1774 Hyderabad, India
The dawn chorus, a crescendo of rising chirrups, squawks and whistles, woke Bee as a glimmer of light infiltrated the folds of her mosquito net. Fists clenched, she listened intently for a moment but the sounds of shouting and weeping from behind Mother and Father’s bedroom door had stopped. They had quarrelled every day during the past week and the servants had moved about the house like ghosts, their eyes turned to the ground, silently clearing away smashed plates and trying not to flinch as another door slammed.
Bee had attempted to remain unnoticed, too, and secreted herself in her favourite refuge, the massive peepul tree at the end of the garden. She’d been hiding amongst the great whispering leaves with her book when she’d first met Harry. Her eye had been caught by a flashing light coming from the overgrown garden next door. Peering out between the leaves, she saw a dark-haired boy sitting cross-legged on the ground. He was whittling a piece of wood, watched closely by a brown dog. The shiny blade of the knife twisted and turned as the boy worked, catching the sunlight and reflecting it towards her. She’d laughed and he’d looked up. Within moments he’d scrambled through the branches to join her.
Now, lifting a corner of the mosquito net, Bee peeped into the shadowy bedroom and saw that Madhu, her ayah, or nursemaid, still lay curled up on her mattress making snuffling sounds as she slept. Bee fumbled for the clothes she’d hidden under her pillow the previous night, along with a handful of jaggery purloined from the kitchen. It was impossible to resist and she popped one of the small brown pieces into her mouth, closing her eyes in contentment at the explosion of intense sweetness on her tongue.
Once dressed, she slid out of bed, her bare feet making no noise as she padded across the floor to her brother’s bed. Ralph woke when she touched his fair hair and she lost no time in posting a morsel of jaggery between his lips to keep him quiet. This was the difficult bit. Ralph was only five, three years younger than herself, and couldn’t be relied upon to remember that they were going on an adventure and mustn’t wake the servants. Pressing a finger to her lips, she helped him out of bed.
A few minutes later they crept out of the bungalow into the grey dawn. They giggled as they tip-toed past the cook, who snored on his charpaion the veranda, and then ran hand-in-hand across the garden. Bee dragged a loose plank in the fence sideways until there was a gap wide enough for them to squeeze through.
Ralph scraped his shoulder on the splintered wood and started to squeal but Bee was too quick for him, pressing her palm over his mouth and shoving him backwards through the gap.
‘It’s not bleeding,’ she whispered, examining the graze, ‘and if you make a fuss they’ll come for us. Here, have another sweetie.’
Ralph nodded, the welling tears disappearing as if by magic as his cheek bulged around the sugar lump.
Bee took his hand again and led him through the Residency grounds and out of the side gate. ‘Harry said he’d wait for us by the river,’ she said. ‘He had something to do first.’ She hoped he hadn’t had second thoughts about taking a girl and her little brother with him on his quest.
By the time they reached the river the sky at the horizon was growing lighter.
‘Where is he?’ asked Ralph.
Bee looked along the river bank, squinting her eyes to see into the distance. An egret stood in the muddy shallows, wreathed in the white mist that coiled above the water but nothing else stirred. She shrugged, disappointed.
The melancholy cry of the call to prayer drifted over from the walled city on the opposite side of the river and Bee watched while the white mosques, palaces and monuments were brushed with gold by the first rays of the rising sun. Chattering monkeys gambolled and chased each other along the walls between the watchtowers.
Bored, Ralph poked a stick into a dark shape caught in the reeds.
Bee reeled back at the sudden sickly stench that filled her nostrils and snatched the stick away from him. ‘Leave it!’ she said, shuddering with distaste. ‘It’s a dead dog.’
Further along the bank, the British Residency was silhouetted against the sky, now streaked with a pink as vibrant as Madhu’s dupatta. Then the egret stretched out its neck, unfolded its wings and lifted itself into the air as a figure loped towards them.
Bee smiled. Harry had come after all, his dog Bandit trotting along at his heels.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘We’d better hurry.’ His face was so darkened by the sun and his kurta so crumpled and daubed with dirt, he might have been a native sweeper boy, especially as he spoke in Urdu, one of the many languages and dialects he’d picked up from different ayahs.
Just for a moment, Bee hesitated. He didn’t offer any apology or excuse for being late. Perhaps Mother was right. She’d called Harry a ‘little savage’. But it wasn’t his fault if his mother had died and his father was too busy to look after him. Mother said it was a disgrace that the boy was ten years old and still hadn’t been sent back to England to be schooled.
‘Are you coming or not?’ said Harry, frowning.
‘Of course we are,’ said Bee, following him as he marched off.
‘Wait for me!’ wailed Ralph, scurrying to keep up.
They hurried along the muddy foreshore of the river, past the pleasure gardens and country houses, until they reached a high wall.
‘The Jahanara Mahal,’ said Harry.
Bee had seen the palace before but never so close. She tipped back her head and looked up at the dozens of domes, minarets and towers clustered together in tiers, the pink granite walls glowing in the morning sun. ‘I’ve never seen anything so pretty,’ she said.
‘Pretty?’ Harry shook his head in disgust. ‘It’s a fort built in a good position to stop invaders crossing the river.’
‘I still think it’s pretty.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m going to tell you a secret but you mustn’t tell anyone else.’
‘My father’s sycetold me about a diamond called the Rose of Golconda. His father was working here when it was stolen. The palace guard chased and killed one of the thieves but the other got away and they never found the diamond. The thing is, I’m really good at finding things.’ Harry’s face was taut with determination. ‘It must still be here somewhere! My father will be so proud of me if I find it.’
‘I’m sure he will,’ said Bee.
Harry set off along the perimeter wall until it disappeared into a thicket of vines and tangled thorn bushes. Bandit ran ahead, wagging his tail, and dived into the undergrowth.
Bee grasped Ralph’s wrist and followed Harry as he ducked under the prickly branches. She stood up in the dappled shade and saw a low door set into the wall before her. Carved into the wood was a strange creature. It had the fearsome head of a lion plus elephant’s tusks, and the sinuous body beneath was that of a serpent. Despite the warmth, she shivered at the sight.
Harry heaved his shoulder against the door. There was a scraping sound and it opened inwards. He turned to his dog. ‘Stay, Bandit!’ he commanded. ‘Come on then, Bee.’
Ralph’s hand slid into his sister’s when he saw the dark space open up before them. ‘I don’t like this,’ he whispered.
Neither did Bee but she followed their friend, dragging Ralph behind her.
They were in a store room. Light filtered in through a barred window above. Harry opened another door and peered cautiously into a shadowy passageway, before striding off. Several times he stopped to climb onto a stone bench and peer through the jaliscreens set at the top of the walls.
‘Look!’ he whispered eventually, pulling Bee up to stand beside him.
She pressed her face to the fretwork and the chamber beyond came into view. It was one of the largest rooms she’d ever seen, with columns and arches soaring to the ceiling, all carved with lotus flowers. Every inch of the walls was painted in bright colours and the many alcoves were piled high with scarlet and gold cushions. A movement caught her eye and she saw that a servant, a girl barely older than herself, was scattering rose petals on the floor.
‘What can you see?’ said Ralph, tugging at Bee’s skirt.
The girl started, a handful of crimson petals falling from her fist as she stared at the fretwork screen.
‘Shut up, Ralph!’ whispered Harry, stepping down from the bench.
They hurried onwards, creeping past the kitchens where already the aroma of wood smoke, chapattis and frying onions hung in the air. At last, Harry slid aside a lattice panel and they entered a small room.
Bee caught her breath and leaned closer to see that shimmering pieces of mother-of- pearl were inlaid all over the walls. ‘It’s beautiful!’ she said.
‘The Pearl Room,’ said Harry. ‘My father’s sycesays this might be where the thief was killed. He could have hidden the Rose of Golconda behind a secret panel before the guards caught him.’
Bee shuddered, studying the white marble floor for rusty bloodstains. She was relieved there weren’t any.
‘The diamond is at least the size of a pigeon’s egg and it’s pink,’ said Harry. ‘There’s a curse on whoever steals it.’
Bee ran her fingers slowly over the panels, her tongue protruding slightly as she concentrated. She really hoped she’d be the one who found the diamond.
After about fifteen minutes Ralph had grown fidgety and bored.
Harry sighed. ‘It’s not here, is it?’
‘I’m hungry,’ whined Ralph.
‘We ought to go,’ said Bee, ‘before we’re missed. Mother will be cross if she can’t find us.’
‘No one will notice if I’m not there,’ said Harry. ‘I’ll stay on.’
Bee folded back the jaliscreen at one of the windows to reveal a small courtyard with a pool and splashing fountain, where pigeons sipped and flapped their wings.
Ralph pushed her aside and stood on tiptoe to see. ‘I want to go out,’ he said, opening the door.
He kicked off his shoes and paddled in the marble rill edging the courtyard, singing a native song that Madhu had taught him.
The sun was already hot and Bee and Harry sat together on the side of the pool, wriggling their toes in the water. ‘Won’t you get caught if you stay here?’ she asked. ‘People will be getting up soon.’
He shrugged. ‘I can look into most of the rooms from the service passage before I go in. If anyone finds me, I’ll pretend to be a servant.’
Ralph stepped onto the side of the pool beside Bee and jumped into the water with a huge splash. Startled pigeons scattered into the air with a flurry of feathers.
‘You beast!’ she cried. ‘My dress is all wet!’
Harry threw himself into the pool with a great belly-flop, making a tidal wave, and Ralph shrieked in delight. War had been declared. By the time the battle was over all three children were sopping wet and aching with laughter.
Bee wrung the water out of her thick blonde hair and watched the two boys tussling. Harry chased after Ralph, threatening to tickle him, until the little boy hid behind a giant pot filled with cascading flowers.
Harry shook his head vigorously, spraying Bee with drops of water, and gave her a brilliant smile. ‘You know what, Bee Marchant,’ he said, ‘you’re not at all bad – for a girl.’
Bee smiled back. The sun was probably freckling her nose but she didn’t care. She’d never been so happy and promised herself to remember this day for the rest of her life.
Half an hour later Bee and Ralph slid through the gap in the fence and sauntered through the garden towards the bungalow.
Madhu ran down the veranda steps, her face streaming with tears. ‘Where have you been, you wicked children? I thought a tiger had taken you, dragging you over the fence and into the fields.’
‘We were in the peepul tree,’ said Bee, fingers crossed behind her back.
‘Did you not hear me calling you?’
‘The memsahib is asking for you.’ Madhu snatched hold of Ralph and roughly brushed dirt off his nightshirt. ‘Hurry now!’ The sun had steamed the water from their clothes but they were stained with river mud. Alternately kissing and scolding the children, she herded them into the bungalow.
Bee heard Mother’s reprimanding tones even before they were inside. A large trunk stood on the veranda and servants were hurrying back and forth carrying armfuls of clothes.
Madhu pushed the children into the hall and retreated to the safety of the nursery.
‘There you are!’ said Mother. She frowned at the sight of Ralph. ‘Have you been playing in the garden in your night clothes?’ She sighed. ‘And, Beatrice, your face is filthy. Clearly your ayah has been neglecting her duties. Tell her to dress you both in something clean. And then wait in the nursery until I fetch you.’
‘Yes, Mother.’ Bee knew better than to argue and steered Ralph away. She stopped in the nursery doorway. Their cedar-wood chest was open and clothes and toys lay tumbled upon the floor.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked as Madhu started to undress Ralph.
Sniffing, the ayah shook her head. ‘You must ask the memsahib.’
Bee scratched crusts of dried mud off her ankles and listened to Mother’s footsteps clipping backwards and forwards across the hall. Where was Father? She wanted to hear his booming laugh and for him to snatch her up and kiss her and ask her what his busy little Bee had been up to all day, flitting from one interesting thing to another.
Madhu dragged a clean dress over Bee’s head, doing up the buttons with shaking fingers.
‘You’re hurting me!’ said Bee, as the ayah jerked a comb through her knotted hair. Madhu never hurt her usually, not even when she’d been naughty.
A crash came from the hall and a high-pitched argument began between two of the servants. Mother’s voice rose above the commotion as she railed at them both.
Madhu crouched on the floor and pulled her dupatta over her eyes. Ralph whimpered and buried his face in her neck, his thumb in his mouth. Madhu rocked him and sang a lullaby, the soothing rhythm broken only by her hiccoughing sobs.
Something was very wrong. Bee huddled against her nursemaid, waiting for something awful to happen.
She didn’t have long to wait.
The door burst open. Mother appeared, her face white with anger. ‘Get up at once, children! How many times do I have to tell you not to sit on the floor like the dirty natives?’
‘But…’ Bee didn’t have time to utter another word before Mother slapped her cheek. The girl gasped in outrage.
Madhu cried out.
Bee clung to her, inhaling her familiar and comforting scent of coconut oil, cardamom and warm skin.
‘Don’t you ever, ever argue with me again,’ shrieked Mother, and then burst into noisy tears. ‘As if I didn’t have enough to contend with, my own children turn against me. Get outside!’
Glancing fearfully at her mistress, Madhu hurriedly shepherded her charges out of the nursery and down the front steps of the bungalow.
A driver waited beside a bullock cart laden with boxes and trunks.
‘Quickly now!’ said Mother, wiping her reddened eyes. ‘We must be gone before your father returns.’ She bundled a protesting Ralph into the cart and then snatched hold of Bee’s wrist.
‘But I don’t want to go!’ cried the girl, still clinging to her ayah.
Mother dragged Bee out of Madhu’s arms and thrust her onto the seat next to Ralph. She ignored the driver’s offered hand as if it were something diseased and scrambled up into the cart. ‘Drive on!’ she said, even before she’d sat down.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Bee.
‘Home,’ said Mother, as the cart lurched forwards. ‘We’re going home to England,’ she said, ‘the place I should never have left.’
‘But Hyderabad is our home!’ wailed Bee. She gripped the side of the cart and turned to look behind them.
Madhu, her beloved Madhu, wailed and pulled her hair, beating her forehead with her fists. She grew smaller and smaller as the cart jolted away until, at last, she disappeared from sight altogether.
Pre-order The Palace of Lost Dreams here