He stood on the low sandy shore gazing out at the ocean, the wind ruffling his hair, listening to the loud hiss and rattle of surf in the stillness of the night. Moonlight shone on the Bay of Bengal, etching the waves in pure silver and lapis all the way to the far horizon where the full moon hung low. Away across the sea a ship sailed, the Clomer, one of his, heading for port, her sails filled to the gentle breeze under her coat-tails. The moonlight picked out every little detail of sail and rigging, and Gustav could almost fancy he made out the fine buff color of her hull. As he watched her tranquil path, his heart felt full of a mélange of emotions ranging from homesickness to humility. Even the name of the place where he stood had a special ring to it that spoke of the Orient: The Coromandel Coast: A long way from home.
A soft cough sounded from behind him. Gustav brought his mind back to the present, regret for the lost moment of peace filling his soul even as his active mind returned to more worldly matters. He turned and regarded the man walking toward him. The stranger, clad in the lungi and angavastra of the region stopped a few feet away, pressed his palms together and bowed. “Good evening, Ganan,” Gustav said in the Tamil of the country as he responded in kind. “You have a message for me?”
The man nodded, his fine dark features lit by the moon over Gustav’s shoulder. “Yes, Gustav sahib. My master will see you now. He waits by the old pagoda in the casuarinas grove but one kaadham from here.”
About half a mile, Gustav translated. Not a great distance to walk on such a pleasant night. Yet much rests on what I’ll find there. “Will you guide me?”
“I shall, sahib.” Ganan gestured. “This way, please.”
Gustav followed, after casting a last longing glance back at the shining sea.
The dunes along this part of the coast were not high but they soon blocked the sound of the sea. Only the wind sighing in the palms could be heard above the soft tread of his booted feet as Gustav followed the guide. Ganan was barefoot: He trod as lightly as a ghost. In a moment of whimsy to distract him from his darker thoughts Gustav swore the man could’ve been a spirit, flitting ahead in the moonlight.
After a while the dunes grew lower before disappearing into level ground. They came to a fishermen’s trail that ran inland for about a hundred paces before joining a broader track. Ganan crossed it without glancing back, plunging with single-minded purpose through a strand of coconut trees. Beyond came a millet field and beyond that Gustav’s first glimpse of the casuarinas grove and the stumpy tower of the pagoda. A glint of water in the far distance betrayed the presence of the Paler River.
Together they skirted the edge of the field. Even the comparatively short distance from the sea made a difference to the air. The humidity seemed to increase with every step, although the soil beneath his feet was parched and dry. Gustav could taste the dust and feel the grittiness between his teeth. He plucked at his shirt, the workaday garment sticking to him like a second skin with the sweat streaming from his pores. Ganan forged on, untroubled by his native clime.
A soft nickering sound came from somewhere in the grove and Gustav heard the tread of a restless horse. Someone spoke softly in liquid vowels and the tread quieted. “Who goes there?” someone demanded in Tamil, the challenger’s voice firm but not alarmed.
Ganan stopped. “It is I, Ganan. I have brought the ferengi sahib.”
“You may advance.”
Gustav followed Ganan into the grove, and became aware of the presence of a number of men around them. A veritable retinue, in fact, for moonlight shone through the trees to gleam off armor and weapons, and eyes shining in dark, warlike faces. The great sugarloaf hump of the pagoda rose up from a clearing ahead. His eyes thoroughly adjusted to the gloom, Gustav could pick out the carvings that covered it, most of which seemed erotic in some ill-defined but uncomfortable way.
Lights shone near the base of the structure, showing a sizable party of warriors gathered there near a broad cloth spread upon the ground and surrounded by low cushions. One man stood almost alone, his form picked out by rich robes of pale silk over a dhoti. Ganan stopped before him and bowed. “The ferengi, Maraan-sahib.”
“Thank you, Ganan. You may go.” The man’s chin lifted as he regarded Gustav. “Welcome, Gustav-sahib. Please, be seated and take refreshment.”
Gustav bowed and followed his host’s gesture to sit upon one of the cushions. Maraan followed suit, crossing his legs into the lotus position with effortless ease. He waved a hand and a servant set a European-style lantern in the middle of the cloth to illuminate the faces of those sitting around it. A young woman bearing a ewer emerged from amongst the warriors followed by another with a tray of fine cups and goblets. Gustav was offered a goblet, which the young ewer-bearer filled with sparkling liquid. He inhaled the aroma softly, trying not to sniff and cause offense. To his relief the scent of sandalwood sharbat met his nose. Raising his cup in salutation to his host, Gustav drank one mouthful of the sweet liquid and set the cup aside.
“You have come far, Gustav-sahib,” Maraan said.
Gustav studied the man, placing his age at somewhere in the mid-forties. Fine dark eyes shone from a handsome visage dominated by a hawkish nose, and the hair beneath the close-fitting turban he wore showed wings of gray. The Rajah of Sadras-Patnam had a presence that more than hinted at his power. “Indeed, I have traveled many thousands of leagues to be here, Maraan-sahib,”
Maraan gestured to Gustav’s attire of shirt, britches, stockings and buckled shoes. “You do not wear a coat like many of the ferengi here.”
Gustav smiled. “I mean no disrespect, sahib: it’s just that I prefer not to boil alive.”
Maraan chuckled. “You’re a practical man! I like that. Your Tamil is also very good.”
“I had occasion to learn from a young age, sahib.”
“My father traded along this coast when I was apprenticed to him, many years ago.”
“You spent your time well.” Gustav nodded. Maraan leaned back and placed his hands on his knees, regarding Gustav squarely. “Now I am told you seek an accommodation with us on your own account?”
“Yes, sahib; mine – and my Rajah’s.”
“Your Grand Duke.” Maraan’s mouth worked as if he savored the strange feel of the German term in his mouth.
Maraan’s eyes glittered. “There are many ferengi making their presence felt along the Coromandel Coast. The French down in Pudacheri; the Dutch: the Danes further north. I learn the British are striving to expand their influence in the west, that Tradgardland have a presence on some of the islands.” He reached for his goblet, drank, set it aside. “Why should we tolerate any more interference in our affairs from ferengi?” His tone was light but the steel lay there in his words.
“Why indeed?” Gustav spread his hands, noting the watchfulness in the visages of the warriors. One word from them and poor Gustav will be no more… “Yet with respect, Maraan-sahib, I feel you will have no choice.” The on-looking warriors shifted and stirred at this, and a growl of disapproval rose from over a dozen throats. Gustav plunged on. “The western nations are powerful and any one of them is far better organized than the disparate states and princedoms of India. They will seek to divide and conquer. We of Hetzenberg do not.”
“No?” Maraan’s eyebrows rose.
“No, sahib. My sahib commissioned me to seek nothing more than a trade agreement and the right to set up a factory in your territory through which goods may flow.”
A silence fell. Maraan regarded Gustav thoughtfully. “I’ve no doubt your exact words were said to other lords around India by those ferengi seeking entrance to our lands and possessions.”
“I don’t doubt it either,” Gustav said in an equable tone.
“So tell me; why should your Hetzenberg be any different?”
Gustav had rehearsed his answer to this inevitable question from the moment he heard a covert audience with the Rajah would be granted. “Hetzenberg is not a large nation, Maaran-sahib. In size we are on a par with your own lands. Furthermore, I received news but recently that my nation is now at war with a jealous rival.”
“So your nation has not the capacity to project a quest for colonies – at the moment.”
Gustav spread his hands. “Not at the moment, nor do I doubt it will always be so. We have no desire for military adventures on far foreign shores.”
“Then what do you offer us?”
“We offer you fair trade, Maaran-sahib; our goods and products in exchange for yours.” Gustav glanced around until he spotted his guide, watching quietly from the sidelines. “Ganan there will tell you a ship is currently sailing north, bound for Sadras-Patnam. That ship is one of mine. In her hold is a quantity of muskets of the latest make, along with associated accoutrements. There are also six field cannon of French manufacture with associated limbers and a caisson.” As a stir ran through those present at this news he went on. “All of which will be yours in exchange for a perpetual trade treaty and the right to establish a factory in Sadras-Patnam.”
Maaran stared at him while his retinue chattered excitedly. Gustav watched and waited. The moments passed. Finally Maaran’s eyes narrowed. “How many muskets are there?”
“There are enough to equip a battalion on the European model. The cannon can equip one battery.”
“Do you have anyone aboard your vessel who can train men to use such weapons?”
Gustav nodded. “An experienced infantry drill sergeant of the Hetzenberg army is aboard. My own gunners can teach your men to point the artillery where it’ll do most harm to the enemy.”
He waited then whilst Maaran chewed this over. Excited chatter among his men was reaching fever pitch before the Rajah spoke again. “I will agree to your terms, subject to safe delivery and prior inspection of the goods.”
Gustav breathed easier. “That is most kind of you, Maaran-sahib.”