Grimesby had always been terrified of snakes.
The night was gaspingly hot, but the ayah still insisted that he wear a thick woolen nightshirt, convinced that the English couldn’t withstand the humid climate. He woke every hour, sweat burning and then freezing his skin.
He rose, creeping past the bed where the ayah lay, breathing softly. Moonlight pooled on the floor, highlighting the whipping tail as it slithered by. Grimesby froze.
He felt the air shudder and coil around him with the movements of the great brown snake.
The daboia — the one the British officers called a chain viper, with many oaths and much shaking of boots.
The serpent coiled quietly beneath the bed where the ayah slept. He felt the air grasp him. The snake was sliding up the bedclothes without a sound, over her shoulder, and into the soft crook of her arm.
Her scream pierced through his ear into his brain. People were yelling and running, lanterns flashing as voices cried out in English and Hindu. Grimesby didn’t move. He saw the viper slip quietly from the bed and into the night.
He watched the brown snakes coiling around one another in the heavy basket, and thought of the ayah.
The snake handler crooked his mouth to one side.
“Are you afraid of the daboia, Mr. Roylott?”
“Yes,” he said, unable to look away. “My ayah was killed by one.”
The small man smiled, holding up one hand to him. He dipped the other into the basket, removing one shining coil. He placed the snake on his shoulder, letting it wind its way up his neck into his hair, and smiled at Grimesby.
He asked, “Shall I teach you?”