“Alhamdolillah! Let me have one great adventure before I die!”
Japonica Fortnom peeked through the window’s mashrabiyah, a closely woven screen of carved wood that allowed viewing out of a room but not into it. The oriel window looked out on the Bab al-Shaykh, an ancient quarter of old Baghdad where the turquoise-tiled domes and spindly minarets of mosques glittered in the morning sun. Once the home of Caliphs and the legendary Ali Baba’s forty thieves, this was a city where intrigue and betrayal still rivaled mercantile concerns as the chief enterprise. It seemed a place where her prayer might be answered. After all, adventure was in her blood.
She was a third generation Fortnom, a branch of the famous London Fortnums who helped established Fortnum and Mason grocers. Many years before, her grandfather had come with The East India Company to Bushire, a port city along the ancient trade routes of Persia. Settling in permanently, he married and began a family who, for reasons never given, changed the spelling of their name to Fortnom. While the head of the English branch continued his climb in service to Queen Charlotte from royal footman to Page of the Presence, Fortnoms became adventurers. As part of The Company, father and then son roamed the subcontinent seeking teas, spices, and condiments with which to supply their London cousins. The Fortnom preference for exotic lands quickly earned them the nickname “the Indians” among their English cousins. A title not altogether complimentary, her mother once admitted. But life was never dull.
Japonica sighed. That was not quite true. Life had been very sad, dull stuff since her father’s ship sank in a monsoon off Calcutta two years before. With nothing left of her old life or her long-held dreams of adventure, she had continued as a Company employee specializing in herbs. At times she felt as if the world could swallow her whole and no one would ever notice.
Then, miracle of miracles, The Company requested that she to go to Baghdad. Known for her skills as an herbalist, she had been sent here to nurse Lord Abbott, viscount Shrewsbury, who was stricken with a fever no physician could cure.
Perhaps she was tempting fate this day by whispering her prayer but she could not hold it back.
“Alhamdolillah! Let me have one great adventure before I die!”
She had first composed the prayer the summer she turned ten. That was the first time her parents sailed away on their yearly expedition and left her behind. They proclaimed that it was time their only child began lessons in literature, elocution, deportment, dancing, and drawing. In other words, it was time she became cultured.
“One day you will be more than a shopkeeper’s daughter. You will be a wealthy lady,” her mother would say. “Beautiful ladies have all sorts of lovely adventures.”
Japonica sighed again and turned away from the window. “Oh, Mama, what a disappointment I must have been.”
She’d inherited her father’s quick mind and tenacity, a by-product he claimed of their heads of red hair. Alas, she did not inherit his fabled charm or a single feature of her mother’s remarkable beauty.
She rose from her cot and went to pour water into a basin to wash her face. Unlike her mother, she seldom looked in a mirror. She knew her appearance only too well. Carrot curls framed apple cheeks, an indifferent nose, and a mouth other women often remarked upon as “a little too generous” and certainly too pink for the shade of her hair. It was not a face to lure gentlemen from their self-possession or their consequence. It certainly was not a face to launch a thousand ships or topple a crown. No, it was a face to make a young woman compose prayers for deliverance from dullness.
Japonica dried her face, then reached for her India muslin gown. At twenty years of age she had learned that adventures were not for shy, funny-faced girls with pale red hair. Nor was romance.
Even so, if her mother had not succumbed to a fever before her daughter reached the presentable age of sixteen, she might have steered her successfully through the marriage market of Bushire. English-women were rare in this part of the world. By age sixteen even she, an ugly duckling, was being courted by a constant succession of English military officers. That brief joy collapsed when her ever-pragmatic father refused the suit of a young lieutenant in the Life Guards, threatening to disown her.
“Aristocrat, my arse! You can do better! Poor as church mice, these younger sons. Parents bought them colors that they might not starve. I could buy and sell any baker’s dozen of them, and they know it ’Tis the gleam of my gold in his eye when the lieutenant bends a tender gaze on you, daughter.”
She winced at the remembered pain of realizing that her father’s harsh words were no more than truth. The lieutenant never found reason to call again. When word spread that no mere soldier would ever be good enough for the rich merchant’s daughter, she found herself a wallflower even at affairs with sparse female attendance.
“Sobhanallah! I shall die an untried old maid!”
The Persian curse, something her mother would have abhorred, came naturally to the lips of a young woman reared in the realm of Shahs and scented gardens and hagglers’ bazaars. While she was no longer allowed to travel after age ten, her father still took her, dressed as a servant, with him when he did business in the local marketplaces. At his urging, she learned to buy and use herbs, to judge the quality of incense, pearls, silks, and furs. And, when there was a much-needed bargain to be made, never to take no for an answer.
“Independent! That’s my girl!” her father would say proudly. “When you’re a lady of considerable fortune, it ain’t necessary that you be wed to be respectable.”
A shadow of emotion crossed Japonica’s face. As an heiress, she was respected but it might have been nice to be loved. Unfair! Unfair! The warm hard-beating heart inside her yearned for bright, wild adventure. Yet hers was a silent rebellion of the soul that went on behind lowered lids and closed lips.
“So ye’re awake!” said a dour voice. “I thought ye’d lie abed all mornin’.”
Japonica turned with a smile for her former nanny who was now a trusted friend. “Good morning, Aggie.” When she noticed the older woman’s somber expression her own brow wrinkled. “Did the viscount have a difficult night?”
Aggie harrumphed. “He sleeps the restless sleep of the wicked! Such tossin’ an’ turnin’! I’d ken he saw all the evils of hell awaitin’ him.”
Aggie clucked her tongue as she set a tray of tea and biscuits before Japonica. Predicting calamity was her favorite pastime and the last days had given her much fodder for her dire predictions. “The Resident will have to answer for it should ye perish alongside his lordship. Bringing ye under a roof with a festering fever in a town plagued by the French! Either of which may kill us at any moment!”
Japonica winced at the reminder that despite her meticulous care, the viscount’s health was failing. She and Aggie had arrived in Baghdad two weeks ago, and she soon realized there was very little she could do for the viscount other than make his last days comfortable. The French were another matter.
Like the rest of the population she’d learned of the Shah’s secret treaty with Napoleon when French Hussars began arriving in the city a few days ago. The French were already at war with the English in Spain, Portugal, and Egypt The new treaty made Persia officially at war with Britain.
“You better go in to him,” Aggie said when Japonica had finished her tea. “His lordship’s agitated over the contents of a letter what come last night.”
“Last night?” Japonica sprung up. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
“And ruin yer breakfast? For all he says, he’ll keep well enough.”
Japonica hurried toward the viscount’s chamber but paused to knock before entering. His voice was so weak she barely heard his reply.
Despite the brilliant day, his room was shuttered into semidarkness. Lying beneath a thin muslin sheet, he appeared no more than a series of long thin bones. His wispy hair was the color of the pewter goblet on the table beside his bed. His complexion had the unhealthy pink of a consuming fever.
“Good morning, my lord.”
He opened his eyes, sunken and rimmed in red. “My sweet Japonica. We have news.” He fumbled with the missive under his fingertips on the bed. “A messenger delivered it during the night Will you read it, child?”
“Certainly.” Japonica took it, noticing that his fingers were icy while the rest of him seemed afire. Not much time left.
She moved to a window and held the message up to rays of the sun filtering through the wooden slats. The contents lifted the soft hairs on her forearms. It was from the East India Company. Brigadier-General John Malcolm’s mission to the court of Fath Ali Shah had collapsed before reaching Teheran. Napoleon’s treaty stood. No Englishman’s, or woman’s, life was safe in the country’s interior. The viscount and all in his party were directed to return to Bushire at once.
“At once,” Japonica murmured. “Bismallah!”
“What do you say?”
“Nothing, my lord.” She bit her lip. How by Mercy’s Grace was she to see so gravely ill a man safely out of a city swarming with French soldiers?
According to her father there were always tribal men in the hills whose loyalty was not so fixed upon the Shah that it could not be bought by the color of gold. A few of them might be persuaded to smuggle the viscount’s party south. But her patient was too ill to hazard a run from the city into the hills. She would need assistance just to reach them.
“You will need help, of course,” Lord Abbott said after a moment, as if reading her mind. Japonica saw a thin smile on his fever-ravaged face. “We need the services of a very particular man. The only man in all of Baghdad who holds himself above the influence of the Persian Shah, the English, and the French.”
“The Hind Div?” Japonica suggested in amusement.
“The very same.” He nodded weakly. “The Hind Div.”
“I was not serious.” Her abashed smile deepened. Indian Devil, indeed! Lord Abbott’s fever must have caused his mind to wander into fancy. “No doubt he is a resourceful fellow but I don’t think he is to be trusted.”
“What have you heard?” The viscount tried to sit up and, failing that, rolled to push himself up painfully on one elbow.
Japonica rushed over to help him. As she rearranged his pillows to ease his posture she said, “He is said to be a spy, thief, assassin, and worse.”
Lord Abbott nodded weakly. “Indeed, he may be. Some claim he is in the service of Zaman, Shah of Afghanistan, who raids both Persian and Indian territories. Still others believe that he is the specter of a murdered Sultan returned to life by Mohammed to scourge all Farang.”
“Scourge all Europeans!” Japonica felt a fresh thrill rush up her spine but she was not about to quail before mere rumor. “A boastful reputation has its uses, I suppose. It makes him known and feared by all.”
“Exactly!” The viscount gave her a measuring glance. “He is a reputed magician, as well. ’Tis said that for the right fee he can make people disappear or appear at will.”
“Would that were true,” Japonica murmured to herself. Their little party needed very badly to disappear from Baghdad and reappear safely in Bushire. “In any case I would not even know where to find such a person.”
“I have written you an introduction.” He smiled and pointed weakly to a sealed missive lying on the desk across the room.
“You know him?”
His smile widened as he saw her amazed expression. “I’ve been in the Orient too long not to be prepared for abrupt changes of fortune. I’ve written down such directions as I could glean from the servants on how to find him.” His fever-ravaged eyes scanned hers. “The only question is, do you have the courage to seek him out?”
A shiver of anticipation slipped through Japonica unlike any she had ever before felt. To visit the Hind Div would be adventure, indeed! Did she have the courage?
Nodding solemnly, the daughter reared in the shade of flamboyant parents made the first independent decision of her life. “I do.”
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