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Good Sabbath! Here I am, in sunny (for the moment) but cold, Wales, after sleeping until 10-30 and knocking all my medication three hours out of synch. Never mind, I'll cope. :D And I did enjoy the extra snooze.

I'm just about to answer the kind comments you left on the last posting, but I thought I'd better upload 26 first. Then I'm going to either read, or write a bit of 28 before lunch. I tell you, it's all go in this house.

Hope you enjoy it.


Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] ladysunrope for beta. Hugs.



Part - 26


Billy saw immediately how shaken Dom and Elijah were by the encounter with their would-be killer, and quietly left the room. He called the guards who had been instructed to wait, hidden, in an alcove in the only corridor leading to Elijah's chambers, and to arrest anyone found there.

They had not heard the shooting: they were too far away, and the walls were thick. He told them to now stand outside the door, and do their duty, as it had been prescribed by their king.

They were good soldiers - they did so without question.

Billy went to order tea - and brandy.

*

"I cannot tell you, Gafur, the depth of my sorrow in thinking that you were trying to kill Elijah and myself..." Dom could say no more, he was so happy that his servant had been proved loyal.

Gafur had stopped shaking, now he knew his king was safe. He ventured to put a gnarled hand on his master's sleeve. "It is no matter, Highness. It all came right, in the end."

Dom stared at him, unable to believe the man could dismiss it all so lightly. "But...but..."

Gafur smiled. "Later this morning, at nine promptly, I will bring your Highnesses your tea. I suggest the green bed-chamber to you, for the rest of the night, for you cannot sleep in this bed. I shall leave by the front doors, as I have securely bolted the doors to the Cupboard, as you call it. Rest well."

Dom stood quickly and grasped the man by the shoulders. "My dear and faithful friend..."

Elijah, too, shook his hand warmly. "Until later, as you say, Gafur the Faithful."

A tear was seen sliding down the wrinkled cheek. "Your servant until death!" he whispered before hurrying out, and it was clear that he included both of them within this declaration.

They had moved into the other bedroom by the time Billy had appeared with the tea tray. He set it down by the bed and poured - along with the tea - a judicious amount of brandy into each cup.

"I've locked the front door, my lords, so you may rest easy. Hill has been apprehended, and there is nothing, now, to disturb your peace. Lord Vigran's personal guard will relieve your guard in four hours. I will not bother you with clearing out yon mess from the other bedroom. Sleep well, my lords.”

As soon as Billy had left, Dom locked the bedroom door, and the one that led to the bathroom. He quickly drank his tea and sighed as the brandy warmed him.

"There are so many loose ends still to tie up, Lij. There is..."

Elijah kissed him, softly, and turned down the lamp. "I know there are - but later, my love. It will keep. Now we must rest. Come to bed."

Dom lay in Elijah's arms, and said nothing further. Elijah pretended to sleep, as he waited for the tension to drain from Dom's body, and noted with pleasure, that after an hour, his partner's breathing slowed and became deeper, his body less rigid. After he was certain Dom was sleeping, he allowed himself to relax and to sink into oblivion.

A few more hours would make no difference now.

*

Dom woke first. He consulted the clock, and discovered it was nearing seven thirty. He had some time to think before Gafur arrived. He went over things methodically, as was his custom.

Item: Interview Wenham and Hill, and Duleep Singh? Discuss with Lij.
Item: Discover who opened the harem doors to allow Billy entrance.
Item: Find out who wrote the three forged letters - if they were all forgeries -the one purporting to be from Rashman Singh to Billy, arranging the meeting in the harem; the one from Waseem, Basmin's secretary, to Portman, concerning payment, and the other to his son, Udai, in England, the one he had never written ...

This was as far as he had got, when Elijah stirred beside him. Dom leaned over and kissed him.

"What's the time, Dom?" His voice was tired, but clear, and he had at least the strength to kiss Dom back.

"A quarter to eight. Shall I ring for Gafur to bring the tea, now? Or shall I call for Billy?" Dom asked, quietly, running a finger along Elijah's face.

Elijah smiled, and kissed the finger. "No, neither. We can think more clearly if no-one is here. We can wait an hour for tea. Tell me, instead, what is on your mind, my love."

Elijah listened carefully as Dom repeated his list, out loud, this time. Then he smiled. "I well remember Billy writing a note, now and then, purporting to be from my father, excusing me from some activity or other at college in which I did not wish to participate. He was very good at forging my father's signature, I must say. No-one ever questioned it."

Dom stared. "You do not think it was Billy who wrote them?"

Elijah laughed. "Not at all. I am just pointing out that it is easily done if there are examples of handwriting about for people to copy."

Dom's brow creased. "But in my case, whoever did it had to have my seal as well, did he not?"

There was a soft knock on the door, and Elijah unlocked it to find Billy standing outside. "I thought you might like some tea, my lords," he said, hefting the tray as he spoke, onto a small table.

Dom laughed. "How did you know we were awake, Mr Boyd? I am certain we did not make a noise, and the walls are thick, I know."

Billy shrugged, smiling. "I was awake, and I knew if I was, then his lordship would likely be, too. We have been together for many years, he and I. We are, in this, of a similar mind."

Elijah padded off to the bathroom, whilst Billy poured the tea.

"We were discussing the letters," said Dom, filling the gap. "Wondering who sent them."

Billy handed Dom a cup with a slight bow. "Well, my lord, I know who sent one of them, at least. It was me."

Dom spilt the tea over the silk bedcover. "You?" he almost choked, incredulous. "Which... which one?"


Billy mopped up what he could of the liquid, as Elijah, called back by the commotion, remarked in a level voice, "no doubt - in your own time, of course, Billy Boyd - you will tell us why you had taken such an unusual, not to say, unlawful action. It is forgery, you know."

Billy seemed remarkably unruffled. "I know it is, my lord. But I am equally certain that it is unlawful to attempt to assassinate the heir to the kingdom of Ranjipore by attempting to shoot him in the school grounds. He had to be got away."

He waited until this news sank in before continuing.

"That is a very observant man your son has, my lord. He should be rewarded. I am certain young Udai heard the crack of the gun, but...Premal, is it not?... pretended it was the crack of a stick he had trodden on. Premal, however, glimpsed a man running away, through the trees. He wore a turban. I swore Premal to silence, my lords, for things like that have a habit of spreading, if told. The oath he took in my presence frightened even me."

Dom and Elijah stared at Billy in amazement. Billy was looking at Elijah, a slightly rueful expression in his eyes. "The news of it reached me two days before we left England, my lord. I was able to send an associate to intercept the intended murderer when he next tried to accomplish his task, and he was...persuaded to tell me that someone from this palace had paid him. He did not know the man's name, but he gave a good, clear description of him. The prisoner, unfortunately met with an accident a few days later, I have heard.
He fell down the prison steps, trying to escape. I have his written confession secreted in a compartment in my luggage that your agent's search failed to reveal, Highness."

Dom swallowed. He found his mind a blank, and could not think of a word to say.

Billy bowed himself out, and came back with an official document which he handed to Dom. "As soon as I was able to sneak into your office, my lord, and use the seal, I sent the letter. This was before I was beaten by the eunuchs, of course.
I was certain young Udai would be safer, here - for the time being, at least. The headmaster at Eton would deny that any such thing as an assassination of a child could be attempted on British soil."

He sat down, whilst Dom read, then handed the document to Elijah, who was not wholly surprised that the description of the conspirator and instigator of the murder of the innocent young prince was that of Rashman Singh.

"Really, Highness," Billy's voice was soft, but chiding, "it was very easy to obtain an example of your handwriting, and the use of the seal, once I knew where it was kept. You must ward it more carefully, in future."

"How did you obtain it?" Dom asked, his throat dry.

Billy was no longer smiling. "Everyone has their price, my lord king. The man is in the cells, awaiting further questioning. He has been there since that day. I was giving him an opportunity to...remember all he knew. It proved a good idea. A clerk of Lord Basmin's secretary, I believe."

"Acting under the direction of Duleep Singh, he sent the letter to Portman, supposedly from Waseem, Lord Basmin's secretary, who I am certain is as innocent as the prince, his master. When I imprisoned the man, Waseem was told that he had been sent on an errand to Poona. He accepted this without question. It seems Waseem is honest, but not very bright."

Billy stood. "Now I will leave you for a while, my lords. I am certain Gafur will be here shortly. We can speak more on the matter later, if you wish."

Dom and Elijah stared at each other for once, speechless.

*

After breakfast, Dom sent for his family. He would not allow Billy to clear Elijah's room. "I wish my uncle and cousins to see it, Bill," he said, standing by the door, staring at the mess of split wood, feathers and down that covered the floor of the room.

"Aye, and your grandfather, too, no doubt," Billy said, closing the door.

Dom paled. "How do you know of that?" he almost whispered. "Does the government know?"

"Calm down, my lord. No, and they won't know from me, you can be sure. Your secrets are safe with me; Lord Elijah can assure you on that point. I am a loyal servant."

Dom wondered if Billy knew that Her Highness One, supposedly Dom's senior wife, was actually his mother, but he did not ask. Some things were better not mentioned.

Those he had sent for arrived soon after that. None but Vigran had heard what had happened, and they all looked thunderstruck as Billy told the tale. Ian grasped his grandson's shoulder, tightly, and bent to kiss his head, and Arjit Singh - never the most demonstrative of men, Dom thought - took Dom's free hand in both of his, and squeezed it tight.
Elijah, standing a little way off was surprised when he, too, was approached by the men and warmly congratulated on surviving the attack.

Basmin, who was a taciturn and severely controlled soul, as usual refrained from outward expressions of surprise and horror, but Elijah saw a softness in the man's eye when he said, "I am glad you are safe, cousin, and you, also, Prince Elijah." He was certain that the man meant it.

When they were shown the carnage in the bedroom, Basmin, overcome at last, had to lean against the door-frame for support, whilst Ian, equally moved, stood beside the shaken man, and, for the first time in company, held his lover's hand.

"They got so close - so close!" Arjit Singh shook his head. "I am glad in my heart that he had you, Prince Elijah, to confide in, for I do believe that there were times when Udom thought the killer was one of us!"

No-one denied the point. It would have been a lie to have done so. Early on, everyone had been a suspect.

Vigran and Osman had been standing back, but as they moved towards the seating area, to discuss the situation, Osman, ever an impetuous soul, embraced both men. But he could not speak; it would have made him weep, and neither Dom nor Elijah were weeping.

But neither man was as composed as he seemed, Billy thought, being a keen observer of human nature. Therefore he offered to explain matters to the family.

"So..." Billy concluded, "...you may be assured that I will deal with Wenham and Hill, my lords. They cannot be allowed to leave the area. Best not ask," he said, as Arjit began to speak. "I have to satisfy both the army, and the British government, and I shall. Both men have acted with dishonour and they must pay but the dishonour cannot be seen to touch the Crown. That is all I will say."

Dom nodded his approval. "That leaves us Duleep Singh and the traitorous clerk. But there is one other, Commander Boyd, is there not?"

Billy rubbed his chin. "The other Bambaiyaa speaker, you mean? Well, I'll leave him to you, too, Highness. I'm not certain he knew the implications of what he was doing. I understand he was a...lover...of Rashman Singh. No doubt he did it to his order, but you will have to discover why."

Dom sighed. "I hope he can give a good account of himself. Poor Gafur!"

Elijah stared at him. "I take it that you mean Wafiya, the head eunuch, lord, who must have opened the door to let Billy into the harem." Arjit and Basmin looked so shocked at the thought of the harem being unprotected from licentious men eager to rush in and ravish the king's wives, that Elijah had to suppress a smile, serious though the matter was.

"Why should this involve Gafur?" he asked. It was Osman who answered. "Wafiya is Gafur's son." And Elijah could see, then, how well-constructed the case incriminating Gafur had been.

"I cannot allow the clerk to live, Dom stated, his voice firm. "He sold me for money. An example must be made.
But why did Wafiya open that door? If he can provide an adequate reason, I shall have him severely flogged only. My...Her Highness One...will be extremely upset to lose him, and this I cannot have."

"Do you go, Commander, and deal as you think best with Wenham and Hill. Leave the other three to me." Dom dismissed the group, and sat, quietly on the sofa, with Elijah as they talked things over. He had promised to meet his family for luncheon, but there were several things he needed to do before then.

He decided to tackle Wafiya first.

*

Dom banged a heavy fist on the brass grill of the harem doors, and a guard came promptly to open it. Dom brushed him aside and stalked in, dragged Wafiya out of the eunuchs' common room, and into his mother's private parlour.

He had brought Elijah with him, and several of the eunuchs and guards - goggling with surprise - stood outside the open door.
Elijah, asked by Dom to fetch the Lady Aditi, and Wafiya's mother, Vashti, her chief servant, shooed them away, and closed the door on the gathering when he returned. The wood was four inches thick. No-one would hear through that.

Dom embraced his mother, nodded kindly at the old woman, and glared at Wafiya. "Now, you will waste no time and breath making up stories, Wafiya, even though your mother be present, and you are ashamed of what you have done. Tell us, succinctly and clearly why you opened these doors on the day Commander Boyd entered."

Vashti gasped, but she said nothing. Aditi put a reassuring arm around her favourite servant's trembling shoulders. The Lady knew her son. If Dom had intended executing Wafiya, he would have ordered it first, before he spoke.

Wafiya lowered his head. "Could my mother not be sent out?" he begged, his voice low. The Lady Aditi caught her son's eye, and Dom nodded. "Very well."

The old lady tottered out, and as the door closed behind her, Wafiya raised his head. "It is not a thing an unknowing mother would wish to hear of her son," he said.

Dom, thinking he knew something of what the man was about to reveal, disagreed with this. His own dear mother had never tried to alter her son's inclinations, so he gestured to him to continue.

"That morning I had received a note from Rashman Singh, asking me to meet him in the gardens, in a place where we...used to meet in secret. We were lovers," he said, lowering his head, again, and staring at his gold leather slippers with rapt concentration. The red silk of his sari sparkled in the light of the sun shining through the window. His hair was a shining cloak of black silk, and Elijah could see what Rashman had seen in this man to delight him.


"As you know, Highness, it is the head guard on duty who usually holds the key to the door of the seraglio, except for twice a day, when they take their ease and refreshment. Then I have it."

"I prefer to slip out unnoticed. The others tend to tease if they know where I am going. I unlocked the door, leaving it closed, so that I could leave later, unobserved. I returned the key to the guard. I intended locking it when I next received the key, later in the day. I knew you seldom used that door, Highness; I never thought that anyone would dare to enter! All know the penalty for such a deed! I...had not thought the visitors might not know."

Elijah heard Dom give an audible sigh of relief. "You will be punished, of course. If you had been a traitor, you would have revealed the position of the secret door to the plotters. Forty lashes, I think, and bread and water for a week. Where is the key, now?"

Wafiya, trembling with relief that his life had been spared, was permitted to fetch the head guard.

"From this day," Dom said, to the guard standing impassively to attention before him, "there will be no order of enclosure within the seraglio imposed upon the princesses within this palace. Their Highnesses One, Two and Three will be allowed to roam the gardens and the palace, in complete freedom, unmolested by anyone - accompanied or unaccompanied as suits them best. It is time we moved forward - into more modern ways. We will begin with this. See that all are immediately informed of it. I shall order it so written. From this day, only their Highnesses shall lock or unlock this door, at their own will and pleasure."

He handed the large brass key to his mother, before turning once more to the guards. "The bolts will be left in place, as they can only be used from the inside, and it may be that their Highnesses might, on occasion, wish to bar me - or other visitors - from entering."

The guard, plainly recognising a joke when he heard it, allowed himself a slight relaxation of the lips which the observant might take to be a smile.

"The guard will be removed from the harem," said Dom, as Lady Aditi nodded her approval, her eyes wet with tears. "But they may still guard the outer door, two at a time."

"Do you wish to keep the eunuchs, Lady?" Dom asked his mother, before the guard left.

"Oh, I think so, my Lord," she replied, smiling, blotting her tears with a wisp of silk and lace that passed for a handkerchief. "They really are good company, you know, and seldom does one hear them utter a cross word. May I keep Wafiya, too?"

Dom stood, and after dismissing the guard, kissed his mother's hand, and then her cheek. "Of course you may - when he has recovered. And you may visit him, in the Infirmary - well...afterwards."

"Will you take luncheon with us, today, Mama? Just Dada-ji, Arjit, Basmin, Osman, Vigran, Lij and myself. The girls, too, if they would like it?"

Her mouth was open, so she shut it, her heart singing with happiness. She had understood that long established customs were the way they were, and she had accepted that. But now, her son had decided upon a more excellent path, and, being King, would be instantly obeyed. She was so joyful, she felt that she would burst with the intensity of it.

For the first time since she had been smuggled back into the palace, heavily veiled, disguised as her son's first bride, the Lady Aditi, Dowager Queen of Ranjipore, walked through the open door of the harem, into the corridor, and outside into the maidan. They entered a small, gated garden, and sat on benches in the sun.


"And Udai, too - may he accompany us? Not Mooma; I think her too young for a formal table," the Lady Aditi asked, her voice low.

Her son smiled at her, and told her she was free to do as she wished. She felt like kneeling and kissing his hand, but that would diminish the freedom that he was offering his womenfolk. She settled, instead, for kissing his cheek.

"Come close!" he said to the two timid maidens - his wives - who had been told of the edict, and had followed Lady Aditi, hesitant, out into the sun but still hung back, seemingly still afraid. "There is a sea-change rising in Ranjipore, and it begins here, with this. But, first, I will spend an hour with my children, then I will take Udai to see the horses!"

He stood and bowed to his mother and his wives. "I shall come and fetch you at one-thirty, my Ladies fair. That means you have two hours to get yourselves ready. I pray it is sufficient time."

The Lady Aditi slapped his hand for speaking such impudence.

*

In the end, Dom and Elijah had to rush to Dom's chambers, where Gafur awaited them. They had spent too long with the children, out in the fresh air.

Gafur looked tired, and a little apprehensive, but was visibly heartened to know that his son would live.

"I am grateful, Highness, that you spared him. My wife came to tell me of it. I do not think she knew, before this, of Wafiya's lover, but surely she must have suspected it. At least he's had the courage to tell her, now. But I trust he has learned his lesson," Gafur said, after hearing the whole story from the king and Elijah.


He handed Dom a cream silk turban length, and Elijah, buttoning up his mid-blue silk embroidered tunic, suppressed a longing to take the ritual comb out of his lover's hair, and release it from its confinement.

Suitably dressed and adorned, the two men waited outside the harem, as the Lady Aditi and the two princesses, followed by Udai Singh, came shyly out to greet them. Dom offered his mother his arm, and, with Udai on his left, and followed by Elijah, with a sister on either arm, they walked sedately to the dining room usually reserved for luncheon.

Word travels fast around a palace. Especially the word of the King.

One servant, observing women he thought must be the princesses, dropped a vase of flowers on the floor in surprise, but although they met a few astonished glances on their way, they reached the room, unmolested.

The five men waiting for their king to join them stood as he entered. The woman on his arm was unrecognised by two of them, but the three who had known her twenty years before, gasped.

"Aditi?" Basmin managed, staring at his cousin as if his eyes deceived him. "Is it truly you?"

"It is, Basmin, and I am so glad to see you once more, after all these years - and you, of course, Arjit Singh."

Dom took his mother to her cousin, and she kissed him lightly on his cheek, and then Arjit came forward to receive an embrace.

"Mother, let me introduce you to Osman Singh, your nephew, and this is Vigran Singh, as you may remember, Lord of the North. Ian, of course, you know."

Osman bowed and kissed the lady's hand, and Vigran bowed. Ian just winked at her, before kissing her hand. He was glad in his heart to see the woman he had saved from the funeral pyre all those years before, take her rightful place within the Royal Family.

Then the two sisters were introduced, and smiled at everyone rather nervously, still very shy at being in male company. However, Elijah saw that they would quickly get used to it, with the help of Lady Aditi, and the kindness and sensitivity to their new position from the men present.

Udai smiled happily at everyone, and asked, breaking into the formal atmosphere - "I am so very hungry, Papa - may we eat?"
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ismenin

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