1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 23
Surat, Palace Of The Diwan
“Well, shiiiit…” John said, drawing out the word. The principles of the USE mission been sweating for hours in the courtyard, waiting for Diwan Kashif to see them.
“John!” Ilsa snapped.
“Stop cursing at every turn.”
He gestured dismissively at the supplicants crowding the courtyard, “Like there’s anyone who understands me around here.”
“Your wife can, John Dexter Ennis,” Ilsa returned, an edge to her voice.
“Yes, dear.” He’d meant to assure her he’d try and abstain from cursing, but something in the way he said it made her eyes tighten above the veil. She stalked away, joining Monique and Priscilla, the shapeless bag she wore failing to conceal the rigid set of shoulders.
Thankfully, none of the women had raised a fuss about having to wear those stupid modesty tents here.
“J.D. –” That came from Rodney, this time.
“I know, man, I know,” he grated. “I just need folks to back the fuck up for a bit.”
He was saved from finding some way of apologizing to his wife by the appearance of the translator, Angelo, at the entrance.
“The diwan will see the petitioners now.”
“About damn time,” Ennis muttered.
“Monsieur Ennis?” Gervais asked, as he joined John and Rodney as they left the rest of their party to enter the building.
“Nothing,” John said.
“Patience, Monsieur Ennis –”
“I have been patient.”
Gervais grinned. The expression seemed honest, though John suspected from his words that it was forced: “Indeed we have all have been patient. Just a bit longer, I think.”
They were led into another courtyard, this one lined with a covered portico. John shook his head. The place looked like someone had gone through and rubbed gold on everything that wasn’t covered in jewels, bright tile-work, or silks.
A fat man in ostentatious clothing sat on a raised dais, deep in the shade of the portico, his rotundity fanned by sweating slaves. Failing to deal with the heat and discomfort, John’s mind wandered as the mission was introduced: The number of honest-to-God slaves and what they had to put up with just seemed unbelievable to him. People so thin, they made the hardest-up homeless guy from back up-time look fat.
That’s the fate Strand says that kid I…that kid would have sent us to, given half a chance.
Diwan Kashif Khan started speaking in an improbably high voice, interrupting John’s train of thought.
After a moment Angelo translated into flawless German: “The diwan has heard your petition, and decided you may leave Surat with your goods.”
John bowed and recited the words Gervais and Angelo had offered as least likely to offend: “We thank the diwan for seeing us, and for granting his permission. We hope the diwan will find a use for the gifts offered in friendship.” The bribe Strand claimed to be appropriate had seemed bizarre to John: a load of sequins, most of which looked like they came straight off the disco-era clothing stored in some of the attics of Grantville.
From the tone of his high-pitched voice, the diwan seemed genuinely pleased. Angelo translated: “The diwan will certainly find a use for them.”
“Diwan, may we inquire as to the location and status of the court?” The Mughal court was nomadic, and Bertram and Gervais had thought it wise to ask.
“Still in Agra, despite the season. The emperor is still in rude health, Allah be praised.”
Angelo picked up a scroll. “These papers grant you and all your goods safe passage from Surat.”
From Surat? Wait a second, we need protection and guides to Agra, not just out of town!
He took the paper from Angelo, seals dangling. “We were hoping for passage and protection to Agra, perhaps even an introduction to the emperor’s court.”
Angelo bit his lip, turned and translated.
The diwan shook his head, high voice detracting from the firm speech he was clearly trying to deliver to his subordinate.
“The diwan clarifies his position: he has no authority to introduce you to the court nor can he give offer safe passage to Agra. Such is not his place.”
John reigned in his first impulse, which was to grab the fat functionary by the throat and bellow, “Then why the hell are we here?” Instead he tried to keep his voice level, asking, “Are you not a servant of the emperor?”
John could feel the rest of the mission tense behind him as Angelo worked through the translation.
“We are all servants of the emperor.”
John watched the chubby functionary’s eyes narrow as the man took issue with John’s curt question. Angelo’s translation of the single German word into Gujarati required quite a few words. He’d have to remember to thank the man for trying to smooth that over.
“While it is not my usual habit to answer rude questions, you are foreign, so I shall educate you: I serve Diwan Firoz Khan, who is Diwan of Shah Jahan’s Harem, chosen for that position by Jahanara Begum Sahib, herself.”
Temper, John. “I’m grateful for your patience, Governor. I meant no offense.”
Listening to Angelo’s translation, the diwan’s expression softened. He wagged his head, said something in a conciliatory tone.
“There is the source of your misunderstanding, John Ennis of the United States of Europe. The diwan is not what you would call a governor, he is…a manager of Begum Sahib’s interests here in Surat.”
John glanced at Rodney. “Forgive my ignorance, but could the diwan please explain?”
“The diwan collects the incomes from Shehzadi Jahanara’s jagirs here, which includes an income from all trade passing through the port of Surat. He has authority over some other aspects of trade here and in the surrounding lands, but does not govern the province or command many soldiers.”
“Sorry, we did not know how things work here…” John let the words trail off, looking from Rodney to Gervais for help.
Gervais stepped forward. “But, as a trade mission, his authority extends to our protection, does it not?”
The diwan nodded.
“And, given that we carry gifts for Begum Sahib, the most wise Diwan would have every right, indeed a duty, to ensure her gifts were protected on our journey to Agra, would he not? We would, of course, inform the Firoz Khan of the excellent service done us by his most wise and forward-looking subordinate.”
A calculating look crossed the diwan’s face.
John held his breath.
A few moments passed in sweating silence, then: “The diwan promises twenty sowar with your goods to provide for their protection.” Gradinego explained further: “The men were charged with delivering the diwan safely on his journey here, and have asked leave to return to Agra, and so cost the diwan nothing.”
Gervais gave a courtly bow. “The diwan is most wise. I beg forgiveness if I offer insult or difficulty in asking, but would it also be possible to employ Mister Gradinego as our translator as we travel inland?”
John thought about telling Gervais to drop it, but thought better of it when he caught the gratitude in Gradinego’s eyes before the other man turned to translate.
The diwan and Angelo exchanged a few quiet words.
“What terms do you offer?”
“I do not know what I am negotiating for.”
“I am working off a debt of ten thousand rupees.”
John calculated the amount in terms of the goods they carried for trade and “gifts,” then shot a questioning look at Gervais.
Gervais put his hand on his heart and nodded.
Damn. He’d better be worth it. John returned the nod.
“We can make such a payment, if you will accept goods instead of specie?”
The diwan said something and waved a fat hand.
“The men will be assembled for you the day after tomorrow, including this humble translator. We have the diwan’s leave to depart in health,” Angelo said, a broad smile creasing his tanned face.