The Untamed Bride(7)

By: Stephanie Laurens

Wanton destruction and a liking for violence for violence’s sake were fast becoming the Black Cobra cult’s trademark, yet despite all the carnage they’d waded through, not a single piece of evidence had emerged.

“He’s clever, I’ll give the bastard that,” Rafe said. “Every time we find one of his cultists, they’ve got their instructions from someone else, who they either don’t know, or, if they can point a finger, the trail only leads to some other local—”

“Until eventually you hit one who again doesn’t know.” Logan looked disgusted. “It’s like that game of whispers, only in this case, no one has any clue who whispered first.”

“The way the Indians relate to one another—the caste system—plays into the Black Cobra’s hands,” James said. “The cultists unquestioningly obey, and never think it unreasonable that they know nothing about their masters—just that they are their masters, and so must be obeyed.”

“It’s a veil,” Gareth said. “The Black Cobra operates from behind a deliberately maintained veil.”

“And being a cult wreathed in all the usual mystery,” Rafe added, “the cultists think it only right that the Cobra is never seen, never directly heard—for all we know he sends out his orders on bits of paper passed through that damned veil.”

“According to Wolverstone and Devil,” Del said, “the entire Ferrar family is widely known to be viciously exploitative—that’s why the Earl of Shrewton is in the position he’s in. In that respect, Roderick Ferrar seems very much a twig off the same trunk.”

“So what’s next?” Rafe asked.

They spent the next half hour, and another beer, discussing the villages and outposts they thought worth a visit. “Just riding up, flag waving, will be seen as a challenge,” Logan said. “If we can provoke a response, perhaps we’ll capture someone with some useful knowledge.”

“Getting them to talk will be another matter.” Rafe glanced at the others. “It’s that yoke of fear—the Black Cobra’s got their tongues well-leashed with fear of his retribution.”

“Which,” James added, “is admittedly ghastly. I can still see the man I cut down last week.” He grimaced.

“Nothing we can do other than press harder,” Del said. “We need that proof—the incontrovertible evidence implicating Ferrar. Gareth and I will concentrate on trying to shake something loose through Ferrar’s contacts with the princelings—we’ll start interviewing those he’s had dealings with via the governor’s office. Given his temperament, he has to have made enemies—with luck one might talk, and resentful princelings are more likely to than villagers.”

“True.” Logan exchanged a look with Rafe and James. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep on stirring up dust in the villages and towns.”

“If nothing else,” Gareth said, “that should keep the fiend’s focus in the field, not closer to home, and give Del and me a bit of cover.”

James pulled a face. “You’ll have to count me out for the next few weeks—apparently I’ve drawn a duty-mission. The governor has requested that I take a troop up to Poona and escort his niece back to Bombay.”

The others all made commiserating noises as they pushed back from the table and rose.

Rafe clapped James on the shoulder. “Never mind—at least you’ll get a chance to put your feet up for a few days. And most of the memsahibs and their darling daughters are spending the monsoon season up there. Who knows? You might even find some engaging distraction.”

James snorted. “What you mean is that I’ll have to attend formal dinners and make small talk, then dance with giggling girls who bat their lashes, while you and Logan have all the fun chasing the Black Cobra and routing cultists. Thank you, but I’d rather be doing something useful.”

Rafe laughed and slung an arm around James’s shoulders. “If Logan or I get any cultists to talk, you’ll be back in time to help follow up.”

“Yes, but just think how boring my next weeks are going to be.” Together with Rafe, James headed for the archway leading outside. “I’ll deserve something extra-promising when I get back.”

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