Forbidden Jewel of India(6)

By: Louise Allen

 ‘I wonder if he has read all the classical texts,’ Paravi continued. ‘He would be so strong, and most vigorous.’

 Anusha took an incautious mouthful of nuts and coughed. Vigorous...

 ‘And he has very large...feet.’

 There was no answer to that, especially as she was not sure what Paravi meant and suspected she was being teased. Anusha feigned interest in the arrival below of the male courtiers as they poured in to fill up the hall in a noisy, jostling, colourful mass. As the servants went from niche to niche, lighting the ghee lamps, the mirror fragments and gems in the walls and ceilings began to reflect back the light in scintillating patterns like constellations in the darker sky of shadows.

 Faintly, there was the sound of the musicians tuning their instruments in the courtyard. It was beautiful and familiar and yet Anusha felt an ache of something she was beginning to recognise as loneliness.

 How was it possible to feel lonely when she was never alone? To feel she was not part of this world when it had been her life for ten years, when she was surrounded by her mother’s family?

 Her uncle walked through the crowd and took his place, gestured for the courtiers to be seated, then beckoned.

 A tall figure in a sherwani of gold-and-green brocade over green pajama trousers walked through the seated men to the steps of the throne. For a moment Anusha could not place him until the pale gold of his hair, falling on his shoulders, caught the light. He bowed his head, his cupped right hand lifting to his heart in the graceful gesture of obeisance. As he straightened she saw the green fire of an emerald in his earlobe.

 ‘Look,’ she whispered to Paravi. ‘Just look at him!’ In the costume of the court the major should have looked more ordinary, but he did not. The brocade and the silks, the severe lines of the long coat and the glitter of gems, made the pale hair and the broad shoulders and the golden skin seem more exotic, more strange.

 ‘I am doing so!’

 The raja motioned impatiently to the servants and they lifted the cushions from the foot of the dais and arranged them on the right side of the throne where the munshi’s desk had stood. ‘You will join me,’ Kirat Jaswan said.

 ‘My lord. You do me honour.’ The Hindi was accurate, perfectly accented. The big Englishman sank down and crossed his legs beneath him with the ease of an Indian. The raja dropped his hand to his shoulder and leaned over to speak.

 ‘I cannot hear,’ Paravi complained. ‘But here is the food, they cannot both whisper and eat.’

 Indeed, as a succession of small dishes were presented to the raja, and he offered them in turn to the angrezi, the two men straightened up and most of what they said could be heard. But, to Anusha’s frustration, it was all the most innocuous conversation.

 She ate absently, her eyes on the fair hair beneath, the glimpses of the Englishman’s profile as he turned his head to answer her uncle. His voice held the easy rhythms of a man who had not only been taught Hindi well, but who used it, day in, day out. What had he said his name was? Herriard? A strange name—she tried it out silently.

 Then the food was finally cleared away, the scented water and cloths presented for the washing of hands and the great silver hookah was brought, with an extra mouthpiece for the guest. Both men appeared to relax as the music began.

 ‘They are discussing something of importance now,’ Paravi said. ‘See how they use the mouthpieces to shield their lips so that no one can read them.’

 ‘Why should they be so concerned? It is only the court around us.’

 ‘There are spies,’ the rani said after a swift glance. She lifted her hand with apparent casualness to shield her own mouth. ‘The Maharaja of Altaphur will have men in the court and agents here amongst the servants.’

 ‘Altaphur is an enemy?’ Surprised, Anusha twisted to face her. ‘But my uncle considered his request to wed me and sent him a fine horse when I refused. He said nothing then about any enmity.’

 ‘It is safer to pretend to be friends with the tiger who lives at the bottom of one’s garden than to let him see you know about his teeth. My lord would not have allowed the match even if you had agreed, but he made it seem the refusal was a woman’s whim, not a ruler’s snub.’

 ‘But why is he an enemy?’

 ‘This is a small but rich state—there is much to covet here. And, as you said earlier, we are in a position that interests the East India Company so they will make concessions to whoever rules, perhaps.’ Paravi spoke as though she was just working this out, but Anusha sensed a deeper knowledge behind the words. She caught an edge of fear in the other woman’s voice. Much had been hidden from her, she realised. Even her friend had been wearing a mask. No one had trusted her with the truth. Or perhaps they just thought her not important enough: the niece with the English blood in her veins.

Also By Louise Allen

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