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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Seventeen
Last updated: Monday, March 13, 2017 21:15 EDT
Red Fort, The Harem
“Nur Jahan respectfully asks a visit, Begum Sahib.”
Jahanara had been expecting such a request since arranging her great aunt’s poisoning, if not so soon.
“She is recovered, then?” she asked the eunuch.
“Indeed, her brief illness has passed, thanks be to God.”
“Praise Him,” she answered in reflex. And because, while she had been expecting the request, Jahanara did not feel ready to grant it: “I shall consult my astrologer before agreeing to a visit. He found some peril to my health in his last reading, and advised me to caution.” She waved dismissal at him. “You may take my words to her.”
The eunuch bowed low, yet remained before her.
She let him grow uncomfortable before asking, “There is more?”
“I pray you will forgive me, Begum Sahib, but my mistress waits without.”
Jahanara tried not to display her concern — Nur Jahan’s eunuch would surely report everything observed to his mistress. Still, a bit of pique was called for: “She presumes much, my grandfather’s sister.”
The eunuch pressed his head into the ground. “As you say, Begum Sahib. Nur Jahan commanded that I convey her assurances that the illness is long past, and was certainly not catching, and that she has words of import for your ears.”
“Very well, I will trust to her greater experience in this. She may attend me. Go and fetch her.”
The eunuch said nothing further, just bowed and withdrew.
Jahanara used the time to shore up her mental defenses. Tending Father’s re-ignited grief had proved draining, leaving her tired and out of sorts. Worse yet, the result was still uncertain. Salim had been reading to father almost every night, but Father had yet to make any comment on what he̵#8217;d learned.
And now Nur Jahan, veteran of thirty years of imperial harem politics, was coming.
She wished Dara were here. She wished Mother was here. She wished for many things, yet none of them had come to pass when Nur Jahan entered her receiving chamber.
Head high, the older woman’s direct gaze immediately fixed on Jahanara. Nur Jahan approached with the supple grace of a woman much younger than her fifty-six years, a result of a life-long regimen of dance and diet. Dressed in fine silks and damasks of her own design and pattern, Nur Jahan called to mind a great cat stalking prey.
Nur Jahan came to a halt, bowed, a delicate scent teasing Jahanara’s senses. “Grand-niece.”
Wishing to keep things formal, Jahanara used the other woman’s title, “Nur Jahan,” as she gestured her to a seat.
A brilliant, cheerful smile answered the formality and called to mind the reason for her title as “Light of The World.” So great was the charm of that smile that Jahanara could not be certain it was false, despite knowing that it had to be.
“Must we be so formal, Janni?” Nur asked as she reclined on cushions across from Jahanara. “I am fresh recovered from illness, and would celebrate another day among the living with my family. And, as all the boys are hunting and your sister is with your father, I naturally thought of you.”
Jahanara, hiding her displeasure at the other woman’s use of her childhood nickname, answered in even tones: “I merely pay you the respect my grandfather bestowed upon you in recognition of your beauty, especially as you appear so well and happy.”
Nur Jahan blushed, actually blushed, at praise she had likely heard far more times than the sun had risen over Jahanara. “Jahangir was a great man, always kinder to me than I deserved.”
Marveling at the woman’s control over her body, Jahanara ordered refreshments for them both.
She looked back at Nur and found the older woman regarding her with a steady gaze.
Wishing for more time, Jahanara stalled: “A new perfume, Aunt?”
A nod of the head. “Yes, I have been working on it for some time. Do you like it?”
“I shall see some delivered to you, then.”
A silence stretched. Refreshments arrived, were served.
Jahanara let the silence linger, armoring herself in it.
“I have something I wish to tell you, Janni.”
“Must I ask?”
A throaty chuckle. “No, of course not. It is a tale. A tale from my first year with your grandfather. A tale of the hunt, in fact.”
Jahanara gestured for the older woman to proceed.
“I had only been married to Jahangir for a brief while when he invited me to join him on a tiger hunt. I leapt at the chance to join him in the howdah, and had the mahouts paint his favorite elephant for the occasion. A great party of us set out, camping of a night and slowly moving through the areas where your grandfather’s armies were concentrating the game for his pleasure.
“But, as you may know, your grandfather Jahangir enjoyed smoking opium far more than was good for him, and he dozed through much of the hunt, the swaying of the howdah” — she gave a throaty chuckle — “and perhaps the swaying of my hips, lulling him to sleep.”
Jahanara, used to Nur’s earthy storytelling, still blushed. To think of sexual congress in the hot confines of a howdah of all places, jali or no!
Nur pretended not to notice. “It was during one of his naps that there was some consternation ahead of us. I put on my veils and opened the curtains of the howdah. Several slaves were running from a wadi some tens of gaz away. It was then that I saw the reason for their flight: a pair of tigers flashing through the undergrowth after them.”
Jahanara noticed the older woman’s gaze grown distant, breath quickening, and felt her own pulse rising.
“They were magnificent. Terrible. Bloodlust made manifest. One man had his head nearly removed with one rake of claws. Others fell, were torn open. Blood was everywhere.” Her nostrils flared, remembering.
A tiny smile. “The screams of his slaves at last woke Jahangir from his stupor. He moved to join me, took my hand in his.
“Protect your servants,” I told him.
He looked at me. Too late, I could tell my command had made him most angry.
After a moment he pressed his great bow into my hands. “One with this. Then one with the gun, if you succeed.”
“What?” I asked, incredulous.
“Protect them if you wish them protected, wife.”
“I do not think he knew then, that my brother had taught me the bow in our youth. I think he thought to test me, hoping I would fail. He sought to put me in my place as his twentieth wife, however favored ” Nur Jahan let her words trail off into brief silence.
Jahanara found herself leaning forward, eager to hear more.
Slowly, conscious of the other woman’s skill at courtly intrigues and careful of some trap, she sat back.
Nur resumed her tale: “I resolved to show him I was no wilting flower.” The older woman sat straighter even as she said the words. “While we had spoken another pair of slaves had perished, and the tigers had pursued them much closer to our elephant. Hands shaking, I drew the bow, loosed. That first arrow missed. I did not miss with the second, though it was not enough to kill the beast. Enraged, it leapt into the air and spun in a circle. I loosed again. A lucky shot, it took the cat in the throat, stilling its roar.”
A shake of her head: “The other tiger left off killing a man to raise its head, then coughed strangely, almost as if asking why his brother had stopped talking mid-sentence.
“Jahangir laughed, slapped me on the back as if I were one of his sowar, and took the bow from my hands. He handed me one of his guns, igniting the match cord himself.
“I had no experience of guns, and told him so.”
“Look along the metal, point it at his great head, when the head is covered by the barrel, tell me, and I will light it. Turn your head when I do, or you might get burned.”
I did as he bid, aiming at a point between the great ears. I remember thinking how beautiful its fur was. “Ready,” I whispered.
He touched the match cord to the powder and the gun belched fire, punching me in the shoulder like nothing I felt before. I swayed back, my veil singed by the fire from the pan. I had forgotten to turn my head, you see.” She shook her head. “It is amazing, what I recall of that day: I remember the feel of the elephant shivering, wanting to flee the loud noise and tigers, but too well-trained to move, while I tried to see where my shot had fallen.”
She smiled, looking Jahanara in the eye, “I missed my mark.”
Jahanara realized she had been showing her eagerness for the tale again, and quickly leaned back. “Well, it is understandable: you were handling a gun for the first time.”
Another of Nur’s throaty chuckles broke Jahanara’s words. “I did not miss entirely, Janni. My ball took the tiger in the heart, killing it almost instantly. I still have the fur in my quarters.”
“An entertaining tale,” Jahanara mused aloud. Nur had only just departed, the air still hanging with the delicate scent of her perfume.
“Shehzadi?” her body slave and administrator of her personal staff, Smidha, asked.
“Nothing of import.” She lowered her voice, “Has Prasad returned?”
“No, Begum Sahib,” Smidha answered. She raised her voice slightly, “Begum Sahib, you asked to be informed when your ink was delivered. It arrived just this afternoon.”
“Good,” Jahanara said in an equally clear voice. She raised her head and ordered the remaining slave at the entrance to her receiving chamber, “Fetch my inks.”
When she had departed on the errand: “What is it, Smidha?”
Smidha edged closer and bowed her head, speaking quickly and quietly: “My sister’s man says a body was pulled from the waters of the river this morning, Begum Sahib. Nothing special in itself, but my friend who was also your sister Roshanara’s nurse says that her mistress was heard to claim it was a slave who betrayed Nur Jahan. Just now, whilst you entertained her, I confirmed with one of the eunuchs that have responsibility for guarding her quarters that Nur now seeks a new cook.”
Jahanara closed her eyes, said a brief prayer for Vidya. She had never personally met the young woman who, outraged by the mistreatment of her lover, had offered to spy on Nur.
Now, carrying out Jahanara’s will, she would become yet another of the faceless victims of courtly machinations. Victims Jahanara would carry the guilt of in her heart to the end of her days.
She shook her head, dread encroaching on her guilt. “Which eunuch?”
“Which eunuch, Smidha?”
“Chetan, Begum Sahib.”
“One of the Rajputs?” she asked, running through her mental portrait gallery of the servants assigned to her enemy.
“Yes, the great big, round-headed one with the crooked nose.”
Jahanara nodded. “He was one of the first she turned. He is now entirely Nur’s. She wanted me to know she caught my spy. Do we know how Vidya died?”
Smidha bowed her head. “Poison is suspected, mistress.”
The princess bit her lip. “Then Nur was never successfully poisoned at all?”
Smidha shrugged. “That is possible, though she did request the Italian doctor come and examine her.”
“To complete her falsehood or for something else?” Jahanara shook her head. “Set someone to watch him from now on.”
“Yes, Begum Sahib.”
“Any word from my diwan at Surat?”
“He reports that Rehan Usmani made landfall last — no, two months — ago. The men set to watch his movements have not reported in since Rehan left the city with an armed party suitable for extensive travel. I begin to worry your watchers may have been set upon and killed. I also had word from my sources in Agra, proper: Salim was set upon in the city, which is why he was delayed in reporting to the emperor’s summons.”
“Where is she getting the men to do these things for her?” Jahanara asked.
“I do not know, Begum Sahib. She has not changed her habits significantly since Vidya came to us.”
“Oh, but that’s just it, Smidha. We can’t know how long Nur knew about Vidya’s allegiance to me. Much of our information is suspect.”
Smidha’s half-smile showed Jahanara that her agile mind was working at full speed. “Yes and no, Begum Sahib. I always try to verify from multiple mouths what my ears hear from one source’s lips. I do not like to look foolish, misinforming my mistress.”
“So, then: what do we know?”
“That Nur Jahan is dangerous even while in your father’s power.”
“Who, though, is providing her with influence beyond these walls?”
Smidha shook her head. “We cannot know she is responsible for your recent setbacks, just yet, Begum Sahib.” Another shrug of round shoulders. “Assuming your suspicions are correct, however, I can think of a few umara who remember Jahangir’s last years and Nur’s regency in all but name as good ones for their ambitions, but none that your father and grandfather are not already aware of and keeping an eye on.”
“What of Mullah Mohan?”
A delicate sniff. “That man, bend his stiff neck to treat with a woman? Hardly, Begum Sahib.”
“I love you dearly, Smidha, and value your service above all others, but I think you might be letting your feelings color your assessment. She has the skill, he has the manpower.”
Smidha flushed and bowed her head again. “It has been my pleasure to serve you, just as it was to serve your mother, Begum Sahib. Still –” She looked up. “I find that, of late, my heart is hard when it should be soft, and soft when it should be hard.”
Jahanara patted Smidha on the arm. “You are my wisest advisor, Smidha. I just want to be sure we are not dismissing a potential truth.”
The older woman bowed again, looked up sharply. “And now I think on it, the idea has merit: she did have occasion to speak with Mohan while arranging Jahangir’s tomb and the mosque dedicated in his name.” She shook her head again, concern drawing her brows together. “If she managed to draw that dried stick of a man into her web enough that he is willing to lend her his strength, what other dark miracles can she arrange?”
“And, having seen the steel of the trap the huntress has laid out for us, what bait is meant to bring us in, and how do we spring the trap without losing a limb?”
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