Death at the Durbar: Maharaja-sleuth Sikander Singh's quiet night is interrupted by unexpected guests
What are guards doing at Maharaja Sikander's house so late in the night? Read part two of Death at the Durbar's first chapter to know | #FirstCulture
Editor's note: Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the Maharaja Mysteries, which follow the adventures of Maharaja Sikander Singh. Set in the times of the British Raj against the backdrop of Princely India, Death at the Durbar follows A Very Pukka Murder, the first installment in the series.
A vast tent city has been built where a grand durbar is being hosted to celebrate the coronation of George V, the first monarch to travel to India from England. Maharajas and nawabs from all over India have gathered. Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore is frustrated amid all these preparations -- only to find himself whisked away by British officers and requested by the Viceroy to put his detective skills to use. Many suspects, a dead nautch-girl, a variety of motives — Sikander finds all these once he agrees to take on the case, but will he regret it?
Death at the Durbar is published by Harper Collins in India and Poisoned Pen Press.
Sikander swiveled his neck to glare up at the man. He did not have too far to turn, for the gentleman was immense, as wide as a wall, with hulking shoulders. A soldier, Sikander deduced. That much was obvious, for not only was his posture as stiff as that of a marlonette, but he was dressed in one of the new No 2 khaki serge uniforms that the English regiments had recently adopted to replace their traditional red coats. A quick glance at his epaulets revealed a single cluster, which meant the man was a lowly second lieutenant. From a Highland regiment, Sikander surmised, judging by the tartan cockade pinned to his lapel. Yes, definitely a Scotsman, he concluded, for though his head was razored clean to his skull, he sported a very ginger beard, in obvious imitation of the new King.
Stifling his irritation, Sikander decided to ignore the obtrusive lieutenant. Turning his attention back to the glass in his hand, he brought it to his mouth, but to his dismay, the champagne had gone rather flat.
‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’ The lieutenant barked even more belligerently. ‘Or are you deaf?’
The Maharaja pursed his lips, trying to restrain his annoyance. How had the fool even managed to get past the door? Casting an irate glance towards the entrance, he waited for his manservant to show his face. Where in God’s name was he, the damnable oaf? This was precisely his job, to bar such unwarranted intrusions. A slow minute elapsed, then another, but still Charan Singh did not appear. Sikander’s irritation turned to concern. Ordinarily, the old Sikh was as immovable as a sphinx, and it was highly unlikely that he was drunk or asleep on duty. That left only one possibility— something or someone was forcibly preventing him from doing his job. Sikander’s temper stirred at that thought. He loved the old man like a member of his own family, and if either of these two upstarts had dared to hurt even one hair on his head, there would be hell to pay, he promised himself. ‘Oh, do go away, you silly lout,’ he snarled, ‘before I lose my temper and do something I regret!’
Naturally, a dismissal this contemptuous was not at all well received. Bristling visibly, the large lieutenant’s face darkened. Very deliberately, he let one hand move to his belt, coming to rest atop the holster. To his surprise, Sikander noticed that he was armed, in absolute contravention of the Viceregal order that there were to be no weapons worn publicly at the Durbar, except on the parade ground. Thankfully, before the situation could escalate any further, the lieutenant’s companion surged forward, placing one warning hand on his compatriot’s bulging shoulder to restrain him.
‘Do pardon Lieutenant Munro’s coarse behaviour,’ he apologised. ‘He comes from Irish stock, and Hibernian blood, which I am sure you understand, is easily inflamed.’ Ignoring the poisonous glare the lieutenant shot in his direction, the man bowed slightly at the waist and offered Sikander a dazzling smile. The Maharaja studied him, not quite sure what to make of him. Unlike his companion, he was tall and very slim, with an aristocratic jaw and a fine pair of whiskers in the fashion known as the Imperial, as made popular by the Kaiser some years previously. On a heavier man, such a style might have seemed pugnacious, but in this case, it gave him a rather piratical air.
While the lieutenant was rather pale, this man, a Captain, Sikander surmised as he spied the triple pips decorating his shoulders, was almost as brown as an Indian, a fact which suggested he wasn’t just a campground soldier. In India, you could tell the veterans from the griffins by the colour of their skin, which was soon tanned to old leather by the hours spent under the glare of the sun while on campaign. This inference was strengthened by the way he moved, with that languid nonchalance that came from countless hours spent practicing with a sword. Sikander’s eyes widened as they flickered across the regimental insignia embossed on the brass buckle of the man’s Sam Browne belt. It was an emblem he recognised immediately, an eight-pointed starburst with a Latin motto emblazoned atop it, which read: Honi soit qui mal y pense—Evil be to him who evil thinks.
A Lilywhite! Sikander thought, letting out a surprised gasp. This fine fellow wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill trooper. He was a guardsman, a member of the legendary Coldstream Guards. Perhaps the oldest and most prestigious regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream was ranked second in precedence, surmounted only by the Grenadier Guards. They were about as elite as elite soldiers could be, tasked with protecting the King and Queen themselves, and permanently posted as the household garrison at Windsor. What on earth was a Lilywhite Captain doing in Delhi, turning up at the Majestic Hotel at six in the bloody evening? And what dire emergency could have induced such a severe breach of protocol that he had chosen to come barging into a Maharaja’s private boudoir without so much as an invitation?
Whatever it was, Sikander thought, his curiosity aroused, it had to be something well and truly interesting.
‘Who exactly are you?’ he said imperiously, ‘and what the blooming hell do you want?’
The Captain’s smile flickered with a hint of annoyance at being spoken down to with such disdain, but he managed to recover admirably.
‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Arthur Campbell, at your service. Unlike the lieutenant, I hail from Argyll, and we are careful never to forget our manners.’
Sikander rolled his eyes, refusing to be beguiled by this excess of civility. A more naïve man might have bought into Campbell’s carefully orchestrated bonhomie, but Sikander could see it for what it was—a tactic intended to put him off his guard. Why, he had used it often enough himself during difficult interrogations, acting the gentleman while his manservant played the brute.
‘Forgive our intrusion, but could you confirm that you are, indeed, the Maharaja of Rajpore?’
‘I should hope so,’ Sikander growled. ‘If I wasn’t, what would I bloody well be doing in his bedroom, eh?’
While Lieutenant Munro remained unmoved by this jest, Campbell let out a low chuckle.
‘In that case, Your Majesty, I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to accompany us. It is a matter of the utmost imperative, I assure you.’
Sikander looked at him, unsure of how to respond. On a whim, he decided the Captain was not to be trusted. He was too handsome, for one, and decidedly overly familiar, a trait which Sikander had always found distasteful. And then, of course, there was the way his smile never quite reached his eyes, which remained watchful, calculating, almost reptilian.
‘I think not. Not only have you quite ruined my evening, but your manners are nothing short of deplorable. I have a pressing appointment with the Viceroy himself tomorrow morning, and you can be certain I shall inform him about your unforgivable behaviour. Good evening! You may see yourself out.’
If he had imagined such blatant name-dropping would be quite enough to cow this pair, Sikander was sorely disappointed. The two gentlemen reacted very differently. Predictably, the large lieutenant, already rather displeased, started to bunch those immense shoulders of his, like an ox preparing to charge.
‘Enough of this rubbish!’ he snarled. ‘We haven’t time to waste on games, sir. Our orders were explicit. Let’s just drag the fellow back by his boot-heels.’
‘Calm down, old boy,’ Campbell admonished. ‘Do try and remember you’re a gentleman, not a blasted slogger, won’t you?’
Turning back to Sikander, the Captain sighed and offered another one of those infuriating grins, as if to suggest he knew something the Maharaja did not.
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