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Metal Emissary

Contents

Title Page

Metal Emissary Insert

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Epilogue

Cast of Characters

Acknowledgements

About the Author

By the Same Author

Metal Emissary

A HANOVER & SINGH ADVENTURE

[_ _]

By Chris Paton

Copyright © 2015 by Chris Paton

Cover Art by Nicole Cardiff

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events or organisations is entirely coincidental.

All rights are reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the author.

 

www.chrispaton.dk

Prologue

 

Wallendorf Industrial Factory

Frankfurt, the German Confederation

December, 1850

 

Luther Wallendorf shuffled the toe of his leather brogue into the imprint of a large, cloven foot depressed into the cobblestones outside the green doors of his factory. He leaned on his silver-capped cane as the footprint, several inches deep, swallowed his shoe and tipped the grey-haired man off balance. Wallendorf’s hat rolled off his head and onto the ground. With a firm grip of Wallendorf’s elbow Hans Schleiermacher helped the older man out of the hole and back onto the cobblestones. Schleiermacher bent down to retrieve his employer’s black bowler hat. Brushing the slush from the brim with his sleeve, he handed it to him.

“Thank you, Hans. I think I can manage now,” Wallendorf placed his hat on his head and tapped his cane on the ground. He smiled at his aide. “To think we built such a monster.”

“Yes, Herr Direktor,” Schleiermacher clasped his hands behind his back. “Quite an achievement.”

“But will it work, Hans? Will it do the job?” Wallendorf waved his cane at the tall double doors of the factory. “Let us go inside. It will not do to keep the President waiting.” Wallendorf hummed a short refrain, the snowy whiskers of his thick beard twitching as he breathed. Schleiermacher walked up to the doors and pulled the chain of a steam whistle mounted to the right of the doors with large brass bolts screwed into the rough red brick walls of the factory. Gears clicked and pulleys rasped as the doors folded and collapsed like a Chinese fan, winding into the eaves of the tall gables. Wallendorf stopped humming. Closing his eyes he took a deep breath of leather and oil, coal dust and wood shavings. Opening them, Wallendorf smiled and nodded at Schleiermacher to enter. Will I ever tire of this, he wondered. Wallendorf’s cane clicked on the cobblestones as he followed his aide inside the factory.

The Direktor leaned on his cane as Schleiermacher closed the doors. He winked at Schleiermacher as the doors clicked and whirred behind them. Wallendorf tapped his cane once and set off along the broad aisle between the frames of copper pipes and valves hissing above the workspaces and desks of leather-aproned factory workers and shift managers. Balloon-like electric bulbs buzzed like bulbous glass bees within metal cages hanging from the pipes. The tapping of pipes and the wrenching of metal hammered the warm air blowing down the length of the factory floor from huge fans in the far wall.

“Good morning, Frederik,” Wallendorf tipped his hat as he passed one of the larger workspaces.

“Morning, Herr Direktor,” the shift manager turned away from the tiny hydraulic valve he was examining under a large magnifying glass and picked up a ledger from his desk.

“Not necessary, Frederik. I have a meeting,” Wallendorf pointed toward the far end of the factory floor with the ivory pommel of his cane.

“Very good, Herr Direktor,” the shift manager waved.

The factory floor opened up into a long, broad rectangle of wooden ladders and metal scaffolds caging the skeletons of monstrous iron beasts. Factory workers and supervisors armed with clipboards and wrenches scurried about the four-legged metal mammoths, swinging from the giant ribs on hawser-line swing seats. Wallendorf stopped and squinted into the distance. “Where are the emissaries, Hans?”

Schleiermacher leaned closer to Wallendorf’s ear. “Over there, behind the mammoth walkers, Herr Direktor,” he stretched his right arm past Wallendorf’s shoulder and pointed with a curved palm. “On the right.”

“When were they moved?” Wallendorf began walking toward the large bay.

“Wednesday, Herr Direktor, on your recommendation following word that the President wished to visit the factory. You said they would be better placed closer to your office.”

“Yes,” Wallendorf chuckled. He stopped and smoothed the lapels of his winter coat. “Do you know, I have always wanted them where I could see them, but I could never convince my son to move them.”

“Herr Wallendorf is very particular about space, Herr Direktor.”

“Yes, Hans,” Wallendorf lifted his eyebrows and smiled. “But we got our way in the end, didn’t we?”

“Yes, Herr Direktor,” Schleiermacher gestured toward the work bay to the right of the factory floor. “If you will permit me, we are running a little late.”

“Of course,” Wallendorf tapped his cane on the smooth stone floor and resumed walking. “We must not keep the President waiting.”

In the work bay assigned to the Wallendorf emissaries, a group of three tall men wearing long, dark winter coats and tall hats chatted together. Standing to one side, a shorter, younger man wearing smooth grey trousers and a maroon waistcoat embroidered with dark cotton stripes slipped his watch inside his pocket. He stepped forward to receive Wallendorf as he approached.

“Ludvig,” Wallendorf greeted his son with an embrace. “I see the President has arrived already.” Wallendorf ignored his son’s frown and stepped around him to greet the tallest of the three men. “Herr President,” Wallendorf extended his right hand.

“Herr Direktor,” President Franz Baum shook Wallendorf’s hand. “You know Herr Richter from the Ministry of Finance and Herr Bremen? I forget to which department, Herr Bremen is attached.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Service,” Bremen tipped his hat.

“Yes, of course.” Lifting his head to look them in the eyes, Wallendorf shook hands with the two men. “I trust my son, Ludvig, has shown you around the factory?”

“All but the emissaries, Herr Direktor,” Richter smiled.

“I left them for you, father,” Ludvig joined the men. He stood just behind and a little to the left of Wallendorf. “I know how much they mean to you.”

“Yes,” Wallendorf’s grey eyes twinkled. “Come, let me introduce you.” Tapping his cane, Wallendorf walked toward three scaffolds draped with heavy canvas tarpaulins. He stopped in front of the first and waited. Walking past Wallendorf Schleiermacher pulled at a corner of the canvas and peered inside. He let the canvas fall and turned to the men waiting beside Wallendorf.

“They will be ready in just a moment, gentlemen,” Schleiermacher bowed his head.

“All good things are worth waiting for,” Wallendorf chuckled. “How is the lovely Frau Baum, Herr President?”

“She is well, thank you,” the President nodded to Wallendorf. “She has expressed a keen interest in the emissaries, as has Herr Richter and his ministry.”

“We have noticed a significant increase in costs, something not entirely expected,” Richter coughed. “I wonder if you would care to comment, Herr Direktor?”

“If I may, father?” Ludvig stepped forward. “As you will soon see, the emissaries are perhaps one of the greatest and most intricate feats of engineering yet undertaken by Wallendorf Industries.” Ludvig paused. “More so than the mammoth walkers upon which Wallendorf has built its reputation as the confederation’s greatest industrial giant.”

“Any other father might try curbing such enthusiasm in front of such esteemed guests,” Wallendorf smiled. “Fortunately, I am not any other father.” The President laughed. “Please continue, Ludvig.”

“Yes father,” Ludvig nodded. “The original brief for the emissaries required a robust agent capable of autonomous movement and remote control. It seems that your political agents, young men,” Ludvig glanced at Bremen, “were subject to the dangers of hostile tribes in…”

“I think we can agree not to get into specifics,” Bremen waved his hand. He turned to address the President. “My office has worked closely with the Wallendorfs.”

“Continue,” the President tucked his hands inside his coat pockets.

“We tested our first prototypes in,” Ludvig paused at a glance from Bremen, “a suitable country. We have now refined the design and are confident that the new emissary, Mark III, is ready for active service.”

“Considering the expense, I trust that the Mark III is infinitely superior to its predecessors,” Richter raised his eyebrows. “Am I correct?”

“Herr Richter,” Wallendorf tapped his cane. “It will be my pleasure to reassure you that the ministry’s money is being exceedingly well spent.” He glanced at Schleiermacher.

“We are ready now, gentlemen,” Schleiermacher pulled back the canvas and stood to one side. Wallendorf led the men inside the scaffold tent, the silver cap of his cane muffled by the thick leather carpet covering the ground inside the workspace.

“My God,” Richter held his hand over his mouth as he entered the tent. “It is twice my size.”

Workers dressed in green overalls, wearing cotton hoods and protective glass goggles, removed the gangplanks from either side of the emissary allowing the men to walk freely around it. Ludvig stood next to Bremen and the President directly in front of the emissary.

“The cloven feet,” he pointed at the emissary’s massive appendages, four times the size of his own, “are inspired by mountain goats.” He pointed at the legs. “The knees are jointed with thick rubber gaskets, with a thick coating of goose grease to insulate them from the cold. In fact,” he lifted his hand high to point at all the emissary’s joints, “everything is lubricated and greased for the most extreme of environments. Once the emissary is set in motion, nothing can stop it,” Ludvig beamed. “You may remember the hole in the factory wall from the tour?”

This did that?” the President whistled.

“What about combustion?” Bremen walked to the rear of the emissary. Wrapping his fist around one of the machine’s fingers as he passed, he could not close the gap between his fingers and thumb.

“The new tank,” Ludvig joined Bremen, “has a double furnace.” He pointed at the emissary’s rotund belly. “The globus tank is a much more efficient steam engine. It doubles as a fuel tank. When the tank is full, the emissary has a range of 400 kilometres. Depending upon the terrain, of course.”

“And the controlling mechanism?” Bremen slapped his hand upon the side of the machine. “What range does that have?”

“Again, depending upon the terrain…”

“Imagine it is line of sight.”

“Unlimited,” Ludvig shrugged. “We have yet to fully test it.”

“And when out of sight?” the President stared up at the emissary’s disproportionately small head.

“Once the controller has indicated the course, the emissary continues along it. The controller can adjust the course and turn the emissary around when in range. The antenna on the back boosts the receptivity.”

Wallendorf walked up to the emissary’s massive thighs. He stabbed the tip of his cane at a point level with his eyes. “No musket ball or bullet can penetrate these triple-layered brass plates,” he turned to smile at the Minister of Finance. “Nothing will stop my boys,” he chuckled. “Nothing at all.”

“The Russians,” Bremen turned to address the President, “have yet to gain an audience with either the Shah or even the Amir of any province east of the Oxus. That, gentlemen,” Bremen turned to look at Richter, “is why we have invested so heavily in Wallendorf’s boys, as he calls them.” Bremen smiled. “With the British still on the back foot after Trafalgar, after all these years, we have a chance to gain a foothold in Central Asia. We can take on the bear and threaten the lion for control of India.”

“I admire your enthusiasm, Herr Bremen,” the President turned at the sound of the canvas tarpaulins being heaved to one side. A blaze of red hair trailing strands glowing at the ends smoked into the space between the men and the emissary.

“Why, father?” a young woman pushed past the President and stabbed her fist in the air in front of Wallendorf. The woman’s long thumb poked out of fingerless leather gloves and pointed at the Direktor’s nose. “Why?”

“Romney,” Ludvig reached for his sister’s arm.

“You,” Romney shrugged free of his grip and whirled upon her brother. “Why should all your projects get the green light and oodles of father’s money?”

“It’s not father’s money,” Ludvig nodded at the President and the ministers chuckling beside him. “We are under contract.”

“Contracts? For these?” Romney pointed at the emissary towering above her. “But they are just dumb robots.”

“Romney, dearest,” the muffled tap of Wallendorf’s cane upon the carpet caught Romney’s attention. Folding her hands across the greasy leather tunic buckled over her dirty blouse, Romney took a deep breath. “Hold that thought, my sweet,” Wallendorf dipped his head and stared at his daughter from beneath the rim of his bowler hat. “All Wallendorf projects are important to me. What is this about?”

“Somebody,” Romney jerked her head in the direction of her brother, “diverted funds from my racing rig and cancelled my order for new parts.”

“Father,” Ludvig took a step forward. He gestured at the emissary behind Wallendorf.

“Yes,” Wallendorf beckoned Schleiermacher with a wave of his hand. “I will write you a personal cheque.”

“But father,” Ludvig shook his head.

“I said it was a personal cheque, Ludvig. Schleiermacher will take care of it.”

“A steam rig?” Bremen placed his hand upon the President’s arm as he stepped past him. “To what purpose?”

Romney stared at the minister, her eyes following his fingers as he extinguished a tiny ember glowing in the frazzled ends of her hair. “For racing,” she smudged her cheeks and forehead with the back of her hand. “I am a racing driver – a steamracer.”

“Racing?” Bremen guided Romney to the entrance of the scaffold tent. Schleiermacher opened the flap of canvas as Romney walked past him. Bremen stood inside the entrance and took Romney’s hand. “I have an interest in racing.” He pulled a card from his pocket. “Please, contact my office and let me know when I might call upon you.”

“Well,” Romney took the card Bremen placed in her hand. She opened her mouth to say something more.

“Until next time, Miss Wallendorf,” Bremen waved and let the canvas flap fall as Schleiermacher exited the emissary tent.

“Quite a spirited young thing,” the President smiled at Wallendorf. He tilted his head to look at the stubby exhaust pipes extending from the boiler built into the emissary’s torso. Lowering his head he looked at Wallendorf. “When will they be ready?”

Ludvig and his father shared a smile. Wallendorf chuckled.

“What is so funny?” the President looked from one man to the other. “Bremen?”

Bremen took a slow breath. “Herr President, the first emissary sailed several weeks ago. It should be halfway up the Indus by now. It might even be on its way up the Khyber Pass,” Bremen smoothed his palm on the emissary’s gauntlet. “Nothing can stop us this time.”

 

Chapter 1

 

The Khyber Pass

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Lieutenant Jamie Hanover had never been further from the sea. The rock and red dust of the entrance to the Khyber Pass were unlike any terrain the twenty-two year old naval officer had previously experienced. The dust hid in the pores of Jamie’s wool greatcoat, filling the pockets on the outside, and lining the secret pockets sewn inside the sleeves and the quilted insulating layer. His boots, the hobnail kind, clacked on the rock beneath his feet, echoing up the pass and toward the strange stick figure guarding a rise at the first bend on the way to Adina Pur. Jamie clacked another three hundred yards along the pass until the figure slowly took the form of a man on a stick.

Jamie stopped, opened his dusty greatcoat and pulled out the leather tube protecting the Severinson telescope Admiral Egmont had given him on his birthday. Upending the tube, Jamie slid the telescope out and slipped the tube back inside the pocket of his cloak. Winding the ripcord around the spindle on top of the telescope, Jamie knelt behind a large, flat boulder protruding from the eastern wall of the pass. He grasped the telescope in the palm of his left hand, pulled the ripcord and smiled at the satisfying hum emanating from the instrument. Four and a half minutes of enhanced ocular vision is what old Egmont had promised him. Jamie lifted the telescope to his eye to find out if the Admiral was right.

The stubby muted-brass instrument tingled within Jamie’s fingers. The buzz around his left eye tickled. Jamie pressed his eye closer, sealing the eyepiece. Sharpening the ocular image with a twist of the bottom ring furthest from his eye, he held his breath as the stick man turned his bloody gaze upon him. Jamie swallowed. Panning vertically, from the rocky base of the pass to the sky, he zoomed in on the thick spruce pole, roughly hewn and streaked in fresh blood. Panning upward, Jamie discovered the man had no legs, just bloody stumps twitching either side of the pole. Nor did the man have any arms. The blood from his limbs made it difficult for Jamie to see the man’s uniform, but he was British. What was left of him. The lightning bugle on his collar put him in the King’s Royal Electric Rifles. The telescope buzzed to a feint tremor and the picture of the man faded from view but not from Jamie’s memory.

Jamie rested his chin on the telescope and studied the approach to the rifleman. It looked safe enough, he mused. There was no sign of raiders or any trace of a recent caravan. He pulled out the leather tube and slipped the telescope back inside, pressing the ripcord into the pocket underneath the end cap. Jamie fastened the buckle and slid the tube back inside his greatcoat. Standing behind the boulder, he felt the rifleman’s eyes piercing his own dusty blonde beard. He wondered what the man might have to say, had he the strength to say it.

It took Jamie a further ten minutes to pick his way between the rocks from the boulder to the impaled rifleman. The intensity of the man’s stare did not waver. Jamie made up his mind and hoped he would live to regret his decision. It was time to talk to the man. Who has done this, _]Jamie wondered. [_And why here? Loose rocks slipped beneath the soles of his boots as Jamie rested on his heels before the man.

It started to snow.

The dismembered rifleman stared at Jamie as the lieutenant cleared a flat space in the rocks before him. Jamie removed the canvas rifle case from his shoulder and placed it on the rocks. Shrugging off his leather pack, Jamie pulled out the canteen from the side pocket, unscrewed the lid and offered it to the rifleman.

“Are you thirsty?” The man nodded. Jamie leaned forward to dribble a stream of water into the man’s mouth. He pulled back the canteen as the man swallowed.

“No,” the man shook his head. “Enough.” A shiver ran through the man’s torso.

“What happened to you?” Jamie leaned forward, tilting his head and turning his ear toward the man’s mouth.

The man licked his chapped lips. “Who,” he choked on the word.

Who?

“Them,” the man swallowed. “Pathaan.”

“Are they here?” Jamie put down the canteen and rested his hand upon the rifle case.

“No.”

“Will they come back? Soon?”

The man shook his head, coughing with pain as he did so. “Snowing.”

Snowing? They won’t come when it snows?”

“No,” the man blinked in the direction Jamie had come. “Supposed to warn you.”

“Yes,” Jamie gave the rifleman another mouthful of water. “What can I do for you?” The rifleman’s trousers flapped in the wind. Jamie reached out to still them.

“Don’t,” the man closed his eyes. The man’s pupils narrowed when he opened them again. “You a sailor?”

“I never said I was a sailor.”

“Not a soldier.”

Jamie hesitated. “I am with the navy.”

“Why?

“Why am I with the navy? Because of my grandfather, I suppose. He was at Trafalgar,” Jamie sighed.

“Why here?”

Jamie leaned back on his heels. “I am looking for someone.”

“Who?” the man coughed, the spasm shook a fresh dribble of blood from his severed limbs. The blood splashed onto the rocks.

“A man sent here some time ago. Another sailor. A Frenchman.”

“Where?” the rifleman coughed again, his eyes bulging until the fit passed.

“I don’t know exactly. Maybe Adina Pur. Perhaps Cabool.”

“Don’t go to Adina Pur.”

“I have to try.”

“Bad there.”

“The Admiral says this man can save the navy,” Jamie fiddled with a flat stone in his palm. “That he can shed some light on what happened at Trafalgar. Put the navy back in their rightful place. Restore their honour,” Jamie tossed the stone onto the ground, “and regain the Queen’s favour.”

“Queen and country,” the man nodded.

“I have to try. I have nothing to lose.”

“Nothing to lose but your life.”

“Is that why they left you here?”

“Yes,” the rifleman bowed his head.

“What happened to you?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Lifting his head, the rifleman stared at Jamie. “Help me?”

“Anything,” Jamie shuffled closer to the man.

“Find my Aisha.”

“Aisha?”

“Yes,” tears welled in the rifleman’s eyes. “She’s a local.”

“Where should I find her?”

“Caravans leaving Peshawar,” the rifleman blinked down the pass behind Jamie. “That way.”

“I will find her once I have been to Adina Pur. I promise.”

The man shook his head. Blood flecked his lips as he coughed. “Find my Aisha.”

Jamie stood up. “I have to go on.” He picked up his rifle case and pulled out the Baker flintlock rifle. “I can help you.”

“Yes,” the man stared at the rifle. He nodded.

Jamie tossed the case onto the rocks. Holding the rifle in the horizontal position, he pushed the pan open with his right thumb.

“Powder?”

“On my belt.” Jamie swept the tails of his greatcoat aside and fumbled with the powder horn on his belt.

“Wait,” the rifleman looked down, his eyes urgent. “Breast pocket,” he coughed. “For Aisha.”

Placing the horn on the ground, Jamie held his rifle by the barrel as he pushed two fingers inside the rifleman’s pocket. Pinching something soft between his knuckles, Jamie drew a broad strip of lace into the open where it flapped around his fingers in the wind.

“Give it to Aisha.”

“I will,” Jamie stuffed the lace inside the cuff of his fingerless gloves. He picked up the powder horn. Twisting the cap off between his teeth he shook a measure of powder into the pan.

“I’m ready.”

Jamie placed the butt of the rifle between his heels and wrapped a musket ball from the pouch on his belt in a square patch of leather. Forcing the ramrod smoothly into the barrel, he tamped the lead ball and patch into the bottom. Jamie pulled the ramrod out of the barrel and slid it into the pipe on the underside of the rifle. The man stared at him.

Turning around, Jamie walked away from the rifleman. [_It’s the least I can do for him, _]Jamie reasoned. [_I’ll make it quick. _]Tugging his fingerless gloves at the wrists, Jamie shifted his grip on the rifle. Resting his little finger on the hammer spring, he levelled it. Moving his right thumb onto the cock, his four fingers under the guard, Jamie looked at the rifleman.

“Find my Aisha.”

“I will,” Jamie rested his cheek on the rifle, closed his left eye and shot the rifleman in his temple. The man’s head rocked back and then slumped forward as the report of the Baker rifle echoed down the pass. The snow tickled Jamie’s cheek as he lowered the rifle. He sat down and leaned his back against the boulder.

 

҉

Crouched on a mountain path running parallel to the pass and looking down upon the river plain, a dark figure wearing the rough maroon robes of a travelling mystic pinched a modified rosary bead between his finger and thumb. He stood, took two steps, moved two beads and stopped to crouch again, measuring his progress with the rosary. The tails of the man’s robes collected snowflakes and dust. The chill wind blowing from the top of the pass teased the man’s black beard and licked at the dark curls of hair poking free of his dusty turban. He turned at the sound of stones trembling down the mountainside. A markhor goat. Its beard longer and wiser than the mystic’s. The man winked at the goat and resumed his slow passage along the path. Four steps, four beads. He crouched. His attention, when not distracted by phantom voices on the mountain wind and the foraging of goats, was firmly fixed upon the passage of another traveller – a mechanical being – striding across the plains below the path. The thing was tireless, maintaining the same robotic pace and the same fixed path for more than six hundred and twenty two beads of the mystic’s rosary. The mystic shook his head and wondered. [This one is different, _]he thought. _The last two were not as advanced as this one. The mystic stood and walked a distance of thirty beads before he heard the single shot of a musket.

Echoing between the sides of the mountain, the report of the shot startled another markhor onto the narrow path. It bounded out of the rocks and into the mystic, tumbling the man onto the lee side of the mountain. He dropped his beads. They slid on the scree slope below the path. The mystic pulled himself back onto his feet. Searching for his beads he caught sight of the mechanical being walking the plains along the river below him. He had not stopped. It was as if the shot had never been fired. The mystic gave up on his beads and hurried along the path in the direction of the shot. It was not long before his path merged with the pass where he caught sight of a second man crouched before a strange figure on a stick.

 

҉

Snow flurried along the pass as Jamie sat, eyes closed, and contemplated the life of a political agent at large in Central Asia. Not what I imagined I would be doing, he mused.

Jamie stood. He brushed his palm over the rifleman’s face and closed the dead man’s eyes. Lifting the man beneath his armpits, Jamie tugged his body free of the bloody stake. He lay the rifleman’s body on the ground and began gathering stones to surround it. He took off his greatcoat, heaving several armfuls of rocks and large stones on top of the rifleman’s mutilated body before venturing further and further away in search of more rocks. The snow thickened as Jamie placed the last rock on top of the burial mound. He pushed the bloody stake through a hole in the centre of the mound, grimacing as it pressed upon the soft body beneath. Stepping away from the mound, Jamie pulled on his greatcoat.

Jamie turned at the sound of shifting rocks. He scrambled for his rifle and jammed the stock tight into his shoulder.

“You should not have done that, British,” the mystic walked into Jamie’s sights.

“Stand back. Back or I will fire,” Jamie thrust the barrel of the rifle forward.

“Your bandook,” the mystic pointed at the rifle, “is not loaded.”

“You don’t know that,” Jamie pulled back the hammer spring. “Are you going to risk it?”

“Life is full of risks,” the mystic loosened his robes as he sat down in front of Jamie. The lieutenant flicked his eyes to the pommel of a large blade sheathed at the mystic’s waist. “It is not me that is gone bapoo,” he twirled his finger in circles by his temple. “But you,” the mystic shrugged and readjusted his turban.

“Are you saying I am mad?” Jamie lowered his rifle.

“The Pathaan left this man here with no thought to him surviving, British,” the mystic pointed at the dead rifleman. “Now they know someone else goes here. And now they know who,” he pointed at the rocky grave. “Another British. Who else would take the time to bury a dead man?”

“He wasn’t dead when I found him.”

“No? He would have been soon. Look there,” the mystic pointed at birds circling the pass. “Afghan Vultures – very big, easily spotted.”

“They wouldn’t have killed him.”

“No, but neither would they have waited until he was dead before eating him.”

Jamie stared at the mystic. “Are you with them? The Pathaan? Your skin is brown.”

The mystic shook his head. “Are there not many brown people in your army, British?”

“I keep telling people,” Jamie scowled. “I am not in the army.”

“My mistake.”

“Where is your pack?”

“I have little need for a pack. I have nothing to carry that cannot fit in this satchel. The mystic tugged at a shoulder strap beneath his robes. “Is that your pack?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have food in it?”

“Some.”

“Then I suggest we eat of it on the way through the pass together.”

“What makes you think we are travelling together?” Jamie leaned the rifle against the boulder and walked to his pack.

“You are on your way to Adina Pur, are you not, British?”

“The Pass leads to Adina Pur, and beyond,” Jamie shrugged his pack onto his back and retrieved his rifle. Sliding it into the rifle bag, he slipped it over his shoulders. “I could be going anywhere.”

“I was ordered to keep an eye out for a British lieutenant of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. You look like a man that fits that description.”

“Ordered? Who [_are _]you?”

“My name is Hari Singh.”

“Yes?” Jamie shook his rifle. “And? Who exactly is Hari Singh?”

“I can tell you as we walk,” Hari twisted around to look up the pass. He turned to Jamie. “We must hurry if we are to catch him, British.”

“Catch who?”

“You have not seen him?” Hari stood. Dusting snow from his shoulders he walked toward Jamie and closed his fingers around the lieutenant’s arm. “I was warned that you were young. I was not told you were stupid.” Hari tugged at Jamie’s arm guiding him along the path past the last resting place of the rifleman. “You have your mission and I have mine.” Stopping at a vantage point overlooking the river watershed, Hari pointed at a figure striding along the path alongside the river. “Do you see him?”

“Yes,” Jamie brushed snow from his face. “Barely.”

“That man is not a man. That thing is a metal machine, an emissary on its way to Adina Pur. If we do not stop it, British, if we cannot foil its mission, the world will be at war within a year.”

“What war?”

“Truly, you are stupid,” Hari sighed.

“I am not in the habit of being called stupid,” Jamie pulled himself free of the mystic’s grasp.

“And neither are you in the habit of wandering the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan. If you were, you would know never to fire your weapon when travelling unless you are in fear of your life. And never to leave tracks that even a goat herder could follow.”

“I couldn’t leave him like that.”

“No, British. But you must pay the price now. We must hurry,” Hari pointed at the emissary. “That brimstone demon must be stopped.”

“Supposing I agree, and that I choose to trust you,” Jamie paused. “Just how on earth do we stop it?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Hari grinned. “Let us find out.”

 

Chapter 2

 

The Khyber Pass

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

The snow tumbled from the clouds, swirling at the feet of the two men as they strode to a vantage point on the narrow path running alongside the Khyber Pass. Jamie stopped and tugged the length of lace the rifleman had begged him to take from his pocket. Smoothing his sleeve up toward his elbow, he tied the lace around his left forearm.

“You mean to keep it, or give it to someone?” Hari sat on a boulder, the snow curling about his beard in sticky flakes.

“I don’t intend to keep it,” Jamie pulled his sleeve down and clapped his hands together. Cupping them, he blew on his fingers.

“Then what will you do with it, British?”

“That depends,” Jamie brushed snow from his beard. “You said I had just signed my own death warrant. It seems to me, it would be prudent to make just one decision at a time, not get ahead of myself.” He readjusted the rifle case around his neck and shoulder, the butt end hanging down by his right hip. Jamie stared at the mystic. “You seem determined to travel with me.”

“For your own protection, British,” Hari stretched. He checked the laces of his covered sandals and wrapped his robes tightly around his body.

“For my own protection?” Jamie shook his head. “I did not expect to meet anyone along the pass. Not anyone claiming to be connected to my part of the world, at least.”

“Truly, you know little of the area,” Hari clasped his hands in front of him.

“Who are you, Hari Singh? Who do you work for? Why should I trust you?”

“All very good questions, British,” Hari’s teeth flashed. Smoothing his palm over his beard, he stared at Jamie. “Would it surprise you to know we work for the same master?”

“Admiral Egmont?”

“Queen Victoria, although my Egmont goes by the name of Mr. Smith.” Hari waved his hand toward the pass and began picking his way around the larger boulders from the vantage point back onto the path. Jamie cinched the straps of his rucksack taut beneath his arms and followed the mystic. “Smith is the one that told me to look out for you.”

“You were looking out for me?”

“Those were not his exact words,” Hari grinned. “Your mother would not approve of his exact words.”

“It has been a long time since I last saw my mother,” Jamie shrugged his pack higher onto his shoulders. “She is unlikely to approve of many of the things I have done.”

“Well,” Hari smiled. “There is little we can do about that, eh? Come, British,” Hari pointed to the pass where it widened. “We can make good time now. Let us get down to the pass proper.”

Jamie fell in step beside the mystic, his hobnail boots clacking on the rocks.

“We will have to do something with your boots, British.”

“My name is Jamie. And what is wrong with my boots?”

“You sound like one of those metal caterpillars, like those the engineers have on the banks of the Indus. Abominations, and loud. The Pathaans will know you are coming a mile away if we don’t get rid of your boots.”

“Never mind about my boots. Who is Mr. Smith and how did he know I would be here?”

“There is little that Mr. Smith does not know. Your Admiral Egmont telegraphed the Office of Indian Cartography and begged a favour of my master.”

“A favour?” Jamie swore. “He asked Smith to look out for me, didn’t he?”

Hari laughed. “You are learning, British.”

“And what makes you qualified to look out for me?”

“Me?” Hari stopped. Taking a step backward, away from Jamie, he stretched his arms wide. “You doubt me, British? Truly?”

“I don’t know you, Hari.”

“And yet you walk beside me.”

“You mentioned Egmont,” Jamie shrugged. “Nobody else knows that I am here.”

“Then let us hope it stays that way.” Hari wagged a finger at Jamie. “No more shooting.”

“Fine,” Jamie gestured at the pass. “Shall we continue.”

Hari made a tutting sound in tune with Jamie’s hobnailed footfalls and fell in beside the lieutenant.

“Stop tutting, and tell me about that thing you are following.”

“That thing is the reason my master was willing to have me look out for you. Hitting two birds with one stone,” Hari laughed. “Although a stone would have no effect on the emissary.” Hari stopped. Taking hold of Jamie’s elbow, he turned the lieutenant toward him. “Did you notice how it walks? Big strides?”

“Yes,” Jamie brushed snow from his forehead. “Why does he walk like that? High-footing it up the valley.”

“Remember, British,” Hari hopped to one side, “it is not a he but a thing, testing the ground with each step. Like so.” Pantomiming the movements of the emissary, Hari demonstrated how lifting the foot high prevented it from tripping along the path.

“But not all the paths are so even.”

“Exactly. This is trial and error. The man controlling the emissary must find the path of least resistance and guide the emissary along it.”

“And who controls it?”

“Smith says it is the Russians. I am not so sure.”

“Who then?”

Hari brushed snow from his robes. He waited until he had Jamie’s full attention. “The Germans.”

“You are sure of this?”

“Oh, yes, British,” Hari tugged at Jamie’s sleeve and they resumed walking. “There have been many strange boats coming up the Indus. Like yours, but bigger. Great crates and tarpaulins stretched over strange shapes on the decks,” Hari shrugged. “Who knows what they have beneath them?”

“You think these boats were German?”

“They were not British, and the Russians come down the Amu Dariyā, or the Oxus as you know it.”

“But you have seen these things before?”

“I found two others – similar but not so advanced – the first over a year ago, roughly the same height and shape. It was wading through a deep snow drift below the village of Ali Masjid. The winter was a hard one, maybe you remember?”

“I was at sea with the Admiral,” Jamie increased his pace, boots clacking, to keep up with the excitable Hari Singh.

“Ah, a pity. It was a glorious winter – too cold for fighting and exploring. I had the mountains to myself.”

“Were you not cold?” Jamie shivered. “I am cold right now.”

“Cold? I nearly died, British. Look at my nose.” Hari turned his head to one side and pointed at the tip. “Can you see it? It is missing at least half at the end.”

Jamie looked but struggled to see anything.

“Bah,” Hari rearranged his turban. “The things I do for your country.”

“You were telling me about the emissary?”

“Yes, of course. The one we have just seen is a newer model. It is much more the image of a man. It even had me fooled for a while, until I got closer. The one wading through the snow was a little bigger, with a great hump upon its back. Most unnatural. The villagers said it was a djinn. They wouldn’t go near it.” Hari stopped Jamie with a hand upon his chest. “The hump, you see, was the boiler, burning all combustibles along the way. The machine, for that is what it was, had great scoops of arms, shovelling things into the boiler to be burned, driving it forwards.”

“But what about rocks and stones and the like? Surely it can’t be fuelled on just anything?”

“Quite true, British. You are not so stupid as I first took you to be,” Hari smiled and resumed walking. Jamie followed him, ignoring the mystic’s renewed tutting at the clacking of his boots. “The scoop arms eventually dumped so much rubble into the furnace and extinguished the boiler. The machine stopped.”

“How far did it get?”

“Oh, no further than the base of the mountains.”

“And the other one?”

“I found that one in the home of a tribal leader outside Lalpura. A small tribe, of little consequence. It was just kneeling there, in the middle of the Shah’s tent. Quite peculiar, really.”

“And it did nothing?”

“Not quite nothing,” Hari chuckled. “Every three hours the thing would bellow out a greeting in a strange language – German, most likely. It frightened the goats into the hills and the Shah’s wives out of his tent and into those of their lovers’.”

“A message?”

“Yes, full of the promise of riches. A generous but misguided diplomacy.”

“But it didn’t work, I take it?”

“Quite so, British,” Hari clapped the lieutenant on the shoulder. “After three days, the Shah was on his last nerves and his very last wife. They tried moving it, but it was solid and too weighty for even the mightiest of the tribe’s warriors to move it. In the end they shot off its limbs and clubbed it to pieces with its own metal arms and legs.”

“It didn’t protect itself?”

“It was on a diplomatic mission, not a punitive one.”

“What about [_this _]one?”

“It has been directed toward Adina Pur, I think. The British control Cabool. I don’t know for sure, but I think the Germans mean to be successful this time, British.”

Jamie stopped. Shielding his eyes from the thickening snow flurries, he adjusted the rifle case hanging across his chest. “You mentioned a controller. Could that have something to do with the thing on its back?”

“The wire?”

“Yes, the wire. It looked like some kind of antenna.”

“You saw that?” Hari whistled. “Yes, I think the controller sends it directional signals.”

“They would have to be close,” Jamie turned to look up at the sides of the pass.

“That would explain how it has got so far. Further than the others.”

“And that means your Germans, the flesh and blood kind, are in Afghanistan.”

 

҉

A mile outside the village of Daka, Lev Bryullov paid for his outfit with a fistful of rubles to the local Pashtoo warlord, Farshad Daarmak. Bryullov fastened the leather satchel hanging together with the bandolier beneath his woollen Burberry coat. Closing his hand over Farshad’s fist, Bryullov trapped the rubles within the warlord’s fingers.

“For the horses. I need water and food.”

“Sure, sure.” Farshad placed two fingers between his lips and whistled. “Najma,” the warlord called out as a young woman wearing a wool shirt beneath a goatskin tunic over thick quilted pantaloons emerged from the round skin tent. “Get them water,” Farshad pointed at the horses.

“And food,” Bryullov squeezed Farshad’s fingers.

“Yes, yes. Food. She will bring it with the water.”

“I will need a jezail also. A lightning jezail if you have one?”

Farshad licked his lips. “Very expensive.” Tugging his fist free of Bryullov’s grasp, he slipped the rubles inside his sheepskin coat. “It will cost you one horse.”

“I need all three horses to get to Adina Pur,” Bryullov shook his head. “I will give you this,” Bryullov reached into his pocket and pulled out a large ruby ring. The red stone glittered in the warlord’s eyes. “If,” Bryullov closed his fist around the ring as the warlord reached for it, “you send a guide with me.”

“Of course,” Farshad whistled again. “My son, Khan will come with you all the way to Adina Pur.” Farshad beckoned a young man from where he sat around the fire. Khan stood up. Fishing a morsel of meat from the leather pouch hanging from his belt, he tossed it to the hawk perched on the branch of a dead tree by the fire. Khan walked over to his father. The curved scabbard around his waist pressed into his sheepskin jacket, the boy’s trousers flapped in the wind as he walked.

“Not him,” Bryullov waved Khan away. “He is just a boy. She can come with me.” Najma looked up at a shout from her father.

“Unacceptable. Have you no honour?” Farshad pushed Bryullov away. “A man does not give his daughter to an infidel.”

“The Tsar will not be pleased. Do you not remember Gushtia?”

“Gushtia?” Farshad spat. “Dogs and bones are all that remain of Gushtia.”

“It would be a pity,” Bryullov opened his fist and twirled the ring within his fingers, “if the Tsar was forced to take a closer look at Daka. Do you not think, Farshad?”

The warlord gripped his beard and stared at Bryullov. “The Russians think they own Asia. That they can do with it what they will.”

“Can they not?” Bryullov placed the ruby in the pocket on the lapel of Farshad’s jacket. He patted it smooth. “Najma and I will leave as soon as the horses have been watered and fed. Bryullov smiled at the warlord’s daughter as she emptied one bucket into another.

“You are a wicked man, Bryullov. If anything happens to my daughter, if you touch her, I will hear of it.”

“I don’t doubt it, Farshad.”

The warlord strode across the grass to his daughter. Taking her by the arm, he whispered into her ear. Najma glanced at Bryullov, pulled free of her father and attended to the horses. Strapping a bundle of feed beneath the belly and between the legs of each of the horses, Najma fed them a handful of hay. Harvested as late as possible, before the first snowfall, it was a precious commodity. Najma rubbed the horses above the nose as they chewed.

Bryullov watched her. Tightening the straps of his saddle bags, he stared as Najma slid her father’s lightning jezail beneath the straps of her saddle and said farewell to her mother and younger sister. Kahn glared at Bryullov, his father’s hand gripping his shoulder. Bryullov grinned as he mounted, the supple leather of his riding boots sliding easily into the stirrups.

“No time for that,” Bryullov shouted. “I want to camp at the head of the pass by nightfall.”

Najma hugged her sister one last time, plucking the little girl’s small fingers from her clothes. Leaping onto the horse she twisted in the saddle to glare at Bryullov.

“After you, princess,” Bryullov touched his fingers to his forehead as he passed Farshad. The warlord’s son gripped the hilt of the dagger at his waist. “Careful now, Daarmak,” Bryullov nodded at Khan. “You’ll want to rein that one in a bit.” Bryullov laughed as he urged his horse to catch up with Najma’s. Farshad removed his hand from his son’s shoulder.

“Father?” Khan turned to look up at the warlord.

“You will take your hawk and follow your sister. Use the hawk to send me messages of your progress. If the Russian lays but one finger on her, you will kill him,” Farshad placed his palm flat upon his son’s chest. “Do you understand, Khan?”

“Yes, father.” Khan took a step back, held out his arm and whistled. The hawk flapped its wings and lifted from its perch. Gliding across the scrub, it settled on Khan’s wrist, its talons pressing between the tiny white scars on the young hawker’s skin. “Shahin,” Khan fed the bird another morsel of goat meat. “We must hunt.” The hawk’s keen eyes reflected the rising moon as Khan carried her into the tent to collect his pack.

 

҉

Jamie followed the mystic up a narrow trail leading up the easterly side of the pass. From the vantage of their resting place, he watched the emissary over the iron sights of his rifle. Lowering it, he brushed snow from the firing pin. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he dug deep into the pockets of his greatcoat. Pulling out strips of dried goat, he offered a strip to Hari.

“Thank you, British.” Hari tugged at the strip of goat with his teeth. “Look,” he pointed at the emissary on the banks of the Cabool river below them, “it has stopped.”

“Like it is unsure of the way.” Jamie looked around the mountains; the grey snow clouds obscured the summits. “Perhaps the signal cannot breach the mountains?”

“Perhaps the controller is out of range? I do not know.”

“If it is stopped,” Jamie unslung his rifle and slid it into the case, “then maybe we can disable it.” Jamie picked up his pack, shrugging it onto his back as he searched for the path leading away from the pass and down to the river. “It’s too steep.” His hobnail boots silenced by the inch of fresh snow, Jamie scuffed the snow from a likely path.

“Wait, British,” Hari swallowed the last of the goat meat. Pulling his travelling robes closer around his body, he hurried after Jamie.

“If we can disable it, at least slow it down, we can get to Adina Pur before it.” Jamie turned to Hari. “That is your mission. Correct?”

“That is correct, British.”

“And if I help you, you can help me in return.”

“Of course,” Hari gripped the strap of his satchel. Holding the strap tight, he repositioned the satchel with his other hand. “And you will tell me what it is we are to do. Won’t you, British? Mr. Smith was a little obscure on that point.”

“When the time comes.” Jamie stepped up onto a flat boulder. The sound of gears whining drifted on the wind, whispering along the walls of the mountain pass. Crouching, Jamie pressed his fingers on the rock. He kneeled, leaning out over a ledge, searching for the emissary.

“Careful, British,” Hari placed his hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “It is steep.”

“We have it, Hari. We have to get down. Let us attack.” Jamie slipped off his pack and tossed it onto the rocks beneath the ledge.

“What are you going to do?”

“What does it look like? The pass runs in that direction,” Jamie pointed to the northwest. “There is a path down there, a shortcut to the river,” Jamie stood. He slung the rifle case over his upper body and cinched the strap tight. “It can’t be more than ten feet down to the path. What do you think?”

“I am not so sure, British.”

“Suit yourself, Hari.” Jamie sat down on the ground and swung his legs over the edge. Rolling onto his stomach, Jamie looked up at Hari, winked, and then slipped off the ledge, his boots clattering against the rock as he disappeared from the mystic’s sight.

“British?” Hari rushed to the edge. Splaying his hands he sank to his knees and squinted into the shadows below. “Are you alive?”

“I am all right, Hari. Over here, to your left.”

“I see you, British.” Hari waved. “Shall I come down?”

“It’s up to you,” Jamie glanced around the rocks. “The thing isn’t going anywhere. Not just yet. You have time to find another way down. I can meet you at the bottom, by the river.”

Hari stood up. “I will be there in a moment, British.” Pausing, one foot poised to step backward, Hari stared into the distance.

“Hari?” Jamie stepped back from the rock wall and shielded his eyes from the snow. “You’re not moving, Hari?”

“Raiders, British. Riding hard.” Pointing in the direction of the emissary, Hari crouched on the rock. “They are coming from the east. It is strange. Why do they not see the emissary?”

“But they have seen us, eh?”

“Truly.”

“How many?” Jamie unslung the rifle case from his shoulder.

“Perhaps ten. They must have heard your shot, or have come to check on the rifleman.”

“You have to get down here, Hari.” Picking his way through the boulders, Jamie searched for a defensible position. Flat boulders and a well-worn path between steep rock walls gave Jamie a bad feeling about the outcome of a fight.

“It is better you come back up here, British. Better cover and high ground.”

“I can’t climb back up, I’ll have to run around and come back to you along the pass.”

“Then be quick. They are coming.”

Jamie pulled his rifle out of its case. He ran the short distance back to the rock wall. Holding the rifle by the end of the barrel, he slid it up to the mystic. “Take hold of it. You can cover me.”

Hari leaned over the rock wall and reached for the rifle, his fingers a hand’s length from the wooden stock. “It’s too far.” A musket ball whacked into the wall six feet to the left of Hari. “Jump, British. Jump up and give me the rifle.”

Jamie stepped onto a boulder to his right and jumped. The stock of the Baker rifle scraped the wall just an inch below the mystic’s fingers.

“Again. I will get it this time.” Hari leaned further over the ledge. A volley of incoming fire thwacked into the rocks, the lead balls embedding in the walls of the pass. Jamie jumped again, slipping the rifle from his grasp. Hari reached for it, grasped the stock and slipped, his body tumbling sideways. Hanging from the ledge by his right hand, Hari held the rifle in his left.

“Hari?” Jamie ducked as a musket ball split the air above his head.

“I am all right, British,” Hari shouted. “I am thinking of joining the circus.”

“What?” Jamie reached for his backpack and dragged it across the rocks to his side. Unfastening the canvas lid, he pulled out a pistol. “Hari, I think you should drop down to me.” Jamie primed the pistol and loaded it.

“No,” Hari called out. “I think I can get up again.”

Splintering the boulders and rocks on the ledge above Hari, a volley of fire blew grit, dust and sand into the mystic’s face. Hari’s grip failed, his fingers bloodied and torn by the splinters of rock showering the trail. He fell.

 

Chapter 3

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

The snow teased Lev Bryullov’s view of the two horses trudging alongside the Cabool River in front of him. Bryullov chewed on a plug of tobacco, a habit he had picked up from a Yankee spy he had caught in Saint Petersburg the previous spring. The interrogation, he recalled, had been interesting but revealed nothing of the American’s interest in Central Asia. Bryullov had kept the man’s supply of tobacco. He could not recall what had become of the man. Slavery most likely, Bryullov mused.

Bryullov urged his horse forward with a sharp jab of his heel. “Najma,” he grabbed the reins of the warlord daughter’s horse as he drew close. “This is not the way to the pass. Look there, girl,” he pointed to the west. “There is the gap and the way into the mountains.”

“Yes,” Najma slapped Bryullov’s hands from her reins. “If you want to die, it is a good place to enter the mountains.” She waited for Bryullov to respond. “The Pathaan hold the gap to the Khyber Pass. They tax all travellers entering the mountains, and then they kill them.”

“But we are very exposed here,” Bryullov glanced at the mountains on both sides.

“Yes,” Najma turned in her saddle. “But it is faster to travel along the river. There is no need to enter the pass.”

Bryullov released his grip on the reins of Najma’s horse. “You could have taken me there, and have been done with me. Why didn’t you?”

“I thought about it,” Najma stared at the Russian. “My father is friends with the Pathaan.”

“So why didn’t you?”

Najma grinned. “I don’t often get to travel alone, without my brother, father or my uncles. It would be boring if we had to stop so soon.”

“I see,” Bryullov chuckled. “And where do you think we are going?”

“Adina Pur,” Najma shrugged. “You told my father.”

“And you were listening.”

“Yes,” Najma urged her horse forward with a click of her tongue.

Bryullov waited until Najma and the two horses had pulled ahead. Twisting in the saddle and leaning over the horse’s back, Bryullov opened the flap of one of the saddle bags and slipped his hand inside. He patted the lid of a wooden box, the feel of the smooth wood creasing his mouth into a reassuring smile. Bryullov tightened the straps of the saddle bag, spit tobacco juice onto the dusting of snow covering the ground. Lifting his heels to encourage his horse into a trot, Bryullov paused and squinted into the distance along the rocky plain they had travelled from Farshad’s camp. A hawk hovered in the air above a patch of barren rock. The Russian rubbed a hand over his beard and stared at the hawk until it stilled its wings and glided down to the ground and out of Bryullov’s sight. He kicked his heels and pulled the horse’s head around with the reins and followed Najma and the packhorse trailing behind her.

 

҉

Jamie breathed the cool air of the Khyber Pass. Breathing through his mouth, he imagined the air travelling the length of the barrel of his Baker rifle and into his lungs. He closed his eyes. He breathed out. Fidgeting the stock of the rifle into his shoulder, Jamie opened his eyes, searching for targets.

“Are you ready, British?” Hari waved Jamie’s pistol in front of him. “First you snore, then you nuzzle that barrel like it was a pillow.” The mystic shook his head. “All that and you will kill just one man if we are lucky.”

“One man?”

“Yes, British. Just one man. Him maybe.” Hari pointed at the Pathaan raider drawing a long knife from the red sash around his waist. “His friends will kill us in the thirty seconds it takes you to reload,” Hari tutted. “The British are supposed to possess wonderful technology. But not you. You have that.”

“Fifteen,” Jamie tracked the raider with his rifle. “And we won’t die, Hari.”

“Because you can reload in half the time?” Hari rolled his eyes.

“No, Hari.” Increasing pressure on the trigger with his finger, Jamie breathed out. The musket ball punched out of the Baker rifle. The taste of blackpowder bit at Jamie’s tongue. The raider dropped onto his knees as the shirt covering his chest blossomed red. The man fell and was still, the snow staunched the flood of the man’s lifeblood in a ring of ice crystals crimsoning about the raider’s torso. “Technology can fail, Hari. Your turn,” Jamie ducked down behind the ring of boulders to the right of the path. Pulling a square patch of leather from his shirt pocket, Jamie pressed it inside the lip of the barrel. Fiddling a musket ball out of his belt pouch, he nestled the ball inside the leather and rammed the ball and patch down the length of the barrel with the rod. Jamie turned as Hari fired the flintlock pistol and the thick powder cloud mixed with the flurries of snow.

“Be quick, British,” Hari reached inside his cloak and drew a curved blade the length of his forearm.

“What the hell is that?” Jamie primed his rifle.

“Truly,” Hari leaped up onto the boulder and swung the heavy blade into the shoulder of the raider sent ahead to try their position. The man screamed as Hari kicked him in the chest to free his blade. “You have never served with the Indian Gurkhas.” Hari ducked down behind the boulder and began reloading the pistol. Jamie stood, tracked a raider moving into position along the pass. He fired. The raider ducked down into cover, levelling the long jezail he carried upon a smooth rock. Jamie grabbed Hari by the shoulder and pulled him to the ground.

“Jezail,” Jamie nodded. A second later, the crack of the raider’s rifle split the snow-filled air, the lead ball embedding itself in the rock wall above their heads. “Not too accurate.”

“The jezail?”

“No,” Jamie grinned as he rammed another musket ball into the rifle, “the raider. Ready?”

Hari pulled back the hammer on the pistol. “Ready, British,” he smiled. One hand on Jamie’s shoulder, Hari crouched behind the boulder, the pistol raised before him, the barrel tracking targets as the raiders leapfrogged in and out of cover. “Look there. They are trying to get to higher ground.”

“Yes,” Jamie raised the rifle, pointing at a raider with a goatskin tunic climbing the steep wall of the pass. He stared at the man, not much older than himself, sandals scrabbling on the rocks. The raider stopped climbing and turned his head to face Jamie. Their eyes met. Jamie shook his head. The raider grinned, slipped his hands free of the rock and slid back down the wall.

“Good, British. At least he gets to live another day,” Hari cursed under his breath.

“Shoot the ones making mischief,” Jamie shifted to his right and fired. “Maybe their friends will run away?” A raider wielding a scimitar in one hand, a long knife in the other, dropped to the ground just twenty feet from where Hari and Jamie intended to make their last stand. Jamie pulled another patch of leather and a ball of lead from his pocket and proceeded to reload his rifle.

Leaping over the boulder, Hari fired the pistol at one man, slashing the kukri at another. “British,” Hari called out as he collapsed to the floor under the weight of a heavyset raider. Jamie raised his rifle butt and charged, clubbing at the jumble of men writhing at his feet.

“Him,” Hari wheezed. “Not me, British.”

Jamie kicked at the raider until he released his grip on the mystic’s back. Hari rolled onto his side and raised the kukri. Leaning forward he dropped the kukri on the rocks as Jamie tumbled on top of him, the crack of a jezail buzzing up the pass like an angry lead hornet.

“Stay down.” Pushing himself onto his elbow, Jamie reached for the Baker rifle.

“Hah,” Hari’s attacker tugged the rifle by the barrel, pulling it out of Jamie’s reach and into his own hands. Standing on a boulder above Jamie and Hari, the raider spun the rifle within his grip, pointed the rifle downward and fired. The flintlock clicked on an empty pan.

“Get him, Hari,” Jamie rolled over onto his side.

Scrabbling after the kukri blade, Hari grasped it with his fingers and rushed at the raider. Surprised at the dry shot, the raider dropped Jamie’s rifle and turned to run. Hari stamped on the man’s trailing shirttails and slid the kukri through the man’s shirt and into his back. He ducked at the sound of another crack of a jezail as the raider slumped onto a patch of snow between the rocks dragging Hari’s kukri out of his hands. Hari watched as a raider picked his way toward him, his jezail held high and pointing at Hari’s head.

“Drop, Hari. Get down,” Jamie pushed the mystic aside and shot before the raider before could pull the trigger of his own long rifle. The man crumpled to his knees, gasping, the ornate stock of his jezail clattering to the ground.

“Are you all right, British?” Hari picked himself off the ground. He stared at the bloody tear in the cloth of Jamie’s trousers as it flicked back and forth in the wind.

“I am fine,” Jamie lifted his rifle and tossed it to the ground. “But I caught one in the thigh while you were wrestling with the big fellow.” Jamie pointed at the line of raiders stalking toward them along the pass. “We are all out of luck, Hari.” The image of French sailors cornering Jamie on the bloody quarterdeck of HMS Magnificent flit through Jamie’s mind. Sharpshooters in the rigging had saved him that day. Jamie cast a quick glance up and along both sides of the pass. The high ground was empty, but for the wind and snow. Jamie gripped Hari’s arm and lowered himself to the ground.

“Are we giving up?” Hari shot a look at the raiders. Jezails resting in the crooks of their arms, the five men slowed to a stop and waited.

“I am, Hari,” Jamie winced as he prodded his thigh.

“Because of that?” Hari pointed.

“Yes, that,” Jamie ran a grubby hand over his short beard. “With one rifle and a pistol,” he waved his arm toward the line of Pathaan, “we can’t take them all.”

“A poor excuse, British.” Hari stamped a foot on the dead raider lying on the ground. Grasping the handle of his kukri, he tugged it free. “Truly, I am disappointed.” He wiped the blade clean on the raider’s sleeve. “Perhaps it is true. The Queen’s navy really is beaten.” Hari spat. “I will have to handle these men myself.”

“Hari?” Jamie called as the mystic sheathed the kukri in the scabbard hidden in the folds of his cloak. Hari took a step forward.

“I am Hari Singh,” he unbuttoned his shirt and opened the front to reveal a tattoo of azure blue spiralling in a clockwise direction on his chest. “I pray for my one god,” he took another step, “and I pray for the god of all men.” The Pathaan raiders shifted on their feet. “But I do not pray,” Hari turned to shout at Jamie, “for the men who have lost their faith in God, nor the God’s who have no faith in men.”

“What are you doing, Hari?” Jamie pushed himself onto his feet. Taking slow, measured steps, Jamie followed behind Hari as he stalked toward the raiders.

“But not all men are faithful,” Hari shook his fist at the raiders. Jamie watched as the men started to tremble. Shaking their long jezails into firing positions, the raiders took aim.

“They’re aiming too high,” Jamie stopped at the sound of rocks slipping on the ledge above him. The scratch and grate of metal, the clicking of cogs and whirring of gears followed in the wake of the deadfalls of rocks tumbling off the ledge and into the holes between the boulders below.

“Men with no faith can still fear the faith of men with more faith than fear,” Hari chorused toward the raiders. Flinching at the first musket fired above his head, Hari collected himself and continued to berate the men retreating before him.

Leaning against a boulder Jamie stared as a tall chassis on spindly legs leaned out over the ledge. The pilot controlling the metal arachnid winked at Jamie from behind oversized dusty goggles as he levered the machine over the ledge to land just behind Jamie. Jamie held his breath as the arachnid crunched past him toward the raiders.

“Behold,” Hari waved his arms, ushering the arachnid along with graceful windmills. “Men of faith can conjure fear.” The emissary stomped toward the raiders. Hari ducked as a raider turned and fired a ball of lead at the arachnid’s armoured cockpit. The bullet ricocheted off the armoured plates and split the air just above the mystic’s head. The remaining raiders scattered to the walls and fled down the path to their horses. “See, British,” Hari laughed as he regained his balance. “A little faith is all one needs.”

“You’d seen him, hadn’t you?” Jamie limped over the rocks to lean against the rock wall beside Hari.

“Who?”

“Him,” Jamie pointed at the back of the arachnid as it pursued the raiders.

“And what if I did, British?”

“Well, that would explain why…”

“You gave up and I didn’t?” Hari raised his eyebrows.

The arachnid walker paused, turned, and lowered its weapons. The three Tesla tubes hanging on jointed limbs either side of the cockpit ticked as they cooled and powered down.

“Ah, I think it is time we introduced ourselves,” Hari’s teeth flashed in the growing gloom.

The arachnid pilot steered the eight spindly legs of his machine back up the path. Stopping in front of Jamie and Hari, the pilot bent the walker’s legs at the joints and lowered the cockpit to the ground. He opened the armoured roll cage of the cockpit and stepped out onto the path.

“Courtney,” Hari walked forward and gripped the pilot’s hand. “Wonderful timing. Truly.”

“Glad to be of service,” Courtney shook Hari’s hand and nodded at Jamie. “Who’s the whelp?”

“This,” Hari led Courtney to where Jamie was sitting, “is Lieutenant Jamie Hanover of the Royal Navy.”

“Royal Navy?” Courtney shook Jamie’s hand. “You’re a long way from the ocean, sailor.”

“I am,” Jamie released the pilot’s hand. “Who are you?”

“Corporal Courtney Mint of the Queen’s Arachnid Scouts,” he pointed to the walker behind him. “That there is a scout.”

“And what are you doing out here?” Jamie repositioned his leg.

“Scouting,” Courtney grinned. “Lucky I was, eh?”

“Truly,” Hari clapped his hand on the corporal’s shoulder. “I do believe the lieutenant was about to discuss terms.”

“Terms? With those buggers?” Courtney laughed. “They would have you on a stick.”

“Really?” Jamie held his breath as he stood. “On a stick? Tell me, corporal, where were you scouting?”

“All over the pass and back,” Courtney straightened. “We’re patrolling all the way from Peshawar to Cabool. That’s our area of operations. Nothing gets past us.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” Courtney leaned forward and stabbed his finger into Jamie’s chest. “Unlike you navy swabs, the army doesn’t lose battles.”

“Gentlemen,” Hari bobbed between the two men.

“You might want to take your spider back down the pass, corporal. I think you might have missed something.”

“What are you blathering about, sailor?” Courtney took a step back as Hari squeezed between him and Jamie.

“Something you missed,” Jamie stared around Hari’s head. “One of your own. I buried him at the head of the pass.”

“What?”

“It is true, my friend. I found the lieutenant burying a most unfortunate soldier. We can show you where he is buried.”

“I can find him,” Courtney scowled and turned toward the arachnid walker.

“Before you go,” Hari took Courtney’s arm. “Perhaps you have seen the emissary?”

“No, no emissary,” Courtney glared at Jamie as he spoke, “but there are rumours of a strange rabble of men and metal coming up the river. You want to be careful, Hari. There’s a lot of activity in these hills just now. Most unnatural. Someone,” he nodded in Jamie’s direction, “could get hurt.”

“Thank you,” Hari shook Courtney’s hand. “We are grateful for your help.”

“You’ve helped us before, Hari. Just returning the favour.”

“Of course.”

Courtney walked away and climbed into the cockpit of the arachnid. He lowered the roll cage and levered the walker up to its full height. A hiss of steam filled the air as the corporal powered up the scout. Looking down at the men beneath him, Courtney called out. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with your emissary, but some robot thing walked into a Pakistani town and sat down in the middle of the market square.” The arachnid whined as Courtney powered up the Tesla tubes. “Seems it spouted a load of gibberish for a few hours and then exploded,” Courtney nodded. “The blast took out the whole market. Blood and bodies everywhere.”

“When was this,” Hari tugged at his beard.

“A week ago,” Courtney turned the arachnid and stretched the walker’s limbs. “Look after yourself, Hari.” Courtney waved as he manoeuvred the walker down the path and out of sight.

 

҉

Najma pulled the last saddlebag from the back of the packhorse before tethering it together with the others. Leaning the bag against the other packs, she opened the flap and pulled out a small bag of rice. The wind tugged at the long grasses of the plains before the town of Lalpura. Najma watched as the stems bent down to the ground only to bounce back as the wind gusted out of reach. The stars pricked at the black blanket above the mountains flanking the valley. Najma carried the sack of rice to the fire.

Lev Bryullov smoked a long pipe as the fire crackled. The soft glow from the pipe bowl lit the hairs upon the Russian’s cheeks, smoothing away the hard lines and travel creases. He closed the wooden box at his feet as Najma sat on her heels on the opposite side of the campfire. He locked the box with a key on the end of a chain. Bryullov slipped the chain over his neck and fished a small leather pouch from one of the many inside pockets hidden within his stolen British Burberry coat.

“Won’t you join me, Najma?” Bryullov gestured at the spare blanket with the stem of his pipe. “I won’t bite,” he smiled. “Not yet.”

Najma lifted her head and nodded. “What is that you have in your hand?” Bryullov looked at the pouch and then tossed it through the flames of the campfire. Najma caught it with a quick flick of her wrist. Opening the pouch she withdrew a smooth sphere of metal. Turning it in the firelight, she gave Bryullov a quizzical look.

“Open it,” Bryullov sucked at his pipe.

“It is a compass. No?” Najma opened the hinged lid.

“Not a compass,” Bryullov patted the blanket. “Come, bring it here. Sit with me.”

Najma picked up the bag of rice and walked around the fire. Lowering herself onto the thick horsehair blanket, Najma emptied the bag of rice into the pot of water. “It is not a compass?”

Bryullov held out his hand. “It is a pocket watch,” he held it by the lid as Najma passed it to him. “Do you know what it is for?”

“Like a compass?”

Bryullov laughed. “Not quite,” he handed the watch to Najma. “It tells the time.”

“Time?” Najma turned the watch in the light and studied the hands. She held it to her ear. Bryullov smiled as her eyes lit up.

“Time is everything,” Bryullov placed his pipe on the ground. “And nothing,” he shrugged.

“Everything and nothing,” Najma held the watch in her palm. “You are not making any sense.”

“Time is something few Russians have enough of, and something you and your people can never run out of.” Bryullov waved his hand at the black outline of the mountains beyond the campfire. “Unless we take it from you.” Picking up a stick, Bryullov dug at the coals glowing at the edges of the fire.

“You will take something from me?” Najma closed the lid of the pocket watch and placed it on the corner of the blanket.

“Keep it, princess,” Bryullov pointed at the watch. Sucking at his pipe, he studied Najma’s face in the firelight. The glow from the flames lit her soft cheeks and played across large pupils in her youthful brown eyes. “People from the sea will take everything from you, Najma. From you and your people.” Bryullov watched as Najma curled away from him. Drawing her knees to her chest she watched him, her eyes dancing with sparks from the fire beneath a frown on her forehead. She doesn’t understand, Bryullov thought. They never understand.

 

Chapter 4

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Sitting on his heels, Hari traced a finger in the snow around one of the emissary’s footprints. Hari stood and placed his own foot by the side of the track by the river and whistled. “Three or four times the size of my own foot, British. Truly, he is a very big bugger.” He scuffed the print with the toes of his boot and turned to Jamie. “We will have to do something before we can take up the hunt. I have not seen a caravan come through the pass for a few days. I do not want the emissary to meet one before we do.” Hari opened his cloak and reached inside the layers to his belt. “Now, about your leg.”

“You’re not coming near me with that meat cleaver,” Jamie raised his hands.

“It is your own fault, British. You should have let me do this last night,” Hari unfastened a pouch and pulled out a small scissors, needle and thread. He set them on the ground by the side of Jamie’s leg. “It is probably best if you tell me something while I work.”

“What are you going to do?” Jamie watched as Hari cut away a large square of his trousers to expose the wound. Hari reached for Jamie’s powder horn next.

“Tell me about Trafalgar.” Hari poured a measure of powder into the wound.

“What are you going to…” Jamie held his breath as Hari struck a match and lit the powder. “Damn you, Hari,” Jamie grabbed his thigh with both hands.

“No, British, it is clean now.”

“Clean?” tears streamed out of Jamie’s eyes. “You set fire to my leg.”

“And now I will sew it shut,” Hari licked the end of the thread and pushed it through the eye of the needle.

“What about the bullet?”

“Oh, there is no bullet, British.” Hari pushed his finger through a hole in the back of Jamie’s trousers. “It came out here.”

“Are you going to sew that too?”

“Uh hmm,” Hari pushed Jamie’s fingers away from the wound. “After I clean it.”

“Hari,” Jamie gasped as the mystic pushed the needle through the skin around the blackened hole in his thigh.

“Trafalgar, British.” Hari pressed his finger hard upon Jamie’s skin and tugged the thread through the hole. Jamie turned away as Hari closed the wound, his fingers pressing and pulling as the midshipman grimaced.

“It was fifty years ago,” Jamie gritted his teeth. “Admiral Egmont commanded Magnificent.” My first ship, Jamie pictured the frigate tied up at the docks in Portsmouth, splintered with tattered sails and charred decks after his first engagement, many years after Trafalgar, off the coast of Denmark. “Egmont was under the command of Nelson during the battle of Trafalgar. Everything was going as Nelson had planned, until that frog bastard Villeneuve unleashed his secret weapon.”

“A secret weapon?” Hari pulled Jamie’s skin closed and tied off the thread; he clipped the end with the scissors.

“Yes,” Jamie took a sharp intake of breath, ran his fingers over the wound. “Looks good,” he nodded at Hari.

“It is not the first time I have done this, British. Tell me about Villeneuve’s weapon before we close the exit wound.”

“It came from within the fleet. There was more than one.”

“More than one what?”

“Egmont says it was a squall, the strongest he had ever seen.”

“A squall? What is this, British?”

“Like a hurricane, Hari. A katabatic wind blowing suddenly down the length of a mountain valley.”

“Ah, yes,” Hari nodded with a grave look in his eyes. “Djinn.”

“Is that your word for it?” Jamie opened and closed the fingers of one hand. “Squalls should be natural, but this one, these squalls, the admiral says it was like they had hands, fingers gripping our sails and holding onto them tight.” He closed his fingers around Hari’s wrist. “We were winning, we had the French on the run and the Spanish were firing on their own ships inside the gunpowder clouds. That’s when the French conjured up their demon squalls.”

“Not squalls, British. Djinn.”

Jamie shook his head. “Egmont told me the squalls took form in the powder clouds, they dwarfed Magnificent.” Jamie remembered Egmont’s description of them as they swirled up inside the British fleet, closing their vaporous fists in the sheets and shrouds of HMS Sirius, [Exeter _]and Nelson’s command _Victory. Sailors jumped, Egmont had told him, from the rigging as the masts were torn from their hulls. Sharpshooters on the French and Spanish ships picked off survivors as they clung to the flotsam and jetsam, the remains of the British ships. Jamie sighed. “Admiral Egmont gave the signal to retreat to Gibraltar shortly after the squalls ripped into the fleet.”

“And Nelson lost the battle?”

“Yes, and Gibraltar fell shortly after.” Jamie looked up at the grey snow clouds pressing down upon the dawn landscape. “It was a dark day for the Empire and the day the Royal Navy lost the seas.”

Jamie fell silent as Hari tidied up and bandaged his leg. The mystic gave Jamie a knowing look. “Djinn,” Hari patted the midshipman on the leg. “The worst kind.”

Jamie looked at his leg. He rubbed his fingers over the stitches. “How old are you, Hari?”

“How old am I?”

“Yes,” Jamie gestured. “When were you born?”

“Hari thought for a moment. “I was born on the banks of the Indus.”

“What year?”

“What year?”

“Yes,” Jamie shook his head. “You know. When?

“In the wintertime,” Hari shrugged. “It was cold.”

“That’s it?” Jamie studied the mystic’s face. Beneath the wispy beard, Hari had smooth brown skin with what could be dimples in his cheeks. Jamie guessed that Hari was younger than he was. “You are an enigma, Hari Singh.”

“An enigma?” Hari laughed. “I knew an enigma once.”

“You did?”

“Yes, she was a complete puzzle to me.”

“A [_she, _]Hari Singh?” Jamie fidgeted his leg into a more comfortable position. “I should like to know more about her, Hari. But…”

“Wait a moment, British,” Hari walked over to the body of a raider lying closest to where Jamie sat. Sitting on his heels beside the body, Hari tore open the raider’s shirt and examined the man’s chest.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for something,” Hari tugged the shirt over the man’s chest and stood. “He does not bear the mark,” Hari scratched at his forehead beneath his turban. He walked over to Jamie and squatted beside him. “These men are not Pathaan. The Pathaan believe in the old ways,” Hari patted his chest, “as do I.”

“Then where are they from?”

“I do not know,” Hari paused. “But they must have seen the emissary, and they ignored it.” Hari looked up at Jamie. “That means they were looking for you,” he took a breath, “or me.”

“It must be you they are looking for, Hari. I am a nobody.”

Hari chuckled.

“What is so funny?”

“After fighting with ten raiders trying to kill him on the Khyber Pass,” Hari gestured at the walls of rock either side of them, “only a British man would imagine he was innocent, a nobody.”

“I am innocent, Hari,” Jamie shrugged. “Unless it is a crime to be British.”

“Truly?” Hari shook his head and laughed. “I am travelling with a madman.”

“That makes two of us, Hari.” Jamie picked at the flap in his trousers.

 

҉

Flicking his riding stick on the neck of his horse, Bryullov dismounted as the beast bent its forelegs and kneeled on the snow covering the track leading to and beyond Lalpura. The Russian’s boots slid on the ice beneath the inch of snow. He reached out to break his fall, the riding stick snapped as he leaned on it.

“Damn,” Bryullov cast the broken stick into the scrub to the side of the track. Pulling at the rip across the knee of his trouser leg, he poked his fingers through the hole, smearing the blood between thumb and forefinger. He turned as Najma approached and dismounted.

“What did you do?” Najma peeked around Bryullov’s back.

“Nothing,” he wiped his hands on his Burberry coat. Bryullov bent his knee and grimaced. A stupid mistake, he thought. Just as the trail starts to get difficult. “It is slippery,” he turned to face Najma. “And I am an old Russian.”

“You are not so old,” Najma bent down and examined Bryullov’s knee. Rocking on her heels, Najma poked at the bloody cut.

“Stop that, girl,” Bryullov pushed Najma’s hand away. “What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” Najma stood up. She stepped onto a flat rock and stared at Bryullov, her eyes an arm’s length from his own. “I am just wondering if you are ready for the mountain?” she pointed up the narrow track winding its way steeply along the contours of the mountain. “You said you wanted to visit the lookout post above Adina Pur?”

“I was walking these mountains before you were born, girl.” Bryullov took a deep breath of cold air. Najma was perhaps as old as his youngest sister, fifteen or more years younger than his wife. Pretty. Dark-haired. He allowed himself a smile. Mischievous.

“You only call me girl when you are feeling old or stupid.” Najma stepped back off the rock and walked into the scrub by the side of the track. She came back carrying Bryullov’s broken riding stick in her hand. “It was stupid to throw this away,” she waved the stick in Bryullov’s face. “Anyone can find it. Then they can follow us.”

Bryullov shook his head. “I was stupid,” he reached for the stick.

“No,” Najma pulled it out of his reach. “I will put it in my pack.” She walked off to where the packhorse stood tethered to the pommel of her horse. Bryullov watched the young Afghan woman snap the stick in two and slide both pieces inside a saddlebag. She walked back to Bryullov and pointed at his knee. “Can you walk?”

“Yes.” Bryullov tugged at the sleeve of Najma’s quilted jacket.

“What are you doing?” Najma took a step toward the Russian as he tugged her closer.

“Just how old are you, Najma?”

“Old enough,” she stuck out her chin. “If I want to be.”

“And do you?” Bryullov ran his hand up her arm and rested it on her shoulder. “Do you want to be?”

Najma looked up at the Russian’s face, studied his grizzled beard, black flecked with white. “Are you old enough?”

“What? Me?” Bryullov laughed. He slipped his hand from her shoulder and stepped back. “Of course I am old enough.”

“How old?”

Bryullov nodded at the mountain peaks ringed with grey snow clouds. “I first walked these paths when I was twenty years old.”

“And now?”

“Twenty years later and I am still walking them.”

“You do not need a guide.”

“I really don’t.”

“Hah,” Najma laughed. “You are younger than my uncle and he has three wives, two of them are younger than me.”

“I am not looking for a wife, Najma.” Bryullov thought back to his house on the banks of the Neva in St Petersburg, his two sons, the daughter who died of consumption. “I have a wife.”

“And my uncle has three,” Najma paused. “What is it you are looking for?”

“A companion, perhaps.”

“A companion?” Najma stood on one foot and twirled in the snow. “Am I not better than a companion? Am I not magnificent?” She laughed. “I could be your second wife. Your Afghan wife.” Najma poked Bryullov in the chest.

“Magnificent? Where did you learn to speak English?” Bryullov closed her finger in his fist. “Where did you learn such a word as magnificent?”

“From the British, of course.” Najma tried to pull her finger free of Bryullov’s grip.

“What British? When, Najma?” Bryullov gripped her finger.

“Stop, you are hurting my finger.”

“When did you see the British?”

Najma slapped Bryullov on the chest and pulled her finger free. “Why should I tell a brute such as you?” She turned her back. “You are just like my uncle. The way he treats his wives. Maybe I would be better off with him?”

“Najma,” Bryullov place his hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off. “I am sorry, Najma. But it is important. You must tell me. Slowly, so I can understand you.”

“I might,” Najma crossed her arms over her chest.

“You will,” Bryullov spun Najma by the shoulders. Gripping her upper arms, he drew her close. “Was it this spring, after the snow? Before the rain? Was it in the summer?”

“No,” Najma shook.

“No? No what? The summer?”

“After the rain,” Najma shuddered in Bryullov’s grasp. “Before the snow.” He released her. She ran to her horse.

“After the rain,” Bryullov walked along the path, the pain in his knee forgotten. “After the rain, before the snow.” Reaching into his coat, Bryullov fumbled a notebook free of the deep pocket sewn on the inside of the sleeve of his right arm. Licking his thumb and brushing the pages of the notebook, Bryullov paused at the whir of a priming handle. He turned as Najma pushed the long barrel of the ornate lightning jezail in his face.

“You will not hurt me,” her voice quavered. The rifle did not.

“No,” Bryullov lowered the notebook, “I will not hurt you, Najma.”

“Never?” She took a step forward.

“Not ever,” Bryullov shook his head. “Never.” He watched Najma lower the barrel of her father’s jezail. “I imagine you know just how to use that,” he pointed at the rifle.

“Yes,” Najma gripped the charge lever between her fingers and thumb and lowered it to the contact pad. She rested the jezail in the crook of her arm, the tip of the long barrel inches from the snow. She nodded in the direction of the steep path leading into the mountains. “We should start before it gets too dark. There is a good place to stop for the night just around the bend. Up there,” she pointed. “But maybe you already know that?”

Bryullov slipped his notebook inside his cloak. “I am ready.” He walked toward his camel. Reaching Najma he stopped. “I am sorry, Najma.”

Najma gave Bryullov a cold look. She shrugged. “It does not matter.”

“It does to me, Najma,” Bryullov paused. He reached out and brushed snow from the stock of the jezail. “It is a fine weapon.”

“It has killed many foreigners,” Najma hefted the rifle in her arms. “See the notches in the stock?”

“I see them,” Bryullov ran his finger over the rough scratches in the dark wood. “Russian?”

“Some,” Najma turned the stock to reveal more scratches on the other side above the crank handle attached to the power cylinder. “Mostly British and Indian.”

Bryullov nodded. Patting the rifle stock he grasped Najma’s arm and squeezed it. “Good.” Bryullov released her arm and walked to his horse. The horse side-stepped with a snort, the hay whispered in the net hanging from the horse’s belly. Stroking his palm over its nose, Bryullov calmed it and climbed into the saddle. He made himself comfy in the saddle, wincing as he bent his knee to slip his foot into the stirrup. He pointed into the distance. “Can we ride to the camp you suggested?”

Najma rested the jezail against her shoulder. She looked at the ground and scuffed the snow clear of the ice beneath it. “Yes, if we ride to the side,” she pointed, “where the scrub is.”

“Then let’s ride,” Bryullov clicked his tongue and the horse plodded past Najma. They exchanged a look as he passed. She has seen the British, he thought. Before the first snow. I must be cautious.

A figure on the track some distance behind them raised his head from behind a swathe of tall grass. Kahn’s forearm trembled with the weight of the hawk. The boy smoothed his hand over the hawk’s chest and pressed a tiny piece of paper into the metal collar around the hawk’s leg. Turning away from his sister and the Russian, Khan released Shahin into the wind and watched as the hawk flew high above the track in the direction of his father’s camp.

 

҉

“Come, British,” the tails of his robes flapping in the wind, Hari beckoned to Jamie. Leaning into the wind, brushing snow from his face and beard, the mystic searched for the emissary’s footprints in the snow. Jamie hobbled to where Hari stood, one hand on the butt of the rifle case, the other gripping the strap of his rucsac.

“I can’t keep up, Hari. Not at the pace you are setting.” With or without a hole in my leg, he thought. Pain aside, Hari’s intensity inspired Jamie to shrug the pack higher on his shoulder and follow the mystic as he moved off without a glance at Jamie.

“Keep up, British,” Hari called over his shoulder. Jamie trudged behind him, favouring his right leg.

Following the mystic as he tracked the metal beast, Jamie’s mind wandered to when he first arrived in Afghanistan, travelling up the Indus on a tiny steamboat delivering mail and newspapers, shipping water faster than the current. Jamie spent the first week of his journey bailing water and drying his feet on the rails. That little boat, The Cotton Licker, with its rotten strakes and flaked gunwales, was waiting at the village of Naushara, a little less than a week’s march behind them. Jamie thought of the so-called captain of the rotten vessel, a colourful, fat British boatswain with thick, red mutton chops and a passion for local women. The man was likely dead or drunk. But so long as his boat was still tied to the dock, and not beneath it, Jamie figured he had a chance of leaving the country. Time will tell, he mused.

“No time for daydreaming, British,” Hari appeared out of the swirling snow enveloping them. “The emissary does not rest. There is a caravan ahead. They are well beyond the head of the pass and on the road to the abandoned village of Gushtia. I have seen the emissary. It is gaining on them. The controller must be in range now.”

“We can catch up with it then,” Jamie grimaced as Hari pulled him along the path, forcing him to move his left leg faster.

“No, they will not slow it down, it will not stop.” Hari hurried Jamie as the first cries of alarm drifted on the wind toward them. “It has no time for people, just direction and purpose. It must deliver its message, or worse. That is the only thing that matters to it, and its controller.” More cries on the wind made Hari stop. “If you cannot run, British, then give me your rifle.”

“What will you do?” Jamie shrugged the rifle case off his shoulders. “A bullet cannot stop it. You know that.”

“Truly, British,” Hari pulled the Baker rifle from its case and held out his hand for the horn of gunpowder and half a palm-full of musket balls, “but I must try.”

“I will come with you,” Jamie slipped the empty rifle case over his shoulder.

“You will be too late,” Hari stared at Jamie and then disappeared into the wind.

Shielding his eyes, Jamie squinted into the gathering snowstorm. He flinched as he caught sight of the emissary as it drove powerful metal legs along the track. Steam melted the flakes of snow falling on its metal torso. Camels bolted, the goods and packs secured to their backs cascading in the path of the emissary to be crushed beneath its iron feet. The pop of musket fire, the scream of a mother as her child tripped in the path of the emissary, such fell sights and sounds. Jamie dumped his pack on the ground, pulled out his flintlock pistol and forced himself into a trot toward the carnage ahead of him. He recognised the crack of the Baker rifle and scanned the path ahead for signs of Hari. He found him, running parallel to the emissary. Kneeling, firing, standing, reloading, Hari paced the emissary, plastering the metal monster with British lead.

He will run out of musket balls soon, Jamie realised. Pausing for a moment at a sudden splinter of pain in his leg, Jamie watched Hari discard the rifle and draw his Kukri, the steel of the bent blade glinting desperately in the grey light shadowing the plains.

 

Chapter 5

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Stumbling in the wake of the emissary, Jamie stopped and kneeled down in the snow by the side of a child. The saddle bags either side of the little boy’s body were flat, the contents smeared into the path, spices colouring the snow in vivid yellows, oranges and greens. Jamie lifted the child into his arms and tugged back the boy’s hood.

“It’s okay. It’s gone now,” Jamie tried a smile. The boy smiled back, his eyes darting to his mother’s face as she rushed in, between the crushed packs and scattered goods, to pluck the boy from Jamie’s arms. Cuddling the boy to her breast, the woman nodded at Jamie. She stared at him for a moment, her soft, brown eyes lingering on his face as if capturing his image, and then she retreated to the tent the caravaneers had erected to shelter from the snowstorm. Here they gathered their possessions and cared for the three men injured when caught in the emissary’s path.

“Are you okay, British?” Hari reached down to help Jamie to his feet.

“I am fine,” Jamie hobbled to a standing position. He looked at the mystic. “You are bleeding, Hari.” Jamie pointed at Hari’s scalp.

Hari brushed a hand through his wild hair. “Yes,” he wiped his hand on his robes.

“What happened?”

“The camels were tied to one another. Too many to move all at once. The emissary wouldn’t stop,” Hari shrugged and repositioned the Baker rifle slung around his shoulder. “I had to slow it down, give them a chance to cut the ropes, move the camels.” Hari laughed and pointed to his head. “It took me for a ride, British.”

“You are a brave man, Hari.”

“Brave?” Hari shook his head. “Not me, British. It is not brave to just hold on to something.”

“That depends on what you are holding on to, Hari.”

Hari looked at Jamie and smiled. “Come, British. They are putting up more tents. We will sleep here tonight. Have some hot food; follow the emissary in the morning.”

“It won’t stop.”

“No, but you cannot keep going, not tonight,” Hari pointed at Jamie’s leg. Blood seeped out from the bandage and stained the trouser leg above and below the wound.

“I suppose not.” Jamie turned to look at the tents. “Will you help me over there, Hari?”

“Of course, British. We are partners. I will help you always.”

“You’re a good man, Hari,” Jamie leaned into Hari’s shoulder. If only there were more like you in the service of Her Majesty, Jamie thought.

Jamie let Hari guide him the short distance to the tent. Round like a yurt, the caravaneers’ tent was woven from light cotton, heated by an open fire with blankets and sheepskins circling the kettle bubbling over the flames. Hari lowered Jamie onto one of the skins and handed him his rifle.

“I left my pack back there when I gave you the rifle,” Jamie made as if to rise.

“I will fetch it, British. Rest now. They will bring you food.”

“Hari,” Jamie beckoned the mystic closer. “What manner of people are these?”

“You are safe here,” Hari stepped back to make room for a woman bearing a rough-fired clay pot. It steamed with a soup that reminded Jamie of the smells from below decks on Magnificent. He received the soup and nodded his thanks. “Eat up, British. I will return with your pack.”

Hari thanked the woman in her own language and waved to Jamie as he slipped out of the tent. The woman waited until Jamie lifted the bowl to his lips and tasted the pungent broth. Jamie smiled at the woman as the soup scalded his tongue.

“It’s good,” Jamie lifted the bowl in thanks. The woman smiled and returned to the large pot by the side of the tent wall opposite Jamie. Dishing out soup into three more bowls with a large wooden ladle, the woman buttoned her quilted jacket and wrapped her scarf around her head before taking the bowls outside. The tent door flapped shut and Jamie was alone.

Jamie sniffed at the soup and tried another mouthful. Wrinkling his nose he dribbled the soup back into the bowl and placed it on the ground. Jamie fished a piece of dried goat meat from his coat pocket and leaned back on his elbows. With a sigh he slipped onto the sheepskins and closed his eyes. His plans to reach Adina Pur were falling rapidly apart. With a through-and-through musket ball wound in his thigh and their quarry, the metal emissary, always one step ahead of them, Jamie wondered if he would reach Adina Pur before Christmas. On the other hand, he reasoned, the chance to intercept the emissary and discover how it was being controlled, and by whom, presented an opportunity to gather additional intelligence that would please the Admiral. Yes, he thought, I might be able to salvage something from this situation. [_With Hari’s help, I might even come out on top. _]Resting on such thoughts, Jamie didn’t hear the tent fly open with the soft scrape of canvas.

 

҉

At the campsite Bryullov helped Najma tether the three horses for the night and carry the gear to their tent. With an eye on the darkening horizon, the Russian insisted on taking the time to erect the tent. Najma protested, the weather was clearing and they would need to start early the next morning if they were to make up for lost time. Bryullov listened, nodded and then proceeded to unroll the tent and assemble the wooden poles. No matter how tough the princess pretends to be, he thought, she will be glad of the shelter from the wind. He watched as Najma prepared the fire, cupping the flame of a match to hide it from the wind. Najma struck three matches before she succeeded in lighting the fire with the fourth. Bryullov chuckled, the smile dying on his lips as he wrestled with the tent.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Najma took the tent poles from Bryullov’s hands. “Lay the tent flat on the ground, crawl in and push the poles into place.” She waited until Bryullov flattened the tent and found the opening. “You don’t have tents in Russia?”

“We don’t have [_this _]tent,” Bryullov lifted the flap at the entrance. “In you go. I will help from outside.” Najma crawled inside the tent. Bryullov guided the poles into place as the wind increased, whipping the fire into a fury, adding another layer of soot to the black kettle. As Najma pushed the tent poles flat against the canvas sides, Bryullov pulled the guys taut, tying the lines around rocks and boulders. Najma crawled out of the tent. She grinned at Bryullov, the moonlight shining white on her teeth.

“See,” she gestured at the tent.

“Don’t get so cocky,” Bryullov nodded at the fire. “Your fire is blowing out.”

Najma scoured the ground around the tent. Selecting the flattest rocks, she built a low wall around the fire. The flames licked at the rocks and her hands as she warmed them.

“Bryullov?”

The Russian looked up. Holding the last guy line in his hands he took a step away from the tent to see Najma. That’s the first time she has used my name, he thought. “Yes?”

“Where will you sleep?” Najma pushed at branches and sticks turning black in the flames.

“Where will I sleep?” Bryullov tied the guy and walked to the fire. Crouching opposite Najma he pointed at the tent behind her. “In there.”

“Fine,” Najma nodded. “It is expected.”

“What is expected?” Bryullov sat down next to the fire.

“I will sleep outside.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bryullov pulled on a glove and reached for the kettle sitting on a flat rock inside the stones circling the flames. The water steamed out of the spout as he lifted it. “You cannot sleep outside,” he looked at the sky. “It will snow again.”

“But I cannot sleep inside the tent. Not with you.”

“Is that some kind of honour thing?” Bryullov poured water over the tea infuser inside his enamel mug.

“Yes. We are not married.”

“No,” Bryullov smiled, “we are not.”

“And unless you plan on marrying me,” Najma picked at the small stones by her side with her fingers.

“Najma,” Bryullov handed her a mug of tea. “I am not going to marry you.” She stared at him. Bryullov held her gaze. Such fire, he thought. She would make a good wife.

“Then it is settled. I will sleep outside.” Najma placed the mug by the side of the fire. Standing, she smoothed the dust and snow from her pantaloons and began picking her bedroll and blankets from the packs and saddle bags.

“Najma,” Bryullov stood. She raised her hand. Finding the Russian’s bedroll she tossed it inside the tent along with his pack. “Listen.”

“I have listened to you enough today already,” she lay her bedroll flat on the ground by the fire. Carrying a pile of blankets, Najma lay down on the bedroll and crawled under them. Making a tripod with her riding stick and branches from the fire, she draped the last blanket over it, raising the wool from her face. From beneath the makeshift tent, Najma’s hand searched for rocks under which she tucked the corners of the blanket. Bryullov shook his head as her hand scrabbled on the ground for one more rock. He shoved one over to her with the toe of his boot.

“Goodnight, Najma,” Bryullov finished his tea and placed the mug next to the kettle. Picking up the saddle bag with his personal belongings, he entered the tent. Laying on the bedroll, Bryullov opened the saddle bag and pulled out the smooth wooden box with rounded edges. He drew a second item from the saddle bag, a leather map tube. Unsnapping the lid he pulled out a bundle of wooden shafts engraved with a continuous spiral of copper wire. The ends of each shaft were capped with copper male and female threads. Bryullov joined them together, fished a triangular connector adapter with three attachment points from inside the lid and fastened them all together. The base was a copper stand with a free strand of eight thick wires woven together. This he plugged into the rear of the box.

The box, as tall as the pullstraps on his boots and only slightly longer than the outsole, was locked. Bryullov reached inside his shirt and slipped the chain from around his neck, the small iron key dangled at the end of it. The wind flapped at the canvas and the tent trembled. Bryullov unlocked the box.

Inside the deep lid spun the innards of a multifaceted machine, layer upon layer of cogs and springs and coils. Where one layer ended it meshed with a second and a third in a self-repeating spiral of motion between the layers. The cranking handle, redundant, was secured in a leather pocket attached to a wooden wall inside the main compartment, to the left of the keyhole. Bryullov lifted the stiff leather flap protecting the main compartment and stared at two tiny green images reflected in glass spheres mounted in the wood. Side by side, they revealed distant mountains rolling before the transmitter as if the objective lens was mounted in the bow of a ship rolling upon the waves. Bryullov unscrewed a metal lid threaded into a raised cylinder mounted inside the compartment. Placing the lid on the bedroll, Bryullov squeezed his fingers inside the cylinder and gripped the tip of one of two tiny levers. Drawing the lever one twelfth of an inch on the horizontal plane, Bryullov kept an eye on the images projected on the glass spheres. Satisfied, he checked the lever on the vertical plane was locked in position, screwed the lid on the cylinder and closed the lid of the box.

The tent shook. Bryullov looked up and listened for the wind. The flaps of the entrance whipped against the canvas sides followed by a bedroll and blankets knocking the Russian’s aerial to one side. Bryullov reached beneath the blankets to pull the aerial behind his back. The box he slid beneath his thigh.

“Move over,” Najma stuck her head inside the tent. “There will be no need to tell my father as you will not touch me.” Najma crawled into the tent dragging the jezail behind her. “It is too cold to be sensible on the mountain.” Bryullov pulled the saddle bag behind his back and lay it flat on top of the aerial. He pushed the box behind his back. “What? You have nothing to say?”

Bryullov laughed. “Welcome, Najma, to my humble home.”

“[Your _]home?” Najma sat back on her heels. “This is _my tent.”

“And you are welcome inside it.”

Najma thrust her hands under her armpits and glared at the Russian. “Yes.”

“Yes?”

She frowned. “I will sleep now.”

“Yes,” Bryullov pointed at the jezail, the stock sticking out of the flaps of the tent door. “Is that going to stay there?”

“Yes,” dragging the barrel of the rifle with her, Najma rolled onto her side.

“Goodnight, Najma,” Bryullov lay down on his bedroll. Pulling his blanket over his body, he locked the box before slipping the key and its chain over his head and around his neck.

 

҉

Jamie opened one eye and peered into the nut-brown face of a small child pressing his nose against Jamie’s cheek. Opening his other eye Jamie glanced around the tent to see a woman adding more fuel to the fire. Jamie recognised the boy as the one he plucked from the debris in the road. “Is he yours?” Jamie asked the woman as the child tugged at Jamie’s ear.

“Mahdy,” the woman dumped the bundle of sticks in her arms. They clattered onto the ground as she crossed over to Jamie and lifted the child from the lieutenant’s chest. Jamie felt his cheeks flush warm at the sight of the woman. So beautiful, Jamie flicked his eyes away from the woman’s face.

Jamie listened as the woman spoke to the child. Setting Mahdy down on the ground she approached Jamie and pointed at his thigh. Making a scrubbing motion with her hands she pointed to a pot of water steaming over the fire. His throat too dry to talk, Jamie nodded.

Retrieving the pot, the woman fingered cloths into the water. The smell of citrus leaves drifted out of the pot, mingling with the musty smell of the canvas. Jamie propped himself up on his elbows and watched as the woman unwrapped the bandage around his thigh. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of Jamie’s wound and scolded him in a language of which Jamie understood little but the furrows in her brow.

Jamie stared at the woman, her almond skin framed within shiny black fronds of hair. The woman stared back at him, the flames of the fire dancing in the wide pupils of her brown eyes. Pressing a warm cloth upon the wound she tugged at the ragged hole in Jamie’s trousers and cleaned the blood and pus from the hole in his leg. Jamie flopped back onto the blanket and gritted his teeth. Three times she pressed the cloth into the wound before tapping Jamie’s leg for him to roll over. The woman cleaned the exit wound on the back of Jamie’s thigh. When she was finished she bound the wound tightly, pushed the bowl to one side and sat back on her heels. The boy rushed past Jamie and crawled onto his mother’s lap as Jamie sat up. She tousled the boy’s hair as she stared at Jamie.

“Thank you,” Jamie mumbled. It had been a long time since he had seen a young woman. Never before had he seen someone so thoroughly exotic. He swallowed. “Who are you?”

The woman kissed the top of the boy’s head and lifted him onto his feet. She smoothed her palm on his cheek as he protested, gave him the bowl of water to carry.

In the heat of the tent, Jamie tugged off his greatcoat. The woman froze at the sight of the lace wrapped around his bare forearm, just below the torn sleeve of his grubby shirt. She dropped to her knees at Jamie’s side and reached out to touch the bloody lace. Her fingers stopped short but a hand’s width from touching. The woman’s eyes misted. She stood, gripped the boy by the arm and rushed out of the tent without another glance at Jamie.

“Hey,” Jamie tried to stand. He slipped on the sheepskin and slumped onto his back.

“What are you doing, British?” Hari bustled into the tent, dumping Jamie’s pack and rifle case on the ground at the lieutenant’s feet. “Where are you going?”

“There was a young woman.”

Hari placed a hand on Jamie’s forehead. “Are you sick? What woman?”

“The one with the child.”

“There is no one here, British,” Hari took a step back and regarded Jamie, his eyes scanning Jamie’s face from beneath his wool cap. “Truly, you[_ are_] sick.”

“I am not sick, Hari,” Jamie pushed himself into a standing position and wobbled upon his feet. “Hand me my rifle, man.”

“Your rifle?” Hari took another step back. “Why?”

“So I can lean on it. Damn it, Hari. What are you playing at?” Jamie lowered himself to the ground and sat on the blanket. “There was a woman,” he gesticulated with open palms. “She cleaned my wound, Hari. And now she is gone. She left the tent right before you came in.”

Hari stared at the clean bandage around Jamie’s thigh. “Yes. Okay, British.”

“Never mind,” Jamie nodded at his pack. “Did you have any trouble finding my stuff?” he pointed at the blanket beside him and Hari sat down.

“No problem. It was right where you said it would be.”

“Good,” Jamie sighed. “Thank you, Hari.”

“It is my pleasure, British.”

“So,” Jamie looked around the tent. “What do we do now?”

“We rest.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, we hunt.” Hari made himself comfortable on the blanket, helping himself to chunks of roasted goat meat and maast. He stopped chewing when Jamie tapped his leg. “Do you want some, British?”

“Did you bring it with you? Without offering me any?” Jamie shook his head. “Hari, after all we have been through together.”

“It was here, when I arrived. You did not see it?”

“No, I did not,” Jamie shrugged. “I had the soup.”

“The soup? Truly?” Hari shook his head and laughed. “You are brave, British.” Hari passed Jamie the plate of food. They ate until the plate was empty and the fire crackled low in the centre of the tent.

Wiping his hands on his shirttails, Jamie reached around his neck and removed a locket. “I want to show you my mother,” he opened the locket and handed it to Hari.

“She is pretty. Is she still alive?”

“I don’t know,” Jamie took back the locket. “She was sleeping when I stole this from her bedside table. I never saw her again. I had planned to sell it, but…”

“You stole from your own mother? Truly?”

“Yes, Hari,” Jamie lifted the locket and chain over his head and let it hang around his neck. “I blame my father, he taught me to drink,” he looked at Hari. “Do you drink, Hari?”

“Water? Of course, British.”

“Not water, Hari. Spirits. Alcohol. Rum.”

“Ah. I understand. No, British. I do not drink.”

“That’s good, Hari. It is evil stuff. It took my father, and it nearly took me. If it wasn’t for the Admiral…”

“Egmont?”

“Yes. He sorted me out. Although, I never did see my mother again.”

“And now, British? Do you still need a drink?”

“No, Hari. I don’t even drink the Queen’s rum,” Jamie paused. “But I can still taste it.”

Outside, the wind whipped at the tent tails and brushed the snow free of spices and all signs of the metal emissary as it continued along the banks of the Cabool River in the direction of the city of Adina Pur.

 

Chapter 6

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Jamie woke to the sound of Hari rummaging in his pack. Wiping his eyes with his forefinger, Jamie saw the items Hari had laid out in front of him. Two powder horns, a leather pouch of musket balls and a bag of kindling. Hari found space for them all in Jamie’s pack, along with bundles of dried meats and pastries wrapped in thin leather wafers.

“Is that from our hosts?” Jamie rolled onto his side. He kneaded his left thigh with his palm. The bandage was still tight and showed only the smallest amount of blood that had seeped through the layers of cloth during the night.

“Yes,” Hari smiled. “Good morning, British.”

“Hari,” Jamie pushed himself into a sitting position, the course fibres of the blanket scratching at his palms. “How many times must I tell you that my name is Jamie?”

“Many times, British.”

“Why must you insist on calling me that?”

“British?” Hari weighed a sack of musket balls in his hand. “Because that is what you are.”

“But it does not define me, Hari.” Jamie reached for his rifle. Placing the butt of the stock firmly on the ground, he pulled himself onto his feet. Hari dropped the leather bag of lead and helped the lieutenant stand.

“Here, in the Khyber Pass and the plains before, after and surrounding the mountains, being British is who you are. The man within,” Hari prodded Jamie in the chest, “will never be reached. You can thank your queen for that.”

“She’s your queen too, Hari.”

“Truly, she is,” avoiding Jamie’s eyes, Hari steadied the lieutenant before taking a step back. Satisfied that he would keep his sea legs, Hari returned to finish packing Jamie’s pack.

“What about you, Hari? You are not really a mystic?”

“No,” Hari looked up at Jamie and winked. “It is a disguise.”

“You’re in disguise?” Jamie nodded. “Okay. I understand that. Can I ask you something else?”

“Yes, British.”

“You never told me how you knew I was coming through the pass. Not the whole story,” Jamie shifted his weight onto his left leg, pressing his foot flat on the ground.

“It is not important,” Hari fastened the lid on Jamie’s pack. He stood up and tested the weight. Rearranging his robes and the shirt he wore beneath, Hari cinched the straps tight under his arms. “I will carry this today.”

“Who is Smith, Hari?”

“My master,” Hari shrugged the pack onto the ground and searched for his satchel. Finding it close to the fire he emptied the contents onto a blanket and sorted through them.

“And does Smith answer to London?”

“London?” Hari laughed. “Calcutta is now the true seat of power in the British Empire.” Hari unscrewed the lid of a tin can and sniffed its contents. He replaced the lid and collected the few items together, stuffing them into his satchel. He looked up at Jamie. “You said yourself, British, when the Royal Navy were defeated at Trafalgar, they left a gap to be filled.” Hari shrugged. “The East India Company filled that gap with her fleet and saved Her Majesty’s Empire.”

“Not all of it, Hari,” Jamie said quietly. “We lost a lot of North America.”

“Pah, who needs the New World, British? The east is far more interesting and far richer.” Hari placed his palm flat on his chest and closed his eyes for a moment. Opening his eyes he picked up the tin can and held it before Jamie. “Was not the Empire built upon spices and such?”

Jamie walked a careful route around the inside of the tent. “What about Smith? Was he a good master?” The pain in Jamie’s thigh subsided as the muscles in his leg warmed with each circuit he walked around the fireplace.

“He is a good man,” Hari sat back on his heels. “He trained me and my fellow pundits. Of course, his first lesson was that of utmost secrecy. A good pundit might never reveal his true identity,” Hari sighed. “Mr. Smith would be most disappointed in me.”

“I find that hard to believe, Hari,” Jamie placed his hand on Hari’s shoulder as he passed him. “You are loyal and trustworthy and perhaps the first real friend I have made.”

“You are kind to say so, British,” Hari clasped Jamie’s hand, released it and stood up. “We must be leaving soon. The emissary will not stop. If it delivers its message before we can intervene, who knows what the Shah will decide to do,” Hari sighed. “I am sorry to say this, British, but there are many other, stronger suitors to Central Asia than your own countrymen. It may not go well for you.”

“I understand, Hari,” Jamie rubbed his thigh. “But my mission is not diplomacy. I am fact-finding. Egmont sent me to verify a rumour and perhaps explain what went wrong at Trafalgar.”

“I see,” Hari paused at the sound of the tent flaps opening. “Of course, if the Shah ignores the emissary, and if Corporal Mint is right…” Hari fell silent at the thought.

The light of the morning sun blinded both men as the young woman of the previous night entered the tent carrying a lantern in one hand and a bundle of firewood under her arm.

“You are not sick after all, British.” Hari bowed as the woman knelt by the fire.

The woman tumbled the sticks and branches onto the ground as she arranged the kindling in the coals and ashes inside the circle of blackened stones. She ignored Hari, only once did she glance at Jamie before making a tipi construction of small sticks. Jamie felt the rush of warm blood to his cheeks.

“This is the woman who cleaned and bound my leg,” Jamie whispered. “She is quite extraordinary, Hari. I am…”

“Yes, British,” Hari finished his bow with a sweeping gesture of his right hand. He straightened and addressed the woman in the language of the Pashtoo.

“What did you say, Hari?” Jamie leaned into the mystic’s side.

“I greeted her, thanked her for her attention to our needs, and…” Hari winked at Jamie.

“And what?

“I asked her if she would grace us with her name.”

“Aisha,” the woman continued to build the fire, breaking the larger sticks into shorter pieces, and arranging them in a log cabin construction around the tipi.

“Aisha?” Jamie gripped Hari’s arm. “She is the wife of the rifleman. The one at the beginning of the pass.”

“Truly?”

“She must be,” Jamie pulled up his sleeve and untied the lace from his forearm. He held it out to Aisha. “Help me, Hari. Tell her it is from her man.”

“Are you sure, British?”

Jamie watched as Aisha reached forward and took the lace between her fingers. “I am sure.”

Aisha held the ragged strip of bloody lace to her cheek. Tears streamed down her face as she reached for Jamie’s hand and squeezed it.

“Tell her,” Jamie swallowed. “Tell her he died bravely, Hari.”

Jamie listened as Hari spoke to Aisha. She nodded and wrapped the lace around her wrist, tying it with a thin knot. Aisha bent to light the fire with a taper she lit from the oil lantern. She rose gently, smoothed her pantaloons and jacket, wiped her eyes and left the tent.

“I can’t imagine her pain, Hari,” Jamie took a deep breath. “Thank you, Hari. Thank you for helping me.”

“It is nothing, British,” Hari clapped his hand upon Jamie’s shoulder.

“I am not so good around women, Hari,” Jamie shrugged. “My sister is the only woman I can talk to without making a complete fool of myself.”

“You have a sister, British? Truly?”

“Yes,” Jamie smiled, “Her name is Luise.”

“Luise Hanover,” Hari clapped Jamie on the shoulder. “I will hear more about the lovely Luise. Come,” Hari closed his satchel and slung it around his chest. Picking up Jamie’s pack he hefted it onto his shoulder. “Get dressed. We must leave.”

Jamie hobbled over to where his knee-length wool greatcoat lay on the ground. Grimacing as he stooped to pick it up, Jamie straightened, pressing the barrel of the rifle into his chest as he pushed his arms into the coat.

Hari scanned the tent, walked over to the corner and removed a leg from the wooden tripod where it stood next to the empty soup pot. “Put your rifle away and take this, British,” he pressed the tripod leg into Jamie’s hand. “We can carve a handle later, but it will do for now.”

Jamie slid the Baker rifle into its case, slung the case over his shoulder and around his chest. Slipping his hand into the deep inside pocket, Jamie was relieved to find the telescope was still there. He turned to Hari. “I am ready.”

Hari pointed at Jamie’s tangled blonde hair. “You’ll need a hat, British. It has stopped snowing but there is a chill wind blowing down from the mountains.”

Jamie tugged a wool cap from the outside pocket on the left hand side of his coat, fingerless gloves from the pocket opposite. Following Hari from the tent, he paused to take in the activity bustling around the camels and tents of the camp. He searched for signs of Aisha, finding none he followed Hari as the mystic scouted the trail for sign of the emissary.

 

҉

At the highest point of the trail Bryullov halted, holding his horse still by the halter. He bent his knee and grimaced. Below him, sprawling at the foot of the mountains, the city of Adina Pur bustled with activity. Clouds of dust from the caravans entering and exiting the city gates rolled along the open ground outside the city walls. Bryullov smiled at the sight. It had been many years since he last set foot inside the city. He turned at the sound of Najma’s approach.

“What do you think?” Bryullov pointed at the tall building in the eastern part of the city. “The minaret. It was demolished by the British, about a decade ago. The Shah rebuilt it, vowing to drench the steps in British blood should they ever return. If we had one of those fancy British telescopes we could see the skulls of the British set beneath the arches,” Bryullov smiled at Najma. “A gruesome touch, but effective.”

Najma said nothing.

Bryullov turned to face the Afghan princess. “What is wrong, Najma?”

“I have learned it is best not to speak of them when around you,” Najma took a step backward.

Them?” Bryullov frowned. “You mean the British?”

Najma nodded. She cast a glance back to her horse. Her father’s jezail hung from the saddle.

“Gods, child,” Bryullov laughed. “The British be damned. I will not harm you.”

“You were going to, back then,” Najma shifted her feet in the snow.

“It was important,” Bryullov shrugged. “I am sorry, but I needed to know.”

“And now?”

“Now,” Bryullov swept his arm in front of him, “Adina Pur.”

Najma smiled. “I have always wanted to go to…”

“Najma?” Bryullov brushed her elbow with his fingers. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Najma pushed past the Russian. Shading her eyes with the flat of her hand she peered into the distance, searching the road leading to the city gates. “Look there,” she pointed. “It is a man, I think. But I have never seen one so big.”

“Where,” Bryullov removed a small monocular from inside his jacket.

“On the road, moving behind the caravan farthest from the city.”

Bryullov’s heart skipped a beat. He held the monocular to his eye and focused what little magnification the optic had on the figure of a large man striding toward the city. “Ah, there you are. Now who do you belong to, I wonder?”

“What is it?”

Bryullov stared at the metal figure striding toward the city. “The British? No, they do not possess the ingenuity,” he cupped the monocular in his hand. “Who then if not us?”

“What is that man?”

“What?” Bryullov turned to look at Najma. The worried look in her eyes struck a chord in the Russian’s heart. “It is nothing. Just a man. That is all.”

“He is so tall. So tall I can see him from all the way up here.” Najma pressed the fingers of one hand to her mouth. “It is a djinni.”

“No, Najma,” Bryullov reached out to grasp Najma as she ran to the camel. Drawing the jezail out from under the flaps of her saddle, she scrabbled to a point higher than the path. “Najma,” Bryullov winced as he placed his foot on the uneven ground, twisting his knee. “Wait.”

“I must stop it before it reaches the city,” Najma charged the jezail with several cranks of the priming handle. It buzzed in her grasp. Feeding a copper-infused lead ball into the barrel, she rammed the ball into place with the rod.

“Najma,” Bryullov scrambled up beside her. “You cannot hit it from here,” he placed his hand on the barrel as she sighted. “No one can. We are too high, too far away.”

“But I can scare it away from the city. Warn the people down below.”

“It would do no good, Najma,” the barrel hummed in Bryullov’s grasp as Najma tried to tug it free. “I know this man, this thing.”

“Djinni? How can you know a djinni?” Najma’s bottom lip quivered as she stared at Bryullov.

“Thing, not djinni, Najma. I know of these things,” Bryullov released the rifle and sat down on the rocks beside Najma. “It is made of metal, as strong as this,” he tapped the barrel of the jezail.

“Metal?” Najma lowered the rifle. “Hah,” she pointed toward the road. “How can a metal thing walk like a man? It cannot be so.”

“It is so, Najma. It has legs and joints like you and I.”

“Does it have a brain, too? How does it find its way? Tell me that.”

“I can do more than tell you. I can show you.”

Najma watched Bryullov pick his way back down to the path. Reaching the horses, he beckoned for her to join him. Najma turned back to the road to watch the metal man as it pounded along the packed surface, getting closer and closer to the city. Discharging the power with a long press of the safety button, Najma gripped the jezail in the crook of her arm and joined Bryullov on the path.

 

҉

“You see it, British?” His robes flapping in the wind, Hari bounded along the rough edges of the road leading to the gates of Adina Pur.

“Damn it, Hari,” Jamie thrust his left leg before him, the rifle case swinging around his chest as he half-hobbled, half-ran along the road after the mystic. [The minute he decides to leave me I will allow myself a brief rest, _]thought Jamie. _Just to prepare myself for the last stretch.

“That brimstone beast is ploughing through everyone and everything in its path,” Hari pointed. The azure blue morning sky tugged the sun higher and higher above the mountains ringing the city. Plumes of dust stormed from the feet of the metal emissary as it crashed through carts and scattered traders and their families out of its path. Hari pointed again. “Come on, British. We must stop it from reaching the gates.”

“You go, Hari,” Jamie bent forward and rested his elbows on his thighs. “I will follow you as fast as I can.”

Hari jogged up to where Jamie stood. He gripped the lieutenant’s lapels with fervent fists. Jamie straightened, his feet rising slightly forcing his weight onto his toes. “You will come quickly? No?”

“I will come as quickly as possible,” Jamie nodded. “Perhaps I can try to shoot it from the road.”

Hari shook his head. “Too far, British,” he relaxed his grip. Smoothing the palm of his left hand over Jamie’s shoulder, Hari pointed back up the mountainside. “Look there. An old lookout post. Wait there. See if you can find the beast’s controller.” Hari made a quick search of the mountain sides, his eyes scanning the rocks and scrub where a man might hide, but still be in sight of the road. “He must be around here somewhere. You wait at the lookout post, catch the controller.” Hari squeezed Jamie’s shoulder. “Don’t kill him.”

“I’ll try not to, Hari.” Jamie nodded at the path; the plumes of dust were visible in the near distance. “You must hurry.”

“Yes,” Hari started down the path. He stopped. “Be good, British.”

“And if I can’t be good,” Jamie grinned.

“Then be careful,” Hari waved. Gathering his robes, he took off along the road a trail of dust billowing in his wake.

“You be careful too, Hari,” Jamie took a deep breath. He swapped the walking stick for his rifle, pulling the weapon out of its case. “One step at a time,” Jamie cursed as he turned back toward the mountain and found the path to the lookout post a quarter of the way up the steep rocky slopes. Where the path split, Jamie took the narrower of the two running parallel to the road. He caught a glimpse of Hari’s maroon robes as the mystic gained on the emissary. Jamie stopped for a moment to watch Hari as he reached the first of the splintered wagons. The mystic’s stride lengthened and his pace quickened. Jamie felt a touch of envy.

He arrived at the remains of the lookout post, the grey, dust-covered floorboards of the post’s tiny living quarters flexed and withered beneath his feet. Jamie moved to the loophole cut into the thick mud wall that faced the path coming down the mountainside from the ridge above.

Watching the path for a moment, Jamie cupped a hand to his ear at the sound of stones tumbling down the mountainside and voices drifting up from a dip along the path. Dropping to the floor, Jamie winced as he bent his leg beneath him. Keeping low, Jamie crawled out of the living quarters and peered over the low wall surrounding the small courtyard of the lookout post. The head of a horse drifted into view followed by two more, a single rider sitting astride the horse in front.

Jamie let out a slow breath. He reached for the powder horn hanging from his belt beneath the tails of his coat. Hari has the rest, he remembered. Turning away from the wall, Jamie flinched at the press of cold steel upon his nose. He stared down the length of a flintlock pistol. Flicking his eyes upward, Jamie blinked at the bearded face staring back at him.

“I must admit,” Bryullov grinned through the dust hanging in his beard, “I thought you would be older.” Jamie released his grip on the Baker rifle as Bryullov tugged it out of the lieutenant’s reach. “Perhaps you can tell me how long you have been controlling that thing?” Bryullov flicked the barrel of his pistol in the direction of the emissary. “And what you intend to do with it?”

 

Chapter 7

 

The Cabool River

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Where the road was congested, blocking its path, the emissary tore a space through which to pass. The caravaneers and traders, their families and friends, leaped to the sides of the dusty road as the emissary ripped the canvas and splintered the wood of wagons, broke the bones and stomped upon the skins of the livestock. The children crawled into their parents’ arms or fled beyond recall, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles racing after them. Hari stood in the wake of the emissary. Chest heaving, he caught his breath as the metal monster cut a bloody path before him.

“The gates,” Hari gasped. “I must get to the gates.” He took a ragged breath, coughed dust onto his robes, and ran after the emissary. Hari overtook the automaton, reaching the gates as a line of the Shah’s finest marksmen formed in front of the entrance to the city. Hari ignored the impressive mud walls towering above the ground, the smooth, round turrets and the minaret, towering above all but the surrounding mountains.

“Get out of the way. Iggri,” Khaled Nazari, the Shah’s military commander, waved off Hari’s approach. Hari slowed to a walk, approaching the commander with his arms spread wide, his palms open. “Are you senseless? Get out of the way.”

“It will not make any difference,” Hari nodded at the emissary steaming along the road just behind him. “Muskets will not stop him.”

“How do you know this?” Nazari drew his sword from the ornate curved scabbard hanging at his waist. “Are you in league with it, mystic?”

“No, your grace,” Hari bowed low.

“Get up, you fool.” Nazari gripped Hari by the arm and pulled him toward the line of marksmen, their jezails wavering in the sight of the emissary. “I am not the Shah.”

“A pity,” Hari stopped to point at the emissary, “for he is the only one who can stop that thing.”

“How do you know this, mystic? Are you sure you are not in league with that thing?”

“Truly, I assure you I am not. But I have seen one before. Have you not heard of the Shah of Lalpura?”

“Lalpura? What nonsense is this?” Nazari shook Hari. “Speak plainly.”

“That thing is on its way to see the Shah. Several have been sent before it, I know not how many, but one of them stopped at the court of the Shah of Lalpura.” Hari flinched at the first musket to fire. “It is sent with a message, for your Shah only. It will not stop before it sits in his court.”

Nazari watched as musket ball after musket ball bounced harmlessly from the emissary’s armoured body. “We must close the gates,” he signalled to the Afghani warrior commanding his marksmen.

“The gates will not stop it. Clear a path to the court. I promise you, it will stop. If you do not clear a path, more people will get hurt, perhaps even killed.”

“Tarek,” Nazari waved to the marksman standing closest to him. He nodded at Hari. “Watch this man.” He signalled to the rest of his men as the emissary approached the gates. “Follow it, clear a path to the Shah’s court. You,” he pointed at the youngest of the riflemen. “Run ahead and get the Shah into the minaret. Take his wives and children. All of them.” The young Afghani ran through the gates and along the street to the court. He nodded at Tarek. “Bring him with us.”

Hari marched alongside the emissary as the Shah’s men flanked it, clearing stalls and people from its path. The emissary clanked forward, dust smoking from its heels. Inhabitants of the low mud buildings lining the street cowered in the windows and doorways, children clutching the legs of their parents and siblings in the wake of the emissary. The emissary slowed as it neared the Shah’s court, its massive limbs clicking down through the gears. The men on each side fingered the triggers of their jezails, casting nervous glances at Tarek. Hari stopped at the entrance to the court, the emissary stalked forward raising little more than a whisper of dust despite its bulk. Its joints creaked as it reached the centre of the courtyard. Surrounded by lush plants resting in the cool December air, the emissary sank to its knees. A slow whine from deep within its chest scratched its way up through the emissary’s tubes, passing gears, cogs and assorted ironmongery, until it was disgorged in a monotonous mechanical bellow into the sacred space of the Shah of Adina Pur. Nazari and his men lowered their weapons and covered their ears. Hari smirked.

“What are you laughing at, mystic?” Nazari shouted over the emissary’s message.

“That,” Hari pointed at rapturous statue spouting forth before them. “It has completed its mission.”

“What happens now?”

“It will continue until the Shah presents himself before it.”

“How will it know it is the Shah?”

Hari pointed at his eyes with two fingers. “It can see.”

Nazari turned to regard the emissary with closer scrutiny. “And what language is it speaking, mystic?”

“It is the German language,” Hari winced at the scraping repetition of guttural consonants. “It is not a pretty language.”

“What are Germans? What country do they come from, mystic? They are new to me.”

“They are new to all of us,” Hari sighed. “But I think we will soon know them all too well.” He pointed at the gates behind them. “Perhaps we should close the gates.”

“And trap it inside the city walls?” Nazari shook his head. “I do not think so.”

“It will never leave,” Hari pointed at the emissary. “Its job is done.”

“Then what do you fear? It seems harmless enough. You say it will do no more.”

“But it has a master and it is him I fear.”

A runner from the city wall approached Nazari, dust settling upon his bare feet as he skidded to a stop. “Subedar Major Nazari,” the messenger bowed. “A messenger from Peshawar has come. An army approaches,” he stared wide-eyed at the emissary.

“What?” Nazari gripped the messenger’s arm.

“Two of them,” the man shook and pointed at the emissary. “And many more,” he paused. “Many things and not so few men.”

Nazari released the messenger. “Back to your post,” he turned to Tarek as the runner raced back down the street toward the gates. “I must speak to the Shah,” he pointed at Hari. “He will come with me. Make your men ready on the walls. Find the mountain guns, the ones we stole from the British.” The commander glanced at the emissary before taking Hari by the arm. “Come with me, we are going to see the Shah.”

 

҉

Bryullov pushed the barrel of the flintlock pistol into Jamie’s cheek. He nodded at the open palm of his other hand. Jamie reached inside his greatcoat and removed the flintlock pistol tucked inside his belt. Bryullov gripped the barrel and slid the pistol inside his pocket.

“You are going to stand now,” he glanced at the blood seeping through the bandage around Jamie’s thigh. “If you can.”

“I can stand.” Jamie worked his way up the low wall, relaxing a little as Bryullov took a step backward and lowered his pistol. “You are Russian?”

“I am,” Bryullov touched his finger to his forehead in mock salute. “You are British? No?”

“You knew that,” Jamie stared at Bryullov.

“I did. I guessed. But what service? That I cannot make out. You seem,” Bryullov paused as if seeking a word, “somewhat out of place.”

“I am a lieutenant in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy,” Jamie rested against the wall. [I might as well be cooperative, _]he thought. _I am a long way from home.

“Her Majesty’s Navy,” Bryullov chuckled. “I would never have guessed.” Stroking the tip of his beard, Bryullov regarded Jamie. “What is a navy lieutenant doing in the mountains above Adina Pur, I wonder?”

“One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose,” Jamie smiled.

“Not for much longer,” Bryullov waved the barrel of the pistol in Jamie’s direction. “We can talk more in a moment. But first, I would very much like for you to empty your pockets. All of them.”

Jamie drummed his fingers on the surface of the mud wall behind him.

“You seem to have misunderstood me,” Bryullov took a step toward Jamie. He raised the pistol to Jamie’s forehead. “Empty your pockets. Now.”

Flexing his fingers, Jamie stared at Bryullov. Reaching inside his greatcoat he withdrew the leather case containing the Severinson telescope. Jamie placed it on top of the wall.

“No,” Bryullov waved the pistol, “that you can give straight to me.” The Russian smiled as he recognised the manufacturer’s inscription engraved into the leather case. “I lost mine,” he held the telescope like a trophy before slipping it into the pocket on the other side of his jacket.

Jamie patted the empty pockets on the front of his greatcoat. Opening the coat he ran his palm along each coattail. Reaching into his trouser pocket, Jamie paused at the approach of Bryullov’s companion.

“What is it?” Bryullov turned as Jamie began to blush. “Ah,” the Russian nodded, “Magnificent,” he turned to Jamie. “One of your words, was it not?”

“[_Magnificent _]was the name of my ship,” Jamie glanced at Najma as she tethered her horse to the wall of the hill fort and walked into the small mud compound. She stopped by the side of Bryullov and stared at Jamie.

“You have met?” Bryullov took Najma’s hand.

“I think so,” Jamie looked at Najma. “Perhaps I met her and her father when I arrived.

Najma gripped Bryullov’s hand. Casting a glance at the Russian’s face, she risked a smile before slipping free of Bryullov’s grasp and returning to the horses. Jamie watched her leave.

Bryullov shook his head. “The double-dealings in these hills never ceases to amaze me. Her father outfitted your expedition, no?”

“I hardly think you can call one man an expedition,” Jamie laughed. “No, we met is all. I stumbled into one of his camps along my route.”

“I see.” Bryullov extended his hand. “I am Captain Lev Bryullov of the Russian Army.”

“Lieutenant Jamie Hanover,” with a watchful eye upon the Russian’s pistol, Jamie shook Bryullov’s hand.

“I still do not understand what the Royal Navy is doing in the mountains of Afghanistan,” Bryullov released Jamie’s hand and took a step backward. He slid the pistol into the waistband of his trousers. “Let us sit and you can tell me about your interest in these wild lands.”

Sliding his back down the length of the short wall, Jamie stretched his left leg before him as he sat down. “I can’t tell you anything beyond my name and rank,” Jamie shrugged at Bryullov. “Surely you know the rules of the game?”

“Ah, this great game we play,” Bryullov crossed his legs in front of him and made himself comfortable leaning against the wall of the hill fort. “I do not think, lieutenant, you have been in these mountains so very long. I think you travelled up the Indus and started your journey in Peshawar. Am I correct?” Bryullov paused. “Of course I am,” he pointed at Jamie. “You are travelling light. You stopped to trade for supplies at the camp of Najma’s father. Your intention is to reach Adina Pur, or perhaps Cabool, but no further.” He tapped the stock of Jamie’s Baker rifle. “You have come prepared and yet,” Bryullov nodded at Jamie’s leg, “not everything has gone as planned. You met someone, an encounter with a wild tribe perhaps, or something a little more exotic.”

“You have it all figured out, Bryullov,” Jamie picked at the frayed ends of his bandage. “Why are you here?”

“Not so fast,” Bryullov wagged a finger, “I have yet to determine what you are doing here. Why your navy is so interested in the mountains where only the army dare to tread.”

“We’re branching out,” Jamie presented Bryullov with his best grin. Branching out and clutching at straws more like, he thought. Jamie looked up as Najma brought a wooden box to Bryullov. Setting the box on the ground, Najma sat on a flat rock to the right of the Russian. Jamie glanced at the box.

“Do you know what this is?” Bryullov drew the key out from beneath his shirt. He unlocked the box. Jamie stared at the spinning gears and cogs as Bryullov turned the box toward him.

“It’s you,” Jamie breathed. “You are controlling the emissary.”

“I am controlling an emissary of sorts, yes. But not that one,” Bryullov nodded in the direction of the city. “I have no idea who is pulling the strings of that particular monster. So little finesse, it is a brute and I have little doubt the man controlling it is the same.”

“Then who?”

“I rather thought you could tell me, Jamie.” With a brief check of the instruments beneath the protective cover, Bryullov closed the box and locked it.

“I can tell you our theory,” Jamie sighed as he realised his mistake.

Our theory?” Bryullov glanced around the hill fort. “Has the Royal Navy sent a fleet?” Bryullov chuckled. “You are referring to the Indian, of course. Don’t look so surprised, Hari Singh is well-known among my peers and our contacts. He is a most appalling pundit, so very overt in his operations. It is little wonder that Smith has disowned him.” The Russian smoothed dust from the box and handed it to Najma. “You didn’t know, did you? Our good friend Singh has been playing you for a fool.”

“He has been straight with me, the entire time we have travelled together,” Jamie slipped his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat to hide his clenched fists. “He made no secret of his mission. I have no reason to suspect Hari’s loyalty.”

“You know best, of course,” Bryullov turned to Najma. “Please put the box back in the saddle bag.” Najma glanced at Jamie as she stood, picked up the box and walked to the horses. “Hari can be very convincing at times. He likely enlisted your help in the promise of helping you in return. Am I right?” Bryullov paused to study Jamie’s face. “Yes, I can see that I am. Well, Jamie, I hope for your sake that Hari does not disappoint you when it counts. But wait,” Bryullov stood and removed the pistol from his waistband. “This is exactly one of those moments. Is it not?” Waving the pistol at Jamie, Bryullov urged the lieutenant to his feet. “Where is your friend now that you are in the clutches of the enemy, eh? Ask yourself that lieutenant.”

“I know where Hari is,” Jamie stared at Bryullov.

Bryullov turned the pistol in his hand. Glancing in the direction of the city he fiddled with the flintlock hammer. “Do you know what a djinn pit is, lieutenant?”

“No,” Jamie readjusted his leg to a more comfortable position.

“A djinn pit is a deep hole in the ground. Most of the larger cities have one,” Bryullov looked up at Jamie. “Djinn pits are nasty places. Smooth, vertical walls you can’t climb.”

“This is interesting, but why are you telling me this?”

Bryullov rested the pistol on his thighs and pulled a thin, square tin from his pocket. Prising off the lid, Bryullov dipped two fingers into the tin and smeared a brown paste onto his cheeks and neck. Working the paste into his skin he grinned at Jamie. “To add to my disguise,” Bryullov dipped his fingers into the tin. “We Russians are not as pasty as you, but I would not like to be mistaken for an Englishman when we reach the walls of the city.”

“No?”

“Djinn pits,” Bryullov winked. He squashed the lid on the tin and slipped it back into his pocket. Rising to his feet he peered past Jamie and down toward the city. “I think we had better get within the walls before nightfall. Look there, something approaches.”

Jamie turned to look over the wall. Placing his hands on the rough-hewn stone, he scanned the road for signs of Hari, but saw only a wake of splintered carts and goods strewn along the road. Caravaneers and traders picked their way among the debris salvaging what they could. Jamie turned to the east. A large cloud of dust caught his eye and he stared at the massive shapes obscured within. The cloud drifted slowly along the road in the direction of the city.

“We must warn them,” Jamie turned to Bryullov. He stopped short as the Russian lifted the pistol by the barrel and swung the handle into the side of Jamie’s head. Jamie slumped to the ground.

“We will, my friend,” Bryullov turned Jamie onto his stomach and searched his body. Running his hands inside the Englishman’s collar, Bryullov found Jamie’s locket and removed it. Bryullov opened it and stared at the picture of Jamie’s mother for a moment before stuffing the locket into his trouser pocket.

“What have you done?” Najma stood at the entrance to the hill fort.

“Najma,” Bryullov stood. Securing the pistol, Bryullov gripped Jamie by the left arm. “Help me put him onto the back of one of the horses. We are taking him to the Shah.”

Pulling Jamie’s arm up and over his own shoulder, Bryullov lifted the lieutenant and dragged him over to the horses. Leaning Jamie’s body against the horse, Bryullov struggled to raise both the lieutenant’s arms over the saddle.

“Help me, Najma.”

Moving to the opposite side of the horse, Najma tugged on Jamie’s wrists as Bryullov gripped his thighs and pushed him up and onto the saddle.

“Tie his hands together,” Bryullov brushed dust from his coat with his palm. Walking around the horse, he fished a dirty rag from beneath the saddle and stuffed it into Jamie’s mouth. Bryullov watched as Najma finished tying Jamie’s hands.

“I do not like this,” she scowled at Bryullov. “This is not right.”

Bryullov shrugged and turned away from Najma. A shadow flitting between the rocks higher up the path they had come caught the Russian’s eye. Bryullov pulled out his pistol and checked the pan was full and the musket ball had not slid out of the barrel. He walked away from the horses along the path.

“Where are you going?” Najma put her hands on her hips. “You are leaving me with him? Pah,” she shook her head. “You are no better than the British.”

“I am going to catch us some supper,” Bryullov waved without looking back.

Najma tightened the straps on the saddlebags, grumbling her way from one horse to the other.

Bryullov slowed as the path steepened. Eyes fixed upon the boulder several yards to the left of the path, he stopped when the boulder was in range of the pistol. A scuff of gravel trickled out from beneath the boulder and a small head with dark hair peeked out over the top. Bryullov took aim and fired. Rushing up to the boulder, he watched as the head disappeared. Bryullov slipped on the gravel, picked himself up and walked around the boulder. Sprawled on the ground, a dark hole emblazoned in his forehead, Khan Daarmak lay still as blood seeped from the back of his head onto the ground. Bryullov rubbed his beard with his left hand, slipping the pistol into his belt with his right.

“What was it?” Najma took a step off the path, her father’s jezail resting in the crook of her arm.

“Nothing,” Bryullov whirled and started down the mountainside to join her. “I thought I saw something but I missed.”

“Missed what?” Najma peered around the Russian as he tried to steer her down to the path. “Is that blood?”

“No, nothing,” Bryullov glanced at the dark stain spreading from beneath the boulder. “I took a piss.”

“When?”

“Gods, Najma. Enough. There is nothing there,” Bryullov steered Najma back onto the path. “Let us be rid of the Englishman and then I can take you on to Cabool.”

“Cabool is full of British. Why must we go there?”

“You wanted to go to Cabool. You have never been.”

“Now maybe I want to go somewhere else. Somewhere far away from here,” Najma stopped to look Bryullov in the eye. “I want to go far away from here. From all this,” she swept her hand across the desert and the mountains.

“Where do you want to go, Najma?” Bryullov stepped in front of her, turning her attention from the path behind them. “Where should I take you?”

Najma smiled. “Take me to Russia. I can be the second of your ten wives.”

Bryullov laughed. “Ten wives?”

“You have only one, do you not?”

“Yes, Najma, only the one.”

“And now you can have two.”

The cry of a hawk circling above the path turned Najma’s head. Bryullov placed his hand around her neck and pulled her lips close to his. Najma pulled back with a start. She raised her hand to strike.

“I will take you to Russia, Najma.”

“Now?”

“After the city,” Bryullov glanced at path behind them. The hawk circled lower and lower until it settled upon the boulder concealing the body of Najma’s brother. “But we must move quickly to reach the city before them,” Bryullov pointed at the cloud of dust breathing down the road to Adina Pur.

Najma’s cheeks dimpled as she lowered her palm and shoved Bryullov on the chest. “We must hurry, then,” she laughed, “if I am to be your second wife.”

Bryullov took Najma’s hand as they walked down to the lookout post. The hawk keened on the mountainside as it stalked around its master’s body.

 

Chapter 8

 

Adina Pur

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Subedar Major Khaled Nazari stopped Hari as he lifted his foot to enter the minaret. He pulled at Hari’s robes, smoothing them against the mystic’s waist and tucking them within the belt Hari wore outside his robes.

“Shah Orbalaye Bal, he permits me to say, is slightly deaf,” Nazari took a step back to appraise Hari’s attire. “When you address him, it is required that you do so clearly, without drawing undue attention to his hearing.”

“I will speak clearly for the Shah,” Hari nodded.

“One more thing,” Nazari lifted a finger. “Do not look at the wives of the Shah, and certainly not the fourth. It is not done.” Nazari turned to enter the anteroom of the minaret.

“Wait,” Hari tugged at Nazari’s shirt sleeve. “How will I know who is the fourth of the Shah’s wives?”

Nazari smiled. “Didn’t I just say[_ not_] to look?” He waved at the guard at the door of the anteroom and signalled for Hari to follow him.

Persian blue tiles lined the walls of the circular chamber beyond the anteroom in which the Shah presided. Light from the windows in the adjoining rooms gave Hari the feeling that the minaret was larger than it appeared from the outside. He stopped as Nazari held up his palm. Peering around the commander, Hari saw the Shah seated upon a simple wooden dais elevated but a foot from the smooth white-tiled floor. Sweetmeats and pastries heaped upon flat, metal dishes covered the surfaces of low wooden tables on either side of the Shah. Hari licked his lips and bit at the hairs of his beard. The Shah’s wives were seated around the old man; Hari focused his gaze upon the European slave pouring water into an ornate glass on a round table on the shah’s left. Beyond the dais and the table, the room was bare.

“Shah Orbalaye Bal,” Nazari bowed. “May I present Hari Singh, a traveller bearing information.” Nazari urged Hari forward with a wave of his hand.

“I never told you my name,” Hari whispered as he passed Nazari.

“You didn’t have to,” Nazari winked at Hari.

“Hari Singh,” the Shah took a sip of water from the glass. “What brings you over the pass and into my modest lands?”

“Shah Orbalaye Bal,” Hari bowed, “your hospitality, your generosity,” Hari remembered to project his voice. Behind the Shah, the lips of one of the Shah’s wives twitched, creasing the corners of her mouth. Hari stared at the ceiling high above his head.

“Yes, yes, Hari Singh,” the Shah set the glass goblet on the table with a clang. “Why are you here? Does it have something to do with that,” the Shah waved his hand in the air in the direction of the royal courtyard. “Even I can hear that infernal noise.”

“Yes, Shah,” Hari lifted his head, careful not to meet the eyes of the Shah’s wife tittering behind his back. “I have followed the emissary in your courtyard for several days now.”

“Emissary? An emissary is in my courtyard? Then what is that thing?”

“That thing, Shah, is the emissary,” Hari bowed his head.

“Subedar Major,” the Shah beckoned to Nazari. “I was not informed that an emissary had arrived.”

“No, Shah,” Nazari approached the dais. “We did not know what it was when I sent you here, for your protection, Shah.”

“And this man, this Indian,” the Shah sneered as he pointed at Hari. “What do we know of him?”

“Hari Singh is known to me and to many of your subjects in the mountains and valleys, Shah. Although he has avoided the royal courts.” Nazari nodded at Hari as he looked up. “Hari Singh is in the service of the British, Shah…”

“The British? Don’t speak to me of them,” the Shah reached for his glass and took a long gulp of water. Slamming the glass onto the table, he shook his fist at Hari. “The British have Cabool. I will not tolerate a British man on my lands, much less my court.”

“Shah,” Nazari soothed, “It is true this man is in the service of the British, but so too is he in the service of the Shah.” He leaned forward and whispered in the old man’s ear. Hari bowed his head further as he heard every word. “This is the Indian Nightjar.”

This man?” the Shah pointed at Hari. “The Nightjar?”

“Yes, Shah,” Nazari stood.

“Come forward, Hari Singh,” the Shah beckoned. He watched as Hari walked across the tiled floor and knelt before the dais. “Intrigue and wonder has often preceded you, Nightjar,” the Shah smiled. “Would that I could roam the mountains as you do.”

Hari caught the light twinkling in the Shah’s eyes. The Shah lifted his hand and the young wife behind him placed her hand in his. Guiding his wife around the dais, he pulled her gently to his side.

“I have told many tales of your exploits to my wives, but only Safiya is young enough to enjoy them.” Safiya leaned into the Shah’s body and kissed the parched skin on his forehead.

“I am honoured, Shah,” Hari bowed.

“Stop all that bowing,” the Shah dismissed Safiya and his six other wives with a clap of his hands. “Tell me about the emissary.”

“It wants to treat with you, Shah.”

“Yes, but who sent it?”

“It is the Germans, Shah,” Nazari sat down on the tiles by the side of Hari. “Hari says they are from the same part of the world as the British. I confess to having never heard of them.”

“Do not concern yourself,” the Shah waved his hand. “Why do these Germans send a machine instead of a man?”

“They sent a machine, Shah, because of this man,” Nazari pointed at Hari. “Few emissaries can avoid the attentions of the Nightjar. The British have done well to employ Hari to run interference in the mountains.”

“What do they want, Hari Singh?”

“I do not know, exactly, Shah, but I guess they want the same as all countries with eyes on Afghanistan, a passage to India.”

“Yes, yes,” the Shah nodded. “And what will your British masters say to that, I wonder?”

“They will not stand for it, Shah.”

“No, I do not imagine so,” the Shah looked up as a young warrior appeared in the doorway. “See to your man, Nazari.”

Nazari stood and beckoned the man to enter. “What is it Hadi?”

Hadi, a thickly-bearded lieutenant, bowed smartly before the Shah before delivering his message. “We have closed the gates, but a European, and a woman of the Pashtoo wish to enter.” Hadi paused. “They have a prisoner with them.”

“Do you know who this is?” Nazari turned to Hari.

“No,” Hari stood. He turned to Hadi. “The prisoner? What colour is he? What colour of skin?”

“He is white. Paler than the other man,” Hadi tapped his thigh. “He is wounded.”

“I know the prisoner,” Hari leaned closer to Nazari. “He is a friend of mine. He is,” Hari paused, “British.”

“British?” Nazari looked at the Shah. “If he enters the city, your friend will be condemned. By order of the Shah.”

“Subedar Major,” Hadi dipped his head. “There is more.”

“More?”

“The army from the east has taken position along the city road.”

“What is this? Speak up,” the Shah fidgeted upon the dais. “An army at the gates?”

“The Germans?” Nazari looked at Hari. “We must protect the Shah.” He turned to Hadi. “Allow the white man and his prisoner to enter, detain them in the guardhouse by the gate.”

“My friend?” Hari grasped Nazari’s wrist.

“I am sorry, Hari Singh,” Nazari pulled his arm free of Hari’s grip and signalled for the Shah’s slave and guard detail to come closer. “Guard the Shah. No one leaves. No one enters.” Nazari bade leave of the Shah and hurried out of the minaret with Hadi in tow.

Bowing to the Shah, Hari turned to follow but found his path blocked by a scimitar in the hands of the Shah’s bodyguard. “No one leaves. No one enters,” the guard lowered his blade.

“It seems you will be my guest a little longer, Hari Singh,” the Shah smiled. He clapped his hands. Hari watched as the Shah’s wives and their servants returned with more plates of delicacies and carafes of wine. “Come; entertain us with stories of the Nightjar’s escapades in the mountains.”

 

҉

Horse hairs clung to the dirty rag stuffed into Jamie’s mouth. Jamie snorted the dust from his nostrils and lifted his head. From where he lay, bound to the saddle of Bryullov’s packhorse, Jamie could just make out the sturdy mechanical legs powering through the dust cloud along the road. They were getting closer. He could better understand Bryullov’s urgency and Najma’s agitation. I don’t recall the admiral mentioning anything about gigantic metal walkers. Nor Russians for that matter. Jamie strained the muscles in his neck, twisting his head to look up at the wall. The row of marksman along the ancient packed-mud parapets, their jezails loaded and steady, did not improve the lieutenant’s spirits.

“Let me speak with your commander,” Bryullov shouted up at the man in charge of the Shah’s marksmen.

“Subedar Major Nazari is not available,” Tarek turned away from the parapet and whispered in the ear of the marksman standing to his right. He stepped back as the man took aim and fired. The musket ball made a crater in the road in front of Bryullov’s horse. Bryullov struggled with the reins, twisting in the saddle as he calmed the beast.

“Damn it, man. Do you not see the enemy approaching?”

“I see them, sir,” Tarek nodded. “And the more of them I see the less inclined I am to open the gates.”

“You will when you understand that I have one of their spies with me. The one in control of the metal man that you have bellowing in your Shah’s court.” Bryullov pointed at Jamie. “He can change everything, but only if you let us in.”

Najma pulled the reins of Jamie’s horse tight sending a splinter of pain through his thigh as the horses squashed his body between them.

“I am sorry, Englishman,” Najma leaned across her mount and whispered to the back of Jamie’s head.

“It is best not to speak to him, Najma,” Bryullov cast a glance over his shoulder at the approaching walkers. The vibrations from the massive feet and the clacking of heavy gears juddered along the road, up through the hooves of the horses and grated on the nerves of the Russian. “He will not live very long once we get inside the city.” Bryullov looked up as a new face appeared alongside Tarek on the walls above him. He smiled as Tarek gave a brief command and the massive desert oak gates of Adina Pur creaked upon opening. “That’s it, Najma. Lead the prisoner through the gates, I will follow.”

Two ranks of marksmen, lightning jezails held in the crook of their arms, lined each side of the road inside the gates. Swordsmen with scimitars drawn blocked Bryullov’s party’s exit from the rear as Nazari and his personal bodyguard of four men received them. The gates closed with a long creak of stubborn timbers, punctuated with the crash and thud of the heavy crossbeams securing the gates from the inside. Jamie noted the position of the beams. They’ll never hold. Two of the Shah’s men pulled Jamie from the saddle. He winced as his feet hit the ground, stumbling over his feet as the men dragged him to a prison cart waiting to one side of the road.

“This is the spy?” Nazari waited as his men disarmed Bryullov and removed Najma’s jezail from where it hung from her saddle. “He does not look like a spy.”

“They rarely do,” Bryullov made a note of who received his pistols. “That’s what makes them so effective.”

“I am sure,” Nazari agreed. “But we will let the Shah pass judgement on him,” he nodded to the men guarding Jamie, watching as they lifted him into the cart and locked the door. “Judgement will surely be due on you, as well, Captain Bryullov.” Nazari extended his hand. “It has been a long time since we last saw you.”

“It has,” Bryullov shook Nazari’s hand. He frowned as the Subedar Major tightened his grip.

“News reached us of Gushtia, of course,” Nazari released the Russian’s hand. “You will find that the Tsar’s name is no longer any guarantee of safety, regardless of how potent his threats have become.” Nazari stood to one side, gesturing for Bryullov to walk beside him. “You have interesting travelling companions,” Nazari looked at Najma as she fell in step behind them. “A Pashtoo princess and a British spy.”

The prison cart creaked behind them as the procession made its way along the road toward the royal court. The sound of the emissary wailing distracted Jamie for a moment from the conversation before him though he understood little of what was said. Hands behind his back, he shuffled forward on his knees and pressed his ear against the wooden bars of the cart.

“I stumbled across the spy in the mountains above the city, the princess is another matter.” Bryullov stopped Nazari with a hand upon his arm. “What of the defences? You have seen what is coming?”

Nazari smiled and continued walking. “Captain,” he let the Russian catch up, “let me show you the Shah’s newest military additions. Mountain guns,” Nazari steered Bryullov to one side of the road as they turned the corner before the royal court. A row of six sturdy artillery pieces behind four horses apiece were being moved into riding formation. Nazari waved at the leader of the artillery and the horses pulled the guns past them. Following the artillery and the gunners in charge of them came a modest cavalry of fifty men and horse and one hundred infantry on foot

“You mean to attack?” Bryullov stared open-mouthed.

“Our gates are not strong enough to resist even one of their machines,” Nazari swapped smiles with the men as they passed. “If we are to protect the Shah and the city, then attack is our only option. You can watch from the ramparts if you wish. The Shah has tasked me with commanding the battle. If you will excuse me, my men will see you safely to the Shah.”

The column of men and guns marched past Jamie as the prison cart was hauled over to the side of the road to give them room. The shudder of the approaching machines rumbled through the ground, Jamie felt the tremors through his cheeks pressed between the bars. Snagging the gag on a large splinter, he ripped the foul cloth from his mouth.

“You can’t defeat them,” Jamie called out to Nazari as he passed. “They are too strong. Their armour is too thick.”

“Too thick for British guns?” Nazari switched to a clipped and precise English and crossed between the ranks of his men. He reached between the bars and pressed his finger into Jamie’s chest. “I have seen British guns destroy the great walls of Burkhat. What do you know of armour and guns, spy?”

“Enough to know that the walls of Burkhat do not move. Those things,” he nodded in the direction of the rumbling encroaching on the city gates, “have travelled from Peshawar, charging up the river in the same time it takes for just one of your raiding parties to cross the border, and raiders travel light. There is nothing light about them.”

“Enough, spy,” Nazari rejoined his men. “The Shah will deal with you. I will deal with them.” He slapped the back of the man in front of him. “Just like we dealt with the British, eh?” The men cheered, the rumble beneath their sandaled feet forgotten at the memory of past victories.

“It will be a slaughter,” Jamie slumped to the floor of the cart as his guards pulled it toward the court where the emissary wailed to the rhythm of impending battle.

 

Chapter 9

 

Adina Pur

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

The Shah’s men pulled Jamie out of the prison cart, one man tearing off the lieutenant’s greatcoat while another pulled open his shirt ripping the buttons from their stitching. Jamie staggered to balance on his good leg, hands tied behind his back.

“What are you doing?” Jamie shouted above the wail of the emissary. Staggering backward he tried to retreat from a third man approaching him with a small clay pot of azure paint. The men on each side of Jamie stalled his movement with a tight grip around each of his arms. The man in front of Jamie, his breath as foul as the broken teeth angling his smile, dipped a crooked finger into the paint and spiralled his finger upon Jamie’s bare chest. The course paint pricked at Jamie’s skin as the man applied another layer to the anticlockwise twist. “A djinn ward? Is that it? Why should I need protection from the djinn?” The men laughed at Jamie as a fourth man pushed the lid off a circular wall of mud. Jamie paused. “Is this a djinn pit?” he tried to stagger backward. The painter stepped back as the men either side of Jamie slit his bonds with a long knife and thrust the lieutenant forward, plunging him into the deep pit of Adina Pur. Steep-sided, round, rotten, Jamie slid down the wall and landed on his feet. Biting back the scream of pain from his thigh, he crumpled to the floor. The light from above rolled into black as the pit was covered with a stone lid and the rumble of battle beyond the city gates was deafened by the silence of the prison walls.

“The Admiral never mentioned this,” Jamie stared into the darkness. He brushed his hands over the floor, turning balls of damp, fusty material between his fingers. “Lovely.” Jamie pushed himself up onto his feet and made a tour of the pit. As his eyes accustomed to the light creeping in around the pitted edges of the lid, Jamie found iron rings, chains and empty manacles bolted to the smooth rock walls. The pit had a large diameter and Jamie was only halfway around when he bumped into something. He stifled a gasp of pain and reached forward to investigate.

“Sleeping. Don’t disturb.” Brushing off Jamie’s hands, the object, a small human form, turned its back on the lieutenant.

“Your accent,” Jamie placed his hand on a bony shoulder. “You’re French?”

“Get off me.” Cold hands wrestled with Jamie’s fingers. Jamie held on. “I said get off.”

“Not until you tell me who you are, how you came to be here.” The person’s hands, those of a man, were dusty to the touch. Jamie coughed in the darkness.

“That’ll get worse the more you move around,” the man slipped his fingers free. “Find your own corner to weep in.”

“Weep? I don’t want to weep. I want to get out of here.”

“Of course you do,” the man turned his face toward Jamie’s. “Everyone wants to leave in the beginning. Right at the start, when you think there’s hope.” The man paused, his eyes dancing over the mark glowing faintly on Jamie’s chest. “The funny thing is,” the man chuckled, “leaving here only means you are leaving this mortal plane for good. And if that doesn’t work, you’ll find yourself at the end of a rope or at the point of a sword, it’s the same difference.” In the gloom, Jamie could just make out two very round eyes and cheeks so smooth the light from above made them shine.

“You haven’t been here long,” Jamie smoothed his palm over his own dusty beard. “You are clean shaven.”

“Clean shaven?” the man laughed. Turning his back from the wall he crawled onto his knees. His face hovered inches from Jamie’s, bobbing in the gloom. “I plucked them, every last hair, just this very morning. It takes time, see,” he whispered to Jamie. “First you have to let them grow long enough before you can pluck ‘em. Then you have to find them, all that exploring, pinching hairs between nails, one at a time. If I didn’t have my nails,” he sat back on his heels. “Just think what would become of me, if I didn’t have my nails.”

“How long have you been down here?” Jamie reached out to take the man’s hand, but he shuffled back in a cloud of dust. Jamie coughed as the thick dust settled on his tongue and filled his nostrils, pricked at his eyes.

“Many beards,” the man whispered. “I don’t like to think. Must not think.”

The dust began to settle on the two men in the pit. The wailing of the metal emissary filtering in through the lid reminded Jamie of a baby’s cry or the squealing of a stuck pig. Khaled’s arrogance at the coming battle worried Jamie, but there is little I can do from here in this pit. He leaned back against the rock wall and tipped his head to gaze up at the thin circle of light rimming the lid.

“You say you have been here a while,” Jamie rolled his head to one side, seeking the man in the gloom. “When did you learn to speak English?”

“Learn to speak English?” the man chuckled. “All Villeneuve’s men must learn the language of their enemy.”

“Villeneuve’s men?” Jamie leaned forward. “Why are you here? What do you know of Trafalgar? Why does the Shah condemn you to this pit?”

“It is not the Shah that condemns me,” the man spun slowly upon the floor, his eyes burning a malevolent blue in the darkness.

Jamie recoiled, dust puffing between his fingers as he moved backward upon the floor. “What manner of man are you?”

“I shan’t tell you who I am,” the man laughed. “It is who I have become that you should concern yourself with, Englishman.” Stretching his hands up toward the light, the man stood, the light from his eyes singeing motes of dust trapped within his gaze. “Let me tell you of the Qarin, mine and yours, for are you not also a prisoner of the pit? Jamie Hanover.”

“How do you know my name?” The wall behind Jamie brought his retreat to a sudden stop. He pushed his fingers into the dirt in an effort to push himself to his feet, I might have to fight. Jamie blinked at the blue light growing harsh in their close proximity to one another.

“I know many things,” the man’s body dissolved in the light, blue motes of dust, thousands of them, whirled within the walls of the pit. Jamie grew dizzy, disoriented; he flicked his hands out to the walls, his fingers inches away and yet miles from contact. Enveloped within the frantic swirl of blue dust Jamie gasped for air. “I know things about you, Jamie Hanover. Things you would rather have hidden, buried, forgotten.”

“You don’t know me,” Jamie reeled within the dust.

“All men are appointed a Qarin, a djinni,” a pair of blue hands formed within the dust. “They whisper to us. Oh, how they whisper,” the fingers of each blue hand flexed and fanned before the lieutenant.

“I know of no Qarin. No djinni,” Jamie stumbled within the pit blindly seeking a corner, a sharp edge, anything to hold onto.

“Let me whisper to you, Jamie Hanover. Let me accompany you on your journey.”

“Stay away from me,” Jamie pushed at the blue hands seeking his throat.

“Poor boy. Once your mother’s favourite,” the voice of the man, Jamie’s Qarin, vibrated around the walls. “I know you, thief.”

“Beast, what does that matter?”

“Beast? You call me beast?” wicked waves of laughter reverberated through the lieutenant as he groped about in the blue hell. “What bestial acts have you turned, Hanover? Did you not steal from the pauper on the streets of your hometown of Gamlingay? Steal from the poor mother and her child so that you might get a drink?”

“I had to. I couldn’t help it.”

“Oh, but you could have. You just didn’t want to.”

“No.”

“There were others,” the man’s voice cut into Jamie. “Another family of beggars, easy prey. Their little girl, not two years old, she died, you know?”

“That was,” Jamie coughed, hooked a finger in his mouth to claw out the blue motes sticking to the roof of his mouth, clogging his tongue. “That was another time, another place. Another me.”

“Another you? Perhaps?” the voice cackled. The swirl of dust intensified. The floor dissolved.

“No,” Jamie reached for the walls, he descended. Wrapped within the dust he dropped. All the while, for every fathom he plummeted, the voice reiterated the sins of the lieutenant.

“The neighbour’s purse. The husband’s savings.”

“A gift,” Jamie fell.

“A gift? Hard-earned, smartly wasted. No gift, lieutenant.”

Jamie drew short, ragged breaths, his lungs squeezed, he clawed at the shirt hanging open across his chest.

“You stole from your own mother. Her locket,” Jamie’s Qarin cackled. “From her bedside table. While she slept.”

“I was hungry,” Jamie felt for the locket.

“Hungry? Thirsty more like,” the blue hands grasped Jamie’s shoulders. “It’s not there, Jamie. It has been replaced with something much better.”

Jamie pressed his fingers around his neck. Sliding them down his chest he gasped.

“Yes,” the voice soothed. “Find it, feel it, trace your fingers once, twice around it.”

Within the choking dust an orange fire burned with flames three, four inches high, flickering along the lines of the djinn mark pasted upon Jamie’s chest.

“It burns,” Jamie’s fingers trembled.

“Yes,” the dust evaporated from Jamie’s body, funnelling around him creating a vacuum within which he fell. “Trace your fingers through the fire, it will heal, it will stop, it will cool.”

“I can’t,” Jamie forced his chin downward to stare at his chest.”

“You must,” the voice soothed. “You will.”

Jamie stretched his right hand toward the fire spiralling about his chest. The middle finger extended, he pressed it into the fire, pushing it flat at the beginning of the spiral. He felt the gritty azure paint smear beneath his fingertip. Where his finger pressed the fire extinguished in a brilliant white wisp of smoke.

“Yes,” the voice crooned. “Feel the relief, the coolness. Complete the spiral.”

“What will happen?” Eyes smarting from the needle-sharp dust, lungs panting from his wild descent, Jamie flicked his head up. “What is happening to me?”

“Complete the spiral, Jamie. Become one with your Qarin. Complete your one true self. Become djinn.”

“Djinn? The djinn? But I have the mark.”

“Yes,” the voice slipped away in the dust. “You have the mark.”

“Wait,” Jamie reached out with his left hand. “Come back.”

“Complete the spiral, Jamie. Become djinn.”

Jamie’s finger tingled upon his chest, the flames licked at his nail, singed the tiny hairs on his knuckles, crisped the skin.

“Become djinn, Jamie.”

The funnel shrank, the fire on his chest raged and Jamie, lost in the shrinking, needling cloud of dust, traced his finger along the spiral flaming upon his chest.

The fires cooled. The funnel swelled and his descent to the bottom of the pit slowed. As the fire on his chest extinguished, Jamie inhaled the white smoke, sucking long tendrils into his lungs. They expanded, he expanded. Jamie’s ribs, every bone in his body flexed and stretched. Three times his normal size, Jamie lifted his head, pressed his palms downward and ascended. Faster and faster, escaping the dust, barrelling upward like a musket ball blasting along a smooth-bore barrel. Jamie Hanover – once a young man, now djinn.

 

҉

“A djinn pit?” Ignoring Bryullov’s entrance, Hari sank to his knees. “You threw him in a djinn pit?”

“He was marked,” the Shah rested his hands upon the pommel of a jewelled cane, the elder wives supporting him as he rose and shuffled to where Hari knelt. “Your friend, the lieutenant, will save the day, Hari Singh.” The Shah pointed a wizened finger at Bryullov. “That is worth remembering when you speak to your Tsar.”

Bryullov bowed. Turning his head, he kept a careful watch of Hari before returning his attention to the Shah. “It is not the Tsar threatening your city, Shah.”

The Shah waved his hand. “No, of course not,” he plucked at a pastry from the metal plate in the hands of his fourth wife. “The Tsar would not be so foolish. Not now you know I possess the power of the djinn.”

Hari leaned forward, tucking his elbows into his side, his forearms resting on his knees. A djinn pit, he shook his head. Oh, British. What have I done? Hari slid the fingers of his left hand inside his robes, they fingered the hilt of the kukri. Shifting his weight upon his knees, Hari gripped the handle of the curved blade. The wailing of the emissary filtered through the wooden lattice covering the windows. Hari lifted his head up sharply and caught the Russian’s eye. Flicking his eyes to the left and right, Hari noted the relaxed stance of the Shah’s bodyguards.

“The Tsar will be interested in the result of the battle, eminence,” Bryullov bowed once more. “Especially as he wishes me to extend his cordial interests together with the gift of ten mountain guns.”

“Bah,” the Shah waved his hand at Bryullov. “We have British mountain guns, what will we do with…” he paused at the flap of robes and blur of motion in front of him. Screams from the Shah’s wives distracted him as Hari leaped onto his feet, and kicked the legs out from under first one and then the other of the men guarding him. Bryullov tugged the tails of his shirt free of his trousers and reached for the small flintlock pistol he kept in a band of silk wrapped around his waist. Hari kicked Bryullov in the chest before the Russian had a chance to withdraw the pistol.

“You’ll never make it out of the city,” Bryullov gasped, staring at Hari beyond the foot the mystic pressed into his chest.

Hari waved the tip of the kukri in front of Bryullov’s nose. “You need to apply more shoe polish, my friend. Your disguise is wearing thin.” Hari nicked a cut in Bryullov’s cheek an inch long before pivoting upon the man’s stomach and racing to the door.

“Najma,” Bryullov sat up and pressed his hand to his cheek. “Stop him.”

Najma ran to the wall of the receiving room. Gripping the barrel of her jezail leaning against the wall, she fished a musket ball from the leather pouch belted above her hips and chased after Hari.

Squinting in the sun, Hari slowed to get his bearings. The wailing of the emissary quailed under the crack and thump of muskets and artillery pieces; Khaled had begun his defence of the city. Looking beyond the kneeling form of the emissary, Hari searched for the raised entrance to the pit. He saw it, just beyond the entrance to the royal courtyard. Sheathing the kukri, Hari ran toward the pit stopping only when a ball of lightning seared his right shoulder and sent him tumbling to the dirt. The buzz of the shot from Najma’s jezail reverberating about the buildings as Hari rolled on the ground and pushed himself to his feet. He glanced at Najma, catching her eye as she rammed a new musket ball into the barrel. She charged the jezail with seven rapid cranks of the priming handle. Whipping the stock into her shoulder, she sighted along the barrel. The dust at Hari’s feet spun into clouds as he turned and ran toward the pit.

Najma’s second shot burned a hole in his robes as the ball of charged copper and lead tore into his side just above his left hip. Hari stuttered to the floor just in front of the djinn pit and pressed his hands upon the wound while his body shook. With jerky movements he lifted his robes. Looking down, Hari saw blood, but no exit wound. The lightning ball cauterized the wound, sealing itself inside his body. Looking over his left shoulder, he watched as Najma walked toward him. Casting aside the jezail, she drew a long knife from the curved scabbard belted beneath her belly button. Hari drew the kukri and struggled to his feet.

“You don’t have to do this, Najma,” blood from Hari’s hip dripped through the fingers of his right hand, splashing on the blade of the kukri twitching in his left hand. “Bryullov is not worth it. Neither is the Tsar.” Hari raised the kukri and pointed to the east. “Do you not remember Gushtia?”

Tight-lipped, Najma closed the distance between them with careful steps.

“Do you hear that,” Hari pointed in the direction of the emissary. “It is here to talk; there is no need for violence.”

“And the soldiers outside the gates?” sidestepping to Hari’s right, Najma gripped the knife in her left hand.

“Insurance. The Germans want to make good on their promises,” Hari shuffled upon his feet, bending his knees slightly in anticipation of her attack.

“They have a funny way of showing it.”

“Are the Russians any better? What has Bryullov promised your father? Gold? Trinkets?”

“It is no concern of yours,” Najma shifted her stance.

“Think about it, Najma. What would your father do if he were Shah? Listen to the emissary? Treat with the men outside the gates, or kill the only man able to stop them?” Hari pressed his thumb against his chest.

“You?” Najma laughed. “My father talked about a wandering mystic, one that never practices his religion, just mumbles in the dark. What could such a man do to stop them?” she nodded in the direction of the gates. The rumble of artillery and the pounding of large metal feet increased.

“Why so bitter, Najma? Is your life so bad?”

“You know nothing of my life.”

“Truly,” Hari nodded. “But neither does Bryullov. Ah,” Hari smiled at the colouring of Najma’s cheeks. “He has promised to take you away from all this. Hasn’t he? Perhaps even as far as Russia.”

“He has talked…” Najma paused at the shriek of wind boring up from the earth.

Hari flicked his eyes to the pit as the ground trembled, the lid gyrating on top of the pit like the spinning of some giant stone coin. Najma screamed as the lid cracked, splintering shards of stone in the desert air. Splinters of rock shredded Hari’s robes, puncturing his skin as he dropped to the floor, taking cover beneath the raised entrance to the pit. One large chunk of the broken lid whirled into Najma’s chest. She slammed into the ground, the stone flattening the air from her lungs, a cloud of dust immersing her body. Hari looked up as a body of blue smoke sucked stones, pebbles and small rocks from the ground, forming a tail of rock and dust beneath the human form suspended twenty feet above the city.

“British,” Hari felt his chest tighten as he stared up at his travelling companion, four times larger than life, a look of pure hatred chiselled upon his face.

The djinni cast its eyes round the city before turning its gaze upon the battle beyond the walls. Blue-skinned and bare-chested, its legs a maelstrom of rock and dust, the djinni, scored the ground beneath it, leaving a wide, deep path as it shrieked toward the gates of the city.

Hari watched as the djinni slowed to pluck the emissary from its seat in the royal court, hurling it toward the battle clouds drifting toward the city. The emissary’s message, the sole purpose of its manufacture, was whipped from its loudhailer as it wailed into the distance, a sudden puff of smoke the only sign of its landing. Hari pulled open his shirt, exposing the anti-djinn mark as his friend crashed into the gates of the city and stormed into battle.

 

Chapter 10

 

Adina Pur

Afghanistan

December, 1850

 

Gunpowder clouds drifted over the Shah’s artillery pieces one hundred yards in front of the city walls. Nazari’s gunners, rivers of sweat running through the soot blackening their faces, stepped back as the British mountains guns belched at the metal mammoths charging toward them. Nazari raised his sword as the gunners swabbed the guns, rammed new charges home and slid heavy grenades into the hot metal barrels.

“Fire,” Nazari dropped his sword in an arc to the ground. The ground shook as the guns bounced back within sulphurous clouds of gunpowder. A cavalryman riding through the smoke hailed him. Nazari pressed the handle of his sword into the palm of his subedar and signalled the rider to dismount. “Report.”

“Yes, Subedar Major,” the cavalryman slid out of his saddle. He held the reins of his horse, restraining the beast at the thumping of the guns. “Two of the metal mammoths are stuck in the soft sand on the left side of the road.” The man jerked as the horse reeled at the thump of another gun barrage.

“How many mammoths remain?” Nazari twitched his nose in the cloud of gunfire.

“Three,” the cavalryman coughed. “Infantry hide behind them. We cannot reach them, and our men are forced to retreat beyond range of our jezails. There are sharpshooters up high on the machines protecting the drivers and men with curious boxes hanging around their necks. The sharpshooters are using some kind of pulse rifle.” He held his horse steady as the guns fired, fewer this time. Nazari turned to his subedar.

“That was half a battery.”

“Yes, Subedar Major,” the man, pointed at the guns at the end of the line. “The barrels are too hot. We must wait.”

“We cannot wait,” Nazari cuffed the subedar on the side of his head. “Piss on the barrels. Fire the guns. Stop them,” he pointed at the mammoths approaching along the shell-pocked road.

“Yes, Subedar Major.” Handing Nazari his sword, the subedar jogged down to the end of the line. Nazari watched as the men, one by one, dropped their pantaloons and pissed. The barrels spat and steamed with each arc of urine, the men wrinkling their noses as they emptied their bladders, lifted their pantaloons and secured them about their waists.

“You,” Nazari pressed his finger into the chest of the cavalryman. “Ride back and rally the cavalry. Charge through the legs of the enemy and take out their infantry.”

“A suicide charge?” the man paled.

“You can die for the Shah in front of Allah, or I can have you flogged over the barrel of a steaming mountain gun.” Nazari stabbed the point of his sword into the ground between the cavalryman’s feet. “Which is it?”

“I will carry out your orders, Subedar Major.” Pulling himself into the saddle, the cavalryman reined in his horse at the renewed barrage of shells belching out of the piss-drenched guns. Nazari watched the man ride away and surveyed the battlefield.

He stared at the mammoth walkers stuck in soft sand, their crews digging while the sharpshooters covered them with musket fire and lightning pulses from above. [_They must have been trying to go around the city, _]Nazari thought. Walking forward and standing on the earth embankments between two gun emplacements, he wafted smoke from his face to observe the movement of the enemy along the road. The metal beasts, armoured with huge rusted plates upon iron ribs, loosely resembled their prehistoric namesakes minus the trunks. Either side of the driver, the mammoths’ ears were cupped to seat the sharpshooters and their spotters, two men in each ear. The drivers pushed levers back and forth, sitting in cushioned seats suspended upon thick coiled springs to lessen the shock waves pounding through the rusted iron skeleton of each mammoth. _They are too high for my marksmen, and the mountain guns are having no effect. _

Leading the column of three mammoths, a single emissary, its partner mangled by a lucky shell from one of Nazari’s guns, weaved along the road. Standing behind the mammoth driver, a man followed the progress of the emissary, fiddling with elongated levers protruding from a box secured to a harness on his chest.

Nazari turned to order his men to fire on the road, in front of the emissary, but the order never left his lips. Nazari stared at the wailing missile hurtling through the air above him and his men. Twisting his body, he followed its flight as the emissary from the city arced into the path of the lead mammoth, smashing into the driver’s cockpit. The walker swayed. Leaning to the right it tumbled onto the side of the road raising a cloud of dust that blinded those behind it. Nazari smiled as his men raised a cheer. A new salvo burst forth from Nazari’s guns, the cavalry charging in the wake of the shells that slammed into the innards of the downed machine. More cheers as smoke and flames licked at the machine and flaming human figures poured from beneath the armoured plates only to be swept up on the points and blades of the cavalry’s scimitars.

“Cease fire,” Nazari turned to the gunners. As he stepped down from the embankment he stared at the blue figure crashing through the gates and shrieking toward them. “Djinn,” Nazari shouted as he fumbled at the buttons on his tunic. “Djinn,” he ripped open his shirt and exposed the clockwise spiral mark upon his chest. Dropping their charges and falling to their knees, the gunners tore their long, sooty shirts up and over their heads to expose their own marks. As the djinni shrieked over their heads, Nazari remembered the cavalry. “You and you,” he grabbed two of the gunners closest to him. “Fire the djinn flare.” As the men readied the gun, he ran to the top of the embankment and searched battlefield for his cavalry. “Hurry.”

The djinni tore up the road, collapsing the riders at the rear of the cavalry charge within his arms, tossing man and horse high into the air. Nazari heard the wet thuds as the cavalrymen and their horses screamed into the ground. The djinn flare cracked in the sky above the cavalry and the remaining riders, those that heard the crack and saw the glitter of green fireworks, dismounted and ripped at their clothes to reveal the djinn mark. The slower riders and those busy engaging the enemy were swept up in the djinni’s crushing embrace. They fell, comrades and enemies alike, their bones and bodies crushed side by side in the dust and rocks outside the city.

 

҉

Hari pulled off his robe and cut off a long strip with the kukri. Pressing the dusty cloth into the wound in his side, he bound it with the sleeves of his shirt tied together at the cuffs. Wounds from stone splinters bled on his bare chest as Hari sheathed the kukri and staggered over to where the warlord princess moaned in the dirt. Bending at the knees, he knelt by Najma’s side, calling her name as he lifted the slab of stone from her chest. Najma shuddered, her breathing ragged and wild.

“Djinni?” she gasped, her eyes flickering from side to side.

“Gone,” Hari pointed to the field of battle beyond the gates. “That way.”

“Bryullov?”

Hari shrugged. “With the Shah?” He moved his fingers to Najma’s face. She flinched. “Splinters,” Hari opened and closed his thumb and finger before her. “I want to pull them out.”

“Yes,” Najma breathed.

“Don’t move.” Hari removed fourteen splinters from Najma’s face and forehead. He pulled down her shirt to reveal her shoulders. “More splinters,” Hari smiled. “I won’t go any further.” Najma closed her fingers around Hari’s wrist. She flicked her eyes to her chest. “What? Are there more?”

“Yes,” Najma shivered. “They hurt.”

“All right,” Hari opened Najma’s shirt, the cotton sticky with blood. He tugged three long splinters from Najma’s left breast, a fourth from her right. Najma closed her eyes, tears trickled down her cheeks and splashed into the dust in dark circles. “It’s all right, Najma,” Hari buttoned Najma’s shirt. “You are going to be all right.”

Najma opened her eyes as Hari stood. “Don’t leave,” she gripped the hem of Hari’s pantaloons hanging above his ankle. “Don’t leave me to die alone.”

“You are not dying, Najma,” Hari smiled.

Najma fumbled in her pocket and pulled out the watch. “Take this.”

Hari knelt and closed his fingers around Najma’s hand. “You keep it. “I need to go out there. I need to find my friend.” Hari pulled free of Najma’s grip. Walking around her, he turned in the direction of the broken gates of Adina Pur.

Bryullov charged out of the Shah’s receiving room. He stopped short at the sight of Hari.

“She is over there,” Hari pointed toward Najma. “She fought bravely,” he added before turning his back on the Russian and continuing down the street. Bryullov continued past him, swearing in Russian as he crouched in the dirt by the side of the wounded princess.

“Wait,” Bryullov stood. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out Jamie’s locket and threw it to Hari. “Give it to your friend, if you find him.”

“Thank you,” Hari hung the locket around his neck and picked his way through the rubble to the gates. The remains of the heavy doors hanging from their hinges twisted in a fresh breeze blowing from the east. Stooping to pick up a cavalryman’s jacket that had blown up against the wall, Hari pulled it on and buttoned it. He tugged the jacket tail on the right up and over the pommel of his kukri.

A troop of men, guns and horses trotted toward him. Their anti-djinn marks exposed, they carried foreign trophy rifles slung across their bare chests. Forcing Hari from the road, they laughed and cheered with the joy of victory. Hari walked on, circling the pits and shell holes zigzagging the road ahead of him.

He found Nazari standing in front of an eviscerated mammoth a quarter of a mile from the splintered gates of the city. Its bones and gears gathering dust in the breeze, the plates of metal skin peeled and discarded hundreds of feet away in all directions.

“Subedar Major,” Hari stopped by Nazari’s side.

“Ah, Nightjar,” Nazari picked at the lapel of Hari’s jacket. “You have chosen a side, at last.”

“There are no sides today,” Hari pointed at the piles of cavalrymen wearing the colours of the Shah.

“An acceptable sacrifice. Allah will reward them. The city is saved.”

“Where is he?”

“Who?” Nazari frowned. “Oh, yes. Your Englishman.” He pointed to the east. “He went that way. Remember, he belongs to the Shah, now.” Nazari patted Hari on the shoulder as he walked past him. “You can keep the jacket.”

Hari walked around the skeleton of the mammoth, and past the next. As the road continued he passed three more, each more disfigured than the rest, as if the djinni’s rage increased the further it travelled from the pit.

Battle dust from the road silted into Hari’s covered sandals. Three miles beyond the gates he stopped to remove them and brush the dust from his feet. Resting in the middle of the road, Hari slid his fingers between his toes and looked up at the cry of a hawk shooing vultures from a spot just above the lookout post. He pulled on his sandals and climbed the path up the mountainside. Hari followed the hawk’s cries to a boulder stained at the base with blood. Peering around the boulder Hari lifted his arm to fend off the hawk only to have it grip his wrist. The hawk beat the cool evening air into Hari’s face as he stared at the body of the boy at his feet.

“Your master?” Hari smoothed a crooked finger over the hawk’s breast. Settling upon his wrist, the hawk lowered its wings and was still. The vultures gambled about the rocks above them on thick talons. Hari studied the boy. Reaching down he lifted the cuff of the boy’s shirt and found a leather bracelet with the name Shahin crudely carved into the surface. “Shahin?” Hari looked at the hawk as it shifted position on his wrist. “A fine companion for the Nightjar,” Hari nodded. “We will travel together.” Hari closed the boy’s eyes with his fingers and walked back down the path to the lookout post.

Sprawled on a ledge, one hundred feet further along the path beyond the lookout post, Hari found the naked body of Jamie Hanover. Bruised, one arm and one ankle broken, Jamie’s body was bloody and dirty. The djinn mark burned on his chest wept a thin, clear fluid. Hari clambered over the rocks to where Jamie lay and sat down beside him. Shahin flapped from his wrist and settled upon a rock above them.

“British,” Hari placed a hand on Jamie’s body. “Can you hear me?”

Jamie stirred. Lifting his head an inch from the ground, he opened one eye, stared at Hari and let his head fall with a soft thud. “Hari,” Jamie’s mouth stretched into a thin line. He licked the dust from his lips. “What took you so long?”

“You are well, British?”

“Well?” Jamie coughed. “Hari, do I look well?”

“Truly?” Hari patted Jamie’s shoulder. “No, you do not. But you are alive.”

“I am something,” Jamie cursed as he forced himself into a sitting position. Hari helped position his ankle. “I am also naked. No wonder I am cold.”

“Here,” Hari unbuttoned his jacket and wrapped it around Jamie’s shoulders.

“You found my mother’s locket.”

“Yes, the Russian gave it to me,” Hari started to remove it.”

“No, keep it for me.” Jamie stared at the mark on Hari’s chest. “That,” he pointed, “I understand it now.”

“Yes,” Hari traced the tattoo, azure blue on his brown skin. “It spirals the opposite way to yours,” he stared at Jamie’s chest. “Does it hurt?”

“No. Not anymore.” Jamie rested his wrist on his thigh. “Other things do.” He turned at the rustle of wings above him. “We are being watched, Hari.”

“Yes, it is the second pathetic creature to attach itself to me,” Hari grinned. Jamie winced as he laughed. “We must get you help.”

“Wait, Hari,” Jamie reached out for Hari’s hand. “Let us sit for a while,” his eyes lingered on the bandage around Hari’s waist. “Unless you need help.”

“I am all right, British. For the moment.”

“Good,” Jamie leaned his back against a large, smooth rock. He held Hari’s hand. “I am not sure what happened down there.” He nodded toward the city and the ruin of bodies and war machines lining the road. “I remember things, whirling thoughts, gunpowder clouds and screeching metal.”

“Yes,” Hari squeezed Jamie’s hand.

“Did I really do all that, Hari?”

“Yes, British. You did.”

Jamie was quiet for a moment. Hari stared into the grey eyes of the young Englishman as he in turn stared out into the expanse of the rocky valley, the scene of the battle of Adina Pur.

“You remember I spoke of my sister, Luise, back in England?” Jamie released Hari’s hand. “I haven’t been a particularly good brother,” he turned to look at Hari. “I stole from her, when I was thirsty. I stole from all my family.”

Tucking his legs up against his chest, Hari hugged his knees as he listened, the light hairs on his skin stiffening in the breeze.

“I want you to find her, Hari. Go to England and find her.”

“Why can’t you go yourself, British?”

“You know why, Hari.” Jamie’s eyes wandered back to the city. The first pricks of lantern light flared at the gates as the men shored up the entrance to the city, barring the gates to the packs of wild dogs picking at the bodies on the road. “There is a boat waiting on the banks of the Indus just beyond Peshawar. It will take you down the river if you give the bosun my name and the money I left in a box with the consul at the trading outpost.

“And how will I get the box, British?”

“Hari,” Jamie smiled, his teeth gleaming in the twilight. “I don’t doubt your powers of persuasion,” he tapped the pommel of Hari’s kukri.

“And from there?”

“Take a boat, to London. You might even find one of those new steamjammers in port. There is plenty of money in the box. The Admiral wanted this mission to succeed.”

“And did it?” Hari leaned closer to Jamie.

“I found a Frenchman at least. A Qarin or my Qarin. Villeneuve’s secret weapon.”

“You believe now they used a djinni at the battle of Trafalgar, British?”

“I don’t just believe it, Hari. I know it. You said it yourself,” he pointed at the road. “Just look what I did.”

“You want me to report back to the Admiral?”

“No, not at first. I want you to find my sister. Give her what is left of the money, and protect her?”

“From what?”

“Me, and the coming storm. Hanover is a German name, Hari. You know what is coming. If they can come this far unstopped, with their machines, then the flat fields of Europe will not stop them. War is coming, Hari, and I want my sister to be protected.”

“I will find your sister,” Hari pressed his hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “I will protect her.”

“Thank you,” Jamie fell silent as the breeze chilled the two men sitting on the side of the mountain.

“We must go, British. We will catch our death of cold here on the mountain dressed like this.”

“You go, Hari. I will make my own way when I am ready.”

“Don’t be foolish, your ankle is broken,” Hari pointed.

“Is it?” Jamie waggled his ankle in the twilight. He lifted his wrist and presented it to Hari. A feint blue glow from Jamie’s chest lit the space between them and Hari saw that the man’s body was no longer bruised, all puncture wounds were healed. “I seem to be healed, Hari. Healed and cursed.”

“Cursed?”

Jamie shrugged. “I must return to the pit before long, before sunrise.” Jamie stood. “Take your jacket, Hari. I will walk with you to the end of the pass. See you well on your way.”

The torch lights of Adina Pur flickered behind them as Hari and Jamie picked their way through the rocks and found the path down to the pass. Hari followed Jamie until they reached the pass proper and they could walk side by side. The soft light radiating from Jamie’s chest lit their way, shimmering in the hawk’s beady eyes as she stared at the naked Englishman. They walked in silence,

“Tell me more about your sister, British.”

“Luise?” Jamie chuckled. “She’ll eat you alive, Hari. She’s some kind of scientist. I don’t know what she does exactly, but I received two telegrams from her before I left Portsmouth, when Magnificent was being refitted. The first said she was on the brink of some great new discovery. The second, that she was very busy and was sorry she wouldn’t be in touch for a while.”

“When was that?”

“A couple of years ago.”

“You never contacted her?”

“No,” Jamie held his hand in front of his chest, turning his palm in the light. He stopped. “She might be in trouble, Hari. If not now, then soon. Find her, protect her. Promise me, Hari?”

Hari winced as Jamie gripped his arms between powerful fingers. “I promise.”

“Good,” Jamie let go of Hari. “Now I must leave you.”

“Where will you go?”

“Back,” Jamie pointed to the west. “Back to the pit.”

“You can’t go back there, British.”

“Where else can I go, Hari? They made me. I cannot leave without the Shah’s blessing. I must return.” Jamie waved. “Look after yourself, Hari. You have been a good friend.”

“Goodbye, British.” Hari watched Jamie turn and walk back toward the path to Adina Pur, his white skin disappearing in the growing gloom, the blue light fading as the distance grew between them. Hari placed his hand inside his jacket, smoothing his hand over the wound in his side. Holding his side he continued along the pass, pausing only once on the way to Peshawar at the sound of someone or something striding up the pass.

Crouching behind a boulder, Hari watched another metal emissary clank along the smooth stones of the pass, passing within a few feet of Hari’s hiding place. Different from the others, the Russian star blazed upon its chest.

Hari shook his head. He touched two fingers to his temple and saluted the emissary as it clanked past him. “Good luck,” Hari smiled and continued down the pass.

 

Epilogue

 

The River Indus

Pakistan, Central Asia

January, 1851

 

Hari stubbed his sandaled feet on a rusty nail protruding from the weathered deck of The Cotton Licker. Pallid smoke puffed from the tiny smokestack in erratic clouds to the beat of the little boat’s steam engine. Perched upon Hari’s shoulder, Shahin tucked her head beneath her wing. Hari plucked an errant feather from the hawk’s breast and smoothed his palm over her wings.

“Not long now, Shahin. The sun rises.”

“You talking to that bird again?” The deck wobbled under the fat boatswain’s feet. The man fiddled with the oil lamp hanging from a large iron hook hammered into the rotten plinth of wood above the door to the cabin.

“I am,” Hari stepped to one side as the boatswain staggered past him.

“They won’t let it onboard a steamerjammer. They is afeared of such, they is,” the man nodded. “Truth be told, I is afeared of such.” Taking off his shirt, he folded rolls of fat over the wooden gunwale and wet the shirt in the crest of the wave from the bow of the boat.

“Truly?” Hari lifted Shahin from his shoulder and placed the hawk on the gunwale opposite the boatswain. “Shahin is nothing more than a bird.”

“There you go again,” the boatswain wrung the water out of his shirt onto the deck of The Cotton Licker. Dirty splashes of water caught the first rays of sun before staining the deck with dark spots. “Giving it a name,” he flapped the shirt in front of him before stretching it over his belly. “Not natural. Things as is not human shouldn’t have names.”

“You have named this boat,” Hari pointed to the sign above the cabin door.

“Different, that is. This is a boat,” the boatswain tapped his temple with a stubby finger. “It don’t think.”

“No,” Hari smiled. “It does not.” Hari sat on the gunwale next to Shahin. “But neither will it come when called.”

“You can call that? And it comes?” the boatswain tugged the sleeves of his shirt down his sunburned arms.

“Yes,” Hari rubbed a finger over Shahin’s breast. The hawk nibbled at his finger.

“How far?”

“Sorry?” Hari looked up.

“How far away can you call it?” the boatswain frowned. “And how?”

“If the wind is with us,” Hari shrugged. “I don’t know. Many miles at least.”

“Show me,” the boatswain pointed at the flat plains beyond the banks of the river. The sun teased the long green grasses into burning fronds of orange.

“Oh, I am sorry. Truly I am. But Shahin is too sad to fly.”

“Sad? What nonsense is that? How can a bird be sad?”

“She has lost a loved one. A young boy,” Hari pointed towards the mountains behind them. “Dead in the mountains.”

“So she is in mourning?”

“She is in grief, yes.”

“Unnatural,” the boatswain shook his head. The man stared at Shahin for a moment. Hawking a glob of phlegm into his mouth, he spat into the Indus.

Hari fished a morsel of goat meat from the pouch at his belt. Pinching the dried meat between finger and thumb he waited for Shahin to tease it from his grip. As Shahin plucked at the meat Hari lifted the lid of a wooden chest with the bridge of his foot.

“What are these?” Hari pointed at the stack of newspapers inside the chest.

“What did you say?” the boatswain jostled Hari out of the way to take a closer look. “Bugger me. I forgot a whole stack of papers,” he scratched at the thick, red muttonchops on his sunburned cheeks. “And I thought the store master was being tight with his sovereigns.” Sliding his fingers beneath the twine and lifting the stack, the boatswain turned to face the gunwale and swung back his arm ready to pitch the papers into the river.

“What are you doing?” Hari moved out of the way.

“Well, I can’t take them back with me. Not now. I can blame the store master for short-changing me, but not if I have the bloody papers on the deck.”

“Wait,” Hari reached forward and tugged a single paper from the stack. “He moved out of the way and smiled at the boatswain. “Toss away.”

The papers splashed into the Indus, bobbing in the brown water until the water began to seep in between the printed leaves. The boatswain closed the lid of the chest and sat down on it. He looked up at Hari and frowned.

“Something caught your eye? That paper’s over a month old.”

“The woman in the photo on the front page,” Hari shrugged Shahin off his wrist and onto the wheelhouse roof. He stooped beside the boatswain and pointed at a blonde woman suffering the kiss of an oil-stained man wearing a leather cap with thick goggles pushed back on his forehead. “Is she famous?”

The boatswain tugged the paper from Hari’s hands. “That’s Beau Robshaw that is.”

“The man?” Hari tapped the photograph with two fingers. “Who is the woman?”

“Well,” the boatswain traced the text beneath the photo with his fingers. “It says it right here.”

“Yes,” Hari tapped the finger. “Luise Hanover. I can read.”

“All right. Don’t get all particular.”

“Yes,” Hari sighed. “But who is she? Is she famous?”

“He is,” the boatswain tapped the picture of the man. “He is one of those steamracers. A good one if I remember right. But who the lady is, I can’t rightly tell. That Robshaw fellow is a bit of a player if you know what I mean?” the boatswain grinned. “There’s only one lady he hasn’t had his fingers all over and that’s Romney Wallendorf, his greatest rival.”

Hari took the paper as the boatswain talked and studied the picture of Luise Hanover. Despite the smudged print and the oily hands smearing her skin, Hari could clearly see the freckles and the resemblance to her brother.

“Hanover?” The chest creaked as the boatswain pushed himself up and onto his feet. “I remember reading something about a Hanover. There’s plenty to read when doing the mail run,” he tapped the newspaper. “There’s a Hanover that has invented something or other. Might be as it was a woman. Might be that she had the first name Luise.”

“Truly?” Hari folded the paper. “Can I keep this?”

“I was going to pitch it in the river,” the boatswain shrugged.

“Thank you.” Hari opened the satchel hanging from his shoulder inside his robes. Slipping the paper inside, he walked over to the hawk and presented it with another morsel of meat.

“What’s your interest?” the boatswain shuffled behind Hari. “In the woman?”

“I know her brother,” Hari stroked Shahin’s breast.

Squinting at Hari, the boatswain spat. “Just as well. Can’t see the likes of you two meeting otherwise.” Brushing past Hari, the boatswain stepped inside the wheelhouse and steered the boat closer to the western bank of the river.

Holding out his arm for Shahin, Hari turned away from the boatswain and carried the hawk to the bow of The Cotton Licker. The sun’s rays caught the brass-plated tops of the steamjammers’ masts anchored in the deep water at the mouth of the Indus.

“There is our passage to England, Shahin,” Hari smoothed his fingers along the hawk’s wing all the way to the tip. “What perils and pleasures await us at the end of our journey, I wonder?”

The bow wave melted into the river as The Cotton Licker slowed and the boatswain nosed the little steam-powered boat into the busy stream of vessels servicing the steamjammers as they took onboard supplies, freight and passengers bound for the lush meadows of Queen Victoria’s British Isles.

 

Cast of Characters

In order of appearance

 

Luther Wallendorf, Direktor of Wallendorf Industries

Hans Schleiermacher, Wallendorf’s aide

Ludvig Wallendorf, Manager of Wallendorf Industries

President Franz Baum of the German Confederation

Herr Richter of the German Confederation’s Ministry of Finance

Herr Bremen of the German Confederation’s Ministry of Foreign Service

Romney Wallendorf, Steamracer, Luther Wallendorf’s daughter

Lieutenant Jamie Hanover of the British Royal Navy

Hari Singh of the Office of Indian Cartography

Farshad Daarmak, a Pashtoo warlord

Captain Lev Bryullov, a Political Officer with the Russian Army

Najma Daarmak, Farshad’s daughter

Khan Daarmak, Farshad’s eldest son

Corporal Courtney Mint of the Queen’s Arachnid Scouts

Aisha, a caravaneer

Khaled Nazari, Commander of Shah Orbalaye Bal’s military forces

Shah Orbalaye Bal, the Shah of Adina Pur

 

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Sarah Acton for her invaluable and extensive feedback. If the story is lacking, it is only because I strayed from the path and not for lack of support or constructive criticism. Thanks, Sarah.

February, 2015

Chris Paton

 

About the Author

British by default, Chris Paton (1973) has English and Welsh parents, and a Scottish surname. But it is his Welsh heritage – something about dragons – that seems to drive Chris’ writing. Graduating from Falmouth University in 2015, Chris has a Master of Arts in Professional Writing, and a couple of other degrees that help pay the bills. Chris’ favourite books include any genre with a bit of magic, giant squids and spaceships. Chris is a teacher by profession and a canoeist by choice. He lives in Denmark with his wife, Jane. You can find him in Denmark or online here:

www.chrispaton.dk

www.facebook.com/chrispaton.author

www.twitter.com/Aarluuk

By the Same Author

The Adventures of Hanover & Singh

Metal Emissary, book 1

Slow Demons, book 2

Khronos, book 3


Metal Emissary

Despatched on a secret mission in Central Asia, 22 year old Lieutenant Jamie Hanover encounters hostile tribes, steam-powered robots and djinn in his search for answers regarding the British defeat at Trafalgar. Helped by the strange mystic, Hari Singh, the two men fight side by side in the mountains as they track a strange metal emissary through the infamous Khyber Pass. Following in the emissary’s destructive footsteps Jamie and Hari travel to Adina Pur, where the uncovering of secrets and the culmination of their respective missions demands a heavy price. Metal Emissary is a Steampunk Adventure set in Central Asia in the 1850s, full of weird machines, exotic characters, dust, snow and blood.

  • Author: Chris Paton
  • Published: 2015-10-08 11:40:16
  • Words: 37401
Metal Emissary Metal Emissary