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THE PESHAWAR LANCERS

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


Chapter Six

 

I do not like these palitikal officers," Narayan Singh said. "They will make an intriguer of thee—a cutch-sahib, instead of a fighting man."

He stepped back a pace and considered his handiwork. Athelstane King stood naked on the floor, looking at himself in the mirror. The stain made the rest of his body match the tan of his face and arms; only the neat new bandage on his right forearm showed what had happened a few hours ago.

"Bhai," King said. "If we do not become intriguers, these swine of Deceivers and hashasshin daggermen will make us dead men altogether." He used the Punjabi that was the Sikh's mother tongue, and one of his own.

Narayan Singh nodded, then frowned. "We cannot say thou'rt a Sikh; it would take too long for the beard to grow." Sikhs never cut theirs, tucking the ends up under their turbans instead.

Then he snapped his fingers and grinned. "I have it, huzoor! I had thought to make of you a trooper in Probyn's Horse, or a jawan of the Rumbur Rifles. You could pass for a Punjabi Jat—perhaps—or certainly for a Kalasha. Or even a man of Sindh. But instead you shall be of the Kashmir Horse Artillery; a naik"—corporal—"and a learned man with a sahib-log or two in your bloodline, skilled in mathematics."

King nodded; the technical branches of the Army were the likeliest places to find a Eurasian, since they required more in the way of technical education. It would make a Kashmiri accent natural, too, and his was slight but noticeable in both his English and his Hindi; it would also account for the odd little slip or carelessness about caste rules. Kashmir had the most mixed population of any province in the Indian part of the Empire, and the highest proportion of sahib-log.

Narayan Singh went on: "A desirable position, sahib; twenty-five rupees a month, and batta field allowance! We shall call thee... Kiram Shaw. Nor will it be strange for you to travel to your home for the festival."

Home, King thought. Krishna. I’ll have to tell Hasamurtis parents what happened. The thought brought sadness back, combined with shame heavy and thick like castor oil. He'd been Hasamurti's protector, and that was a duty he'd failed at—badly.

He'd have to tell her kin, and they'd want to know why she'd died. The worst of that was that he didn't have the faintest idea.

 

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"Pranam," King said.

He pressed his palms together and bowed to the near-naked, tangle-haired ascetic who sat on his mat at the corner, eyes staring at emptiness, with the sacred thread across his shoulder and three lines of yellow ash drawn across his forehead to represent the three aspects of Shiva—creator, preserver, and destroyer. A bubble of space surrounded him in the thronging crowd that filled the roadway.

King would have made the reverence anyway, out of politeness, and it sat well with the character he'd assumed. The man blessed him absently, scowled a little at Narayan Singh's lordly disdain, and returned to his meditations. The two young men bought samosas hot from a vat of oil presided over by a vendor at the corner of the narrow, winding street and walked on, carefully munching the three-cornered savory pastries, holding pieces of corn husk beneath them to keep the oil off their uniforms. A man jostled King's elbow; he caught himself just in time to suppress his natural icy stare at the effrontery and scowled instead, letting his left hand drop to the pommel of his plain stirrup-hilted saber.

A horse-artillery naik couldn't expect the deference due a sahib-log cavalry officer. On the other hand, he wouldn't be expected to show the same restraint on his temper, either.

"Watch where you step, hubshi," King said, with a truculence befitting a soldier of the Sirkar.

The man—a hairy, hulking young Pathan with a potsheen coat hanging off his shoulders—put his hand on the hilt of his chora in turn, growling insults in Pushtu and asking what man expected to live after calling him a hubshi, a wooly-haired Negro.

"Does this misbelieving pig with hair on his liver insult thee, thai?" Narayan Singh asked, turning and letting his teeth show white as he jutted his chin. "Doubtless he comes to town seeking to find who fathered the children of his wives—let him look in the pox hospital for men without discrimination. Or perhaps he tires of the embraces of goats."

The Pathan spat aside, pretending not to understand the Hindi the two men spoke, which was exceedingly unlikely—it being one of the official languages of the Empire along with English, and used more often. He looked to be a hillman come into town to trade, but ready enough to quarrel, until a shrill whistle sounded. A policeman trotted up, in blue jacket and yellow trousers and leather hat, twirling a sal-wood truncheon and looking the Pathan up and down.

"There is to be no brawling here," he said mildly. "About your business, banchut. I shall have an eye to you on the streets I patrol."

The policeman was stout and middle-aged—positions in the Imperial Indian Police were a common reward for military service—and armed only with the yard-long billy club. The Pathan showed some acquaintance with good sense by growling a final oath before he turned and shoved his way through the crowd; not without a last curious glance at King's face. The constable touched his hand to his cap and walked on.

One lesson King had learned in this latest frontier campaign was that confidence was most of the battle when you were trying to seem something you were not. People saw what they expected to see, and at least the effort of keeping up his disguise was distraction enough to keep away angry puzzlement at the assassins—in the Peshawar Club, of all places—and nagging guilt over Hasamurti.

"I must be a man of more importance than I thought," he said quietly. "Someone is willing to go to a great deal of trouble to kill me."

They filed through the workaday chaos of the railway station and showed their leave passes—free second-class travel on the Imperial Indian Railways was among a soldier's perquisites. A mordant flicker of humor went through him as the babu clerk read them; he'd signed his own ticket-of-leave permit with Captain King's name.

"It is not a desirable honor, to be thus sought after," Narayan Singh said dryly, as the railways porters stashed their duffels over the seats of their compartment. "We are like to die of it."

The compartment was dusty, and the upholstery on the seats was threadbare, but it was better than the crowded board benches of third class, and the Indian Railways' broad standard gauge of five-foot-six made for comfortable rolling stock. King had gold mohurs in his money belt, as well as banknotes and silver rupees and copper pieces in his pouch, but it would have been dangerously conspicuous to use them. Not that there was any law against two enlisted men buying a first-class ticket; it was just jarringly unlikely. King leaned out of the compartment window, looking at the crowd that thronged the platform under the high arched glass-and-iron roof.

Is that the Pathan we met? he thought. Then: Probably not. Not even a mountaineer nourishing a grievance would follow them all the way into the train station—spending money on a ticket—for so casual a quarrel.

Nobody else tried to enter their compartment; a middle-class Muslim came down the side corridor with his veiled wife and daughters, took one look at the raffish, smiling soldiers, and decided that the next section wasn't so crowded after all. So did a fat babu-clerk in a tussore turban with a watermelon under one arm and a valise under the other, for entirely different reasons, fearing a deficit of friendliness where the husband anticipated an excess.

The local to Rawalpindi and Oxford was no Trans-India Express; it chuffed along at a stately forty miles an hour, trailing black coal smoke. It was pulled by a Babur-class 4-6-2 built to a design standardized in the days when Edward was King-Emperor, Lord Salisbury was prime minister and the twentieth century was young. Thousands of them worked everywhere from Australia to the Cape and even beyond; some had been sent to aid in the resettlement of Britain and the still more remote colonies on the North American coasts. This one also stopped at every small town along the way, those growing more frequent as they moved out of the Northwest Frontier Province and into the richer, more densely settled Punjab.

Like most soldiers, King had long since learned to snatch sleep when he could, but today his slumber was troubled. Several times he was startled awake as the train crossed bridges in a rattle and hum of metal; a huge affair of girders over the Indus River, and dozens of smaller ones over the lesser streams and innumerable irrigation canals that diverted the Five Rivers to the fields and made the Punjab the granary of the Raj. The waterways that laced the land flashed silver and red in the setting sun, with the green line of the Muree Hills to the northeast.

The square fields were dead-flat for the most part, and would have been dull to any but a countryman's eyes—dusty where the cool-season crops of wheat and barley had been reaped, others shaggy with cotton or rustling green-gold with maize or neat with stooked sheaves of rice. Ryots looked up from the round-the-clock work of cutting sugarcane, nearly as incurious as the oxen that carried the heaped stalks; at sunset a cloud of fruit bats took off from a grove of oranges and circled against the great red globe of the rising moon before heading for a mango orchard.

Narayan Singh ate a chapati and half an onion, then put up his boots and slept, snoring, with his head lolling to the rhythmic clacking of steel wheel on rail. King found sleep remained elusive, nodding drowsy far into the darkness, envying the Sikh; when his eyes slid shut he kept remembering the attack at the Peshawar Club... and worse, Hasamurti.

I even miss that damned annoying giggle of hers, he thought sadly. That was what Hasamurti meant: merriment. Dammit, I liked that girl, and not just when she was on her back. She made me laugh. She didn 't deserve to have that happen to her, and I was supposed to protect her.

A chill awoke him in the middle of the night, or so he thought. The military greatcoat had slipped down from his shoulders; he reached a hand for it. Then—

 

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Ibrahim Khan of the Dongala Kel jerked himself awake again. He couldn't afford to sleep, no matter how tired he was; the creosoted timbers and gravel bed of the railroad were flashing too close beneath his rump. If he slipped from beneath the carriage, the railroad maintenance workers would scrape him off the wood and stone and iron with brushes. He forced hands and legs to cling more tightly to the iron tie-rods under the passenger carriage, swaying amid the darkness and metal clangor and stink of coal and lubricating oil. It was maddening to one raised in the clean air of the heights above Tirah.

"There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet," he whispered to himself; prayer never hurt and the noise would be lost in the background. Thy curse upon this te-rain, 0 Allah, he added to himself.

The hard shape of the chora-knife slung across the small of his back was even more reassuring; unlike prayer, it had never let him down.

I must strike soon, he thought. My muscles grow stiff, and that will make me slow.

His father and uncles had taught him long ago that speed and stealth were first among the skills of a Pashtun fighting man. The damned-to-Eblis sahib-log would always win a contest of raw strength and hammerblows; there were too many of them and their hired men, and their weapons were too powerful. Even when the Raj was weakened by the Sword of Allah—and the Afghan tribes united by stark hunger—outright invasion had failed. They had driven his people back into the hills; it had been generations before the Pashtun tribes were more than a scattering of starvelings again.

So when you fought the sahib-log you must strike hard, but above all strike quickly and from a direction they did not expect—then vanish before they could strike back.

"Now," he muttered to himself.

The train was traveling north in the small hours of the night, cresting the first of a series of rises as it headed toward Kashmir. That slowed it, to little more than the speed of a galloping horse. Muscles cracking with the effort, he won his way to the edge, hanging upside down from its bottom like a great hairy spider. Then he inched forward, bent himself upward so that his feet twined under the rods beneath the carriage. A single heaving convulsive effort and his upper body was plastered to the exterior door of the compartment, with the half-opened window directly above his head.

He paused, panting and making himself forget the heart-stopping instant when it seemed he'd lose hold and tumble downward to the moving ground only inches beneath.

Revenge is good, he thought; he would repay the sahib-log for their harrying of the Tirah country; still more for keeping the riches of the plains to themselves.

But revenge is a dish best eaten cold. And as for the gold the strange fakir with the seeress promised, gold is useless to a dead man. Carefully, Ibrahim, carefully. All things are accomplished according to the will of God, but a wise man does not tempt Him.

He drew the chora, slowly, thankful that he had never indulged in extravagances like silver bells for the hilt, even if they did make a pleasant accompaniment to a fight. It was twenty inches of fine steel—forged from the saber of a dead Imperial trooper in the year of Ibrahim's birth—but severely plain. He clamped the thick back of the blade between his teeth and reached upward to plant both hands firmly.

With his hands on the sill of the window, he would have to support all his weight on his arms with his body bent into an L-shape, then chin himself and go headfirst through the opening with his legs drawn up behind him by main strength. That entry might wake those within, no matter how great his care. He must kill or disable in no more than two or three strokes; the Sikh and the sahib-log-pretending-to-be-halfbreed had both looked likely men of their hands when he saw them in the streets of Peshawar town.

He drew a deep breath, reminded his God that those who fell fighting the unbelievers were deserving of Paradise, and lunged upward and in.

 

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Athelstane King blinked fully awake in less time than it took for his greatcoat to slide to the floor. Moonlight and starlight seeped past a bulky shape in the half-open window, glittered on steel. No time to reach for a weapon; the intruder's shoulders were already inside the window. If King scrabbled for blade or pistol, the hillman would be inside the compartment, or mostly; and unpleasant experience had given the Lancer a hearty respect for what that breed could do with a few lightning-quick hacking chora-strokes.

"Turn out!" he shouted.

In the same motion he struck upward with a knee, the only blow he could make from his slouched position on the couch. Cat-quick, the Pathan twisted his head. That meant his jaw wasn't broken against the unyielding steel he gripped between his teeth, but the knee glanced painfully off his temple instead and the long heavy knife dropped to the floorboards rather than into a waiting hand.

For an instant the Pathan was dazed. King's scrabbling left hand found the hem of his opponent's sheepskin coat and wrenched it forward, pinning his arms and covering his head for a crucial moment. The same movement also pulled the hillman three-quarters of the way into the compartment, shins across the windowsill and head down between the seats.

Narayan Singh woke cursing, confused but throwing himself into the fight. For a minute and a half the darkness of the railcar compartment was a confusion of grappling, punching, kicking, gripping, wrenching combat. There was no science to it, scarcely even much comprehension; half the blows of the two Imperial soldiers landed on each other or the wood and horsehair upholstery of the train. At one point King found himself wrestling with the Pathan's filthy pugaree-turban rather than the head he thought he'd been grappling, even as the man tried to tear out his collarbone with his teeth.

This is like trying to fight a tiger hand-to-hand in a closet, he thought, snarling in pain and heaving the mountaineer off; there was no breath to spare for yells, only hisses and grunts and the dry hard sound of blows delivered point-blank.

Narayan Singh gave a strangled roar as the Pathan tried to wrench out a handful of his beard and throw himself backward out of the open window at the same time. That move put a little distance between the combatants, and let in some light. Sparing his aching and still-healing right arm, King kicked once more and managed to connect with his enemy's stomach. There wasn't much space to swing his foot, and the target was armored in hard muscle—he'd been aiming the reinforced toe of his riding boot at the other man's crotch, and missed by a foot—but breath went out of him with an ooof.

Narayan Singh had kept a grip on the hand that tried to rip out his beard. He jerked it forward; King grabbed the other, the one trying to drive ragged dirty fingernails into his nose again. Together they twisted both arms behind the hillman's back. That took two hands for King; unwounded, Narayan Singh had a hamlike fist free to pound over and over again into the back of the pinioned man's neck. Eventually the Pathan went mostly limp.

Thank the ten thousand faces of God for that, King thought, winded, every one of his bruises aching again and some new ones added. The Pathan had added another to a short list of men he'd met who were as strong as he was.

Of course, I’m not at my best, he reassured himself.

The Sikh orderly reached for the short utility knife at his own belt and jerked the prisoner's head back to bare the throat. King shook his head:

"No. He must answer questions."

Just then someone thumped against the other wall of the compartment and called for quiet. King grinned despite the pain of a split lip and pulled out a linen handkerchief to wipe at the blood pouring from his nose. Ganesha alone knew what they thought had been going on: despite the way the nightmare fight had felt like forever, it had taken less than two minutes.

"Han, sahib—I mean, Kiram Shaw," Narayan Singh said, grinning harshly as he bound the man's arms behind his back with his own pn-garee and pushed him roughly into the seat opposite. "Questioned with things sharp, or heavy, or hot—or all three, huzoor?"

"We'll see," King said, not sharing the Sikh's bloodthirsty enthusiasm, despite the fact that they'd both lost friends to the prisoner's kinsmen.

If you faced capture by Pathans, rolling to your rifle and blowing out your brains was infinitely preferable to letting them turn you over to their wives. Torture was women's work across the Border, although men would do well enough if they were put to it. And there were times when you had to get information to save your own men's lives, or the mission, no matter how—although an officer walked around a rock when that was necessary.

He still didn't like tormenting helpless men, even ones who'd be glad enough to kill him by inches; and he remembered things Narayan Singh's father had taught him.

"Turn up the light," he said, before the groggy Pathan could do more than mumble. "And search him."

The Sikh did so, and also blocked the door to the corridor when a train attendant came by to ask if anything was wrong, snarling something that sent the man scurrying off again.

And scurrying off is exactly what he'd have done if he'd found our bled-out bodies instead, King thought sardonically. There were times when he thought it would do the sheltered folk of the inner provinces good to be exposed to frontier conditions, a little, now and then. On the other hand, protecting them from that was precisely his duty...

The gaslight had a yellow tinge, even when the incandescent mantle around it started to glow. It showed the hillman's face with merciless clarity, nose and lips and both eyes starting to swell, a sheen of sweat, and blood clotting in the dense silky black beard. King judged the other man's age to be a little less than his own—somewhere around twenty—and they were about of a size, which made the other a tall man even among Afghans. His skin was an olive color only slightly darker than King's, his nose a hawk beak in a long, high-cheeked, full-lipped face; without his turban, his head showed only cropped stubble apart from a love-lock on one side.

King bent carefully—keeping the other man's feet pinioned with one boot—and picked up the chora. It was a fine example of the blade-smith's art, and cruelly sharp. The Lancer officer laid it across his knees and waited.

"Here, Kiram Shaw," Narayan Singh said. "This purse—six rupees, a dozen piece, one silver dinar of Kabul. Two small knives—good knives. And this piece of paper; nothing else upon him but lice. Though if we could train up the stink of this savage to obedience, it would cleave teakwood."

King unfolded the paper. It was heavy and rather rough, yellowish, a hand-made product of some little town beyond the Imperial frontier. Sketched on it in charcoal was a face, done rather skillfully but in a style he knew by instinct had never been taught within the Raj... and a woman's hand as well, he thought.

A man's face framed by a turban, clean-shaven save for close-clipped sideburns and mustaches. A young man: one he saw every morning in the mirror, and an arrow carefully marked out the scar on his jaw. The words below were written in Pushtu and Hindi, using the Angrezi—Roman—script; they were succinct and to the point: two hundred gold mohurs for this man s head.

King grunted, although he knew well enough that someone was trying to kill him, not that someone was evidently willing to pay a very considerable sum—a gold mohur would buy four good horses, or pay a year's wages for a noncom such as he was pretending to be. Five mohurs were a year's rent from a yeoman-farm.

Two hundred were a small fortune, or a not-so-small one across the Border.

"So," King said, tapping the paper against the blade of the chora.

"What would you do with two hundred gold mohurs, man of the hills? Give him water," he added to Narayan Singh.

The Sikh grumbled but obeyed. The Pathan's eyes flickered between the two men, and then he sucked at the waterskin and grinned—painfully.

"Istrafugallah!" he said. "What would I not do with your head and so much gold, gora-log?

That was the less complementary term for the Angrezi, and Narayan Sikh raised a hand. King waved him back.

"With the gold and the fame of slaying you I would build a fort—raise a lashkar such as Iskander of the Silver Hand commanded—become an emir—"

The hillman spoke good Hindi, with the rough accent of the Border country. "But instead I shall hang with the filthy pig."

He shrugged, pretending indifference to dying sewn into a raw pigskin and with a piece of pork thrust down his throat.

The officer and the Sikh exchanged the slightest of glances. "Perhaps," King said casually. "Who gave you this picture of me, O Pathan?" He considered the man closely. "If you were to tell me, perhaps the pigskin could be spared."

The hillman grinned. "You will not trick Ibrahim Khan son of Ali that easily, unbeliever," he said. "A fakir gave it me—a holy man. But his name I never knew, nor his home. Nor could you make me tell, even if I knew. Such is against your law."

"I have leather for a knotted cord, huzoor," Narayan Singh said eagerly. "Give me leave—betake yourself to the dining car—he will talk. Easily, if he is so stupid he cannot tell the difference between us and a judge, or the distance between this place and a law court."

"A cobra spits, a Sikh speaks—who will know the difference?" the Pathan said, and there was real anger in the orderly's answering growl.

King raised a calming hand. "Peace, brother. This is a Yusufazi Pathan, I would say—of the Chagarzi sept; perhaps of the Nasrat Khel, perhaps of the Dongala."

The Pathan gave a slight start; at the knowledge, and at the accentless Pushtu in which King spoke for a moment. The Lancer officer went on:

"You met a fakir who had two hundred gold mohurs? Two hundred, to spend on one officer of the Empire, among so many?"

"It was you who suborned the Orakzai chiefs with silver and smooth words, until they stood aside from the war and left my folk alone to face your army, the pig-eating sons of whores," the Pathan growled. "You are no ordinary unbeliever. Perhaps the fakir had the gold of Damascus, where the Caliph of the Faithful dwells in might."

King took the handkerchief from his injured nose. His frown and slight sneer made dried blood crackle in his mustache. "Two men wearing their own winding-sheets tried to kill me in Peshawar. Waited outside the door of my dwelling to meet me."

Narayan Singh grinned, too, an unpleasant expression. "Instead they met me. I disturbed their winding-sheets with bloodstains, and in them they were buried—if the konstabeels did not throw them to the pi-dogs."

The Pathan's eyes narrowed, suspecting a trap. "Should I weep for them?" he asked rhetorically. "Such men would be Shia, near as worthless as you Nasrani dogs, or this Hindu idol worshiper."

The Shia branch of Islam was common in Persia, although persecuted by the Caliph's men; and common among the Empire's Muslims, where the Raj enforced toleration. Pathans were fiercely orthodox Sunni, though. The Sikh growled; his faith was an offshoot of the Hindu stock, but ostentatiously monotheistic.

"Would your fakir have bought hashasshin killers?" King said. "If he was a Sunni fakir, that is."

Narayan Singh pulled something from the neck of his tunic. The Pathan's eyes went wide. The rumal of the stranglers was unmistakable. The Sikh undid the fold at the end and showed the coin there—gold, also an Imperial mohur, new-stamped, fresh from the Lahore mint.

"While I slew the hashasshin, my sahib slew others who waited for him within—Deceivers, followers of Kali," he said. "Would your fakir have dealt with worshipers of the Dreadful Bride?"

Doubt showed on the Pathan's face. "The tale of Deceivers who sought the life of a sahib was in the bazaars of Peshawar town," he muttered.

King nodded. "They sought to slay me." His mouth thinned with remembered anger. "And then did kill my woman."

The Pathan shrugged indifferently at that. Beastly lot, King thought. Pathans saw women as fit only for work and breeding; many didn't even think they were worthwhile for pleasure. An old Pathan song went:

"There 'r a boy across the river With a bottom like a peach But alas, I cannot swim ..."

"This fakir, was he of your people?" King said. He lifted the knife. "Speak. If you do, I promise you—on my honor as an Angrezi officer—that you will die clean and your body be buried by the rites of your faith."

The Pathan licked his lips. "I am Ibrahim Khan of the Dongala Khel," he said. "My father is a malik, a great chief. He and my brothers and kindred will avenge me, however I die."

Another long moment's silence, then: "No, the fakir—the man who called himself such—was not Pashtun. Not Pathan, you would say. He was Tadjik—Tadjik of the Wakan uplands. A tall man, who moved like a swordsman, fair of skin. One eye was covered in a patch."

Now, who ... A sudden thought sent a chill crawling up from King's groin to his gut. Who would be posing as a Tadjik, who wasn't one? A white man, at that? Tadjiks were common in northern Afghanistan... and farther north still, among the human cattle of the Czar. Easy enough to acquire their language there.

"He called himself a Tadjik," he said softly. "But was he? Was he even a Muslim?"

Ibrahim snorted. "He spoke Arabic—more than I ever learned in the medrassa school of my father's village. He could quote from the holy Book."

King lifted the Khyber knife and tapped the flat against his knuckles. "A knife speaks truth, but men lie," he said, quoting an old Border saying. "I also speak Arabic, and have read the Koran, but that does not make me a Muslim, much less a fakir or mullah."

"You do not say that this man was of your people!" Ibrahim sneered.

"By no means. When he spoke your tongue, did he speak it thus? With this sound?"

Languages were among King's hobbies; his own Pushtu was idiomatic, to the point of having a slight Kabuli tinge like a courtier of the Emir. With an effort, he gave it another accent; one lisping and purling at the same time. Narayan Singh started, and stared at his commander in surprise.

"Yes," Ibrahim said, shrugging. "He used Pushtu much like that. What of it?"

"That is not how a Tadjik would speak Pushtu," King said grimly. "That would be thus." He demonstrated, and the Afghan nodded, puzzled. "As I speak now, that is the mark of a different folk." He paused for a long moment. "Russki, they call themselves. In your tongue, E-rus."

The Pathan froze for an instant, then heaved against the bonds that held him. "You lie! None of the Eaters of Men, the worshipers of Shaitan, would dare walk among us!"

King shrugged. "Who else? A true fakir from the Caliphate would not consort with Shia—or worse, worshipers of Kali. Who else besides the Commander of the Faithful hates the Raj, and borders on the land of the Afghans, and has gold and guns to buy men?"

Ibrahim's face twisted with anger and disgust. The Pathans hated the Angrezi Raj; because the sahib-log were infidels; because they had taken the foothill country and Peshawar from the Afghans long ago and ruled it still; because expeditions punishing raiders had left smoking ruin in the upland villages time after time.

But they hated the Russians and the Czar who ruled in Samarkand with a frenzied loathing that made their anger toward the Empire a pale and tepid thing.

"You lie!" Ibrahim said again, but doubt had crept into his tone. "What proof have you?"

"None," King said promptly. "Any more than I know why the E-rus should seek my death more than any other Angrezi fighting man's. But nothing else makes any sense at all, does it?"

"The only gold I will take from Shaitan's bum-boys is the gold I take from their lifeless bodies," Ibrahim growled. "That does not make me love you like a brother, unbeliever—even if your tale be true."

"Good," Narayan Singh said sardonically. "Since you have undoubtedly stabbed all your brothers in the back, over the love of the comeliest sheep in the Border country."

Ibrahim glared at him, but restrained his impulse to spit as the Sikh raised a sledgehammer fist.

King frowned in thought for a long minute. "Listen to me, man of the hills," he said at last. "For reasons I know not, this E-rus-who-passes-for-a-Tadjik seeks my life in secret razziah. And he has made of you and your kin his dogs and slaves, tricking you to be the servants of abomination. So it seems we both have blood feud with him."

"Aye," Ibrahim said, his eyes kindling. "That is Pukhtunwali, the way of the Pathans. Death for an insult. He has broken the bond of hospitality, lied and deceived his hosts—lied to me. I would aid you in your revenge on him, even though you will soon hand me to the slayers. But why do you tell a dead man all this?"

King kept his face grave; a smile at the wrong moment could turn the highlander sullen again. They were the most sensitive of men to mockery, although they made an art form of inflicting it on their enemies. Instead he went on solemnly:

"Because we have an enemy in common, I will forgive—once—that you tried to take my head. I give you your life. You may take it and go, or you may seek this E-rus out with me."

Ibrahim's eyes went wide for a moment; then he snorted. "You would call a Pathan blood brother?"

"No!" King said. "If you come with me, you will come as my servant and sworn man. Or you may go your way, and if I see you again, I will slay you out of hand."

Now the Pathan put on an impassive face of his own. "Will you give me back my knife, if I choose to go?"

"By Nanak Guru!" Narayan Singh swore. "This is insolence past all belief, even in an Afghan thief; he seeks to cut our throats, and asks for the return of the blade!"

Ibrahim snorted. "A man who does not try never conquers," he said, and turned back to King. "If I am thy man, what wage will you pay?"

"None! You shall have your food and keep, and a horse," King said promptly. "And when we take the head of the E-rus, two hundred gold mohurs and freedom to ride back to the hills. If we fail... dead men need no gold. Turn."

The Pathan did; King freed him from the Sikh's tight knots. "We will leave the compartment for the space of ten heartbeats," he said. "If you are still here, you will swear. If you are gone, I will throw the knife out of the window."

"That I may slay thee with it later?" Ibrahim Khan asked, grinning.

"Nay. You have come closer to slaying me than ever you will again. Think, O Ibrahim—but do it quickly! I have no need of sluggards in my service!"

In the corridor outside, Narayan Singh began to expostulate in frantic whispers. King smiled in the swaying darkness and held out a hand.

"That onion, bhai," he said. "Lend it me for a moment."

The burly Sikh stopped in mid-word, then smiled. "Han, sahib," he said, pulling a half-eaten one from a pocket of his kurta-tunic.

King scrubbed the onion up and down the blade of the chora several times, and then lifted it to his nose. He could smell it—just barely. Which meant that the Pathan couldn't take the scent at all; his nose was far more swollen and damaged than King's.

"Stay here for a moment, bhai," King said, and cut off complaint by heading back into the carriage compartment.

The Pathan was still there; he'd wet one end of his pugaree from the canteen and used it to wipe some of the blood from his face, and was in the process of rewinding it in the loose manner fashionable beyond the Border.

"I will swear," he said. "Although I warn you, I am likely to be a poor servant, and if you pay me in food, know that I can eat a great deal. And the horse had better be a good one."

King nodded, familiar with the manners of the Afghan highlands, where insolence was a way of life. "Swear, then," he said, and laid the Khyber knife on one cushion.

Then, carefully casual, he turned his back. He might be able to dodge if he detected the movement of the hillman snatching up the blade and hacking for his spine. Or he might not. The prickling up his back was wholly natural; the wild man was as dangerous as a wounded leopard in these cramped quarters. Still, it was courtesy, showing he trusted the other man to take the oath fairly.

Behind him there was rap of knuckles and a flat smack, as the hillman tapped the grip and then slapped his palm down on the broad blade. "On the hilt and the steel, before the face of God and by my father's head, so long as you keep faith with him, Ibrahim Khan is thy man and thy soldier, unto death or until you release me as you have pledged."

King turned and took the Pathan's extended hand, which had a grip like a mechanical grab in a steel mill. When he released it, Ibrahim was smiling a shark's smile. He rubbed one finger on his eyelid. Tears flowed; then he swore and rubbed it on the sleeve of his tunic before using his fingers to blow his nose free of blood clots. He did it outside the window, though, knowing the finicky nature of the sahib-log.

"The old trick, lord," he said, laughing in a surprisingly high-pitched giggle. "You will smell the onion juice on your fingers, even if I do not."

Reflexively, King brought his hand to his face. A Pathan who intended to break that oath wouldn't touch the steel, a trick as old as the hills—but the dodge to detect that was an old one, too.

"Come back in, Narayan Singh. We have much to discuss."

The Sikh pushed through the door and slammed it shut behind him. His glance told how he'd prefer to discuss things with Ibrahim Khan, but he held his anger to a scowl. The Pathan smiled back, perfectly aware of how the Sikh felt and just as obviously relishing every moment. After a moment, Narayan Singh nodded with a grudging respect.

"Set a bandit to catch a banchut" he said gruffly. "So, child of misbelief—where did you first see this E-rus?

 

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"Veno vat, Excellency," Yasmini said. "It is my fault, my very great fault."

"Oh, stop sniveling," Count Ignatieff snapped, and cuffed her out of his way.

He continued his pacing, throwing a glance the girl's way now and then. Inconvenient, that only the girls of the select line showed the precious talent; it meant he had to drag a whining female about with him. The males went mad at puberty, when the girls first started dreaming the dreams—it was tricky and difficult to get the males to breed at all, and the girls were prone to madness as well, if you waited too long to put them to breeding. Ten years was about the limit. Doubly aggravating, that the girls only dreamed true while they were virgins—some nonsense about the world lines tangling after that.

He'd have dismissed the tale as priestly play with words, except that no amount of torture could produce a useful word from any of the bitches once they'd been broken in.

A pity, he thought, looking at Yasmini. She would be... interesting. Docile enough on the surface, but he suspected some unbroken spirit beneath.

The Dreamers all had a family likeness, pointed chins and high cheeks, ice green eyes rimmed with blue, and flax-colored hair. Not surprising, when dam was bred to son and sibling to sibling over generations; that kept each line pure, although it meant you had to cull vigorously to get rid of the idiots and cripples. This one would have to be returned to the breeding pens soon, for all that she was the best Dreamer of them all. That was precisely the reason it was essential. It would still put a major crimp in his plans, and the Supreme Autocrat's schemes. Perhaps it would even delay the Third Coming, the Secret Reign that was to come.

The girl was shrinking from him, holding a hand before her eyes. "Go," he barked. "Sleep, eat. We have work tomorrow."

She scurried off to the room that gave on this. Somewhere close by in the tangle of If, there must be an Ignatieff who had less control of his anger or his lust. The Okhrana agent scowled at the thought and threw himself into a chair by the narrow window; it looked down on a teeming street in Old Delhi, dusty and hot even in October. The cheap wood creaked beneath his solid weight; the only other furniture was a low table, and a cotton pallet in one corner of the whitewashed room. It was surprisingly clean, and cheap enough to suit his cover persona, although hiding the girl was difficult—women in strict purdah did not travel, even with their "father."

He reached into his baggage sack and drew out a bottle of arrack, pulled the cork with his teeth, and spat it out and took a long swallow of the rough spirits distilled from dates. Cold fire traced down his gullet, and he hissed with satisfaction as it exploded in his stomach. The Peacock Angel bid men satisfy their lusts—but drink and comely flesh were commonplace needs, next to power; the sort of thing an ordinary Cossack or lesser nobleman wallowed in. For power, he would renounce any amount of pleasures such as that.

The spirits helped him control his imagination, too. It was unnerving, even after all these years of working with the Dreamers, to think of ever)' moment as a fan of probabilities, flickering into and out of existence—his very atoms a blurred mass of might-be. When you thought about that too much, you might go mad; thinking of the world where on an impulse you stepped out the window and laughed as you plunged toward the pavement...

With a complex shudder he took another swallow of the arrack, then corked the bottle with a decisive tap on the heel of his hand.

Time to work, Ignatieff, he told himself, taking out his writing set. The ciphers were mostly in his head, but he still had to think hard as he filled two pages with the tiny crabbed script . .

 

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