THE KASHMIRI GIRL lay on the little reed cot with a knife thrust into her ribs.
Captain Timothy Pritchard came through the open doorway of her small mud hut. At sight of him she lifted herself on an elbow. Her brown hand touched the haft of the dagger and fell away limply.
The blood ran cold in Pritchard.
Her red mouth opened and closed as it gasped frantically for the hot humid air of this summer night of India. The golden hoops of her earrings clanged faintly as she swung her head convulsively against the death that was coming for her.
"Sahib, I must tell you," she whispered. “Even now, this night in Calcutta—"
Her voice broke to a gurgle as he came through the door to drop to a knee and cradle her in an arm. Her brown lids with their long black lashes closed suddenly, in spasmodic reaction to the pain eating through her body.
“Rukmini! Who did this thing?”
Her mouth quivered as it fought for speech. Pritchard put his hand on the dagger hilt, but the blade was buried too deeply. If he pulled it out, she would die. As he clasped the braided haft, her hand sought his and held it, and in that moment he recognized the knife as his own.
He stared down at the hilt, not comprehending at first. Then as he realized that his knife might have been used to kill her purposely to put the blame on himself, he scowled. He was so taken in his puzzlement—who in Madras would want him dead before a firing squad ordered by a murder court-martial?—that he came close to not hearing her whispered words.
“The man you seek is ..."
She could say no more. A bubble of blood lay at the corner of her lips. She arched her back, as if to throw off an intolerable weight. Suspended that way, with his arm at her back and with her silk sari tight across her jerking legs, she died.
He lowered her gently to the cot.
A wind moved in off the bay of Bengal, bringing its salt tang through the feathery branches of the neem trees. A touch of jasmine from a little basti garden came with its coolness. Captain Timothy Pritchard of the Madras Light Horse breathed in that cool air, grateful for its fragrance.
He had been walking in the Madras bazaar the first time he ever saw this girl. He had been drinking in the sights of rich Jaipur carpets hung on bamboo poles beside hand-painted silk patolas from Baroda and dangling lengths of Surat gold brocade, pausing to admire a spill of blue sapphires and red rubies thrown carelessly across a square of white velvet, moving on to stare at delicate bronzes and vases of Chinese ware. She had come out of a sweetmeat stall and lifted a slim brown arm to him.
At first he thought her a bazaar girl, for there was bluing on her eyelids and her mouth was red with dadali sap. The sari she wore was her only garment, and its thin Dacca muslin clung to the gentle swell of her hips.
He was turning away from her imagined offer when she pattered up to him on bare feet. She whispered, plucking at his uniform sleeve, "Huzoor, come with me. I am Rukmini, a kinnari, a water girl, and—"
He grinned down at her. "I'm a little tired, chota. I was with Yedisha above the chintz stall in the bazaar as recently as last night."
She laughed softly. "I am no luli, lord. I have news for you. News of the French."
England and France were at peace in India in this summer of 1756, but trouble was stirring in the north, where the old Nawab of Bengal, Ali Wardi Khan, lay burning on his suttee pile, with his living widows cast screaming into its flames. His young great-nephew, Siraj ud-Daula, was even now seating himself on the throne.
Siraj ud-Daula was an arrogant youth. The conquests of Babar and Akbar were living legends in the Mogul northlands, from Calcutta west to Kandahar. Siraj ud-Daula conceived in his arrogance that what Babar and Akbar had done, he also could do. The French in Chandernagore fed those illusions with flattery and tribute, for they knew that the peace that lay between the English lions and the French fleur-de-lis was only a passing thing, and that war was coming to the Indian peninsula as it was beginning in the forests of America.
His hand caught her smooth-skinned arm, to propel her at hurried strides between a bullock cart and a repairer of mattresses whose twanging tool heralded his coming. "Go on, girl. Tell me what you know!” His hand fumbled at his belt pouch and he drew out a silver rupee, thrusting it into her palm.
They paused in the shadow of an overhanging balcony whose railing was fretted in delicate ironwork. Her words came whispering from the shadow of her hood, and he could see her bright eyes moving restlessly, studying each passing street seller or fakir, as her tongue prattled.
"I am friends with an Englishman, huzoor. He tells me he is in the trading business. Of course, we do not talk much of business when he is with me, you understand, but he tells me enough to make me think he works with the French. He says the Nawab of Bengal is going to join the French and attack Calcutta. When? Woh! Who knows?”
"Learn when, Rukmini," he told her, feeling excitement beginning in him. "You will find me eager to reward any news you might have."
He took out two more rupees and gave them to her. She sighed softly. "It will not be easy, but I will do what I can.”
He asked suddenly, "Why'd you pick me out, to tell this thing?”
Her white teeth, stained a little with betel juice, showed in her soft red mouth. "All the world knows Captain Tim. Even the lulis speak of his generosity.” She giggled. “I have a special reason why I shall need money, huzoor. That is why I am bringing you these words.”
Her reason had been a baby, newly stirring to life with in her. Now her baby was dead along with her. She had played at being a spy once too often. Only tonight she had come to him, just a few short hours ago, where he had sat at supper with Robert Clive, just recently returned from England, where he had been presented with a sword whose hilt was encrusted in diamonds, promoted to lieu tenant colonel of the Army, and given the governorship of Fort St. David. Their khana that night was in the nature of a celebration, for these men—such as Captain Tim Pritchard and Colonel Springer Lawrence-had been with Clive at Arcot and Arni.
The curry before him had been steaming, fresh from the brick kilns in the barrack kitchens, when he saw Rukmini's slim figure in a shaft of moonlight, close by the latticework of a gallery rail. Her brown hand had come up and gestured toward him anxiously, and the jangling sound of her thin brass bracelets had come faintly to his ears.
He found her eyes red with recent weeping, but there was an iron in her body that showed itself in the hard face she let him see under the shadowing hood of her sari.
"I have the news you want, Captain Sahib," she whispered. "I know the man who deals with the French, with this M'sieu Godeheu who took the place of the Marquis Dupleix. It has taken me some little time, but I know."
"Rukmini! His name! God's love, girl—who is it?”
Her glowing black eyes slid through the hanging drapes of gold brocade and across the thick carpetings to the tables where the officers of the Fourteenth Foot and the Madras Light Horse sat at dinner, their scarlet uniform jackets bright with gold braid, their polished black leather top boots and their shoulder knots gleaming.
"Not here, sahib. Not here!” Her eyes lifted to his, and he could see the fright in their lustrous depths. Her lashes were long, sooty fans against her brown cheek. "Come after me within the hour to my little hut by the basti alleys. I will tell you then what you want to know.”
She had whirled and fled, leaving him strangely alone.
As he came back through the brocade draperies to his seat at the banquet table, he saw Colonel Springer Lawrence staring hard at him.
He stood up, staring around at the little mud hut, aware that he was endangering his safety by remaining, but un able to leave without making some sort of search. Rukmini had been an animated little thing, quick to laughter, quick to tears. The coarse, clinging silk of her single garment revealed the fact that she was pregnant. Pritchard wondered if the same man who had put the child in her middle had also put that knife of his in her bosom.
The dagger had been missing for two weeks, ever since the afternoon he used its edge to scrape mud from his boot heels. It might have been a man in his command that had taken it, or one of the native boys that served the officers.
The thought came to him that the killer might have left some trace of his identity here in the little mud-brick hut with its reed furniture and tatty screen. He hunted carefully, the flickering light of the brass oil lamp reflecting the brilliant scarlet of his uniform jacket with the gold lacings on collar and blue cuffs in the cracked mirror on the wall. His saber scabbard made a faint clanking as it clashed on the chains suspending it from his service belt.
He found no clues, other than a few faint scratches on the hard-packed dirt floor of the hut, as if a child had sat and made scratches with a pointed dagger. He found himself unable to imagine what had put them there.
He came back to stand over the dead girl. If his knife were found here ...
He put his hand to the knife. He was just settling his fingers about the haft when a voice said softly, "I wouldn't, Tim. Better leave it alone."
Colonel Lawrence came into the room with Captain Lucius Beetham and a detail of sepoys at his heels. He was a man in early middle age, the bronze of his skin showing the years he had spent in the saddle under this fierce India sun. It came to Pritchard that Lawrence had been suspicious of him back at the fort, and had followed him immediately.
The Colonel ran his brown eyes from the dead girl to the knife, and then to Captain Pritchard.
“I suppose you'll claim you didn't do it, Captain.".
There was a sense of suffocation in Pritchard. His scar let collar with its gold lacings felt too tight at his throat. His black leather service belt was a constriction at his middle. He tried a laugh, and knew that he only made a croaking sound.
"It's ridiculous, Colonel. This girl had information for me about a French spy. I was to meet her here, to discover who it was that spied on us."
“This girl was at the fort tonight, Captain. I saw her myself. Why didn't she tell you about the spy then?"
Even as he explained, Pritchard realized with a sinking numbness in his middle that he sounded trite and unconvincing. He spoke of the fear the little kinnari girl had for the lavish surroundings of the banquet, and of his sympathy for that unease.
"She was afraid of being overheard and punished for informing. Maybe she had a premonition of what would happen. I told her I'd come to her hut. I did. I found her like that."
Captain Lucius Beetham had been examining the dead girl as Pritchard spoke. Now he swung around to Colonel Lawrence and whispered to him. In answer to those whispers, the Colonel crossed the room and stared below the uplifted sheet.
His face was hard as carved wood when he turned back to Pritchard. "She was with child."
Pritchard felt his cheeks grow hot with anger. "God's love! Are you supposing I did that too?”
The Colonel ran his brown eyes from the dead girl to the lower lip. "It may be that you did, Captain. This begins to assume a pattern. The girl came to you tonight, asking your protection. Knowing that discovery of her condition and your resultant guilt would mean disgrace, you undertook to solve the problem with cold steel. If we had not found you here with her, with your knife still in her flesh, you could have walked out into the night a free man. No one would ever have been able to prove your connection with her."
The Colonel gestured with a gloved hand and two sepoys came across the hard dirt floor to stand on either side of Captain Pritchard. "I'm placing you under arrest, sir. There will be a court-martial. You will have the opportunity at that trial to present any defense you may conceive to be yours.”
"Colonel, this is utter nonsense! I'm as innocent as you are yourself! I came here to learn something about a spy for the French. I found her as she is.”
Colonel Springer Lawrence shrugged carelessly. “Tell that to the court, Captain. My duty is plain enough. I must place you under arrest."
It was useless to argue. The nightmarish quality of these events was like a miasmic fog drawing closer all around him. He could not think, could do nothing but stand and stare at the body under the white sheet with the palm-oil lamp making red patterns over it, and know that he was helpless to refute anything that Colonel Lawrence had said about him.
Beetham saluted the Colonel, then swung on a heel to him. "Captain? Shall we return to the fort?”
He walked behind Beetham and the Colonel, his head down, seeing the cobblestones of the basti alleyways under his feet, hearing the distant cry of a myna bird, not heeding the beauty of the night or the sight of palm trees waving at the moon for the sickness in him. He had come this way an hour before, with hope and confidence alive in him. Flushing out this spy might mean the advancement he had fought and sweated for across half of India. He had been an ensign just out of military school when he had set foot on the docks at Madras. Within three weeks after that landing, he had been fighting for his life with Clive against Chunda Sahib. After Arcot had come the battles at Arni and at Trichinopoly.
Now he was a captain in the service of His Britannic Majesty. If the words Colonel Springer had hurled at him earlier were any augury, he would be a dead captain before long, stripped of his rank and lying face down before a firing squad.
They came into Fort St. George through the North Gate. The Governor's palace loomed big and white in the moonlight, of white sandstone with its rails and balustraded walks fitted with stone lacework. Grouped in rows along the fort walls were big coehorns and smaller sakers, mounds of iron cannonballs close by their big, painted wheels.
A number of horses were being led to the stables as they came marching across the courtyard. His blue eyes told him these were Kanara mares, colorful in their red bridles and headstalls. An ambassador from Hyderabad or one of the hill provinces would be visiting Clive now, he thought numbly. He would have been at that conference, except for the dead Kashmiri girl.
They turned in at a stone stairway that brought them up a short flight of steps to the guard barracks. Here rattan screens hung rolled at the low, wide windows, as if to let out the intense early-summer heat. Cots that were little more than mattress ropings on short sandalwood legs stood in rows along the walls. Between them were stacked the regimental matchlocks in orderly tripods.
Colonel Lawrence said, "I place Captain Pritchard under your authority, Captain Beetham, while I present myself to Colonel Clive. I hold you responsible for him.”
“Be at ease, sir," said Pritchard, sinking his hindquarters onto his cot. His voice revealed the weariness and despair in him. "I won't make any attempt to escape. Besides," he added, as if to himself, "where in this country could I hide myself?"
Captain Beetham stationed sepoys at the door, then came to stand before his fellow officer. He was a handsome man, this Beetham, though given to a fleshiness that strained his uniform jacket at shoulders and belt. Pritchard knew that fat was deceptive; hard muscles were layered under it. Once he had seen Beetham lift two howling Polyar tribesmen and heave them from him, one in each hand, from the ruined wall at Arcot.
"Sorry, Tim," Beetham said.
Even in his pity he can't keep the unctuousness from his voice, Pritchard thought. Like Lawrence, Beetham had something of the prissy moralist in him. He held himself, aloof from the animal pleasures that the other officers sometimes indulged in, when a pretty bazaar woman beckoned an invitation to her little cubicle with a wave of a. bare arm that caused a sheltering sari to fall away.
"You should have been more circumspect in your romancing," Beetham went on, bending to flick a speck of dust from his boot. "If you must play the animal, there are thousands of temple girls or "lulis to assuage your fevers."
Pritchard let the anger come into him, and drove a big fist down onto his hard thigh above his buff breeches. “Understand me, Luke! I'm innocent. I didn't kill the girl. No, or get her with child."
Beetham smiled knowingly. “If you insist, Tim. Of course, there's little else you could say. Still, I'd like to help, if I may. Have you any witnesses that could prove you didn't do it? Some passer-by who saw you entering the girl's hut? A visitor she may have had? If you can't find anyone, it will go badly with you. Disgrace. A loss of your commission. A firing squad.”
“Do you suppose I don't know what's ahead of me because of this mess?"
Captain Beetham shrugged so that the gold braid of his shoulder knots glinted in the radiance of the wall lamps. “Then you don't want my help?”
The man looked distressed, and Pritchard said, "I know you want to help me, Luke. I'm grateful, believe me. But this thing is such a nightmare, I find myself unable to think.”
He came to his feet and moved back and forth in the aisle between the cots. He was a big man, thick in the shoulders and with a lean waist, muscled like a Bengal tiger from his years of service with the cavalry patrols. His blond hair was like a mane above his dark face.
The open window drew him and he went to stand there, feeling the heat beat at him from across the flat rooftops. His dreams had been born in this city of Madras, on the southwest coast of India. They were to die here. Well, other dreams were doomed to death in this land of pagan gods and tiered temples. The French at Pondicherry and at Chandernagore were threatening the British toehold in India, and every thinking man knew that the eventual owner of India would boast a flag with British lions or with the French fleur-de-lis. They were even now on the threshold of that war.
He swung from the screened window, saying harshly, "I thought I could put a finger on the spy who betrays our movements to the French at Pondicherry. That's what took me to her hut."
Beetham shrugged and put his hands on his thick thighs. "I believe you, Tim. But you must have evidence, d'ye understand? Witnesses to say you couldn't have killed the girl. Take thought on the need."
Pritchard put a hand to his forehead. "I'll try, I'll try. The streets were almost deserted. Oh, I may have passed an opium seller, or a carpet vender going home from his stall, but they would never remember me."
Captain Beetham stood. A frown creased his heavy face. “Not much to go on. I'll try to scout up someone myself to help you. I can't promise anything, but be assured I'll do my best.”
“Thanks, Luke. I—I know you will."
They turned at the sound of boot heels in the hall. The sepoys standing guard saluted with their hands leveled across their muskets as Colonel Lawrence came into the barracks room, slapping at a palm with his gloves, exuding the anger that ruffled his calm at every stride."
"Damned impertinent hillmen!” he said savagely.
He came to a halt and looked Captain Pritchard up and down with a sneer. His gloves cracked again across his palm.
“Address yourself properly, Captain, if you please! Your helmet, sir! See to it you look the paladin the Naik of Changrapore seems to think you.” He laughed harshly. "As God's my life! He conceives you a very Achilles!"
Beetham looked startled, and glanced sideways at Pritchard, who shrugged. As Pritchard bent for the lacquered black leather helmet with its white horsehair crest, he remembered the Kanara mares in their red headstalls, and the ambassadors from this Naik of Changrapore who were even now closeted with Robert Clive. What could they want with a British cavalry captain? Whatever it was, he reasoned, it could not be good.
Pritchard smiled grimly, checking his uniform details in the mirror set in the wall. His heart was pounding savagely. He did not know the Naik, though he knew something of him, as he knew something about almost every ruler of every state in India. Shiringar Lal was a Hindu prince who governed the hill country of Changrapore, which lay northwest of Madras, between Hyderabad and Guntur. He held himself aloof from the quarrels of the French and English, but he was friendly with the new Nawab of Bengal, Suraj ud-Daula. And the Nawab of Bengal was frank to admit that he hated the English.
Colonel Lawrence walked around Captain Pritchard, breathing heavily. His hard eyes examined the sheen of his gold shoulder knots and the cut of his scarlet jacket. He studied the hang of his cavalry saber and the polish on his black top boots. He allowed his eyes to dwell a moment on the leather dragoon helmet and its crest of white horsehair, held in the crook of Pritchard's arm
"Follow me, sir! Captain Beetham, if you will be good enough, come after us, behind—the prisoner. See that no harm comes to him. I am finding him to be extremely valuable.”
They moved like that into the arched gallery that circled the barracks rooms. The night was a breathless, humid thing that seemed to wrap itself about them as they mounted a stair whose balustrade was a masterpiece of pink sandstone. Their footsteps were loud and harsh in the stillness.
The audience hall was furnished in simple taste. Thick Persian carpets lay heavy on the floor. A wide desk of carved teakwood was set close before a hanging of gold Benares brocade. There were low stools arranged along the west wall, with tiny tables set before them, covered with silver ewers and goblets. Three men sat at ease on these hassocks.
Robert Clive, who was now a lieutenant colonel in the army of the East India Company, and deputy governor of Madras, came to his feet as the little cortege entered. In his thirtieth year, he enjoyed a reputation that extended from St. Michael borough in Cornwall to Calcutta. It had been his courage that had stopped the French at Arcot, his brilliant leadership that had smashed their forces at Kaveripak and Arni. He was a heavy-set man, with piercing eyes and full cheeks. A daredevil in his early youth, he had found the hotbed of India a perfect setting for his peculiar type of genius. Slightly above six feet in height, he wore the scarlet uniform of John Company with awkward grace.
He came now to stand before Captain Pritchard, face hard and set. "Colonel Lawrence tells me you murdered a kinnari woman tonight, Captain. At a time like this, must you be so concerned to gratify your flesh?”
Staring straight ahead, Pritchard said, "The Colonel is misinformed, sir. As I told him, it was my knife he found in the woman, but it was not my hand that put it there."
Clive snorted and paced across the Kashmiri carpets on the floor.
Pritchard was aware of the keen interest displayed by the three men seated on thick velvet cushions, their legs in tight satin trousers that fitted them from hip to ankle. Over these they wore stiff coats with flaring skirts. Tur bans glittered with pearl ropes and aigrette feathers above their lean, dark faces. These men would be the ambassadors of the Naik of Changrapore.
He felt their dark eyes fastened on him curiously. One of the men, who wore a red ruby as large as an egg on a silver chain at his throat, was smiling grimly.
Clive swung back across the room, thumping his fist on the flat teakwood desk, making a silver inkwell rattle. “Must I be plagued always with thoughtless officers? First, one of my men is court-martialed in Bombay. Now I run into this! Tim, I never expected it of you!"
Pritchard said grimly, "No, sir. I'm innocent, sir."
Clive made a face. "I've heard the Colonel on that subject. You haven't much evidence to present to a court. It looks bad, Tim. Bad!”
The three men on the cushions stirred restlessly. Clive went on: "At a time like this, too. The French are stirring in Bengal. So's the young nawab there. He imagines himself put upon. If the French induce him to join forces with them, we'll lose Calcutta. I need every man jack that can sit a saddle and swing a sword."
Clive brooded at him. "It means a firing squad for you, if the court finds you guilty. I'll lose a good officer, Tim. And a good friend! There isn't much I can do. It's an Army matter, and my commission runs only with the East India Company."
The man with the blood ruby at his throat came easily to his feet. His dark beard was carefully curled and scented. His black eyes glowed brightly as they looked from Robert Clive to the rigid captain before him.
The man from Changrapore said softly, "Ah, that is just the point I seek to make, Your Excellency. Captain Pritchard must not die. For if he dies, the Naik of Changrapore will consider himself deeply aggrieved, if not actually insulted. No, Captain Pritchard must remain alive."
The silence grew in the audience room until it seemed to pulse against the ears. Pritchard was conscious of a dull surprise in him. After that, relief came flooding into his veins, but only by the throbbing muscle of his jaw did he show the exultation that worked in him.
Clive was studying him. He said at last, as if impatient, "You hear that, Tim? They won't let me kill you. Do you know why?”
“Politics, Tim. England knows France is only waiting to hurl herself at us, here and in our American colonies. The war has already begun in America. Major General Braddock was marching on Fort Duquesne when I last heard word of him. Here in India, we must surround ourselves with friends who will at worst remain neutral when we fight. For that reason, we have been in touch with the Naik of Changrapore. He assures us that he will be happy to keep the peace between us, if he can be assured of our own friendliness."
Clive moved to the desk and lifted a silver coffer that lay on a small velvet square. Holding the coffer in his hands, he came back to stand before the Captain.
"Lift the lid, Tim."
Pritchard did so, and stared numbly at the red fire of giant rubies and the green blaze of fabulous emeralds, mixed in with the white purity of glowing diamonds. Any one of those jewels would make a man rich for the rest of his life. This collection was worth a kingdom.
"They are for the East India Company,” said Robert Clive harshly, "as long as we remain on friendly terms with His Royal Highness the Naik.”
Pritchard looked bemused. “For our part?” he asked. “What can we give to the Naik half so precious as these jewels?”
"You, Captain. You alone. That is all that Ram Kumari, who is prime minister of Changrapore, asks on behalf of his prince."
Pritchard tried to smile. His eyes studied the faceted brilliance of blood rubies and white diamonds. “There must be some mistake. I'm not rich. I have nothing to offer in exchange for these. Unless—revenge?"
The Prime Minister of Changrapore bowed low. A smile lay across his full, sensual mouth. "Captain Pritchard is modest. All India knows his reputation as a cavalryman."
Clive grunted. “They know how you smashed Raja Sahibat at Arni, Tim. And how you fought at Covelong and Chingleput. Not every man could have broken the French artillery at Kaveripak with cavalry sabers."
"I'm afraid I don't understand,” Pritchard stammered.
The Dewan laughed softly. "Modesty is a virtue that becomes you, Captain. Let me put it this way: With you as his guest, the Naik will feel more secure, knowing the English will not move against him.”
“In other words, Tim," said Clive ruefully, "they know what a pillar of strength you are to me. A one-man army. The native troops and sepoys look on you as a man blessed by the gods. They feel you can never know defeat."
"Rubbish,” said Captain Pritchard, but deep inside him he was pleased.
“Rubbish or not," went on Robert Clive, “those are the facts. This court-martial that hangs over your head will have to be held in suspension.” His hand gestured at the open silver coffer that lay on the teakwood table. “For such wealth, the East India Company and the crown of England would scour the last dungeon of every prison in the realm, and forgive a regicide himself.
"You have become politically important, Captain. Though I must warn you, the Naik may easily kill you by torture, should events prove such that we are forced to go to war against him.”
"A court-martial now, or a possible death by torture in some unforeseen future,” said Pritchard, and shrugged. “Faith, it's an easy choice to make, if you mean to leave it to my discretion."
The Dewan of Changrapore beamed. His melodious voice inserted itself into the silence. "Permit me to assure His Excellency and the Captain that the Naik looks on his visitor as a royal guest. He will be given the finest clothes, the very best food and entertainment that Changrapore can afford."
Pritchard laughed. “You make it sound like a holiday." Again the man bowed. "That is how His Highness the Naik wishes you to consider it.” He paused and his fiery eyes went from the Captain to Robert Clive. His white teeth showed in a sudden smile. "I am to understand, then, that the sahibs have consented to this exchange of hostages? A few jewels against this dragoon captain?”
Robert Clive nibbled at his lip. His scowl betrayed the fact that suspicion ate in him. He had reason not to trust these smiling ambassadors of Indian royal rulers, but there was no fact on which his doubt could settle. He shrugged impatiently, more at himself than at the man from Changrapore.
"It is done. Agreed on.” He clapped his hands for a hamal boy. “We'll have the wine with which to bind the bargain on the balcony. It may be cooler there."
Pritchard heard Ram Kumari laughing softly. "I was suspicious, huzoor. When you told me this man I sought as a hostage had committed a murder, I was sure you invented his crime on the spur of the moment. He killed a kinnari girl? A Sudra woman? One of the lowest of our castes." His satined shoulders shrugged elaborately, making the lamplight flicker across the rich striped stuff that formed his flaring coat. "If he had killed a thousand of them, in our eyes he would have committed no crime."
Clive swore softly. “I keep forgetting this caste system, Dewan. You must excuse me.”
The man from Changrapore laughed softly and gestured magnanimously. "Consider it unsaid, huzoor. Though I had conceived a higher regard for Robert Clive.”
As he followed his rescuer out onto the balcony, Timothy Pritchard thought ruefully that it mattered little to the British government whether Rukmini had been Sudra or Brahman. She was a human being, and in their eyes he was a murderer. When he came back from the hill city of Changrapore, he would be tried and convicted.
They would kill him in front of a firing squad.