as for you, since I’m human and can have an opinion, I must say that you have not experienced, even a little, of what love is like.’

Nandana stood calm at her place. For a while, everything seemed to have come to halt, but then she saw anger in Mallika’s eyes.

Those words came out ruthlessly. Till then she was annoyed at Nandana’s presence, but this phrase cut through her heart like a sword. She could not come up with anything to defend her stance, which was one reason for her anger to rage in her mind, and without thinking twice, she stormed out of her own room.

Nandana had spoken these words angrily. But now, her anger melted because she knew she had caused a stir, leading to the final action. She looked down, and then looked up again at the queen, but could not muster up to say anything.

Mallika shut the doors as soon as she entered her room. She started pacing, breathing heavily due to her restlessness and being unable to accept what Nandana spoke about her, made her clench her fist. She felt aggravated, and the more she thought about it, her anger was pumped.

It has been only two days since she came to know about Nandana, and now it felt like she put her hand through her heart and ripped it off.

She sat at the edge of her bed. She cannot appear this agitated in front of others, so she tried calming herself by breathing out. But this attempt of her quickly vanished the anger which she embroidered in her veins, and was soon replaced with tears in her eyes.

It did not happen because she lost control. To appear tough outside, one had to make it a habit. She did the same and never looked back since then. At one point it became easy, all her daily activities were the same and she found a balance in her mother’s dome. But today, a few words, cutting her pretense, pierced through her heart. All because what had been said was true to the core. As tears streamed down her face, she felt small and weak. Her mind thought of Nandana and how she pronounced those words without wincing. She was heartless, Mallika thought.

But soon enough she realized the irony of her own words. Just before that she had talked about controlling emotions. It was hard to do the same now. She looked at the sky through her balcony. The clouds were floating slowly on the blue canvas. Calm as it was, her eyes and heart passed through a rain and storm that dampened the anger.

Nandana on the other hand was unable to sleep that night. The words came out much more harshly than she thought it would. She was also surprised at its effect on Mallika. How it made her storm out immediately. Even though she thought she might have defended her position, it was still a loss, because if Mallika were emotionless, she wouldn’t have taken her words to heart.

A shift of air inside the palace came into notice every time Shravana invited both Mallika and Nandana together for a chat. Since that day, both avoided each other’s presence, even if they met by chance, they held on to a pretense of not having seen each other. Nandana joined the mother-daughter duo to talk because it would have been impolite to disrespect the Queen, but Mallika visibly expressed she did not wish to see her.

‘Why are you so distraught with Nandana?’ her mother’s query struck a bend in her heart. Surely they had nothing in common, nothing at all to be bothered about, yet Mallika was unable to decipher what drove her so incessantly towards her rival. She did not wish to be near her, yet wanted to grasp her every move, every motive.

Nandana was fierce; her eyes portrayed the dangers of competing with her and her vision never left the heart of people’s soul. That is what always struck Mallika. She felt being captured by her aura unknowingly.  ‘It is likely that both of you are different in nature. You don’t have to keep a grudge. Why don’t you invite her for a fight?  Maybe a duel with swords?’ her mother suggested.

Although she was vexed, the idea struck her curiosity. If Nandana can be good with words, her fight skill can be tested to see how good she might be at it.

Putting arrows inside the quiver, Nandana decided to head out with one of the men for hunt. There was a part of her that reminded her of the time when she had talked in the same tone wth her father and never got to apologize. When she thought about Mallika, all she wanted to do was leave Narajgar as soon as she could and waited for word from Maharaj Rao. She had a small knife tied around her waist, gifted by her father. She took it out of the sheath and began to sharpen it. No one was around the pavilion, the sun lightened the entire place. In that same moment, Mallika entered and looked directly at where Nandana was standing.

Nandana heard sounds of footsteps coming from the stairs. She expected the queen to come down, but instead saw Mallika alone, walking towards her. She stood in her place calmly.

‘What are you doing?’ Mallika enquired.

Hearing the usual tone of her voice, Nandana put her knife back in its sheath. She replied calmly, ‘Getting ready. For a hunt.’

‘You are not permitted to go out.’ Mallika moved closer.

Nandana stopped and looked up. Mallika stood right next to where she was sitting and threw a questioning glance towards her.

‘You cannot go for hunting without being familiar with weapons.’

Nandana chuckled loudly. ‘What weapons?’

‘You’ll see. It is our rule. You have to abide by them in this palace.’

Mallika walked back and unveiled the swords kept on a round silver panel. She picked up one and threw it at Nandana’s direction who caught hold of it quite easily.

‘I assure you that I hunt mostly using arrows.’

Mallika blushed upon hearing this sentence. Hiding the embarrassment, she questioned sternly.

‘Are you afraid of putting up with a challenge?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘Then I believe this is something that will add to your benefit.’

‘It is astonishing that you have started thinking about my benefits.’

Mallika turned around with her unsmiling face. They gazed at each other before Nandana looked down and smiled.

‘Who am I facing?’

Mallika stepped forward, grabbing the other sword in her hand.

Nandana’s smile vanished as she parted her lips in a bit of surprise. ‘You wish to fight me with a sword?’

The question hung in the air as the two women stood opposite to each other at the far end of the pavilion. Mallika laid her sword in front, watching her opponent’s movement with keen eyes. Then, like a speck, she moved to the front and brought down her weapon like a whip. A sound was produced by the clashing of the two metals. Nandana stood her ground firmly, gripping the sword tightly against hers, and gave her a little push. Mallika retracted and stared at her opponent’s strong and firm core. Her eyes twinkled.

‘So you are aware of how to use them.’ Mallika shouted from the end.

‘And you are the attacker, I assume.’ Nandana spoke up from the other side.

A sound of laughter filled the pavilion. The first Nadana heard from her.

‘Now attack. No more playing defensive.’ Mallika started hovering away from the other woman.

Nandana never attacked unless need arose. She started circling around, behind Mallika in order to tempt her to attack again. But surprisingly, Mallika was not the one to get tempted easily. After circling a couple of times, Nandana came to a halt.

‘Are you accepting defeat already?’

‘Not a chance.’

She spun the sword in circles as if to tantalize her opponent. And then, as if like thunder, struck her sword down. It hit the concrete. When she brought up her gaze, her opponent’s sword rested next to her neck.

‘Never waste your time spinning your sword. Even a novice can defeat you quickly.’

As they stared at each other, Nandana quickly brought her sword from the right, and pushed Mallika’s sword away as she resumed on her feet.

‘Stop playing the defense. Attack, Nandana, attack!’

She had started to lose her calm now, she was hardly able to focus from where the blows started to arrive from. Mallika took her time to fight, whereas Nandana felt a growing impatience. Her wrong moves made her lose posture of her own.

‘Now you realize why I stopped you from going to hunt.’

Nandana breathed heavily. She quickly realized she had lost control, and there was no point in tempting her opponent to attack her. Although not ready to accept her defeat, she kept going on. She stepped forward to attack and as Mallika stepped backwards, in the midst of enjoying this fight, she realized her left foot descended as she found no ground. She missed the concrete underneath, and was about to fall down the stairs when Nandana immediately gripped her hand. She pulled her back with effort and her sword fell, landing on the ground.

Both the women found themselves embracing each other in an unexpected misdeem that would otherwise have been dreadful. It was the first time Nandana noticed that Mallika is slightly shorter than her. Her hands found her waist whereas Mallika’s one hand rested on her neck and the other, right above her heart.

In a sudden turn of events, they both sort of forgot about the fight they were engaged in. Nandana stared into her eyes, the ones which she saw twinkling right before. Mallika was surprised at the physical touch. Both her arms relaxed on her waist, which held her strongly and gently.

‘Are you okay?’ Nandana whispered slowly.

But Mallika couldn’t bring herself to answer. Her lips were parted as she looked into Nandana’s eyes, heaving softly. All she managed to do was nod.

Something shifted inside Nandana. The closeness didn’t bother, she looked at her calmly and subtly let her eyes flicker on her lips. Is this the same Mallika she was looking at? Her rudeness from the beginning started to fade and Nandana felt herself cornering a soft spot for her. It must be wrong, she sensed, but how, when Mallika always spoke the truth?

Nandana looked at the now questioning eyes, staring into her own. But then she noticed Mallika kept a finger on a bruise under her collarbone and was immediately hit by an overwhelming feeling. She loosened her arms and stepped back.

Her expression changed. Mallika knew there was a story behind it but didn’t push her to say it.

Hours after dawn, the footmen came back to the palace with Nandana. There hadn’t been much luck in today’s hunt, and an exhaustion spread over Nandana after a long trip.

She walked inside her chamber and retained the quiver. Her whole body went soar, and she wished for nothing more than just lying on the soft bed and driving off to sleep. She wondered how long her stay here at Narajgar would prove beneficial for her. But besides that, she wanted to leave as soon as she could. She just awaited a word from her land, and when it arrives, she will be prepared. Her mind wandered off to Mallika, whom she will also be leaving behind. She thought about the morning, the changed expression on her face, the closeness between them. Generally two rivals in any close proximity called for death, but there was no line between them. Perhaps there never was.

Mallika entered her room quietly. She thought Nandana might have dozed off, but she came upon a figure seated by the bed.

‘Word for you has been sent by Maharaj Rao.’ Mallika broke the news calmly. Nandana gazed at her eyes which were steady, but there was a disproportion in her posture when she conveyed it.

‘I was hoping it will come, sooner or later.’

Mallika stood still and spoke no word. ‘When are you leaving?’

‘Maybe by tomorrow, during the day. I will be heading back.’

Nandana did not know what to say next. Her wish to go back came true but now she even felt it hard to pronounce any word of it to Mallika. She got up from the bed and looked at Mallika. There was a strange compassion in her when Nandana glanced at her.

‘About that day,’ walking towards her, she began. ‘About what I said of you. I want to apologize for being harsh.’

Mallika drew in a sharp breath. It stung her, Nandana noticed and she felt all the more overwhelmed for having mentioned the unpleasant again. But Mallika’s eyes softened as she peered at her.

‘You didn’t say anything wrong. I was not angry at what you said. I was angry that you could see it so easily.’

Nandana looked down. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’ Then, to lighten the mood, she put up a smile and enquired, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to fight me again?’

Mallika laughed at her. ‘I was winning, clearly.’

‘And I was losing,’ Nandana confessed. ‘Until..’

‘Until?’

Nandana’s smile widened. Mallika’s face turned red instantly. The moment from the morning drew upon her and she couldn’t control her smile. This other part, mostly hidden under a tough exterior, eased a burden inside Nandana. Maybe altogether, it made her feel light like Mallika’s laugh.

‘I think you should rest now,’ she heard Mallika say. With a smile, she nodded her head and looked down. ‘And if you decide to come again, I hope your stay will be different.’

‘Are you already tired of me?’ Nandana gave a sheepish smile.

‘I am saying this for I might be off to somewhere in the morning,’ Mallika added. ‘I wish I could give you a souvenir.’

Nandana smiled at her. She took off the knife from her waistband and held it firmly, before giving it to Mallika.

‘Let this be my souvenir to come back and yours to remember.’

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I am an undergraduate student of Jadavpur University, pursuing my degree in Comparative Literature.
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