The Wild High Places: Teaser Chapter
He was so deeply asleep that Myamah had to shake him vigorously. “You, hsst, wake up, Jefferji, hurry, hurry, get dressed.” She was thrusting a thin cotton tunic at him and pulling at his upper arm to get him to sit up, shaking out white cotton Rajput trousers at the same time. Jefferji sat up obediently, still mostly asleep, and pulled the tunic over his head as Myamah got his feet threaded through the legs of the trousers.
“Stand up, stand up. Don’t you understand? You must be quick or you will miss her, and you must not miss her. It is she herself who has come and at such a time, Jefferji. For the love of the Dark One, get dressed!” She pushed his feet into his openwork sandals without much help from him. He stood up, fastening the trousers at his waist. They weren’t his. Nor was the formal tunic she pushed at him impatiently. “Hurry up!”
Myamah dressed his hair with quick efficiency, taking no apparent notice of whether she pulled it or not. She wound his pagri turban for him as she had not done for years now, but Jefferji didn’t mind, because she had a right to do as she pleased with him, after all those years.
Putting a three-tiered wreath of marigolds around his neck she pulled him by the hand until he was moving as quickly as she liked, then pushed him to hurry yet more quickly ahead of her. Jefferji fastened the ties of the unfamiliar tunic as he went. Whose clothes were these?
They ran through the eastern arcade of the temple and down the cascade of white marble steps into the courtyard as Jefferji tried to puzzle things through. The clothing of dead persons wasn’t shared, except in poorer families: it was an offense to the rank of the dead. But this clothing was unfamiliar in its fit, and of finer quality than he was accustomed to.
Only as Myamah pushed him to his knees on a small carpet spread over the stone of the temple courtyard did Jefferji realize— his back perfectly straight, his head perfectly still, his hands perfectly posed to express heartfelt reverence and awe—that he was wearing clothing that had been made for Jaisal Singh, who was perhaps not going to be needing replacements for his current wardrobe.
He’d slept for a few hours, no more; the light still lingered, and the full moon was rising fast. The night watchmen stood at the threshold of the temple precincts at the ready, waiting to close the gates into the sacred grounds beneath arches draped with night-blooming jasmine whose perfume breathed into the twilight like a benediction.
The torches were lit, if scarcely needed yet. There were horsemen coming, household warriors of Tengarpore, and in their midst, dressed in tunic and trousers of black and gold and a beaded headscarf bejeweled with mirrorwork, riding the Colimbrana stallion himself—Jaisal Begum.
He’d never seen a woman on a stone horse—a stallion—in his life, but she was Rajput. He knew that she could ride: astride like any man, like the warrior that a woman of a Rajput princely house was expected to be, and with the Colimbrana stallion beneath her as perfectly mannered as if it had been her husband who rode him rather than the Hawk of Tengarpore. As mild-mannered as a mare. Jaisal Begum. No wonder Myamah had been beside herself with anxiety.
One of the temple’s senior administrators came forward, two men behind him carrying a stepped platform to set down beside the Colimbrana stallion. Jaisal Begum dismounted. When she turned around she seemed to see Jefferji. Though she could not have been said to hesitate, it seemed to Jefferji that she somehow regretted seeing him there. Because he was leaving, maybe? He bowed his head. He kept it bowed. He sensed her passing as she climbed the stairs into the temple. When she wanted him she’d send for him.
Two of the guards she’d brought with her closed the temple gates while the night watchmen stood waiting, not getting in the way. Four of them followed Jaisal Begum up the stairs. Two would take up position to either side of the temple’s great carved wooden doors, Jefferji knew, and two of them would mirror those posts just inside the temple. They’d be unarmed, because the Hirpa temple was sacred ground.
One of them gave Jefferji a light tap on the shoulder as he passed—“You’ll be wanted, Jefferji,” he said. “Follow me please.”
It was Borindra, halfway in age between Jefferji and Madhu Singh. They hadn’t always gotten along, but it had been Borindra who’d worked with Jefferji when he was learning stave fighting, and now he sounded affectionate and friendly. Now that I’m going away, Jefferji thought, bitterly, but he asked Borindra’s pardon in his mind immediately. It wasn’t like that. He had to work on his attitude.
Standing up, Jefferji followed Borindra with very little stiffness in his body—it was a wonder what a good shampoo and a nap could do—as Borindra went left through the temple doors, not straight through the antechamber into the great sanctuary, and down the east ambit. There were small audience chambers let into the inner walls the length of the ambit. Jefferji knew that. He was more familiar with the Hirpa temple than most of Tengarpore’s young men. Borindra waved him in to one of those chambers with a gentle push that was almost a pat, and left him to wait.
Not for long. A carpet had been laid down against the innermost wall of the audience chamber within the god’s ambit, and on it, cushions and bolsters, lamps, a tall flask of cooled wine, two glasses. But two people came through from the sanctuary, both familiar, so neither glass was for him. Jefferji was a little relieved. What would he do, if Jaisal Begum had asked him to take a drink with her? Die of embarrassment.
She’d never said a cruel word to him, but he’d always been wary in her presence. She was a hawk. He was her natural prey, no matter how much she’d loved his mother, or how much her husband had loved Jefferji’s father.
She’d shifted her long head-covering back, draping it down across her shoulders. She had Old Fanum with her, one of the senior priests, a man who had been at the Hirpa Temple for as long, it was said, as there had been a temple here at Hirpa. Jefferji had never made up his mind whether such a thing was even possible, but a wise man—even a shrewd boy—reserved judgment, because the Hirpa temple was only two hundred and fifty years old.
“Sit, Jefferji,” Jaisal Begum said, settling herself into the cushions like a brooding eagle on its nest. “It’s good to find you here. I was afraid time would run out. I have things to say and no time to say them, so you will be still, please, and let me speak, and if Old Fanum can’t answer any questions you have later, then there are no answers to be had.”
Old Fanum had poured her a glass of wine. She drank off half of it and held her glass out for a refill, nodding from Old Fanum to the decanter meaningfully as she did so—to communicate that he’d better pour for himself before she drank the lot of it, Jefferji guessed. He sat down with careful precision, making sure his hands were respectfully arranged and his feet well out of sight.
“There is a marriage arranged for you, Jefferji. She is young although you will think her old at twenty-six, and in her family the women have borne healthy children until the age of forty-five. She offers a good price for your body, casteless though your blood is, because she needs our protection from her husband’s family. Here is the present she has sent, or in the words of the British in Bombay—how is it said?” She was looking at Old Fanum; Jefferji kept shut. “Earnest money?”
Then she turned her attention back to Jefferji. “She is a kinswoman of mine —a distant relation, I grant you, but of respectable descent. You gain considerably by the relation, but she’s a widow, so she comes with… humility.”
Cheap, Jaisal Begum meant. In a sense. As a widow, Jaisal Begum’s kinswoman could call on neither her husband’s connections nor her own, and had limited choice of partners if circumstance forced her to marry again.
“There is a farm. Much honor will accrue to you if you become her protector. And you’ll bring a good piece of land to Tengarpore.” Yet. She had something more to say. Jefferji could hear it. “And yet you may not wish to take a Rajput wife, Jefferji, if you decide to become English. It’s your choice. I will protect her and her farm as our own whether or not you claim her as your bride. In some ways that would be better all around, but you will have a place that is yours, either way.”
Marrying into acreage was a time-honored way to increase an estate and add to the resources of a ruling house. Tengarpore was giving Jefferji wife and land, because Jaisal Singh was his foster father. What if he didn’t want to be a farmer? Jaisal Begum’s widowed kinswoman would still have honor and protection; Tengarpore would still get the land. All he’d have to do was stay betrothed, and never come back.
The understanding was as overwhelming as it was absolute, though he knew better than to argue with Jaisal Begum. Her great-grandmother had once put her own infant children to the sword, and ridden out against an enemy to die in battle rather than submit to domination.
“Where is the farm of this most valiant and virtuous of women, and has my trunk been sent there already?” That would be awkward. He’d be needing a few things, if he was going to Badakhshan with Captain Fontenoy.
But Jaisal Begum shook her head. She was taking something off from around her neck—two somethings, apparently, pouches on cords, to set them down in front of her. That one of them was older than the other was clear to see even by lamplight.
“No, Jefferji, here. They will store what you choose not to take with you.” Opening the newer of the two pouches, Jaisal Begum poured its contents out into the cupped palm of her left hand. Green, blue, white gems, pearls. “I have brought here that which is offered, and that which is yours; it was to have been waiting for your arrival, but this is better. Now. This is offered. My kinswoman gives these jewels from her estate to show how she will maintain you in honor and comfort.”
No such thing. These jewels were from Jaisal Begum, to hire a husband. Why didn’t she just give them to her kinswoman and be done with it? Because her dead husband’s family would claim the money, then. The widow would lose the leverage of having soon-to-be husband Jefferji Tamisen to protect her. And Tengarpore wouldn’t get the farm. Of course.
Pouring the gems into a little heap by her left knee Jaisal Begum tossed the older packet to him, startling him so that he almost failed in his catch. “And this other, your inheritance. Some of these were given to us by your father to keep for your mother; the rest, by your grandfather, before he died. Now they’re yours.”
He knew by the weight of the packet, by the rough outline of stones against the soft old leather, that these were jewels as well. He opened up the pouch and looked inside. It was tricky; the knot had clearly been untouched for years. Even still, Jefferji could tell that these gems were as large as those Jaisal Begum had shown him, or even larger.
What was he to do? One by one he picked stones out of the pouch and laid them down. Their cut was exquisite. By the expression on Jaisal Begum’s face she’d seen them before, and knew quite well how to value them.
When the pouch was emptied there were eleven jewels in a row in front of Jefferji, and some things left at the bottom of the pouch still. There was a turban jewel that Jefferji recognized as Daoji’s, heavy and old, luminous with pearls that gleamed golden in the low light—a keepsake from the court of Tipu Sultan, wrapped in a bit of leather to protect the pearls. Something still more. A regimental badge, a military insignia of some sort.
His father had left these jewels with his wife, pregnant though neither of them had realized it yet, the son in her womb to be orphaned before he’d had so much as a chance to meet his father. Jaisal Begum had held them in sacred trust. Jefferji traced the outlines of the badge with his fingers, thinking. There was a lion, and flags. He didn’t want to be married. “You know that Captain Fontenoy wants me to go north with him, Jaisal Begum. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Of course she knew. She’d probably known before he did.
Picking through the jewels from the pouch Jefferji selected a ruby—a particularly handsome one, but he’d just met these jewels, he had no feeling for any of them, apart from the badge and Daoji’s turban jewel—and stretched forward to set it down at Jaisal Begum’s folded legs. He couldn’t just leave here and not come back.
Jaisal Begum had to keep something that was his; that way he’d never be completely gone. “Would you see that the noble lady has this for her expenses, while I’m away?”
When Jaisal Begum nodded and swept the first clutch of gems back into its pouch—the ruby among them—Jefferji knew that they had a compact.
“Your place with my kinswoman will be kept for you, Jefferji, whether you come back to us or not.”
There was no dishonor in marriage to an absent husband. It was a fact of life for Rajputs, and Jefferji was assured of at least a roof, a bed, and a meal, when next he came to Tengarpore.
Jaisal Begum stood, so he stood as well. Old Fanum stepped back, draining his glass of wine hastily.
“Now I have to ride for home,” she said. “I only came to bring the jewels, fortunate to find you here to speak to you. Come and kiss me goodbye, Jefferji. There may well be another widow at Tengarpore when you return. I’m sorry you have to go like this but it can’t be helped. Jaisal Singh has always loved you very dearly, first for your father’s sake, then for your own.”
She gave him no more than a wingbeat’s span of time to bend and kiss her cheek. Jefferji didn’t mind. Up close her face was white with grief and sorrow, terrible with the wisdom of a woman who had seen three children buried and two not born. If the widow to whom she wished him to be married was her kinswoman it was better if he went away, because he would never be able to match that strength of character.
“Sit still,” Myamah insisted, tweaking Jefferji’s ear where he sat patiently on her cot and suffered her ministrations. “I’ve never done Jaisal Singh’s pagri, I’d never dare. And it must be right. I need to practice.”
Old Fanum had called a boy to bring Jefferji to Myamah’s room once Jaisal Begum had left, because the priest apparently wanted to be alone. Possibly just to finish the wine. Possibly because he was troubled for Jaisal Begum’s sake, though there was nothing to do about the fact that Jaisal Singh was dying.
Myamah had fed Jefferji his dinner, but then she’d made him sit down and brushed out his long hair and started to practice a pagri turban on him. Jaisal Singh’s pagri. He had a fine suit of Jaisal Singh’s clothing, though Jefferji hadn’t filled out yet, as a man of more mature age might gain in gravitas across his chest and shoulders. All of it a modest bit of redirection, Myamah explained, as if to ease Jefferji’s discomfort.
If a man as tall as Jaisal Singh; in what looked like Jaisal Singh’s clothing because it was; wearing Jaisal Singh’s distinctly tied pagri turban that no son or client of Jaisal Singh would ever dare to wear while Jaisal Singh yet lived; if such a man left the Hirpa temple when some Bombay British happened to be on the Udaipore road, none of them would mistake that man for a British orphan boy. Not even if he was riding a distinctly second-class Marwari rather than the Colimbrana stallion.
“There,” Myamah said, and lifted the turban off Jefferji’s head to shake it out and fold the fabric loosely across the bedstead, apparently satisfied at last. “I’ll be even better next time. Do you want some tea?”
Jefferji stood up and stretched, shaking his head no thank you. He had to be careful about stretching, because the room that the temple had put at Myamah’s disposal had a ceiling sized to her but not for him. He could only just barely stand up straight.
“Drink it anyway,” Myamah said, handing him a cup. “You need some tea. Are you going to Badakhshan? Bring me back some rubies to pray on.”
Well, of course Captain Fontenoy would have made at least some mention of his plans in his letter to Jaisal Singh, that would be only natural. And of course there was no harm in sharing secrets with Myamah. She knew how to keep secrets. Had she learned things he had yet to find out, though? How much did he really know?
“I’ll do my best. But I’m not sure why I should go to Badakhshan. What’s in Badakhshan? Besides rubies?”
Sitting down on the bed, now that he’d vacated it, Myamah smoothed the long tunic of her salwar-kemiss over her knees. “Rare treasures from the past to make your own. A princess bride, perhaps.” She had weight to make up from the famine years, and not all of the pampering Jefferji sought to do had put the flesh back on her; so maybe it was never coming back, and she was just getting old. “A city, a citadel, a proud place in the king of Kabul’s army. What may not await you in Badakhshan? You know what you have to do.”
Yes. A Rajput rode out to make his fortune, and came back with riches and honor or not at all. That was what it meant to be a man, and the foster son of Jaisal Singh. Unless a man became a farmer instead. Or married the Divine consort and became the servant-spouse of a temple. Jefferji wasn’t ready to be married to a farm or a temple.
“What do you know, Myamah?” He shouldn’t have run away like a frightened antelope. He should have stayed at Bharaj and asked for more. But he wouldn’t have seen Jaisal Begum, if he’d done that. Now he had a form of leave-taking, howsoever hurried and confused.
Myamah nudged him with her shoulder: Listen, and I will tell you. “Why should I know any more than you? There is a map. It may mean a trove of antiquities. Your Uncle Fontenoy does not grow any younger, and has no family to solace him in his old age. Therefore he goes to Badakhshan to seek old coins and statues, and bring them back to sell.”
Myamah spoke the words sweetly, but Jefferji could tell that she shared his dismay at the proposed separation. Myamah put the best face on things, though, to reassure him. Myamah always did. Myamah always had.
“Then, when you return, he can make a good report of you at Holkar’s court, and also to the British that he knows in Bombay and Madras and in Calcutta. A man with as many languages as you have is sure to be very valuable.”
Positive notice in official circles, Fontenoy had said. “Myamah, what are you to do, if I go to Badakhshan?”
“How dare you speak to me about such trivial concerns?” But she patted his knee with gentle affection, comfortingly. “I may go visit my family village. I may take a pilgrimage. I’ve never been to bathe at Varanasi.”
There was a ring of truth there that comforted Jefferji. She’d spoken with longing of pilgrimage places. He’d promised himself that he’d take her, once he had the wherewithal. The money.
Fontenoy had talked about money. Jefferji thought there was good hope of finding some in Badakhshan that might be more lightly spent than an inheritance.
“Well, make me a program of your plans.” Leaving Myamah behind was going to be a wrench of no small proportions. There was no question of her following, though. It would be too cold. Jefferji had heard it said that snow lay on the ground from September to April in the north, and year-round in some of the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush. He’d never seen snow in its native habitat. He was curious about it. “I have to be able to find you, when I come back.”
Myamah took his hand, and held it tightly. “See that you do.” Do what? Come back. It was the first sign of emotion that had escaped her. “Now go to bed. One of the god’s rooms is waiting for you, and I know that you have already washed. See if Sri Krsna will send a message in your dreams. It will be all right, Jefferji, truly, at least in time.”
She didn’t know that the god had fallen silent in his heart. Maybe the sleep-healing that the Hirpa temple had in store would mend the rift. Maybe it was to be of no use, but he had to try. Whatever happened, Captain Fontenoy would come, and Jefferji would leave. He’d go to Badakhshan, and by the time he got back, maybe he’d be allowed to return to Tengarpore.
He kissed her on the cheek as he had every night for as long as he could remember, but not as he had saluted Jaisal Begum. There came a time when wondering what-ifs became a pointless exercise because the only way to know what might happen was to wait and see what did. Taking up the spare butter-lamp from its shelf in Myamah’s room, Jefferji closed the door behind him, and made his way to where a bed awaited him within the sanctuary of the Hirpa temple.
A temple offered healing. That was part of what a temple meant. It was the residence of a god or goddess, it contained the resonance of the divine. Jefferji had confided in Old Fanum. Old Fanum knew as few others might the anguish in Jefferji’s heart to find the Beloved gone from the statues—admittedly old, admittedly tawdry, if examined with unfriendly eyes—in which the god had dwelt with the divine Consort. Old Fanum had made special allowances.
So when Jefferji had changed into clean clothing for the second time today—out of respect for the presence of the god—it was to a cell-like room that shared a wall with the place in the sanctuary where the God himself reposed that Jefferji was brought, and shown to a plain bed, and left alone to meditate on his heart’s loneliness.
There was a medicinal potion for prophetic dreams waiting for him in an old gold-washed cup, a potion compounded with honey and opium. Jefferji drank it down. Sitting for a while cross-legged on the bed, he opened up his heart as best he could and listened for the voice of his dear one. There was only the hush of the innermost sanctuary. Had he truly expected anything else, hope though he might? There was only desolation and loneliness. He lay down.
In the middle of the night he awoke, abruptly, with his heart pounding. Someone was here. Someone was in the room. Who was it? He strained his senses to the utmost, but he could hear nothing over the roaring of his own blood in his ears. There was nobody here. Clearly he’d been dreaming.
The little ghee lamp burned steady and true, and its nutty fragrance made him feel half-starved. When he’d been little, and it had been times of dearth and want, he could remember robbing the very lamps to drink their oily nectar, much to Myamah’s outrage. He’d outgrown such gluttony and no longer cared to drink ghee from a lamp, but he was awake now, and he was cross about it. No dreams. No signs. No help.
There was a sovereign remedy for hunger pangs; he’d seen the older men resort to it when he’d been little and famine had laid over them. Opium armored the belly against the ache, opium could save the life of a man with the flux. He carried some with him wherever he went, done up in a cake and issued by the kitchens for the comfort of men and beast alike.
Perhaps that wasn’t quite the way of it, Jefferji mused, hunting for a bit of opium cake on the bedside table, not finding any. Opium was for the comfort of men and horses alike. Pounded grain, raisins, ghee, and opium. He’d left his supplies with his saddlery. That was frustrating, but as his eyes grew more accustomed to the light he saw that hospitality had supplied the want after all. On the low table by the bed was water in a jug, a cup, and a little plate with raisins and almonds and sweet opium cake of the sort taken for dessert. Life was good.
Jefferji took the cake in one hand and the jug of water in the other, sitting up to lean his back against the wall and wonder what time of night it was. He could go out and see, but he felt foolish. The priests would fetch him out of here in the morning. The statues of Sri Krsna and his Consort had been closed reverently away. Sri Krsna slept.
The cake of opium fell into his lap and started him awake again. Checking for the water jug with a sudden horror of having spilled it in the bed Jefferji found to his relief that it was on the table, safe and sound. He must have put it down and fallen asleep for just the moment it had taken for the cake to drop out of his hand; he’d eaten very little of it, really.
So it was early in the night. He wasn’t rested if he’d fallen asleep on such a small nibble of opium, but now he was awake and annoyed. How was he supposed to get himself to Peshawar? Well, with Captain Fontenoy, of course, but apart from that? All he really knew about Peshawar was that it lay on the Uttarapatha north of Lahore where Ranjit Singh made his capital. North of Amritsar. East of the Khyber Pass. South of Badakhshan. Well, yes, north west north east, Jefferji, he mocked himself impatiently. No problem finding the place, then.
Hadn’t there been trouble through the Khyber Pass? Wasn’t there always, unless the gatekeepers were paid off? Hadn’t he heard that no man attempted the Khyber without the safe conduct of a small army? What had he been thinking? Was he out of his mind? He had no idea where he was going, why he was going, what he was going for. How he was meant to try out being English? What good would being English do him if he was to get himself lost in the high cold mountains, or killed by thieves on the road?
“You will go to Ferozepur like a sensible fellow,” Guru-ji said, sounding a little cross. “If you can’t find some British there, you can hire some Sikhs to accompany you to Amritsar, at least. You have money. Would Captain Fontenoy of fame suggest you meet him in Peshawar if there were any trick to it? And he doubtless knows all about the jewels. You must concentrate, Jefferji, concentrate.”
It was so good to be scolded by his teacher that Jefferji almost didn’t mind the scolding part. “Yes, Guru-ji,” Jefferji said, sleepily. He tried to open his eyes, but he didn’t seem to be able to, no matter how he wished to see Guru-ji.
It had been Guru-ji who had first taught him to dance, and to understand the terrible joy he felt when Sri Krsna touched his heart. Jaisal Singh had hired a replacement dancing-master for Hirpa, some years ago, because he’d seen the advantages that the education had given Jefferji in combat as well as in the service of the god. The suppleness of movement, the muscles of the body moving in harmony.
Why had Jaisal Singh hired a new teacher? Because Guru-ji was dead. That was right. A heaviness in his lungs had taken him three years, four years ago. “As if that made the least bit of difference,” Guru-ji grumbled. “Now listen well. I have something very important to tell you.”
Jefferji strained to open his eyes, and could not. He shook himself awake with a ferocious effort, but Guru-ji had gone. There was a wide lake of green wheat blowing in a cold wind around his knees as far as the eye could see, and angry clouds black with thunder all around.
It didn’t seem to matter. The rain would come, the grain would drink, and all would be well. Hearing a noise of some sort coming at him from behind Jefferji turned, but not quickly enough to avoid being knocked flat on his back on the wheat-cushioned earth. There was a beast, with its paw on his chest; he couldn’t breathe. A lion. The lion on his father’s regimental medal, perhaps? It shook its head above him where he lay, and roared. Its breath smelled oddly of green herbs and tobacco.
Then it lowered its great head and looked into his eyes with an intelligence that seemed almost human, opened its massy jaws and plunged its teeth into his chest. He could feel the sharp cold stabbing of the beast’s great fangs, slicing though tissue, shredding his lungs, striking straight toward his heart with inexorable deliberation. Jefferji closed his eyes, afraid, but it didn’t seem to hurt. There was some power in the great beast’s teeth that resonated with Jefferji in quite a different manner.
He held his breath, waiting, waiting for the beast to pierce him to the heart and let all of the pain there drain away, and not wanting the pain to leave him. When at last he felt the stabbing of those teeth into his heart his entire body convulsed in a spasm of grateful relief. He woke, to his chagrin, to find himself still sitting up in bed, wondering what time it was. Disgusting.
Guru-ji was here, now, really here, with his old red shawl around his shoulders, rocking back and forth as he sat on the floor of the little room. “You bleed,” Guru-ji said. His eyes were wide and staring, the whites unnervingly bright in his dark face. “Oh, my dear Jefferji. The lion waits to cut you to your heart.”
At a loss to understand what was going on Jefferji cleared his throat and bowed to his teacher, somehow eye-to-eye with him although Guru-ji sat on his worn red damask cushion and Jefferji on the bed. “Good-morning, Guru-ji,” Jefferji said politely. “Have you slept well, my master?”
Guru-ji cried out in anguish, as though the sound of Jefferji’s voice gave him physical pain. Cried out, and then was silent. Behind Jefferji, between him and the wall as though there were no bed there, slim luscious Parvati rose with a fragrance of sandalwood, commanding Jefferji’s attention as she ever did with every movement of her body. Where had she been? Jefferji knew her perfume; there’d been no trace of it in the air of his cell.
“The teacher has not slept for three days,” she said. “The god himself is occluded in the temple. This morning between midnight and dawn the doors to the god’s house burst open, and the statue for worship toppled to the ground.”
The monsoon season with its heat and its humidity could have unpredictable effects on wood and on the stone that balanced atop it accordingly. If Guru-ji had had a dream, if there had been a disturbance in the temple, if so small a thing should happen as the boys failing to obtain sufficient fuel to keep a drying fire burning in the sanctuary day and night, there could well have been more dampness in the sacred place than there should have been.
Jefferji had been well schooled by Parsi devotees of the physical sciences to see the miraculous hand of God working in the world through regular and discernable cause and effect of transcendent physical laws. Still this word of statues toppling in the middle of the night made his blood run cold in his veins.
“What has the teacher dreamt?” Jefferji asked Parvati, low-voiced and full of dread.
“I saw my chela,” Guru-ji replied. Although Jefferji sat in front of him, he didn’t look at Jefferji, but rather past him, as though he gazed into a leafless winter forest rather than at the stone wall of a small room. So persuasive was the image that Jefferji had to struggle not to look back over his shoulder, to make sure.
“As proud as a young stag he stood in the meadows of the high Pamir, the great plateau between the mountains and the cold vast plain that rolls away forever. And the lion came dressed in a woolen garment with boots upon his feet, walking upright like a man. But he had claws and great rending teeth, and when he took his prey the stag knelt down in the tall grass and offered up his throat to the lion, and at that moment I could hear a voice.”
There were musical modes and preferred songs for every kind of music Jefferji had ever heard in temple, language without words through which a man could know the nature of the dance that was called for before he heard the title or the words. Guru-ji spoke little, but everything he said was in cadence, and he could burst into a song of praise for the Dark One within a phrase or two regardless of what he might have started out to say.
“‘He goes into the mountains,’ the voice said.”
Jefferji knew the rhythm of Guru-ji’s recitation. Guru-ji spoke as if of an upcoming wedding, rather than the nightmare he seemed to be experiencing.
“It was the voice of a god that I heard, a voice with the sound of a river at its flood. ‘He goes and he returns, but he never will come back. The dancer goes to meet the holy music. Goodbye, Jefferji. You will always please me, when you dance.’ That is what the god said, Jefferji. You rose up bleeding but in triumph from the grass, and there was a shining in the antlers of the stag that could not be looked upon.”
Jefferji didn’t know what he could possibly say in response to this fantastic recitation. “It is true that I go north to cross the mountains,” Jefferji said, placing his words slowly and with care. “But not to seek the god in lion form, Guru-ji. I do not understand your dream.”
He almost thought that he didn’t want to understand it. There was no denying that it sounded ominous. Guru-ji shook his head slowly, as if to say Nor do I, then fixed his eyes on Jefferji’s face, looking at him, now, and not the imaginary forest beyond.
“You’ll know him by the hawk who stands beside him,” Guru-ji said. “A red one, almost golden, but its eyes are as dark as blood, and she has wisdom of which she herself is innocent. The lion does not mean you any harm, of this I am convinced. But neither stag nor man can suffer the embrace of the divine and walk away.”
Taking up a handful of dust from the bare earth Guru-ji sprinkled it over his old grey head in uttermost desolation. “You are going away, my chela,” Guru-ji said. Where had he gotten the dust? The floor was covered with matting. “Sri Krsna mourns. Oh, Jefferji, my child, my child.”
His teacher was clearly distraught, and as much as Jefferji wished to comfort him he couldn’t help but feel that the old man was overreacting. It was perfectly clear about the lion and the biting. The lion was the English and everything they stood for, the teeth were his fear that he would not find a place either here or in Peshawar, the warm welcome release of his heart’s-blood his secret fervent conviction that he would find a sanctuary and be welcomed there. Obvious.
Only his teacher would not leave off rocking back and forth on the floor and grieving, and Parvati had apparently gotten up and gone away.
“Sri Krsna cannot save you from this. Oh, my child, it is your fate, and he has loved you. Never again. Never again. Never again. You dance for fierce and more pagan gods, now, Jefferji. You will return from the wild high places but you will never come back—never again—never again.”
“Never again will I trust even so simple a task to that idiot boy,” a priest at Jefferji’s bedside said, as if he were agreeing. Jefferji awoke with a brutal start, and lay on his back trying to collect his wits. What had his teacher said?
“This is quite unacceptable. My sincere apologies, young lord, I’ll have the boy beaten in the morning if you like, but it will do no good.”
Something about the lamp. Jefferji shivered, although the room was warm enough to raise the sweat on Jefferji’s face. The priest nodded, as if he understood exactly what Jefferji was shivering about. The cooler air rushing in through the now-open door, perhaps. Clearing the atmosphere of dreams. Yes. No? Jefferji wished the priest would share his arcane knowledge, but the priest—Ramji, that was right—was no help.
“See, here, there is a crack in the lamp, and the ghee has run out of the bottom. I’ll have it replaced in the morning, and I’m deeply sorry, young sir. Can I bring you a cup of water? Do you want for anything to help you sleep?”
There was neither carafe nor dish of opium cake on the table, only the empty cup of sacred wine with a leaf to cover it. Jefferji shook his head, not wanting to speak and break the spell. To his relief Ramji seemed satisfied. “Then I will leave you. Sleep and dream, young sir, may Sri Krsna grant you what you seek.”
The room was dark now, without the lamp. Jefferji pulled the thin sheet up close to his chest and stared into the darkness, trying to catch it all in his mind, trying to snare the dream before it could slip away. A lion. The wild high places. Guru-ji. Never to dance for Sri Krsna again. But I will always dance for you in my heart, Jefferji thought, as fiercely as he could. Always.
There was a whispering, with a faint sound of a flute so beautiful that there was no arguing with it. Goodbye, Jefferji, my beloved. Thank you for your dance. You are to hear a music that will exalt you, but not from me.
The touch of the god, even to say goodbye, struck Jefferji down with love and tenderness. He closed his eyes and slept, and the next thing he knew it was morning.
The caravan-master had paid them off, and generously, in Zebak. Shashka had spent the money immediately in Ishkashem, for supplies and provisions. Now there was nothing between them and Sanctuary but the Wakhan valley and the westernmost boundary of Tashkurgan. And they were on the Wakhan road, following a tributary that paralleled the Panj until they were closer to the head of the valley. Sanctuary came nearer day by day.
It was the Cherkess stallion who smelled it first, turning his head back to catch Shashka’s eye. You. There. Rider, lord. Shikander Beg. Smell that? Blood and steel and gunpowder.
Cherkess had reason to know about blood and gunpowder.
Shashka drew rein. Peri rode up beside him on her mare Birkit, as red as she was. Together they waited for one of the forward scouts to come back with information on what was happening on the road ahead. Shashka knew he wouldn’t have long to wait.
Then in the path ahead, one of the sepahis—Babira—came out of the scrub and brush that grew up on the stony banks of the river Kokcha and halted, side-on. She’d an arrow in one fist, and signaled in a simple code: between fifteen and twenty men, to the northeast. A caravan. Dropping her arm, Babira waited for Shashka’s nod, before she signaled her sisters to come in and form up.
Captain Katische came trotting sedately down the middle of the road, an unlit cigar between her teeth. The smell of tobacco smoke on the breeze might be masked by that of the gunpowder, or it might alert the prey. She’d light it later, from the heat that rose from the bloodied wounds of the corpses lying reeking on the ground.
“There is a small train with camels and mules,” she said, her deep voice thick with anticipation. She made French sound savage. “Ten men defend. Twenty attack. We should kill them before they are close enough for your lady to hear them scream.”
Shashka’s own caravan lagged four hours behind the advance scout, his new wife with her infant son among them. He trusted the men he had on escort duty, but he’d left back half of his Hell-riders to be sure of things. That meant he’d cut his forward scout to half his available force. There could be no profit in this trouble, only the risk of one of his people injured. But Shashka had feelings about suffering smaller parties to be ambushed by superior forces. As the women of his villages had been by Cossacks.
“Clear the road.” Shifting in the saddle, he pulled out his pistols and checked the priming while Cherkess shifted his feet with restless impatience. When Shashka nodded at Cherkess’s ears from behind, Cherkess started forward eagerly, as if he’d smelled his orders. Cherkess had never needed urging to the attack.
Babira led them all down through the uneven ground on the side of the road, their approach masked by the brush and scrub trees. Shashka heard shouting; a man screamed, or maybe it was a camel. The sepahis drew up in a long line, well dispersed, Babira watching Katische who was watching Shashka in turn.
In the broken ground between the trees along the river and the hard, brown hills that rose to the north, a small group of men and carts lay in desperate defense, assaulted all around by brigands who crouched behind the rocks and bushes, shooting. From the sound of it, the defenders had few weapons, and that smell of blood was coming from somewhere. It was an unequal contest. Unequal contests made Shashka’s blood boil. The only good unequal contest was the one in which he held the uppermost hand.
Wrapping the reins slack around the scabbard laced to his saddle, Shashka drew his sharp curved Circassian sword—the “shashka” of his people—pistol in the other hand. “Vengeance!”
It hadn’t always been his war cry. He hadn’t always led women to war. Now they answered him with their own call, eerily staggered in the air, their hard, cruel voices as savage as eagles. “Vengeance!”
Vengeance. Those were mere bandits, not Cossacks. That huddled band of men trying to defend their lives and property were ordinary merchants and traders, not women working in the fields with their babies on their backs. It didn’t matter. All of those armed thieves had to die.
Shashka charged the backs of the attackers, scattering the horses the attackers had left in their rear, riding down the first man unlucky enough to turn and notice them. Holding his pistol in reserve, he cut the next man with his saber where the neck joined the shoulder, and then there was a great deal more blood, which was good. It laid the dust.
He had the advantage of surprise, even outnumbered. Victory was not yet won: yet his, regardless.
Out of the corner of his eye Shashka saw movement, and turned Cherkess with the pressure of his knee. One of the bandits had found a horse, and sought to escape. It was not in Shashka’s best interest to permit it. Dead bandits were dead, no more, no less, but live ones could raise friends and family to try for vengeance of their own.
Checking his pistol to be sure he hadn’t already discharged its ball, Shashka said the words he knew Cherkess was waiting for. “Go fetch.”
The brigand had a head start, and possibly some prior familiarity with the terrain. But Cherkess was a Kabardian mountain horse, who could chase a man downhill as easily as up it. And for all that a horse was a prey animal Cherkess had the instinct of a lion. The brigand’s horse knew a lion was after it, and ran fleet as a gazelle, taking advantage of every hillock and hump to slow pursuit and gain some distance.
Cherkess didn’t care. Cherkess went over hump and hillock, sure-footed as a satyr, and as the fleeing horse and rider neared the cover of the forested river banks Shashka took aim and fired. His body knew Cherkess’s body; they’d been together for seven years. His aim was steady.
The bullet found its mark. The rider fell, and in so doing his weight unbalanced the horse so that it fell too. Shashka was glad to see it struggle free and rise. He had no quarrel with the horse. Dismounting, Shashka approached with caution—even a wounded man could take revenge on an incautious enemy—but the man was dead.
Shashka shouldered the body up and across the horse’s back; who bore it with commendable self-discipline, considering. Patting its neck for encouragement, Shashka remounted and started back to join the sepahis.
Peri met him halfway. The legs of her red horse were black with more than sweat. Reaching for the reins of the horse that bore its dead rider, Peri fell into place beside him, saying nothing. That was all right with him. It meant there was nothing he needed to know in any very great hurry.
At the battle scene, the sepahis were piling bodies in a heap upslope well clear of the site of the affray, while seven men—defenders, Shashka presumed—dug a pit grave. He didn’t care whether brigands were buried or not, but it was unhealthy to leave dead animals lying about, and someone might come looking for them.
He found Captain Katische sitting on a camel pack-frame, waiting for him and—yes—smoking her cigar. She was Hungarian, and eccentric in many ways. There was a wounded man half-reclining on the ground, leaning up against the same camel pack-frame. He seemed to be a little more richly dressed; the leader, Shashka guessed.
“We are on our way to our village of Old Fort, thirty miles away,” Katische said in French. She had no Adyghe, Shashka no Hungarian, so they used a foreign language common to them both. “We got a runner away, but we were too hard-pressed. We’re not sure help is coming. We’re certain that it could not have come in time, and help from Old Fort could not have saved us in any case, because we are few, and only farmers.”
For Katische to know these things meant that the wounded man spoke something enough like merchant-Persian to make himself understood. Nodding, Shashka crouched down on his heels beside the wounded man. “Where are you hurt?”
The wounded man was a fair man with blue eyes, his hair cut short beneath his flat Herati cap. It was a long way from Herat. “No place in particular.” His sleeveless sheepskin coat was blossoming all down his right side, a cheerful color. Red. “Thank you. Who are you? How are these your people?”
The wounded man’s Persian failed, or else Shashka’s did. How are these your people? What did he mean?
“My name is Shikander Beg Kavkazki, traveling from Meshed to Tashkurgan.” And then doubling back a bit, but that was his business. A moderate degree of misdirection did no harm, and strengthened Sanctuary from discovery. “Do you know who attacked you? I think two of you are killed, and two wounded, including you. Your other men appear mostly unharmed.”
The wounded man shook his head, and coughed. Shashka took the water flask Captain Katische offered and held it so that the man could take a drink. He didn’t look Herati, he looked Greek. There were men in these mountains who were as European as any Kabardian from the Caucasus.
“Not my men any longer, Shikander lord. You saved their lives. Now they fall to your responsibility, I’m sorry to say, because really we are of little use to anybody.” Did the wounded man think he was dying? Perhaps he merely had a sensible turn of mind, planning for contingencies. “And those were ignorant savages from Fayzabad. No one raids on this road. We have nothing worth taking. They should be left to rot.”
If he was dying, it wasn’t in the very immediate future. His voice was strong, if a little unsteady. Shashka shook his head. “I can’t leave them out on the road. I have people coming behind me.” But he appreciated the man’s point. “Tell me your name. Where are you going? Is it on this road?”
Katische had said thirty miles. The man beckoned for the flask. “A man could want a little charras for the pain,” he observed hopefully. Shashka had none, but he did carry a lump of raw opium in one of his coat-pockets, a treat for Cherkess.
The man accepted it, nibbling at it with evident appreciation. “My name is Lamish, of the village of Old Fort. One of your men can guide you. I don’t want to ride Kudrun. She-camel. The bandits drove them off when they attacked.”
Which explained the saddle, perhaps. Riding in a cart wasn’t going to be much more pleasant, but when a man lay in a cart he was obviously at less risk of falling off a camel. “What are your views?” Shashka asked Katische, who sat there solemn and silent, smoking her cigar.
“We have to clear the road. Which means to move these off it. You should go to Old Fort, Shikander lord. We may find a good foraging place.”
A good point. Shashka had cattle to feed. It had been a weary journey already, all the way from Meshed, and not yet finished.
Ismara and her women had traveled in caravan before, because her father was a caravan-master—that was how they’d met. Being attacked en route, especially so close to the thriving slave market at Fayzabad? He’d wanted to make the journey easier for them. He was failing.
“Your headman is Mekmout, there,” Lamish said. He was beginning to fade, but he’d lost blood and taken opium. “Yours to instruct. He’s a sound man, but prone to singing.”
Shashka didn’t want another headman. He had several of his own already, perfectly adequate, and no taste for assuming any more responsibility. He had a young wife with his caravan, and an even younger son. But the duty of a lord was to accept headmen when they offered themselves, because there was a brotherhood of the spirit between men whose curse it was to have the lives of others in their care.
Standing up, Shashka all but knocked into a man standing close behind him. “I’m Mekmout,” the man said. This was a much more local sort of person, dark-haired, dark-eyed, skullcap, scarf around his neck. “I’d like to get some distance before we camp, since we’re a day out yet with the beasts in such disorder. ‘Then you’d better get started, Mekmout,’ you say, and ‘yes, lord,’ say I.”
Headmen as a species knew what needed to be done and did it. This one was clearly feeling the strain, but an hour ago he’d been engaged in desperate battle. “Serve out a measure of brandy,” Shashka said to Peri, who knew where he kept it because she’d put it there. “Say that it’s medicine, and that it is my will that all partake.”
Katische was right; they did need to be sure the road was clear. He’d send one of the sepahis back to let the caravan know that there was a change in plan.
Peri was at his elbow already with a dram. “Medicine,” she said. “Drink it, as the lord wills.” He took the dram and drained it, gave it back. Peri could be very literal-minded. One had to be careful what one said to her.
“Go and wash yourself, and Birkit’s legs,” Shashka said. “You both stink.” She didn’t mind the smell of blood; not even the smell of his blood. She was a connoisseur of sorts. But after the fight was over, he no longer enjoyed it.
“You as well, lord,” she said. Calling Birkit to her with a click of her tongue she took Cherkess’s reins, and went away down through the trees to the side of the river running deep and brisk between its banks to get cleaned up.
In the darkness of the felt-curtained tent, its one light low, Boy couldn’t see the scars that told the history she had with her lord. In the daylight he was older, bearded, harder. Here, in the dark, with his face softened in shadow, he seemed as young again as when she’d seen him for the first time—with a corona of light behind his head that almost blinded her. But ever and always he was beautiful. He’d never stopped being beautiful to her.
She took away his garments, one by one. His shirt was torn across the back. His coat was more deeply cut, one sleeve slashed, a ragged tear in his trousers. He’d stepped on something sharp and hard enough to gouge a channel out of the instep of his boot, but it was skin she cared about, not fabric. She could mend a boot, a shirt, a pair of trousers.
He didn’t speak. He was always quiet after he’d killed. It took so much of his energy to still the rage, he didn’t dare relax his self-vigilance. It had been so from the moment he’d first coaxed her out of her hiding-place with a piece of bread in his gloved hand: Come out. No one will hurt you. I promise. He was an angel, now as then.
With a soft cloth dampened in a basin of hot water, Boy cleaned his face, his back, his breast, his shoulders, sorting out his hurts and cataloging them by reference to scars she could feel if she couldn’t see them. Scrape of a lance, three fingers’ width, one thumb toward the spine from the arrow’s mark. Skin tender, bruised, not broken, over the muscle behind the shoulder, where a tree branch had pierced through his flesh upon a fall down the ravine at Viny Oaks.
He suffered it patiently, because they both knew she wouldn’t quit until she was finished, and it was less trouble for them both if he let her get it over with. A man didn’t always realize he’d been hurt.
Every time he met an enemy could be the last time. There was so much blood to be avenged. But once he finally had avenged it, what then? He’d disappear into the sun, from whence he’d come. She would go blind on that day from staring into the sun, looking for him.
Done She put the soiled cloth into the basin, set the basin aside. There was a scratch, a scrape across his collarbone; she’d washed it, but it had bled into the air since then and the water was dirty now. She kissed it instead, feeling out the raw flesh with her tongue, tasting sweat and blood. His blood. She knew the smell of him. One day he’d go away where she couldn’t follow. Nevertheless, she’d follow. There was no universe without him.
He took her head between the palms of his hands and kissed her, tenderly, as though tasting his own blood in her mouth. She understood his need; didn’t she know his body as well as he did? Better, because for him it was just his body, and for her it was the earthly form of an angel.
There were never enough people to kill. There was always something left that kept him from rest until he’d shaken himself free of memory for one more day. He hadn’t killed his prisoners, today. He’d wanted to, but he’d remembered that they weren’t Cossacks this time. Just ordinary bandits. Enough of them had been already dead.
Outside their tent it had been years ago, and he’d been a man no more savage than he had to be, careful and conservative of life. Here in the dark, he was naked in his history. She could clothe him. The rugs on which they slept were soft from years of use.
He drew her down to lie beside him, kissing her in the dark. The felted walls of their tent were quiet, and warm, as absolute as iron between them and the world. He was safe here and now with her, and she with him. The sepahis would keep watch. No harm would come to her lord. She forbade it.
He wouldn’t go to his new wife, to Ismara, not tonight, while the pollution of blood and killing rage was still on him. He’d stay with Boy instead. She knew every inch of him by heart, and wished that she could be his skin, to stand between him and the sword. In the dark it didn’t matter if he’d been hurt. In the grip of passion he wouldn’t notice any pulled muscles or strained joints. He would tomorrow. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
She held him, breathing slowly now, sleeping in her arms, and glared the darkness down with eyes that burned like embers in the spirit-dangerous night.