He stood near the terrace ledge that was sort of hidden away from everyone else. It was his secret spot and no one was allowed to come there. Smoking one of the last cigarettes from his pack of imported B&Hs, Aditya Vikram Singh sighed. Not in relief but in resignation. Two more months and he would be declared the administrator of state. His mother was retiring as the last queen of Mithila. What have I gotten myself into? he asked himself. But no one was around to help him with answers. At 28, Aditya Vikram Singh returned to his hometown after his older brother died under rather mysterious circumstances. I am sure he himself had hired a henchman to do the job, he thought. Being the escapist Aditya knew his older brother to be, it wouldn't come as a surprise. Inspector Ghanshyam Singh had made at least 10 visits to the palace. But they hadn't found the guy. Quite possible, if it was a royal setup.
I wonder what Amy is up to? She would probably be going to the library just about now? he thought. He missed the smell of the campus. The busy streets of London and the non-intrusive life that he had so carefully built over the last 10 years.
Below, people were scurrying around the household, getting ready for the royal dinner. There were to have guests that evening. Ashokaditya Singh, Maan Singh and Virendra Singh and their respective wives. Uncles and cousins from different family tree offshoots. None of them spoke much English and Aditya's Rajasthani was unpolished. Damn, those bloody pretentious blood-sucking dogs, he said aloud.
Hukum. Mandar whispered.
Turning around, Aditya saw their faithful servant standing behind him, at a distance. His head was lowered in obeisance. His hand folded near his chest.
What is it Mandar?
Rajmata is calling you. The guests have arrived. And you are not yet ready.
Aditya looked down at himself. He had draped one of the royal robes that were in his wardrobe. Underneath, his favourite pair of Calvin Kleins.
Go on ahead, he said. I will be there in a minute.
Mandar nodded and left.
Aditya lit up another cigarette and bent over the ledge to look down. The sun was just about setting and its flames licked the hem of the sky in greed. He took to the stairs, not so ready to meet the guests.
Downstairs a mehfil was all about to begin. The musicians were setting up their instruments and tying their turbans, pretty much at the same time. Ragini Devi would soon be here. She used to be Aditya's father's favourite court singer. After his death, the queen would send a monthly stipend to the girl to further her lessons in music and urdu. She knew that the king looked at Ragini as her daughter, which was not a very uncommon practice. There was no cheating or jealousy there, so it made it easier for her to support the girl's endeavours.
Aditya changed into a royal dress. Churidaar, bunched up neatly near his ankle. A long kurta, delicately embroidered in gold and black and a robe that made him feel a few pounds heavier. He was not obliged to wear a turban and decided to skip it. Strapping his Rolex onto his wrist, he took a look at himself in the mirror. Amy would die laughing if she were to see him like this now.
Hukum. They're waiting for you. Mandar whispered near his ear, without being too informal.
Yes. Let's go.
The royal rituals had changed quite a bit over the years. Aditya's father, Aditya Vikram Singh I, was quite a liberal ruler. He believed in education, trade, slight modernisation that wouldn't harm his subjects and above all, had done away with false and ancient traditions.
Unless it was a large and formal gathering, he didn't think a king needed to be announced in all glory. Everyone can see that I've just walked in, he would say. Ironically, that was one of the last things Aditya remembered his father telling him.
Walking down the winding staircase of the rather worn out palace that needed desperate attention, Aditya saw that a bunch of men and women were huddling down on the low divans, waiting for the music to begin. His mother, was on a chair, nearby, looking up anxiously at her younger son. I do hope he gets used to this. His disdain is so apparent, she said to herself.
Namaste chachaji. Namaste tauji. Namaste Maan Singh. Namaste. he wished everyone and then found his spot and sat down. Ragini Devi was clearing her throat to begin her first ghazal of the night. Under the dim ceiling lights made of etched glass and through a fine embroidered veil, Aditya noticed Ragini's nose ring glimmer like a star.