THE CEREMONY HAD come to an end. The Shaligram, a holy relic coveted by every ruler in India, had been returned to the Umananda Temple and hidden in a place known only to the rajah, his ministers and the high priest.
Thousands upon thousands of Vishnu’s devotees had come from every village along the shores of the Brahmaputra, hoping to catch a glimpse of the black spiral-shaped shell, for the ancient rock was known to contain a hair from the head of that great Hindu deity. For several hours a grand procession had followed the great chariot around the streets of Guwahati, City of Eastern Light and capital of Assam, but at last the crowds began to thin as pilgrims, townspeople, soldiers, devadasis, and musicians hurried back to their homes, temples, barracks, and hotels in search of rest and refreshment.
Two men clad in foreign attire stood out among the throng as they slowly walked down the central street of the great city, pausing from time to time to engage in conversation.
One was a European in his early fifties with a curled grey moustache, a thick grizzled beard and bronzed skin. He was dressed in a white jacket, white trousers, brown leather long boots and a large hat of Manila hemp adorned with small red silk tassels that matched the thick red velvet sash about his waist.
The other was Asian, from the southeast judging by the olive hue of his skin; slightly younger, he had dark piercing eyes, a fine black beard and long wavy hair that fell to his shoulders. In contrast to his companion, his attire was princely: a fine green silk jacket with gold braid and buttons, trousers of the same color and yellow leather long boots with pointed curled toes. From his thick white silk sash hung a magnificent scimitar whose handle was inlaid with diamonds and rubies of great value.
Tall, handsome and well-built, both displayed the vigor of men decades their junior.
“So, Yanez?” asked the more richly dressed of the two as he stopped for the tenth time, out of earshot from the crowd. “What have you decided? Our men are getting restless. You know patience has never been a virtue of the Tigers of Mompracem. Eight days of visiting temples and strolling along the Brahmaputra; that’s not how you take a kingdom.”
“Always in a hurry,” smiled his companion. “Even after all this time the Tiger of Malaysia’s heart still yearns for battle.”
“It’s the curse of my nature,” the legendary pirate admitted, returning his friend’s smile. “We can’t all be as calm and unflappable as you.”
“Sandokan, I wish I could snatch the rajah’s throne this very day and give his crown to Surama. But this promises to be more difficult than we expected, we’ll need more than a bit of luck to get close to him.”
“More than a bit of luck? That doesn’t sound like the Yanez I know. You don’t have a plan?”
“I do… well, part of one,” replied the Portuguese.
“The rajah hates foreigners, so to get into his good graces we’ll need to do something extraordinary to grab his attention.”
“Sambigliong and our men are at the ready, I doubt there’s anything thirty-five Tigers cannot accomplish. And Tremal-Naik and Kammamuri arrive from Calcutta tomorrow to bolster our numbers; they’re each worth a dozen men. So now, tell me, what extraordinary feat do you have in mind?”
Instead of replying, Yanez stopped in front of a large building. Long wire baskets filled with cotton soaked in coconut oil hung in the windows, bright flames lighting the interior. The ground floor appeared to serve as an inn or restaurant and judging by the noise coming from within, it was bustling with activity.
“This is it,” said Yanez.
“This is what?” asked Sandokan.
“The Rajah’s Prime Minister, His Excellency Kaksa Pharaum will not sleep easily tonight.”
“Listen to that racket. It was not wise of him to take residence atop a hotel; it’s a decision that could cost him dearly.”
Sandokan looked at him in surprise.
“This is where we begin?” he asked.
“If all goes well. I’ll start with a classic gambit; it fooled James Brooke, it should work well enough here. Are you hungry, little brother?”
“I could do with a meal.”
“Then come, we’ll put a little something between our teeth. Unfortunately, you’ll have to dine alone,” said Yanez.
“You’re being mysterious.”
“All part of the plan. Choose a table not far from mine; but whatever happens do not intervene. Once you’ve eaten, summon our men and have them mill about the street within earshot of the window.”
“What if things don’t go as you planned?”
“I have my pistols and my krishidden in my sash. Trust me, just watch, listen, and eat, and pretend to be blind, deaf, and dumb.”
Before his friend could utter another word Yanez turned and walked into the hotel, donning an air of such serious determination that Sandokan smiled despite his amazement.
The restaurant was not as busy as Yanez had expected. It was comprised of three rooms, spartanly furnished with several tables and benches; a large number of servants ran about, carrying jugs of arrack or palm wine, and large bowls of rice topped with fish from the Brahmaputra that had been fried in coconut oil and sprinkled with herbs.
About two dozen Indians sat at the tables, all of high caste, judging by their apparel; mostly Kalita and Rajput hillmen that had journeyed from the nearby mountains of Duleh and Landa to offer prayers to the Shaligram.
The sight of that European come to dine among them appeared to have ill effect on all the patrons, for the room immediately fell silent, and the joy produced by the wine and arrack vanished in an instant.
Yanez, taking in every detail, walked through the first two rooms into the third and sat at a table occupied by four bearded Kalitas, each bearing a small arsenal of guns, daggers and talwars – swords with sharp curved blades – that protruded from their thick sashes. The Portuguese looked at each in turn, then without a smile or a greeting cried out in accented Pidgin English:
“Food! My lord hungry!”
The four Kalitas, displeased by the stranger’s uninvited company, picked up their bowls and changed tables.
“Perfect,” mumbled the Portuguese. “It begins.”
He had barely uttered those words when a boy passed carrying a plate of fish. Yanez rose quickly, grabbed him by the ear and forced him to stop.
“My lord hungry!” he cried, pressing his face towards him. “Put food here! That’s twice my lord asks you!”
“Sahib!” exclaimed the Indian. “I can’t! This fish—”
“Call me my lord, you scoundrel!” shouted Yanez, feigning annoyance. “I am great Englishman. Put fish here! Smells good.”
“I’m sorry, my lord. It’s for another customer!”
“My lord hungry. I eat. I pay.”
“One minute, and I’ll take your order.”
“I count time; you late, I cut off your ear.”
He drew a magnificent gold watch from a pocket, put it on the table, and fixed his eyes on the minute hand.
At that moment Sandokan entered the restaurant and sat at an empty table by a window. No one paid him much heed, his clothes and appearance drawing little attention from the other patrons. He could have easily passed for a wealthy Hindu from Lahore or Agra come to take part in the religious celebrations.
The legendary Malay pirate had barely sat down when three or four young servants went to his table to take his order.
“By Jupiter!” Yanez exclaimed angrily, casting away the cigarette he had just lit. “He came in after me, and they’re all flocking to serve him. Well, Lord … Moreland,” he said smiling slightly at the memory, “won’t stand for this! Ah! A drink!”
A jug that had been ordered by the four Kalitas who had first occupied the table, sat within reach, next to a glass. Yanez, without any thought to its owners, grabbed it, raised it to his lips, and drank.
“Good arrack,” he said. “Exquisite!”
He was about to drink again, when one of the four bearded Kalitas approached the table, and said in heavily accented English:
“Excuse me, sahib, that’s my jug. Your unclean lips have touched it, now you must pay for it.”
“Call me my lord,” replied Yanez.
“As you wish, as long as you pay for the drink that I ordered for myself and my companions,” said the Kalita dryly.
“My lord no pay. Thirsty, find jug on table and drink. Leave my lord alone.”
“This is not Calcutta; we do not bow to white men here.”
“Bow or no bow, not important to my lord. I am rich and powerful Englishman.”
“All the more reason to pay for what you take.”
“Go to hell!”
He spied another boy carrying a bowl of cooked fruit, grabbed him by the neck and shouted:
“Here! Put here, in front of my lord. Put here or my lord strangle you.”
Ignoring the young man’s cry, Yanez snatched the bowl, put it before himself and pushed the boy away with such force it knocked him into a nearby table.
“My lord very hungry!” he muttered as he began to eat. “I send sepoys and cannons here… boom… boom… boom… shoot all scoundrels!”
A dark murmur spread through the room as all eyes turned to the foreigner.
The four Kalitas had risen to their feet, eyeing him fiercely, their hands resting on the butts of their long pistols.
Only Sandokan laughed silently, while Yanez, unperturbed by the mood in the room, devoured the fruit before him, washing it down occasionally with glasses of arrack from the Kalitas’ jug.
When he had finished, he grabbed another server and tore a bowl of fish curry out of his hands.
“For my lord!” he shouted. “You no serve me, I take it!”
This time a howl of indignation rose in the room and the patrons sprang to their feet as one man.
“Get out, Englishman! Get out!” they shouted menacingly.
A Rajput, a rough looking man, bolder than the others, walked towards his table and pointed to the door.
“Enough!” he said. “Go!”
Yanez, who was already attacking the fish, looked up.
“Pardon?” he asked calmly.
“Me my lord!”
“Lord or sahib, get out!” replied the Rajput.
“My lord no finish dinner. Very hungry.”
“‘Go eat in Calcutta.”
“Too far. My lord no move. Here good food; I eat, I pay, I go.”
“Throw him out!” shouted the Kalitas in unison.
The Rajput tried to grab Yanez, but the Portuguese quickly picked up the fish and threw it in his face, momentarily blinding him.
At that act of defiance the four Kalitas whose arrack Yanez had taken, charged at the table, howling like demons.
Sandokan had also sprung to his feet and was about to draw a weapon from his sash, but a quick look from Yanez immediately stayed his hand.
The Portuguese could easily take care of himself. He hurled a bowl of curry at the Kalitas, then grabbed a bamboo stool, and swung it menacingly through the air.
That quick show of strength had silenced the room and for a moment the patrons remained frozen where they stood.
“Everyone out or kill you all!” shouted the Portuguese.
No one moved. Yanez dropped the stool, drew two magnificent long-barrelled Indian pistols inlayed with silver and mother-of-pearl from his sash and shouted:
Sandokan was the first to obey. The others, though armed, seized by a sudden panic, quickly followed.
The innkeeper, hearing all that noise, rushed into the room brandishing a metal rod.
“What’s all this ruckus? Why are you scaring off my customers?”
“Call me my lord,” Yanez replied calmly.
“Leave here at once!”
“Not finished eating. Your boy not serve me, I take dishes. Must pay for food.”
“Go eat elsewhere! I do not serve Englishmen!”
“I no go.”
“I’ll summon the guards and have you arrested!”
“My lord no afraid. Guards no frighten Englishman.”
“Get out!” the innkeeper shouted furiously.
The Assamese raised the metal rod, but immediately stepped back to the door. Yanez had picked up the pistols he had set on the table and pointed them at the innkeeper’s chest.
“Leave or I kill you!”
The innkeeper slammed the door shut, while the Kalitas and Rajputs who had come from the adjoining rooms, shouted:
“Do not let him get away! He’s mad! Guards! Guards!”
Yanez laughed loudly.
“By Jupiter!” he exclaimed. “All as planned, it truly could not have gone any better!”
Calm and impassive, like a true Englishman, he sat down at another table on which rested another bowl of curry and gulped down a couple of spoonfuls. He had just put the spoon to his lips a third time when the door swung open and six soldiers wearing large turbans, bright red jackets, wide trousers and red leather boots, trained their rifles on him.
The six were well built, as tall as grenadiers, and bearded like mountain brigands.
“Surrender,” said one whose turban was adorned with a vulture’s feather.
“To who?” asked Yanez, as he took another spoonful of curry.
“To us; His Excellency the Prime Minister’s Personal Guard.”
“Where take me?”
“To see His Excellency.”
He tucked his pistols into his sash, stood up, placed a small pile of rupees on the table and calmly walked towards the guards.
“His Excellency will meet great Englishman.”
“Your weapons, my lord.”
“I never surrender pistols: gift from Queen Victoria because I am great English Lord. I will not hurt minister, you have my word.”
The six guards exchanged uncertain looks, but then perhaps fearing reprisals if the man proved to be who he claimed, bid him to follow.
Meanwhile the patrons had gathered in the neighboring room, ready to lend a hand to the guards if need be. When Yanez appeared, he was greeted with an explosion of cries.
“Throw him out the window!”
“He’s a thief!”
“He’s a villain!”
“He’s a spy!”
The Portuguese looked at them squarely and merely laughed in reply.
They left the restaurant and walked a few steps to another door in the same building. One of the guards opened it and led Yanez up marble steps lit by brass domed lanterns.
“This Prime Minister’s house?” asked Yanez.
“Yes, my lord,” replied one of the guards.
“I eat with him now.”
The guards looked at him in amazement, but remained silent.
They reached the landing and entered a beautiful room, elegantly furnished with several silken sofas, large blue percaline curtains and opulent furniture, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl.
One of the guards walked to a bronze gong that hung above a door, picked up a wooden hammer and struck it twice.
The sound had not yet faded, when a curtain was raised and a man stepped into the room and fixed his eyes on Yanez, more with curiosity than with anger.
“His Excellency Prime Minister Kaksa Pharaum,” announced one of the guards.
“Good evening!” said Yanez, removing his hat and extending his right hand.
Kaksa Pharaum was a man of about fifty, as thin as a fakir, short, with dark bronze skin, a hooked nose and a thick beard that concealed most of his face. He wore a simple yellow silk dhoti adorned with red embroidery about the length of a dressing gown, and a pair of dark red slippers.
Although he had seen Yanez’s hand, he ignored it, and stepped to one side to get a better look at the foreigner that stood before him.
“You were the cause of the disturbance below?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Yanez.
“Did you know I lived above that restaurant?”
“No, sir; I was hungry and I wanted to eat.”
“All that ruckus because you were hungry?”
“When your Excellency is hungry, you eat I am sure. It’s the same for me.”
“I am Prime Minister—”
“I am Lord James Moreland, from England, great friend of Queen Victoria, Empress of India.”
At those words the minister’s frown vanished and his face brightened.
“You’re a lord?”
“Did you not tell the innkeeper?”
“I told everyone; no one gave me food. Not like in England. We give food to Hindus.”
“So you could not dine, my lord?”
“Only a few bites. I’m still hungry, very hungry. This evening I’ll write to the Viceroy of Bengal and tell him I could not complete my mission; the Assamese refused to feed me.”
“Assam has been plagued by tigers; I am a great hunter, I’ve come to kill the beasts.”
“So, my lord, you came to offer us a valuable service. I regret you were treated so rudely; allow me to make it up to you. Come.”
He dismissed the guards with a gesture, drew back a curtain and led Yanez into an adjoining room illuminated by a spherical glass lantern that hung from the ceiling and filled the room with soft opaline light. Beneath it stood a table laden with a variety of delicacies served on dishes of gold and silver.
“I was just about to dine,” said the minister. “Would you like to join me, my lord? Consider it an apology for the innkeeper’s bad manners.”
“Thank you, Excellency. I will write to my friend the Viceroy of Bengal and tell him of your kind welcome.”
“I shall be grateful.”
They sat down and began to eat, occasionally exchanging a few compliments.
To further show his hospitality the minister ordered his servants to bring his guest some beer. Yanez smiled gratefully and sipped it slowly, the brew being more bitter than he had expected.
When they had finished, the Portuguese leaned back in his chair and fixed his eyes on the minister’s face.
“Excellency, I have been sent by the Viceroy of Bengal to discuss a matter of grave diplomatic importance,” he said in perfect Hindi.
Kaksa Pharaum started.
“Forgive me for the unconventional manner in which I approached you—”
“You’re not an English Lord?”
“I am a lord and I am also first secretary to His Excellency the Viceroy,” Yanez said. “He sent me here as his secret ambassador. Tomorrow I’ll present you with my official papers.”
“You could have asked for an audience, my lord. I wouldn’t have refused it.”
“The rajah would have been informed, and I wanted to speak to you privately.”
“Does the British government have designs on Assam?” Kaksa Pharaum asked nervously.
“Not at all, rest assured. No one wishes to threaten the independence of this state. We have no cause to move against Assam or its ruler. However, what I have to tell you must remain secret, we cannot risk being overheard by anyone. It would be best if you dismissed your servants for the evening.”
“As you wish, of course,” replied the Minister, forcing a polite smile.
He stood up and struck the tom-tom that hung on the wall behind his chair.
A servant appeared almost immediately.
“You may retire for the evening. Extinguish all lights save those in my chambers,” said the Minister, “We are not to be disturbed.”
The servant bowed and left.
Kaksa Pharaum waited for the sound of footsteps to fade, then sat down once again.
“We’re alone now, my lord, and rest assured no one would dare intrude upon our conversation. Now, what is it you have to tell me?”