Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a notorious hedonist and a spy who romanced princesses from Persia and wrote obscure travel books. He was not only a diamond merchant, he was the pioneer of the diamond trade with Hindustan. If he was in town, there could be only one sparkling reason why.
“Nothing like a bit of tropical air to keep a man young,” he said. “Besides, I do prefer the brightness of a copper faced lady to the pallid hue of the European damsels. Looks like you’ve gotten some sun. What brings you out this far?”
“I have come for herbs,” stammered Madeline, with a sinking feeling in her gut. Tavaji was not going to help her at all. She was chasing a chimera.
“Isn’t destiny splendid?” Tavernier laughed. “I was wondering how I would reach you, and voila, here you are at my door step! Incroyable, n’est pas?”
With a heavily bejewelled hand on her shoulder, he propped himself up and leaned on his walking stick, a polished piece of mahogany with a golden handle the shape of a serpent. He walked over to a stand with a decanter and two glasses. “This tribal region is titillating, is it not? Have you tasted their rice wine?”
Madeline shook her head. His slurs suggested that he most certainly had.
“Would you like some?” he asked, waving his stick. It was about four feet long and delicate, with intricate designs chiselled on the serpent, ornate gold inlays and encrusted jewels.
She shook her head. Her hair was light and bouncy.
“Liquid jollity is my raison d’etre.” He smiled indulgently at his big belly and poured himself another glass. “As a connoisseur, I do say, these simple folks have perfected their brew.”
He walked back to Madeline, tapping his stick with each step. Tap, tap, tap, tap. “There’s a proper matriarchy here. In my 180,000 miles of travel, I’ve never come across anything quite as quaint.”
What was he getting at? What did he want from her?
“While Bengal flourishes, look at us?” Tavernier cleared his throat. “France is being taken over by narrow-minded zealots.” He paused to polish the golden snake hilt of his staff with his handkerchief. Its eyes were made of red rubies. Its teeth were sparkling diamonds.
“Code Noir?” He spat out his words. “King Louis is a fascist slave trader!”
Madeline shrank back.
“Do you know he has evicted Protestants from the country?” Tavernier’s eyes were raving with hatred. “He’s a pig! Un conchon! Un CONCHON!”
“Where are your manners, Monsieur?” said Madeline, scared.
“Don’t pretend to be so honourrrrable.” He stumbled towards her. “I know why you are here.” He caressed a strand of her hair. “Trying to weasel your way into my diamond outfit?” He was so close, his speech sprayed on her face.
She pushed him away.
“Mademoiselle, such arrogance when you know nothing? You must really gather more intelligence if you plan to succeed. You see, I know everything about you.”
“No you don’t.”
Tavernier raised a cocky eye brow. “Your father was caught selling fake pearls to Madam Maintainant for her wedding and now you are trying to win back his freedom.”
“Don’t look so surprised. It’s not much of a secret anymore. Everyone in Versailles knows you supplied those pearls to your father. He sold you out! He is grovelling at King Louis’ feet. Now it is your own freedom you must earn, not his.”
Madeline glared at Tavernier. There was nobody she detested more. Could it be true? Her own father had betrayed her?
“I could kill you right now,” said Tavernier. “And no one would ever know.”
Madeline disguised her fear. To show fear would be to lose the battle. “I am not here alone. If I go missing...”
He drew a skinny, straight sword out of his walking stick. It looked more like an accessory than a weapon but its tip could surely poke a hole through her dress.
“I could kill you,” said the intoxicated Frenchman. “But I won’t. Not if you agree to help me.”
“Help you?” asked Madeline. “But how?”
He waved the blade at her face clumsily. “I sold my chateau to finance this odyssey.” He traced her figure with the tip of the blade. A storm clouded his countenance. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “I want that diamond.”
“Diamond?” Madeline could not conceal her shock. She thought they were talking about maps.
“Sacre bleu, do you take me for a fool? I’ll kill you,” he shouted.
“Talk business rather than threatening me. We may both have something to gain.” She spoke with an even voice though fear knocked her entrails. She glanced out the window and wished she had brought Abdul along with her. There was no one to call to for help. Later, she would pay Costa to stick a dagger in this fool’s derriere.
Tavernier resumed his seat. “You have access to the Subedar?”
Madeline nodded. “He is an extraordinary gentleman.’
“Here is the plan. It’s simple really. Purchase Kalinoor then hand it over to me.’
“Since you want it, I assume it will cost a fortune,” replied Madeline, her heart racing. “I don’t have that kind of money.’
“I will take care of that. Your only task is to convince the Viceroy to part with his bijoux.’
“Why don’t you buy it yourself?” she said.
“The Viceroy and I have our... differences.’
Madeline raised an eye brow.
“As a young soldier, Khan fought with Aurangzeb to overthrow the Deccan Empire. Their campaign was successful and Khan came into possession of the treasury of Qutb Adl Shah of Golconda.
“Khan was rich before but after that he became one of the richest men in the Empire. Within his collection were several unique specimens. Diamonds of immense size and power, unusual colours: pink, yellow, blue.”
“Deep-blue like the ocean,” said Tavernier, nostalgically. “Glows in the dark. Cool to the touch. Never have I seen anything as exquisite.” His eyes sparkled with pure adoration.
“You stole it?” said Madeline.
“Stole is an unflattering word,” said Tavernier. “I appropriated it from Khan just as he appropriated it from the Deccan.”
“It is an ancient gem,” said Madeline, recalling words she had heard earlier. “It belongs to these people.”
“Khan offered 300,000 rupees for the return of the French Bleu. I sold it to King Louis for a whopping 450,000 rupees instead!”
Enough to purchase a castle, thought Madeline, but not class.
“I am an afficionado of art and fine gems, same as you,” said Tavernier. “But let me warn you, you cannot pull off this heist on your own. You need me. Without me, you’re nothing. Bring me the diamond and we can both make it big. You can return to France alive and purchase all the posh friends you dream of.”
Madeline narrowed her gaze. “Why would the Subedar give me the diamond?”
Tavernier glared. “Don’t be daft!” His spit sprayed all over her face. “How does a woman persuade a man of anything?”
Madeline scowled at the impropriety of his words. “If I can obtain Kalinoor,” she said cautiously, “How will I find you?”
Tavernier smiled. “I’m coming with you.”
Excerpted with permission from Dark Diamond, Shazia Omar, Bloomsbury.