1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 12
Agra, Home of Jadu Das
The emperor’s palace of Red Fort, hard by the Yamuna, was a welcome sight after so many kos and so much time abroad.
Welcome, but still distant in both physical and figurative terms. Jadu’s roof was kos from Red Fort, and Salim didn’t dare approach until he knew more about how things stood at court. Two years, more or less, since he’d departed as part of Baram Khan’s entourage. Many things had changed. Even Red Fort had been modified: white marble superstructures were being added while older, plainer ones were torn down.
“Do you have a plan?” Jadu asked, following the line of his gaze.
Salim shook his head, resisted the urge to finger the fresh bandage on his arm. “Not yet, no.”
“You could just walk up to the gate and ask.”
Salim snorted. “I could, but Mian Mir instructed me to present my findings directly — and privately — to the imperial family, preferably to Dara Shikoh.”
“You move in august circles.”
“I did not, Mian Mir did.” Salim gave a crooked smile. “He merely asks the impossible of me.”
“Come, have something to drink while you consider how to ride the impossible to victory.” Dhanji Das’s elder brother offered his guest a cool glass of fruit juice and one stem of the water pipe.
Grinning, Salim turned from the roof’s edge and joined Jadu. Careful of his wound, he settled on one cushion and took the offered refreshment. “My thanks for your hospitality, Jadu Das. You and your family have more than paid your debt to me.”
“Not so, Salim.” Jadu waggled his head. “With respect, I will be the judge of when my debt to you is fully paid, and I say that day has yet to arrive.”
“You do your family honor, Jadu Das.”
Taking a pull from the pipe, Jadu exhaled, speaking through a cloud of fragrant smoke: “I do, but this talk of honor and debts does nothing to bring you closer to accomplishing your goals, my friend.”
“No, it does not.” Salim looked out across the city at Red Fort again.
“I know a few officials at court. I can inquire among them, see if perhaps there is a chance to see the emperor without all the world knowing of it, but I very much doubt it possible.” Jadu took another thoughtful pull at the pipe. “The emperor does occasionally hear petitions tied to the begging chain let down the east wall during his morning appearance before the people…”
“But it is only occasionally, and while you would not have to present your information to some court functionary in order to go before the emperor, you would still have to present whatever you have in full view of the public.”
Salim nodded. “A route of last resort, then.”
“As you say, Salim.”
“What of Dara?”
“He is easier to approach than the emperor, but not by a great deal. Especially for those who have not gone through the emperor first.”
“Is he still in favor?”
“Oh, yes. Very much so. In fact, it is rumored that Shah Jahan has been too lenient with his eldest son, who spends too much time reading from books other than the Koran and playing chaugan.”
“Well, this much is true: Dara hasn’t held even a notional field command. This, despite being far older than Shah Jahan himself was upon being given his first command.”
“As does the rest of the court.”
Salim glanced at Jadu. “But not Shah Jahan?”
A shrug. “I do not claim to know the mind of the emperor, but it is widely known that his advisors are rarely heeded where his children are concerned.”
“An understandable result of his own failed rebellion.” It was well known that Shah Jahan felt that Jahangir had been turned against him by Nur Jahan and a coterie of advisors, so it was understandable that he ignored his own advisors on family matters.
Jadu shook his head and gently corrected his guest: “I believe there is more to it than the war of succession and the events surrounding the deaths of all the possible rivals to his claim.”
Salim slowly nodded, considering. Shah Jahan’s brothers and all of their sons — his own nephews — had been executed by Asaf Khan, another kinsman. Most everyone agreed the executions were on Shah Jahan’s orders, but who would say anything about it, one way or another?
And, judging from all Salim had been able to find in Grantville’s libraries, Mian Mir was right: those killings placed a shadow on the dynasty that was never successfully removed. That shadow was used to cloak fratricide in an aura of legitimacy, weakening the dynasty and ultimately leading to British rule.
“A thought occurs, Salim.”
“I have a kinsman who provides betel to the harem. Jahanara Begum has recently been given full responsibility for the harem’s finances. Perhaps I can get you into Red Fort with his party…”
“It seems a good idea, but the requirements of purdah will still force me to speak through some intermediary, and that one no closer to Dara or the emperor.”
“True…” Jadu sucked thoughtfully on the pipe.
They sat in companionable silence for some time, smoking and eating.
An elephant’s trumpeting reached Salim’s ears. The sound led him, through roundabout paths, to what he must do.
Agra, Red Fort, The Harem
Sighing in satisfaction, Nur Jahan slowly closed the tiny glass valve and turned the heat down under the flask of concentrate. The new perfume would be ready soon and, if she was correct in her calculations, would out-last and linger on the body far longer than any of her previous concoctions.
Things had settled into a comfortable pattern in the months since she’d returned to court, allowing her time to pursue her hobbies and slowly, carefully extend her reach through the court.
She had reason to be satisfied on multiple levels: the perfume would improve her already-excellent reputation for such creations, and serve to further lull her adversaries into complacency. Men, and to a lesser extent, eunuchs, were rather easy to mislead into boredom when reports reach their ears of activities they considered unmanly. Boredom lead to disregard for the person involved in such pursuits, which was exactly where Nur wished to remain, for the moment.
Gargi, her favorite advisor, entered.
Nur turned from the apparatus, “Yes?”
“Some news, from Lahore, my lady,” Gargi said, tapping a packet held in her right hand.
“For later. Come, let us play some chess while I wait for this,” she waved at the flask, “to cool.”
“Yes, my lady.”
They sat, Gargi more slowly than her mistress. She didn’t have the benefit of Nur’s many years of training to keep the body supple.
Gargi took the first move, as was their habit. They played for some time, quiet conversation full of banalities intended to erode the patience of any listeners. Eventually, a faint snore from beyond the jali rewarded their patient game. The spy assigned to watch them had difficulty keeping awake in the heat of the day.
Nur smiled, held out her hand.
Gargi handed the packet over.
Nur read through the dispatches quickly, filing them between hennaed toes: the most important messages requiring responses went between the largest toe of her right foot and its delicately decorated neighbor, the rest in descending order of importance. On the left, items of news that did not require a response, in the same order of precedence. There were far more messages finding a place between her left toes than her right these last few years, something she hoped to rectify in the coming days. The last missive was in a hand she did not immediately recognize, requiring a frustrating moment to place.
She must have shown some of her discontent, because Gargi quietly asked, “Mistress?”
Nur Jahan held up the missive. “Rehan Usmani, one of my clients, writes from Surat to tell me Baram Khan is dead.”
“Some disease of the Europeans?”
She shook her head. “Poison, apparently.”
“Not entirely unexpected. Baram Khan was not the most circumspect of men.”
“He had his uses.”
“Does it say where he was? Did he find the fabled city the Jesuits spoke of?”
“Yes, Rehan claims they did, and that there are many things he needs to tell me of what was discovered there. He desires an audience as soon as he arrives from Surat.” She held the message up. “As this was sent to Lahore first, we are unlikely to have an opportunity to question him for another month or so.”
“And when he does arrive,” Gargi waved at the jali where the spy continued to snore, “meeting in private will be nearly impossible.”
“Yes.” Nur re-read the next few lines, parsing the message laid out between the lines of carefully adequate calligraphy. “He also warns that Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz departed the diplomatic party without leave. He suspects the amir of working against me, and expresses concern the man will return to court with inflammatory news that could do my position harm.”
“I do not recognize the name of this amir. Why should one such as he work against you?”
“Another of Mian Mir’s students, Salim was ever one of his favorites. And, since my fall from Mian Mir’s good graces during Shah Jahan’s rebellion, I’m sure he’s had his head filled with poison against me.”
“But what could the man carry that might be a threat to you?”
Nur cocked her head to one side. “Rehan perhaps misreads opportunity as threat.”
“Better to kill this amir and forego the risk, then,” Gargi said, louder than she should have.
Nur cast the hem of her sari over her feet, concealing the papers as the spy’s disoriented snort warned them he was awake.
The women resumed their small talk over the chessboard.
Nur Jahan, most beloved widow of Jahangir, considered her opponent as she hounded Gargi’s king across the chess board. Poor Gargi, her advice has become so much more conservative since my forced retirement. Still, she may be correct in this. Perhaps I should tell Aurangzeb my news when next we meet. Such information, promptly delivered, should serve to increase my credibility as an ally, and costs me nothing but the breath to speak the words.
Agra, Pulu Grounds
I simply hate losing!
Dara’s feelings on the state of play proved unhelpful as the talented new addition to Mohammed Khan’s team cracked the ball in a perfectly timed pass. The wooden ball slipped between two of Dara’s teammates, rolling between the galloping horses of the two captains.
Keeping clear of the other rider’s line, Dara leaned over in his saddle, tried to intercept with his mallet.
With a quick flick of his wrist, Mohammed bounced the wooden ball into the air and over the prince’s mallet. Dara stretched in a desperate attempt to deflect it, but Mohammed caught the ball on his stick again, keeping it out of Dara’s reach.
Mohammed put heels to horse, the ball rolling ahead.
Having slowed to accommodate Dara’s lunge from the saddle, his horse lost ground on the young noble’s. Dara righted himself and set out in pursuit, quickly making up ground. He was almost in reach of the nobleman when Mohammed wound up and cracked a shot between the raised uprights.
Subdued applause came from the sidelines.
No one wants to be seen applauding another of the prince’s failures, Dara thought bitterly, turning his horse and slowing to a walk. His mount needed time to cool and the teams had to re-set.
The new player, the one who had made such an excellent pass, sidled up beside him and spoke. “Shehzada Dara Shikoh, it is good to see you well.”
Dara looked at the horseman, who had covered the lower half of his face to keep the dust and turf off and said, “Do I know you?”
A polite bow of the head. “We were once students together.”
“Oh? Did you school me on the pulu grounds before?” Dara asked, still fuming over conceding the point.
The other man bowed deeper in his saddle and pulled down the end of his turban to show his face. “No, Shehzada Dara Shikoh, I was referring to our study under Mian Mir when you were an honored guest of your grandfather, Jahangir.”
Dara checked his horse’s reins. “Salim! How are you, old friend!?”
Salim had been an older student of Mian Mir’s, one of his inner circle of followers. He had proven kind, respectful, and easy to talk to during the long years Dara and his brother had been held in Jahangir’s court, hostages against another rebellion from Father.
“I am well, Shehzada.” Salim’s grass-green eyes flicked to the courtiers lining the edge of the pitch. “I have news,” he said. “News I fear to impart to any but you.”
Dara, made cautious by the seriousness of Salim’s tone, set his mount in motion again. Still trying to recover from the surprise, he muttered, “I never understood why you accompanied Baram Khan.”
Baram had been sent from the court in disgrace; too powerful to execute, too weak to withstand Father’s ire for his transgression and still remain at court. Instead he’d been sent to Europe to investigate rumors of a town said to have sprung, full of wonders, from the earth in a single night.
Salim, covering his face again, said simply, “Mian Mir asked it of me.”
Dara noticed hoofbeats approaching and turned his head to see Mohammed riding up. Quietly, he said, “I shall make arrangements for you to be brought before me privately. My chief eunuch will know to look for you.” He considered a moment. “Tomorrow afternoon?”
“Thank you, Shehzada,” Salim said as Mohammed, flushed with success, rode between them both.
Dara, covering for the conversation, mock-scowled and raised his voice: “Thank me by failing to make such passes as that last one! What’s more, you say you haven’t played at pulu in years? You make rough sport of my poor skills!”
Their horses’ ears flicked as Salim chuckled.
Mohammed shot Salim a look that Dara read quite easily: You had better not be pouring salt on the prince’s wounded pride.
To save Salim from the courtier’s ire, Dara spoke to Mohammed, “Well done! I believe the wager was five horses of your choosing from my stables?”
Mohammed revealed his face and bowed in the saddle, “Shehzada, you are too kind! While that was the wager, you are perhaps a bit early in conceding defeat. The last –” The time-keeper’s horn, sounding much like an elephant’s angry trumpet, cut across Mohammed’s words.
Over the nobleman’s shoulder, Dara saw Salim give a barely perceptible nod before turning to ride from the field.