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Published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc Previously published in an Onyx edition

First Signet Printing. July 2000

Copyright © Mary Jo Putney, 1992 All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

To the memory of my father, Laverne Putney.

A reader and lover of history, he would have adored

the fact that I have become a writer and would have

wanted me to write a book about the Civil War.

Maybe someday, Pop.

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow. That the small rain down can rain? Christ, that my love were in my arms, And I in my bed again!

—Anonymous, c.1530


As a child, I was always fascinated by the blank areas of the map that are the mysterious heart of Asia. For two thousand years these remote, dangerous lands were traversed by caravans following the Silk Road, the trade routes that stretched from China to ancient Rome. The names of oasis cities like Samarkand, Bokhara, and Kashgar breathe romance.

Central Asia is sometimes called Turkestan, for many of the diverse peoples speak Turkic languages such as Uzbek and Turkoman. It was the home of the nomadic barbarian hordes that for centuries swept eastward into China and westward into Asia Minor and Europe, destroying and conquering more peaceful agrarian civilizations. Eastern Turkestan is now the Chinese province called Singkiang, while western Turkestan includes the Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizia, and Kazakhstan.

South of the belt of Turkic languages lies a broad area where Iranian languages are spoken. These include Persian (the language now called Farsi in modern Iran and Afghanistan), Kurdish, and Pashto, which is a major language of Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Persian was the
lingua franca
of Central Asia, and was also used as a court and literary language, rather like French was in Europe. In addition, classical Arabic was, and is, the language of the Koran throughout the Muslim world.

While Turkestan had great ethnic and linguistic diversity, most of the inhabitants were bound together by Islam, though that did not prevent some of the wilder tribes from making slaves of brother Muslims. There were also communities of Jews, Christians, and Hindus. Muslims were usually respectful of Jews and Christians, whom they called “people of the book” because of the scriptural writings that are sacred to all three religions.

During the nineteenth century the expanding empires of Britain and Russia confronted each other across the broad wastelands of Central Asia, constantly skirmishing and scheming for advantage in a conflict that came to be called the Great Game. The British spread northwest from India while the Russians moved south, eventually annexing the independent Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bokhara, and Kokand into what came to be called Soviet Central Asia.

The Great Game produced many true stories of high adventure, and
Silk and Secrets
was inspired by a real rescue mission that took place in 1844, after the Amir of Bokhara had imprisoned two British army officers, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Lieutenant Arthur Conolly. The British government believed that both men had been executed, but reports were confused and contradictory and a group of army officers decided that something more should be done for their fellows.

An eccentric Anglican clergyman, Dr. Joseph Wolff, volunteered to go to Turkestan to ask for the release of Stoddart and Conolly. As a former missionary to the Middle East and Central Asia, Wolff was uniquely qualified for the journey, so the concerned officers raised money to pay his expenses. Wolff successfully reached Bokhara, only to learn that the two officers had already been executed. The clergyman very nearly lost his own life as well; however, with the aid of the Persian ambassador, Wolff escaped and made his way safely back to England.

Silk and Secrets
is fictional, I have tried to capture the flavor of Turkestan, and several events in the book are based on real-life incidents. Since the novel takes place three years earlier than Dr. Wolffs actual journey, I took some liberties with the timing of background events, but the Amir Nasrullah, the Nayeb Abdul Samut Khan, and the Khalifa of Merv were all real people and their characters are portrayed accurately in the book. References to British adventurers such as Lady Hester Stanhope and Sir Alexander Burnes are also accurate.

Today British India has become India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, while the Russian empire is undergoing massive changes as long-repressed ethnic groups reclaim their identity.

And the heart of Central Asia retains its mysteries.


Autumn 1840

Night was falling rapidly and a slim crescent moon hung low in the cloudless indigo sky. In the village the muezzin called the faithful to prayers and the haunting notes twined with the tantalizing aroma of baking bread and the more acrid scent of smoke. It was a homey, peaceful scene such as the woman had observed countless times before, yet as she paused by the window, she experienced a curious moment of dislocation, an inability to accept the strange fate that had led her to this alien land.

Usually she kept herself so busy that there was no time to think of the past, but now a wave of piercing sorrow swept through her. She missed the wild green hills of her childhood, and though she had made new friends and would soon dine with a surrogate family that she loved, she missed her own blood kin and the friends who were now forever lost to her.

Most of all, she missed the man who had been more than a friend. She wondered if he ever thought of her, and if he did, whether it was with hatred, anger, or cool indifference. For his sake, she hoped it was indifference.

It would be easier if she felt nothing, yet she could not regret the pain that was still, even after so many years, a silent undercurrent to her daily life. Pain was the last vestige of love and she was not yet willing to forget love; she doubted that she would ever be.

Her life could, and should, have been so different. She had had so much, more than most women ever dreamed of. If only she had been wiser, or at least less impulsive. If only she had not succumbed to despair. If only…

Realizing that her mind was sliding into a familiar, futile litany of regrets, she took a deep breath and forced herself to think of the responsibilities that gave her life meaning. The first lesson of survival that she had learned was that nothing could change the past.

For just a moment she touched the pendant that hung suspended around her neck, under her robe. Then she turned her back on the empty window and the darkening sky. She had made her bed and now she must lie in it. Alone.


London October 1840

Lord Ross Carlisle sipped his brandy, thinking with amusement that watching two lovebirds bill and coo was enough to drive a man to the far corners of the earth, which was exactly where Ross was about to go. It did not make it easier that the happy lovers were his best friends. Perhaps that made it harder.

His gaze drifted over the comfortable lamplit drawing room where they were enjoying an after-dinner drink; brandy for the two men, lemonade for Lady Sara, who was in the early stages of pregnancy and had lost her taste for alcohol. The three of them had spent many similar evenings together, and Ross would greatly miss the conversation and companionship.

Finally remembering his obligations, Ross’s host broke away from the silent communion he had been sharing with his wife and lifted the decanter. “Care for some more brandy, Ross?”

“A little, please. Not too much, or I’ll have no head for traveling in the morning.”

Mikahl Connery poured a small measure of amber spirits into both of their crystal goblets. Lifting his goblet, he said, “May you have an exciting and productive journey.”

His wife, Lady Sara Connery, raised her glass and added, “And after all the excitement, may you have a safe return home.”

“I will cheerfully drink to both of those goals.” Ross gave Sara a fond glance, thinking how well marriage suited her. She was his cousin and the two of them shared the unusual combination of brown eyes and burnished gold hair, but Sara had a quiet inner serenity that Ross had never known. For many years the only peace he had found had been in travel, in challenging himself in ways that engaged all his mind and strength. “Don’t fret while I’m gone, Sara. The Levant is less hazardous than many of the other places I’ve been. Certainly it’s safer than the wild mountains where I met your alarming husband.”

Mikahl drank the toast, then set his glass down. “Perhaps it’s time to give up your restless wandering and settle down, Ross,” he said, lazy humor in his intensely green eyes. He laid a large hand over Sara’s. “A wife is far more exciting than a desert or a ruined city.”

Ross smiled. “There is no zealot greater than a convert. When you came to England a year and a half ago, you would have laughed at the idea of marriage.”

“But I am so much wiser now.” Mikahl put an arm around his wife’s shoulders and drew her closer. “Of course, there is only one Sara, but somewhere in England you should be able to find a satisfactory bride.”

Perhaps it was the brandy, or perhaps it was pure mischief on Ross’s part. “Doubtless you’re right,” he replied, “but such a paragon would be of no value to me. Didn’t I ever mention that I already have a wife?” With immense satisfaction Ross saw that for once he had managed to surprise his friend.

“You know damned well that you never told me any such thing,” Mikahl said, his black brows drawing together. Not quite believing, he looked questioningly at his wife.

Sara nodded confirmation. “It’s quite true, my dear. In fact, I was maid of honor at the wedding.” Transferring her grave regard to her cousin, she added, “ A dozen years ago.”

“Fascinating.” Mikahl’s gaze became unfocused for a moment, as if reviewing the past from a different perspective. Then, since he was totally lacking in polite British restraint, he said with vivid interest, “You’ve certainly done a good job of hiding the woman. What is the story, or shouldn’t I ask?”

“You shouldn’t ask,” Sara said, aiming a stern wifely glance at her husband.

Ross smiled faintly. “You needn’t scowl at Mikahl like that, Sara. It’s not a secret, merely very old news.” Feeling the need for more brandy, he poured himself another glass. “I was just down from Cambridge when I met Juliet Cameron. She was a schoolfriend of Sara’s, a tall red-headed vixen quite unlike any other female I’d ever met. As the daughter of a Scottish diplomat, Juliet had spent much of her youth in exotic places like Persia and Tripoli, and since I was a budding orientalist, I found her quite irresistible. We married in a blinding haze of mutual lust. Everyone said that it would never work, and for once, everyone was right.”

Ross’s casual tone must have been unconvincing, for Mikahl narrowed his eyes with an uncomfortable degree of perception. However, he asked only, “Where is your Juliet now?”

“She is no longer my Juliet, and I haven’t the remotest idea where she is.” Ross downed his brandy in one swallow. “After six months of marriage, she ran away, leaving a note saying that she had no desire to see either me or England again. According to her lawyer, she is prospering, but I have no idea where or how. Knowing Juliet, she probably set up as a pasha in the Sahara and has the world’s only male harem.” He stood. “It’s getting late. Time for me to go home if I want to be off before dawn tomorrow.”

Sara rose and crossed the room to enfold him in a heartfelt embrace. “I’ll miss you, Ross,” she said softly. “Be careful.”

“I’m always careful.” Ross kissed her forehead, then turned to his friend.

He had intended to shake hands, but Mikahl, once more un-English, gave him a quick, powerful hug. “And if being careful isn’t enough, be dangerous. You’re rather good at that, for an English gentleman.”

Ross smiled and clapped the other man on the shoulder. “I’ve had good teachers.”

They were all laughing as Ross left. He always preferred leaving with laughter rather than tears.

Constantinople January 1841

The British ambassador to the Sublime Porte lived a dozen miles from Constantinople, in a large village on the Strait of Bosphorous. As Ross entered the embassy to pay a courtesy call, he was amused to find an interior that would not have looked out of place in Mayfair. As a bastion of Englishness, the ambassador’s residence could not be faulted, even though on the outside it looked like the home of any wealthy Turk.

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