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As hangovers went, this one certainly qualified for the superior category, Christopher Ralston reflected painfully, and if anyone was a good judge of such matters, he was. The sun seemed unnecessarily shiny in that bright blue mountain sky, glinting in unfriendly fashion off the eye-hurting dazzle of the snowcapped peaks.
Ordinarily, the majesty of the Afghan landscape could stir him despite his general malaise, but today was a particularly bad day. Smiling plains, stark mountains, busy streams, bravely winding tracks pursuing their rocky, devious course despite all the odds thrown up by the terrain all failed to ease the persistent throb at his temples, to lift the numbing heaviness of depression, to lubricate his dry mouth, soothe his frying eyeballs, quiet his uncooperative stomach.
As always, he wondered why he did this to himself. Why play the last hand...and the last hand... and the the very last hand? Why have the last brandy ... and the last brandy...and the very last brandy? Why fall, night after night, onto his cot, cursing his batman, who struggled with hooks and buttons and boots, as he put is near insensible officer to bed?
Silly question. Who wouldn't seek oblivion, banished to this godforsaken outpost of the civilizedworld? Banished to the mediocrity of a lieutenantcy in the East India Company's Cavalry?
God, what an irony! His lip curled in self-mockery. The Honorable Kit Ralston, society's darling despite his rakehell reputation or perhaps because of it the dashing captain ofthe Seventh Light Dragoons, cast into outer darkness because of a drunken impulse!
"Your pardon, sir, but we've been riding for four hours. The men will be better for tiffin."
The soft tones of Havildar Abdul Ali fell like raindrops, but the reminder, for all its gentleness, was none the less an imperative. Kit nodded brusquely to the sergeant, trying to appear as if the reminder had been unnecessary. "I have it in mind to halt in those trees. We'll be less exposed." He gestured with his whip to the lee of the mountain, where a small copse offered a jewel of lush green in the bare sandy plain.
"Of course, sir," murmured the ever-tactful havildar. "A perfect choice."
Kit wondered if he could detect irony in the man's tones, and decided he didn't much care either way. Lieutenant Ralston's disaffection from his present service was no secret to the men or officers; but then, none of them was overjoyed to be part of an army of occupation with not the slightest legal or moralwitexcuse for the role, using British bayonets to force upon the unwilling Afghans a ruler whom the loathed...and loathed with good reason. Shah Soojah was that species of oppressor whose tyranny had its base in his own lack of spirit and excess of fear. He was no ruler for the fiercely independent Afghan tribal chiefs.
Lieutenant Ralston gazed wearily around the landscape, speculating idly on what he and his patrol would do if they came face to face with a warring party of Ghilzai hillmen. Turn tail and run for it, probably. The Ghilzais were hardly civilized foe, although more so than the Ghazi fanatics, but they were all zealots when it came to their determination to engage in guerilla warfare against the feringhee invaders and their puppet ruler, who presumed to tax them and dictate to them; who denied the hillmen their immemorial right to levy charges for safe use of the mountain passes; whose arrogance ignored the self-determination of the Afghan tribes and their khans.
He touched spur to his horse. "Let's stop dallying, Havildar."
Abdul Ali permitted himself the slightest lift of an eyebrow before calling an order to the five sepoys behind him and following his commanding officer at the gallop across the plain.
The cool green corpse was one of those delightful surprises with which this generally inhospitable landscape was dotted. It was more extensive than had appeared from the distance, and they found a clearing floored with a carpet of thick green moss sprinkled with golden buttercups.
The prospect of food revolted Lieutenant Ralston and he left his men cheerfully preparing their tiffin, himself wandering on foot further into the trees. The path began to slope gently downhill, and he followed it without much thought, venturing deeper into the wood. The lake, when he came upon it quite unexpectedly, took his breath away. It was a perfect circle within a necklace of trees, large, flat stones at the bottom glistening through the translucent water. He took a step toward it, out of the trees, intending, to cool his aching head in the inviting water, when something caught his eye and his step faltered. He moved back instinctively into the trees and stood still, staring.
Someone was swimming in the lake. A bare white arm curved, cleaved the surface. At this distance, he could make out no distinguishing features, but his eye fell upon a pile of material some feet from the water's edge, quite close to where he stood. The swimmer's clothes, he presumed. The little heap offered nothing that could identify the dress as European.
Curious, he stepped from the screen of trees and moved to the pile, bending to examine it.
He heard nothing, until the tiny prick in the soft vulnerable spot behind his right ear froze him, rigid with alarm. Someone was standing behind him, holding the point of something very sharp against his skin. A voice, a female voice, spoke harshly in Pushtu. He swallowed, trying not to move his head in case he might inadvertently drive the-point into his scalp.
"I speak a little Persian," he said in that language, "but no Pushtu. I mean no harm."
To his relief, the pricking pressure was lifted, but he remained still, not daring to turn.