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THE PESHAWAR LANCERS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


Chapter Three

 

Duty calls, chaebli," Athelstane King said over his shoulder to the naked woman behind him. One of the Peshawar Club's discreet manservants had slipped the calling card under the door. As King read, he fended off the soft rounded warmth that pressed to his back, and the hands that reached teasingly around his body and tried to undo the bath towel wrapped about his waist.

The card was severely plain, printed in black-on-beige:

 

Sir Manfred Warburton, Bart.

Imperial Political Service

Metcalfe House, Chandi Chowk

Delhi

 

On the back was a scribbled: requests the pleasure of your company at dinner, at 7:15, to discuss matters pertaining to the King-Emperors service.

He turned to give the young woman a kiss and then a firm smack on the backside. Seven o'clock already, dammit! Ganesha alone knew how long the card had lain ignored. The Club had telephones since year before last—no expense spared here. Why couldn't the man have called up?

He hadn't planned on going downstairs at all. In fact, he'd planned on having something sent up for dinner and spending the rest of the evening the way he'd spent the afternoon; it had been a long four months of involuntary celibacy on the frontier. Then when he was exhausted enough and Hasamurti was crying for mercy, there would be time to read accumulated letters from his mother and twin sister and younger siblings, and then sleep for eighteen hours. But...

The Political Service?

Politicals served as advisors at the courts of the Empire's client states; they supervised the Tribal Agencies beyond the frontier; they adventured far into the barbarian lands, sniffing out troubles to come and staking claims; they ran the Intelligence departments... and they fought the Great Game with the Czar's agents, and the Mikado's, and the Caliph's, and assorted subversives.

The Army and Navy were the Empire's sword and fist; the Political Service was its eyes and a goodly part of its brain besides.

"Not now, chaebli," he said again, grabbing the wrist of an exploring hand as it crept around his waist.

Hasamurti pouted despite the endearment—darling, roughly—and flounced off to sit poised beside the sunken marble tub, still full of steaming water with wisps of foam on its surface. She leaned back on one hand and tossed her hair.

"Wouldn't you rather be with me than with some moldy old book-monger kitub-wallah from the capital?" she said.

He chuckled and nodded as he finished toweling himself off. Good to be clean again, he thought. And to smell slightly of rosewater and musk, rather than horse sweat and his own unwashed hide.

"If it were mine to say, I'd stay," he said. "But needs must."

Quite a change from squatting to scrub in a chatti of ice water, -waiting for an Afridi to pop out from, behind a rock waving a knife, he thought. And Hasamurti makes a pleasant change of scenery, too.

The troopers of the Peshawar Lancers were good lads one and all, but not much aesthetically. His mistress was a classic Kashmiri beauty of nineteen, strong-featured, with wavy raven hair falling past her full breasts to a narrow waist and hips that completed the hourglass figure. A cross on a silver chain dangled between her breasts, and tooled-leather bands sewn with silver bells were clasped about her ankles. Altogether a pleasing sight... She tried one more time as he tied on his loincloth and dressed.

"But chaebli, I want you to make my new bells ring again!" she said, shaking one long slender leg amid a sweet chiming.

"The things I do for the Sirkar," he sighed, and grinned at her. His arm was a little sore, but a gentleman always showed consideration. "Later, my sweet."

She subsided, grumbling and pulling on a robe and flouncing off to the bedroom, there to entertain herself with sweets and a trashy novel. It was the usual arrangement; she was a shopkeeper's daughter in Avantipur, a market town near Rexin, the King estate. King had met her when he dropped into her father's place to dicker over a saddle. He'd see that she got a husband and a substantial going-away present for a dowry, when his mother finally managed to shackle him to some horsy deb; in the meantime, they jogged along very well with friendship and honest mutual lust. He wasn't a harem-keeper—that sort of thing was out of fashion anyway in these enlightened times, when there was even serious talk about giving women the vote. And he wouldn't have wanted the type who adored his shadow; that would be cruelty, when he'd be bringing home a wife someday.

A thrill of a different sort gripped him as he turned to look again in the mirror, settling his indigo-colored turban and tugging at his jacket. He was in civilian mufti, high-collared tunic-jacket of midnight blue silk trimmed with silver braid at neck and cuffs, worn over a white cotton blouse; loose trousers of the same dark silk tucked into half boots; and a crimson sash under a tooled-leather belt. It set off broad shoulders, narrow waist, long legs; he smoothed down one of his sleek brown mustachios and contemplated a face tanned to oak color, high in the cheeks, straight-nosed and square-chinned, with level dark brown eyes flecked with green and a thin white scar from a sword slash along the right side of his jaw.

That had hurt like blazes when a frothing Ghazi administered it with a chora-knife, but it gave a certain gravitas and distinction to a face still a few years short of thirty, he decided. And considering that he'd blown the man's brains out with his Webley a second later, he didn't really have grounds for complaint.

The modest silver-and-enamel aigrette on his turban showed the family crest, pistol and pen quartered with a crown and the King motto: Kuch dar nahin hai—There is no such thing as fear.

Altogether the sort of outfit a well-to-do zamindar's son from Kashmir might wear, or an Imperial cavalry officer on leave; since he fitted both categories precisely, it was appropriate enough. Even if he had also taken a double first at Oxford.

He hesitated a moment before he picked up a knife and pushed it through the sash, a seven-inch curved blade of wootz steel, with checked ebony handle and silver sheath. A formality, these days; bar­barians, cannibals, bandits, and rebels were a lot less likely to swing through a window or come down the chimney than they had been in his great-grandfather's time. Even the Border country was peaceful in this Year of Grace 2025, by those standards.

There were other challenges and dangers, though, even if they were less physical. And he was going to meet them. It never hurt to be prepared.

 

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"Thank you, Lakshmi, Patni," Cassandra King said.

Oxford's airship port bustled about her. One more young lady disembarking with her maids juggling the luggage behind was nothing to remark. The heavy dolly that followed, with four well-paid and ex­tremely careful porters about it, decidedly was. So was her anxious care for the square timber box on it.

She looked about. Passengers were flooding off the Diana through the connecting corridor, meeting their personal attendants from the steerage deck, and those were hailing uniformed porters as luggage was brought in and placed on long tables. Turbans and head scarves and hats in a hundred different colors waved against the rows of ticket offices along the walls, and swirled through the pointed-arch door­ways to waiting cabs or restaurants or shops. Families and friends greeted each other with cool reserve, or glad cries and embraces—her lip curled a little in scorn at that. Some of the servants were holding up signs with names on them, to guide arriving guests to the carriages of their hosts, or in a few cases to their motorcars.

Voices and unintelligible clunks and clanks from the machinery elsewhere filled the air along with the scent of jasmine in the man-high stone jars that stood here and there on the marble of the floor. The last light of sunset speared down from the high clerestory win­dows, off the bright gilding that covered the arched ceiling; then the floods came on with a pop and flare of brightness that turned it to a shimmering haze of gold.

Interesting, she thought, looking up as she always did here. The building was five years old, and the spiderweb complexity of gilt, groined vaulting above her was all laminated wood, the latest thing—everything from teak to bamboo, in precisely calculated gradients. With scientific tree-breeding and modern resins, it was almost as strong as steel girderwork, and much lighter. Not to mention cheaper. And the mathematics had been done here in Kashmir, at the university's own great Engine.

The rest was not much different from a railway station, even to the murals of Work and Sacrifice and Duty and other uplifting sentiments lining the upper walls. Bronzed sahib-log engineers in dusty turbans laying out irrigation canals, with grateful peasants invoking the gods in the background; missionaries in some godsforsaken ruin (probably Europe, by the vegetation) reclaiming hairy savages who crouched in awe at their feet; noble soldiers heroic on rearing steeds, trampling cringing enemies beneath their hooves.

She snorted slightly; they'd left out the traders with crates of gin and beads and cheap muskets, and the prospectors. Whenever her brother saw official military art, he tended to laugh. Or curse, if he'd had a gin and tonic or two, and swear at how many young subalterns got killed trying to act out nonsense like that before they learned better.

"Dr. King!" a voice called.

She craned her neck, then saw him. "Dr. Ghose!" she replied happily.

The little Bengali beamed at her, a wide white smile in the dark brown face; he was a plump man in his early forties, in white shirt and pantaloons, black waistcoat and canoe-shaped hat. He gave a nod and a word to King's two attendants; Dr. Chullunder Ghose was a kindly man as well as one of the Empire's foremost physicists and astronomer-mathematicians.

Although it didn't hurt that his family was fabulously wealthy with jute mills and shares in Orissan coal mines; he could have dropped the purchase price of the King estates across a gaming table with a laugh. Not that a Bengali bhadralok—respectable one—would go in for high-stakes gambling. Behind him came Lord Cherwell—Earl Cherwell of Rishikesh—looking sour, his white mustachios working and bushy brows frowning under a crisp, conservative turban of snowy linen, the tail of the pugaree coming almost to his belted waist in the back, and an egret plume nodding from the aigrette in front.

Damned old fool. I know what you're thinking, Cassandra said to herself. First natives, then women, what's the university coming to... He did good work once, they say. God, that must have been in Arjuna's day! Or Victoria Vs, at least.

It was Ghose who'd shown flaws in the basis of the Kelvin-Maxwell synthesis, the existence of the luminiferous ether; and he'd won the Salisbury Chair in Theoretical Physics by sheer ability. He should be head of the Project.

Then, reluctantly: Well, be fair. Lord Cherwell's still a good academic administrator. Why waste a first-rate theorist on that?

A half dozen others followed, mostly sahib-log except for a Gujarati whose field was Babbage engineering, and male, apart from one painfully shy but brilliant young specialist in Darwinian Geological Catastrophes; she was a Parsi girl from Bombay with buckteeth. They all crowded around the dolly, looking at it with awed reverence. One reached out and touched the rough planks of the box gently.

"Thirty-four inches... what a mirror!

Cassandra nodded, throwing the right end of her dupatta—head shawl—over her left shoulder. "Thirty-four inches and perfect," she said. "Smythe wasn't drawing the longbow."

"Oh, my, yes indeed," Ghose crooned. "Very much so, yes."

"Rather a feather in our caps, what?" Cherwell said, for once sounding cheerful. "Do a deuced good job at reflector-grinding, those Imperial University chappies. Pity they don't have a mountain to put a machaan on themselves, eh, what?"

He snorted and rubbed his hands together. "Thorns suggested the Nilgiri Hills, for God's sake—right down in the jungle country, and barely a few thousand feet. Kiang! I brought the chancellor's motor-wagon down for it. Ladies, gentlemen, chalo! Let's go!"

Cassandra paused to wave the porters forward again. There was a commotion a little way off, but she ignored it until someone shouted.

Then she did look up, frowning. Men were pushing their way in, against the flow of the crowd. Several of them, young men; Bengalis by their looks and dress. Not many wore the dhoti up here in the northwestern provinces, especially in the mountains; the big wraparound loincloth was just too cold for the climate, particularly in October.

One of them shouted again: "Bande Materam!"

Hail Motherland, she translated automatically. Why, that's

Then she saw the pistols, and for a moment simply gaped. Revolvers, big and heavy and clumsy-looking, with long barrels. Why, that's illegal! she thought. The slogan only mildly so—she'd read Tagore's poetry herself. The pistols were violently illegal for anyone but the military and police; private licenses were extremely rare.

She had time for one thought before the first weapon boomed. Assassins

Time slowed. The men came toward the knot of scholars, shouldering the crowd aside amid shouts and gasps of surprise and indignation. The pistols barked, deep and loud, with long spurts of smoke and flame. Cassandra saw her maid Patni turning, astonishment on her plain middle-aged face, a suitcase in either hand. Then she spun, catching at herself and crying out.

That brought the scholar out of her daze. She had been a King of Rexin, with all the responsibilities toward dependents that involved, much longer than she'd been a gentlewoman of science. Without another thought she dived, catching both her maids around the waist and throwing them to the ground, her own body over them and sicken-ingly conscious of blood soaking through the fabric of her clothes, wet and warm over the hands she clamped down to stop its spurting.

That gave her a view of what happened afterward. A third man carried something besides a pistol, a cloth bundle that trailed a hissing and plume of smoke...

Dr. Chullunder Ghose recognized it as a bomb sooner than she. It was pitched to fall under the dolly; the explosion would shatter the metal and wood into lethal shrapnel and kill everyone within a dozen yards. He grabbed the parcel out of the air with the skill of the fast-bowling cricketer he'd been, and curled himself around it. Cassandra squeezed her eyes tight, but she could not shut out the horribly muffled thudump of the explosion, or the feel of what spattered her, or the smell.

She forced her eyes open; there were still the men with revolvers—and men willing to set off bombs under their own feet would be horribly dangerous with firearms as well. There was one more shot, and something crashed and tinkled in the middle distance. Half the crowd was stampeding in terror, some trampling those ahead of them.

The young Rajput prince she'd seen on the promenade deck of the Diana drew his blade and began a lunge, staggered as two lead slugs struck him, lunged again with his scimtare, a murderously sharp length of fine Jawahdapur steel. It rammed through coat and ribs to emerge dripping red from the gunman's back. Lord Cherwell was a step behind him, big blue-veined hands outstretched.

Then the four young men disappeared beneath a wave of men wielding swords, knives, walking sticks, fists and feet and a wrought-brass cuspidor stained with betel juice. Despite the nausea that clogged her throat, despite screams and cries and horror, Cassandra thought she saw brief bewilderment on the faces of the terrorists; and that puzzled her itself. What else would men of the martial castes do, when they saw a crowd attacked by assassins?

After the explosion and the brief deadly scrimmage things moved by in a blur; doctors, one putting a pressure bandage on Patni's wound and setting up a plasma drip, stretchers carrying away the wounded. Police came running up, men in blue-and-yellow uniforms with long lathi clubs. Hands helped her to the rim of a fountain, where she sat staring.

"Memsabib."

The voice was firm; she looked up. A thirtyish man in plain crimson-and-green civilian clothes, but with two uniformed policemen behind him, a notebook in his hand and a pistol in a shoulder holster under his red jacket. He was too dark for a Kashmiri, with sharp, brown, clean-shaven features and weary eyes so black the pupil disappeared.

"Detective-Captain Tanaji Malusre, memsahib" he said gently—in good English but with a strong Marathi accent. "My apologies, but we must take statements before memories fade and change. Now—"

During the questions someone thrust a mug of hot sweet tea into her hand. She lifted it, swallowed at the sight of what was drying on her hands, then forced the porcelain to her lips. A little strength returned, enough for her to ask in her turn:

"Why? Captain Malusre, why? Who are these people?"

"Subversives—Bengali secessionists—enemies of the Raj. We think we know who, but this group has never operated outside Bengal province before. One may live long enough to answer questions, if we are lucky. Very strange."

"But... but none of us are political people! Poor Dr. Ghose—" She squeezed her eyes shut again.

I will not vomit. I am Cassandra May Effingham King of the Rexin Kings, and I am the sister and daughter and granddaughter of soldiers of the Empire. My ancestors rode with the Light Brigade and held Pipers Fort. There is no such thing as fear!

"Dr. Ghose was a very brave man," the detective said, looking down at his notebook. "Without him, several others might have died."

Cassandra shivered again, barely conscious of the detective muttering to himself as he made quick shorthand notes: "Very strange... the pistols were foreign. Damascus armory cap-and-ball make; but the Caliph's men are not so foolish, are they?"

She burst out: "None of us are political people! We are scholars—scientists—why would anyone come all the way from Calcutta to attack us?"

"I do not know, memsahib," the policeman said, tucking his notes away. "But I would very much like to know."

 

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Yasmini closed her eyes as the bitter, sweet-sour taste of the bhang lassi slid into her mouth. Her body recognized it, like a sudden dryness in the throat and tongue that increased even as she drank. Yogurt and ice water, sugar... and hemp resin and poppy juice and things less common. Slowly, she set the silver cup down on the rock beside her and sat on the flat cushion, cross-legged, with each foot resting sole up on the opposite knee, her hands resting on her thighs with index finger touching thumb. Breath and heartbeat slowed, matching the thudding of a distant drum.

"See. See the Path." Ignatieff's voice boomed out like a brazen radong-trumpet, echoing on stone and down the corridors that burrowed more deeply into the earth. "Tell. Tell us the Path."

Her master spoke Hindi for the benefit of the men who knelt ranked before her. It was damp and chilly in the chambers beneath the ancient temple; great roots wove through the stone of the walls, writhing like snakes. Voices chanted in the background, a deep rumble that echoed off stone like the flickering light of the ghee-fed lamps that cast yellow highlights. It made the faint, faded images painted on the walls seem to move of themselves, whirling around the great room in a sinuous dance.

The drug was not needful, for ordinary purposes—for sensing where a patrol would turn, or what would come of taking one pass and not the next. When she slept, eventually, she would pay for the drink in a torrent of unasked, unsought vision. For the present, it opened the gates of the mind, letting the trained will range farther, and faster.

Her eyelids drooped over the blue-rimmed green of her eyes. Lips opened. Sight blurred, but not as an ordinary woman's might. Here the outlines shifted as she saw the if; this man might be here, or there, might lean forward or sit straight. He might not be here at all, or might be slightly different... now she saw Ignatieff with eyes of the same color and no patch, now with a steel hook in the place of a hand. Now an Ignatieff who did not command, but smiled a reptile's smile, while she answered with the same expression... that one was very bad, and she wrenched her mind away.

"See! Speak!"

Might-be frayed out in either direction, to pasts and futures, being and not-being all at once. A present in which buildings stood impossibly tall, sheathed in mirror; one in which nothing lived save insects and grass and only shaped stones remained of humanity; one in which dark soldiers with strange, powerful weapons and crawling metal fortresses fought here in the Vale of Kashmir.

"I see... I see .. ."

Forward, a part of the fan of might-be collapsed into a knot. She recognized it. A thing twisting in space, its dark pitted bulk rolling ponderous against the stars—there was no reference point to show its size, but she sensed a hugeness about it, an utter cold, a metallic tang as of iron. Like a mountain of frozen steel, falling from forever. Then a blue curve marked with the shapes of continents beneath drifting cloud; a flash of fire, night darker than night, a blizzard that blew ice like swords over seas frozen from pole to pole, a last emaciated body crouching in a ruin gnawing at a human skull.

"It comes... closer." The fingers of her mind stroked the webs of might-be and if. "The one slain. His death brings it closer." A small brown man's hands, reaching for a bag that twisted in the air. "Closer. But the—"

She stifled a shriek. "Their faces! I see their faces!" A man and a woman's much alike. Young. That is the Anglichani soldier I saw before. The one I must not see, but the Master commands

"They are the ones! With them dead, death comes!"

A murmur went through the watching men, and their eyes glittered like wolves watching around a campfire at the edge of sight. Their clothes were of many kinds—saffron yellow robes and caste marks, hairy jackets, silk—but their eyes were the same.

"Kali Yuga!" one whispered. The others took it up with a hissing sibilance. "Kali Yuga! Kali Yuga! Kali Yuga!"

Kali Yuga: Age of Darkness. The dance of the death goddess; the triumph of Ignatieff's Peacock Angel.

 

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Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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