Forbidden Jewel of India(9)

By: Louise Allen

 ‘What is he doing there?’ Anusha demanded, raising her voice. If the wretched man was listening behind the pierced screen wall then he deserved to hear her opinion. The men who ruled her life had left her two choices: she could weep and give up or she could lose her temper. Her pride would not allow the first, so the major must bear the brunt of the other. ‘This is the women’s mahal.’

 ‘There is a eunuch with him and curtains have been hung around the room,’ Paravi hissed. ‘He is checking everything as it is packed.’

 ‘Hah! My uncle says I may have twenty elephants, forty camels, forty bullock carts, horses...’

 ‘And I say it is too much,’ said a deep voice from behind the far wall of pierced stone. Anusha jumped and stubbed her toe on a studded chest. ‘Anyone would think you are going to marry the Emperor, Miss Laurens. And besides, your father will want you to wear Western clothes and jewels in Calcutta.’

 ‘Mata told me about those clothes.’ Anusha marched across a stack of carpets until she was next to the jali. A large shadow on the silk hangings was all she could see of him through the screen. ‘Corsets! Stockings! Garters! She said they were instruments of torture.’

 There was a snort from the other side. ‘They are not things a lady mentions in the presence of a man,’ Herriard said, laughter quivering in his voice.

 ‘Then go away. I do not require your presence here. I do not require your presence at all, anywhere, gloating because you are getting your way. If you listen from hiding like a spy, then you must endure whatever I say.’ There was a faint moan from the rani behind her. ‘Go away, Major Herriard. Twenty elephants are no slower than ten.’

 ‘Twenty elephants eat twice as much as ten,’ he retorted. ‘We leave the day after tomorrow. Anything that is not ready, or will not go on half the transport you have listed, will be left behind. And whilst I feel the greatest satisfaction in following your father’s wishes, I am not gloating.’

 Anusha opened her mouth to retort, but the sound of footsteps leaving the other room silenced her. It was intolerable to be prevented from arguing because the man had the ill manners to remove himself.

 ‘Find me a dagger,’ she said, narrowing her eyes at the nearest maid, who was apparently rooted to the spot. ‘That at least I will take—I can imagine a nice broad target for it.’ And she would take all her jewels because when she was in Calcutta and Major Herriard was no longer her jailer she would need them to pay for her escape from her prison. From her father’s house.

 * * *

 Her dagger was in her hand and she would use it because the wretched angrezi was shouting at her and shaking her and drums were beating the alarm and there was danger all around.

 ‘Ah! Ra—’ Anusha’s shriek of rape was choked in her throat as a large hand clamped over her mouth. She had been asleep, dreaming, but now—

 ‘Quiet,’ Nicholas Herriard hissed in her ear. ‘We must leave, at once, in secret. When I take my hand away you will whisper or I’ll clip you on the jaw and carry you out. Do you understand?’

 Furious, frightened—do not let him see that—Anusha

nodded and he removed his hand. ‘Where are my maids?’ He jerked his head towards the corner and she opened her mouth to scream as she saw the two crumpled bodies lit by the flickering light of one ghee lamp. The hand came back, none too gently. The skin bore the calluses of a rider and chafed her lips. He tasted of leather.

 ‘Drugged,’ he murmured in her ear, pressing his palm tight over her mouth to foil her attempt to bite. ‘There are spies, I cannot risk it. Listen.’ He freed her mouth again.

 Now she was awake she realised that the drums that had been echoing through her dream were real, their sound vibrating through the palace. She had never heard them like this, at night, so urgent. ‘An attack?’

 ‘The Maharaja of Altaphur has moved fast. There are war elephants and cavalry not four hours distant.’

 ‘He discovered you are here? That you had come for me?’ Anusha sat up, dragged the covers around her as Herriard sank back on his heels beside the low bed. He was wearing Indian dress again, but now it was plain riding gear with boots and a tight, dark turban to cover the betraying shimmer of pale hair.

 ‘He was already mobilising his troops—he must have been to get so close so fast. Then his spies told him that someone from the Company was here, perhaps that I intended to take you away, perhaps that I was negotiating. My guess is that he decided on a pre-emptive strike to seize the state before your uncle made an alliance with the Company.’

Also By Louise Allen

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