1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 22
Some bore the story to their king:
“A mighty creature of our race,
In monkey form, has reached the place.”
Surat, River Tapti
“Right then, it’ll be a while.” Captain Strand sighed. “The easiest passage I’ve ever made, only to rot under the sun in Surat.”
John spat over the rail into the river Tapti after the retreating official’s boat. “Pain in the ass, this shit.”
Bertram frowned. While he agreed with the up-timer’s assessment of their situation, John had scarce said anything positive since foiling the pirate attack. Gervais had commented that even Ilsa, John’s wife, appeared unable to lift the man’s spirits.
John turned from the rail and stalked back to the gangway, leaving the sun-baked deck for the oppressive heat of his quarters. Bertram had listened while Rodney explained why John remained so upset, but it just didn’t make sense to him. The youth he’d killed had been a pirate. Bertram understood the up-timers placed a higher value on life than benighted down-timers did — or, to look at it another way, they’d come from a gentler world that allowed such luxuries. But the fact remained that the boy would not have shed a tear for John and his folk as they were led into slavery.
Gervais emerged from the hold, blinking. The Frenchman had been checking one of the wonders the USE had sent along with the mission while the captain and Ennis met with Laksh Menon, the Surat tax farmer.
Bertram gestured at the departing small craft. “The powers that be are considering our request, apparently.”
“Five months locked aboard ship getting here, and they won’t let us even come ashore?” Gervais said.
“Not yet, no,” said Captain Strand.
“Did you offer a bribe?”
Strand looked at him angrily. “After all this time aboard my ship, you think me a simpleton?”
Gervais held up his hands in surrender. “I apologize. I’m impatient, and let my tongue wag ahead of my manners.”
Strand shook his head. “Apology accepted. I am not usually so touchy, but their translator set my teeth on edge. Damn Venetians, each thinking it was them who invented trade.”
“Venetian?” Gervais asked.
“Did you get his name?”
Strand referred to his log. “Gradinego.”
“Ha!” Gervais smiled, shook his head, “Can’t be!”
The grin disappeared as Gervais pounded a fist on the rail. “I knew I should have been up here.”
“Why?” Bertram asked.
“It is just possible that I know the man. We worked together in Venice… some years back.”
“Yes,” Gervais said, expression bland: a sure sign he was thinking very hard.
“Did you part on good terms or did you…” Bertram trailed off, glancing at the Captain.
Gervais sniffed. “There is only one real rule we all abide by: never swindle those who choose to work a dodge with you. I have never broken that rule.”
Strand was looking at both of them, scratching his beard thoughtfully.
Gervais changed the subject: “Did they say why we can’t off-load?”
“They insisted that no one trades here without a firman from the emperor.”
“Not quite accurate,” Strand corrected. “The diwan’s tax man said something about a requirement that traders hold a firman from Shehzadi Begum Sahib…That’s a princess, I believe.”
“But we’re not here to trade in Surat, are we?”
“No, we’re not. When we tried explaining that to the diwan’s man, he was unmoved.”
“So what do we do?” Bertram asked.
Strand shrugged. “Hope that when they come back tomorrow, Gervais’ friend is the translator, and that the Venetian has some pull with the locals.”
Bertram looked significantly at the ship anchored a few hundred yards upriver. “And the English?”
“They aren’t likely to be a problem, and even less likely to be helpful.”
“Not to contradict you, but won’t they complain to the…the diwan, is it? They own sole rights to trade here, don’t they?”
Strand shook his head. “The Portuguese and Dutch hold firmans as well. Firmans are not necessarily exclusive. They are more like a license to trade than a royal charter backed by the crown such as the one the Danish East India Company has. If we were flying Portuguese colors, we might have problems, but we’re all of us rather far from the fights and concerns of home.” The broad-shouldered captain shrugged again. “Most of the time, we all just go about our affairs,” he gestured at the very busy docks, “there being plenty of trade for all.”
* * *
Gervais grinned as the boat came alongside. Angelo Gradinego cut a slim figure beside the most richly dressed man on the small boat.
Passengers on the smaller craft required a bit of a climb to get to the deck of the Lønsom Vind. Due to the strict order of precedence, Angelo boarded well in advance of the man he was translating for.
Gervais made certain that he was standing across from Angelo when he reached the deck. Angelo looked him over, assessing his value and position in the mission automatically before it registered who he was actually looking at. When it did, he peered closer: “Gervais?”
“Angelo Gradinego!” Gervais beamed, holding his arms out.
“Gervais Vieuxpont! What are you doing here?” the Venetian cried, stepping into his old friend’s embrace.
“Trying to make friends and influence people, of course!” Gervais said, clapping Angelo on the back.
The Venetian stepped back, smiling. “You turned me down when I asked you to come see the wonders of the Mughal Court with me!”
“I did… Gervais shrugged. “Things change.”
“They do, my friend, they certainly do!” Angelo’s brows drew together, concerned: “Monique?”
“Well, and here with us.”
Angelo gestured with one tanned hand at the ship’s colors. “But, Hamburg?”
“Things became a bit uncomfortable in the south.” He glanced significantly at the rail, where the dignitary was just climbing into view. “We could use your help expediting our transition inland.”
“I…see…” He glanced at the tax farmer. “It really isn’t up to this fellow, but…” Retreating to stand beside the local, he mouthed, “I’ll do what I can.”
Gervais stepped back and let Ennis and Strand engage with the tax farmer. Watching Angelo translate, Gervais didn’t see any of the few tells Angelo had. But if he wasn’t working a swindle, why do this? It was too much like actual labor for the Angelo he knew.
The meeting went on for some time. As it neared the end, Strand offered another, larger bribe. Gervais could tell the man was tempted, but Angelo looked directly at Gervais as he translated: “Begum Sahib has installed a new representative here, and the representative must be consulted before any action is taken in matters of trade.”
With that, the meeting drew to a close and the boarding party departed.
Strand turned to him, expectant.
Gervais shrugged. “He’ll do what he can for us.”
“You hopeful?” Ennis asked.
Gervais cocked his head. “Hopeful, yes. Confident, no. I am unsure what Angelo is doing in such a lowly position.”
“He’s a brilliant man. Very accomplished and truly gifted.”
“So he’s under-achieving,” John said, dismissive.
Carefully controlling the urge to snap, Gervais answered: “All I’m saying is that I doubt he would be translating for some third-tier tax collector if he had other prospects.”
“I…see. He did not appear to be in bondage,” Strand said.
“What, like leather and shit?” John Ennis interrupted, a strange expression on his face.
“No, like slavery, though what you mean by leather and feces, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”
Blushing, John shook his head, “Never mind.”