“How are we supposed to get closer?” An angry female voice asked.
“Have patience!” A male voice chided the female voice.
“What patience? When we spoke, you promised very close seating. Now you see! We are nowhere near the Originals, leave the Simha cordon!” The female voice hissed in frustration.
“My contact will come and pull us through. We must wait!” The male voice said again.
“Tell you what! This is all a waste of efforts! I am sure now that nothing can be accomplished this way. Trust me. The other method was the best, but you guys are chicken!” the female voice lashed out.
“ Will you stop pulling us down at every given opportunity?” The male voice rasped.
“ Why should I even bother? Do as you please, and get nowhere!” The female voice said, and was about to say something when the male voice forbade her saying, “Shhh… someone is coming this way!
The Whisper Valley
“Hi Alberto! How are you?” Khushi asked him, in the absence of any other idea of a reaction to what he had said.
In reply she got a cold glare from him.
“I know! I know you are…er cross with me, but believe me I have my own reasons for not divulging about my identity to you. Infact, it all happened so suddenly that I couldn’t explain it to myself” she said frowning.
“Well, what could I say?” Alberto cribbed and added, “Just that I am hurt!”
“Oh no! Please don’t say that!” Khushi somehow did not like that someone was hurt by her, although unintentionally.
“What can I do to assure you that it was not intentional?” Khushi offered.
Alberto smiled and said, “That’s ok! I shall be more careful hereafter dealing with people” and was gone before she could say anything.
Khushi was upset with the turn of events between her and Alberto, and the rest of the evening went on in a rush, as Devyani insisted she take charge in the absence of Arnav.
Where was he? She wondered even as the ball went on full swing. People started enjoying the dances and the eats that were being offered, and there was a festive feel all over with women dressed elegantly and men dancing merrily without a care.
Khushi flopped off in a chair, as her legs ached and then she saw him walking to her.
The Whisper Valley
It was an hour since his return, and Khushi couldn’t put her finger on anything that could support her feeling that something was amiss. The warmth was missing. There was a cold aggression in him that touched her heart and cut through it. May be some business matter that was eating at him. She concluded and patted herself, as she asked him, “ Arnav, are you ok?”
He turned to her and smiled, and she thought something was missing in the smile, as he said, “ Everything is fantastic darl!”
She stared at him with wide eyes. The voice. His voice!
“What?” He asked her, when she stared at him without batting an eyelid.
“Your voice! What happened to that?” She asked him.
He frowned and said, “Why? It’s the same. Only that the difference in climate between Mumbai and here, works on my voice sometimes” he said gruffly, coughing a little.
Khushi tried to smile, but couldn’t.
Why was she feeling so odd.
As she was musing, his arm went round her waist, and she shuddered making him ask, “What happened?” She said, “ Nothing just that I feel so odd.”
“Well, you are a new bride and this entire place full of strangers is bound to make you odd” he reasoned out.
“No that’s no issue with me” she said, and then said, “May be I am tired.”
“Oh! Just rest a while” he crooned, and she again felt odd at his crooning the last part. Suddenly he was so different! She thought.
“Just hang on! I shall be right back” he said, and walked to two men and women who were hovering along a rope that marked the cordon for Simha family.
The Whisper Valley
Khushi walked to Devyani who was now beaming and was resting sipping on a fruit juice and sat by her and squeezed her arm saying, “I am so happy that you are recovering fast.”
She smiled and said, “Thank you for all this.”
“Granny why are you saying that?” She asked the elderly lady.
“I mean it Khsuhi. My grandson needed a sensible girl to be his anchor in these difficult times, and now I am just relieved off his responsibility. I can die peacefully today!” She said grimly.
“Don’t you dare say that!” Khushi chided her, and her eyes automatically shifted to where Arnav was standing, speaking to a lady and two men and suddenly they all moved to the entrance of the hall.
Khushi turned to granny and asked, “Granny tell me one thing, why is the legend so mysterious and complicated?”
Devyani went still but only for a second. She then said, “My dear, the life of Arnav Simha and Willow Feathers was so complicated that an account of it makes you wary!”
“True but atleast Anne Mac’ Pherson who wrote it could have written it in a very simple manner. Couldn’t she?” Khushi asked.
“True! But Anne wrote as she saw it!” Granny tried to explain.
“But Anne was not a contemporary! She was the great grand daughter wasn’t she?” Khushi asked.
“Yeah but they say that Willow’s ghost actually made Anne write the story!” Granny said.
Khushi gasped and asked, “Do you believe in all this granny?”
Granny smiled and said, “When you live it, you will have to believe it.”
Khushi was confused by his non-committal answer.
“How can you say that? What do you mean by that please explain” She requested.
“I am only saying that ‘The Legend of the Whispering Valley’ itself is the proof that Anne had actually been told about this by none other than Willow! Else how would she know about all the details? Tell me?” She asked Khushi.
Khushi thought she had a point. Or may be Anne got hold of some diary or something of Willow Feathers, she mused inwardly. Nevertheless she continued by asking, “Tell me one thing granny, “What happened after Willow and Arnav Simha got married?”
Devyani went pale and asked, “Why do you want to know that?”
“No! I just am reading the legend and unfortunately, its not completely available and I am dying to know what happened to Willow and Arnav Simha after they got married.” Khushi said cautiously.
Devyani coughed and started sweating and Khushi got up and rubbed on her chest asking, “Are you fine?”
She nodded but said, “I feel very weak… may be its too hectic for me. Please take me home.”
Khushi nodded and with the help of maids, shifted her to Casa Willows.
As she settled her, she got a message from Arnav that he was waiting for her for the final waltz. This was customary for the first couple to close the fair, as well by gracing the last waltz.
She nodded, and as she walked to the entrance, she realized she forgot her scarf, and walked back to the hall where she dropped it. As she picked it, she felt the room go very cold suddenly, and then warm.
She thought it was her imagination, when a sudden gust of wind rattled the closed French windows alarming her for a second. And the wooden bookshelf by the window rattled and something fell making her walk to it. It was a thin book. She picked it, and tried to place it back, but something fell from it making her again bend and retrieve it. It was a yellowed page probably that which came loose off the page.
She turned it and gasped, as there was a beautiful pic of Willow and Arnav Simha. But wait a minute! There was something odd! She thought. In the painting, Willow was holding an infant baby, and Arnav Simha was with his arm round her waist. But Willow was actually looking at his hand, and not at the painter and it appeared as if she was frowning.
Khushi smiled despite herself. It was typical of Willow to get into some or the other notion, and bother poor Arnav Simha. She shook her head and read the caption below, which mentioned the artist and the fact that it was presented to Arnav Simha in 1873 just a week before Willow committed suicide.
Khushi stood rooted to the spot. Willow killed herself? She couldn’t believe it that a spirited woman like Willow, who dared even the dacoits could commit suicide.
She turned the page and tried to read, but the yellowing of the page had muddled the print.
She carefully tucked it into the book and hid it at a point so that after the ball she could come back and read it in detail. As she made to move she felt the scent wafting across. It was the ‘Valley of Willows’! Khushi inhaled deep and slow, and looked around. It was so strange! How come there was this wafting scent that made her feel as if she was followed by it actually. She walked to the entrance and stepped out to walk a few meters to the Town Hall, but she heard footsteps and the scent grew in its strength. She turned and saw Arnav walking towards her. She waved and said, “I am on my way. Why did you leave the Ball and come here. He smiled and said, “To accompany you my lady to the Last Waltz!”
Again Khushi felt odd. He was so radiant all of a sudden! Like what she felt at the hotel in Mumbai.
He smiled and asked, “So how did my lady like the ball?”
“Very nice your highness” she said mock reverently.
He thumped his thigh and laughed and Khushi frowned. Arnav never did such a thing. He was city bred and was very suave. Today he was a little in the element she concluded, as he walked by her. The scent wafted across…
“Khushi before we get in let me tell you one thing” he said.
“Yes Arnav” she said listening to him.
“Don’t trust anyone in the Valley” he said making her to stop walking and look at him.
“Yes my dear!” He said
“Buy why are you saying that to me?” She asked.
“Coz you don’t know how treacherous the Valley is!” He said.
She sighed and said, “I dunno what you are talking about. But yes I understand that this is a big maze, where you get only questions and no answers.”
“Wrong! There are answers, but you need to unravel them. They are shrouded in lies and intrigue” he said firmly.
“Why do you say that?” She asked him.
“I say that cause I have seen that here a lie comes wrapped in truth. But only few can see that its only skin deep.” He paused and said, “Never judge a man by his appearance Khushi.”
“Ofcourse I know that” she said.
“Yeah you do… but did you ever check beyond the appearance?” He suddenly sounded very gruff and aloof, as if his voice came from far away and it enveloped her.
Khushi smarted as he said, “Just check twice inside a man than just his appearance. You will find that its actually a cat that’s swathed in the skin of a tiger. A man is not just what he resembles. He is what he is from inside.”
“Why are you saying this?” She whispered.
He smiled and stepped back and said, “Coz The Valley and its secrets are very dangerous and I want you to be cautious. Very cautious, with everyone.”
“That includes you?” She asked playfully just to ease the grimness and he smiled and said, “Yes.”
Before she could answer, there were voices that were heard towards the garden end, and they had almost reached the entrance of the hall. Khushi sniffed and still felt the scent wafting and Arnav smiled at her amusedly and said, “I just forgot something. Just walk in I am there in a minute, and turned to his right, and walked into the fog which was very thick by then as it was midnight.”
Khushi took one deep breath before stepping into the Town Hall when she abruptly stopped. The Valley of Willows- the scent was gone! She shook her head and stepped in nevertheless.
The Whisper Valley
They were being called for the Last Waltz, and Khushi was still confused about the wafting scent, and her encounter with the portrait of Willow and Arnav Simha. She stood before the huge original painting and realised that although Willow appeared to be the same, Arnav Simha somehow looked different. The portrait she saw at home had Arnav looking different.
Where was the difference? She wondered.
Arnav Simha in the Original was very standoffish yet his face had a radiance. The radiance of a valiant knight, and a ruler who was righteous. The Arnav Simha in the other portrait was not so authoritative. He looked very odd! He looked vile. Period. She shuddered at the thought, and found Arnav by her side, as he ushered her on to the dance floor. As they moved, Khushi distinctly could feel the difference. His arms round her always made her feel warm. But she felt cold and very odd, as if she was dancing with a stranger. She looked up just in time to catch him observing keenly.
“What?” She asked him.
“Nothing was just wondering if I gave those keys to you?” he enquired.
“Which keys?” She asked him frowning at his suddenly gruff voice.
Arnav’s voice was deep and very pleasant. How come it turned gruff and very shallow? She parried.
“Did I give you any keys for the family vault?”He asked her.
“No why?” She asked him.
He smiled and said, “Nothing! This Annual fair has messed up with my memory!” He smiled, but Khushi felt somehow that he was checking on her. His next query proved her thoughts right.
“Khushi did I give you any old transcript for safe keeping?” He asked her.
Khuhsi studied him, and he smiled and she thought he looked very unsure of himself. Where was all the cool confidence of the business tycoon! Where was that ease with which he charmed everyone! How could it be that he lost all of it in a go!
“Khushi? “He shook her a little and she again felt odd. Arnav was never was so rude. She smiled and said, “Why do you ask?”
“No, I seem to have too much on my mind. Gran’s health, the annual fare and business issues, everything so complicated that I am jumbled” he explained.
“Oh!” Khushi dropped her hands to his wrists and froze. She couldn’t feel the talisman tied to his wrist. She checked discretely and found it gone.
Khushi Tripathi gazed at the man who held her, as the fact dawned to her-He was not her husband. The man who she was having her last waltz with, was not the one who danced the first waltz with her.