Forbidden Jewel of India(7)By: Louise Allen
‘There will be war?’ The state had been at peace for almost seventy years. But the court poets and musicians told the stories of past battles and of terrible defeats as well as glorious victories, of the men riding out, dressed in their ochre funerary robes, knowing they were going to their deaths, and the women filing down to the great burning pyres to commit jauhar, ritual suicide, rather than fall into the hands of the conqueror. Anusha shuddered. She would choose to ride out to die in battle, not go to the pyre.
‘No, of course not,’ the rani said with a confidence that Anusha did not believe. ‘The Company will protect us if we are their allies.’
‘Yes.’ It was best to agree. Anusha looked down at the golden head, bent listening. Then the Englishman looked up to meet the raja’s eyes and she caught the intensity in his face as he spoke with sudden passion, his hand slashing out in a gesture she could not interpret.
The court was moving back to clear space for a nautch. The dancers entered amidst the music of the bells on the silver chains around their ankles. Then they began to move, perfectly together, their wide, vivid skirts swinging out like exploding fireworks. But the two men did not spare them a glance and Anusha felt a cold finger of apprehension trail down her spine.
* * *
She went to her bedchamber unsettled and restless, her mind churning with her anxieties over the threat from across the border and the humiliation of the bathhouse.
‘Anusha.’ Paravi came in, her face serious.
‘What is it?’ Anusha dropped the book she was thumbing through and pushed back the loose hair that spilled over her shoulders.
‘My lord wishes to speak with you privately, without his councillors. Come to my chamber.’
Anusha realised that there were no maids present—neither her own, nor any with the rani. She stood up from the low couch, slid her feet into sandals and followed Paravi while her mind whirled with speculation.
Her uncle was unattended, his face starkly under-lit by the little lamps flickering on a low table by his side. Anusha made her reverence and waited, wondering why Paravi had pulled her veil over her face.
‘Major Herriard here has come from your father,’ Kirat Jaswan said without preamble. ‘He is concerned for you.’
Her father? Her pulse jolted with something close to fear. What could he want with her? Then the raja’s wording struck her. ‘Here?’
The big man stepped out of the shadows and bowed, unsmiling. He was still in Indian dress. The lamplight caught the gleam of the emeralds in his ear lobes, the silver embroidery and buttons of his coat. He looked both exotic and utterly comfortable, as at home in this guise as he seemed in the scarlet uniform.
‘I thought you were from the Company,’ Anusha challenged him in Hindi. ‘Not my father’s servant.’
The raja hissed a word of reproof, but the Englishman answered her in the same language, his green eyes meeting hers with a bold, assessing stare. No man should look at an unveiled woman not of his family like that. ‘I come from both. The Company is concerned about the intentions of the Maharaja of Altaphur towards this state. And so is your father.’
‘I understand why they should be concerned about a threat to Kalatwah. But why is my father thinking about me after all these years?’ Her uncle did not reprove her for not veiling herself. It was as though he was suddenly treating her as an Englishwoman, she thought with a shiver of alarm. The rani had slipped back into the shadows.
‘Your father has never ceased to concern himself with your welfare,’ the man Herriard said. He sounded irritated with her and when she shook her head in instinctive denial he frowned. ‘He saw the offer of marriage from Altaphur as a threat, a way of pressuring the Company through you.’
Her father knew about that? Kept such a close watch over her? It took her a moment for the meaning to force its way through resentment and the unsettling atmosphere of conspiracy. ‘I would have been a hostage?’
‘How dreadful, that I might inconvenience the Company and my father in that way.’
‘Anusha!’ The raja slapped his palm down on the table.
‘Do not call me that.’ Her knees were shaking, but no one could see beneath the long skirts of her robe.
‘It is your name.’ Presumably the man spoke to his troops in this manner. She was not one of his troops. Anusha’s chin went up—that stopped it trembling as well.
‘Your father and I agree it would be better for you to return to his house,’ her uncle said. His quiet voice with its expectation of instant obedience cut across their hostility.