1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 28
Red Fort, The Harem
“Nur Jahan respectfully asks a visit, Begum Sahib.”
Jahanara had been expecting such a request since arranging her great aunt’s poisoning, if not so soon.
“She is recovered, then?” she asked the eunuch.
“Indeed, her brief illness has passed, thanks be to God.”
“Praise Him,” she answered in reflex. And because, while she had been expecting the request, Jahanara did not feel ready to grant it: “I shall consult my astrologer before agreeing to a visit. He found some peril to my health in his last reading, and advised me to caution.” She waved dismissal at him. “You may take my words to her.”
The eunuch bowed low, yet remained before her.
She let him grow uncomfortable before asking, “There is more?”
“I pray you will forgive me, Begum Sahib, but my mistress waits without.”
Jahanara tried not to display her concern — Nur Jahan’s eunuch would surely report everything observed to his mistress. Still, a bit of pique was called for: “She presumes much, my grandfather’s sister.”
The eunuch pressed his head into the ground. “As you say, Begum Sahib. Nur Jahan commanded that I convey her assurances that the illness is long past, and was certainly not catching, and that she has words of import for your ears.”
“Very well, I will trust to her greater experience in this. She may attend me. Go and fetch her.”
The eunuch said nothing further, just bowed and withdrew.
Jahanara used the time to shore up her mental defenses. Tending Father’s re-ignited grief had proved draining, leaving her tired and out of sorts. Worse yet, the result was still uncertain. Salim had been reading to father almost every night, but Father had yet to make any comment on what he’d learned.
And now Nur Jahan, veteran of thirty years of imperial harem politics, was coming.
She wished Dara were here. She wished Mother was here. She wished for many things, yet none of them had come to pass when Nur Jahan entered her receiving chamber.
Head high, the older woman’s direct gaze immediately fixed on Jahanara. Nur Jahan approached with the supple grace of a woman much younger than her fifty-six years, a result of a life-long regimen of dance and diet. Dressed in fine silks and damasks of her own design and pattern, Nur Jahan called to mind a great cat stalking prey.
Nur Jahan came to a halt, bowed, a delicate scent teasing Jahanara’s senses. “Grand-niece.”
Wishing to keep things formal, Jahanara used the other woman’s title, “Nur Jahan,” as she gestured her to a seat.
A brilliant, cheerful smile answered the formality and called to mind the reason for her title as “Light of The World.” So great was the charm of that smile that Jahanara could not be certain it was false, despite knowing that it had to be.
“Must we be so formal, Janni?” Nur asked as she reclined on cushions across from Jahanara. “I am fresh recovered from illness, and would celebrate another day among the living with my family. And, as all the boys are hunting and your sister is with your father, I naturally thought of you.”
Jahanara, hiding her displeasure at the other woman’s use of her childhood nickname, answered in even tones: “I merely pay you the respect my grandfather bestowed upon you in recognition of your beauty, especially as you appear so well and happy.”
Nur Jahan blushed, actually blushed, at praise she had likely heard far more times than the sun had risen over Jahanara. “Jahangir was a great man, always kinder to me than I deserved.”
Marveling at the woman’s control over her body, Jahanara ordered refreshments for them both.
She looked back at Nur and found the older woman regarding her with a steady gaze.
Wishing for more time, Jahanara stalled: “A new perfume, Aunt?”
A nod of the head. “Yes, I have been working on it for some time. Do you like it?”
“I shall see some delivered to you, then.”
A silence stretched. Refreshments arrived, were served.
Jahanara let the silence linger, armoring herself in it.
“I have something I wish to tell you, Janni.”
“Must I ask?”
A throaty chuckle. “No, of course not. It is a tale. A tale from my first year with your grandfather. A tale of the hunt, in fact.”
Jahanara gestured for the older woman to proceed.
“I had only been married to Jahangir for a brief while when he invited me to join him on a tiger hunt. I leapt at the chance to join him in the howdah, and had the mahouts paint his favorite elephant for the occasion. A great party of us set out, camping of a night and slowly moving through the areas where your grandfather’s armies were concentrating the game for his pleasure.
“But, as you may know, your grandfather Jahangir enjoyed smoking opium far more than was good for him, and he dozed through much of the hunt, the swaying of the howdah” — she gave a throaty chuckle — “and perhaps the swaying of my hips, lulling him to sleep.”
Jahanara, used to Nur’s earthy storytelling, still blushed. To think of sexual congress in the hot confines of a howdah of all places, jali or no!
Nur pretended not to notice. “It was during one of his naps that there was some consternation ahead of us. I put on my veils and opened the curtains of the howdah. Several slaves were running from a wadi some tens of gaz away. It was then that I saw the reason for their flight: a pair of tigers flashing through the undergrowth after them.”
Jahanara noticed the older woman’s gaze grown distant, breath quickening, and felt her own pulse rising.
“They were magnificent. Terrible. Bloodlust made manifest. One man had his head nearly removed with one rake of claws. Others fell, were torn open. Blood was everywhere.” Her nostrils flared, remembering.
A tiny smile. “The screams of his slaves at last woke Jahangir from his stupor. He moved to join me, took my hand in his.
“Protect your servants,” I told him.
He looked at me. Too late, I could tell my command had made him most angry.
After a moment he pressed his great bow into my hands. “One with this. Then one with the gun, if you succeed.”
“What?” I asked, incredulous.
“Protect them if you wish them protected, wife.”
“I do not think he knew then, that my brother had taught me the bow in our youth. I think he thought to test me, hoping I would fail. He sought to put me in my place as his twentieth wife, however favored…” Nur Jahan let her words trail off into brief silence.
Jahanara found herself leaning forward, eager to hear more.
Slowly, conscious of the other woman’s skill at courtly intrigues and careful of some trap, she sat back.
Nur resumed her tale: “I resolved to show him I was no wilting flower.” The older woman sat straighter even as she said the words. “While we had spoken another pair of slaves had perished, and the tigers had pursued them much closer to our elephant. Hands shaking, I drew the bow, loosed. That first arrow missed. I did not miss with the second, though it was not enough to kill the beast. Enraged, it leapt into the air and spun in a circle. I loosed again. A lucky shot, it took the cat in the throat, stilling its roar.”