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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Saturday, February 18, 2017 07:52 EST



Agra, Red Fort, Diwan-i-Khas
August, 1634

    Dara joined his younger brothers, standing before Father’s throne in the Diwan-i-Khas.

    As befitted the hall of private audience, there were comparatively few courtiers present, and those who were held high zat and sowar ranks — either diwans, holders of large Zamind, or extensive Mansabs.

    “Any idea what this is about?” Shah Shuja asked, as Dara came to a halt beside him.


    “Possibly,” Aurangzeb answered at the same time.

    Both elder brothers looked at their younger brother, who punched his thin beard at the pair of generals standing to one side. “Military matters. Either the Deccan or the Sikhs.”

    Field command, then. Dara tried to hide his excitement.

    “The Sikhs?” Shuja scoffed, “What, did they refuse to pay their taxes?”

    “No. The new guru, he has caused a dais to be built. One, it is said, higher than that of our Father.”

    Shuja made a throwing motion. “An insult, but not a threat requiring an army.”


    “Farmers?” Shuja sneered, “How could such as they prove a threat sufficient to warrant Father’s attention?”

    It was Dara’s turn to disagree with Shah Shuja: “Guru Hargobind has not sat idle, brother. It is said he took up two swords at his investiture, one denoting temporal justice and the other, spiritual. Further, he trains his followers to defend themselves.”

    Shuja didn’t look convinced.

    Aurangzeb nodded. “Still, barring some further provocation I’m not aware of, I doubt the Sikhs are the reason for this sudden summons. It almost has to be the Deccan.” He looked at Dara. “Wasn’t your teacher a friend to the last guru?”

    Dara nodded, uncomfortable at the thought. “He was. I — I don’t doubt that he still is.”

    “Then he will not be pleased to hear of this.”

    “We shall see,” Dara murmured as Father entered.

    The emperor strode across to his dais and seated himself on the throne, the majordomo declaring the audience open and announcing to the Diwan-i-Khas the emperor’s lengthy title and honors.

    For his part, Dara watched Father closely: the emperor’s expression revealed little, but one of his slippered feet was gently tapping the floor, a sign he was deeply concerned by what he was about to reveal. Eventually the majordomo wound down, and Father revealed the purpose for the assembly.

    “My sons, my people, there has been yet another incident with the Sikhs. A party of my nobles, Mukhlis Khan chief amongst them, were entrusted with the training of the royal hawks and were engaged in that duty to me when my white hawk went missing.” A murmur went through the crowd. The white hawk was a rarity, and losing it would surely mean Mukhlis Khan would suffer the emperor’s ire.

    “They discovered the hawk, shining in the mews of a Sikh hunting party encamped nearby. When they went to claim the hawk from this party of Sikhs, they were not only refused and insulted, they were assaulted! The insult might have been forgiven, but this Hargobind refuses to return my hawk, given to me by my friend, the Shah of Persia!”

    Angry murmurs went through the assembled nobles. There was, if Dara wasn’t mistaken, a strong undertow of contentment beneath the anger. War meant plunder and glory, and a chance to rise.

    “Told you,” Aurangzeb muttered.

    Dara caught the dirty look Shuja cast Aurangzeb’s way. He didn’t like having his face rubbed in it. Their younger brother just smiled.

    That was neither kind nor wise. Things had been unpleasant enough since Aurangzeb published his damned poem. It was one thing to talk like that to Dara himself, but Shuja wasn’t one to lie down and take it.

    “Check your tongue, little brother,” Shuja grated.

    “Why, does a fool wish to add something?”

    Dara felt Shuja tense beside him and glanced at the throne. Sure enough, the muttering of his siblings had brought Father’s gaze down on them. He did not look pleased.

    Probably Aurangzeb’s design, this making his brothers look bad before Father. Ah well, each must be disappointed, from time to time.

    Dara stepped forward, bowing his head and waiting to be recognized.

    He heard Shuja stop mid-mutter, saw Aurangzeb twitch out of the corner of his eye. Thought you’d keep us off-balance and secure the command for yourself, did you? I’m tired of the whispers at court: those that say I am content to sit in Father’s shadow, that I avoid fighting as distasteful. I long to put paid to the rumors that it is my wish that makes it so.

    The truth is, Father refuses to send me away from him, fearing I might turn against him, as he turned against his father.

    Realizing the emperor was watching him, and conscious of the entire court standing silent behind, Dara spoke: “Your son stands ready to ride out and punish your enemies, Father.”

    “Does he?” The emperor’s tone was not enthusiastic, and his expression dark.

    “If it pleases you, yes.”

    “Your first wife is pregnant with Our first grandson, is she not?”

    “She is, indeed,” Dara answered, swallowing fear. It had occurred to him that Father might use his unborn child as yet another excuse not to send him.

    “And you would suffer to be parted from her at this time?”

    Dara, expecting the question, answered immediately: “To serve you, I will…while taking comfort in the knowledge that they will have the very best of care here.”

    In his day, Mother had gone with him on every campaign, but her death in camp guaranteed he’d never allow another pregnant member of the family on campaign.

    “Will you listen to the general I will send with you? More than that: will you heed his advice?”

    “I will.” Though he would like to know who, exactly, the emperor would send to be his shepherd. He glanced at the gathered nobles, but none met his eye or gave indication that they knew who would command.

    “Very well, I name you Amir of Amirs; you shall command five thousand, and have the Red Tent to crush this upstart, take his wealth, take his women, take his life. Bring all before me and be rewarded.”

    Dara bowed, glowing inside. At last, the Red Tent, symbol of the emperor for the campaign!

    “I will personally oversee the gathering of your staff for this campaign, Dara Shikoh. Be ready in a week’s time, when all is in readiness for your journey to Ramdaspur.”

    “I shall, Your Majesty!” the words came louder than he’d intended, such was his excitement. Not even the jealous looks his brothers cast in his direction could dim the fires of his enthusiasm.



    Aurangzeb quickly smoothed his expression. It would not do to let Father see how displeased he was with Dara’s good fortune.

    Shuja did not bother to hide his displeasure, and Aurangzeb saw Shah Jahan’s eyes tighten fractionally as the emperor watched his sons.

    Wazir Asaf Khan strode before the emperor and bowed. “I would serve you, Shah Jahan. With your permission I will assist Dara Shikoh as he enacts your will.” Aurangzeb thought that was typical of his grandfather: clinging to whomever held the reins of power.

    “I must deny you, Asaf Khan. Mukhlis Khan will be Dara’s subordinate and chief advisor for this, as it is his complaint we seek redress for. Fear not, father of my most beloved, I will be sending you to face down Ahom.”

    Aurangzeb did not miss the surprise the emperor’s order caused to flit across Asaf’s face, as their eldest male kinsman bowed and said: “Certainly, Shah Jahan. I serve.”

    “You will command my armies there, and coordinate with Mahabat Khan to bring Old King to heel. You will assist Dara ordering his troops as you gather your own.”

    “Yes, Shah Jahan. May I invite you and your sons to hunt with me? The sowar will need training, and there have been reports of tigers to the east.”

    The emperor waved a jewel-studded hand. “Affairs of state prevent me, but my sons will be happy to accompany you.”

    Aurangzeb hid his displeasure. A hunt would hardly prove a sufficient sop to this new injury.

    “While regretting the affairs that keep you here, I am honored to host your sons to the hunt.”

    Dara, still riding the high of his appointment to command, nodded acceptance of the invitation.

    Shuja actually looked excited by the prospect of hunting.

    Aurangzeb let none of this thoughts show. They were always a disappointment to him, his elder brothers: one a heretic lover of Hindu philosophy constantly rewarded for his mediocrity, the other easily baited into dissolution by whatever new entertainment crossed his path. He did still hold out hope that Murad might prove a man worthy of respect.

    Aurangzeb supposed he should be content enough at the situation, however. Dara was not likely to succeed as a general, and failing to do as ordered would surely wake his father to the fact that he’d chosen to favor the wrong son. Shuja would be dealt with, when the time came, and Murad was still young enough to be easily influenced, once he was free of the harem.

    Court went on. Aurangzeb scarcely payed any attention, so caught up in thinking through his next moves that he almost missed Shah Jahan declaring the session at an end.

    Released to do as they would, a pack of lesser courtiers approached Dara, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the rising star and improve their position in life.

    Shuja turned to him. “Dara gifted me a new musket from the production of his kharkhanas. He is always bragging about the fine weapons his atishbaz make. I will use it on the hunt, and prove his words true or false.”

    “And I am sure you will take a few prize beasts with it,” Aurangzeb replied absently, watching who was pressing forward to congratulate their brother. Such sycophants would not be permitted positions of power when he ruled.

    “A few! Care to wager who will take the greater portion of game?” Shuja spoke loudly enough to gather the attention of courtiers not in their immediate circle. Most of them preferred Shuja over Aurangzeb because the former was an indolent wastrel and Aurangzeb’s reputation was abstemious.

    “Not really.”

    “I insist!”

    “Very well, what stakes?”

    “My gun against the horse Father gifted you last week!”

    “You know I do not favor guns as you do.”

    “All right, one of my horses, then.”

    “My choice?”

    Shuja grinned. “Of course.”

    “Very well. I will take more game than you and win a horse of my choosing from your stables. If I fail, you may select one of mine.”

    “I shall win, and take your finest steed!” Shuja crowed, the herd of sycophantic cattle lowing in agreement as they followed him out.



Agra, Red Fort, The Harem

    “What is it?” Nur asked.

    “My Lady, your servant Vidya has taken ill.” Gargi made a small gesture that indicated Vidya was dying, if not already dead.

    “Oh?” Nur said, conscious of the eunuchs listening at each guard post. Something was seriously amiss. Gargi had identified the young woman as a spy in someone’s service almost as soon as she started working for Nur, but they had still been trying to discover who, precisely, her hidden master was.

    “Yes, some ailment of the digestion. I am afraid she will soon die.”

    Nur arched a carefully manicured brow.

    Gargi gave a barely perceptible nod in response to the unspoken question. She’d ordered the girl killed, then. For Gargi to take such precipitous action indicated a greater threat.

    Damn these listeners, I did not want to get the new henna wet. “Come with me, Gargi, this sad news makes me wish to see growing things and feel the grass beneath my feet. Let us walk in the gardens.”

    “Yes, Mistress.”

    They stepped out of the apartments and into the gardens, making their way to one of Nur’s favorite features: a man-made stream rushing down a sloping ramp of scalloped stone, causing it to ring and splash like playful music. The grounds immediately next to the fountain were damp with cast-off water, but the noise served to cover her murmured question: “Why did you kill her?”

    Kneeling, Gargi extended a cupped hand to the fountain as if catching some spray. Only Nur could see the small vial nestled there. “She was going to poison you.”

    Nur Jahan hid a smile. Someone thought her a threat significant enough to warrant assassination. That was quite flattering.

    “How was it done?”

    “I fed her some of my own.”

    “I see. And the body?”

    “It will be dumped this evening. Another dead slave.”

    “Did you discover her master or mistress first?”

    Gargi sniffed. “There was no time.”

    “Make time, in future.”

    Gargi bowed her head, all humility.

    “She will not be easily replaced. We will have to watch carefully who is selected to replace her.”

    Gargi stood. “Yes.”

    “What to do in the meantime?” Nur mused.

    “I will be sure to check with our sources, see if I can uncover who is discomforted by news the girl is dead.”

    “Wait a bit…Perhaps I should take ill?”

    Gargi nodded, thoughtful. “That might prove useful. I can observe who seems pleased at your ‘illness’ or takes some unprecedented action with you out of the way. What were you to do tonight?”

    Nur shook her head. “Nothing special: feasting with the emperor and his harem.”

    A thin smile creased Gargi’s lips. “And how much would we have given for you to be able to say that this time last year?”

    Nur matched the smile with her own. “True.”

    Aurangzeb’s face flashed before her eyes, killing the smile.

    “What is it, mistress?”

    “Aurangzeb said something that remained with me, if only because it seems to indicate he does not consider himself an ally: he said Baram Khan had been the last of my allies here at court.”

    “If he does not think you can aid him in his designs, why ask you here at all?”

    “He plays a deep game, my brother’s grandson. Deeper than I would have thought for one so young.”

    Gargi’s lips twisted, a good indication she didn’t believe the words about to come from her mouth: “Perhaps he has no other design than to have you here, under his eye?”

    “He has other designs, of that I am sure…”


    “No, I don’t see him attempting something like this, his nose pressed in Hindu texts.”

    “The emperor?”

    That gave Nur pause. She shook her head, eventually. “I see no reason he should suddenly shift from his longstanding policy of ignoring me.”

    Gargi shrugged. “You have come to his court, making it harder for him to ignore the fact that you yet live.”

    “A point, but he could have simply denied my request and sent some favor-currying courtier to end my life in Lahore, had that been his wish. No, a slave-girl poisoner is not Shah Jahan’s style, nor has it ever been. He was my adversary too long for me to fail to recognize his hand, were he involved.”

    “Your brother?”

    “No, and for much the same reasons as the emperor. Besides, he — even more than the emperor — would not stoop to use a woman to do such things.”

    “Which sets me to thinking that this does smack of a woman’s hand…”

    “Or a eunuch…”

    “Certainly the harem…”

    “Yes –” she shook her head, “It’s all just conjecture until we have more information. I will stay in tonight, and you will send messages to Jahanara and the emperor that I have taken ill.”

    “And keep watch.”

    Nur smiled. “Oh, yes.”



    Father settled himself, the unrelieved white of his robes of mourning making him stand out among the reds and golds of the cushions like a lily among orchids. Prayer beads in hand, he nodded at Jahanara.

    Two slaves, selected for their pleasing manner and skill at anticipating the emperor’s needs as much as their desire to serve as tasters, knelt to either side of him, ready to serve the choicest morsels. At her direction, other harem girls entered carrying tray after tray of delights for his meal.

    Beyond ensuring the service was faultless, Jahanara spared no thought for the food. Instead she watched Father closely from under long lashes. There were lines on his face and white in his beard that had not been there before her mother passed. The thought of Mother, especially at this moment, brought a hollow ache to her spirit.

    Instead of turning from the ache, she embraced it, armored herself in it, knowing Mother would approve of her actions today, despite what woe she might bring Father. And Jahanara had no doubt the plan would add to Father’s woes, just as she had no doubt that what she was about was absolutely necessary for the survival of the family — most especially if her family were to mean more to history than a divisive, degenerate, and despotic dynasty that left the varied nations under their care open to occupation and subjugation by the English.

    Jahanara glanced down the line of women to her left, those who were not his wives but lived under Father’s protection in the harem. As she had arranged, Nur Jahan was not present due to an upset stomach. It had been the one point of failure of the plan: it was never certain exactly when her woman in Nur’s service could administer some of the mild poison, and harder still to judge when it would take effect. That difficulty combined with the fact that Dara could not very well linger in the harem led her brother to grant permission for her to speak to their father on behalf of both of them.

    No sooner had Dara agreed to let her speak for him than Asaf Kahn had invited Dara to a hunt a few days from Agra. He had only departed this morning, so it had been just barely possible her eunuch messenger Prasad would find Dara and return in time. Father finished the main courses, began to indulge in a few desserts.

    Time was nearly up.

    All the preparation and planning had led to this moment. Despite Dara’s absence, she must move forward.

    Mustering courage, she spoke: “Father?”

    He turned his head to look upon her, eyes warming ever so slightly as they lit on her face. “Yes, daughter?”

    “I have something I wish to show you, something important.”

    He waved a hand, granting her leave to approach.

    She rose and padded to him on henna-painted feet. The slave-girls rose gracefully and retreated to stand with their backs to the wall of the Red Fort.

    Father watched her, a sad smile making his beard twitch. “You are so like your mother, Jahanara.”

    The princess knelt before her father and bowed deeply, smiling in return. “It is good to hear you speak of her without such pain.”

    He punched his bearded chin in the direction of the growing monument to his love. “The heart heals as her monument rises, daughter. Even so, I will never be whole again until we are together in Paradise.”

    She bowed her head again, suddenly uncertain.

    He sighed, the sound bearing more of quiet contentment than pain. He took her hand. “What is it, beloved daughter?”

    “Father, I would show you a picture.”


    “But first — do you remember sending Baram Kahn on his errand?”

    Shah Jahan’s grip tightened on her hand. “To the village the Jesuits reported had sprung into being someplace in Europe?” he asked sharply.

    “Yes, Father,” Jahanara answered, worried that she had chosen the wrong entry to the conversation. The Jesuits and their hosts, the Portuguese, were only recently returned to, if not favor, then the tolerance of the emperor. The Portuguese and their priests had proved faithless when Father requested their aid in his rebellion against Jahangir and his step-mother, Nur Jahan. Possessed of a long memory, Shah Jahan had ordered punitive raids into the Portuguese colonies along the coast almost as soon as he took the throne, taking many slaves.

    “What of it?” he asked, more calmly, gaze already drifting over her shoulder to the distant site of her mother’s tomb.

    She took a breath, dove in: “It did come from the future, as Mother’s astrologers claimed.”

    His gaze snapped to her face, locking her eyes to his like chains of hardened steel. “And where is Baram Kahn?” he demanded. “Where is that craven supporter of Nur Jahan? Does he think to avoid my eternal anger by telling my daughter his report in my stead? I am not the man I was when his perfidy –”

    Jahanara, shaken by the heat in him, spoke quickly: “Dead, Father. Baram Kahn sickened and died in that far off land that is host to the village from the future.”

    Shah Jahan looked away, sniffed.

    Released from his gaze, Jahanara felt as if she had stepped from a cold darkness into warm sunlight. Remembering her purpose, she gathered her tattered calm and summoned her body-slave to bring forward the “postcard.”

    “Who brings his lies before us, if he is dead?”

    She took the card. “I beg your indulgence, Father. Decide after you have seen the proofs before dismissing the claims.”

    “Who?” he asked, still insisting, but more gently.

    “No one you know, Father. He is another disciple of Mian Mir, one who has proven an honest and loyal servant to the living saint and, by extension, your person. He took great risks — even feigning his own death — to bring word ahead of Baram Kahn’s remaining servants.”

    Clearly still skeptical, the emperor opened his mouth to ask another question.

    Greatly daring, Jahanara spoke over him. “This, Father, is one of the proofs.” She lowered her head and presented the postcard.

    His hand left hers and pulled the postcard from her fingers.

    She left her hand extended, hoping he would take it again.

    Long moments passed in a silence Jahanara barely dared breathe into.

    A tear struck her palm. Jahanara looked up.

    Shah Jahan, Sultan of Sultans, Sultan of The World, cried a river of tears in total silence, postcard in hand.

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