Extract: Loot by Tania James

Discover an epic tale of plundered treasure, savage empire, lasting love and a young man’s dream to make his mark on the world, in this extract from Tania James’ spellbinding new novel.

Tania James
Illustration of a roaring tiger inside a decorative border

Meet Abbas. Woodcarver, toy maker, dreamer. Abbas is seventeen when he is whisked away to Tipu Sultan’s glorious palace in Mysore. Apprenticed to the legendary clockmaker Monsieur Du Leze, he is ordered to create an ingenious musical tiger to delight Tipu’s sons . . .

Abbas follows a few paces behind as Du Leze leads them through corridors and across a courtyard. Arriving at a trim, lime-washed shed, Du Leze pushes a sliding door along a horizontal rail, allowing a trapped bird to fly out.

Of all the rooms Abbas has entered over the past two days, this – the workshop of Lucien Du Leze – is the one that steals his breath.

The walls bristle with tools, at least three of every kind and size, veiner and saw and adze and axe, gouges so small and with so many different tips that he cannot predict what all they can do. Nor does he know what to do with himself in their presence, what to touch first or not touch at all. A bouquet of long wooden planks is arranged in a bin. A lathe awaits. And on one of the two tables rests a great mass of wood, stripped of its bark and propped sideways.

Of all the rooms Abbas has entered over the past two days, this – the workshop of Lucien Du Leze – is the one that steals his breath

Abbas runs his eyes over everything, pausing over an extraordinary contraption consisting of a flat wooden table over a little iron seat. Strung vertically through the centre of the table is a serrated blade as long as a man’s arm, as slim as a fingernail. Abbas approaches with care, as if the instrument might at any moment come to life.

‘A mechanical scroll saw,’ says Du Leze, proudly. ‘I made it myself – but let us not get distracted.’

Du Leze summons him to a table where an open notebook lies flat, a sharpened stick in the gutter. ‘Un stylo,’ says Du Leze, brandishing the sharpened point, the rest of the graphite rod sheathed in wood. Abbas is still examining the stylo when Du Leze sets the rifle from yesterday on the table. ‘Alors,’ says Du Leze, pointing to the ornament of the tiger and soldier, ‘see if you can draw this from the left side.’

Abbas chokes the stylo between his fingers. He looks for as long as he can at the ornament, before setting the nib to paper. A few inquiring strokes turn to supple lines. The grain of the paper hums through his fingertips as the drawing grows into an image not of his design, yet somehow becoming his own.

Black-and-white line drawing of a tiger biting a soldier

Finished, Abbas sits back, returns the stylo to the gutter, awaits praise.

Hastily Du Leze draws atop the sketch, explaining how the tiger will be hollow, with a bellows in the head and a pipe organ in the body. A lateral slice just above the tiger’s ears will create a sort of lid, which, when removed, will expose the organ pipes. A door along its rib cage will open onto a set of ivory keys, to be operated by an organ player poised by the tiger’s left flank.

‘Where shall we hide?’ Abbas asks.

‘Why would we hide?’

‘So as to make the growling sounds from inside the tiger.’

‘No, I told you, the bellows–” Du Leze waves a hand. ‘It will take too long to explain. You work on the outside, and leave the inside to me.’

With a folding ruler, Du Leze chalks the dimensions of the automaton onto the great mass of wood. Abbas passes a hand over the slab. The grain is tight and consistent, the wood spongy, slightly leached of its juices, though not so much that it will crack at the first tap.

Here is the anvil of the head, the line of a haunch, the sweep of the belly, the bulb of the muzzle, the bend of a limb

‘And you,’ says Du Leze, handing the chalk to Abbas, who roughs the outline of the Tiger and the Soldier, making sure to stay well within Du Leze’s markings. Here is the anvil of the head, the line of a haunch, the sweep of the belly, the bulb of the muzzle, the bend of a limb. He is shaky at first, but the more he draws, the steadier his hand. After they check all the measurements five times, Du Leze goes to his table. ‘Now I shall begin on the organ.’

‘And me, Sahab?’

Du Leze shrugs as if the answer is obvious. ‘Now you make the tiger.’

Abbas tries to ignore the little lunge in his stomach as he goes to the wall of tools. His eye leaps from one to the next, dizzy with chisels, drawing a blank. He stands very still, bewildered by every second that goes by in which he has still done nothing.

‘Abbas,’ says Du Leze. ‘Come here a moment.’

With a sigh, Abbas joins Du Leze by the scroll saw.

Du Leze gestures with his pipe. ‘Pluck it. Pluck the blade.’

Abbas plucks the long, thin blade. It pings, vibrating.

‘If the blade is too tight, it will snap,’ says Du Leze. ‘If the blade is too loose, it will snap. It must have the proper tension. Tu vois?

‘You want me to use the scroll saw?’

‘No, no. I am saying you must hurry up slowly. It’s something my papa used to say – the only useful advice he ever gave me. Festina lente.’

These tools are superior to any he has used before, but, as he well knows, the tools do not make the carver

The phrase makes little sense to Abbas, but by the time he has returned to the wall of tools, the fear has slightly loosened its hold, to the point where he can bring himself to take one of the larger gouges off the wall, its curved bit the width of his thumb. He holds the tool up to examine the handle, fine and ferruled, in perfect alignment with the tang. Next he selects a round-headed mallet, fixed tight in its handle. These tools are superior to any he has used before, but, as he well knows, the tools do not make the carver.

Armed, he approaches the mass of wood, and before he can be paralyzed once more, he studies the drawing and begins where he always begins: at the highest point. He knocks the mallet onto the chisel. Another knock, and another, the blows firm but few.

The wood begins to lose its anonymity. He learns its fragrance and grain. Straightening the chisel, he knocks toward what he imagines to be a tiger, waiting to be unleashed.

He is angling the frontal portion of the tiger, someday to be the sweeping curve of the tiger’s downturned neck, when he hears a wondrous thing.

There is Du Leze, seated at the scroll saw, pedalling his feet beneath the tiny table. Its long arm is pecking at impossible speed, the thin blade moving up and down while Du Leze feeds it a slab of blond wood. Abbas goes closer, forgetting to put down his tools, watching how the shavings fly from the iron wheels, how another arm knocks beneath the table, how the slab is being sliced as simply as bread.

Du Leze stops pedalling: the scroll saw goes still. He holds up a slim rectangle. ‘Joli, n’est- ce pas?

Abbas is awestruck. He would give anything to try it himself. Before he can ask, Du Leze resumes his pedalling.