The dining room of the Peshawar Club dated from the Old Empire. There were many clubs in the city, down to the ones where the chi-chi foremen of the Indian Railways Administration gathered, but only one was the Peshawar Club to anyone who mattered. Dark and cool and elegant; modernization in recent years had brought newfangled overhead fans rather than punkhas. Plus a ghastly antique Georgian-era statue of St. Disraeli near the entrance, in the style of a century ago, with a look of ruptured nobility and his hand raised as if to call a waiter about a fly in his soup.
The smells made King's mustache twitch as he walked quickly through the lounge outside, reminding him that he was damned sharp-set; luncheon had been a handful of chilies and some chapatis and ghee by the side of the road, with his charger's reins looped through his belt as he sat on his heels to eat. The Club's chicken vin-daloo and Khara Masala lamb were almost as good as the versions that came out of his mother's kitchen. He'd been fighting in the cause of civilization, and his stomach reminded him that he deserved some of its fruits.
"Sir Manfred?" King said, as a man stubbed out a thin cigar and rose from a divan in the waiting room. A companion stood behind him. The Lancer officer pressed palms together before his face and bowed with a formal:
The man was a baronet, after all, and from the sound of things an eminence in the shadowy realm of the Political Service. King didn't think he was the sort to truckle, even for the chance of advancement, but a little courtesy never hurt. Being too disobliging might be the first step to a posting in some godsforsaken outpost on the Tibetan border, or to Singapore or even—merciful Krishna avert!—to a garrison in England.
"The same," the Political said, then extended a hand for the less punctilious greeting between equals. "Captain King, I presume, of Rexin in Kashmir and the Peshawar Lancers? Good of you to sacrifice time on leave."
And courteous of you to pretend I had a choke, King thought, studying the other man. He was slim and a few inches shorter than King's six-two, middle-aged, with a thin, pale face and gray showing in a close-clipped yellow mustache and the hair under the edge of his puggaree-turban. That was dazzling white, like the rest of his outfit save for black half boots. The blue eyes were sharp and appraising, and the hand in his was soft-skinned but strong.
"My apologies for the delay," King said. "Your card caught me in media res, as it were, Sir Manfred." Bulling away with Hasamurtis legs wrapped around my arse, actually.
"Koi bat naheen, not a problem, my dear chap. Allow me to present a friend," the Political went on.
The stranger bowed with a courtly gesture before offering his hand in turn. King's brow rose slightly. Not an Imperial, he decided at once, although in nondescript tunic-jacket and trousers and sash. A white man, but on the darker edge; black-eyed, olive-skinned, with raven-dark shoulder-length hair; clean-shaven, but with slightly paler patches to his face that suggested mustaches and a chin-beard not long ago. In his late twenties, a little older than King. He made a quick guess...
"Enchante, monsieur," he said, and continued in French. "Welcome to the Empire—the British Empire, that is."
The stranger's eyebrows rose. "A man of acute perception," he said, with a glance and shrug at Sir Manfred, in fairly good English with a slightly archaic book-learned flavor.
"May I present Colonel Henri de Vascogne, Vicomte of El Oudienne in the Duchy of Tunis, Chevalier of the Order of the Mahgreb, currently on detached duty, in the service of His Imperial Majesty Napoleon VI of Algiers and France."
"Monsieur le Vicomte," King said, and bowed. Another Political, he thought. But a man of his hands as well.
He recognized the signs, broad shoulders and thick swordsman's wrists, and a rim of callus around the index finger and thumb of the right hand. And the way he moved, light and alert, with a circle of awareness about him. Departement Secret or Deuxieme Bureau without a doubt; uncooperative Berber chieftains assassinated, nests of Moorish pirates on the Andalusian coasts identified, Caliphate spies tracked down on request.
"An honor," replied the Frenchman, a charming smile lighting his ugly-handsome Mediterranean face.
A silent waiter conducted them to their table; King noted that it was in a corner and far enough from any other that even the sharpest ears would have trouble picking up a conversation. De Vascogne raised his brows again as the wine was uncorked, paying tribute to an excellent Swat Valley red.
King let Sir Manfred lead casual talk while he did justice to the garlic nan, vindaloo, stuffed eggplant, cauliflower and okra cooked in aromatic yogurt with chilies, cinnamon, peppercorns, and cumin.
"I see our ancient tales about English food are not of a certainty true," de Vascogne said, eyeing the plates with the air of a pious man who had just taken the Sacrament.
"We're scarcely English," Sir Manfred said. "British, of course, by descent."
Well, mostly, King thought.
One of his great-grandmothers had been a Rajput noblewoman; he had a vague half memory of reading somewhere that there was an Afghan princess in the Warburtons' background—one of his ancestors had been a notable Political Officer in these parts right after the Fall. And Ganesha knew enough foreigners had been swept up in the mad three-year-long scramble to escape from the frozen charnel house of Europe. They hadn't been picky about who arrived in Bombay or Karachi in the generation of the Exodus, provided they could work, breed, and be relied on to fight on the right side.
Sir Manfred went on: "These days?" A shrug. "We're the sahib-log"—ruling folk—"of the Angrezi Raj; although it's a social distinction rather than a legal one, strictly speaking."
King nodded, recognizing an academic's precision; in strict law, the Raj didn't recognize caste—but nobody could rule India for a month if they didn't do so in fact. Much less live there for a century and a half.
It was still the British Raj, although usually you simply said the Empire; that was like referring to the Club in Peshawar, with no need for further qualification. Technically there was a mort of empires in today's world; the East Asian colossus that Akahito ruled from Peking as Mikado and Son of Heaven; the Czar's hell-born cesspit in Central Asia; the shadowy dominion centered on Rio de Janeiro that was reigned over by Dom Pedro and ruled by the caudillo of the month; Napoleon VTs own Algiers-centered imperium around the western Mediterranean. There was also the Caliph in Damascus, of course; he did rule from the Danube to Baluchistan, even if he was a wog. Kali alone knew what titles savage chiefs in the interiors of barbarian Europe and the Americas and Africa used.
But it was the Raj governed from Delhi that mattered; and John II, King-Emperor, Padishah, and Kaisar-i-Hind, his House of Lords and Commons and prime minister.
And His Royal and Imperial Majesty s Army and Navy and Political Service, King thought.
Warburton turned toward him. "How's Colonel Dammit?" he asked.
A snort of laughter forced its way through King's lips, before he schooled his expression. "You know Colonel Claiborne, sir?" he inquired.
Warburton smiled, a tight, controlled curve of the lips. "We were at school together," he said. "United Services. And I served under him in the Second Siamese War, when we had that touch-up with the Mikado's men. He was Captain Dammit then, of course."
King nodded respectfully. That had been as close to a major war as the Empire had had in the past two generations; closer to a draw than was pleasant to contemplate, if you read beneath the schoolbook histories. Quite disconcerting, fighting Asiatics—the Raj wasn't accustomed to enemies nearly as advanced as itself. There had been clashes since, and someday there would be another war.
"In fact, I knew your father in Siam," Warburton went on. "And later." He cleared his throat. "Monsieur de Vascogne is here to consult about the Canal project. Formally, at least."
King nodded, wary. Delhi and Algiers had both been talking about dredging out the old Suez Canal since the dying years of the twentieth century. Neither had done anything concrete; it would be devilish expensive—impossibly so for France-outre-mer, she being much smaller than the Empire and several generations behind in technique. And while the Sultanate of Egypt was a rich prize ripe for the plucking, for either to conquer it would offend the other. Not to mention the possibility of war with the Caliphate of Damascus, which would be genuinely unpleasant even from Delhi's perspective and a life-and-death struggle from that of Algiers.
"The prime minister is serious, then?"
"Quite," Sir Manfred said, flicking open a silver case and offering it to his guests. "Lord Somersby generally means what he says, even during an election. You're a Whig yourself, I suppose, Captain?"
The younger man nodded cautiously as he selected a cigarillo with a murmur of thanks; the Whigs were the King family political tradition, from Old Empire times.
"I was happy to hear that Lord Somersby would 'kiss hands,' " Athelstane said. "He'll make an excellent PM, even if he isn't a second Disraeli or Lord Salisbury or Churchill. Not that Majors and the Tories did so very badly, but the Small Tenants Rights Act was overdue for passage—should have been put through in my father's day. A quarter of the crop and two days labor-service a week is all that a good za-mindar should expect from his ryots."
He paused for an instant. "And any zamindar or yeoman-tenant who needs a debt-bond to keep his laborers from moving away to the cities isn't fit for authority. With the way the population's growing, a decent man doesn't have problems finding workers."
Warburton nodded. "Not popular in some quarters, though. The Kapenaars are howling about it, from Table Bay to Mount Kenya."
King shrugged. The Cape Viceroyalty always voted two-thirds Tory; Australia went two-thirds Whig; India was the swing vote. None of the other parts of the Empire had enough MPs to matter, as yet.
De Vascogne selected a cigarillo, sniffed it appreciatively, snipped off the end with a silver clipper, and leaned forward to light it from the gas lamp in the center of the table. The staff cleared away the dishes and brought the cheese platter, cardamom-scented coffee, and snifters of brandy.
"My sovereign is also of an enlightened mind, and quite sincere," the Tunisian nobleman said. "The time has come for this affair of Suez and many another project of extreme value. Like his namesake, the third Napoleon, our ruler is possessed of a passion for la grande wise en valenr. So much so that he has proposed a co-dominium, a joint protection of the unhappy lands of the Nile to promote order and progress and permit the reconstruction of the Suez Canal, that product of French genius."
A talkative nation, King thought. Yet he had a feeling that the outre-mer Frenchman was revealing precisely what was intended, and no more.
"Well, this is capital," King said, lighting his own and taking a draught of the fragrant smoke; first-rate Zambezi, and no mistake. He followed it with a sip of the brandy. "But, if you'll pardon me asking, Sir Manfred, Monsieur le Vicomte... why are you discussing it with an anonymous captain in a down-country cavalry pultan?"
The Political Service agent and the foreign nobleman exchanged glances. Sir Manfred spoke slowly:
"For several reasons. Keeping an eye on an old friend's son, and all that. And... perhaps it's thought, in certain circles, that your talents are wasted in... hmmm, 'a down-country cavalry pultan.' Not that the Lancers aren't a first-rate regiment."
King nodded, feeling a tingling along his nerves, and pride at the steadiness of his hand as he held up the cigar and glanced at the glowing end.
"You have languages, I believe?" the baronet went on.
"Hindi, Punjabi, Pushtu, Tadjik"—which was close enough to speaking Persian for government work—"Bengali, modern French, Arabic, and Russian, some Nipponese," King admitted. "And the classics, of course." He shrugged. "Languages come easily to me; more of a sport than work."
"Double first in Moderns and Ancients—and a paper or two on philology since," the Secret Service bimbashi continued.
"Family tradition," King said. Rare but not unknown for an officer, and his family had a custom of combining scholarship with Imperial service. He added reluctantly: "In fact..."
"Yes, your sister is a Fellow of the Royal Academy and has a doctorate in mathematics and astronomy," Sir Manfred noted, reading from some file in his mind. "I read her paper... 'Orbital Characteristics of an Asteroid...' with some interest."
De Vascogne's brows headed for his hairline, demonstrating that he had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Empire. Even in these progressive times and in this progressive land and in a Whig family, that was unusual; Oxford had only started admitting women to the degree program fifteen years ago, when Queen-Empress Alice added her patronage to a generation's agitation by various radicals. A bare few hundred had taken advantage of it since, and far fewer in the sciences.
Not respectable, really, King acknowledged, thinking of his twin sister. But then, Cassandra had never taken convention seriously.
"Remarkable, and commendable," Warburton said. "Returning to your own record, Captain... you've already been poaching on the Political Service's preserves, what? That mission to the Orakzai chiefs—"
"Needs must, Sir Manfred. We had to keep those passes open, and—"
"—and you charmed them, impressed them in that dust-up with their neighbors you rode out on, and generally kept them sewed up. Passed as an Afghan yourself for several weeks. Saved us several nasty little actions."
King felt his arm twinge in remembrance. He'd gone through those weeks, disguised among aliens who hated his kind, in a state of continuous, well-controlled fear. Probably that had been what kept him alive, just.
"So you see," the older man said. "Our little bandobast—organization—"has had its eye on you for some years."
He smiled and added other details, ones that left King shaken behind an impassive front. The Department had a reputation for omniscience, but it was uncomfortable to have the all-seeing eye applied to oneself.
"Am I to assume you wish me seconded to the Political Service, Sir Manfred?" King asked.
His unspoken flicker of the eyes added: And why the devil are you doing it with a foreigner in earshot, even if it's a friendly foreigner! Granted, there was no set application procedure; you didn't apply, they asked you. This is pushing the boundaries of informality rather far, I would have thought. Nor was he sure he wanted to leave the regiment—generations of Kings and their retainers had served with the Peshawar Lancers.
"Not precisely, Captain King... and not quite yet, in any case." Warburton paused for a moment. "Tell me, young fellow, who are the friends of progress? And who are its enemies?"
He hadn't expected that. "Order and Progress" was the Empire's motto, near enough.
"Enemies? Why... the barbarians, of course, Sir Manfred. The Russians, too, of course; well, they worship Satan, so what would you expect? A few of the wild-man fringe of the Tories, here and in the Cape. As to the friends... we are, of course. Mostly. And the other civilized and allied countries," he added politely, nodding to de Vascogne.
"True enough in outline, old chap," Warburton said. "But the devil's in the details, don't you know. For example, the Empire's prosperous as never before."
King nodded. "Yes, we're finally getting back to where we were before the Fall," he agreed. "Even surpassing the ancestors, in some ways; we're far more advanced in the biological sciences, for instance. Damn me if I can see how anyone would object. Except our enemies, of course."
"Ah, but in any rise, mon capitaine, there is a rearrangement of positions," de Vascogne said softly. "N'est-ce pas?"
Warburton nodded. "To name an example, more prosperity means more natives with the franchise."
"It's always been open, even in Old Empire times," King said. "Why, the Queen-Empress Victoria promised in 1858, right after the First Mutiny, when the old East India Company was wound up—"
"—that all positions would be open to every qualified subject, without consideration of religion or origin, yes," Warburton said. "However, that's been fairly theoretical until recently. Now with the cities growing so fast... why, I doubt there's a sahib-log family as wealthy as the Patnas, to name only one."
"It is of a muchness in my sovereign's dominions," de Vascogne said. "Although we have always made a place for a Moor who is, how do you say, assimile, yet there are among us those who are unhappy that recently so many of our subjects desire to take up our expressed wish, and to acquire a new past, one in which their ancestors were Gauls."
He chuckled. "Not to mention the extreme misery that this causes the Caliph and his mullahs. That we rule Muslims angers them; that we convert them is an anguish inexpressible."
Warburton continued: "So you see there might be some of our own people who feel... how shall I put it? To be charitable, who feel that the Empire's gone soft since the days of our great-grandfathers."
King winced slightly behind a gentleman's impassive mask. His ancestors of the Exodus and the Second Mutiny had been heroic, no doubt of that... but like many of his generation, there were aspects of that period he preferred to keep in the footnotes. They'd done what they had to do, those post-Fall Victorians, to preserve the Empire and civilization and the lives of their families. It had been a time when men had no good choices; you didn't, when your children were hungry, and the only way to get them food was to take away someone else's. That didn't justify turning brutal necessity into a virtue. He forced himself to think, let smoke dribble from his nostrils, and added:
"I suppose there are others who're displeased at the course of things, too," he said.
Some of the Sikhs and their leaders, for instance, who'd been close allies of the Sirkar in both Mutinies, and had been rewarded well for it; better than a quarter of the land in the Punjab was Sikh-owned. The Rajput nobility, who had their representatives in the House of Lords; and the rulers of the Protected States like Nepal. None of them would be happier than the stiffest of the sahib-log at seeing Gujarati or Bengali box-wallahs making inroads on the seats of power.
"Now," Warburton said. "Consider for a moment—who would be... not happy... who would like to see a Third Mutiny?"
King was appalled, but he responded with slow, careful calm. "Well, the Mikado." The Far Eastern empire would be the dominant power in Asia and the world if the Raj were badly weakened. "And the Czar, of course."
Both the other men nodded. Here's a catechism for me to go through, King thought, with wry amusement. That brought back a sudden flicker of memories; old Father Gordon, the smell of hassocks and psalm books, light flickering through stained glass. King went on, feeling his way forward:
''And the various subversives, the ones who'd like to overthrow the Raj or split their home provinces away. After which the Afghans would invade. There wouldn't be a rupee or a virgin between Peshawar and Calcutta six months later; then the Czar's men would arrive to sacrifice everyone to Tchernobog and eat their hearts."
"Fanaticism does not make for a realistic or long-term political perspective," Warburton said, nodding.
"And," de Vascogne added, "some among the influential in the smaller powers would also love to see the Raj trimmed back. For fear of your power; for envy of your wealth; and to remove the disturbances of custom your trade and ideas bring."
King's eyes narrowed as he glanced at Warburton. "But even the... excessively conservative, shall we say... among our own people couldn't wish the Raj overthrown."
"No." Warburton nodded. "But you see, my young friend, that would only happen if a rebellion succeeded, which is most exceedingly unlikely, despite what some of our home-grown radicals think."
He sighed, tapped his cigarillo against a carved brass ashtray. "Comes of expanding the supply of graduates from second-rate universities faster than the number of bureaucratic jobs. They should remember where the Sirkar's army is recruited."
King rubbed a hand along his jaw. There were the sahib-log, of course; Sikhs; Marathas; high-caste Rajputs; Jats and others from the canal colonies of the Punjab; many came from client kingdoms like Nepal, or were mercenaries from beyond the Imperial frontiers. And there's the military in the Cape and Australia, of course, and the outlying garrisons. The Empire kept three-quarters of a million men under arms, and that was counting professional soldiers only, not reservists and militia and police and the armies of the vassal states.
Warburton went on: "But a failed rebellion, with reprisals and confiscations afterward... that could set relations with the other castes back a century. Cripple the manufacturing cities, perhaps let full-plumed neofeudalism make a comeback. Or should I say neoneofeudalism:
He smiled and shrugged and leaned back. "And now, since the cricket season is coming, what do you think of Oxford's chance against the All-Australia?"
Narayan Singh was content. The Peshawar Club had many military members—and those officers were fighting men stationed on the most dangerous frontier of the Raj, not commanders of garrison troops or hangers-on at court. Their orderlies were not valets in uniform, but picked fighting men themselves, often born to the duty as he had been, jajmani-followers in a hereditary patron-client link between families.
So the quarters for those servants were as you would expect. Not as luxurious as those for their employers, but spacious, with soft beds and baths of water and steam; there were ample spaces where a man might throw dice or swap stories, wrestle or fence; and you did not have to go out into the bazaar to find music, clean girls, or liquor. Clad only in his drawers, the Sikh leaned back at ease in his private room, while one such combed and oiled his waist-length hair.
"Eye-wallah, Miriam, give me to drink," he said. "Chasing Pathans is thirsty work."
Then he stretched, pleasantly conscious of the ripple of muscle along his heavy shoulders and arms, and the scars that seamed white against brown skin and heavy black body hair. The girl—she was wearing considerably less than he—cast an admiring glance at him as she went to mix cane spirit with mango juice and pour them over crushed ice in a tall glass. Then she rolled her rump where she stood and winked at him over one shoulder.
Narayan grinned, with a stomach pleasantly full of rice and curried lamb and more pleasures to follow. He considered himself a man of reasonable piety, if not as much as his mother would have liked. He read the Adi Granth at times; he followed the Five K's—he kept his hair uncut, wore a soldier's drawers, carried a steel comb and wore the steel bracelet and kept a kirpan, a steel blade, at his side. When there was time he prayed at the amritvela-hour of dawn, reciting the Name; when there was a place of Sikh worship to hand, he attended a gunid-wara to make his offerings and receive the blessed kara-prasad. He had even taken time on leave to visit the birthplace of Nanak Guru. Nor did he touch tobacco or bhang or any other narcotic.
Drink in moderation was different—or at least he thought of it so, nor did he deny himself meat or lying with loose women. He had no pretensions to being a sant, a holy man, nor had he the slightest desire to be an Akali, one of the Children of God the Immortal. When the time came he would wed himself a true Sikh kaur, a lioness, and sire sons, and find a guru who could lead him to the opening of the Tenth Gate.
Until then he would be true to his soldier's salt; that was his karman in this life.
So he pulled the girl onto his knee when she returned, tossed off a swallow of the drink, and handed it to her, scraping his beard over her full breasts as she raised it to her mouth in both hands and giggled. Sometime later she giggled again, into the thick thatch on his chest, and proclaimed that he was so fierce it was remarkable there was a Pathan left alive.
"And famous, already," she said. "You and your sahib."
"We made some play with steel and shot among the dogs," he said complacently. "Men see, and speak."
"So I heard," she said. "And the men who said so were Muslim themselves—sais-grooms here. Oh, they were anxious for word of thee, my lord with the great strong baz-baz." Her hand strayed. "And thy sahib, as well."
A chill ran down his belly, and he pushed her hand aside. "Tell me more!" he said, and the girl cowered a little at his tone. He shook his head. "I am not angry with you. But speak."
There would be no followers of Islam in the grooms or staff in this club; not so close to the border. That would not be safe. There had been too many raids on the frontier, too many intrigues with Muslim rulers over-border. And from what his grandfather had said of his grandfather's tales, too many of them had joined in when the Fist of God struck earth and a million starving Afghans poured down the passes to try and take the warm plains from the sahib-log.
While she spoke, he was dressing. When the last bewildered word was past he was out of the door with his sheathed saber in one hand, running down the corridor toward the stairs and the sahib-log section of the club with a lightness astonishing in a man of his barrel-chested heft. If he was wrong, the sahib would laugh at him for being an old woman. That would be as it would be. His honor was to preserve the sahib's life; and it was also the life of the man who had called him bhai—brother—and fought by his side, and pulled him from a melee when his horse was hamstrung and the Pathan knives were out.
A phonograph disk saved Athelstane King's life. He could hear it even before he brushed unseeing past two Club servants and opened the door to his rooms; it was one of his favorites, a classic piece in the Keralan style, with a tambura droning, drums, a vina. He didn't understand the vocalist's lyrics, Kannada wasn't one of his languages, but—
But the devil take it, Hasamurti detests Carnatic music! he thought. She'd never go to all the trouble of winding the phonograph to put one of those disks on when he wasn't there. The incongruity of it jarred him out of an abstracted brown study.
He swung the door open. "Greetings, sahib" Hasamurti said, standing in a pool of light from one of the gas lamps and bowing with hands palm to palm before her face.
That brought his ears up even more; his mistress never called him that in private—and after leaving her up here while he went to dinner on his first night back from the Frontier, and on top of that sitting late talking, he'd be lucky if it wasn't "jungle-born pig!" and something heavy thrown at his head and exile to the couch.
The heavy carved-teak door slammed shut and the bolt snapped home, the gaslight went out, and darkness fell. Hasamurti screamed once, a shrill sound cut off in mid-breath. Lightless colors played before his gaze. The music and the obvious falseness of his mistress's greeting had alerted him just enough to jerk his chin down and begin to turn as something swept through the air behind him. His left hand came up and caught at it, a smooth fabric that swung as if a weight pulled one end. It closed around his neck with an instant wrenching force that made him hiss with pain.
His mind was still slow with food and talk and puzzles that it worried as a dog does a bone, but his body and reflexes knew that suddenly, unbelievably, he was fighting for his life in his rooms at the Peshawar Club. A thing as unlikely as assault and battery by the Archbishop of Delhi in the High Cathedral, and to the accompaniment of the plaintive beauty of the music on the phonograph.
The cloth wrenched savagely at his neck, and the two fingers of his left hand underneath it would delay death by seconds only. A knee jammed into the small of his back, and he could feel the wiry strength in the hands that held the rumal, the strangler's handkerchief, and the enormous leverage of the tough cloth and crossed-wrist grip.
King heaved himself backward. The man on his back was strong but no giant; the Lancer officer stood six-foot-two and weighed a hundred ninety pounds of gristle, bone, and tough, dense muscle. They slammed into the plastered stone of the wall, and for a second the assassin slipped downward. The terrible pressure on his neck eased hardly at all, and blood hammered in his temples with spikes of pain. In that instant he snatched the ornamental knife out of his belt and slammed it back and up with all the strength his injured right arm could yield. A bubbling shriek half deafened him, and then the intolerable choking hold on his throat was gone.
Nobody, not even a trained strangler, pays attention to anything else when seven inches of razor-edged steel are rammed into his groin. The wounded man screamed again and again, then fell with a thud and lay thrashing and moaning.
King let himself fall to the carpet also and rolled, straining not to gasp as air flooded back into his lungs and blood into his brain, and light flared in his retinas, tinged with red and the shapes of veins. He was locked into a darkened room with a man—men, perhaps—deadly as cobras. Leopard-crawling in the darkness under cover of the sounds of the man he'd stabbed, he felt for the door and rose, crouching. Silence, save for the labored breath of a man dying. King made himself relax until he was waiting, lightly poised on the balls of his feet and open to every sensation his nerves could deliver, not straining. A whicker of air, and he let his knees go and crouched. Something went into the wood behind him with a chi-thunk of metal into wood; not a knife, but that didn't matter, as long as it hadn't hit him.
His crouch turned into a leap. Blind, he could only aim for where the sound hinted the thrower had been. He crashed into a body and they went over in the dark, falling together over a settee and knocking the phonograph to the floor with a sudden screech and crash. King found himself grappling with an unseen opponent, naked skin covered in some sort of grease. It made the smaller man's limbs impossible to pin down, for he had the speed and flexibility of a mongoose and a demonic skill. They fought in silence save for grunts and snarls, hands grappling for holds and breaking them, only occasionally able to strike with fist or elbow or bladed palm or fingertips, and hitting floor or furniture as often as flesh.
King's hands finally clamped on a wrist and elbow, but before he could break the arm, fingers came groping for his eyes. He snapped his head aside, then lunged back and sank his teeth into a wrist, but his opponent used the moment to tear his right arm free and whip the leading edge into the Lancer officer's temple. Then he pounded his fist into the side of King's own right arm, striking the half-healed stab wound with cruel luck and tearing himself free.
Lights shot before King's eyes. Yet even as he gasped in pain he pivoted on his back and kicked; luck reversed itself, and his boot struck the other man in the buttocks with tremendous force, catapulting him into a stone wall like something shot out of a hydraulic piston.
King heard the crash and flipped himself back to his feet, arms outstretched to either side—he wasn't certain where in the room he was, much less where the assassin had landed. Then he heard something from the corridor outside, muffled through thick wall and door. The clash of steel, shouts—Allahu Akbar; God is Great, the war cry of Islam—then a great bass bellow:
"Rung ho! Wa Guru-ji! Rung ho!"
"Narayan Singh—in here—more of them!" King shouted back, and made a daring leap. "Kuch dar nahin hai!"
That landed him at the corridor entrance; some distant corner of his mind gibbered in relief as his hand fell on the handle, twisted the dead bolt free, and threw the door open. In the same motion he flung himself aside and slitted his eyes against the flare of brightness from the gaslit corridor outside.
A man stumbled through backwards, steel flickering in his hand as he frantically parried the Sikh's saber cuts. The light showed two others in the corners of the sitting room; near-naked men with skins coated in black grease, loincloths also dyed night color. Each held a weapon in his right hand, a curious thing with a blade at right angles to the haft, like a short malignant pickax; the left hand held a cord and noose. Tucked into the loincloth of each was the rumal, with a corner lapped out ready to grip.
They hesitated a single instant, blinking against the pain of light in dark-adapted eyes, then skittered forward with the vicious quickness of weasels.
"Rung ho!" Narayan Singh shouted again. A tremendous overhand cut knocked his opponent back on his heels; the Lancer took the instant to pull a Khyber knife from his girdle and flip it through the air toward King.
"Here, huzoor—for you!"
It flashed through the air; a genuine Pathan chora, a pointed cleaver two feet long with a back as thick as a man's thumb and an edge fit to shave with. King snatched for the hilt—almost missed, with the pain and weakness in his right arm, but forced his hand to steadiness. The solid weight of the weapon was inexpressible comfort, and the assassins checked their rush. King didn't stop his own, pivoting with the momentum of his catch and attacking in the same motion. One down cut struck the haft of a pickax, and smashed it out of the smaller man's grip. The backstroke shattered and cleft his jaw, sending him staggering aside in a spray of blood and teeth; turning, King kicked the other killer in the stomach. Not too hard, because he struck in haste and the footing was awkward, but enough to keep him from interfering.
Then the last strangler was left with a short pickax to face a bigger, stronger man with twenty-four inches of straight razor in his hand and nothing but pure murder in his expression. Blood ran down King's arm from the reopened wound, but he scarcely felt the stabbing pain of it.
Narayan Singh's fight ended in the same instant. Another yell of Rung ho!, an unmusical scrinnng of steel on steel and the edge of his tulwar slammed into his opponent's arm. The heavy saber cut halfway through it with a thick wet sound of cloven muscle and a crack of parting bone. The Sikh shouted in exultation, brutally efficient blows reducing his enemy to something that looked more like a carcass hung in a butcher's stall than a man.
Then he screamed in fury as the blade jammed between two vertebrae, and he had to spend seconds wrenching it free with one foot on the dead man's body.
The last assassin wasted none of the time bought by his comrades' death. He threw his pickax at King in a snake-swift movement and darted for the door that led to the suite's bedroom. The windows there were covered with a lattice of iron bars, but they gave onto the street. King dodged the flying weapon; he knew the window bars must be cut through and that the killer could dive out and lose himself in the alleys—might have confederates waiting for him. Useless to pursue that greased speed. Instead he whipped the chora in an overarm throw, hard and fast.
It turned twice, glinting in the light streaming through the open door, then struck point first at the base of the fleeing man's skull, with a sound like an ax thunking home in seasoned hardwood. The assassin's body arched for an instant in a spastic rictus, then dropped as limp as an official explanation.
King staggered, panting and clutching at the reopened wound with his left hand, feeling blood seeping through the cloth.
"Doctor's going to hate me," he muttered, then turned the gaslights back on.
The bright yellow light showed a slaughterhouse scene of tumbled bodies and blood spreading on marble floor tiles and soaking into Sikunderam rugs. King ignored it—and the unpleasantly familiar stink of violent death—to kneel by Hasamurti's side. There was no obvious wound, but she was bleeding from nose and ears, her eyes wandering. His exploring fingers found a spot on the side of her head that gave unpleasantly as he touched it, despite the lightness of that touch and the swiftness with which he jerked his hand away. She cried out once, then rolled her head to look at him.
"I... tried..." she whispered. "Hurts..."
"You saved my life, chaebli," he said, gripping her hand and leaning close. The banchut must have hit her -with the hammer end of one of those pickaxes. "Don't try to—"
Her face grimaced and went slack. He put his fingers to her neck for an instant, then swallowed past a thickness in his own throat and pulled her eyelids down over staring eyes. Bone splinters driven into the brain; he'd seen enough head wounds to recognize it.
"Huzoor," came Narayan Singh's voice. "Sahib, you must look. Huzoor—"
King shook his head violently, squeezed his eyes shut for an instant, and pressed the heel of a blood-sticky hand to his forehead. There were tears pressing at the back of his eyelids, and he couldn't remember weeping since his father's death, when he was six.
She'd thought fast, and risked her own life for his... When he opened his eyes again they were as level and hard as agate, and he went to the Sikh's side. Whoever was behind this is going to pay, he thought. And pay fill measure.
The daffadar had peeled back an eyelid on one of the half-naked stranglers. On the pink skin was a tattoo, a crude representation of a spider... or a figure with many arms.
"Thug!" the Sikh swore; he pronounced it thaag. "One of the brotherhood of the Deceivers."
"Krishna," King swore to himself, softly.
The cult had been nearly wiped out back in Old Empire times—there were statues to Colonel Sleeman in half a dozen cities. Then it had revived on a vastly larger scale with the Fall and the chaos and famine afterward—this time not only murdering and robbing travelers in the name of Kali, but devouring them also to the glory of the Dreadful Bride. Evidently the repressions since the Second Mutiny hadn't gotten them all.
"Surgeons cut out cancers, but there's always a little left to grow again," he said grimly.
"There will be a reckoning," the Sikh said, his face equally hard. "But sahib, look here also. I saw them in the corridor, lounging about as if they were nothing save idle servants—but when I sought entry they drew steel on me."
He indicated the hacked body of the swordsman he'd killed. The process had removed much of the outer clothing, and beneath it the man wore linen bands tightly wrapped around his limbs—a winding-sheet, such as some Muslims were buried in. Another body similarly clad lay outside the corridor entrance to the suite, dead eyes staring at the ceiling. Only one type of Muslim wore such before burial; Shia fanatics on a mission they expected to end in their own deaths. The corpse could have been Arab, Persian, Afghani, or northwest Indian—dark hair and eyes, olive-brown skin turning gray with blood loss and morbidity.
"Krishna," King muttered again. Deceivers and hashasshin—that doesn 't make any bloody sense at all! Hindu fanatics in the service of the death goddess; Muslims convinced that dying while killing enemies of the Faith was a ticket to Paradise. "This is madness."
Singh grunted again. "Madness that slays, huzoor" He looked at the body that lay half in and half out of the bedroom door, still twitching, with the chora upright in his skull like a boat's mast. "A good cast, by the Guru!"
King shook his head. "My arm was weak and my aim was off," he said, with bitter self-accusation in his voice. "I was aiming for his thigh, so we could take one alive for questioning."
When all was said and done, when the police had come and gone, when a doctor had put stitches in his arm and strapped it up and strictly forbade any motion, a Club servant brought him a note on a silver tray.
It was Warburton's. This time the message read: Meet me in Delhi on the third week after Diwali. In the interim, remember that official help may not be conducive to continued health.
Slowly, Athelstane King crumpled the square of pasteboard in his hand.
Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>