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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Twelve
Last updated: Thursday, February 23, 2017 17:12 EST
Three day’s ride from Agra
Her patience growing short in the afternoon heat, Dara’s favorite leopard yowled and spat at her handler, ready to hunt.
Dara grinned, ready as well, welcoming the prospect of release from the tension being around Aurangzeb always provoked in him. Now, if only they could begin. His small army of beaters had started the day before, working through the night to drive all the wild game resident in several square kos toward where the hunting party lay in wait. The camp was loud with the voices of men and animals, many of Father’s more notable umara present to witness the hunt and curry favor with the wazir and princes.
Seeking distraction, Dara again took up the gun he’d had as a wedding gift from Father last year, the inlaid piece monstrously heavy yet reassuring in its solidity. He sighted down the nearly two gaz of barrel, arms immediately trembling from the weight of iron, ivory inlay, and mahogany. Among the many refinements, the weapon sported one of the new flintlocks rather than the traditional matchlock, and even had a trigger rather than lever.
“Here,” he grunted.
Body slaves overseen by his Atishbaz gunsmith, Talawat, hurriedly set up the iron tripod needed to support the hunting piece while he struggled to hold position.
“Ready, Shehzada,” Talawat said.
Trying to keep the weight under control, Dara slowly lowered the gun onto the mount. Talawat slotted the pin into place that would hold the gun’s weight when aimed, easing the awkward weight from Dara’s arms. The prince knelt and placed the butt of the weapon on the cushion another slave hurriedly set in place.
Rubbing the ache from his biceps, hoofbeats drew Dara’s attention. He looked down the gradual slope to the pair of watering holes that formed the two sides of the killing zone for the hunt. About one hundred gaz of grassy clearing lay between the slowly-drying watering holes, with about half that much distance between grandfather’s tent and the open space. The beaters were working toward that spot in a steadily shrinking circle.
One of Asaf Khan’s men emerged from the wood line at a gallop, crossing the clearing and pounding up to the camp. In a fine display of horsemanship, the sowar swung down from his mount to land lightly a few paces in front of Dara’s grandfather.
Standing in the shade of his tent, Asaf Khan stepped forward and listened as the young trooper made his report: “At least a hundred head of blackbuck and red antelope, a small herd of nilgai, Wazir. Tiger spoor was also found, but no one has laid eyes on it, yet. Should not be long, now, before the first of the beasts make an appearance.”
Asaf Khan dismissed his man. Gray beard dancing, the aging but still-powerfully-built wazir called out: “A tiger would make a worthy prize for one of my grandsons!”
“Perhaps for Dara, grandfather. He has yet to take one,” Aurangzeb drawled from inside the tent.
Dara watched Asaf’s smile dim before he turned and answered, “One tiger could never be enough for the sons of Shah Jahan.”
“I did not say it was, Asaf Khan,” Aurangzeb replied, striding from the tent into the sun.
“I will kill it, grandfather!” Shah Shuja, crowed, raising his bow. Born between Aurangzeb and Dara, Shuja seemed always afire with desire to please his elders. At eighteen he was a man grown, however, and larger than Dara by a head. Of course, that head was rarely full of things other than those he might hunt, fight, or ride.
Asaf turned to face his eldest grandson. “And you, Dara?”
“I will take what it pleases God to place before me.”
“Pious words,” Asaf said, nodding approval.
Behind grandfather’s back, Aurangzeb shook his head and commanded his horse be brought up.
“Where are you going?” Asaf asked, edges of his beard curling down as he frowned.
“I will take the animals my brothers miss. That way I am sure to have a good day hunting.”
Shah Shuja grunted as if punched in the belly, face darkening. He too had been shamed by the poem making the rounds of the court. Further, there was the wager.
Doing his best to ignore the insult, Dara gestured at his leopards. “Brother, that is why I have brought my cats, to run down escaping game.”
Aurangzeb shrugged, took up a lance. “Then I will race your cats, and beat them to the kill as well.”
Asaf stepped toward Aurangzeb, raising hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I would advise caution, Brave One. If there is a tiger in among them, it will easily overtake a horseman. They can only be hunted safely from elephant back.”
Aurangzeb shrugged again. “Then it will be as God wills it,” he said, putting spurs to his tall horse and speeding off to the left of the firing line and the sole exit to the killing ground, a trail of attendants and guards in tow.
“Here they come!” cried one of grandfather’s cronies.
As the man’s cry faded, a small herd of blackbuck, no more than eight animals, spat from the line of brush and trees. Bounding with the outrageous speed of their kind, the antelope seemed to fly across the open ground.
Dara shook his head, irritation flaring. Blackbuck were perfect game for his hunting cheetahs but he couldn’t risk one of the cats attacking Aurangzeb or his horse.
Dara held out a hand. Talawat filled it with one of his lighter pieces, match cord already glowing. Shouldering it, Dara picked his target: a good-sized, healthy animal just behind the leading beast.
He heard Shuja’s bowstring slap bracer. A moment later Shuja muttered angrily.
Ignoring all distraction, Dara’s world shrank to the chest of the beast he’d chosen. Finding it, he moved his point of aim two hands ahead along the shallow arc of its jump.
He pulled the lever and averted his eyes at the very last moment.
The gun thundered.
Dara handed it off to Talawat as the blackbuck fell, heart shot. The gunsmith handed him another piece.
Shuja shouted, his second arrow striking the lead buck in the belly.
Dara ignored the cheering of his grandfather’s entourage, chose another buck, aimed, fired. Another clean hit to the chest. The antelope collapsed after a few strides.
“Well done, Talawat. Your guns speak truly,” he said, passing the weapon off.
Talawat bowed, presenting another piece. “Shehzada is too kind.”
Taking the third gun in hand, Dara waited a moment, allowing the smoke to clear. Behind him, Talawat’s apprentices busied themselves reloading the discharged weapons.
“Your modesty is a sign of fine character, but” — Dara tapped a knuckle against the gun’s hardwood stock — “in this instance, misplaced.”
Talawat smiled and bowed again before gesturing at the field. “I merely prepare the weapons, Shehzada; it is not everyone that has your fine eye for shooting.”
Shuja downed another of the blackbuck with an arrow that nearly passed through the animal. The first beast he’d hit finally collapsed, blood frothing from its muzzle.
The remains of the herd cleared the firing line, only to run into Aurangzeb and his mounted party. Dara’s brother took an antelope with his spear as its herd mates ran past. Leaving the weapon behind and spurring his horse into a gallop, Aurangzeb switched to the horse bow. The prey were far faster than his mount, stretching their lead even as Aurangzeb drew, aimed, and loosed twice in quick succession. Each arrow struck home in a separate neck, a fine feat of archery.
Asaf’s cronies cheered, as did Shuja, who had approached Dara.
Cradling his gun, Dara smiled, despite himself.
Aurangzeb cased his bow while sending his finely trained mount circling back among his followers with just the pressure of his knees, an act of understated pride in its own right.
“I should have ridden instead of standing here with you and your guns,” Shuja grumbled, loud enough for Dara to hear.
Dara did not answer, even when his younger brother ordered his horse brought up and left to join Aurangzeb.
He watched his grandfather instead, pondering the old man’s place in the family history as well as his possible future. Abdul Hasan Asaf Khan had turned against his own sister to support Father when Dara’s paternal grandfather, Jahangir, passed and the succession came into question once again. Dara had himself been hostage and surety against his father’s loyalty after that first rebellion, and was no stranger to the price of failure for princes engaged in rebellion. Shah Jahan and his allies had emerged victorious, but it had been a close-run and uncertain thing, all the way to the end. Asaf had been rewarded with position, titles, and power, though recent failings had reduced his favor at court. Father was considering removing him from the office of wazir and sending him off to govern Bengal.
As if sensing Dara’s thoughts were upon him, Dara’s grandfather turned from watching the slaves collect carcasses and approached Dara.
Talawat bowed and silently withdrew a few paces, giving them some privacy.
Asaf pushed his beard out toward Shuja’s retreating back, “Well, first among the sons of my daughter, it seems your brothers would hunt as our ancestors preferred.”
Dara nodded. “I would as well, but for this,” he said, gesturing with his free hand at the new gun on its tripod.
Smiling, Asaf bowed his head and squinted at the weapon a few moments. “Big ball?”
“Large enough to down nilgai in one shot or a tiger.”
“Brave man, hunts a tiger with powder and shot rather than bow and spear.”
Dara shrugged. “Surely not in the company of so many men, Asaf Khan?”
Asaf Khan waved a hand. “Abdul, or grandfather if it pleases.”
Catching the plaintive note in his grandfather’s voice, Dara smiled. “Surely, grandfather, I would not be at risk among so many men.”
“Jahangir once lost three favored umara to one, a great she-tiger. And they were all armed to the teeth and born to the saddle. Tigers do not feel pain as we do; most wounds merely madden them.”
Dara was about to answer when another herd, or perhaps the larger body of the one just harvested, emerged from the wood line, dashing for the open space between the watering holes. At the rate they were fleeing, the beasts would be in range in moments.
Asaf Khan stepped clear as Dara raised his gun. He felt, rather than heard, Talawat edge closer with his remaining light pieces.
He sighted along the barrel. That part of his mind not engaged with aiming noted an anomaly: the blackbuck were running straight and true rather than bouncing back and forth along a line of travel.
Just as he was ready to squeeze the lever, a thundering of hooves caused him to lower his muzzle. Aurangzeb and Shuja were riding to meet the herd, bows in hand.
Aurangzeb and Shuja had split up to either side of the herd, and were standing in the stirrups, loosing. Where their arrows fell, antelope staggered out of the herd, dead or dying. Shuja ended up on the near side of the herd, Aurangzeb disappearing into the dust kicked up by both prey and hunters.
Dara shook his head. While impressive, their antics were denying him a shot. Not that he couldn’t rely on his skills and shoot anyway, it was simply not a good idea to go firing into a field occupied by two princes, whether the shooter was a brother or not.
He briefly considered taking to his own horse while summoning a drink from one of his body slaves.
“Don’t want to take to your own horse?” Asaf Khan asked.
Having already decided against it, Dara punched his chin toward where his brothers were now racing back towards the firing line in a cloud of dust. “When their horses tire, there will be other game.”
Asaf nodded, looked sidelong at his eldest grandson. “Married life agrees with you, grandson.”
“Oh?” Dara asked, taking the gem-encrusted goblet full of iced fruit juice from his servant.
“You are more patient than you were. I may presume too much when I think it your wife’s doing,” he said, shrugging, “#8220;but there are worse reasons for change in the behavior of men.”
Dara hid his smile by slaking his thirst. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he answered: “Yes, many things are put in their proper places, now I have a son on the way.”
“A son? You are so sure? The astrologers tell you it is so?”
“Yes,” Dara half-lied. The up-timer history had it that his son rode to battle with him in his war against Aurangzeb, many years in the future.
“You must send me –” Asaf stopped in mid-sentence, peering into the dust beyond Shuja.
Dara followed the line of his gaze, saw it a heartbeat later: something gold-orange flowing along in the wake of Shuja’s horse.
“Tiger!” Asaf bellowed in his general’s voice, pointing at the great beast stalking his grandson.
Dara tossed his goblet aside and scrambled for his newest gun.
Shuja, hearing the shout, did the wrong thing: he reined in to look at Asaf Khan. The tiger was within twenty gaz of Shuja. When he came to a stop, it did as well. In fact, it went forequarters down, hunching its rear end.
Asaf was screaming, as were more and more of his men. He started running for his own horse and household guard.
Dara knelt and lifted the butt of his gun, surging upright.
Shuja was looking around, trying to identify the threat. His horse tossed its head, shied sideways, uneasy.
Dara pressed his shoulder into the stock, trying to cock the lock, find his target, and get his hand on the firing lever — and had a moment’s panic when he couldn’t find it: Not a lever, a trigger, you fool!
The tiger was rocking its hips, getting ready to charge.
Talawat was beside him, quietly urging: “Shehzada, please do not try to do too much at once. Slow down. Calmly.”
Dara stopped. Breathed out. Found his aim point and his target. Slid his finger inside the trigger guard.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Talawat’s silhouette nod. The gunsmith cocked the hammer back for Dara. “She kicks like a mule, Shehzada. Now kill us a tiger.”
Dara squeezed the trigger. The lock snapped forward, steel and flint sparking into the pan. A half-heartbeat later, the gun discharged with a thunderous roar and brutal kick to Dara’s shoulder.
The tiger leapt.
Smoke obscured Dara’s sight for a moment.
Shuja’s horse bolted, riderless, into view.
Talawat stepped forward and turned to face Dara, hands busy as he reloaded the piece with quick, economical motions. He could hear the gunsmith praying even over the shouts of Asaf’s men.
Asaf had stopped his rush to mount. It was too late.
The smoke cleared.
The tiger lay prone, part of one of Shuja’s legs and a boot protruding from beneath it.
Dara’s heart stopped.
It seemed years later when Shuja sat up from between its paws, face as white as bleached linen. Hands shaking, the young prince heaved the heavy corpse aside and stood, apparently unscathed.
Suddenly thirsty, Dara wished for strong drink.
The line erupted in crazed shouts of joy. Asaf came charging back toward Dara, teeth bared in a smile that split his beard.
Shuja was walking, somewhat unsteadily, back toward the line.
Placing powder in the pan and stepping back, Talawat murmured, “Fine shooting, Shehzada.”
Dara pointed a trembling finger at his sibling. “I will give you its weight in silver, Talawat. Were it not for you, I would have surely rushed the shot and missed.”
Talawat bowed his head, clearly aware of how badly things might have turned out. “God is merciful and loving-kind, to place one of my tools in the hands of one so gifted in their use. I will use the silver to make more fine guns for your use, Shehzada.”
Aurangzeb rode into view behind his dismounted brother, stopping over the tiger for a moment. After a moment’s examination, he nudged his horse into motion. Quickly catching up to Shuja, he said something the other responded to with an angry shake of the head. Shrugging, the mounted brother rode on toward the firing line.
As he came closer, Dara noticed his quiver was empty and his face had a thin smile drawn across it. For dour Aurangzeb, such an expression was a broad smile of unrestrained glee.
“I see we each took a tiger this day, brother.”
“What?” Dara asked.
Aurangzeb nodded his head in the direction he’d come from. “Another one, possibly this one’s mate or nearly adult offspring, took the last blackbuck in the herd. He took some killing: all my remaining arrows are in him.”
Asaf Khan arrived in time to hear the end of Aurangzeb’s speech, sweating from his exertions. Pausing to catch his breath, he was still beaming when Dara remembered to be civil: “Congratulations, brother, I’m sure it was a fine kill.”
“And to you on yours, Dara, though it appears your beast had an old wound to slow it — an arrow in its flesh, turned to poison.”
“Might explain why it went for Shuja with wounded game at hand,” Asaf gasped.
“Anger is the poison that stirs the killer residing in the hearts of both man and beast,” Dara said, trying not to look at his brother as he did so.
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