The Untamed Bride

By: Stephanie Laurens

India, 1822

March 24, 1822

East India Company Headquarters, Calcutta, India

I can’t stress how important it is that we behead this fiend.” Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings and Governor-General of India for the last nine years, stumped back and forth behind his desk.

The five officers at ease in the elegant rattan armchairs arranged before the massive mahogany expanse in the Governor-General’s study sat silent and still; Hastings’s passage was the only movement stirring the heavy, humid air.

The old man’s color was high, his fists clenched, the muscles in his shoulders and arms taut. Colonel Derek Delborough, Del to all who knew him, seated at one end of the row of chairs, eyed the signs of his commander-in-chief’s agitation with cynical detachment. It had taken Hastings long enough to summon him and his men, Hastings’s personally appointed special officers.

Behind Hastings, the white plaster wall was broken by two teak-framed windows shaded by the wide balcony beyond yet already shuttered against the burgeoning heat. Hanging between, a portrait of the king, painted when he’d still been Prince Florizel and the darling of Europe, stared out over this outpost of English wealth and influence. The room was amply endowed with rosewood tables and teak cabinets, many intricately carved and inlaid, glowing in the light that seeped through the shutters to glint off myriad ornate brass fittings.

Airy, spotlessly clean, richly and exotically appointed, the room possessed a timeless serenity underlying its utilitarian function, much like the subcontinent itself, a large portion over which Hastings now ruled.

Immune to any soothing ambience, Hastings continued to pace heavily. “These depredations on our convoys cannot go on—we’re losing face with every day that passes, with every attack that goes unanswered.”

“I understand”—Del’s own drawl was the epitome of unruffled calm, a sharp contrast to Hastings’s terse tones—“that the Black Cobra’s activities have been escalating for some time.”

“Yes, damn it! And the Bombay station didn’t think it worthwhile reporting, let alone acting, until a few months ago, and now they’re bleating that the situation’s beyond them.” Pausing by the center of his desk, Hastings exasperatedly rifled a stack of documents, fanning out a selection before pushing them across the polished surface. “These are some of the recent reports—just so you know what anarchy you’re heading into.”

The four men seated to Del’s right glanced his way. At his nod, they reached out and took one of the documents each; sitting back, they perused the reports.

“I’ve heard,” Del went on, reclaiming Hastings’s attention, “that the cult of the Black Cobra first reared its head in ’19. Does it have any previous history, or was that its inception?”

“That was the first inkling we had, and the locals in Bombay hadn’t heard of it before then. No saying it hadn’t been lurking in some backwater somewhere—God knows there’s enough of these secretive native cults—but there’s no reports, even from the older maharajahs, of its existence prior to mid-’19.”

“A de novo cult suggests the arrival of a particular leader.”

“Indeed, and it’s him you’ll need to eliminate. Either that, or do enough damage to his forces”—Hastings flung a hand at the documents the other four were reading—“the rabble he uses to murder, rape and pillage, to make him scurry back under whatever rock he slithered out from.”

“‘Murder, rape and pillage’ hardly does the Black Cobra justice.” Major Gareth Hamilton, one of the four officers who served under Del, glanced up, his brown gaze pinning Hastings. “This reads more like deliberate terrorization of villages, which suggests an attempt to subjugate. For a cult, that’s ambitious—an attempt to seize power beyond the usual bleeding of money and goods.”

“Establishing a yoke of fear.” Captain Rafe Carstairs, seated three seats along from Del, joined Gareth in tossing the report he’d read back on the desk. Rafe’s aristocratic features showed evidence of distaste, even disgust, which told Del that the contents of the report Rafe had read were truly dreadful.

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