I am tired of waiting. It has been five years now since I sent Killian to you, and still, there have been no results. He came back to me with many more of your empty promises, ones I should have known you were incapable of keeping.
I've always trusted you, George, but I'm beginning to wonder if that trust was misplaced. You have served our branch well over the years, been an honourable servant of Her Majesty, but face it, George, senility evades no one.
Our time is near. The dawn of the Lucian age is upon us, and we cannot afford any weak links in the chain.
The Durbar incident left me wondering whose side you're really on, George. Despite what I told Killian, I know you're not senile – yet. But it would not be difficult to convince the world otherwise.
I have plans, George. Extraordinary plans, ones you are incapable of imagining. They will bring incomprehensible power to our glorious Lucian branch. But all thorns must be weeded out first.
I am not accusing you of anything; this is simply a warning. We are family after all, and I believe that you deserve the opportunity to redeem yourself and prove your loyalty to our family as before. Do yourself a favour, George – keep your promises. I understand that any Janus influence in the area has been exterminated. Well done. Maintain Lucian power in the Raj - over politics, military, and trade - and you will die a very rich man. But all of the others – eliminate them. The ones I have named and we spoke of, which I refuse to list on paper lest someone manages to intercept this letter, must be dealt with. And this time, no excuses.
But one more thing – your supposed "replacement." I am intrigued. Not your son, a native lad, no less, and you propose that he take your place? I have always valued your judgment, but this seems an odd request. There is not even a drop of Lucian blood in his veins. But I am not insulted by your petition, for Killian has told me much concerning this boy. Although I suppose that by now, he is more man than boy.
I have heard startling things about him, and even if he is not Lucian, I believe it is within every right of ours to utilize his full potential. Our cause needs more bright young minds. And so, I am willing to make you an offer, one you cannot refuse. Send him to England. He will receive the best training, education, and opportunities that you would be a fool to withhold from him. In return, you will remain as you always have, with the promise of someone to carry on your work once you are gone.
It is simple, George. Prove you are loyal to me. Send your replacement or be replaced.
Xx Julian xX
So these were the Cahills, and this was their game. It certainly didn't take a genius to figure it out.
I was a pawn.
That much was obvious. Only halfway through the letter I could see it coming.
It was a shrewd move on Julian's part, I had to admit, a sure-fire way of making the general cave in to his demands. If he wanted to keep his position, he would send me to England. And I of all people especially recognized his need to keep it. It wasn't simply his means of status; it was his one way of maintaining peace in the Raj. As long as he remained in such a high position, he would continue to do as much as possible to ease the tensions between the many racial groups of the country and tend to the needs of not only the rich, but the commoners so like myself. If he was removed from power, however, the likelihood of another general being appointed who was as concerned about the people as he was was slim. In short, it was mandatory that he retained his position.
The only problem?
It required that I become a hostage.
And once I was in England, Julian would have the general fastened securely under his thumb. One false move on George's part, and I would pay the price. So I would become a prisoner and the general would be a puppet, but the people would remain relatively secure. This was Julian's compromise.
And it made me sick.
When the general had explained about the different "branches" of his family years before, I had automatically assumed that this "Lucian" group he belonged to were the good guys. After all, he couldn't possibly be a part of something evil and cruel. He was one of the greatest men I knew, one of my biggest heroes. Surely his family could only be as kind and caring as he was.
… Or maybe not.
I could still remember the general and Killian discussing Julian all those years ago, but I had simply written him off as one rotten apple in the bunch. Now that I truly thought about it, however, I remembered what Killian had said about bribery, trickery, and lies back in London. And apparently, it never ended.
Was that what this family was really about? Was that the kind of world that awaited me in London?
I wasn't sure, but one thing I was certain of: I had to find out.
The letter still in my hand, I began to stuff it back into the envelope as quickly as possible while making sure no one had caught sight of me. I was strongly tempted, however, to just toss it in the bushes along with my lunch. My stomach had been feeling rather queasy ever since I realized I had become live bait, and as for the letter, or ransom rather, I simply wanted to do away with the blasted thing.
But I knew I couldn't do it. Not with a clear conscience, anyway.
If I did decide to carelessly toss the thing aside, I would be putting the general in jeopardy. And now that I knew everything he had was at stake, it would have been simply foolhardy of me to discard it. I would have been living in constant fear that a squadron of armed guards would simply show up one day, tear down the almost-impenetrable door, and throw the poor man out onto the street. Or worse.
I simply couldn't deal with that. I cared too much about him. Not to mention the fact that I owed him more than I could ever repay, a fact that annoying little voice in my head would never let me forget.
So as much as I wanted to pretend that I'd never read it, as much as I wanted to toss it in the bushes and never lay eyes on it again, it wasn't going to happen. I was going to have to go with "Plan B."
Whatever that was.
It was a conundrum. I couldn't dispose of the letter, but I couldn't show it to the general yet either. Before I did that, I would need to figure out a strategy. There was no way on earth I was simply going to waltz up to him, hand over the envelope, and announce, "Well, I'll be off to England now."
Because I refused to go down without a fight.
I'd always suspected that the general would try to send me to England at some point or another in order to receive a "better education," just as so many other high-ranking officials did with their sons, but I had never expected the matter to come up so soon. Or like this.
I turned, tucking the letter in my satchel as I did, and approached the ever-looming entrance gate before me. Slicking my hands for the second time, I swung my arms back and forth in order to propel myself upward. On the first try, my hands caught one of the silver crosspieces, and I pulled the rest of my body up, maneuvering my way swiftly up and across the rest of the bars like a monkey swinging through the treetops until I was balancing precariously at the top. Carefully, I began to rise as I spread my arms out for balance, no doubt resembling one of those trapeze artists I had once witnessed at a travelling circus. And for a moment, I remained that way, the full weight of my body balancing upon two inches of solid iron, as I surveyed the city.
The general's mansion was located on a hill above the rest of the municipality, and so from where I was, I could see a good portion of the city down below me, along with the frivolous estates beneath ours and innumerable emerald-green treetops of the encroaching jungles. "Awe-inspiring" might have been an appropriate word to describe the sight, what with its snow-white Hindu temples, exotic tropical forests, British military camps, and subtle pink clouds all decorating the horizon.
I enjoyed moments like this. I had always possessed a bit of a daredevil streak, but what I really loved about these experiences was the feeling of power it gave me, if only for a moment. There was just something about the feel of the soft breeze against my skin, rustling through my hair, and being able to look down on the world and see it appear so small, so helpless. For those few seconds, I felt truly free. I was on top of the world, and not one of those tiny figures below could control me.
If only that were true.
Reluctantly, I forced my gaze away from the bustling streets below and onto the ground beneath me, taking the fifteen foot leap without a second thought and landing softly on the hard-packed earth with the grace of an acrobat. It was a skill I had learned on the streets and had kept up simply to scare the nuns with my horrific stunts. This kind of thing was completely normal for me, although I'd never been willing to tell Aunt Eloise that.
I bit my lip, deep in thought, as I mentally formulated my next move. I needed answers - that much was obvious - but at this point, I was unwilling to obtain them from the general. The information had to be from someone who wouldn't hold back, who would tell me absolutely everything I wanted to know. I needed to find out the truth for myself, not only what others wanted me to believe.
But who would be willing to give me the answers?
Aunt Eloise was honest, although I couldn't be sure of how much she knew. The general had said she "abhors anything even relating to the Cahills," and if I started asking questions, she would wonder why, which would mean I would have to show her the letter and…
No, I couldn't ask her. But what about some of the servants or hired help?
Again, there was a slim chance that they knew any more than I did, and if they did, most would be unwilling to talk out of loyalty to their master. Which meant that, in essence, there was no one. Absolutely no one I could trust who knew anything even slightly worthwhile about this family and would still give me a straightforward answer.
Well, that said a lot about the Cahills.
It hadn't taken much for me as a child to learn that humans are unreliable creatures, so that wasn't much of a surprise. But it didmake it that much more obvious to me that my source of information would have to be something that wasn't human. And what was the best place to find reliable information?
Whether or not there was anything actually there, I didn't know, but I figured it was the best place to start. The general had the largest collection of books I had ever seen – half of them moldy or rotten – and his library was certainly chock full of them. I had never noticed anything before, but considering the sheer size of the place and the fact that I'd never been searching for anything remotely relating to this in the past, that didn't mean much.
I began heading towards the house along the marvelously impressive granite walkway, past manicured lawns of a lovely shade of green and bubbling fountains that appeared as though they belonged in a Roman's villa, before finally coming to front steps that were almost overgrown with European-bred roses and hydrangeas. I stepped up them, almost getting entangled in a thicket of thorns while thinking to myself that Aunt Eloise must have forbidden the gardeners to prune her precious imported flowers yet again. It was a vicious cycle she went through. She would forbid the flowers to be cut, they would grow until the front steps were overrun and someone would complain, thus finally forcing her to have them clipped. Then, because she felt so guilty about having them trimmed, she would order them not to be pruned until they would start to choke the rest of the garden – and walkway – out all over again. I smiled to myself over her predictable and highly entertaining habits as I approached the gigantuous white-washed Victorian doors of my house. Or palace, rather.
I reached out to grab one of the brass knockers, but to my surprise, the door began to crack open by what appeared to be its own doing. I stepped to the side and peered in to find the butler, a man called Smythe, holding it open for me, clad in his spotless black uniform as usual with immaculate grey hair slicked back against his head.
I gave him a smile as I stepped past him into the grand foyer. "Thanks, Smythe."
"Of course, Master Kabra," he replied politely – always politely. The only one to call me "Master Kabra," I found his over-the-top courtesy amusing, but I enjoyed him nonetheless. He was, after all, always the first to cover for me when Aunt Eloise got on my case about one thing or another.
"Did you have a pleasant visit with your young friends?"
I flashed him a wry smile. "Oh, yes. They tried to drown me."
He nodded as if this was no surprise, his face remaining as solemn as ever. "So I take it that you quite thoroughly enjoyed yourself?"
At this, the very corners of his mouth lifted ever-so-slightly. "Your aunt has requested that I inform you dinner shall be ready within the hour."
My eyes widened in surprise. "I was gone that long?"
"Time flies when you are having fun, young master. It was all I could say to keep Madame Beauford from breaking out into conniptions."
"She's still waiting for me?"
"Oh, no. Quite the contrary. She finally became so sick of waiting that she retired to her quarters, claiming she was coming down with the fever. I'm absolutely positive you'll be receiving double the work on the morrow."
I rolled my eyes. "Oh, joy. Double the French verb conjugation. I can't wait." With a sigh, I readjusted the satchel on my shoulder. "In any case, thanks, Smythe. I'm not sure how I could possibly survive the horror without you around to cover for me."
"My pleasure, sir," he responded dutifully before turning his attention towards the cream-coloured bag on my shoulder. "May I take your satchel for you?"
I glanced down at it. "Oh, no. It's fine. I'll just take it with me."
He raised an eyebrow. "I spotted Master Middleton, the postmaster, out yonder a few moments ago. It is a rare occasion when he deigns himself to leave his office and deliver letters personally."
I could feel my face growing warm. "Uh, yes, it's true. He had a letter for the general that he wanted me to deliver for him." At least that much was true.
Smythe nodded thoughtfully. "I see. Well, then, I shan't keep you any longer. Dinner must be prepared."
I emitted a weak smile as I turned to go, anxious to get away from the butler's all-knowing eyes, but he reached out, catching my arm and preventing me from taking any further steps. "Master Kabra," he added, his voice low, "may I leave you with this warning: Beware the Cahills."
My mind suddenly froze, along with the rest of my body. This wasn't right. It couldn't be. The butler knew about all of this, and I didn't? What exactly was going on inside of my own house, and how could I not have known about it all these years? It was starting to make me feel like Oliver Twist, unwittingly thrust into a world he had no knowledge of to begin with.
Smythe's face was no graver than usual, and to the untrained eye, it wouldn't be at all surprising if he had just announced dinner, not a threat. But I could read the man. His dark blue eyes spoke volumes, even if no more words were audibly uttered. And for some reason, what I saw there, past his weary old face and outwardly calm demeanor, scared me. I couldn't explain what it was, but for some reason his suspense-novel warning was petrifying. Whatever he knew, it obviously wasn't pleasant.
He let go of my arm and turned abruptly on his polished black shoes, clearly attempting to leave me to ponder his words alone, without the threat of someone catching sight of us. But I couldn't let him get away this easily. If he knew, then I needed answers. After all, how could I not trust Smythe?
"Wait!" I called out, my hand reaching out and grabbing him by the arm. It was a desperate grasp, most likely a bit painful for the older man, but he never let on. Pausing, his wise old eyes, ones that had probably witnessed every event in this house since time immemorial, flickered back towards my face.
I opened my mouth, groping for just the right words, but they wouldn't come. What was I supposed to ask him? What were the most important questions? He wasn't going to spend his entire day sitting around and discussing my oh-so-many problems, which meant I could only ask him the most important things. But what exactly were they?
"Smythe, I need to know. Who – what… I just don't-"
"Watch for the snakes," he responded, cutting me off. "That is all I can tell you."
"The snakes?" I echoed weakly. How on earth were snakes going to help me?
The man nodded. "It is neither my duty nor my place to explain these matters to you." He glanced back at me, his face conveying a look, one that caught me by surprise. Was that pity I saw clearly reflected in his eyes? It couldn't be. Had I been thrust into such a situation that he would pity me? Because he knew how much I hated other people's sympathy.
A small sigh escaped his lips before he finally continued on. "But I feel as though I owe you at least this small warning. There are many ruthless and savage animals that have tread in this very house, but perhaps the most dangerous of all these is the snake. This is one that you must remain most wary of."
A picture of the seal with the intertwined serpents came to mind. "But the general – is he one of them?"
The man bit his lip, his grey brows furrowing slightly. "He is, but not the one you must watch for. Of all the serpents, he is the least harmful. A virtually venomless snake, if you will."
Upon his words, something akin to relief flooded through me. Ever since reading the letter, doubts had begun creeping into my mind. I had always trusted the general, but just like Julian, I was beginning to wonder if that trust had been misplaced. After all, what did I really know about him or his work?
The butler seemed to sense my conflicting emotions and immediately hastened to correct himself. "Do not fret, Master Kabra. The general is a most honourable man - by any standards."
I nodded my head slowly, thoughtfully, as I allowed the information to sink in. Obviously this entire thing was much bigger than I had previously imagined. Even more shocking than that, however, was the fact that the butler, merely household staff, knew more about the entire situation than even I, someone who was practically a part of the family. For all I knew, the entire myriad of servants and staff could be in cahoots with the general behind my back. I was clearly in the dark about almost everything, and it was high time for that to change.
Putting on my most confident smile, as though not everything about my world had just been turned upside down, I met the elderly man's gaze straight on. "Thank you, Smythe. I appreciate it. Probably more than you'll ever know."
The man produced a small smile. "I only wish I could do more, Master Kabra." And after giving me a small nod, he turned on his heel, disappearing through one of the never-ending corridors, no doubt on his way to the kitchen to assist with the colossal nightly ritual of our palace, otherwise known as "dinner."
I remained as still as a statue, simply watching the man, one I clearly did not know as well as I had thought, as he disappeared around the corner and his footsteps faded into oblivion.
And now I was back to square one: trying to decipher the truth. And in a period of no more than fifteen minutes, it had become quite evident that it was not going to be an easy task. But fortunately, all thanks to Smythe, I now had something – no matter how miniscule – to go on. And it all revolved around snakes.
Reaching into my satchel, my fingers took hold of the translucent envelope and pulled it to the surface. Carefully slipping the letter out, I turned it over in my hands, inspecting the regal seal as I did. The serpents, curled strategically around a sword, were anything but forthcoming. Their eyes, even though it was merely a portrait, were dark and foreboding, and venom all but dripped from their gleaming fangs. It conjured up a picture in my mind, one of years before when a similar looking serpent had been coiled in a position exceedingly similar to this, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. Strangely enough, however, as I now realized, he had simply been attacking one of his own. And from what I could tell, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence either.
I frowned, realizing the picture reminded me of more than simply my king cobra adversary. I had seen this picture before. I knew I had. And not only that, but something inside me said I had seen this portrait on more than occasion. Something common, something ordinary, something –
Oh, how blatantly obvious!
I quickly placed the letter back in the envelope and tucked it into my satchel, clucking my tongue in annoyance over my own folly, and began to trek across the vast foyer floor, only taking a few short steps before noticing the fresh track of mud behind me that now decorated Aunt Eloise's once pristine peach-coloured marble floor. The thick brown goop was a clear indicator of my every move, or more precisely, my every step. A rather brilliant move on my part.
Fervently hoping that a maid was nearby, I hurried to the corner of the foyer where a finely-carved coat rack stood, displaying a vast array of jackets and various other outer garments. Beside it also lay a perfectly-lined row of fine leather shoes and boots, all shined and polished, ready to be used as needed. And strangely enough, they reminded me of the many British soldiers I had seen in my lifetime, standing straight and tall in their ranks, all waiting patiently at attention. An odd metaphor, perhaps, but a suitable one, nonetheless.
Swiftly, I began to pry off my dirt-caked shoes, ones I just knew would be tossed away as soon as a maid laid eyes on them, and placed them carefully in the farthest corner away from visible sight. Pulling out a fresh pair, I forced my feet into them as quickly as possible, jamming my heel in as I did, before resuming my original path towards the main parlour.
The foyer was an extremely airy space, one of the only places in the entire house that was not covered in wall-to-wall decorations, and to most, it would appear rather empty. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it. It might appear vacant, but that only made it feel that much grander. And without the proper direction, it would be all too easy to become completely and utterly lost in the place.
To my front lay a grand staircase leading up to the second floor, one upon which I had enjoyed countless hours sliding down the railing. To my left was the magnificent ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers, grand windows and curtains, and exquisite dancing floor, and on my right presided the room where I was certain I had encountered those menacing creatures before. In only a minute, I would discover in absolute certainty whether or not my intuition was correct.
I stepped into the room, instantly being greeted by numerous knick-knacks from across the globe. This was the place where all the Davidsons' guests were courteously invited upon arrival, a room filled to the brim and bursting with the various treasures they loved to display to all their high-and-mighty friends. The general especially enjoyed giving long, detailed, and overly-dramatic stories about each and every one of the strange objects that presided there. I had to admit, though, it was a conversation starter.
From one side of the room, an elephant's ivory tusks hung as a trophy while a Greek statue and painting of the French Riviera resided on the other. The general and his wife were fascinated with the unknown, just like so many other Victorians I had encountered were, as their traditional Incan headdress above the fireplace's mantle clearly indicated. In a way, I had always figured that it was that same desire to encounter the unfamiliar that made many of the general's friends so particularly intrigued with me. On one hand, some acted as though I wasn't quite human and tended to ignore me, but on the other, I was viewed as some particularly fascinating species of wild animal that was the subject of an ongoing science experiment. And the point of that experiment? To civilize me.
Thankfully, the Davidsons' didn't view me in that ugly sort of light. To them, I was a real human, not simply another trophy to be hung on one of their walls. They were your typical aristocratic Victorian family, but they were certainly much more open-minded than most. And sometimes, that was the only thing that kept me sane.
To the center of the room was the brick fireplace with the Incan headdress, but that wasn't the focus of my attention. Streams of light from the setting sun were leaking in through cracks in the heavy green curtains, illuminating a specific spot exactly in the middle of the mantle. And that glowing beam of sunlight confirmed my suspicions.
An eerie red radiance stared back at me, along with those treacherous eyes that appeared to follow my every move. I had been right. Almost every day of my life I saw these two serpents, but they had become such an everyday occurrence that I had merely pushed them to the back of my mind along with all the other decor. But I did remember this particular piece a bit more clearly than the others, for it had left a distinct mark upon my impressionable mind when I had initially arrived. My first glimpse of it at the tender age of ten had quite startled me, especially after I had just saved the general from one of those exact creatures. And despite my name, I had never had any great fondness for serpents.
I slowly approached the figures, treading across the soft carpet soundlessly, as I reached out and touched the delicate markings, carefully tracing the snakes' outlines with my index finger. I now knew that this mantle wasn't the only place I had seen them before. Shields on suits of armour, officials' buttons and medallions, household decorations – I could think of at least a dozen places where I had seen this coat of arms before. And something inside me said that this certainly wasn't going to be the last time I would encounter it either. Now that I knew about the serpents, it wasn't going to be an easy task to try and forget about them.
Pulling back my hand abruptly, I turned on my heel and began to stride back into the foyer. Staring at snakes wasn't going to get me anywhere. I had plenty of work to do and not much time to get it done.
Taking a right turn, I passed down into the same hallway that Smythe had taken, one that led into the kitchen. I took several complicated and confusing turns, which would inevitably lead me towards the general's office and his personal library.
It would have been easy for someone to get lost in those hallways. With all the different floors, doors, and corridors, it was a wretchedly confusing place. As a child, it had been the ideal paradise for the grandest game of hide-and-seek in recorded history, but after a while, it had gotten rather tiring. I rarely ever had anyone to play with, unless of course, they started hunting me down for my lessons. And during those times, they rarely ever appreciated my games. On more than one occasion, I had even gotten lost myself. It had finally come to the point where Aunt Eloise had simply banned me from the majority of the house, which of course, had been simply another rule that I completely disregarded. So fortunately for me, I was much better acquainted with the layout of the house than most. After all, I had spent hours studying the rooms I was never supposed to be in simply to get on everyone's last nerve.
Once I had finally reached the hallway where the general's office was, I passed by several rooms and carefully crept as quietly as possible on the creaky wooden floor towards my destination. His library was at the very end of the hallway, although to access it, I would be required to pass by his door. I only hoped it wasn't open.
Upon further inspection, however, I realized it wasn't, much to my relief. I picked up the pace, moving even quicker than necessary to pass his office, but automatically froze as the sound of raised voices wafted through the wooden barrier. Someone was in there. Well, not someone - some people were in there. And judging by the sound, they were having a discussion. A very loud discussion.
A sudden urge, one resembling the one from five years ago, began to resurface, but I pushed it away. I was not going to eavesdrop. For once in my life, I really didn't want to know what the general was up to. I was afraid of what I might discover.
I forced myself onward, focusing on my large mahogany goal at the very end. I was quite proud of myself for resisting the desire to poke my nose in other people's business. For me, that was quite the accomplishment. Although, the truth was, I was simply taking my nosiness to a more civilized degree. Instead of eavesdropping, I was going to snoop in a library. Quite the improvement.
But when I truly thought about it, however, this wasn't simply snooping. I wasn't just sticking my nose in other people's business. This time, it was my business. My life was being affected by this. And in my opinion, that meant I had a right to know. This was about more than just about my immature childhood curiosity. My entire future was on the line.
I stepped towards the door, my heart thumping wildly in my chest, as I reached towards the brass handle. Grasping it with my sweaty palms, I gave it small turn.
I twisted it harder, but still, no results.
I bent over, closing one eye and peaking through the keyhole with the other. For some reason, the door was locked. It wasn't usually. Or else, whenever it was, I simply had something with me to unlock it, like a pin. But this time, I didn't have anything. No key, no pin – nothing. That left with me two options: I could either go and ask for the key (something that was never going to happen), or scour the entire house for something that could serve as a lock-breaking device.
And right now, number two was the most appealing option.
I stood up, giving up my futile attempts of trying to persuade the door to give in to my demands, and sighed in frustration. Balling my left hand into a fist, I pounded it softly against the door and pressed my head against it in defeat. Nothing about this day was going very well. Maybe it would just be better for me to give up, hide the letter, and try to forget about it while I was stuffing my face over dinner. Wouldn't that be nice?
Wistfully, in my mind-deprived state, I began to envision plates filled with gravy and mashed potatoes. Would that be what we were having for dinner? Or would this be one of those nights when we would be going for a more traditional Indian-style food? It had been a while since we'd had curry.
I groaned. I was really losing it. My entire future was at stake, and I was dreaming about curry.
I flipped around, my back now against the wall, and began to slide to the floor. Well, as long as I was too unmotivated and hungry to go searching for some sort of pin, I could just stay here, wallow in misery, and have a pity-party. Might as well start replaying and listing all the terrible things about my life while I had the chance.
"Don't you think that man looks like he has indigestion, Pratima?"
The sound of a high-pitched giggle followed the voice, startling me out of my stupor.
"Oh, good grief, Annie! Our job is to clean the floors, not stare at artwork."
I glanced up, leaning over a bit to catch a better glimpse of the hallway to my left, and smiled. Annie and Pratima. Exactly who I wanted to see.
They were farther down the hallway, sporting their usual baby-blue maid outfits as they went about the tedious and incredibly despised job of cleaning the never-ending hallways. Dusting knick-knacks, polishing floors – it was not an envied position. But as usual, the two girls were making the best of it, arguing and putting on a show for all who happened to be within hearing distance.
They were quite the odd couple, Annie being a red-headed Irish girl and Pratima a fellow survival of the Calcutta slums, but that only made them that much more entertaining. Annie had lived in the house for as long as I could remember, working on odd jobs until she had been old enough to work as a maid. Her mother was a widow and another victim of the infamous Great Famine of Ireland, but had managed to survive by find a job working for the general. In fact, most of the general's household workers had a similar back-story.
Pratima, on the other hand, didn't have her own quarters here, but would walk to work almost every day from her house (if you could call it that) in the slums where her seven little siblings and aging mother lived. She was the main source of income for the family, something I knew Aunt Eloise was well aware of, as she would sometimes pay Pratima extra in exchange for some of her traditional Indian cooking.
Those meals were some of the few I was never late for.
Both had become rather infamous in our household for various reasons, but I simply found them downright hilarious. Especially so when they started fighting over me.
With new determination, I pushed myself off the ground and began to approach them. They may have been a source of hilarity, but right now, they were the answer to all of my problems.
Upon hearing my footsteps, Annie looked up sharply, her emerald-green eyes widening in surprise. I flashed her a smile as she nervously poked Pratima, who was still deeply focused on mopping the floors, in the ribs.
"Ow!" Pratima hissed with a glare in Annie's direction, annoyed over being startled out of her floor-washing trance. "What was that fo-"
Her voice trailed off as her brown almond-shaped eyes met mine. I flashed an amused smile as I leaned against the wall, merely a few feet away from their sopping-wet cleaning area.
"Oh, umm, hello, Raj," Pratima managed, obviously flustered at my sudden appearance. "I didn't see you there." She looked from side to side as if considering where I could have possibly materialized from. "You appeared out of thin air."
"Yes," Annie agreed, nodding her head vigorously, "you quite surprised us when you appeared so suddenly out of nowhere."
Pratima rolled her eyes. "That's what I just said, Annie."
Annie gave Pratima a blank look. "No, it isn't. Not in those exact words."
Pratima sighed exasperatedly. "Of course not."
At that, a look began to spread across Annie's face, one that I took as the beginning of another one of their world-famous arguments over nothing. In other words, it was time for me to intervene before it was too late. Because once they got started, it was a long while before anyone else could get a word in edgewise. The world could be ending, and they wouldn't even notice it mid-argument.
Pratima had turned away from Annie and couldn't see the expression of impending doom crossing her features, but I could. All too clearly. And when Annie's mouth began to open, I knew that I had to act. Fast.
"I'm so sorry to be such a bother," I cut in, barely beating Annie to it, "but I was wondering if you ladies could possibly help me with something." With that, I leaned back and waited for their response. Only time would tell if I had avoided a natural disaster in the making.
With a start, Pratima glanced up at me, and Annie's eyes lit up, no doubt indicating my interference had come just in the nick of time.
"Of course!" Annie gushed, acting as though she had completely forgotten the earlier insult upon her very honour. And chances were, she had, or at least, had been distracted enough to let it go for the time being. Sweet, pretty, and with a heart of gold, she was a wonderful person, but to say it nicely, she had never been known as the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Pratima shot Annie a skeptical look as she switched her mop from one hand to the other. "Annie, we don't even know what he needs help with."
I bit my lip, holding back a smirk that was threatening to escape.
Annie glanced back at Pratima, flicking her red ponytail out of her face as she did. "Well, whatever it is, Pratima, I'm sure we can help him. I mean, he wouldn't ask us if he didn't think we could do it."
Pratima shrugged neutrally as her gaze came back to settle on me. Apparently Annie was a bit sharper than she let on.
Shifting from my position against the wall, I flashed them another dazzling smile. "I honestly hate to be a bother and pull you away from your wonderful work-" I waved in the general direction of their mops and various cleaning supplies "-but I just had one tiny favour to ask." I paused, noting that they were both rapt, carefully observing my every word and motion. Satisfied that I had their complete and undivided attention, I continued. "There's something I need in the library, but it's locked. I would go and ask the general for the key, but he's in a meeting right now. I'd hate to bother him, and I know that you two usually have access to most of the rooms when you clean." I shrugged, giving them a look that accurately portrayed my helplessness. "You think you can help me?"
"Sure!" Annie exclaimed cheerfully while carelessly pushing her mop to the side. It fell against the wall, but instead of stopping there, it kept sliding. I winced slightly as it clattered onto the floor, knocking over a bucket full of water as it did.
"Annie," Pratima growled, giving her a death glare as water began to seep onto the floor, no doubt getting into her shoes as well.
Annie blushed slightly, her face turning a colour vaguely similar to that of a ripe tomato. "Oops. I'll go get some towels…"
She took a step forward, but seemed to forget that the floor was now at least twice as slippery as before. And as her foot came down onto the ground, I could see what was about to happen even before she did.
Some have said that dramatic moments seem to slow, all time appears to pause. I have no idea how that is physically possible, but during that moment, it did. Because for some reason, I could clearly see the look of horror spreading across her face, Pratima's eyes widening and her desperate attempt to grab onto Annie, as well as Annie's arms flailing wildly as she lurched forward, seemingly propelled by some invisible force.
It reminded me of the clown act I had seen at the circus.
But as the girl flew forward, inevitably launching herself straight into a wall or face flat on the floor, I simply had to come to the rescue. Being the extremely heroic person that I was, or at least pretended to be, I stepped forward, placing myself directly in Annie's line of trajectory and reached out my arms, grabbing her before she could break her nose. And the rest of her face.
The sheer velocity of her rate of displacement was extremely high, as I soon discovered, the impact of her body nearly causing me lose my balance. But fortunately, I managed to grab her by the waist and bring her to a halt before she could push me into a wall.
It wasn't long before time began to resume its normal pace, and as soon as it did, she pulled away from my grasp. Clearly embarrassed over being awkwardly stuck in my arms and for having another less-than-brilliant move yet again, I could see her face transforming from the shade of a ripe tomato to an extremely overly-ripe one. It made her freckles more noticeable and emerald of her eyes appear even greener.
And now that the situation was clearly under control, I could simply add this to yet another one of my extraordinarily long list of "The Barely Credible Adventures of Pratima and Annie." I could tell that neither one of the girls was especially pleased about the situation – Annie being extremely embarrassed over her own folly and Pratima obviously not excited about Annie making a fool of herself and falling into my arms – but I had to admit it had certainly brightened my day. And it was especially intriguing to see a girl blush. With her pale skin, it was astounding how many different shades of pink, red, and occasionally blue or purple she could turn. For myself and most of the girls that I knew, there was really only one shade of colour we could turn. Some, like Mishti, were a bit fairer and would have a slight touch of pink flush their face when they were embarrassed, but I didn't know many people who really blushed. I certainly didn't.
Compared to many Indians of my caste, I was rather fair, especially when compared to Dravidians or Adivasis. Still, I was much darker than some Indians I had met, especially ones from Punjab or Rajasthan. I was, as Aunt Eloise had always said, a lovely shade of brown. Not up to par with what was popular in British society, but it made it slightly easier to assimilate. Sometimes, though, the fact that having skin that wasn't quite so dark made people like me more made me want to be as dark as an Adivasi. Because I didn't think that I should be pronounced "likeable" simply by the shade of my skin. No one should.
But whether or not the fact I didn't visibly blush was because of my skin, I wasn't sure. Personally, I preferred to think that it was because I was so rarely embarrassed. I was a master of embarrassing others, but I had almost perfected the art of never being embarrassed myself. Guilt, I hadn't quite mastered yet, but definitely embarrassment. Only Mishti was capable of ruining that for me.
Ignoring my fascination with the sunset pink that was now touching Annie's cheeks, I turned my attention back to her overall wellbeing. "You're all right, Annie? Nothing injured?"
She gazed up at me, her big eyes wide and long lashes sticking out, and emitted a weak smile. "Just my dignity."
I glanced back at Pratima to see her giving Annie a clearly unimpressed look and smiled to myself. I could practically read her mind from here, and sadly, it was the exact same thought that had unwittingly fluttered across my own. Annie's dignity may have been injured, but this sure hadn't been the cause.
"I'm really sorry," Annie offered. "It was an accident."
Clearly her favourite catchphrase.
"No problem," I countered, waving it off. "You're the one who almost flew into a wall. I'm just glad I was there to stop you."
Annie smiled, pushing a strand of loose hair behind her ear. "And I really appreciate it."
"Well," Pratima cut in abruptly, preventing Annie from carrying on her damsel-in-distress thank-you routine, "now we're going to have to spend the entire evening cleaning up your little 'accident.'"
Oh, joy. I really didn't have time for this.
"Again, I'm terribly sorry," I remarked, yet again preventing another fireworks display from going off, "but if you wouldn't mind unlocking the library for me…?"
"Oh, right," Pratima responded as she maneuvered her way across the flooded wetlands. "We have the key here, although the general really doesn't want us using it for anything other than cleaning." She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, clearly waiting for my response.
"It's for him," I quickly responded. "I'd ask him myself, but he's-"
"No, that's fine," Pratima interjected. "I believe you. Besides, it's not like you'd go and steal something from him."
I forced out a laugh, inwardly condoling my actions by reasoning that I was doing this for the general, no matter how indirectly. By finding this all out for myself, I was saving him the trouble of having to explain it to me later on.
Rather twisted logic, undoubtedly, but it would have to suffice.
Pratima carefully made her way past me, jingling the ring of keys in one hand and gesturing something to Annie with the other. "Go find towels, Annie," she ordered. "I'll help Raj."
But to my delight, Annie promptly disregarded Pratima's words and fell into step beside me opposite of her as we wandered back to the library. "So what do you need in there?" she asked curiously, sending me a flirtatious smile.
"Ignore her," Pratima whispered to me in Hindi.
"What was that?" Annie demanded. "Were you talking to him in Hindi?"
Pratima shrugged. "Maybe I was, and maybe I wasn't."
"You know I can't stand it when you say things behind my back!" Annie exclaimed angrily, her face beginning to turn that fascinating shade of pink again.
Pratima rolled her eyes. "Oh, grow up. You speak Gaelic with the other household staff all the time, and I live. Deal with it."
"Not around you!" Annie shot back, moving in closer to Pratima and causing me to become very uncomfortable as the two girls began to close in on each other from either side.
"Well, if you haven't noticed, honey, this is the Raj. And-"
"Of course it is!" Annie all but shouted back. "Who did you think he was? The general?"
Pratima and I exchanged a questioning look.
"I meant the British Raj," Pratima clarified slowly, "And seeing as it is my home country, I think I should be allowed to speak my language whenever I want."
I cleared my throat. "Oh, look. We're here. At the library."
The subtly of my suggestion startled both of them out of their shrill little spat, and they glanced at me guiltily, somewhat resembling puppies that had just been caught tearing apart their master's best slippers. With a knowing smile, I held out my hand. "Keys, please?"
Appearing somewhat flustered, Pratima quickly slipped them into my open palm. Examining them, I realized that there were at least a dozen or more on the chain.
She leaned over my shoulder and pulled out a silver one at the center of the chain. "Should be that one."
I took the silver key from her hand and inspected the teeth. At first glance it appeared as though it might fit. Bending over, I placed it in the hole and began to give it a twist. But before I could fully determine whether or not the key fit the lock, something stopped me short.
"Great," I muttered through clenched teeth.
"What?" Pratima asked in alarm. "Does it fit?"
Suddenly remembering that I was not alone, I turned to face them and forced out a smile. "Oh, it's nothing. I just realized something. I think it fits."
Turning back around, I gave the key one final twist and heard a satisfying click. I stood up and reached for the doorknob, which easily turned in my hand. I gave the door a slight push and watched as it began slowly creak open, resisting as if it had not been used in at least several decades. Pulling out the key, I turned around and handed it back to Pratima, carefully averting my gaze from the serpents on the handle. They truly were everywhere. And if the snakes were any indication, then I was certainly on the right path.
"Thank you," I said as I placed the key ring back in her hand. "You've been a wonderful help."
Pratima gave a modest smile and shrugged, causing her long, silky black ponytail to bob slightly.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Annie sending a seething glare towards her Indian counterpart. It never failed to humour me when they started one of their "Who gets Raj?" battles, although I had always wondered why Annie had ever paid any attention to me to begin with. The only possible reason I could come up with was that she was so far down the social ladder herself that it didn't even matter if I wasn't of the same race as her.
I turned my back towards them again, and even without eyes on the back of my head, I could almost sense Pratima sticking her tongue out at Annie. Apparently, maturity didn't necessarily come with age.
I stared into the foreboding room, trying to ignore the lingering odor that was attempting to escape into the hallway. If the smell was any indicator, then there had to be a family of mice that had made this place their home for several generations. Human generations, that was.
Two heads suddenly appeared beside me, inspecting the room alongside myself, snapping me out of my daze. Their company might be enjoyable for a time, but not here. This was something I had to do alone.
I took a few steps back into the hallway, hoping that they would do the same. "Well," I started, "you've been incredibly helpful. Both of you," I quickly added before another quarrel could ensue over who I was referring to. "And of course, I wish you all the best in your towel hunting, uh… adventures."
Adventures I was just thankful not to be a part of.
"You're very welcome, Raj," Annie replied, beaming radiantly at me.
Pratima rolled her eyes, but managed a small smile in my direction. "Anytime, Raj," she murmured in Hindi.
Annie's eyes narrowed. "Again with the Hindi? How many times do we have to-"
"Goodbye you two," I broke in with a laugh. "And good luck."
They were certainly going to need it.
With a curt nod, Pratima turned towards Annie. "Now would be a good time to go and get the towels, since you refused to do it when I told you. Maybe now that Raj said it, you'll listen."
"But why me?" Annie demanded with a scowl, obviously not pleased about Pratima's order or her inclination.
"Because," Pratima retorted, "you were the one who spilled all the water. Now go," she ordered, giving Annie a small push in the right direction. "They're in the supply closet on the bottom shelf."
Reluctantly, Annie turned and began to fall into step beside Pratima as the girl all but dragged her along. But after one quick glance to make sure Pratima wasn't watching, she peeked over her shoulder and gave me one last grin as she waved the arm that wasn't being forcibly yanked.
Trying to keep my emotions in check, I flashed her the most ridiculous grin I could manage with a short wave in return.
Suddenly, however, Pratima seemed to notice Annie's rebellious ways and jerked her arm to grab her attention. "Keep walking, missy. Those floors aren't going to clean themselves."
"But Pratima! Didn't you see that smile? And those dimples?"
It took all of my willpower to not burst out laughing.
"Annie, you're an idiot. He can still hear you."
And even though I couldn't see them any longer from my position under the doorway, I could easily envision Annie turning that lovely shade of tomato red and Pratima facepalming herself.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of them, but one thing was for sure. This place certainly didn't need any livening up. When I wasn't providing in-house entertainment, those two were. And with the three of us under one roof, who needed a travelling circus? They'd definitely made me laugh more than the clown act ever had.
The sound of their voices continued to drift through the hallways, although their murmuring grew softer and softer the farther away they became. With that surprisingly pleasant distraction finally out of the way, I was finally free to begin my investigation. And now, I was in a much better mood to discover hidden family secrets and whatever other treachery there was to unearth. Although there was no guarantee that even a routine like theirs would prepare me for what I was about to find.
I took a step into the dark, ominous library and instantly felt like I was suffocating. Whatever scent had been leaking outside was ten times worse from inside. And I had only taken a mere five steps in from the door.
In the pitch dark, I couldn't make out any lamps, so as an alternate source of lighting, I was forced to stumble across the room half blind, tripping over things that almost made me glad I couldn't see them, until I finally emerged on the other side. And with one magnificent yank (or maybe two), I ripped away the hefty draperies that literally weighed more than myself and was instantly blinded by a stream of golden sunlight, the last of the day's before the sun completely set. And not only that, but my great surge of power had also disturbed millions upon millions of pieces of dust that immediately began to exact their revenge.
Needless to say, I sneezed several dozen times before I could finally breathe again. And even then, whatever I breathed in was simply what I had just sneezed out. It was a vicious cycle.
But at last, the seemingly never-ending dust wars came to a ceasefire. I could somewhat safely inhale and exhale again, and I was finally prepared to face the inevitable. Flinching from the blinding last rays of the day, I turned to find myself staring at a sight like none I had ever witnessed before.
Books. Thousands and thousands of books.
I had been in the library previously, but never before had I dared to venture past those first few steps, never had I dared to disturb the library's quiet solitude. Until today.
Never in my life had I ever thought that books of all things could be so overwhelming. Definitely studying them, but their sheer presence? Impossible.
Yet apparently it was possible. Outnumbered more than a thousand to one, I felt small in the presence of these towering book shelves that reached far above my head and almost all the way to the ceiling. I was miniscule compared to the enormousness of this place – outnumbered, outsized, out everything. And despite not being claustrophobic, I was beginning to feel uneasy. Why? Because it left me feeling powerless.
The worst feeling in the world.
But if there was any place in this entire house that could reveal the secrets I longed to uncover, it was here. Whether or not I could manage to find them, though, was a different story.
I could spend my entire life in this place and still not learn a thing. It was all about luck. Or providence, perhaps. But either way, I would need a whole lot of something to uncover anything of significance in this library. And maybe, just maybe, I'd expose the truth.
But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the world I was about to discover.
So, I finally wrote this chapter. Took me long enough.
And I'm really sorry for this sort of… lame chapter. Pace was slow, more so because I needed to catch everyone up to speed since I won't be skipping around so much anymore. And honestly, I was seriously expecting more to happen, but I had to cut it in half because it just got too long. Guaranteed, however, is that the more dramatic stuff will be coming in the next chap.
As usual, I would like to thank all reviewers and would like to also thank all who voted for this story in the Madrigal Awards. I'm very proud to say it took home both "Most Original" and "Best Multi-Chap." But obviously, that would never have happened without you readers, so thanks a ton for that. :)
In any case, as usual, input, reviews, and all are welcome. Thanks for reading another, once again, incredibly long chapter. :)