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In a land of exotic splendor, a young Englishwoman finds herself guardian of an orphan child believed by a dying maharajah to be endowed with magical gifts. It is a role that will take her on a perilous journey into a kingdom’s walled city to protect a child she doesn’t know from a culture she doesn’t understand...
A Singular Hostage
The year is 1838. Mariana Givens, a spirited young woman of twenty, has been sent to India to find a suitable husband. Traveling as a translator, she joins the entourage of Lord Auckland, the British Governor-General, as he journeys across India with an army ten thousand strong to meet the fabled Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of the Punjab.
Eager young officers compete for Mariana’s favor, but it is with India that she falls in love: the baggage elephants tramping through country vast and wild; the scent of exotic foods at remote campsites; the enigmatic tutor who is her guide to native languages and ways. Lord Auckland must forge an alliance with Ranjit Singh that will deliver Afghanistan into British control, but as he negotiates his crucial treaty, Mariana is drawn into a perilous conspiracy surrounding the one-eyed Maharajah’s baby hostage--a child of mystical repute named Saboor.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||5 MB|
About the Author
After finishing college, she married a Pakistani, and lived in Karachi until his sudden death. Ten years after her return to the US, she embraced Islam at the hands of a Sufi Shaikh.
Although she now lives in Boston, Massachusetts, she has never lost her deep connection to Pakistan.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 1838
As a watery light filtered into her tent, Mariana Givens awoke with a start. Overhead, rain whispered against canvas. She sat up and pushed her hair from her face. Why had she awakened so suddenly? Had an unusual sound, a voice, come from outside?
As she reached for her boots, a familiar scuffling at her doorway signaled the arrival of Dittoo with her coffee. She dropped the boots, flung herself down impatiently, and dragged the covers to her chin. Feigning sleep was the only way she could prevent Dittoo from talking to her. Even among Indian servants, Dittoo could win a prize for talking.
She breathed evenly, watching through her lashes as he pushed his way inside, past the heavy blind that served as a door, bringing with him a wave of damp chill and the scent of cooking fires. His bare feet on the striped rug made wet sounds that grew louder as he advanced toward her bed, wheezing a little, the tray rattling in his hands.
She forced herself not to wince as the tray clanked noisily onto her bedside table. Above her, Dittoo cleared his throat. Mariana had thought of asking the advice of the Governor-General’s two sisters regarding Dittoo’s habit of standing over her while she was in bed, but had refrained, knowing they would only insist that he be sent immediately away. Whatever the sisters might think, Mariana was certain Dittoo’s behavior had nothing to do with her being twenty and unmarried.
When he turned, she opened her eyes and watched him shuffle toward the door, his shoulders stooped under their usual invisible burden, then remembered what had awakened her. It had been the silence outside her tent. Where were the coolies who daily dismantled the red canvas boundary wall in her corner of the state residence compound? Where were the shouts of the men, the grunts of their pack animals?
Her tent floor was wet, the air damp and cool. She remembered the sound of rain pounding on the roof in the night. That was it, the rain!
“Dittoo,” she called after him, making a mental note never to do it again, “are we traveling today?”
He swung back, beaming. “That is what I wanted to tell you, Memsahib. They do not know as yet. Everything depends upon the big elephant. I heard them sayingâ€””
“Thank you, Dittoo,” she said, and waved him away.
The blind closed behind him. Mariana sat up. She scooped up her boots and banged them upside down against the side of her bed, then looked down, as she always did, to see if some interesting creature had tumbled out of one of them.
The red wall outside her tent would be taken down only if the camp’s biggest baggage elephant proved able to carry his load. If she hurried, she might see the elephant for herself.
Hopping first on one foot and then the other, she fought her way into her boots, shrieking at the cold water that squirted up through the holes in the striped cotton rug under her feet. After flinging off her nightdress and grappling with her stays, she buttoned herself into her favorite tartan gown, pushed a handful of brown curls inside her matching tartan bonnet, and tied its ribbons carelessly under her chin. She ignored the ewer and basin waiting on their stand. There was no time to wash her face: she had an elephant to visit.
Leaving her coffee steaming untasted, she hurried across the soaking rug, Miss Emily’s voice sounding in her ears. “How many times must I warn you, my dear,” Miss Emily had said only yesterday afternoon while regarding Mariana severely over her reading spectacles, “that you must not forget your position. Never allow a native to see you confused, upset, or less than perfectly dressed.”
Mariana took an impatient breath and stepped out into a misty early morning.
Her tent was well located. Tucked sideways into a front corner of the Governor-General’s own residence compound, it had a clear view of the residence tents and a good, if distant, view of the principal gate, a folded entrance in the red canvas wall that enclosed the entire compound. Intriguing sounds often drifted into her tent from the other side of the wall, causing Mariana to spend much time imagining the various origins of the people and animals passing by on the avenue outside.
Smooth, shiny mud marred only by Dittoo’s footprints covered the distance from her modest doorway to the compound’s center. There, arranged in a square, the three riotously patterned tents of Lord Auckland and his two unmarried sisters, and a dining tent large enough to seat twenty, billowed wetly in the dawn breeze.
Beside Mariana’s tent, the red canvas wall stretched away toward the guarded gate. Holding her skirts away from the mud, she hurried along the wall.
She should have waited in her tent until the march. That was the rule for ladies traveling in camps. If there was no march, a lady waited until nine o’clock before going across to the dining tent for breakfast. She then returned to her tent to read or write letters until lunch. After lunch, she paid calls, in this case upon Miss Emily or Miss Emily’s younger sister, Fanny, in their tents. Before dinner, she went out for a ride. Mariana knew these rules because Miss Emily had repeated them to her countless times.
But Mariana would not shut herself away behind canvas. Ladylike idleness would certainly drive her mad. Besides, she would miss everything, and it was her duty to learn all about the camp, and about India. If she did not, her twice-weekly letters to Papa would never be good enough.
She risked a glance toward the residence tents. There was no sign of activity: no tattletale ladies’ maid carried things across the compound, no English-speaking native manservant stood watching her. If she could get past the gate, then across the avenue and back again without being seen, she would be safe from Miss Emily’s glares at breakfast.
She followed the wall, avoiding the stout guy ropes pegged to the ground every eight feet. The wet ropes and the gusting wind reminded her of the dream from which she had awakened. In her dream she had shivered in the prow of an unfamiliar ship as it sailed headlong through a dense fog toward a destination she could not guess.
It seemed odd to dream of a ship as she lay in a tent on the flat plain of northwestern India, a thousand miles from the sea, but odd as it seemed, the dream had come twice, perhaps three times, before.
Beside her, the ruddy canvas was stained with rain. High, grimly heavy, designed to keep out thieves, to Mariana’s eye the red wall blocked out too much of the excitement of living in a traveling camp. Even the Eden sisters felt the same. “It would be almost worth the horror of discovering a knife-wielding savage under one’s bed to be able to see more of the avenue from our tents,” Miss Emily had remarked only last week as she, Miss Fanny, and Mariana negotiated the entrance.
By 6:00 a.m., the folded entrance, like the wall, should have been collapsed on the ground, tended by coolies coiling guy ropes and rolling up sections of canvas. Like the wall, the entrance was still standing.
Ignoring the salutes of the sentries, Mariana passed through and emerged onto the avenue. A hand to her eyes, she peered up and down the avenue’s length toward the flat open plain at one distant end and the orderly horse and elephant lines at the other.
The wide avenue looked much as it had last evening, lined with office tents and the tents of senior government officials. Only the great durbar tent, missing from its place opposite the guarded entrance, had been replaced by an empty rectangle of churned mud where several hundred coolies stood watching something she could not see.
She hurried toward them.
The big elephant, Dittoo had informed her, was nearly twelve feet tall. The largest of the hundred twenty-seven baggage elephants attached to the British camp, he was the only animal strong enough to carry the durbar tent, the great reception tent essential to Lord Auckland for the entertainment of native princes. The elephant’s name, Dittoo had said, was Motu. Such an elephant as Motu, Dittoo had added, was born only once in a hundred years.
Rain was Motu’s sole enemy. The tent, an enormous weight when dry, became an intolerable burden after a soaking rain. As it was unthinkable for the Governor-General to be without his durbar tent, and as Motu was unable to carry it more than one day’s march at a time, the elephant was never left behind. If after a rain Motu could not carry his burden, Lord Auckland and his spinster sisters, the British government of India, ten thousand soldiers, thirty-odd thousand government officials, shopkeepers, servants and coolies, and countless pack animals waited, squatting in the mud, until he could.
Mariana reached the muddy space and swept to a stop, craning to see over the pushing, half-naked coolies. A few turned to watch her. Oh, please let the big elephant be able to carry his load! How could she bear any more delays in the journey, when she was on pins and needles to meet Ranjit Singh, the legendary Sikh ruler of the Punjab?
From where she stood, she could see nothing. Hesitating only a moment, she plunged into the crowd.
“Hattho, hattho, move out,” she commanded, and the coolies obliged, pushing against each other to open a narrow pathway through their ranks.
She was nearly there. Ahead of her, someone called out orders. An animal grunted. Staccato shouting erupted nearby. An elephant’s trunk waved in the air. She had never looked closely at this elephant. How high would twelve feet be? Would he be strong enough to lift the wet tent even afterâ€”
“Miss Givens! Miss Givens!”
Mariana froze in midstep. A fair-haired Englishman had appeared, standing on a bale of baggage a little distance away. He waved a blue-uniformed arm.
She could not avoid him. Collecting herself, she waved in return. The mist had now become a soft rain that soaked through the shoulders of her gown. Why, if she must be caught alone outdoors, mingling with half-naked coolies at six in the morning, must she be caught by Lieutenant Fitzgerald of the Bengal Horse Artillery, the first man she had liked in the whole camp?
She braced herself and started toward him, tucking a damp strand of hair into her bonnet as she walked. Should she avert her unwashed face from his when she reached him? No, it was too late for that.
Fitzgerald and a dozen young officers, all suitable marriage prospects, had been invited three evenings before to the Governor-General’s dining tent.
Fitzgerald had sat across from her at dinner. Mariana had seen immediately that he was a possibility, with his square, handsome face and high Roman nose, his hair smoothed unfashionably with pomade. After the soup he had put back his head to laugh at someone’s remark, and that gesture, the angle of his head, the shape of his mouth, had caught her eye. Later, risking a glance, she had found him looking at her speculatively over the chicken fricassee.
His expression gave nothing away, but his look had excited and disturbed her. For the rest of dinner she had labored to converse with the man beside her, rationing her glances across the table, but Fitzgerald had not met her eyes again.
“Miss Givens,” Fitzgerald called again, over the crowd’s noise, frowning as he climbed down from his bale, smart in his uniform, “surely you should not be here. If you will wait a moment, I shall escort you to your tent.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Mariana shouted back, “but I have come to see the elephant.”
As she approached him, he looked at the front of her gown, then glanced hastily away. She glanced down and saw a telltale bubble of cloth poking up where she had missed a button.
Her whole gown must be buttoned wrong. Her hair was coming loose from her bonnet. She bit her lip and raised her eyes to find the lieutenant smiling.
He offered his hand. “Since you have come to see the elephant,” he said, “you had better climb up here with me. This promises to be interesting.”
She scrambled to the top of the bale, breathing in the rain-soaked mustiness of his wool uniform, feeling the warm pressure of his fingers.
Steadying her by her elbow, Fitzgerald pointed. “There he is.”
Mariana looked out over the crowd and drew in her breath.
In front of them, ringed by coolies, a massive bull elephant struggled to rise to his feet, the Governor-General’s rolled-up durbar tent creaking and swaying on his back.
A mahout straddled the elephant’s neck, beating at the huge head with an iron prod, shouting at him in Bengali, while the crowd, already liberally splashed with mud, argued and speculated and laid wagers. Ignoring them all, the big elephant steadied himself while he searched for purchase in the glassy mud, and then, with a fearful, trembling effort, heaved his tottering burden upward.
At the last instant, a great hind leg gave way. Mariana felt Fitzgerald stiffen beside her. The coolies groaned. Overbalanced by the sodden canvas, the elephant rolled, squealing, onto his side, scattering the coolies like so many chickens and sending his mahout scrambling for balance.
What a perfect scene for today’s letter to her father. Mariana turned to Fitzgerald, her face alight. “This is what I like about India: real Indian things, not imitation English things. We try so hard to be English, with our tents and food and furniture, but it doesn’t…”
“I am sorry, Miss Givens,” Fitzgerald interrupted, letting go of her elbow, his gaze traveling past her as if he were looking for someone, “but I must inform General Cotton at once of the elephant’s failure.” He swung himself to the ground and held up a hand, looking both military and apologetic. “Allow me to help you down.”
She looked at the elephant a moment longer, impressing his picture into her memory, then took the hand Fitzgerald offered.
When she reached the ground, he raised an elbow to take her arm. “I must see you to your tent, Miss Givens. It’s too far for you to walk alone.”
His hair gleamed as he bent to her. He had missed a spot on his cheek while shaving. His eyes, like hers, were green. He smiled crookedly.
Tempted to accept, Mariana hesitated. In the ten minutes it would take to reach her tent, they would converse. She could learn much about him in ten minutes; but what of the toppled elephant that breathed harshly behind her in the mud, the tent still roped to the wooden frame on his back? Could he get up again? Was he hurt? Dear Papa, waiting at home in Sussex for her letters, must be told.
“That is kind of you, Lieutenant,” she replied, “but I shall stay here a moment longer. I wish to have a word with this elephant’s driver.”
Fitzgerald took his arm away. “A word with his mahout?” he repeated, frowning. “But how can youâ€”ah, of course, you speak their languages.” He hesitated. “But surely I should not leave you alone here.” He looked over his shoulder, as if seeking help.
Mariana planted her feet in the mud. “I came here alone, Lieutenant Fitzgerald,” she replied. “But I am sure,” she added, looking him full in the face, “that we shall see one another again soon.” She glanced away, certain she had held his gaze too long.
He hesitated again, then bowed. “I am flattered that you remember my name, Miss Givens. And you will be all right here?”
Mariana nodded, her lips pressed together, then offered him her wide, impulsive smile.
He smiled in return. “Then I shall tell no one I have seen you.”
When she looked back, he had gone.
The elephant still lay on his side, weighed down by the sodden tent, a gray mountain with one visible, bloodshot eye. The mahout moved around him, crooning as he went, a large, wicked-looking knife in his hand, slicing a rope here and a strap there, expertly loosening the animal’s load.
He started when Mariana cleared her throat.
He was smaller than she was, and wiry. His shoulders moved awkwardly when he greeted her, as if he were unused to foreigners.
“What is your elephant’s name?” she asked, in her careful Urdu. Being English, she was entitled to be imperious. She chose to be civil.
“It is Motu, Memsahib,” he replied over his elephant’s whistling breath, departing from his own language to answer her. His face was deeply seamed. The whites of his eyes were the color of old ivory.
She nodded. “Motu. And yours?”
Behind Hira, the elephant twitched and raised his trunk. Without an apology, the mahout turned from Mariana and went back to his work.
Well, then, she would speak to his back. She raised her voice. “Why are you cutting all the ropes? Won’t they be angry with you?”
“What do I care for their ropes?” Hira’s fingers shook as he cut through a thick leather strap. “I told them we should not try to move the tent today.” His own voice rose. “I told them Motu would fall. I warned them of the danger to Motu.”
“Danger?” Mariana took a step closer. “What danger?”
Hira made one last cut and the load fell away like a huge, cold sausage. Motu lay still for a moment, then rolled onto his knees, the empty frame still tied to his back.
The little man turned to face Mariana. She could not imagine how he could bear the chill, wearing only a loincloth and a strip of worn cotton. He was covered from his carelessly tied turban to his bare feet in the pungent smell of elephant. “An elephant’s spine is delicate,” he told her. “If something causes the load to shift, the frame may shift, and press upon the spine. Such accidents cripple or kill elephants. An elephant must never fall when loaded.”
When his face relaxed, Mariana saw how frightened he had been.
At Hira’s command, Motu lumbered to his feet and towered above them both. It was the unusual length of his legs, like four great tree trunks, that made him so tall. While Mariana watched, he bent his front legs and lowered his face to his mahout. Hira Lal spread his arms and took hold of the two great ears, then set one foot high on the elephant’s trunk, mounted in one nimble motion, and seated himself twelve feet above the ground.
“How long have you been his mahout?” Mariana tilted her head upward, a hand on her bonnet, not wanting them to leave.
“Since he was small,” Hira replied. The heavy elephant prod appeared in his hand. “I hope,” he said, “that we die at the same time. We are used to one another.”
Shivering at the thought, she turned back toward the avenue.
So Dittoo had been right about the elephant’s name, Fatty. Perhaps Motu had been a little tub when he was small, like her baby nephew, Freddie. Whatever the elephant had been then, he was now an immense gray animal, wrinkled and covered with coarse black hairs. Mariana sighed. She would never have enough of elephants.
Freddie must have changed in the year since she had left England. He had been an energetic, sticky-faced little creature then, with pudgy legs and feet and a halo of golden hair. By now he would be nearing his third birthday.
A large puddle of shiny mud blocked her way. Mariana stopped and contemplated it, as the breeze sent a little shower of rain onto its surface. Freddie would be five in two years, the same age her brother had been when he died.
Poor little Ambrose. He had been playful one day, hot and agonized the next, and gone forever soon after that.
For a long time after he died, she had thought she would never recover.
From the moment of his birth, Ambrose had been in her charge. At eight, her sashes untied and dangling at her sides, she had walked the gravel paths in the garden with him cradled in her arms. When he had begun to speak, it had been she who translated his first words. “He wants another potato, Mama,” she had said. “He wants to pat the dog.”
Later, Ambrose had been her constant curly-haired companion. He had followed her everywhere, never telling her, as others did, that she was untidy, or too noisy, or that she talked too much. She had shown him her private hiding places in the garden, and they had crouched together beneath the bushes, their clothes speckled with burrs, while she spun tales for him of talking frogs and fairies who dwelt at the bottom of the garden.
Holding her skirts aside, she circled the mud puddle, ignoring the stiffening breeze. She had been twelve, her sister Charlotte fourteen, when Ambrose died. Whenever she thought of that time, she remembered her mother and her aunt Rachel standing grim faced and exhausted at the door to the bedroom where Ambrose lay, quiet now, in the sleep that precedes death.
“Come inside,” Mama had said to Mariana and her sister, “and bid your brother good-bye.”
Together, the two girls had tiptoed to his bedside and found him snoring, his mouth open, his little face wasted, his head, shaven against the typhoid fever, ugly upon the pillow. Certain that he would open his eyes for her, Mariana had taken his hand, but he had not awakened, and his small fingers had felt devoid of life. Realizing the truth, sick with pain and fear, she had dropped to her knees and thrown her arms about his small body.
“Do not die, Ambrose, please,” she wailed, while Charlotte sobbed quietly beside her.
Mariana pushed chilled hands into her sleeves as she made her way to the avenue. Ambrose had not been the first to die. Two other Givens children had been lost to measles when Mariana was four: Colin at two, Janet, at six months. She did not remember them well, although she did remember her panic when, after her own slow recovery, she had noticed the silence in the nursery.
The lost children were never mentioned, and Mariana had never seen her mother weep for them. White-faced and trembling, her mother had not wept for Ambrose either. Her silence terrified Mariana, who thought it meant she was to blame. And why not? Talkative and clumsy, she had gone on living while the precious babies had all died.
“But why must we be brave?” Crumpled on a chair before the sitting room fire, Mariana had searched her mother’s still face for consolation and forgiveness. “Why may I not cry for Ambrose when my heart is broken?”
“Because, Mariana,” her mother had said before turning away, “what we need at times like these are resignation and fortitude. Weeping will only make us ill.”
Her hollow-eyed father had smiled wanly. “We must sustain ourselves,” he had added, “with the knowledge that God is good.”
From that day, they had rarely spoken of Ambrose. While Charlotte tried to behave normally, Mariana had trailed about the garden alone, weeping painfully in the hiding places where she and Ambrose had played, Ambrose who had thought her perfect, who had smacked his lips as he watched her spread fresh strawberry jam on his scones.
She kept his favorite wooden soldier, concealing it by day and sleeping with it by night. The sight of strawberry jam sent her sobbing from the dining table.
She found herself noticing other people’s pain. She burst into the kitchen and flung herself into the arms of a scullery maid whose sister had died. She often said awkward, truthful things.
Mama and Aunt Rachel had fumed at her odd behavior. Only Papa never said a cross word to her, dear Papa to whom her heart went out even now, as she stood beside the avenue in the rain, miles away from him. Absorbed in his work, he had not foreseen the deadly swiftness of Ambrose’s illness. He had not expected his little son to die.
But now there was little Freddie. Perhaps Charlotte’s son would take Ambrose’s place in Papa’s heart. One day, perhaps, Mariana’s own babies would do the same for her.
That, of course, would be soon, if her mother in England, her aunt Claire in Calcutta, and the matchmaking Miss Emily had their wish.
“It is my plan, Fanny,” Miss Emily had confided to her younger sister a week ago as they waited to be handed into the dining tent, unaware that Mariana had moved up behind them, “to have Mariana meet every unmarried officer in camp. They shall sit beside her by turns. If I have my way, we shall have a wedding before the end of December.”
Miss Emily’s enthusiasm, maddening to Mariana, must be gratifying to Mama, who waited patiently at home in Sussex for news.
“One year,” Mama had told her as she packed a newly stitched gown into the largest of Mariana’s three trunks, “is all you shall have until the next lot of unmarried girls arrives in Calcutta. I hope and pray that, in that time, you find a suitable match. If not, people will think you shopworn. It will be too late.”
A string of camels blocked Mariana’s way, padding along the avenue, their brass ankle bells chinking. She tapped a fretful foot, eager to get across the avenue and inside the guarded entrance before she was seen again.
Since her arrival from England, India, not marriage, had absorbed Mariana’s attention. Now that her year was nearly over, she must find a husband. Lest she forget, letters warning of approaching doom arrived every third day in the mail pouch from her aunt Claire in Calcutta.
Mariana was only too aware of the progress of the other potential brides who had arrived last winter with her. Aunt Claire’s most recent letter had described the engagement of the plainest of them, a Miss Finchley, who had made a surprisingly good match, while one of the prettiest girls had become ill with smallpox, and was expected to be disfigured for life by the scars.
“They are sending her home.” Miss Emily had shaken her head as Mariana folded Aunt Claire’s letter away. “What a pity. I understand Miss Ranier was a lovely girl, with every chance of success. Now, if she is fortunate, she will live her life out of a trunk, a kind maiden aunt to one family member after another. If not, she will be forced to hire herself out as a governess.”
Miss Emily had sighed. “How suddenly things change.”
The camels were still passing. Mariana fidgeted on the avenue’s edge. Her year was very nearly over and she was not yet engaged, but her position was most enviable, nonetheless. The great moving camp, her home for the past three weeks, was also temporary home to more than half the British government and all but a handful of Calcutta’s British-born army officers, most of whom were young and unmarried. It was a rare opportunity, as both Miss Emily and Aunt Claire had pointed out. Had Mariana been one of a hundred girls with only one available man, she would have had no chance, with her inquisitiveness, her untidinesses, and her unconventional behavior. Yes, Mama had echoed in her letters from Sussex, what chance could Mariana have, with her unmanageable curls, her too-wide smile, her square shoulders?
But there were disadvantages to being the only young lady among so many eager men. Mariana had long ago tired of anxious strangers. Jaded by too much choice, she noticed only their missing teeth, their protruding ears, their desire to please her. Her dinner partner last night had looked so exactly like a white rabbit that she had scarcely been able to make conversation.
Miss Emily and her sister, of course, had their own opinions. They seemed more interested in the men’s qualities than in Mariana’s affections. Miss Emily’s candidate was a lively man with an odd-shaped head, whose family was reported to be very generous. “We must remember, Mariana,” Miss Emily had pointed out, “that most of these men are second or third sons.” Miss Fanny’s favorite was a tall, lugubrious person who had a habit of bursting into tears. “Nothing,” Miss Fanny had observed, “is more important in a husband than a kind heart.”
They both liked the White Rabbit.
The camels had gone by. Mariana lifted her skirts and began to dash across the avenue just as a European on horseback appeared suddenly from between two tents.
She stopped hurriedly. Major Byrne, commanding officer of the camp, pulled abreast of her, a stout figure, upright in the saddle. His black boot shone at the level of her chest. Spiked brass spurs caught the sun.
He gazed meaningfully down a ruddy nose, first at the departing elephant, then at Mariana. “Good morning, Miss Givens,” he drawled. “Out for a stroll this morning, are you?” His eyes drifted to the front of her gown.
“Yes, indeed, Major Byrne,” she replied. She forced a smile as heat rose to her face. Water dripped from the rim of her bonnet.
He returned her nod with a sharp little one of his own, then spurred his horse and rode away down the avenue, his horse’s tail flicking.
She kicked up an arc of mud with the toe of her boot. Why should it matter to Byrne that her gown was buttoned all wrong? Her chin high, she hurried across the avenue. She would cross the avenue when she wanted to. She would look at elephants or speak to mahouts when she chose to. They might expect her to sit all morning in her damp little tent staring at the walls, but she would not. She could make no new discoveries for herself and Papa by looking at the openings in those walls, to Dittoo’s corridor, to her cramped bathing space, to the space where, terrified of the sudden appearance of Dittoo or the sweeper, she gripped the inner and outer curtains closed while using her chamber pot.
Who was fat Major Byrne to be superior? Mariana did not make honking noises the way he did when he thought no one was listening. She had not missed the honk he gave just now as he rode away. And what of his friend William Macnaghten, who had given her the post of lady translator, with his great bushy eyebrows and his habit of studying his tongue in a pocket mirror? What was wrong with them all? Could they not see what an adventure this was?
Lieutenant Fitzgerald, at least, had understood. She marched past the sentries at the gate, her own nose at a severe angle. “Dittoo,” she snapped as she swept into her tent, “bring my riding habit, and tell the grooms to saddle one of the mares.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Despite knowing that the author had spent many years in Pakistan, I did not expect her to write about the culture with the ease that she did. Ali writes as if she actually witnessed the whole event. Her vivid description allows the reader to visualize the great Durbar as well. This is an exceptionally well written book with several different layers to it ¿ just as you think that you¿ve figured out the story, Ali throws in another twist (if you haven¿t read the editorial reviews on this site, don't! They give away too much of the story). For those who are not so familiar with this culture, a thorough study of the glossary (provided in the beginning of the book) is recommended before reading this book. All in all, a wonderful read.
I loved this book, and loaned it to my mother, who also enjoyed it. Any lover of historical fiction probably will enjoy it as much as we did. Action centers around an actual historical event, the 1838 durbar between the British and Maharajah Ranjit Singh. It may be slightly stretching belief to imagine the young, spunky Marianna as a possible product of her time... but then, there have always been spunky, difficult women - it's just that they didn't get into the history books! I enjoyed the lush descriptions of the Punjab in the early 19th century, and of the native culture. I also enjoyed the humorous moments, such as when Marianna, disguished in a burka, falls into a roadside sewage canal. A sympathetic, engaging heroine, a couple of surprise heroes, and lots of cliff hangers make this a real page-turner. I hope there really is a sequel forthcoming - I know I will buy it!
this had an engaging plot, a strong female heroine (always a plus) and an unexpected plot line to keep things interesting. definatly reccommended!!