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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Sixteen
Last updated: Wednesday, March 8, 2017 22:00 EST
Surat to Agra
The leader of the guards the diwan had sent along with them was clearly upset, and it didn’t look like a simple temper tantrum brought on by the heat of the afternoon.
John looked hopefully at the approaching weather front. It had been either been oppressively hot or pouring with rain every day they’d been in India, neither of which conditions were tailored to please a West Virginian. To add insult to already-abused sensibilities, the men in charge of the caravanserai they’d rested at last night since leaving Surat all claimed this was an unusually hot and dry September.
“What is it, Iqtadar?” John asked, through Angelo.
“Your women, they must be covered. They must not be allowed to lead my men into unclean thoughts, or there will be consequences this one,” Angelo gestured at the Afghan, “will not be blamed for.”
“Pardon?” John said, anger spiking.
Without looking, Iqtadar pointed back along the line of riders to where the ladies were. Angelo toned down the angry snarl falling from the guard captain’s lips and calmly translated: “Your women must cover themselves.”
John looked over. Ilsa had removed her hat and was fanning herself with it. Her blonde hair shone in the sunlight like a halo. She was, in every way that mattered, his angel.
“I am sorry,” John said, dragging his gaze from the love of his life and knowing he wasn’t at his best: “We do not keep ”
“Purdah,” Angelo supplied.
“Right, we do not ‘keep’ our women in purdah. We cannot No, we won’t even try, to force them into a life of such restriction.”
Iqtadar did not look pleased, and spat something angry.
Angelo looked less sanguine this time: “Iqtadar claims he will not be responsible for what happens if you cannot control your women.”
“Is that a fucking threat?”
Angelo held up his hands and spoke over John’s outburst, “Please, Signor Ennis, calmly These armed men who are helping us in our travels are not asking for anything exceptional or improper under the laws and customs of this place.”
“Customs and laws that treat women like property!” John spat.
A sweating Rodney rode up at that moment. “What’s up?”
John hiked a thumb at their guard, “Iqtadar here was just telling me how the women got to get covered up.”
Rodney shrugged. “Thought that might be a problem.”
“Not ours, that’s for sure! It’s not like they’re running around in god-damn bikinis or something!”
Another maddening shrug. “Different standards, man.”
John lost it: “Which standards? The ones that allow a man to fucking own another human being? Or the standards that allow one guy to cut the nads off a kid so they can make ’em acceptable company for the women they keep shut up and behind walls their entire lives? Tell me, please!”
Everyone within earshot was staring at him now, but the anger wouldn’t be stopped: “Fuck. Their. Standards.”
“Um, please don’t translate that, Angelo,” Rodney said into the silence that followed John’s tirade.
“Oh, I think Iqtadar has the gist of it,” Angelo said.
With a savage pull at the reins, Iqtadar turned horse and galloped back toward the rear of the caravan, passing the women of the mission.
Conferring a moment, Ilsa and Priscilla rode forward to meet their husbands.
“What’s wrong?” Ilse asked.
John, feeling like a just-cracked pressure cooker, could only shake his head. He could feel Rodney’s eyes on him, willing him to get a grip.
“The guards ain’t happy with you ladies going uncovered,” Rodney said.
“Well then,” Ilsa said, looking to Priscilla for support, “we’ll just have to cover up.”
Priscilla nodded agreement. “Good thing Monique bought us all burqas in Surat.”
“I ” John tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out.
God, am I this fucked up? First I lose it over this bullshit, then I can’t even explain it
Ilsa looked at him fondly then reached out a hand and squeezed his forearm. “We knew when we came that things would be different here.” She nodded at Priscilla. “We even talked about it coming here. We can’t stop and attack this kind of thing head-on every time we’re confronted with it, certainly not here, with people we don’t have any hope of convincing. Maybe, when we get to court, if there’s a safe opening, we can try and turn the lights on for someone in power. Someone who can effect real change. But for now we can’t risk our safety or that of the entire mission just because some locals want women to conform to their idea of modesty.
“Even back in the USE some people still have foolish, shitty ideas about how proper women should behave.”
Priscilla snorted. “Up-time, too!”
Ilsa’s light laughter soothed him, even as her use of the profanity indicated just how deeply she felt about the situation; John might curse all the time, but she rarely indulged.
“It’s not a problem we’re here to take on. Not directly, anyway. Seriously, it’s not a problem, right, Priss?”
“You bet Aside from the fashion,” Priscilla said.
“What’s that?” Rodney asked.
Priscilla put on a British accent: “Well, I very much doubt our burqas will be the height of fashion when we arrive in the capital. We colonials are so easy to look down on, what with our simple speech and provincial ways!”
“Frightfully so, daaahling,” Ilsa said.
John smiled. His German-born wife had always loved the regional accents of English speakers, and her snobbish Englishwoman was even better than Priscilla’s. He felt himself slowly unlock, the warm banter between friends and wife easing his mind.
“Could it get any wetter?” Monique asked, shifting her entirely insufficient umbrella to her other hand and pulling at her burqa in another vain attempt at finding shelter for her dampest parts.
As if listening to her, the rain chose that moment to increase from the hours-long soaking drizzle to a heavy downpour.
She sighed. “Silly question: of course it can.”
“Indeed it can,” her father mumbled from his own misery, replacing the lens covers on his borrowed binoculars. He was completely enamored of the things, borrowing Rodney’s pair every chance he had. Never mind that the terrain had hardly changed in the last week; forested hills to their south and west marching unending along the gently sloping plain they rode north and eastward.
Angelo spilled water from his riding hat, spoke up. “Ah, India in the monsoon, such a joy and pleasure.”
Seeking distraction, Monique said, “Those soldiers, the ones who challenged us yesterday, they didn’t look like our escorts.”
More water spilled from Angelo’s hat as he nodded. “They were Mewaris, a Rajput caste.”
“Aren’t Rajputs an ethnic group, like Sicilians?” she asked.
“Not exclusively. Rajputs are the traditional ruling caste — have been for as long as anyone recalls. So the Mewari are, well, I guess the closest thing would be a clan of Rajputs. And the Mewaris have their own dynasty of kings.”
Angelo shook his head. “Most Rajputs, including the Mewari, remain Hindu. Some have converted to Islam, though.”
“In exchange for the right to rule?” Monique asked. Central Europe had been savagely divided by differences between the religions of its people and that of its princes often enough in the last decades. People being people, she figured Indians were similarly motivated.
“No. Akbar and Jahangir were both very conciliatory toward the Hindus and Sikhs, treating them quite reasonably.”
“Who were they?” Gervais asked.
“The present emperor’s grandfather and father, respectively.”
“All right getting back to the Rajputs: how is it they’ve come to rule subject kingdoms rather than their kingdoms being ruled directly from the emperor’s Court?”
“The Rajputs in general have long been respected for their fierce warrior practices and the Rajput kingdoms successfully resisted the Mughals for a very long time.” He scratched his sodden beard, “If I recall correctly, Mewar only became part of the empire about fifteen years ago, making peace with Emperor Jahangir. As with most peace agreements hereabouts, it was sealed with marriages and tribute.”
He grinned. “The Mughals have won so many kingdoms in this way, I daresay the emperor’s family have as much or more Rajput blood in their veins as Persian and Mongol.”
Monique shook her head. “Castes, clans, religious divisions It is all very complex.”
“Almost as confusing as the situation in Central Europe?” Gervais asked, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Or the city states surrounding Rome?” Angelo said, smiling.
“Point!” Gervais chuckled.
Monique didn’t bother to respond to their patronizing and short-sighted humor. She had other things on her mind.
“It’s actually kind of pretty when the rain stops, John,” Ilsa said, looking out over the grassland. The couple had ridden up the rise to get the lay of the land while the rest of their caravan rode by below.
“What?” John asked, distracted.
He panned the binoculars across the plain ahead. The wind was in their faces, making the grass rustle pleasantly. It was nearly a perfect moment, neither too hot nor too wet.
He let the binoculars hang from the strap and turned to look at her. She had angled her umbrella toward the caravan to conceal herself from the guards and pulled her veil aside.
He couldn’t help but smile, seeing her golden hair spilling out. “Yes?”
“Are you all right, John?”
“I’m ” His usual glib response froze behind the prison of his lips.
She waited for him.
“I am –” he choked on the words.
“Are you hurting, John?”
He couldn’t make his mouth work, eventually managed a nod.
She reached across to him, covered his larger hand with her smaller, finer one. “I love you, John Ennis. Nothing can change that.”
John just stared at her, his throat feeling as if a giant was pinching it closed.
“Now, I insist that you listen to me a moment. That boy, the one you shot, he was a pirate. He would have killed you and enslaved me had I not been able to kill myself before his crew got their hands on me. I was ready to do that, you know.
“Therefore: you did what had to be done to protect me and our friends. No one can fault you for that, including you, my rock-headed, obstinate, lovely, kind-hearted hillbilly!”
He swallowed half a dozen replies, tried to tell her she didn’t know, that she hadn’t seen the kid fall and die, that it didn’t matter what she thought.
But it did matter! It mattered more than life itself what she thought of him.
“I know,” he managed to say at last. He looked her in the eye again. “I love you, you –”
He stopped mid-sentence as her gaze flicked over his shoulder and hardened.
She pulled her hand from his as he turned to look.
A group of about a dozen men were moving out of the tall grass in a loose semi-circle around them. The nearest was only ten yards away, filthy and hefting a spear. All of them were armed with more than unpleasant expressions under hard eyes, and a few had bows.
Shit! They must have been lying in the grass, checking the caravan out when we rode right up on them
They were poorly armed, but John didn’t think he could get the rifle off his shoulder and into play in time to stop them getting to either him or, worse yet, Ilsa.
Two of them were pointing excitedly at Ilsa’s uncovered head and speaking in hushed tones. Despite the language barrier, their manner managed to convey both greed and desire.
They started to close with a will, picking up speed.
“Ride, Ilsa!” he shouted, trying to swing the rifle from his shoulder and cover her retreat. The shout made his horse rear. He tried to get over the stirrups, but the weight of the rifle dragged him out of the saddle and back in a slow tumble over his horse’s ass.
He rolled with the impact as best he could. Losing his rifle and bashing his shoulder something fierce. John ignored the pain to pop up on his knees, struggling to orient himself.
He could hear the bandits shouting excitedly among themselves, but only one horse’s hooves fleeing down the rise.
Shit, she didn’t run!
Belatedly, John heard someone charging through the grass at him.
“Down, John!” he heard Ilsa shout from behind him.
For once John immediately did what his wife told him to, throwing himself flat.
CRACK! CRACK! The double tapping of Ilsa’s 9 mm Beretta was almost immediately followed by a meaty thump and patter of liquid on grass.
CRACK! Her third shot sounded before the first bandit fell just a few steps from his position.
John looked for his rifle, started crawling toward it.
CRACK! Someone else fell thrashing in the grass.
He rolled up, saw Ilsa standing in the stirrups, hair glowing golden in the sun over her deep blue burqa. She had the reins in one hand and was carefully lining up another shot.
CRACK! A third man went down. This one didn’t thrash.
Her horse stands still while she’s shootin’ and mine spooks at a fucking shout?! The world just ain’t right! he thought, rising to one knee and shouldering the rifle.
Less-than-excited shouts from the remaining bandits and horrifyingly, the snap of a bowstring.
CRACK! Ilsa was still in it, regardless of where the arrow landed.
John lined up a shot on the bowman and squeezed the trigger. The stock thumping his shoulder was a surprise, just like it always was when you did it right. The target went down.
CRACK! CRACK! Ilsa firing again.
He went in search of other targets, found them all running away down the slope. He put the rifle up and looked to his wife.
She was still standing in the stirrups, shifting her point of aim back and forth between the fleeing bandits. He could see daylight though the burqa under her shooting arm. The arrow must have missed her by inches.
He tried to call out to her, found his mouth too dry for speech. Swallowing, he started moving slowly toward her.
The movement drew her attention. Like a turret, she swiveled in the saddle. She almost had him in her sights before realizing who he was. Her eyes shot wide, whites showing all around the iris as she let her gun hand fall.
She started shaking as she tried to re-holster the gun inside the burqa.
“Ilsa?” he managed.
“John!” She slipped off the horse and into his arms.
They clung to one another for some time, even when Rodney and the boys rode past in pursuit of the remaining bandits.
Her horse ambled over, nuzzled her hair.
He laughed, an edge of hysteria in the sound. “What the hell did you do to make him stick around while you were shooting?”
“Nothing, he’s stone deaf.”
She nodded, head against his chest, making no comment about his cursing other than to clutch him tighter.
Iqtadar rode by, Angelo and a few of the diwan’s guards with him.
Angelo stopped a few paces from them, leading John’s horse.
Iqtadar rode around the corpses, examining them and what John supposed could be called a battlefield, from horseback.
Ilsa didn’t bother to cover her head, and John wasn’t about to ask her to, not after what they’d just gone through, not for anyone.
Iqtadar returned, spoke to Angelo at length while gesturing at the hilltop. “Iqtadar offers his respects, John, for the excellent shooting.”
“I only shot one. Ilsa shot the others.”
Iqtadar’s eyes went wide under his turban.
Angelo translated into politeness what John was certain was some variation on, “Bullshit!”
“He may believe what he wants, but she shot him,” he pointed at each corpse in turn, “him, and him.”
Iqtadar said something his men grinned at, then bowed to her from the saddle.
“What was that?” John snapped.
Iqtadar was already riding back to the caravan.
“John!” Ilsa warned.
Angelo smiled. “Actually, the Khan’s words are a deep complement.”
“What?” John and Ilsa chorused.
“He gave your lovely wife a title, Mister Ennis: Shirhan e Zarrin.”
Eyes narrowed with suspicion, Ilsa asked, “And what does that mean?”
“Golden Lioness, Signora Ennis.”
John couldn’t miss the pleased upward turn at the corners of his wife’s lovely mouth. He laughed for the first time in months. Laughed hard and long. “Golden Lioness! HA! Damned if he didn’t get you exactly right!”
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