Forbidden Jewel of India(5)

By: Louise Allen

                       Chapter Two

 Nick changed, choosing his clothing with some care—the message from the raja had stipulated no uniform. When the escort came he walked, relaxed, between the four heavily armed members of the royal bodyguard. He had not expected to be received with anything but warmth, but it was good to have that confirmed. If Kirat Jaswan had decided his interests lay elsewhere than with the East India Company now that his sister was dead, then Nick’s mission would have become both dangerous and exceedingly difficult.

 He supposed, if diplomacy failed, it was possible to remove an unwilling, intelligent and able-bodied princess from a heavily fortified palace in the middle of her uncle’s kingdom and get her back across hundreds of miles to Delhi with an angry raja’s troops at his heels, but he would prefer not to have to try. Or to start a small war in the process.

 As it was, he felt good. He was clean, he was relaxed by the bath and the massage and the amusement of teasing the infuriating female he had to escort out of here.

 Now, with her mother dead, and her father’s own wife gone, there was no one to hurt by George removing his daughter from the raja’s court and turning her into an English lady. And there were a number of very good political reasons for bringing her to Calcutta into the bargain.

 Nick strode into the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience. In his peripheral vision he was aware of marble pillars, the men in the robes and the ornate safa turbans of the elite on either side, of guards, their weapons drawn in ceremonial salute.

 He kept his eyes on the slight figure in a gold embroidered chauga seated amidst piled cushions on the silver-embossed throne on the dais before him. As he reached two sword-lengths from the steps he made the first obeisance, aware of the flutter of silks, the drift of perfume, from behind the stone grillework of the gallery. The ladies of the court were there, watching and listening. Those in favour would have access to the raja, would give him their opinion of his guest. Was Miss Laurens there? He was certain that curiosity would have brought her.

 ‘Your Highness,’ he said in English. ‘Major Nicholas Herriard, at your service. I bring salutations from the Governor of the Calcutta Presidency with most grateful thanks for the honour of my reception.’

 The white-clad munshi looked up from his writing desk at the raja’s feet and spoke in rapid Hindi. Raja Kirat Jaswan replied in the same language while Nick kept his face studiously blank.

 ‘His Highness, Lord of Kalatwah, Defender of the Sacred Places, Prince of the Emerald Lake, Favoured of the Lord Shiva...’ Nick stood frozen in place while the munshi reeled off the titles in English. ‘...commands you to approach.’

 He stepped forwards and met the shrewd dark brown eyes that were regarding him from beneath the jewelled and plumed brocade of the turban. Overhead the ropes of the punkah fan creaked faintly.

 The raja spoke. ‘It gives me pleasure to welcome the friend of my friend, Laurens,’ the secretary translated. ‘You left him in good health?’

 ‘I did, your Highness, although low in spirits from the death of his wife. And...another loss. He sends letters and gifts by my hand as does the Governor.’

 The secretary translated. ‘I was sorry to hear of his wife and that his heart is still in grief, as mine is for the death of my sister last year. I know he will have shared my feelings. There is much to discuss.’ He waved a hand at the munshi. ‘We have no need of a translator, I think,’ the raja added in perfect English. ‘You will join me and we will relax, Major Herriard.’

 It was a command, a great favour and exactly what Nick was hoping for. ‘My lord, you do me honour.’

 * * *

 The rani’s position in the women’s gallery around the audience hall was the very best position for observing and listening. Anusha had settled comfortably against the piled pillows next to Paravi as maids placed low tables covered in little dishes around them.

 ‘We should hear well,’ said the rani as they waited for the raja to arrive. The acoustics had been carefully designed in all the rooms: in some to baffle sound, in others to enable eavesdropping with ease. Here, in circumstances where the raja would consult with his favourite after a meeting, a conversation in a normal tone would reach easily to the pierced screens.

 ‘Savita tells me that your log of wood is as supple as a young sapling,’ Paravi added mischievously. ‘Such muscles...’

 Anusha dropped the almonds she had just picked up. Rummaging in the cushions to retrieve them at least gave her the chance to compose her face and suppress her unruly imagination. ‘Truly? You amaze me.’

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