As the Captain drove off, Sikander felt himself gripped by a sudden listlessness. The phrase Campbell had used resonated through his mind. “Damned by my blood.” In many ways, Sikander was equally damned by his own blood. While he would truly have loved to have been a professional sleuth, a deducer by trade, his birth had doomed him to be a Maharaja. And, true, while he enjoyed the trappings that came with the throne of Rajpore, the wealth and prestige, the only time he felt truly alive was when he was on the chase.

Arching his back like a cat, he spared a long moment to stretch his tired limbs. Above, he saw that the clouds had cleared. It was a cold, startlingly clear night. Sikander squinted, spying his favourite constellation, Orion the hunter, visible in the far distance. He had always felt an affinity towards it. It was the lodestone for detectives, he had always believed, the guiding star for all those who set out to decipher mysteries. Seeing it now was strangely reassuring.

Sadly, his appreciation of the mysteries of the cosmos was truncated as a car came rolling up, a Vauxhall A-Type, by the looks of it. It screeched to a halt in front of Sikander, throwing up a shower of dust and gravel that temporarily blinded him. The front door slapped open, disgorging a duo of brawny troopers, Rajputs, he inferred, by the way they had tied their pugrees.

“Sorry for the presumption, huzoor, but please get in the car,” the first of them said. “I most certainly will not,” he started to say, but before he could finish voicing his objections, they each seized one of his arms.

“What in god’s name do you think you’re doing?” Unfortunately, his outrage had no effect whatsoever on his assailants, who bundled him bodily into the back of the car and slammed shut the door behind him.

As the vehicle lurched into motion, Sikander realised he was not alone. A man sat poised on the opposite seat, sneering at him. Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner was the very epitome of the martial Rajput, from his polished jackboots to his carefully coiffed moustache, which was so sharp-edged it could have sliced through armour. His only shortcoming was that he was rather short, even smaller than Sikander, and his nose was much too arrogant, precisely the sort of appendage designed to look down at others over, a skill he had mastered at a very young age.

Bikaner was one of the largest states in Rajputana, famed for two things, fine camels and even better warriors. It was said of the Rathores that there was no one better to guard your back in a battle. Sikander, however, had a different theory. He thought they made such valiant soldiers because they were thoroughly unimaginative, a humourless bunch who cared about only two things, honour and duty, which made them great warriors in wartime but utterly boring once the trumpets had sounded.

True, honour and duty were important, but then, so was a bit of fun every now and then. Unfortunately, Ganga Singh’s idea of fun was a round of polo followed by an hour or two of pigsticking – essentially anything that involved copious amounts of sweat and public displays of masculinity. And if that wasn’t tiresome enough, it didn’t help that he was as straightforward as any man could be, with no capacity for either subtlety or subtext, a quality which had always made his relationship with Sikander rather rocky.

“Hello, Ganga Singhji,” Sikander said. “What has it been, eight years, or is it nine? The last time I saw you was at my coronation, wasn’t it?”

“You know, I really do not like you, Sikander Singh. You represent everything I despise,” Ganga Singh hissed, his moustache bristling with disdain. “Your father was a proper man, a pukka Maharaja. He carried himself with dignity, with grace. Why, he would never have been caught traipsing about in the middle of the night in, what is that, your bathrobe?”

His jaw clenched with disgust. “Unfortunately, it looks like I am stuck with you. I must think of the greater good, of what is best for King and Empire, even if it means working with an overconfident lout like yourself.”

“Perhaps it is because I have had a very long day, your majesty, but I am feeling rather slow on the uptake. Do stop beating about the bush, won’t you, and explain why you have abducted me?”

Ganga Singh let out a snort. “As it happens, I know what is going on, why you were at the Royal Enclosure earlier today. Everything!”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Sikander said, but the Maharaja of Bikaner cut him off with a savage slash of one hand.

‘Enough! Do not take me for a fool! The Viceroy told me himself.’ He fixed Sikander with one eye, squinting. “Lord Hardinge asked me about your suitability for the job at hand. While I was reluctant to give my blessing, even I had to admit you have some small modicum of talent for poking your nose in other people’s affairs.” His face looked like he had swallowed a bitter lemon to give Sikander a compliment, however infinitesimal. “Unbecoming though it is for a man of your antecedents and breeding to go skulking about like a havildar looking for clues, in this case,” he admitted grudgingly, “we need someone like you.

“I warn you, though, if you dare to embarrass the King in any way, I will not rest until I have broken you. Is that clear?”

He waited for Sikander to con rm with a nod before continuing.

“Good! So, as it happens, I have a tip that may be of help to you. As you know, I have a widespread network of spies and informers.” He offered a saturnine smile. “One can never have too much information, can they? One of my sources has been keeping a close eye on a Nationalist named Bahadur Rao. Perhaps you have heard the name?”

Sikander shook his head once more, this time to signify the negative, a denial which managed to send Ganga Singh into a veritable paroxysm.

“Good heavens! Could you be any more ignorant? You know the name of every wine in France, no doubt, but about the things that truly matter, you remain utterly clueless.” He was practically foaming at the mouth by now. “These Nationalists, they are our truest enemy. Like a fungus, they have spread everywhere, sinking into the very foundations of our homes, taking root and rotting every square inch until all that is left is dust and ash. Mark my words, it will be them or us. If they are allowed to flourish, if they prevail, we will be pulled from our thrones and offered up as sacrifices. Just you wait and see!”

“You were about to tell me how your man was shadowing this Bahadur Rao,” Sikander reminded Ganga Singh gently, before he could lose himself fully in this flood of invective.

“Yes! Of course! As I was saying, this Nationalist has been heard declaring several times, in public in fact, that he intends to ruin the Durbar somehow. What do you think of that, eh?”

Sikander shrugged. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but that isn’t actually anything new. The Durbar Committee probably receives half a hundred threats each and every day, and most of them turn out to be rubbish.”

“Ah, but that is not all!” Ganga Singh grinned triumphantly. “Just the day before yesterday, my informer happened to follow Bahadur Rao as he went to pay a visit to one of his agents. Can you guess his destination?”

“Not the King’s Camp, surely.” Sikander sat up.

“Exactly!” Ganga Singh leaned back, twirling his moustache proudly. “And can you deduce who he called upon while he was there for almost half an hour?”

The answer to that question was really quite obvious, even if Sikander had been a rank amateur. It took him only a minute to put two and two together, to fit this intriguing snippet of information into what he already knew. This must have been the so-called uncle that Sergeant Macgregor had mentioned, the older man who had called upon Zahra. But why? What was the real reason Bahadur Rao had gone to meet with her, and that, too, under an assumed identity? How were they involved? Whatever the case, it certainly made the Nationalist a viable suspect, at least worthy of a visit.

“How sure are you of this, Ganga Singh-ji? Do you trust your man?”

“As a matter of fact, he is unimpeachable. He would lay down his life for me and for the glory of the Empire.”

“Very well then. Thank you for the lead. I shall look into it, I assure you.”

“Do that,” Ganga Singh said, “and make sure you keep me apprised of your progress. We wouldn’t want any surprises, would we?”

“Not at all,” Sikander said. “I despise surprises, especially unexpected ones,” but the irony in his tone was wasted upon Ganga Singh, who merely leaned forward to knock on the partition that separated the passenger seat from the driver, a signal to stop the car.

“So be it. Now get out, will you? And go do something useful!”

Sikander grinned, and hastened to obey. Even as the car clattered to a halt, and he prepared to dismount, Ganga Singh stretched out to give him a quick pat on one shoulder, a surprisingly intimate gesture.

“Do be careful, Sikander. You are a little fish in a pond filled with sharks. One wrong step, and they will not hesitate to gobble you up.”

Even though the metaphor was about as mixed as could be, Sikander could not help but be absurdly touched. It was quite unlike Ganga Singh to play the caring patriarch, but the very fact that he was issuing such a warning, served to remind Sikander exactly how precarious the path he was taking.

“I solemnly swear I will be on my best behaviour.” He gave Ganga Singh a nod. “I am just glad you care about my welfare, my friend. Why, it is bringing a tear to my eye!”

“Stop being cheeky!’ The Maharaja of Bikaner scolded. “Really, one of these days I am going to have teach you some manners, you clown!”

“I look forward to it. Perhaps you can come by the Majestic this weekend and have a bottle of champagne with me. I have a case of very fine Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle I have been saving for just such a special occasion as this.”

‘I’ll try to find the time.” Ganga Singh replied. In spite of the disapproval in his voice, the faintest of smiles touched the corners of his lips. “And do try and dress a little more appropriately, will you, Sikander?”

“You’re letting the side down.”

Excerpted with permission from Death At The Durbar, Arjun Raj Gaind, Harper Black.