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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Monday, February 27, 2017 18:18 EST
Some bore the story to their king:
“A mighty creature of our race,
In monkey form, has reached the place.”
Surat, River Tapti
“Right then, it’ll be a while.” Captain Strand sighed. “The easiest passage I’ve ever made, only to rot under the sun in Surat.”
John spat over the rail into the river Tapti after the retreating official’s boat. “Pain in the ass, this shit.”
Bertram frowned. While he agreed with the up-timer’s assessment of their situation, John had scarce said anything positive since foiling the pirate attack. Gervais had commented that even Ilsa, John’s wife, appeared unable to lift the man’s spirits.
John turned from the rail and stalked back to the gangway, leaving the sun-baked deck for the oppressive heat of his quarters. Bertram had listened while Rodney explained why John remained so upset, but it just didn’t make sense to him. The youth he’d killed had been a pirate. Bertram understood the up-timers placed a higher value on life than benighted down-timers did — or, to look at it another way, they’d come from a gentler world that allowed such luxuries. But the fact remained that the boy would not have shed a tear for John and his folk as they were led into slavery.
Gervais emerged from the hold, blinking. The Frenchman had been checking one of the wonders the USE had sent along with the mission while the captain and Ennis met with Laksh Menon, the Surat tax farmer.
Bertram gestured at the departing small craft. “The powers that be are considering our request, apparently.”
“Five months locked aboard ship getting here, and they won’t let us even come ashore?” Gervais said.
“Not yet, no,” said Captain Strand.
“Did you offer a bribe?”
Strand looked at him angrily. “After all this time aboard my ship, you think me a simpleton?”
Gervais held up his hands in surrender. “I apologize. I’m impatient, and let my tongue wag ahead of my manners.”
Strand shook his head. “Apology accepted. I am not usually so touchy, but their translator set my teeth on edge. Damn Venetians, each thinking it was them who invented trade.”
“Venetian?” Gervais asked.
“Did you get his name?”
Strand referred to his log. “Gradinego.”
“Ha!” Gervais smiled, shook his head, “Can’t be!”
The grin disappeared as Gervais pounded a fist on the rail. “I knew I should have been up here.”
“Why?” Bertram asked.
“It is just possible that I know the man. We worked together in Venice some years back.”
“Yes,” Gervais said, expression bland: a sure sign he was thinking very hard.
“Did you part on good terms or did you ” Bertram trailed off, glancing at the Captain.
Gervais sniffed. “There is only one real rule we all abide by: never swindle those who choose to work a dodge with you. I have never broken that rule.”
Strand was looking at both of them, scratching his beard thoughtfully.
Gervais changed the subject: “Did they say why we can’t off-load?”
“They insisted that no one trades here without a firman from the emperor.”
“Not quite accurate,” Strand corrected. “The diwan’s tax man said something about a requirement that traders hold a firman from Shehzadi Begum Sahib That’s a princess, I believe.”
“But we’re not here to trade in Surat, are we?”
“No, we’re not. When we tried explaining that to the diwan’s man, he was unmoved.”
“So what do we do?” Bertram asked.
Strand shrugged. “Hope that when they come back tomorrow, Gervais’ friend is the translator, and that the Venetian has some pull with the locals.”
Bertram looked significantly at the ship anchored a few hundred yards upriver. “And the English?”
“They aren’t likely to be a problem, and even less likely to be helpful.̶#8221;
“Not to contradict you, but won’t they complain to the the diwan, is it? They own sole rights to trade here, don’t they?”
Strand shook his head. “The Portuguese and Dutch hold firmans as well. Firmans are not necessarily exclusive. They are more like a license to trade than a royal charter backed by the crown such as the one the Danish East India Company has. If we were flying Portuguese colors, we might have problems, but we’re all of us rather far from the fights and concerns of home.” The broad-shouldered captain shrugged again. “Most of the time, we all just go about our affairs,” he gestured at the very busy docks, “there being plenty of trade for all.”
Gervais grinned as the boat came alongside. Angelo Gradinego cut a slim figure beside the most richly dressed man on the small boat.
Passengers on the smaller craft required a bit of a climb to get to the deck of the Lønsom Vind. Due to the strict order of precedence, Angelo boarded well in advance of the man he was translating for.
Gervais made certain that he was standing across from Angelo when he reached the deck. Angelo looked him over, assessing his value and position in the mission automatically before it registered who he was actually looking at. When it did, he peered closer: “Gervais?”
“Angelo Gradinego!” Gervais beamed, holding his arms out.
“Gervais Vieuxpont! What are you doing here?” the Venetian cried, stepping into his old friend’s embrace.
“Trying to make friends and influence people, of course!” Gervais said, clapping Angelo on the back.
The Venetian stepped back, smiling. “You turned me down when I asked you to come see the wonders of the Mughal Court with me!”
“I did… Gervais shrugged. “Things change.”
“They do, my friend, they certainly do!” Angelo’s brows drew together, concerned: “Monique?”
“Well, and here with us.”
Angelo gestured with one tanned hand at the ship’s colors. “But, Hamburg?”
“Things became a bit uncomfortable in the south.” He glanced significantly at the rail, where the dignitary was just climbing into view. “We could use your help expediting our transition inland.”
“I see ” He glanced at the tax farmer. “It really isn’t up to this fellow, but ” Retreating to stand beside the local, he mouthed, “I’ll do what I can.”
Gervais stepped back and let Ennis and Strand engage with the tax farmer. Watching Angelo translate, Gervais didn’t see any of the few tells Angelo had. But if he wasn’t working a swindle, why do this? It was too much like actual labor for the Angelo he knew.
The meeting went on for some time. As it neared the end, Strand offered another, larger bribe. Gervais could tell the man was tempted, but Angelo looked directly at Gervais as he translated: “Begum Sahib has installed a new representative here, and the representative must be consulted before any action is taken in matters of trade.”
With that, the meeting drew to a close and the boarding party departed.
Strand turned to him, expectant.
Gervais shrugged. “He’ll do what he can for us.”
“You hopeful?” Ennis asked.
Gervais cocked his head. “Hopeful, yes. Confident, no. I am unsure what Angelo is doing in such a lowly position.”
“He’s a brilliant man. Very accomplished and truly gifted.”
“So he’s under-achieving,” John said, dismissive.
Carefully controlling the urge to snap, Gervais answered: “All I’m saying is that I doubt he would be translating for some third-tier tax collector if he had other prospects.”
“I see. He did not appear to be in bondage,” Strand said.
“What, like leather and shit?” John Ennis interrupted, a strange expression on his face.
“No, like slavery, though what you mean by leather and feces, I’m afraid I don’t understand ”
Blushing, John shook his head, “Never mind.”
Surat, Palace Of The Diwan
“Well, shiiiit ” John said, drawing out the word. The principles of the USE mission been sweating for hours in the courtyard, waiting for Diwan Kashif to see them.
“John!” Ilsa snapped.
“Stop cursing at every turn.”
He gestured dismissively at the supplicants crowding the courtyard, “Like there’s anyone who understands me around here.”
“Your wife can, John Dexter Ennis,” Ilsa returned, an edge to her voice.
“Yes, dear.” He’d meant to assure her he’d try and abstain from cursing, but something in the way he said it made her eyes tighten above the veil. She stalked away, joining Monique and Priscilla, the shapeless bag she wore failing to conceal the rigid set of shoulders.
Thankfully, none of the women had raised a fuss about having to wear those stupid modesty tents here.
“J.D. –” That came from Rodney, this time.
“I know, man, I know,” he grated. “I just need folks to back the fuck up for a bit.”
He was saved from finding some way of apologizing to his wife by the appearance of the translator, Angelo, at the entrance.
“The diwan will see the petitioners now.”
“About damn time,” Ennis muttered.
“Monsieur Ennis?” Gervais asked, as he joined John and Rodney as they left the rest of their party to enter the building.
“Nothing,” John said.
“Patience, Monsieur Ennis –”
“I have been patient.”
Gervais grinned. The expression seemed honest, though John suspected from his words that it was forced: “Indeed we have all have been patient. Just a bit longer, I think.”
They were led into another courtyard, this one lined with a covered portico. John shook his head. The place looked like someone had gone through and rubbed gold on everything that wasn’t covered in jewels, bright tile-work, or silks.
A fat man in ostentatious clothing sat on a raised dais, deep in the shade of the portico, his rotundity fanned by sweating slaves. Failing to deal with the heat and discomfort, John’s mind wandered as the mission was introduced: The number of honest-to-God slaves and what they had to put up with just seemed unbelievable to him. People so thin, they made the hardest-up homeless guy from back up-time look fat.
That’s the fate Strand says that kid I that kid would have sent us to, given half a chance.
Diwan Kashif Khan started speaking in an improbably high voice, interrupting John’s train of thought.
After a moment Angelo translated into flawless German: “The diwan has heard your petition, and decided you may leave Surat with your goods.”
John bowed and recited the words Gervais and Angelo had offered as least likely to offend: “We thank the diwan for seeing us, and for granting his permission. We hope the diwan will find a use for the gifts offered in friendship.” The bribe Strand claimed to be appropriate had seemed bizarre to John: a load of sequins, most of which looked like they came straight off the disco-era clothing stored in some of the attics of Grantville.
From the tone of his high-pitched voice, the diwan seemed genuinely pleased. Angelo translated: “The diwan will certainly find a use for them.”
“Diwan, may we inquire as to the location and status of the court?” The Mughal court was nomadic, and Bertram and Gervais had thought it wise to ask.
“Still in Agra, despite the season. The emperor is still in rude health, Allah be praised.”
Angelo picked up a scroll. “These papers grant you and all your goods safe passage from Surat.”
From Surat? Wait a second, we need protection and guides to Agra, not just out of town!
He took the paper from Angelo, seals dangling. “We were hoping for passage and protection to Agra, perhaps even an introduction to the emperor’s court.”
Angelo bit his lip, turned and translated.
The diwan shook his head, high voice detracting from the firm speech he was clearly trying to deliver to his subordinate.
“The diwan clarifies his position: he has no authority to introduce you to the court nor can he give offer safe passage to Agra. Such is not his place.”
John reigned in his first impulse, which was to grab the fat functionary by the throat and bellow, “Then why the hell are we here?” Instead he tried to keep his voice level, asking, “Are you not a servant of the emperor?”
John could feel the rest of the mission tense behind him as Angelo worked through the translation.
“We are all servants of the emperor.”
John watched the chubby functionary’s eyes narrow as the man took issue with John’s curt question. Angelo’s translation of the single German word into Gujarati required quite a few words. He’d have to remember to thank the man for trying to smooth that over.
“While it is not my usual habit to answer rude questions, you are foreign, so I shall educate you: I serve Diwan Firoz Khan, who is Diwan of Shah Jahan’s Harem, chosen for that position by Jahanara Begum Sahib, herself.”
Temper, John. “I’m grateful for your patience, Governor. I meant no offense.”
Listening to Angelo’s translation, the diwan’s expression softened. He wagged his head, said something in a conciliatory tone.
“There is the source of your misunderstanding, John Ennis of the United States of Europe. The diwan is not what you would call a governor, he is a manager of Begum Sahib’s interests here in Surat.”
John glanced at Rodney. “Forgive my ignorance, but could the diwan please explain?”
“The diwan collects the incomes from Shehzadi Jahanara’s jagirs here, which includes an income from all trade passing through the port of Surat. He has authority over some other aspects of trade here and in the surrounding lands, but does not govern the province or command many soldiers.”
“Sorry, we did not know how things work here ” John let the words trail off, looking from Rodney to Gervais for help.
Gervais stepped forward. “But, as a trade mission, his authority extends to our protection, does it not?”
The diwan nodded.
“And, given that we carry gifts for Begum Sahib, the most wise Diwan would have every right, indeed a duty, to ensure her gifts were protected on our journey to Agra, would he not? We would, of course, inform the Firoz Khan of the excellent service done us by his most wise and forward-looking subordinate.”
A calculating look crossed the diwan’s face.
John held his breath.
A few moments passed in sweating silence, then: “The diwan promises twenty sowar with your goods to provide for their protection.” Gradinego explained further: “The men were charged with delivering the diwan safely on his journey here, and have asked leave to return to Agra, and so cost the diwan nothing.”
Gervais gave a courtly bow. “The diwan is most wise. I beg forgiveness if I offer insult or difficulty in asking, but would it also be possible to employ Mister Gradinego as our translator as we travel inland?”
John thought about telling Gervais to drop it, but thought better of it when he caught the gratitude in Gradinego’s eyes before the other man turned to translate.
The diwan and Angelo exchanged a few quiet words.
“What terms do you offer?”
“I do not know what I am negotiating for.”
“I am working off a debt of ten thousand rupees.”
John calculated the amount in terms of the goods they carried for trade and “gifts,” then shot a questioning look at Gervais.
Gervais put his hand on his heart and nodded.
Damn. He’d better be worth it. John returned the nod.
“We can make such a payment, if you will accept goods instead of specie?”
The diwan said something and waved a fat hand.
“The men will be assembled for you the day after tomorrow, including this humble translator. We have the diwan’s leave to depart in health,” Angelo said, a broad smile creasing his tanned face.
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