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The palace of Kalatwah, Rajasthan, India March 1788
Patterns of sunlight and shade fell through the pierced stone panels on to the white marble floor, soothing to the eye after miles of dusty roads. Major Nicholas Herriard rolled his shoulders to loosen them as he walked. The physical stresses of the long journey began to fade. A bath, a massage, a change of clothes and he would feel human again.
Running feet, the faint, sharp scratch of claws on marble. The hilt of the knife in his boot came to hand with the familiarity of long practice as he twisted to face the side passage, crouched to meet an attack.
A mongoose shot out of the opening, skidded to a halt and chittered at him, every hair on its body fluffed up with aggravation, its tail stuck out behind like a bottle-brush.
'Idiot animal,' Nick said in Hindi as the patter of running feet became louder and a girl followed the mongoose, her wide crimson skirts swirling around her as she caught her balance and stopped. Not a girl, a woman, unveiled and unescorted. The part of his brain that was still dealing with an attack analysed the sound of her footsteps: she had changed direction twice just before she emerged, which meant this was one of the off-set entrances to the zanana.
She should not be here, outside the women's quarters. He should not be here, staring at her with all the blood in his brain heading south, his body poised for violence and a weapon in his hand.
'You may put away your dagger,' she said and it took him a moment to adjust and realise she was speaking in lightly accented English. 'Tavi and I are unarmed. Except for teeth,' she added, showing hers, white and regular between lips that curved into a smile of faint mockery. It masked, he was certain, shock. The mongoose twined between her bare, hennaed feet, still grumbling to itself. It wore a gem-studded collar.
Nick got a grip on himself, pushed the knife back into its sheath as he straightened and brought his hands together. 'Namaste'
'Namaste.' Over her own joined hands dark grey eyes studied him. The shock seemed to have turned to suspicion edged with hostility and she was making no effort to disguise either emotion.
Grey eyes? And skin like golden honey and hair that showed streaks of mahogany and deep brown as it fell down her back in a thick plait. His quarry, it seemed, had found him.
She did not appear disconcerted to be alone, unveiled, with a strange man, but stood there and contemplated him. Her full red skirts, weighted with heavy silver embroidery, hung just above her ankles, giving a glimpse of close-fitting trousers. Her tight choli revealed not only delightful curves and elegantly rounded arms decked in silver bangles, but also an unsettling band of smooth golden midriff.
'I should go. Excuse me for disturbing you,' Nick said in English and wondered if he was perhaps the more unsettled of the two of them.
'You have not,' she replied with crushing simplicity in the same language. She turned and walked through the opening she had appeared from. 'Merepichhe aye, Tavi,' she called as the skirts of her lehenga whisked out of sight. The mongoose followed obediently, the faint click of its claws fading along with her light footsteps.
'Hell,' Nick said to the empty passageway. 'That is quite definitely her father's daughter.' Suddenly a simple duty had become something else entirely. He squared his shoulders and strode off in the direction that led to his rooms. A man did not become a major with the British East India Company by being disconcerted by acid-tongued young women, however beautiful. He needed to clean himself up and seek an audience with the raja, her uncle. And after that, all he had to do was to transport Miss Anusha Laurens safely halfway across India, back to her father.
'Speak Hindi,' Paravi reproved as Anusha entered her room in a flurry of skirts and trailing scarf.
'Maf kijiye,' Anusha apologised. 'I have just this moment been speaking to an Englishman and my head is still translating.'
'Angrezi? How can you be speaking to any man, let alone an angrezi?' Paravi, plump and indolent and her uncle's third wife, raised one exquisitely plucked eyebrow, but she pushed aside the chessboard she had been studying and sat upright.
'He was in the corridor when I chased Tavi just now. Very big with hair of pale gilt and in the red uniform of the Company's soldiers. An officer, I thinkhe had much gold on his coat. Come and see him.'
'Why so curious? Is he so handsome, this big angrezi?'
'I do not know what he is,' Anusha confessed. 'I have not seen one so close since I left my father's house.' But she was curious. And there was something else, a tug of yearning, deep inside, at the memory of another male voice speaking English, of another big man, scooping her up in his arms, laughing with her, playing with her. The man who had rejected her and her mother, she reminded herself as the memory turned sour.
'He is different from the men I am used to, so I cannot decide if he is handsome or not. His hair is so pale and tied back tightly and his eyes are green and he is tall.' She waved her hands to illustrate. 'He is big all overbroad shoulders, long legs.'
'Is he very white? I have never seen an angrezi before except from a long way away.' Paravi was becoming interested.
'His face and his hands are golden.' Like my father's were. 'But the skin of all the Europeans goes brown in the sun, you know. Perhaps the rest of him is white.'
Imagining all of the big Englishman produced a not-unpleasurable shiver which he did not merit. But any novelty was welcome in the restricted world of the zanana, even if this novelty brought with him unsettling reminders of the world outside the fort. The faint sensual tingle was lost in a wave of something close to apprehension. This man made her uneasy.
'Where has he gone now?' Paravi uncoiled herself from the heap of cushions she had been occupying. The mongoose immediately dived into the warm spot she had created and curled up. 'I would like to look on a man who makes all those expressions chase across your face.'
'To the visitors' wingwhere else should he go?' Anusha tried not to snap. It was not flattering to be told her face betrayed her. 'He was very dusty from the road, he will not be seeking audience with my uncle like that.' She gave herself a little shake to chase away the foolish fancies. 'Come with me to the Sunset Terrace.'
Anusha led the way through the familiar maze of passages, rooms and galleries that filled the western wing of the palace.
'Your dupatta,' her friend hissed as they left the women's quarters to cross the wide terrace where the raja would sometimes sit to watch the sun sink over his kingdom. 'There are no grilles here.'
Anusha clicked her tongue in irritation, but unwound the neglected length of cerise gauze from her neck and draped it so it covered her face to the chin. She leaned on the inner balustrade of the terrace and looked down into the courtyard below. 'There he is,' she whispered.
Below, on the edge of a garden threaded with rills of water in the Persian manner, the big angrezi was talking to a slender Indian she did not recognise. His body servant, no doubt. The man gestured towards a door.
'He is telling him where the bath house is,' Paravi whispered from behind her own dupatta of golden gauze. 'There is your chance to see whether Englishmen are white all over.'
'That is ridiculous. And immodest.' She heard Paravi laugh softly and bristled. 'Besides, I am not in the slightest bit interested.' Just burningly, and inexplicably, curious. The two men had vanished into the guest rooms overlooking the garden. 'But I suppose I had better see whether the water has been heated and someone is in attendance.'
Paravi leaned one rounded hip against the parapet and glanced up as a flock of green parakeets screeched overhead. 'This man must be important, do you not think? He is from the East India Company and they are all-powerful in the whole land now, my lord says. Far more important than the Emperor in Delhi, even if they do put the Emperor's head on their coins. I wonder if he is to be the Resident here. My lord said nothing about that last night.'
Anusha rested her elbows on the parapet and noted that her friend seemed to be in favour with her husband. 'Why would we need a Resident? We do not do so very much trade with them.' The intriguingly pale head appeared below as the man re-emerged from the door to the guest rooms. 'I suppose we might be in a useful position for their expansionthat is what Mata used to say. Strategic.' Her mother had much to say on most subjects, being both well read and greatly indulged by her brother the raja.
'Your father is still a friend to my lord, even though he never comes here. They exchange letters. He is a great man in the Company: perhaps he thinks we are more important these days and deserving of a Resident.'
'It must be a matter of great importance for him to bestir himself to think of us,' Anusha said. Her father had not visited the state of Kalatwah since the day, twelve years ago, when he had sent his twelve-year-old daughter and her mother back, displaced from his home and his heart by the arrival of his English wife.
He sent money, but that was all. Her uncle added it to her dowry chest when she refused to spend it. He told her that she was foolish, that her father had no choice but to send her and her mother home and that Sir George was an honourable man and a good ally of Kalatwah. But that was the talk of men, of politics, not of the love that broke her mother's heart, even while she agreed with her brother that there had been no other option.
Her father wrote to her uncle, she knew that, for he would tell her there were messages. There had been a note a year ago when her mother had died. She had not read it any more than she had read the others. The moment she saw her father's name she had thrown it on the brazier and watched it burn to ash.
From the flash of dark eyes behind the veil Paravi was sending her sympathetic glances, which is not what she wanted. No one had any right to be sorry for her. Was she not, at twenty-two, the pampered niece of the Raja of Kalatwah? Was she not indulged with the right to turn down every approach that had been made for her hand in marriage? Was she not supplied lavishly with clothes and jewels and servants and all the luxury she wished for? Did she not possess everything that she could possibly want?
Except knowing where I belong, the nagging little voice in her head said, the voice that, for some reason, always spoke English. Except knowing who I am and why I am and what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Except for freedom.
'The angrezi is going to the bath.' Paravi drew back a pace from the parapet even as she craned to see. 'That is a fine robe. His hair is long now it is loose,' she added. 'What a colour! It is like that stallion my lord sent to the Maharaja of Altaphur as a gift when the monsoon ended, the horse they called the Gilded One.'
'He has probably got as high an opinion of himself as that animal had,' Anusha said. 'But at least he bathes. Do you know, many of them do not? They think it unhealthy! My father said that they do not have champo in Europethey powder their hair instead. And just wash their hands and faces. They think hot water is bad for them.'
'Ugh! Go and see and tell me about him.' Paravi gave her a little push. 'I am curious, but my lord would not be pleased if he thought I was looking upon an angrezi without his clothes.'
He would also have much to say if his niece was discovered doing just that, Anusha reflected as she ran down the narrow stairway and along the passage. She was not at all sure why she wanted to get closer to this stranger. It was not any desire to attract his attention, despite the shiver which was, of course, simply a normal female reaction to a man in his primefar from it. She did not want those green eyes studying herthey seemed to see too much. There had been a flash of recognition in them when they had met. Recognition and something far more basic and male.
She left her sandals in the doorway and peeped around the corner of the bathhouse. The Englishman was already naked and face down on a linen sheet draped over the marble slab, his body gleaming with water. He rested his forehead on his linked hands as one of the girls, Maya, worked the mixture of basun powder, lime juice and egg yolks into his hair. Savita was bent over his feet, oiling and massaging. Between head and heels there was a great deal of man to be seen in an interesting shading of colours.
Anusha walked in with a warning nod to the two girls to stay silent and keep working. His neck was the colour that his face and hands, both hidden by his wet hair, had been. His shoulders, back and arms were a paler gold. His legs were lighter still and the skin behind his knees was almost white, a pinkish shade. The line where his belt must habitually lie was very clear, for his buttocks were as pale as the backs of his knees.
His legs and arms were dusted with brown hair, she noticed. It was wiry and much darker than his flaxen head. Was his chest like that, too? She had heard that some Englishmen were so hairy that their backs were covered with a pelt of it. They must be like bears. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at the thought, then found she was standing right next to the slab. How did his skin feel?
Anusha reached for the jar of oil, poured a little into her palms and placed them flat, one on each shoulder blade. Under her hands she felt his muscles tighten, the skin twitch with the contact of the cool liquid. Then he relaxed again and she brought her hands sliding down slowly until they rested at his waist.
The pale skin felt just like any other skin, she decided. The muscles though, those were shocking. Not that she had any basis for comparison, of course. She had never touched a man's naked flesh in her life.
Maya began to rinse his hair, pouring water from a brass ewer and catching it in a bowl. Savita had moved up to his calves and was kneading the long muscles. Anusha found she was stuck, unwilling, for some mysterious reason, to lift her hands, too disconcerted by the feel of a man's body to venture any further.
Then he spoke, the vibration of his deep voice reaching her through her palms. 'Am I to hope that you will all be joining me in my room after this?'