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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Six
Last updated: Monday, January 30, 2017 19:34 EST
The steady rain pounding the decks did nothing to cool the heated discussion the captain of the Graça de São João was having with one of Surat’s many tax farmers as Salim climbed on deck.
Thankfully, neither man paid him any attention. A man with just a few parcels was not worthy of attention from grasping tax officials and he’d long since paid his passage to the captain.
Salim sent a wave the first mate’s way and walked from the ship.
Despite the rain, the docks were active, slaves and their overseers managing the loading and unloading of several vessels. All but the Graça de São João were from ports on the Indian Ocean, most here to trade in horses, indigo, spices, saltpeter, and slaves. One ship, Mughal-built, was returning from Hajj, pilgrims forming a knot of the faithful as they navigated the waterfront.
Happy to be ashore, Salim took a deep breath. Even through the rain, the scent of spices from East Africa and Southern India warred with the odors of river, tar and tide. While not from Gujurat, it was still a homecoming of sorts. He had done much in Gujurat in the first years he’d come down from the Khyber. It was a walk of a few minutes to the English factory complex.
Wishing to avoid any entanglements with people who might not remember him fondly, Salim found a sheltered spot to observe the gate. It was nearly sunset when he saw the man he’d been waiting for.
“Dhanji Das!” he called, angling to intercept the painfully thin men bearing Dhanji’s litter.
A flick of the fly-whisk he held indicated Dhanji had heard him, but the heavyset man did not order his bearers to stop, probably thinking Salim some kind of petitioner.
Which I suppose I am, all things considered.
He easily overtook the party, spoke from beside the lead bearer, “Dhanji Das, I am Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz.”
“Salim, friend to your brother, Jadu, in Ahmedabad. He introduced us four years ago –”
Dhanji spoke over him, waving the whisk at an invisible fly. “I’m afraid I don’t know –”
“– after I saved him from slavery or death,” Salim finished. The Das family business took advantage of the Englishmen’s disdain for learning the local languages: one cousin would range ahead of an English Company trader — whose translator was invariably another cousin — and buy up all the indigo or textiles for sale in a given market, then make a tidy profit selling it at a mark-up to the English. It was on one such trip that bandits had come across Jadu Das with a hundred fardles of indigo he planned to sell to the English. They’d come across him, beat him senseless, and staked him out to die.
At the time, Salim had been with a band hired by the governor of Gujurat to put a stop to the depredations of that very group of bandits. Setting upon them at night, the governor’s men had killed the bandits to a man.
After the skirmish, most of the governor’s men had thought to take Jadu’s goods for themselves and leave him staked where he was. Salim had forbidden it. A blood-drenched argument had ensued.
Jadu knew what was owed. It remained to be seen whether Dhanji did.
“Oh, that Salim!” Dhanji said, rapping ringed fingers against the litter frame to bring his bearers to a stop. “We thought you dead on foreign shores!”
You hoped it was so, that you might be free of obligation. Stifling the urge to say the words out loud, Salim said, “And yet here I stand.”
A smile. “Yes, yes indeed.”
“God is merciful.”
Hindu, Dhanji’s response was a graceful nod. A silence settled.
Irritated that he had to remind Das exactly how much was owed, Salim tried again: “I trust trade with the English proceeds without difficulty?”
A twist of fleshy lips. “It does, but let us not talk of such things here: please, come to my home. I will feed your belly while you fill my head with news of distant goings-on.”
Salim checked the angle of the sun, just peeking from beneath the clouds. Sometime remained before Maghrib. “How can I refuse such generosity? It will be my pleasure.”
They spoke of inconsequential things on the way to Dhanji’s home. A large building, white-washed and thick-walled to keep the heat at bay, Salim complemented his host on it.
A smile shone through the Gurjurati’s beard as he invited Salim to join him for fruit and refreshment.
“I thank you. I must pray first, however.”
Dhanji provided him water to cleanse himself and privacy for the performance of Maghrib.
Refreshed, Salim rejoined his host.
“What news of the court, Dhanji Das?” Salim asked, plucking a date from the platter and biting into it.
“Word is slow to reach us here in Surat, but the emperor remains at Agra.”
Dhanji nodded. “Jadu tells me the emperor personally oversees the building of Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb. It is an astounding project.”
“For an astounding love,” Salim said, thinking of the “postcard” in his pack. He shook his head, “Jadu is in Agra, then?”
“Yes, he assists the English factors there.”
“Good news, then. Surely he prospers.”
Dhanji smiled and thumped his belly. “He grows fat, like me.”
“I wonder, have you heard any word of Mian Mir?”
“In fact, I have: Mian Mir fell ill shortly after you departed for that strange place — what was it called?”
“Grantville. An odd name ” Dhanji said, clearly hopeful of some intelligence that might earn out.
“Yes, it is. You were speaking of Mian Mir?”
“Sorry, yes. He fell ill, and while he is better now, he has yet to recover his full strength.”
“Is he still at Lahore?”
“Yes. There is much doubt he will leave his residence again before he passes from this world.”
“You seem concerned.”
Dhanji shrugged, “Guru Mian Mir is a friend to all good men, regardless of faith. Few are the Hindus who do not know who it is who has stayed the hand of the conservatives at court,” Dhanji said.
Salim nodded, relieved. Mian Mir’s agenda of religious tolerance was not always appreciated, even among Hindus, many of whom still saw Islam as the religion of the invader. Encouraged enough to bring the subject back to his purpose, Salim asked, “And your brother, did he tell you anything regarding me?”
“He instructed me to render you any assistance you might need, whenever you might ask for it.”
Salim nodded. “I do not need much: money for a mount and enough supplies to get to Agra.”
“I have sufficient funds set aside for your needs.”
“I will thank him upon my arrival in Agra and tell him how faithful his brother is to the promises he has made. Further, I will be sure to repay what is given.”
“Repayment is not necessary,” Dhanji grinned, “and be careful how much you offer a man before learning how things stand: horses cost very dear this season. We have had much of famine and disease since you were sent to accompany Baram Khan. Trade continues, but food and fodder are scarce.”
“The city did seem quiet.”
“The pestilence took a great many people, especially those weakened by hunger, of which there were far too many. Many of the Europeans died, unprepared for the sickness here. Nearly all of the English, in fact.”
“Of the twenty-one who were here when you left, four remain among the living.”
Salim shook his head in shocked sympathy. “Such mortality?”
“Indeed! And yet, every month sees more English, Dutch, and Portuguese arrive on our shores, each certain they will make their fortune.”
“And do they?”
“While the court remains fascinated with their baubles, the Europeans make excellent profit.”
“The bribes they offer are hardly worthy of the name, but it seems the residents of the emperor’s harem are endlessly fascinated with seeing themselves in mirrors.”
Salim snorted. “With the great beauties it is said that Shah Jahan surrounds himself with, I understand the appeal of such entertainments.” He thought a moment, asked for confirmation: “Which of the Europeans are prospering most?”
“The English and Dutch do best, though the Portuguese are recently returned to the good graces of the Court.”
God is Good! That is good news! I doubted anyone at court would even see me after being associated with Baram Khan’s stink. Aloud, he asked, “How did they manage that?”
Shah Jahan had, as one of his first acts after ascending the throne, ordered the Portuguese punished for failing to render him aid during his earlier rebellion.
“It seems even Shah Jahan’s anger has an end.” Dhanji shrugged. “I do not know what was agreed to, or how, but everyone knows the Jesuits were involved.”
“Interesting ” Salim said, running fingers through his beard.
“I doubt my news is as interesting as the adventures you’ve had, and the tales you might tell,” Dhanji prompted.
Salim grinned. “I am a horrible guest, to ask so many questions without offering news, as you invited me here to do. I suppose it is best to start at the beginning ”
Route from Surat to Agra
The stream, swollen with monsoon rain, presented less of a challenge than climbing the far bank, an unstable slope of dark, wet earth. Salim stood in the stirrups as his recently-purchased and exceedingly expensive Arab warmblood slipped sideways half-way up the bank.
Something pointed made a dangerous whistling as it hummed through the space he’d just left, cutting off all thought of cursing his as-yet-unnamed horse.
Salim heard the snap of more bowstrings as he heeled his mount up the bank. Powerful hindquarters bunched, released, sending mount and rider surging over the lip of the ravine and out of the path of the arrows.
Two men rushed from the tree line with spears, another emerging from the wood behind, urging them to the attack.
His horse’s scrambling leap had landed them perpendicular to the charging men. He added their position to the tally of the many things he would have to thank the Almighty for when next he had opportunity to face Mecca.
For now, though, the sword. It hissed from sheath and to hand.
His horse, shying from the shouting men, curvetted. Samir leaned sideways, using the mount’s momentum to bring his curved Persian steel sweeping across in a cut that connected with one of the spear-shafts. The crude iron head flew free and over Salim’s shoulder, surprising Salim almost as much as the wielder, who stood staring at the cloven wood stump just above his hand. From the youth’s open-mouthed expression, he was clearly imagining what might have been had the sword struck below where he held it.
The other spear-bearer bored in and stabbed. The blade swept past Salim’s nose by a hand’s breadth.
While the first man stared at his severed spear, Salim’s still-spinning horse clipped his companion with a hoof, folding him with a grunt that ended in a roll down the riverbank.
Mindful of the target he now presented to the archers on the opposite bank, Salim spurred the Arab into flight. He angled away from the track and any additional brigands who might be lying in wait.
He heard the horseman pound into pursuit behind him.
An arrow flew past from the far shore, then another. A third traced a hot red line across his forearm, making him drop the reins. Thanks be to the Almighty, the horse had drawn his own conclusions about where safety lay and ran flat out through the narrow opening among the trees.
Out of sight of the archers, Salim spared a glance for his wound. It would keep. Leaning low over the horse’s neck, he retrieved the dropped rein and glanced behind.
On an inferior mount, the horseman had fallen behind in Salim’s short gallop to cover. Now, however, the tight confines of the trail favored the shorter horse and the rider with more intimate knowledge of the land.
At least the other wouldn’t be able to ride up alongside to strike.
There being nothing for it but to ride, Salim did just that. Long moments passed, the blowing of his horse and the pounding of hoofbeats beneath and behind his only company.
With a suddenness that hurt the eyes, the pursuit exploded from the wood and into bright sunlight. He felt his mount lengthen stride and gain speed, hoping it could see better than he could. Knowing he was gaining distance, Salim kept his face in the mane, hoping to present as small a target as possible in case his pursuer had a horse-bow.
Eyes adjusted, he looked back and saw the other rider was letting his horse slow, giving up the pursuit in a storm of curses.
Good. For a moment he’d worried that — despite all the measures he’d taken to avoid it — that someone knew of his return and sought to kill him before what he carried could be explained.
Salim let his mount slow to a walk once he was certain the chase was ended. Remaining in the saddle, he spent some time dressing his wound and eating some of the food he’d purchased at the last caravanserai.
Many kos remained between him and his destination. Checking the straps of his saddlebags, Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz rode on, contemplating suitable names for the horse.
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