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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 22:29 EST
Bay of Moçambique
“Gently, lads,” Loke hissed as the crew lowered the skiff into the gentle swells.
“You sure about this, Bertram?” John asked as Bertram straddled the rail.
The down-timer looked over the side at the skiff, then back at the distant torches along the walls of Portuguese fort on the north end of the island. “No, not at all. But then again, we need information before we let the monsoon carry us across.”
“Got your light?”
Bertram nodded, nervously touching the small but powerful flashlight concealed in his clothing. “Just make sure you are here to see my signal.”
“Will do. You sure you don’t want one of the boys with you as security?”
“Not unless they learned Arabic? Or can suddenly pass as Swahili?”
Strand stepped up to the rail. “We need to get sailing if we’re not to be seen.”
“Right.” Bertram climbed the rail and down the ropes into boat. He had some limited experience of sailing small boats, but never in the dark of night, in strange waters, in any kind of swell.
Much about this could go so terribly wrong. But despite his misgivings, he set sail and course for the island.
Isla da Moçambique
The beach was a strand of pale white with a blue-green phosphorescence surging along it. Dark lozenges — silhouettes of either fishing boats or longboats drawn up on the sand — marred the strand only occasionally, flaws that framed the beauty rather than detracting from it.
Bertram put his back to that beauty and started rowing as hard as he could. Between his efforts and the better strength of the lightest of onshore breezes in his sail, he rode the gentle surf until the keel of the skiff gouging sand brought the boat to a halt.
It was supposed to be high tide, so the boat shouldn’t float off, but Bertram jumped overboard to make sure. The water was cool around his ankles, the night air cooler still as he applied every ounce of his strength to rag the boat a little father out of the water. He managed to move it barely a handspan before giving it up.
At the far end of the Isle squatted the massive, torch-lit bulk of Fort Saint Sebastian. An excellent example of the last century’s Trace Italienne design, the fort had already resisted two serious attempts by the Dutch to take it.
Between his position and the fort were a number of flat-topped stone houses owned by the prosperous Portuguese merchants, mercenaries, and sailors residing on the isle.
While he had a serviceable story ready, Bertram really didn’t wish to call any attention to his presence if it could be helped. To the Portuguese he’d be just one more Arab, and the Swahili would be more likely to answer polite inquiries than either the Arabs or the Portuguese. To that end he’d chosen to land at the predominantly Swahili and Arab end of the Isle because he hoped to attract less notice come the morning.
As no one seemed to have noticed his arrival, and assuming that he would not be welcome so late at night, Bertram climbed back into the boat.
Wrapping himself in a blanket, he slowly drifted into a fitful doze.
Swahili Town, Isla da Moçambique
Bertram jerked awake to find a large man standing next to his boat, looming over him in the pre-dawn gloaming.
Entirely lacking Swahili, Bertram dusted off his Arabic. “Asif, sadiqi?”
A white smile creased the man’s face. Using an Arabic dialect Bertram understood with a minimum of concentration, the man said, “Best get off the beach, the Portuguese have been bitten by sand fleas again.”
“I do not understand?” Bertram said, collecting his bag and throwing it over his shoulder.
“They are angry.”
“Yusuf, again.” A shrug accompanied the bald statement that implied he explained all.
“Sorry, friend?” Bertram repeated. Stepping out of the boat, he found himself dwarfed by the local.
They stood a moment as the light gathered, each assessing the other.
“I am Ali,” Bertram said.
“And I am Zuberi,” the local answered, gesturing toward the round houses of the Swahili village just coming awake with the dawn.
Bertram retrieved the rest of his baggage from the boat while the local explained: “Yusuf was made Christian and then sultan by the Portuguese. Now he fights them after returning to Islam. That is why there are no Portuguese ships in harbor: the Captain-Major seeks Yusuf with those ships at his disposal. With them gone, those soldiers left in the fort and the people of Stone Town look with suspicion on everyone not Portuguese, making the life of a trader difficult.”
“Why am I so blessed to have met a man of such wisdom upon my arrival?”
Another flashing smile and nod toward the fort. “Only wise enough avoid the notice of tax men and soldiers. Speaking of wisdom, or a lack thereof, how did you come to be here, alone, in such a small boat?”
“Calamities, Zuberi. Calamities.”
Among the round houses now, Zuberi stopped and turned to Bertram. “I suggest you have a more specific answer ready if confronted by one of the foreign churchmen or Portuguese.”
“I have many reasonable lies prepared. I did not wish to employ them with you, Zuberi.”
The smile returned. “I appreciate not being lied to. Why are you here?”
“I seek an old acquaintance among the Portuguese.”
“Oh? May I know his name?”
“Laurenço De Melo.”
Zuberi nodded. “I can show you to his home.”
Bertram could not hide his relief. There had been no way of knowing if any of the list of contacts Nasi had furnished would still be alive when he got here, let alone the very first name on it, at the very first port of call. “It is good to know he lives.”
“Sorry. You misunderstood: I can take you to the De Melo family. His son, Joao De Melo lives there now, carrying on his father’s trade.”
Hopes dimmed but not undone, Bertram made a few mental adjustments and said, “My question remains: the younger De Melo does not fear or suspect foreigners?”
Zuberi waved a hand. “Only when the priests or soldiers are about.”
Bertram nodded. Some assumptions were safer than others, it seemed.
“Do you wish to go to the house now?”
“If you think it safe to do so?”
“Perhaps some food and drink first. Then we can discuss what tiny concessions you might give in exchange for my assistance. Then I will take you to the De Melo residence.”
Bertram grinned. “Zuberi, I believe you and I shall get along quite well.”
Stone Town, Isla da Moçambique
The door closed behind the last of Joao De Melo’s servants, leaving Bertram and Joao alone for the first time that evening.
The master of the house picked up one of the silver cups and the sweating silver pitcher they’d left behind and said, in Spanish, “Drink?”
“Please,” Bertram answered in the same tongue, carefully observing his host from one of the high-backed chairs around the small, heavy table dominating the room.
Joao was in his early twenties, about Bertram’s height, thin under the fine robe, and dark. Clever hands poured for them both. He handed Bertram his drink and sat across from his guest.
“Nasi sends his regards,” Bertram said, placing his other hand on the table. “And his hopes that this,” he pushed a small, unmarked gold bar across the table, “will help your interests prosper despite any inconvenience my presence may cause.”
As De Melo did not seem moved by the appearance of the small fortune, Bertram tried another approach: “I was saddened to hear of the passing of your father. By all accounts he was a good man.”
“He was. For his part, he told me of Don Nasi, who kept so many of our people safe. He had high hopes when he learned Nasi and Abravanel were now in the employ of that town from the future ”
“Yes, Grantville.” Joao drank from his cup again, casting a level look at Bertram before glancing away. After a moment he set his cup down and continued, “Well despite my father’s hopes for the future, I do not wish to join him any time soon.”
“If anyone who wishes to ingratiate themselves with the Captain or the church should learn of your presence here, there will be questions. Questions I will have difficulty answering. Questions of the type that often lead to a burning of New Christians.”
“The Inquisition is here?” Bertram asked, unable to keep alarm from raising his voice.
Joao nodded emphatically. “In numbers.”
“We knew they were in Goa, but not –”
“At first they were only in Goa. They have spread out to the various Captaincies in the last year.”
“I understand. I will make my stay as brief as possible.”
“You are not here hoping I will get you passage on one of His Majesty’s ships, then?”
“I am not.” Bertram waved a hand. “I simply seek current information on the situation in the Estado in general and Mughal India in particular.”
Joao relaxed, marginally. “Seems a great risk merely for information.”
“We were not aware the Inquisition was active here. Such dangerous ignorance validates my reasons for coming to you, I should think.”
“I see your point.” Joao drank, refilled his glass, drank again.
Bertram waited for his host to continue, sipping from his own cup.
“The Jesuits generally presented no great threat to us in themselves, but the other orders followed, and with them, the Inquisition. The seat of every Captaincy has had at least a visit, and Goa is uncomfortably thick with servants of the Quaestors. New Christians are wise to be circumspect and avoid notice in these times.”
“What about the Viceroy? Our information indicated Linhares was not inclined to support the Inquisition.”
“He is not. He counts several New Christians as friends, and has openly supported them. But, even his influence can only protect so many, especially when each ship from Lisbon brings more churchmen than soldiers. Indeed, if rumor is to be believed, he is in conflict with some Jesuits over one of the Estado’s client-kingdoms on the west coast of India.”
Joao nodded and drank.
“The Jesuits are fighting the Estado?” Bertram asked, incredulous.
“Using a faction in the Estado’s client kingdom as their proxy, yes.”
Bertram shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“But not a bad thing, as Linhares has sent a small fleet south of Goa to bring the client kingdom to heel, meaning less ships to interfere with your journey.”
Which led Bertram to ask, “What about the Mughals?”
“I have little specific information on the court. Shah Jahan isn’t quite as liberal as Jahangir, but still better than the average European king when it comes to those who don’t share his religion.R#8221;
“Yes. He only tore down a few temples, and those at the beginning of his reign.”
“Anything in particular they are in need of? Trade goods?”
Joao laughed. “Shah Jahan and his senior courtiers can buy kings and their kingdoms — regardless of price — and laugh at the expense.”
“I take that as a no, then?”
“You may take it as you like, I am just being realistic: Unless you have some miracle from the future to sell, I doubt you will ever be allowed to join the court.”
“Are there other opportunities for trade?” Bertram asked, finishing his drink.
“You mean smuggling?” Joao asked, pouring another for his guest.
Bertram shrugged. “Or other ports, other kingdoms ”
“No other Empire or kingdom is such a nexus of trade, and no other port is as free of European dominance as Surat.”
“What of the English?”
“They have a factory in Surat, but never regained the influence they enjoyed under Jahangir, and that before the plague and famine of the last few years. Now they don’t have many men at all, and relatively few ships.”
“The most successful are Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. Both are careful not to pirate Mughal trade unless the prize just can’#8217;t be passed up, however.”
“A fair number, but they generally steer clear of western ships unless they are certain of both victory and a port in which to sell their loot, both of which are at relative short supply at the moment.”
Bertram filled his host’s cup, wishing he could take notes ”You have my thanks, Joao. Truly.”
“Oh, this –” Joao set his cup down on the gold bar, “goes a long way to settling accounts. And to make us entirely even, you will tell me of Grantville and this USE I have heard so much of. Is it true the people there are free to worship as they please?”
“It is. What’s more, the law applies to everyone, not just those who can purchase justice,” Bertram said, settling in to answer the man’s questions. Grantville provoked interest in all who heard of it, a useful thing when recruiting agents.
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