The Orlov Diamond (part 1)

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Count Grigory Orlov first glimpsed the diamond from a hundred yards away, its faceted surfaces catching torchlight in the same way that his sweet Catherine's eyes caught the candlelight. As then, so now, he gasped in wonder.

A single eye, set in the forehead, reputed to grant Vishnu the second sight, the knowledge of the future. A single eye of diamond, glittering in the torchlight from far below. A diamond larger than any known in existence.

Upon seeing the Eye of Vishnu, Orlov remembered to bow according to custom, the fifteen Brahmins around him bowing similarly.

He'd landed on the planet Tiruchirapalli with his accomplice, an Armenian merchant named Grigori Safras, following his removal from Empress Catherine's good graces and his replacement as her lover by a poet of ill-repute, a Grigory Potemkin. His one burning desire was to find some grand way to reintroduce himself to the Imperial Court, so grand as to restore him to Catherine's royal affections.

He rose from his bow alongside the fifteen other visiting Brahmins, many of them on pilgrimage from their home worlds to see the Great Temple at Srirangem. One of its most remarkable features was the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, with its colonnades of rearing horses. Like most of the other pilgrims, he sweated in the sultry heat, the nighttime temperatures barely lower than the fiery days. His accomplice waited for him with a canoe near the downstream end of the island, whence they might escape quickly.

On Tiruchirapalli in the Madras constellastion stood an island where the Kaveri River branched, an island housing the Great Temple at Srirangem, dedicated to Vishnu and regarded as one of the most sacred shrines in the Tamil Nadu constellation. Composed of seven rectangular enclosures, one within another, the shrine was surrounded by an outer perimeter seven miles long. Atop the Great Temple was the shikhara, a word translating literally as "mountain peak," where a statue of Vishnu reposed with the goddess Lakshmi on the back of the thousand-hooded serpent, from which Vishnu was said to have created the universe. Instead of two eyes, this visage of Vishnu had but one.

Orlov wore the garb of a Brahmin, a bright orange sari wrapped over one shoulder and cinched tightly at the waist, his feet bare in piety, his head shaved like all those around him. Even under the sari, he wore only the native loincloth, not wanting a single item of clothing to give him away as a foreigner. He'd darkened his light skin with dihydroxyacetone and had straightened his curly black hair. He'd acquired the identity of a Brahmin with a scholarly reputation before approaching the Holy Vedha Bashyamani, Rajagopala Ganapadigal, with his request to study the four sacred texts under the tutelage of the temple scholars. It'd cost him several thousand galacti for the privilege.

He recounted the instructions: "Enter through the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, take the stairway between the tenth and eleventh columns to the right up to the fourth landing, and look for the fifth embrasure." Instructions he'd obtained in hurried whispers from a sweaty Kshatriya, a former Rajan laid low in a futile war with the Brahmins. Among the Hindu societies, the Kshatriya sometimes held themselves above the Brahmins, but only at their peril. They generally acknowledged the superiority of the priestly class.

Orlov followed the guide through the narthex of the Great Temple into the nave, the Hall of a Thousand Pillars. Each pillar had been carved into a rearing horse of terrifying visage, their eyes wide with wrath or terror, their teeth bared, and their nostrils flaring, as if they threatened to snort the fire and brimstone of Naraka, the Hindu equivalent of Hell, the abode of Yama, the god of death. Orlov noted the stairway between the tenth and eleventh columns, tempted to slip away from the company.

He glanced behind and saw a temple attendant herding the Brahmins from behind.

Probably to insure none strayed from the nave, Orlov thought.

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