On most days, Maharaja Sikander Singh held a lackluster opinion of the English.
Shakespeare bored him, Dickens was too depressing, and Miss Austen had always managed to give him a resounding migraine. Elgar was…well, too loud, and the raucous lures of music-hall held no appeal for a man of his education and elegance. Cricket he found bewildering, since he had always failed to see the attraction of standing beneath the noonday sun and flailing about with a piece of polished willow. As for tea, it was not his drink. He much preferred coffee, preferably of the Yemeni variety. And, frankly, as far as he was concerned, the British couldn’t bottle a good wine if Dionysus himself came down from Olympus and taught them how.
For Sikander, the one great contribution the Angrezi Sahibs had managed to make to world culture was the music of Henry Purcell.
When it came to Baroque music, people were quick to praise Handel and Bach, but it was Purcell, a relatively ignored composer, that Sikander had come to admire the most. True, Bach was magnificent more often than not, and some of Handel’s work could elevate a man’s soul toward that rare state of transcendence that al-Ghazali had described as tanzih, but with Purcell, the anguish in his music, the palpable longing, appealed to Sikander’s intrinsically romantic nature.
Each evening, he followed a well-established ritual. Before retiring for the night, he would spend at least an hour at his piano, inevitably polishing off the better part of a bottle of champagne while caressing its ivory keys. It was a habit that dated back to his childhood, when he had first learned to play seated upon his mother’s lap, and one he continued even as he approached the ripe old age of forty. In many ways, it was his favorite part of each day. For these few moments, he was not the Maharaja of Rajpore. He was free, identified only by whatever music his slender fingers wrought, liberated from the web of duty and obligation and responsibility within which his birth had trapped him.
On this particular evening, swaddled in a bronze silk banyan jacket, his feet comfortably ensconced in a pair of woolen socks to fend off the chill, Sikander had spent two and a half hours trying to transcribe one of Purcell’s finest compositions, the aria “The Cold Song.” He had heard it performed by a fine soprano in London, and it had haunted him since—a bewildering piece of music, tragic to the point of heartbreaking.
Sadly, in spite of his prodigious technical abilities, he found himself unable to master its intricacy. Every note was perfect, for Sikander was very nearly as skilled as a virtuoso. Still, something remained missing, that ephemeral rapture that Byron had described so well as the “echo of the spheres.” It was unsettling, to say the least. Perhaps it was the fact that he was in Delhi, a city he had always loathed, that was throwing off his rhythm so thoroughly, or that he was playing a strange instrument, a brand new Vertegrand upright that felt very different from the concert grand he normally preferred. To his dismay, the music was proving incapable of calming his restlessness.
Finally, Sikander could bear it no longer. Unable to restrain his mounting frustration, he thwacked shut the piano’s lid. Rising to his feet, he crossed to a side table where a bottle of Abele was chilling in a Baccarat crystal ice bucket. As he began to pour himself a fresh tulip, it dawned on him that he was being watched by a pair of cold eyes, stony with disapproval.
The bust was exquisite, a Rodin carved from brown-veined porphyry, but despite its elegance, it failed to capture even a glimmer of his mother’s essence. Maharani Amrita Devi had been diminutive in stature, barely five feet tall, but she had possessed such exuberance, such vitality, that her presence had filled every room she entered. It was from her that Sikander had inherited his pale eyes, which were as gray as a thunderstorm, and his love of everything French. Most of all, it was from his mother that he had received that insatiable sense of curiosity which so defined him as a person.
It isn’t my fault, Mother, he thought apologetically. It’s just that I am so dreadfully bored.
How could he deny it? It was not in Sikander’s nature to be inactive. Like a shark, he needed to keep moving. If forced to stop, even for a moment, it felt to him he was drowning. That was what had made this past week even more difficult to endure. The inertia of sitting around and twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the King to arrive and for the Coronation celebrations to commence, had managed to leave him on the very brink of despair.
Once again, as he was prone to do at least eight or nine times each day, Sikander felt a familiar stirring of wanderlust in his gut. It was so tempting to call for his faithful manservant, Charan Singh, and command him to pack their bags immediately and make arrangements to hop aboard the first mail train going south, no matter what the destination, just as long as it took them far away from Delhi and the miasma of the blasted Durbar encampment.
Sadly, Sikander was far too pragmatic to give in to such a cavalier impulse. Stifling his impatience, he raised his glass in mock salutation to his mother’s effigy.
It should have been you here, not me, Ma. You would have made a far better king than I can ever hope to be.
Before he could take a sip, though, he was interrupted most rudely.
The door slammed open, and a pair of Englishmen came barging into the room.
“Are you Sikander Singh of Rajpore?” the first of them asked rather too forcefully, strutting to a stop directly to his right.
The brusqueness of his manner nettled the Maharaja, causing him to scowl. Who did the silly bugger think he was talking to? Not so much as an “excuse me” or a “pardon the interruption.” How dare he just barge in and address Sikander in such a high-handed fashion, as if he were a common khidmutgar?
Sikander swiveled his neck to glare up at the man. He did not have too far to turn, for the gentleman was immense, as wide as a wall, with hulking shoulders. A soldier, Sikander deduced. That much was obvious, for not only was his posture as stiff as a marionette’s, but he was dressed in one of the new khaki serge uniforms that the English regiments had recently adopted to replace their traditional red coats. A quick glance at his epaulets revealed a single cluster, which meant the man was a lowly second lieutenant. From a Highland regiment, Sikander surmised, judging by the tartan cockade pinned to his lapel. Yes, definitely a Scotsman, he concluded, for though his head was razored clean to his skull, he sported a very ginger beard, in obvious imitation of the new King.
Stifling his irritation, Sikander decided to ignore the obtrusive lieutenant. Turning his attention back to the glass in his hand, he brought it to his mouth, but to his dismay, the champagne had gone rather flat.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” The lieutenant barked even more belligerently. “Or are you deaf?’
The Maharaja pursed his lips, trying to restrain his annoyance. How had the fool even managed to get past the door? Casting an irate glance towards the entrance, he waited for his manservant to show his face. Where in God’s name was he, the damnable oaf? This was precisely his job, to bar such unwarranted intrusions. A slow minute elapsed, then another, but still Charan Singh did not appear. Sikander’s irritation turned to concern. Ordinarily, the old Sikh was as immovable as a sphinx, and it was highly unlikely that he was drunk or asleep on duty. That left only one possibility: something or someone was forcibly preventing him from doing his job. Sikander’s temper stirred at that thought. He loved the old man like a member of his own family, and if either of these two upstarts had dared to hurt even one hair on his head, there would be hell to pay, he promised himself.
“Oh, do go away, you silly lout,” he snarled, “before I lose my temper and do something I regret!”
Naturally, a dismissal this contemptuous was not at all well received. Bristling visibly, the large lieutenant’s face darkened. Very deliberately, he let one hand move to his belt, coming to rest atop the holster. To his surprise, Sikander noticed that he was armed, in absolute contravention of the Viceregal order that there were to be no weapons worn publicly at the Durbar, except on the parade ground.
Thankfully, before the situation could escalate any further, the lieutenant’s companion surged forward, placing one warning hand on his compatriot’s bulging shoulder to restrain him.
“Do pardon Lieutenant Munro’s coarse behaviour,” he apologized. “He comes from Irish stock, and Hibernian blood, as I am sure you understand, is easily inflamed.”
Ignoring the poisonous glare the lieutenant shot in his direction, the man bowed slightly at the waist and offered Sikander a dazzling smile. The Maharaja studied him, not quite sure what to make of him. Unlike his companion, he was tall and very slim, with an aristocratic jaw and a fine pair of whiskers in the fashion known as the Imperial, as made popular by the Kaiser some years previously. On a heavier man, such a style might have seemed pugnacious, but in this case, it gave him a rather piratical air.
While the lieutenant was rather pale, this man, a Captain, Sikander surmised as he spied the triple pips decorating his shoulders, was almost as brown as an Indian, a fact which suggested he wasn’t just a campground soldier. In India, you could tell the veterans from the griffins by the color of their skin, which was soon tanned to old leather by the hours spent under the glare of the sun while on campaign. This inference was strengthened by the way he moved, with that languid nonchalance that came from countless hours spent practicing with a sword. Sikander’s eyes widened as they flickered across the regimental insignia embossed on the brass buckle of the man’s Sam Browne belt. It was an emblem he recognized immediately, an eight-pointed starburst with a Latin motto emblazoned atop it, which read: Honi soit qui mal y pense—Evil be to him who evil thinks.
A Lilywhite! Sikander thought, letting out a surprised gasp. This fine fellow wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill trooper. He was a guardsman, a member of the legendary Coldstream Guards. Perhaps the oldest and most prestigious regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream was ranked second in precedence, surmounted only by the Grenadier Guards. They were about as elite as elite soldiers could be, tasked with protecting the King and Queen themselves, and permanently posted as the household garrison at Windsor.
What on earth was a Lilywhite Captain doing in Delhi, turning up at the Majestic Hotel at six in the bloody evening? And what dire emergency could have induced such a severe breach of protocol that he had chosen to come barging into a Maharaja’s private boudoir without so much as an invitation?
Whatever it was, Sikander thought, his curiosity aroused, it had to be something well and truly interesting.
“Who exactly are you?” he said imperiously, “and what the blooming hell do you want?”
The Captain’s smile flickered with a hint of annoyance at being spoken down to with such disdain, but he managed to recover admirably.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Arthur Campbell, at your service. Unlike the lieutenant, I hail from Argyll, and we are careful never to forget our manners.”
Sikander rolled his eyes, refusing to be beguiled by this excess of civility. A more naïve man might have bought into Campbell’s carefully orchestrated bonhomie, but Sikander could see it for what it was—a tactic intended to put him off his guard. Why, he had used it often enough himself during difficult interrogations, acting the gentleman while his manservant played the brute.
“Forgive our intrusion, but could you confirm that are you, indeed, the Maharaja of Rajpore?”
“I should hope so,” Sikander growled. “If I wasn’t, what would I bloody well be doing in his bedroom, eh?”
While Lieutenant Munro remained unmoved by this jest, Campbell let out a low chuckle.
“In that case, Your Majesty, I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to accompany us. It is a matter of the utmost imperative, I assure you.”
Sikander looked at him, unsure of how to respond. On a whim, he decided the Captain was not to be trusted. He was too handsome, for one, and decidedly overly familiar, a trait which Sikander had always found distasteful. And then, of course, there was the way his smile never quite reached his eyes, which remained watchful, calculating, almost reptilian.
“I think not. Not only have you quite ruined my evening, but your manners are nothing short of deplorable. I have a pressing appointment with the Viceroy himself tomorrow morning, and you can be certain I shall inform him about your unforgivable behavior. Good evening! You may see yourself out.”
If he had imagined such blatant name-dropping would be quite enough to cow this pair, Sikander was sorely disappointed. The two gentlemen reacted very differently. Predictably, the large lieutenant, already rather displeased, started to bunch those immense shoulders of his, like an ox preparing to charge.
“Enough of this rubbish!” he snarled. “We haven’t time to waste on games, sir. Our orders were explicit. Let’s just drag the fellow back by his boot-heels.”
“Calm down, old boy,” Campbell admonished. “Do try and remember you’re a gentleman, not a blasted slogger, won’t you?”
Turning back to Sikander, the Captain sighed and offered another one of those infuriating grins, as if to suggest he knew something the Maharaja did not.
“Might I have a drink, Your Highness?”
Sikander could not but help be amused by the man’s effrontery. In spite of the fact that every one of his instincts was telling him not to trust the Captain one bit, he found himself beginning to like this Campbell fellow. True, he was too presumptuous, but the man had a devil-may-care style to him, a cocky charm that Sikander could appreciate. He was astute enough to recognize a kindred spirit when he saw one. More than once, he had been called a rogue and a knave, and now, he saw the same quality in Captain Campbell—that willingness to ignore what anyone thought and march to the beat of your own drum.
“Aren’t you on duty, Captain? Is it not forbidden to indulge in spirits while in uniform?”
“Ordinarily, I would agree, but this once, let us make an exception.” He rubbed at his throat. “I am afraid the ride over has left me quite parched, and frankly, I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“In that case, by all means, help yourself!” Sikander nodded, gesturing one hand towards the bottle of Abele.
His lips could not help but curve into a smile as the Captain made a great show of picking up the bottle and sniffing its contents. After clucking his tongue appreciatively, he decanted a very generous measure into a slim tulip.
“To the unknown, sir,” he exclaimed before quaffing the entire glassful in one Herculean swig.
“What about your friend?’ Sikander pointed at the lieutenant, who was watching them with a dangerous glower, obviously still ticked off at having been spoken to like a child. “Wouldn’t he care for a glass?”
“Oh, I doubt it,” Campbell replied. “Young Munro has a very narrow view of duty, I am sorry to report. He is a devil for always doing the right thing.”
“And you are not?”
“I have my moments, sir, but, not unlike yourself, I am a pragmatist, first and last.”
With that declaration, he proceeded to pour himself another glass of wine.
“The gentleman who sent us to fetch you warned me you would not agree to come along quite so meekly. If that was the case, then I was instructed to say,” Campbell straightened up, and recited in a lilting baritone, ‘“You must fathom the ocean; it contains all you need and desire. Why soil your hands searching the little ponds?’”
Sikander’s back stiffened, and his smile wilted. He recognized that particular couplet all too well. It was a quotation from one of his favorite poets, the great Sufi mystic Farid, describing the difficult path a seeker after truth must follow, explaining how he must learn to ignore the obvious and teach himself to recognize the greater, higher meanings hidden beneath the mundane.
Not only was it a fine stanza, but in this case, it offered a palpable clue as to who had dispatched these two officers. There was only one man who was aware of Sikander’s love of Farid’s poetry, and who had the wherewithal to send a Coldstream Captain scurrying about like a errand boy. And the worst part was that Sikander owed him a damn favor, which meant he could not in good conscience ignore this summons, no matter how intrusive it might be.
He felt his insatiable curiosity flare to life, a ravenous anticipation gnawing at the pit of his stomach. This was Sikander’s most telling weakness, his greatest vice. Gold he was content to leave to the Nizam of Hyderabad, wine to the Gaekwad boys, polo ponies to his cousin Bhupinder of Patiala, and fast women to his dearest friend, Jagatjit of Kapurthala. But when it came to riddles, try as he might, Sikander just could not resist. They tantalized him, the way the slightest scent of a Château d’Yquem could move an oenophile to tears, or the merest taste of an Istrian truffle elevate a gourmand to ecstasy. The unknown, the enigmatic, the arcane, they sang to him, a litany quite as compelling as Circe’s song.
If my guess about the identity of the man behind this cryptic message is indeed correct, he thought, then there was only one logical explanation why this mismatched pair had been sent to get me.
It did not take a detective to deduce that some sort of garbar was afoot, but the fact that his particular abilities were required could only mean one thing:
Someone was dead.
And, judging by the urgency, he thought, it had to be someone rather important.