The gracious smile on the face of Princess Sita Mary Elizabeth Jandeen Victoria Saxe-Coburg-Gotha lasted a full fifteen seconds after the rosewood-and-ivory door of the small audience chamber closed behind the Franco-Mahgrebi emissary. Then it ran down into a snarl.
"No!" she yelled.
The scream gained force from her overarm throw as she rose from the jeweled throne and pitched the silver-framed photograph at the door panels of rare woods and ivory. One of the ladies-in-waiting hastily intercepted it with her fan, to protect the priceless carvings of scenes from the Mahabharata—ironically, those were of the Pandava brothers and their joint wife Draupadi.
"No, no, no! I will not marry the foreign pig! I'd rather marry an untouchable, a diseased pariah sweeper with no nose! No! Never! Never!"
She dropped from the dais and began to stride angrily back and forth across the marble floor with its inset designs of tigers, peacocks, and jungle flowers in carnelian, lapis, and tanzanite. Energy crackled from her slight form; the princess was just eighteen years, rather short, and willowy-slender in a blouse of sheer Kashmiri wool and kanghivaram sari of gold-shot indigo silk sewn with a tiger-stripe pattern in tiny garnets and jet. A tiara was bound around her brows, diamonds and gold with a dangling fringe of Madras pearls shimmering like polished steel. The long hair looped in an intricate pattern beneath it was raven black, and her eyes a blue almost as dark. On her the rather bony features of the Imperial dynasty were muted to delicately regular good looks trembling on the verge of beauty. The fashionable red tikal mark between her feathery black brows stood out vividly against the pallor of her anger.
"Why me?" she asked—just on the smooth edge of a shriek; even then the training of her high contralto showed. "Why me?"
One of the ladies-in-waiting picked up the picture. She was the sister of the Maharana of Udaipur, taller and a few years older than the one she served, with boldly handsome Rajput features that she was visibly schooling to sweet reason:
"Sita—Kunwari—Imperial Princess—he seems a handsome man. And you will be a queen, and your sons will be kings."
"Then you marry him and bear a whole litter of kings. I give you leave!" Sita snarled.
She kicked at the confining hem of the sari as she strode, her glittering sandals clicking on the inlaid stone beneath. "I am daughter to the Lion Throne, and they expect me to marry this... this..."
"Heir to the ruler of France-outre-mer," her brother finished for her. He looked around. "Leave us!" he said, clapping his hands together sharply.
Courtiers and ladies and servants filed out; not many, for it had been a private audience. The Rajput lady-in-waiting handed him the picture as she stalked by in affronted dignity. Gurkha guardsmen shouldered arms to a brisk order from their officer, with a smack of hands on wood and metal, then moved back to the farther walls, discreetly out of earshot for anything but a shout; only a direct order from the King-Emperor himself would have sent them out of sight.
The audience chamber was part of the summer rooms of the palace, a twenty-foot-high roof supported by tall columns of polished crimson stone with gilded capitals. The outer edge had no wall, merely a series of staggered screens of ivory carved into fretwork as fine as lace.
"Come, let's take a walk," Prince Charles said. The tone was friendly, but the glance that went with it bottled his sister's fury.
They walked between the screens, along a path that gave out onto a courtyard garden, centered on a tall fountain of dazzling white. Paths of colored stone wound between green lawns, flower-beds, tall trees, manicured shrubs, man-high jars of polished stone with sprays of bougainvillea tumbling down their sides. Tiny antelope the size of cats moved fearlessly through the garden, and strutting peacocks with silver rings on their claws spread their tails and screeched; fish with fins like multicolored veils of gauze swam through pool and channel.
"Why don't you stop the hysterics, Sita? They'll probably expect me to marry his sister, after all, and I'm not complaining."
The eldest son of the King-Emperor was in the walking-out uniform of a colonel in the Gurkha regiment of the Imperial Foot Guards, forest green kurta and trousers, plumed long-tail pugaree-turban and polished boots. The hilt of his tulwar was as plain as regulations permitted, and he carried the Gurkha kukri-knife as well. Both showed use; the Guards had been in action on the northwestern frontier only weeks ago, and Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha didn't regard his colonelcy as an honorary one.
"You don't have to leave home," Sita said sullenly.
"Wish I could," Charles said frankly. "It isn't a life fit for a dog, the way Father's tied up in ceremony. I'd rather sail off to the Straits to start a rubber plantation, or go to Borneo and fight pirates."
He was a strong-featured young man in his mid-twenties, of medium height and slender, clean-shaven save for sideburns of dark glossy brown. He went on:
"In any event, you know the pater will get his way. Bad form to kick up such a fuss. Duty, and all that. Rajadharma."
Sita sighed and took the picture back. It showed a dark young man in an ornate uniform of antique cut—long-tailed buttoned blue coat, red trousers—well slathered with medals, his beard and mustaches trimmed to points. Beside him was a woman of her own age, dressed in a low-cut dress—that would be the sister.
"Is she wearing a corset?" Sita asked incredulously. "That dress looks like something Victoria I would have worn!"
"Well, they're old-fashioned in France-outre-mer, I grant you," her brother said. "But for Pravati's sake, Sita, you'll be the queen, there, soon enough. And one from the Raj—the Empire—at that. You'll set the fashions; have 'em all dressing civilized in saris or shalwar qamiz in no time."
"Are they civilized?" Sita asked, suddenly serious and quiet.
They sat on cushions piled on a marble bench beneath a pergola of autumn roses.
"Sita, Father wouldn't propose this if they weren't, diplomacy be damned, and you know it," he said persuasively, taking her hands in his.
"It's a foreign country, things will be strange, but they're pukka twice-born, believe me. And it's not as if it's the other side of the world. We'll be setting up a regular air service, it'll be only a week's travel, closer than Melbourne." His voice grew coaxing. "Come on, Sita—how many of us get to add a new province to the Empire?"
"I didn't see anything about annexation in the proposal," she answered dryly, giving his fingers a grateful squeeze and releasing them.
"Well, give it a generation or two," Charles replied. "Come on, be a brick, Sita—think about it, at least."
"I'll think" she said, pouting slightly. Then, slowly, considering: "The envoy was sort of interesting, at that. A cool one. I wonder what the prince is like?"
Charles left her sitting lotus-style beside the pool, propping her chin on one hand and staring at the photograph held in the other.
Henri de Vascogne looked admiringly around the interior of the motorcar that held him, the heir to the Lion Throne, and Sir Manfred Warburton. It was a big boxy vehicle, running on six wire-spoked wheels as they purred eastward; the interior was luxurious, in a quieter fashion than he'd become accustomed to in the Empire. The rear was a semicircle like the fantail of a yacht, cushioned with plain white cotton. Outside...
"Very pretty," he said to the prince, nodding at the palaces and administrative buildings, the Imperial University, the great museums and libraries, the statuary and monuments spaced along the broad avenues. The glories of Delhi's southern fringe showed as glimpses behind wrought-iron rails and through lush greenery only slightly sere with autumn; smooth red sandstone, marble, bulbous dome and slender tower and carved blocks. The emissary went on:
"But I would rather see more of your factories. There, my old, is the source of your power—together with your universities, I grant—and the reason for this alliance we negotiate." A smile. "Although the palaces and such are impressive enough. There are only thrice as many people in all my... sovereign's domains as in this one city."
"But France grows quickly," Prince Charles said diplomatically; it was true, as well. "The Political Service"—he nodded to the other man in the motor—"estimates that now that you've taken Sicily, you'll have all of Iberia and Italy and southern European France within a generation."
"If this fire-eating new Caliph al-Hussein doesn't whip his wahabi fanatics into a frenzy and wage a successful jihad to get Sicily back," Henri replied. "I fought in the conquest when we took it from his slug of a father, and it wasn't easy—by land or by sea. Al-Hussein is young, and not in the least sluggish."
Sir Manfred Warburton smiled with diplomatic silence and spread his hands slightly. If the Royal and Imperial Navy gained free access to the Mediterranean, the Caliph's clumsy steam-rams and paddle-frigates would be easy meat for modern ironclads and airships. Of course, that would require that France-outre-mer give them bases...
"Our two realms are the last of the seed of Europe, of the West," Prince Charles said seriously. "If you were to fall, half our heritage would be lost. We must stand together."
"Just so," de Vascogne said, nodding. "Grant that God wills it so."
The motor passed through a high stone wall topped with iron spearpoints. Beyond lay a hunting preserve that stretched over thousands of acres, an edited version of the jungle scrub that would have covered the Delhi area without irrigation canals. Waist-high grass stretched away beyond the gardens of the low-slung rustic pavilion and stables, with clumps of tall sal-trees, eucalyptus, and waist-high thorny scrub in the gullies. The hand of man had unobtrusively added rivers and pools, flowering shrubs, and cleared bush from the ruins of buildings old before the first Englishman set foot in Hindustan. It was early enough in the morning, and late enough in the year, that the air still smelled fresh green.
The party changed quickly into tough khaki riding clothes in the lodge. Sais led up horses; Henri nodded, unsurprised at their quality. North Africa was better horse-raising country, but he'd have expected the rulers of the Raj to have the best. He was more impressed at the knowledgeable way Prince Charles checked his mount's tack and the leather gaiters buckled around its legs, and the affection with which it nuzzled him.
"One thing puzzles me," he said aside to the Political Service Officer who was his minder and tour guide. The man was usually alarmingly well informed:
"If this family of little hoberaux you are concerned with, of squires as you say it—this King family—is as obscure as you think, why do your Russian enemies expend so much effort in the attempts to kill them?"
He'd expressed a strong desire to see the Empire's Secret Service in action on his trip; Algiers knew the strength of the Imperial armed forces, and the wealth behind them. It behooved him to explore that which his government did not have on file.
"That is the question," Sir Manfred said. "We have evidence that this isn't the first generation of Kings the Okhrana has tried to kill. That episode in Oxford is bizarre in itself; the project Miss King is involved with has no military applications. No industrial ones, even; it's pure science. It could have been merely local terrorists, but..."
He shook his head. Prince Charles reined his mount around in a precise circle and took up one of the bamboo lances a groom offered; the long keen head glittered in the bright sunlight of the Gangetic plain.
"Certain you want to try this, Henri?" he said. "It can be tricky for a beginner, old chap."
"With lances I am somewhat acquainted," Henri replied. "And we also hunt the boar with spears—on foot, to be sure, in the mountains of the Kayble and the Rif Atlas, but I do not think your Indian pig is any fiercer than our wild boar. When you come to my homeland, I will show you our sport."
"Tally-ho, then!" the Empire's heir called, looking more cheerful than he had since the Frenchman first met him.
"Tally-ho!" Henri replied, swinging into the saddle.
And for a moment we have a chance to escape ceremony and formality, he thought; which explained the smile. My old, I understand exactly your sentiments.
The head shikari retreated, quailing before a coldly blue-eyed Imperial glare.
"I kiss feet, I kiss feet," the huntsman stammered. "Yes, Kunwari, immediately, Kunwari!
Sita kept the stare going until the huntsman brought her a lance and a groom came leading Shri, the little Kathwari mare she rode by preference for rough work. Meanwhile she thanked the Gods it wasn't old Gunga Singh she was arguing with. He'd taught her to ride as a girl, and how to handle a spear on horseback, and tanned her bottom for her whenever she broke the rules—spankings administered with her parents' hearty approval. She couldn't come the heavy princess with him. But Gunga Singh was on leave in his village for the Diwali festival. The assistant here was a competent man, or he wouldn't be on the staff of the Delhi hunting lodge, but he was new, and she could frighten him—Gunga Singh had no son to train to take his place, only daughters, fortunately, and had had to hire a stranger.
"Thank you," she said graciously, and handed him a few coins. "For your trouble."
Intimidating the huntsman was a good deal easier than shedding her bodyguard. Those were troopers of one of the Guards Cavalry regiments—six men of the Bikaner Horse, under a keen-eyed young subaltern who was also a nobleman of the Guhilot clan of Ratanghar, and a polo champion to boot. His ancestors had been warrior-nobles of Rajputana when those of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's were pig-farming peasants in Germany, and he certainly wouldn't take any nonsense from a mere Imperial princess.
Every one of the sowars was born to the saddle as well. Their standing orders said they couldn't prevent her from taking a ride where she pleased, within reason; and also that she wasn't to be out of their sight under any circumstances whatsoever while out-of-doors. Unless she were relieving herself behind a bush, in which case they were to form a circle around her, facing outward.
At least I can speak to them, she thought; most of the Gurkhas who watched over her indoors didn't have six words of any language she spoke.
But... she thought. The cavalrymen all stood six feet or near it, and rode at near twice her weight, and they were using military saddles and carrying tulwars and carbines. Their horses were excellent, but not equal to her Shri, not by half a mile, not in broken ground.
"Are you planning on hunting, Kunwari? their commander asked politely, in Rajasthani-accented Hindi.
"No, I'm carrying a lance to frighten the birds, Lieutenant Utirupa," she said dryly in the court dialect of that tongue. "It's useful for catching on things, too." A snort. "The Cold Lairs have leopards. I know your men are all good shots, but think of this as insurance."
He inclined his head, the shadow of his bulbous turban falling over his doubtful frown. Sita nodded back regally; there was a certain pleasure to teasing handsome wellborn young men, and she was conscious of the picture she made in her dazzling white jodhpurs and tunic and tight-wound turban, with the silver-hiked hunting knife belted at her waist. Probably he wasn't too used to court ways yet, or city customs—townsmen didn't join the Bikaner Horse.
Yes... She cudgeled her memory; there had been a file on his lineage when the Bikaners were assigned bodyguard duty, along with details of an impressive fighting record for a man still not twenty-five. Family estates somewhere on the edge of the Thar Desert, where they probably still keep girls in purdah. Well, not quite, but I still probably shock him...
"I wish to look on Safdarjan's Tomb, Lieutenant," she said more kindly, giving him a dazzling smile and letting a sidelong glance replace the glare. Being shocking was fun. "And the Asoka pillar there. It will be safe enough... with a bahadur such as yourself as guard."
"At your command, Kunwari," he said, swallowing hard and lowering his eyes in momentary confusion.
Hooves clacked on the stone paving of the stables, then plopped into the deep soft dust of the laneway; she kept her mount to a fast walk while they were within the grounds of the lodge, waving to servants and groundskeepers who made salaam as she passed; Sita had spent much of her time here since childhood and many of them would remember her on her first pony, or rolling a hoop.
Then they broke out into open meadow, and she tightened her thigh grip on the mare's flanks.
"Chalo, Shri!" she called. No more was necessary. "Go, Shri!"
The mare responded with jackrabbit acceleration and Sita crouched low over her neck, the light hunting lance held horizontally as they dashed through tall grass, body moving with the horse in a dance of speed. The tall chargers of the guardsmen were left behind for a hundred yards or more; she could hear them swearing artistically behind her. Their mounts' longer legs closed the gap a little after that, until she went under the branches of a grove, ducking and weaving with a dancer's grace.
More blasphemy behind, and then she pulled in and Shri sat on her haunches and slid down into a dry gully; the princess leaned back and sat the heaving saddle as easily as a cushion in a palace drawing room. Sita laughed in sheer exuberant glee as the pony kept her footing with cat agility amid the dust and rocks and clods of hard earth, conscious every moment that a slip could break her neck on that stony ground, or send eight hundred pounds of horse rolling over her.
Shri snorted and wheeled as they reached the floor of the gully—it would be a torrent in the monsoon—and sped up it with a rattle of horseshoes, striking sparks from ground that was a shifting mass of rounded brown rocks, weaving around thick clumps of bush that reached for her with long white thorns like tiger's teeth. This time the blasphemy behind her was mixed with genuine yells, and a shout of rage as someone lost his saddle; and for all that they were taking the slope more cautiously than she had. No choice, with their tall horses carrying two hundred pounds and more of man and gear on each back.
In a moment the Rajput troop commander would bring order out of chaos and think to have his men climb out and beat the sides of the ravine; she put her mare at a narrow side gully and came up it with a plunging heave.
That put her in another grove that shaded off into artificial marsh where a few migratory duck still lingered, and birds buzzed about after insects. Sita strangled a betraying whoop as she spun her light lance around her head and turned the horse to canter off toward the place she suspected was her goal.
"Vive le sport!" Henri cried.
The hunt went forward in a mad dash over rock and gravel, dry watercourses and crumbling slopes and fanged brush. Dust rose far ahead, where the beaters were hammering iron bars on brass triangles and shouting. The brush and long grass seethed with half a dozen sounders of wild pig, scores in all—big ones too, he saw from the glimpses he got, both sexes and all ages. They were ready to turn at bay—
A boar did, grunting to tell the females and young to remain behind, then leading the men off and away. The beast looked to weigh four hundred pounds at least, the long tusks on its bristling snout like curved knives. Low to the ground, it led them eel-like through the brush and then turned with snake-suddenness in a clearing.
"He's led us just where he wants us," Prince Charles cried gaily. "At him, you chaps!"
Henri whooped again and put his horse at the shallow nullah ahead; it was a superbly trained beast, and leapt the slight gully like a champion. The others reined in to give him room.
I thought these Angrezi cold-blooded, went through him, as he saw the boar sink back on its haunches and launch itself forward like a cannon shot of bone and gristle. But if this is their idea of enjoyment, perhaps I was wrong!
The weapon used for pigsticking was shorter than a war lance, with a ball on the butt end for balance. It danced in his hand as he closed with his target, leaning out...
... and his horse stepped on a round pebble lying on a glass-smooth paving block from an ancient building. It shot out from under the gelding, and the animal's head went down like a pendulum. Henri had ridden since he could walk; he kicked his feet free of the stirrups and curled himself into a ball in midair. He lost the lance, and a rock struck him an agonizing blow on the point of his elbow as he landed. Time slowed as he stared between his own feet at the wicked dished-in face of the boar, and the yellow slobber-wet daggers that curled up from its snout. For a moment it hesitated, twitching its head from side to side to look at the other riders and the horse that thrashed on the ground.
The problem with pigs was that they were intelligent—more so than a dog, much more so than a horse. The domestic breed knew why men kept them; this one knew who the real threat was, and that it wasn't the downed horse. The little cloven hooves dug into the dry clay, and it bounded forward with an enraged squeal.
Cursing, Henri tried to roll to his feet and draw his hunting knife with the same motion. He had just enough attention to spare to hear the pounding of hooves behind him, and flatten again. The thunder paused, and he saw the underside of the horse overhead as it leapt, even the tiny gold spurs on the rider's black boots. It landed in mid-gallop, and traveled exactly seven paces beyond him. The pig reared on its hind legs, trying to slash at the belly of the horse attacking it. The Frenchman blinked dirt out of his eyes; the morning sun seemed to glow on the white-and-gold clothing of the rider.
A lance dipped, couched underarm, driving down with a surgeon's precision between the beast's hunched shoulder blades. The speed and strength of horse and boar and rider combined to pin the pig to the ground beneath, dead with a cloven heart and spine. The lance snapped across with a gunshot crack and the rider was past the kill, swaying back erect in the saddle and flourishing the weapon's stub, guiding the horse about with superbly casual skill. It stood and tossed its head, mouthing the bit, foam streaking its sweat-dark dappled neck; above was a delicately beautiful face framed by a tight white silk turban, grinning an urchin grin, the tail of the pugaree fluttering in the hot wind.
More hoofbeats as the prince and Sir Manfred came up, and the attendants. Several of them were swearing in amazement; one gave an involuntary shout of "Shabash!" and then they were all crying it.
All but the prince. "Sita, what the devil do you think you're doing here?" he began.
"Excuse me, Your Highness," Henri said. "It appears that your sister is here saving my life. A thousand thanks," he continued, with a sweeping bow made less graceful as he winced and rubbed his elbow.
Sita looked down at him from the saddle, her eyebrows raised against a smile gone cool and considering. "You are welcome, Monsieur le Vicomte," she said. "My apologies also, if I have shocked you."
Henri grinned. "Au contraire, Princess Sita. Let me say at once that my prince will not be in the least shocked. In fact, I think I may say that he would heartily approve."
"Good spear," Sir Manfred said quietly. "And a very fortunate one, Your Highness."
The party all looked up as the file of Bikaner Horse troopers pulled up on lathered horses. Their commander saluted and took a long look at the little tableau. When he nodded to Sita again, the iron mask of control over anger had turned to wary respect.
"Good spear, Kunwari," he said. "And I would pay thirty gold mohurs for that horse! Kunwar," he added to Charles. "If there is fault, it is mine—I took my men in the wrong direction when the princess's horse... bolted."
Charles snorted, and Sita looked offended at the notion any horse could run away with her. Henri bent to check the legs of his own mount; uninjured, except for a bad fright and some bruises, he thought. That gave him an unobtrusive chance to study Prince Charles's face, which was scowling as the heir to the Lion Throne saw one of the troopers gray-faced and cradling an arm.
"You, sowar," he said. "Are you injured?"
The trooper looked as though the attention from on high was more painful than the arm. "It is nothing, Kunwar," he murmured. "A clean break—my horse shied—it will heal."
Charles turned to his sister. "It might have been his neck!" he snapped.
Sita flushed. "I am sorry," she said; then repeated it in Hindi to the horse-soldier.
"It is nothing, Kunwari," the trooper demurred. He looked at the dead boar, and at the spot where the royal family's guest had lain. "Good spear! And the arm is nothing; I have eaten your salt; it is my karman to shed blood for your House."
"And rajadharma not to make men risk their lives without need!" Charles said crisply, and called over his shoulder for a surgeon.
Sir Manfred had dismounted; he murmured in his guest's ear: "Rajadharma; ruler's duty."
The prince went on: "What is your name, sowar?"
The man drew himself erect: "Burubu Ram, Kunwar."
"Where did you break that?"
He nodded when the officer described the location; he knew this hunting park as well as most knew their front gardens.
"Miles, at a gallop, with a broken arm?"
The Rajput officer coughed discreetly: "He would not return, Kunwar. Please forgive the indiscipline." The words were apologetic, but the tone rang with pride.
"Very well," Charles said, and looked at the trooper again. "You are given six months sick leave, with pay. Before you return to your home... your family hold land?"
"Han, Kunwa." Yes, Imperial Prince. "Thirty acres, northwest of Bikaner on the new Es-smeet Canal—a grant to my father for twenty-five years' service. I am heir to the holding."
"The Smith Canal... Good. Surgeon, see to this man's arm."
His comrades helped him dismount, and the doctor began to probe it gently, then to prepare a splint. That sort of medicine was always available on the hunting field.
"Sowar Burubu Ram, before you go on sick leave, you may select one horse and its tack from the Imperial stud; that is my sister's gift to you." He looked up and shifted to English for a moment: "You're paying for it out of your allowance, by the way, Sita." In Hindi once more: "Also, if you have a younger brother who would care to enlist in the Guards, I will furnish his mount."
The trooper grinned despite his pain. Imperial cavalry regiments were raised on the sillidar system; the Raj provided weapons and ammunition, but the trooper found his own horse and its fodder and gear out of his stipend, replacing the mount as needed unless it was lost in battle. It ensured the cavalry a better class of recruit than the infantry units, but the initial expense could be heavy for a middling-prosperous yeoman, and prohibitive for more than one son.
Sita swung down out of the saddle. She unfastened the long jewel-hiked hunting knife from her belt and tucked it into the injured man's sash.
"A keepsake from your princess, sowar" she said. "And if you have a sister who wishes a position in the household, it will be given."
The trooper started to salute, winced, and gave a dignified salaam as he spoke his thanks. Then he walked off, accompanied by comrades who helped him toward the roadway and damned him for a lucky dog in genial whispers, swearing that they'd gladly break both arms for the favor he'd been given.
"I don't think this has to go any further, Highness," Sir Manfred said quietly. "Seeing how embarrassing it would have been if our special ambassador had been ripped up by a boar on the outskirts of Delhi."
Charles nodded. "Leave it to the rumor mill, then," he said in a clipped tone. "And Sita, isn't it about time you grew up?"
"You mean it's adult behavior to let ambassadors get ripped up by boars on the family's hunting grounds, brother?" she said sweetly, and remounted. "Lieutenant Utirupa," she went on. "Perhaps a gentle canter to the ruins?"
Prince Charles shook his head as the diminished bodyguard followed her. "Merciful Krishna help the French court," he muttered.
Henri de Vascogne smiled.
Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>