Forbidden Jewel of India(10)

By: Louise Allen

 ‘My uncle will not surrender to him!’ The floor was cold under her bare feet as she scrambled out of bed, the night air chill through the thin cotton of her shift.

 ‘No, he will stand firm. The raja has already despatched riders to his allies in Agra and Gwalior and to Delhi. The Company will send troops as soon as it receives the news and then I suspect Altaphur will back down without further fighting. Your uncle only has to withstand a siege for a matter of weeks.’

 Was he attempting to soothe her with easy lies?

Anusha tried to read his face in the gloom and control her churning stomach. ‘You will stay here and fight?’ Why one more soldier would make any difference, she did not know, but somehow the thought of this man at her uncle’s right shoulder made her feel better. He was arrogant, aggravating and foreign, but she had no doubt that Major Herriard was a warrior.

 ‘No. You and I are leaving. Now.’

 ‘I am not going to leave my uncle and run away! What do you take me for? A coward?’ His eyes flickered over her and she was suddenly aware of how thin her garment was, of how her nipples had peaked in the cool

air. Anusha swept the bedcovers around her like a robe and glared at him as he got to his feet. ‘Lecher!’

 ‘I rather hoped I could take you for a sensible woman,’ he said with a sigh. He added something under his breath in English and she pounced on it.

 ‘What is this? A tutty-hooded female?’

 ‘Totty-headed. Foolish,’ he translated. ‘No, clawing my eyes out is not going to help.’ He caught her wrists with contemptuous ease. ‘Listen to me. Do you think it will help your uncle to have to worry about you on top of everything else? And if the worst happens, what are you going to do? Lead the women to the pyres or become a hostage?’

 Anusha drew in a deep breath. He is right, may all the demons take him. She knew where her duty lay and she was not a child to refuse out of spite. She would go, not because this man told her to, but because her raja willed it. And because this was no longer her home. ‘No, if my uncle tells me to go, then I will go. How?’

 ‘You can ride a horse?’

 ‘Of course I can ride a horse! I am a Rajput.’

 ‘Then dress for riding—hard riding. Dress as a man and wear tough cloth and good boots, wrap your hair in a turban. Bring a roll of blankets, the nights are cold outside, but only pack what you must have. Can you do that? I will meet you in the court below. Jaldi.’

 ‘I may be totty-headed, Major Herriard, but I am not a fool. And, yes, I understand the need to hurry.’

 ‘Can you dress without help?’ He paused on the threshold, a broad shadow against the pale marble.

 Beyond words, Anusha threw a sandal at him and its ivory toe-post broke against the door jamb. He melted away into the darkness, leaving her shivering, the drumbeats vibrating through her very bones. For a moment she stood there, forcing herself to think clearly of what she must do, then she ran to the two maids. Under her groping fingers the blood beat strongly below their jawbones. Spies or not, they were alive.

 She lifted the nightlight and took it round the room, touching it to the wicks of the lamps in every niche until there was enough light to see by. The mirrored fragments in the walls reflected her image in a myriad of jagged shards as she pulled out the last of the trunks, the one containing clothes for use on the journey. She dressed in plain trousers, tight in the calf, wide at the thigh, then layers above, topped by a long, dark brown split-sided coat. Her soft riding boots were there and she pulled them on, slid a dagger into the top of the right one and another, a tiny curved knife, into her belt.

 It was quick to twist her hair into a tight plait to pile on the crown of her head and she wrapped and tied a turban out of dark brown cloth, fumbling as she did so. Sometimes she secured her hair like this when riding, but her maids had always tied it.

 Money. How much money did Herriard have? Anusha

pulled the long cloth free, rummaged in the trunk again and found the jewels she had intended to wear as they arrived in Calcutta, chosen to emphasise her status and her independence. She stuffed the finest into a bag, coiled her hair around it and rewrapped the turban.

 Two blankets rolled around a change of linen, toilet articles, a bag containing hairpins and comb, tinder box. What else? She rubbed her temples—the drums stopped her thinking properly, invaded her head. Soon someone would come to check on her, fuss over her, shepherd her to the inner fastness of the palace where she really wanted to be. Where it was her duty not to go.

 Anusha found her little box of medicines, added that, rolled up the blankets, tied them with leather straps and caught up the bundle in her arms. The walls were honeycombed with passages and stairs and she took one of the narrowest and least-used ways down, tiptoeing as she reached the doorway.

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