The crisp, dried petals of flame of forest collided drily, making it sound as though they were whispering secrets to each other, as they rained into the mortar, filling its deep hollow to the brim. The pestle was raised to push and pack the petals in, then to crush them, the shrill clunks of wood against wood and rustling of the distressed flowers accompanied by the jingling of glass bangles.
Veer slowed down. He had come for a specific task. To put it better, he had been sent for the task and he really had no interest in it but to save himself from the life-draining emotional blackmail his dramatic mother would have inflicted upon him had he not given in. So, his plan had been to go, do as she asked and return home, to the things he wanted to do. Except now, his determined, clear focus was unexpectedly addled.
He had glanced at the girl, the dazzling colour of her clothing against the otherwise leafy and shady background catching his attention for a moment, with utter disinterest as he walked the dirt path, following the directions he had been given and minding his own business. It was as if his lack of attention was not appreciated. The soft sounds had snaked through the thick, humid air in his direction, threaded nimbly around his limbs and torso to force him to a stop. To really stop and look at her.
So, he did.
The invisible threads binding him tugged him towards her. Veer sighed. She stilled as he got closer and he could not be sure since she had her back to him, but her grip on the pestle seemed to shift, as if from holding a tool to wielding a weapon. It drew a smile from his lips, turning it into a grin when she turned around as he expected, holding the pestle like a sword. His amusement faltered when he realised, her eyes were staring in the distance past him, not at him.
“Identify yourself,” she spoke, her mellifluous yet shaky voice getting his breaths caught somewhere in his chest. A frown creased her skin between her brows.
A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth again. “Prince Veer of Abhramedini. My apologies for startling you, I was on my way to meet the head colour master, but curiosity drew me to you.”
She lowered her pestle but not her scowl. Her hand came up to brush her cheek, maybe in embarrassment, and left a vermillion smudge against her dusky skin. “And what business do you have with Guruji?”
His eyebrows shot up. No apology from her, not even a modest introduction. “It’s about the colour festival.”
She tilted her head, eyes narrow. “And the kingdom of Abhramedini would send their prince to prepare for the rang utsav?”
“The queen of Abhramedini would send her son,” he chuckled.
After a pensive moment, she shrugged and turned away from him, back to her mortar. “Very well, I won’t hold you back.”
It wasn’t that he was looking for her, but he was pleased to catch sight of her before leaving. His feet unthinkingly took in her direction, lips resisting the exultation that pervaded his body fast.
“My lady,” he addressed her softly so as not to take her by surprise.
She paused in her work of holding individual flowers of jacaranda on her palm, as if inspecting them, before sorting them in three different baskets. “Prince Veer of Abhramedini.”
He froze for a moment before he noticed the small smile playing on her lips. “Himself. I was about to leave when I saw you.”
“And you were curious again?”
“Yes,” he admitted easily. “About one thing.” Her smile grew. “Your name.”
Her laughter sounded like ringing bells, the sound of it suffusing him with tingly warmth. “Naina, for the eyes I don’t have. My grandmother must have seen some humour in it. I am no princess,” she lifted her chin, grinning with tickled mischief, “but I am the best student at the Rang Mahal.”
In the weeks leading up to the rang utsav, Veer had not managed to grow an ounce of interest in the preparation, albeit concerning the colour masters, who were to arrive the day of the festival and open the revels with a colour show. He was, at least, concerned about one colour master.
This time, he was looking for her, his restlessness doubling when he didn’t see her among the colour masters conducting the act. He finally spotted her sitting away from the crowd, her head slanted towards the show. Her attire was the customary white demanded by the festival so it could be coloured in the festivities, but he remarked hers was unblemished.
He had barely gotten close to her when she turned in his direction already, smiling. “Prince Veer of Abhramedini, my greetings.”
“How did you-?”
“The saffron on your right shoulder, smeared by your youngest brother, alerted me.” Her eyes glimmered as if she sensed and relished his confusion. “Colours speak to me, prince, that’s the only way I could be a colour master,” she explained.
He lowered himself onto the ground next to her. Before them, the colour masters swirled plumes of colours into the image of a battlefield but he wasn’t following. He might have been if his gaze wasn’t so captivated by her. “And why are you not up there?”
“The queen wanted a precise choreography. My work is more instinctual and unrestrained so, I preferred not to ruin the show.”
“But you came anyway.”
Naina chuckled. “I thought there might be a curious prince lurking.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Indeed, and he was hoping to see you perform.”
Reaching for her jhola with a grin, she pulled out a handful of lilac powder that she shyly placed into his palm. As she lightly placed her hand under his, the powder rearranged into a cluster of lilacs.
“There, my curious prince.”