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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, January 20, 2017 07:55 EST



Red Fort, The Gardens
May, 1634

    The siblings had barely greeted one another when the honeybee flew between them to land on the orchid. It crawl into the purple folds of the flower, seeking the nectar within and drawing the prince and princess to watch in appreciative silence. Long moments passed, the heavy bloom trembling. Eventually the honeybee took flight from the flower, releasing the siblings from stillness much as it scattered the flower’s golden pollen.

    As the interloping insect disappeared deeper into the gardens, wingbeats joining the hum of the others of its hive, Dara Shikoh and Jahanara leaned back and regarded one another, much as they had many times before and, God willing, would have opportunity to do for many years to come.

    Putting away her desire to immediately transcribe the beauty of the bee’s flight into poetry, Jahanara waited for her brother to speak. She noted his smooth brow was furrowed under the gorgeous yellow turban. She had not seen him so troubled since Aurangzeb’s poem had embarrassed him before all the court. Jahanara suppresses a shudder, recalling the events immortalized therein: the great war elephant, mad with rage and entirely out of control, trampling slaves and scattering the Imperial household. Her younger brother Aurangzeb, still only fifteen years old, calmly sitting his horse while everyone fled. The way clear, Aurangzeb charged the great bull elephant and struck it between the eyes, stinging it so badly it ceased its rampage.

    The later poem that shamed those that fled brought mother’s sage advice to mind: “Men, they will always feel the bite of words stronger than steel. Steel kills, but one must live on with the words of others. Remember this, and keep your words like sharp steel, with caution and care.”

    Keeping that advice uppermost in her mind, Jahanara folded hands in her lap, waiting. It was not often that their father’s eldest son came to visit, but when he did, it was nearly always to ask the same questions.

    “And what of Father, sister mine?”

    She smiled inwardly, not wanting to show how easily she had read him and therefore hurt his feelings. “He still pines for our beloved mother, of course. The only thing he looks forward to is the daily meeting with his advisors regarding Mother’s tomb.”

    “His remaining wives?” Dara asked.

    She smiled openly. She had been composing a verse this morning, a playful little thing, and used part of it now: “The harem persists in its perennial practices: showing their love of Father and whining at his inattention.”

    Dara nodded absently but didn’t return her smile.

    It was rare that he missed an opportunity to show his appreciation for her work. Resisting the urge to show her displeasure, she asked, “What troubles you, brother?”

    “I wonder what it will take to shake Father from his grief.”

    She strangled a sigh. “Must he be shaken?”

    “Our family does not sit idle while one man mourns, sister.”

    “No, but neither are they gathering armies to usurp Father’s place.”

    “Not that we know of, at least.”

    “Our friend Mian Mir, in his wisdom, would have you set aside your fear, brother.”

    Dara sniffed. “I know. I would argue: it is no sin to fear for one’s family.”

    “If you only feared for your family, rather than fearing certain members of it.”

    Another sniff, this one companion to a bitter twist of the lips. “It has always been thus for the sons of our house.”

    Thinking on the unfairness of that remark, Jahanara refused to let him see how much his self-pity annoyed her. “But our father would have it otherwise, for you.”

    Looking through the walls of the garden, Dara whispered, voice so low it nearly drowned in the buzz of industrious insects about them: “Some days, I fear he might have chosen the wrong son…”



Red Fort, The Harem

    Things were quite quiet in the harem, as they had been each evening since Mother had passed… Father had eaten his fill, and was in that state between sleep and wakefulness that a full belly and few puffs of the pipe always brought him to.

    Shah Jahan had released the outer circle of the harem to find their own entertainments. The only remaining residents were Namrah and Netri, Shah Jahan’s body-slaves, and they could be relied on to keep confidences.

    The time appeared right, just as Ratna had predicted. The harem astrologer had made no less than six readings before recommending this night to Jahanara.

    Realizing she was thinking of other things instead of facing her fear, Jahanara spoke. “Father?”

    “Yes, daughter?”

    “I would ask a favor, Father.”

    “Oh?” he asked.

    Jahanara swallowed sudden fear and rushed on. “I would ask that you allow me to oversee the finances of the harem.”

    Shah Jahan roused, propping himself up to look across at her in the lamplight. “Why?”

    She looked down. “In all honesty, I find little to challenge me.”

    The emperor smiled. “You have exhausted poetry, then?”

    Uncomfortable, she shrugged. “I will not marry, so what use the endless talk of love the poets engage in?”

    “Daughter, look at me,” he said.

    She did as he bid.

    He was smiling, dark eyes sad. “You are the jewel of the world, this court, and my heart. When you pine for marriage and love, remember that it was the perils of the birthing-bed that took your mother from us. I thank God that you shall not face such danger. I do not think I could bear to have you taken to Paradise before me.”

    Jahanara felt tears rising even as she bowed.

    “Still, you did not come to me asking after a marriage, but control of the harem funds. The eunuch appointed the position of Khan-i-Saman has served us for some time.”

    She surreptitiously wiped away tears, nodded.

    Father was looking at her again. “Why this sudden desire for control over your finances?”

    “Not so sudden, really.” She left unsaid the reason why she had delayed in telling him — neither of them had any desire to speak more of Mother’s loss. “I suppose you can put it down to boredom alone, but I also believe I will do a better job of it than Diwan Garyan.”

    “Has the Khan-i-Saman somehow failed in his duty?”

    Jahanara paused a moment. She did not hesitate for the sake of Diwan Garyan, but for her own plans — much relied on her father reacting just calmly enough to her news. “I have read the reports myself, and it appears he has failed to protect mother’s investments.”

    A gross understatement, but I don’t want father executing —

    As if reading her fears, Shah Jahan said, “I shall have him executed.”

    “Father, please do not. At least, not yet.”


    “If you decide to leave these financial matters to me, I will need him as an example when I move to establish my authority over the harem.”

    “If I say you have the authority, then you shall have it.”

    She shook her head. “It is not the same thing, Father: if I am the one seen to discover his failures and find reason to ask you for permission to execute him, then those who serve in the harem will know who it is they must obey, and act promptly in response to my direction.”

    Father was silent for some time. So long, in fact, that Jahanara worried he’d fallen asleep. When he spoke, his voice was so clotted with emotion she flinched. “I doubt you realize how much your counsel sounds like that of your mother.”

    “You are too kind, Father.”

    The Seizer of the World cleared his throat. “No, it is true. Your mother was always wise to the ways of the harem, and always gave good counsel regarding management of it. Tell me, who do you recommend as the face of the harem in its financial affairs?”

    “I had thought to recognize Firoz Khan.”


    “The eunuch you placed in charge of collecting the rents from the jagir you gave me last year, Father. It is due to his diligence that I discovered the…errors of Garyan.”

    “And as one away from our court, he has less chance of being under the sway of some other woman of the harem, and certainly will not be Diwan Garyan’s creature.&##8221;



    She smiled. “No.”

    “Still. Is he not still in Surat?”

    “No, Father. I asked him to return here in order to explain to us the discrepancies I noted in my incomes.”

    “Well then, it seems you have given this much thought. I grant you permission to manage the affairs of the harem. Let me know when you wish me to announce it publicly.”

    She took his hand. “Thank you, Father.”



Red Fort, The Harem

    “What is she doing here?” Roshanara asked her younger brother as they watched the massive procession of their kinswoman entering the Lahore Gate. A contingent of sowar led the procession, helmets shining in the sun.

    Aurangzeb tossed his head. “Nur Jahan asked to be here for the celebration of Father’s weighing, and he did not refuse her.”

    “But she –”

    “Is a respected member of the family, and Father wishes us to make her welcome.”

    She frowned, spoke the words she believed he wanted to hear: “She has too much to do with the Hindus.”

    Aurangzeb looked at her, keeping any expression from his face. “The same could be said of our grandfathers.”

    Roshanara ignored — or missed — his tone. “She should have remained in Lahore, maintaining grandfather’s tomb like a proper widow.”

    “You prefer her in Lahore, hatching plots with Mian Mir?”

    She looked at him, eyes wide. “They conspire together?”

    He grinned, shrugged young swordsman’s shoulders. “No, Mian Mir is far too peace-loving to join causes with a tigress like Nur Jahan, not since she refused to heed Mian Mir’s counsel during Father’s rebellion.”

    “But you do not deny he plots.”

    “No, I do not.” He pointed over the railing at the gilded howdah strapped to a massive bull elephant. “But there sits the true blade. She is not some old sufi waiting to die in Lahore. She is here for some purpose.”


    He pulled his katar from his sash and held the double-edged punch dagger up between them. “It cuts both ways, this blade, just like our great-aunt.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    Aurangzeb returned the dagger to its sheath. “Perhaps you should pray for guidance, then.”

    Roshanara stared at him a long moment, reaching for the meaning behind his words. He saw no light of understanding in her eyes as she turned away. “I will.”

    Aurangzeb concealed his satisfaction: It would not do to have her — or any of the family — be aware that Nur Jahan was here at his request.



    Jahanara watched as Diwan Garyan made his approach to the open-fronted tent she’d caused to be erected in the garden. He was flabby, as many eunuchs were wont to get after reaching a certain age. Heavy perfume wafted to her on the breeze, announcing his proximity, if not his good taste in scents.

    She felt the sheer mass of his presence as he bowed before her, and drew comfort in the presence of her guardians. Even if she decided to spare his life, Garyan would be ruined, and possibly seek to avenge himself upon her. While not as given to violence as full men, the eunuch’s size made her glad of the presence of her warrior women guardians, chief among them Atisheh.

    She glanced at the auburn-haired Turki, who nodded almost imperceptibly. If it came to that, her guardian would happily spill the fat eunuch’s guts in the garden. Atisheh bore Garyan no love.

    “Speak, Diwan Garyan.”

    “Begum Sahib, trade has been excellent this year.” Garyan said, waving a hand glittering with jeweled rings toward the records a slave held in her arms.

    Having read the actual reports and planned for this moment for several months, Jahanara knew she could not trust a word the eunuch said. The trading concerns she had inherited from her mother had barely turned a profit this last year, despite having little to no competition. To add insult to her intelligence, the meager returns she’d gained were moved off the books, none too subtly, and into Garyan’s personal treasury.

    She would not let it continue: “How so?”

    A look of surprise crossed Garyan’s fleshy face. As the harem’s long-established Khan-i-Saman, the Manager of the Household, he had gained far too much power during Father’s long foray into grief. He had secured the position of the diwan responsible for her financial matters as well, and because Jahanara had taken so long to work up the courage to ask Father for leave to take responsibility for her and the harem’s finances, Garyan had no experience of being questioned on matters of finance and trade.

    “Do not look at me so, simply answer.”

    “We have made profitable trade in indigo, Begum Sahib,” Garyan waved to the reports, his hand glittering with jewels, “but trade in betel has been off this last season.”

    “The profits from which are intended to cover the costs of underwriting Hajj passage for those less fortunate than us.”

    Garyan nodded, his usual control over his expression reasserting itself. “Such are the vagaries of trade, Begum Sahib.”

    Jahanara knew his words for a lie. Incomes from her jagir of Surat had been up this last year. Father had given her the tax incomes from the port, through which the majority of the Empire’s sea-born trade passed. And the tax on betel had shown the strongest return. This, when the reports Garyan prepared regarding her own personal betel farms all pled poor harvest and poorer prices.

    “I am not pleased, Garyan.”

    “I humbly beg your forgiveness, but Mumtaz Mahal was content to –”

    “My mother?” she snapped. #8220;Do not think to bring even her name into this! Did you think I would not learn how you deceived her?”

    Jahanara saw dawning fear in Garyan’s eyes. “I — I –” he stammered.

    She continued, the words an angry torrent, “Did you think to succeed? That I would not learn how you embezzled funds meant for her support, for my projects? Funds given us by our Father, Shah Jahan, for our maintenance and pleasure?”

    “But –”

    Jahanara’s henna-marked hand gestured at his expensive robes and ostentatious rings. “You must think me a fool, to come before me wearing wealth you have stolen from us! I will not have it. I will not.”

    “But, Begum Sahib, your father –”

    “Has given me the right to dispose of you as I see fit.”

    Garyan at last realized how far he had fallen, and threw himself flat on the ground before her.

    “Rise!” Jahanara hissed. “I have not given you leave to grovel.”

    When he refused the order, Atisheh advanced and stood over the prostrate eunuch. The warrior woman slapped the eunuch’s turban from his head and drew a wickedly sharp dagger from her hip. She grabbed the erstwhile diwan by his hair, pulling him upright with a grunt of effort.

    Stifling a cry, the eunuch continued his verbal retreat: “I beg your pardon, Begum Sahib, I am but a humble servant, tasked with great things. Tasks far above my abilities. If I have failed, it was –”

    “Stop. Your lies no more excuse your malfeasance than your groveling.”

    Garyan spluttered to a stop, encouraged by Atisheh, who placed her blade along his throat.

    Jahanara leaned forward, looking him in the eye. “You are removed from your posts and titles, Garyan. All jagirs awarded you are returned to the emperor. All authority lent to you is likewise returned. All wealth that you possess is forfeit. You are nothing and no-one.”

    “What is to happen to me?” Garyan cried, tears flowing.

    “That is for Father to decide, and the emperor is most unhappy with you.”

    Garyan wailed.

    Jahanara waved to Atisheh, who, with the assistance of another of her tribe, dragged Garyan bodily from the garden. Atisheh would see to it he was dragged through the harem and into the custody of the eunuch guards at the gate to the harem.

    Now, Jahanara thought as Garyan’s cries faded, everyone will know who they will answer to should they choose to go against my wishes.

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