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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Ten
Last updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 21:03 EST
Agra, Red Fort
“Shehzada Aurangzeb, a moment of your time, if you please?” The mullah asked, approaching the young prince as he strode along the gallery leading to the stables.
Aurangzeb stopped but motioned for his retinue to continue without him. “Of course, Mullah Mohan.”
As a relatively young man, Mullah Mohan had been given responsibility for Aurangzeb and Roshanara’s education. And since leaving the harem for adulthood, Aurangzeb found the imam’s strict orthodoxy aligned well with his own designs for the future. Especially as that orthodoxy carried with it a core of believers who could very well prove the deciding factor when he and his brothers began the inevitable contest for the throne.
“Peace be upon you, Shehzada,” the mullah said with a nod.
“And upon you, peace.” Aurangzeb noted he was, at fifteen, already taller than Mohan.
“Forgive my lack of manners, but there is a matter I want to broach with your father but I am told the Sultan Al’Azam is not available.”
“That is true. He is overseeing the construction efforts.”
“I see. Perhaps, as one of his councilors, you might be able to advise me ”
“This is most unlike you, Mohan. I must say I am disappointed. Never before have you come to me in an attempt to gain access to my father.”
“Again, I ask forgiveness for my lack of manners. The matter is very important.”
“Perhaps I can hear it, and better judge what is to be done?”
Was that a look of satisfaction? Aurangzeb wondered, watching the other man as he made his reply: “There is a man who is here, now, in Red Fort, one who has turned his back upon God’s holy message and made mockery of our faith by engaging in worship before false idols.”
“Surely the determination of such is the purview of the learned religious courts?” Those were entirely under Mullah Mohan’s thumb.
A sharp nod. “Normally, yes. However, this man, he is favored by certain parties at court and, having been absent the court for years, the case against him has languished because of a lack of complaining witnesses.”
“What is it you would have of me?”
Mullah Mohan edged closer and said, voice tight with emotion, “A death, Shehzada.”
“I would see a sinner dead.”
“Who is this man?”
“Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz.”
“I have never heard of him.”
“He was sent into exile while you were still in the care of the harem.”
“He returns, despite exile? Surely that is sufficient grounds to have him executed and explain your actions later, if necessary.”
“I misspoke: he, specifically, was not exiled.”
Wishing for a better class of ally, Aurangzeb responded carefully: “Misstated details lead to unintended deaths in such matters, Mullah.”
“Apologies, Shehzada, in my zeal to do God’s work, I overstep.”
“Yes, you do. Who is it that favors this man?”
“Your siblings, Shehzada.”
“Jahanara and Dara Shikoh, Shehzada.”
“I see. I take it, then, that this amir is also a servant of Mian Mir?”
“He was once, yes.”
Therein, clearly, lay the true reason the mullah wished him dead. “But no longer?” Aurangzeb asked.
“Truthfully, I do not know.”
“Yet you would have his head.”
Eyes glittering with intensity, Mohan nodded. “God wills it so, yes.”
God? Or his own pride? Aurangzeb had to turn his head to hide his incredulity. “Take no precipitous action. I will consider what to tell Father,” Aurangzeb said, turning to leave.
Mohan laid a hand on his arm.
Aurangzeb covered the offending hand with his own, pulled it from his arm and rolled Mohan’s fingers back and to the outside of the man’s shoulder, twisting fingers, hand and wrist.
Mohan, eyes wide, went to his knees.
Shifting his grip and pushing down, Aurangzeb thrust his face into the older man’s. “You dare lay hand upon me?”
Pale with pain and shock, Mohan struggled to speak. “I forget myself, such is my desire to do God’s work: please, the man must die.”
“Because God — ” Aurangzeb cut him off with more pressure. He had to lean over, he’d bent and twisted the man’s arm so far. “Your true reason. Tell me.”
Beads of sweat popped from beneath the mullah’s turban. “He refuses God.” The words were halted behind a cage of pain-clenched teeth.
Aurangzeb wondered if he would have to break his arm to get the truth. “That may be, but there is something else. Answer.”
“Mian Mir always favored him.”
“Favored him over me. Loved him, not me ”
Aurangzeb released the man’s hand. Mohan pitched forward, cradling his arm.
“The truth will win what you desire of me, Mohan. Remember this as you take what you want.”
Aurangzeb straightened. “Do what you will with this man, just be certain the act cannot be placed at my feet.”
Agra, Red Fort
Aurangzeb stepped away from the balustrade and collected a julabmost. He surveyed the people on the balcony as he drank deeply of the cold juice. Roshanara and Nur Jahan were present, as well as a number of the court’s lesser luminaries. Father was off overseeing the construction, again. Jahanara and Dara were entertaining elsewhere in the Fort. There were just a few of Father’s other women present, all of them engrossed in the elephant fight taking place by the riverside.
It was, due to the many distractions, the only time he was likely to get a private word with Nur Jahan.
Roshanara stepped away to tease one of their younger siblings.
He joined his great-aunt, taking a seat among the many cushions.
“Aurangzeb,” she said, handing off her empty drink to rid herself of it and the nearest ears that might overhear their conversation.
“Nur Jahan,” he answered, suddenly wary. Her reputation and their shared history made her loom large in his imagination, despite her current distance from power.
“You are looking well.”
“And you smell like the original garden,” he said, truthfully.
She smiled, teeth stained red with betel-juice. “A new perfume.”
“You must teach my wives this art.”
“Wives? I had thought you only married the one time, thus far.”
“I will have many more.” And he would never allow any of them to rule his life as Nur Jahan had ruled his my grandfather’s.
“Indeed, and you will have them, and many strong sons, I am sure of it.”
That might be a genuine compliment — or a barbed reminder of his own position, surrounded by inferior siblings.
Aloud, he asked a different question: “You wished to speak to me?”
“Do you recall Baram Khan?”
“The one who was banished? The last of your allies at court, wasn’t he?”
“I would hope that you speak of past days, and not current state of affairs,” she said, a gentle rebuke he refused to acknowledge.
“I remember him.”
“He is gone to his greater reward.”
“Poisoned, though we do not know by whom” — she waved a hand — “but the ‘who’ is really not that important. Of greater interest is that word has reached me that the amir Yilmaz left Baram Khan’s party without leave. I am told he is carrying information of great import to the court.”
“What news?” he asked, immediately annoyed at how easily his voice betrayed his interest.
“I do not know. The message I received was conveyed in a medium which is, for reasons I am sure you’ll understand, not trusted to keep secrets from parties who would read my correspondence without permission.”
“I see. What did you say the man’s name is?”
“Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz.” That was the very man Mullah Mohan had petitioned him for permission to slay. Interesting.
“Does the name mean anything to you?” she asked.
“No, should it?” The lie was easy.
“He and Dara Shikoh became fast friends while you both were your grandfather’s guest.”
Anger flashed, made him snap: “Is that what we’re calling it now?”
“I believe it a polite fiction that serves everyone involved.”
“Yes, I can see how you would take comfort in that belief. It was not you who was taken from the arms of loved ones.”
Her only response was to sit silent, expression unreadable.
Silently, he cursed himself. That had not been a useful thing to say. She needed to think that all was forgiven, that she was a partner in his plans, if he wanted her to be the lodestone for any ill-will his actions might cause.
Resolving to exert more control over such fits of temper, Aurangzeb looked her in the eye: “That was unworthy. It was not my intent to speak thus. Forgive me?”
“Any idea what news this amir carries?”
“None.” A delicate sniff. “My astrologer claims the man carries news from the future.”
He smiled. “She does, does she?”
She did not return the smile. “Yes.”
Aurangzeb cautioned himself to have a care with casual dismissals of possible truths: such was the claim of the Portuguese, as well, and all things were possible in God’s Design.
Agra, The River Yamuna
As his hired boat turned in toward Agra’s docks, Salim noticed a boat that had departed Red Fort just after his changing course for shore. Two armed men stood behind the boatman paddling at the bow, but there was no visible cargo for them to guard, and both looked away when Salim turned his face in their direction.
He leaned over and spoke to the boat’s master. “If you can push the men hard for shore without appearing to, it will mean another rupee for you.”
The boatman, likely experienced with court intrigues, simply bobbed his head and started pulling deeper and harder with his paddle. His men took their lead from him and did so as well. Salim, not wanting to give the game away, looked straight ahead and fished in his sash for the payment.
During the last hundred paces to the dock, his boat had to maneuver around an outgoing craft. Salim took the opportunity to cast a surreptitious glance at the other boat. The distance between them had grown to nearly fifty paces, but he could see one of the armed men was bending their boatman’s ear about closing the distance while the other openly stared in Salim’s direction.
Now certain they were following him, Salim wondered who they served: Nur Jahan, would-be chooser of emperors, or her brother, Akbar Kahn, the emperor’s First Minister — or perhaps Mullah Mohan, Aurangzeb’s strictly orthodox teacher and advisor?
Not that it mattered if they were sent to do him harm. And, being armed and lacking in subtlety, just watching him go about his business didn’t seem likely.
Their lack of skills at intrigue did seem to rule out Nur Jahan, but she might be running short of skilled servants this long after being consigned to the harem with her grandniece.
Asaf Kahn was still in favor at court, and therefore had no need of subtlety, but Salim knew of no reason the wazir would want him accosted or killed.
No, the more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed that Mullah Mohan was behind these men. The mullah had no love of Mian Mir’s accepting policy toward the Hindus and other religions of the land, and had tried to get the living saint removed from his position as teacher to Shah Jahan’s children on more than one occasion.
As the boat nudged the dock, Salim dropped payment in the master’s lap and stepped off. The man’s breathless but cheerful thanks followed the Pashtun as he turned for the crowded market at the foot of the docks. He glanced back as he neared the first of the merchant’s stalls. The men had made landfall and were hurrying to catch up, shoving people out of their way.
Salim merged with the crowds of shoppers, bearers, and traders. The market had the frenetic atmosphere such places took on before the muezzin called the faithful to sunset prayers. Not that all, or even most, of the people shared faith in Allah and His Prophet; but the Hindus of the capital were cautious, not inclined to even the appearance of disrespect toward the religion of their ruler, and would slow or cease business during the hours of prayer. That could pose problems once the call to prayer began.
He lost track of the men within three steps. Hoping they would do the same, he started in the direction of his lodgings. The sun continued its dive to the hills beyond the river.
Salim saw the boy hanging by one hand from the trellis of an inn as he was leaving the market. He wouldn’t have thought anything of the skinny urchin but for the fact the boy pointed straight at him and continued to do so as he moved through the crowds.
“Paid eyes,” he muttered. Were he given to cursing, Salim would have. Instead he quickened his steps, hoping to get out of sight before the boy could direct the men to him.
“There!” It wasn’t a shout, but the word was spoken with an air of command.
Salim turned and saw one of the men from the boat. The man was already pounding his way, naked steel in hand. The more distant man was waving an arm, most likely summoning more men.
Breaking into a run, Salim looked for places to lose his pursuers or, if he must, make a stand. Nothing looked promising in the first length of road but he hesitated to take one of the side streets for fear it would dead end. He held little hope of outrunning the pursuers. Had he a horse, even a nag, under him, things would be different. But afoot — he could already hear the first man closing the distance.
He picked a spot, deciding it was as good as any. Placing his back to a stack of great clay urns, Salim turned to face his pursuer, blade flickering to hand.
The younger man didn’t slow, charging in, howling “God is great!” as he swept his blade down in an untrained and fatally stupid overhand cut.
Salim deflected the blade to his outside right and twisted his wrist, sending his own slashing across the man’s torso.
Unable to stop, the man ran up the blade and opened his gut to the evening air, the battle cry becoming a wail for his mother. He tripped in his own entrails, fell to his knees. Salim hacked his head from his shoulders, counting it a mercy.
He turned and saw that the easy killing of the one had given his other pursuer pause. Knowing he was done for if the man waited for more assistance, Salim smiled.
The man didn’t respond.
Salim rolled his wrist. Steel hissed as it parted air, casting a thin line of blood in the dust of the street. By happenstance instead of intent, a drop of blood just reached the other man’s boot.
Eyes wide with rage, uneven teeth bared behind his thick beard, the man advanced. Despite the anger, this man was a far more capable adversary. Salim was forced to retreat, working to deflect several fast and powerful strokes.
Timing them, he found an opening and chopped a short hard strike at the other man’s hand. It missed the mark but slapped the inner curve of the other’s sword, sending it out of line.
Switching tactics, Salim stepped closer and forced the other man’s sword farther out of line. He shot his free hand around the back of the man’s neck and pulled, hard, even as he threw his own head forward.
Cartilage and bone ruptured under his forehead.
Still blinking, he chopped a blow at his reeling opponent that had more of savagery than art. His sword cleaved the man’s collarbone and hacked through the first three bones of the upper ribcage.
“Heretic!” the man burbled, mouth quickly filling with blood.
Mullah Mohan, it is, then.
The dead man collapsed, eyes still full of hate.
The muezzin called the faithful to prayer as Salim turned and resumed his run.
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