The beast was dead! The wanderers returned to camp to great fanfare. Even the bureacrat dispatched from Hooghly to see to da Franc’s effects seemed impressed by their kill. In the morning, a handful of the Bengali porters left ahead of the main party to spread the news: the beast was dead! Blessed by Bonbibi and her champions! For surely it was only with her aid and wisdom, and the assent of Dakshin Rai, that this group of strangers were able to bring an end the beast’s savagery. Word spread across their path like wildfire. In every village, at every farmstead, every encampment, the wanderers were welcomed like heroes.
Returning to Hooghly, Father Diego made plans to seek out clothier to make a cape for himself and Sebastian from the beast’s hide. Isabella and Wilhelm returned to the estate of Baron da Silva, where they were welcomed with a dinner invitation. The baron’s guest was very interested to meet the Europeans acquaintance and hear their tale himself.
Idrissa cared only to look in on her cousin, Masud al-Khalid. His condition had not changed. His nurses said, however, that in the middle of the night (about the time the beast had attacked the camp), he awoke raving. No one could understand the gibberish he had shouted before plummeting back into his deep sleep. Curious about this, Idrissa excused herself to seek out Father Diego’s guidance.
Dinner at the Baron’s household was a lively affair. His guest was the esteemed Portuguese explorer, Henrique do Amaral. He had arrived in Hooghly to begin preparations for his latest endeavor: exploration of the Himalayas. He hoped to open a new mountain passage that the crown might enjoin trade with the Chinese without interference from the Mughals and other Arabs. He also hoped to solve the riddle of Cathay.
“Since Marco Polo’s journey to Cathay,” he told the wanderers, “no European has found passage back. The Mughals mock us, and tell us Cathay and China are one in the same, and that our missionaries have already returned to this fabled land. But I would know for myself. Perhaps there is a land out there, beyond the Himalayas, still waiting to be rediscovered.”
Impressed with Wilhelm’s stories of their exploits and adventures, do Amaral invited the pair to join him on his expedition. “I hope to depart from Delhi in three months time,” he told them.
Given his background as an explorer, Wilhelm asked do Amaral if he had knowledge of any large caches of gems, or lost treasure, in Hindoostan. The man chuckled and told them the story of the Lost City of Kubera, where it is believed the treasure of the gods had been hidden away. Of course, do Amaral found no basis in truth for this myth, and did not encourage the pair to indulge in such fantasies.
A servant interrupted to inform the dinner party that an envoy from the Nazim had arrived bearing gifts and rewards for those who had slain the beast. The gifts included two fine stallions from the Nazim’s own stables, an illustrated copy of the Mahabharata that Isabella immediately claimed as her own, a prayer rug after the Muslim tradition, and a finely crafted dagger with silver inlays and a jeweled ivory hilt.
Once the envoy departed, the Baron’s demeanor darkened. He enjoined a rant on the governor’s arrogance. To final insult for da Silva was the Nazim’s welcoming of a party of Dutch prospectors interest in the daily operation of the Hooghly colony. The Baron was certain the Dutch had every intention of stealing the colony right out from under the nose of the crown if they could manage it. That the Nazim would flaunt his status in the midst of this rivalry infuriated the Baron. He even mused that it would not be beyond the Dutch to be behind the tiger cult that was the source of so much fear and instability among the native Bengali.
Meanwhile, Idrissa and Father Diego worked tirelessly to find a connection between the beast and Masud’s affliction. The priest had not previously been able to deduce any supernatural taint to the young soldier’s condition, but could not rule out such things either. A witch’s curse was a devilish thing. They speculated that perhaps the spirits of the beast and Masud had been intertwined. If that was the case, the man should recover quickly, Father Diego speculated.
The pair also uncovered disturbing details of the religion of the Bengalis. Dakshin Rai, the king of the south and protector against wild beasts, was referenced in some older, Vedic-era, accounts as Dakkan Rai: a man who assumed the form of a tiger to kill his victims. In other tales, he was a king among the asura, and arch-enemy of Bonbibi. Obviously, time had improved the deity’s reputation among the indigenous peoples.
Their research was interrupted by a young initiate who came to inform them of a disturbance in the colony. There had been another murder. This time, a young boy taken from his bed at night. Immediately, word was dispatched to bring Isabella and Wilhelm to the site of the murder.
The boy had been disemboweled and his throat torn out. From the markings on the corpse, Wilhelm and Father Diego deduced that he had been dragged by the throat out of his hut to the place where he had been killed. They also deduced that the teeth and claw marks were smaller than those the tiger they had slain. Whatever was stalking the night in Hooghly, it was still out there, bold as ever under the fattening moon.