1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 18
Agra, Red Fort, Diwan-i-Khas
Dara joined his younger brothers, standing before Father’s throne in the Diwan-i-Khas.
As befitted the hall of private audience, there were comparatively few courtiers present, and those who were held high zat and sowar ranks — either diwans, holders of large Zamind, or extensive Mansabs.
“Any idea what this is about?” Shah Shuja asked, as Dara came to a halt beside him.
“Possibly,” Aurangzeb answered at the same time.
Both elder brothers looked at their younger brother, who punched his thin beard at the pair of generals standing to one side. “Military matters. Either the Deccan or the Sikhs.”
Field command, then. Dara tried to hide his excitement.
“The Sikhs?” Shuja scoffed, “What, did they refuse to pay their taxes?”
“No. The new guru, he has caused a dais to be built. One, it is said, higher than that of our Father.”
Shuja made a throwing motion. “An insult, but not a threat requiring an army.”
“Farmers?” Shuja sneered, “How could such as they prove a threat sufficient to warrant Father’s attention?”
It was Dara’s turn to disagree with Shah Shuja: “Guru Hargobind has not sat idle, brother. It is said he took up two swords at his investiture, one denoting temporal justice and the other, spiritual. Further, he trains his followers to defend themselves.”
Shuja didn’t look convinced.
Aurangzeb nodded. “Still, barring some further provocation I’m not aware of, I doubt the Sikhs are the reason for this sudden summons. It almost has to be the Deccan.” He looked at Dara. “Wasn’t your teacher a friend to the last guru?”
Dara nodded, uncomfortable at the thought. “He was. I — I don’t doubt that he still is.”
“Then he will not be pleased to hear of this.”
“We shall see,” Dara murmured as Father entered.
The emperor strode across to his dais and seated himself on the throne, the majordomo declaring the audience open and announcing to the Diwan-i-Khas the emperor’s lengthy title and honors.
For his part, Dara watched Father closely: the emperor’s expression revealed little, but one of his slippered feet was gently tapping the floor, a sign he was deeply concerned by what he was about to reveal. Eventually the majordomo wound down, and Father revealed the purpose for the assembly.
“My sons, my people, there has been yet another incident with the Sikhs. A party of my nobles, Mukhlis Khan chief amongst them, were entrusted with the training of the royal hawks and were engaged in that duty to me when my white hawk went missing.” A murmur went through the crowd. The white hawk was a rarity, and losing it would surely mean Mukhlis Khan would suffer the emperor’s ire.
“They discovered the hawk, shining in the mews of a Sikh hunting party encamped nearby. When they went to claim the hawk from this party of Sikhs, they were not only refused and insulted, they were assaulted! The insult might have been forgiven, but this Hargobind refuses to return my hawk, given to me by my friend, the Shah of Persia!”
Angry murmurs went through the assembled nobles. There was, if Dara wasn’t mistaken, a strong undertow of contentment beneath the anger. War meant plunder and glory, and a chance to rise.
“Told you,” Aurangzeb muttered.
Dara caught the dirty look Shuja cast Aurangzeb’s way. He didn’t like having his face rubbed in it. Their younger brother just smiled.
That was neither kind nor wise. Things had been unpleasant enough since Aurangzeb published his damned poem. It was one thing to talk like that to Dara himself, but Shuja wasn’t one to lie down and take it.
“Check your tongue, little brother,” Shuja grated.
“Why, does a fool wish to add something?”
Dara felt Shuja tense beside him and glanced at the throne. Sure enough, the muttering of his siblings had brought Father’s gaze down on them. He did not look pleased.
Probably Aurangzeb’s design, this making his brothers look bad before Father. Ah well, each must be disappointed, from time to time.
Dara stepped forward, bowing his head and waiting to be recognized.
He heard Shuja stop mid-mutter, saw Aurangzeb twitch out of the corner of his eye. Thought you’d keep us off-balance and secure the command for yourself, did you? I’m tired of the whispers at court: those that say I am content to sit in Father’s shadow, that I avoid fighting as distasteful. I long to put paid to the rumors that it is my wish that makes it so.
The truth is, Father refuses to send me away from him, fearing I might turn against him, as he turned against his father.
Realizing the emperor was watching him, and conscious of the entire court standing silent behind, Dara spoke: “Your son stands ready to ride out and punish your enemies, Father.”
“Does he?” The emperor’s tone was not enthusiastic, and his expression dark.
“If it pleases you, yes.”
“Your first wife is pregnant with Our first grandson, is she not?”
“She is, indeed,” Dara answered, swallowing fear. It had occurred to him that Father might use his unborn child as yet another excuse not to send him.
“And you would suffer to be parted from her at this time?”
Dara, expecting the question, answered immediately: “To serve you, I will…while taking comfort in the knowledge that they will have the very best of care here.”
In his day, Mother had gone with him on every campaign, but her death in camp guaranteed he’d never allow another pregnant member of the family on campaign.
“Will you listen to the general I will send with you? More than that: will you heed his advice?”
“I will.” Though he would like to know who, exactly, the emperor would send to be his shepherd. He glanced at the gathered nobles, but none met his eye or gave indication that they knew who would command.
“Very well, I name you Amir of Amirs; you shall command five thousand, and have the Red Tent to crush this upstart, take his wealth, take his women, take his life. Bring all before me and be rewarded.”
Dara bowed, glowing inside. At last, the Red Tent, symbol of the emperor for the campaign!
“I will personally oversee the gathering of your staff for this campaign, Dara Shikoh. Be ready in a week’s time, when all is in readiness for your journey to Ramdaspur.”
“I shall, Your Majesty!” the words came louder than he’d intended, such was his excitement. Not even the jealous looks his brothers cast in his direction could dim the fires of his enthusiasm.
* * *
Aurangzeb quickly smoothed his expression. It would not do to let Father see how displeased he was with Dara’s good fortune.
Shuja did not bother to hide his displeasure, and Aurangzeb saw Shah Jahan’s eyes tighten fractionally as the emperor watched his sons.
Wazir Asaf Khan strode before the emperor and bowed. “I would serve you, Shah Jahan. With your permission I will assist Dara Shikoh as he enacts your will.” Aurangzeb thought that was typical of his grandfather: clinging to whomever held the reins of power.
“I must deny you, Asaf Khan. Mukhlis Khan will be Dara’s subordinate and chief advisor for this, as it is his complaint we seek redress for. Fear not, father of my most beloved, I will be sending you to face down Ahom.”
Aurangzeb did not miss the surprise the emperor’s order caused to flit across Asaf’s face, as their eldest male kinsman bowed and said: “Certainly, Shah Jahan. I serve.”
“You will command my armies there, and coordinate with Mahabat Khan to bring Old King to heel. You will assist Dara ordering his troops as you gather your own.”
“Yes, Shah Jahan. May I invite you and your sons to hunt with me? The sowar will need training, and there have been reports of tigers to the east.”
The emperor waved a jewel-studded hand. “Affairs of state prevent me, but my sons will be happy to accompany you.”
Aurangzeb hid his displeasure. A hunt would hardly prove a sufficient sop to this new injury.
“While regretting the affairs that keep you here, I am honored to host your sons to the hunt.”
Dara, still riding the high of his appointment to command, nodded acceptance of the invitation.
Shuja actually looked excited by the prospect of hunting.
Aurangzeb let none of this thoughts show. They were always a disappointment to him, his elder brothers: one a heretic lover of Hindu philosophy constantly rewarded for his mediocrity, the other easily baited into dissolution by whatever new entertainment crossed his path. He did still hold out hope that Murad might prove a man worthy of respect.
Aurangzeb supposed he should be content enough at the situation, however. Dara was not likely to succeed as a general, and failing to do as ordered would surely wake his father to the fact that he’d chosen to favor the wrong son. Shuja would be dealt with, when the time came, and Murad was still young enough to be easily influenced, once he was free of the harem.
Court went on. Aurangzeb scarcely payed any attention, so caught up in thinking through his next moves that he almost missed Shah Jahan declaring the session at an end.
Released to do as they would, a pack of lesser courtiers approached Dara, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the rising star and improve their position in life.
Shuja turned to him. “Dara gifted me a new musket from the production of his kharkhanas. He is always bragging about the fine weapons his atishbaz make. I will use it on the hunt, and prove his words true or false.”
“And I am sure you will take a few prize beasts with it,” Aurangzeb replied absently, watching who was pressing forward to congratulate their brother. Such sycophants would not be permitted positions of power when he ruled.
“A few! Care to wager who will take the greater portion of game?” Shuja spoke loudly enough to gather the attention of courtiers not in their immediate circle. Most of them preferred Shuja over Aurangzeb because the former was an indolent wastrel and Aurangzeb’s reputation was abstemious.
“Very well, what stakes?”
“My gun against the horse Father gifted you last week!”
“You know I do not favor guns as you do.”
“All right, one of my horses, then.”
Shuja grinned. “Of course.”
“Very well. I will take more game than you and win a horse of my choosing from your stables. If I fail, you may select one of mine.”
“I shall win, and take your finest steed!” Shuja crowed, the herd of sycophantic cattle lowing in agreement as they followed him out.