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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Eighteen
Last updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 22:11 EDT
Red Fort, The Harem
Gargi sighed as she knelt behind Nur. She heard a click as her advisor picked up one of the ivory combs from the tray. Soon after, Gargi’s fingers and comb began the process of separating Nur’s mass of thick hair to expose the gray roots.
“What news of the new spy placed upon us, Gargi?” Nur asked, the scent of the dye in her nostrils.
“Already compromised, Nur Jahan.”
Nur could hear the smile in Gargi’s tone. “Kamadeva favored us: the spy is quite enamored of another of the harem guards, Omid. I caught them sharing embraces Diwan Firoz Khan would almost certainly find objectionable. Especially as the guard still had use of a hard member, something that would have him trampled were the emperor to learn of it.”
Nur refused to be scandalized by her advisor’s news or reference to a Hindu god, and calmly opened the last of the mail. “A party of traders from the city of Hamburg,” she read aloud.
The dye-laden brush in Gargi’s hand paused. “I am not familiar with that place.”
“Part of the north of Europe. A city-state like Venice, if I recall correctly. But that is not what is of interest here,” she lifted the paper, “but that they have since embarked inland, supposedly seeking Agra and an audience with the emperor.”
“As all foreigners who wish to trade here must.”
Nur nodded, checked the date. “They should be arriving within the next few weeks.”
Gargi pulled her hair back into line a little ungently. “Why this interest in trade? Jahanara appears to have all the incomes from Surat well in hand.”
Ignoring Gargi’s less than tactful mention of powers she no longer possessed, Nur picked another note from between her toes. “I have here information that they bribed Jahanara’s new diwan in Surat — Kashif Khan — with, quote, ‘sequins the likes of which have never before been seen. Not even the Venetians have ornament of such quality and lightness for sale.’ ”
Gargi didn’t bother to scrub the disdain from her reply: “Still, it seems he was bought cheaply.”
“Perhaps, but a small bit of information included in the report makes me think this particular group is more important than the usual foreigners.”
“These foreigners had a number of women with them, and many spoke a different language from that of the crew of their ship, one that was at least related to English, but had many words my informant did not recognize.”
“I do not understand the significance of that information.”
“The people from the future, the ones Baram Khan was sent to investigate, they are supposed to speak an English dialect.”
“I see.” The combs paused with a click of ivory. “Then you think these foreigners are from the village Baram Khan was sent to?”
“And what, exactly, does that mean for us?”
“I do not know, yet.”
“Well, I foresee one difficulty already.”
“And that is?” Nur asked.
Nur shrugged. The traditions that kept women separate from men had been less an obstacle for her when her husband had yet lived, but even then she’d been unable to sidestep them entirely.
“Perhaps it is time to seek additional allies; ones who might be able to talk with these foreigners, find out what they plan?”
“My options are yet limited by my tenuous return to favor.”
“Yet you have someone in mind?”
“I am sorry, but no.”
“None that are worthy of the effort, no.”
“Are my options really so limited?”
Again the hands working at her hair stopped. “As I told you when you went to speak to Jahanara: you should have kept silent about your knowledge of the attempt on your life, and therefore made her see you as less a threat, even a potential ally. You insisted. Here we are.”
Nur cocked her head, looking at her advisor out of the corner of her eye. “I could not let such behavior pass.”
“So you said.”
“Careful, Gargi. You overstep.”
“I know. It is only concern for you that drives me to such extremes. Please forgive me.”
Nur allowed herself a tiny sigh. “No, you are correct in nearly every detail. I let my anger get the better of my judgment and your sound advice.”
Gargi’s hands resumed their work, oiling and combing through Nur’s thick tresses. A few moments passed in silence before she spoke again. “Speaking of anger and poor judgement: perhaps it is time to contact Mullah Mohan.”
“Gargi, surely you would not choose him to try and speak on my behalf to the foreigners?”
A delicate, derisive snort. “Of course not. But he will require some time to adjust to the idea of a woman ally, and you will require some time to develop exactly the right method to manage him properly. Beyond that, there has to be someone among his supporters who has the political acumen required to keep him afloat at court. Perhaps you can learn who that is, and develop them as a go-between.”
“I do not think such a person exists. Since the emperor has returned control of government to himself, Mohan has not enjoyed the same eminence he enjoyed before.”
“All the more reason to approach him now.”
“Hard to believe,” the emperor mused.
“Your pardon, Sultan Al’Azam?” Salim asked. Placing a finger in the book.
The emperor waved a hand to encompass Red Fort and the luxuries of his quarters. “That all this will be subjugated by the English — my empire, the people of Hindustan and the peninsula, all of them conquered and cowed in such a short span of years by a people from so far away.”
Salim opened his mouth to respond, but thought better of it. It wouldn’t be wise to contradict the emperor. Not wise at all.
The emperor had seen him, however. “What is it, Amir? I did not order you into my presence so that you can keep your thoughts locked behind those cheap turbans of yours.”
“Sultan Al’Azam, did your own dynasty not do precisely the same thing?”
The emperor gave a snort and smiled broadly. “Indeed they did, though they came riding, not sailing. And what I meant to say was that if it is God’s will that this should all fall to the English, then why resist?”
“With respect, Sultan Al’Azam, I do not think that God has chosen this medium,” Salim tapped the book, “to show us a future set in stone, but to warn us where we are bound, that we might mend our ways and change our course.”
Salim saw the briefest of tightening around the emperor’s eyes. “If this,” the emperor gestured at the book, “is not certain to happen, how do you explain the construction of my wife’s tomb, exactly to my specifications, in the picture from the future?”
Salim cocked his head, considering. “I suppose that some things, improper things, might be changed for the better, according to God’s will. Viewed in this light, your care for the design and construction of the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal cannot be anything but proper in His eyes ”
“Do you ask or tell me, Amir?”
“Neither, Sultan Al’Azam. I but seek answers. I would not presume to tell you the mind of God, just as I cannot presume to do so for any man.”
“A politic response.”
Remembering whom he was speaking to, Salim stopped the denial that leapt to his lips. He was less successful stopping the shake of his head.
Again the emperor caught the arrested movement: “What?”
“Politic or not, it is the truth. I do not have the education, inclination, or desire to dictate what is proper in another’s path to God.” Unlike Mullah Mohan and his associates.
“Merely the future of my Empire, eh?” Shah Jahan asked, picking up his drink.
Salim felt his face heat. “Sultan Al-Azam ”
Letting the jeweled drinking cup dangle carelessly from between his fingers, Shah Jahan grinned. “Relax, Amir Yilmaz. I merely jest at your expense. I know who your teacher was. Mian Mir taught many of the family. How is the saint?”
Wondering if the cup contained iced wine or some other forbidden drink, Salim answered: “I have not seen him since departing for Europe, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Yes, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Then?” The emperor accompanied the question with another gesture that encompassed Salim and his position in the palace.
“He had not thought to live to see me again. He asked that, whatever I found, I bring it before you and your sons. Through another of his students, he affirmed that request when I arrived in Agra.”
“I see.” The emperor fixed Salim with a hard stare over the rim of his cup and said, “So Mian Mir is responsible for your participation in the mission to Europe. Tell me, what did you think of Baram Khan?”
Sensing something dark lurking in the emperor, Salim chose his words with care: “He was difficult and obstinate. He did not easily adjust to changing circumstances, and he spoke harshly to those he had no need to. He was not, to use the sultan’s own word, politic.”
“No, he was not. Tell me, how did he die?”
“Poison, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“I knew that. How did he die?”
“While I was not present for his very last moments, the khan was in a great deal of pain and distress, Sultan Al’Azam.”
Salim did not offer comment and managed, this time, to keep his disappointment from showing: He had hoped Shah Jahan would be above such dark and petty wishes, but a man was a just a man, be he in beggar’s rags or a sultan’s jewels.
The emperor went silent, brooding over his cup.
Salim, unsure whether to resume reading from the book, let his mind wander further afield while he awaited direction from his overlord.
It seemed the emperor has already changed the course of this history, he thought. Certainly everyone had been surprised by his appointment of Dara to command the punitive expedition against the Sikhs.
There was a click as Emperor set his cup down. One of the hovering slaves saw it instantly filled. Salim didn’t think it wise to know what the emperor was drinking, not being sufficiently practiced at hiding his disapproval should the emperor’s drink prove to be wine.
Turn away from that which offends —
Turn toward what, though? Salim’s eyes fell on the books again. Shah Jahan clearly believed these contain truths, so why hadn’t the emperor asked the mullahs for fatwas concerning their contents?
Interesting. And why haven’t I asked that question before?
“Are you ready to resume, Salim?”
“I am, Sultan Al’Azam.”
Salim opened India Britannica and started reading the first chapter after the lengthy introduction: “Chapter One: A Quiet Trade, and a Profitable One.
“India was an imperial possession long before the British made it theirs, with the notable difference that it had not become a component in an international mechanism, the rulers having simply moved in from their native soil to put down roots afresh. The ancient conglomeration of Hindu states under their rajas had first known alien occupation at the end of the twelfth century, when Turkish-speaking Muslims invaded the subcontinent and settled around the thriving city of Delhi ”
The emperor listened, his thoughts his own.
̶#8220;How goes the amir’s reading, Father?” Jahanara asked as he was making ready for bed.
“What did you learn?”
Father shrugged. “The translation slows us, so we have barely begun.”
“Still, were there many revelations to be had?”
“No, not yet.”
“But Amir Yilmaz is up to the task of translating?”
“Yes.” Shah Jahan sighed. “Daughter, I did not order you into my presence so you can ask me half a hundred questions about Amir Yilmaz.”
“I am sorry, Father.”
He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose. “It is I who should apologize. I am weary. Things move, and I worry that I cannot see them.”
“Things, Father?” she asked, trying to help him get what pained him out.
“If it wearies you, Father, then it must be of great import.”
“Roundabout flattery will no more pry my lips apart than repeated questions.”
“I am sorry, Father.”
“Why do you press so?”
She spread her hands, stung. “Mother used to listen to your troubles and I thought to –”
“You are not your mother.”
Jahanara swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. “I know that, Father.”
If Shah Jahan noticed the pain he’d caused her, he didn’t show it: “Further, you have no idea what it is to be me. No idea what it is to be surrounded by people who want something from you at every moment of your life. Even family. Even sons.” He looked at her. “Even daughters.”
“I don’t –”
“Yes, you do. Everyone wants something from me, my children most of all! Your brothers, all of them want — or will want — position, armies, power, all so they can kill one another off and rule when I am gone! So tell me, you, who claims to be apart from all others in my empire, what do you want of me?”
“But Murad is only a chi –”
He cut her off again. “Do not attempt to sway me from the point, to deny what you want of me: you want a husband.”
Bewildered by Father’s anger, Jahanara shook her head. “I –”
“You will have no husband.”
“Father!” Jahanara gasped, feeling tears well. It wasn’t the first time he’d said such things, but his anger and her failure to see anything she might have done to give offense left her wits a tangled mess, her feelings trampled as if by elephants.
Father went on, relentless and angry beyond reason: “Never! The decree was made by Akbar the Great himself. I will not see some upstart pretender use my daughters to claim that which my sons shall have!”
“Father?” she cried.
He was shaking with rage, now. “No. Get out!”
Jahanara fled, unable to prevent tears any longer. She was openly sobbing by the time she returned to her quarters and threw herself into bed.
Salim, concerned by the timing of his summons, approached the emperor’s chambers. He was normally brought into the Imperial presence after isha prayers and it was barely past zuhr. He’d been a resident of Red Fort long enough to know Shah Jahan was something of a creature of habit, retiring to the harem after noon prayers to eat and enjoy the company of his ladies.
As Salim presented himself before the guards, a eunuch fled from the emperor’s quarters, the look in his eyes that of a wounded blackbuck hunted by lions. Salim’s concern ticked higher. The harem slaves and servants had been behaving strangely since last night, but no one who knew would tell him why.
Taking a steadying breath, he strode into the lion’s den, ready for nearly anything.
The emperor reclined among silken pillows, a minimum of attendants surrounding him.
Salim made the requisite three bows and waited to be acknowledged.
He did not have to wait long. “Amir. This morning’s reports indicate that envoys from the United States of Europe arrived in Surat some time ago, and even now make their way to us.”
The emperor leaned forward. “Did you know anything of this?”
“No, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Do you know why it is that I am only now learning that such envoys exist?”
“Aside from an awareness that someone has failed you, no, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Someone has, indeed, failed me.”
Knowing he could not speak to that without appearing defensive, and therefore responsible, Salim kept his silence.
After what seemed a very long time, Shah Jahan sighed and dropped his gaze. “Do you have an idea what these envoys might bring us?”
Salim spread empty hands. “Many were the wonders of that place. Perhaps one of their many books containing technical knowledge? Or some expertise in an area of endeavor that we have not had success in? Perhaps just more of the history brought back from that other time.”
“No offers of alliance?”
Salim shook his head. “I fail to see what they could offer you for such an alliance, Sultan Al’Azam. They share no borders with your empire or even with powers that share a border with us. Further: unlike the Portuguese, Dutch, and English, they have few ships to contest the seas.”
“Will their envoy be a noble?”
Salim smiled. “I very much doubt it, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Oh? They would insult me with a commoner, then?”
“No, inasmuch as any of the people from the future are what we would call common, Sultan Al’Azam, they will be of no particular bloodline, but very well educated, in their own way.”
“Will any speak Persian? Be literate?”
“I doubt, Sultan Al’Azam, that one of those people from the future has already learned our language, but they will surely be assisted by those that do.”
“And their religion?”
“Christian, but ” he trailed off, uncertain how to say it without offering offense. Shah Jahan had allowed Akbar and Jahangir’s religious policies to continue, not out of any particular conviction that they were correct, but rather because he had been in mourning so long he had allowed many things to continue as they had been.
“They are very tolerant of religions, Sultan Al’Azam. It is one of the laws of the land.” He paused, took a slight tangent in the hopes they could avoid the subject of religion. “In fact, their laws are meant to apply to all people within their lands, equally.”
The emperor sniffed. “And yet Baram Khan was murdered and no one executed for it.”
“I would respectfully remind the Sultan Al’Azam that we had already left the territories of the United States of Europe when Baram Khan was killed.”
A dismissive wave greeted that argument. “Despite my disfavor and the intent of his dispatch to Europe, Baram Khan was an envoy of this court and therefore entitled to receive the protection of whatever prince in whose territory he found himself ”
The emperor shook his head. “But your point is taken: these people are not likely to be the author of that insult, and therefore should not be punished for it.”
Salim bowed before that wisdom.
“Still, my brother sultan has expressed concerns about this country and its influence on the states between his and theirs.”
Salim summoned a mental map. “You speak of the Ottoman Sultan, Sultan Al’Azam?”
The emperor nodded.
“An understandable concern for the Ottomans, Sultan Al’Azam. I have witnessed for myself how the technologies from the future can changed the calculus of war.”
“I would not have my Sunni brothers believe I have abandoned them by entering into an alliance with these people.”
“I see the problem, Sultan Al’Azam.” The Sunni powers — Uzbegs, Mughals, and Ottomans — were always interested in limiting Shia expansion, especially that of the Persian Safavid dynasty that sat between them all.
“See, but do not agree with my analysis?”
“I agree that entering into an alliance would not be wise, Sultan Al’Azam, but no sensible person could fault you for having received official envoys.”
“Sensible does not always fall within those terms that define a Safavid. They ever look to take Kandahar from us. I cannot disregard the potential political costs of being seen to support the enemies of either the Ottomans or Persia.”
“All true, Sultan Al’Azam.”
Shah Jahan snorted. “What, no argument?”
“Sultan Al’Azam, since coming to court, I have found reason to thank God that I am not the one on whom such weighty decisions must fall. I have advised the course I think most beneficial, but make no claims to expertise in such matters.”
A thin, grim smile pierced Shah Jahan’s beard. “Does my most honest advisor have anything to add?”
“I cannot think of anything, Sultan Al’Azam.”
Another, broader smile. “I do enjoy your economy of words, Amir. So much so that I think we must find them employment.”
“You are too kind, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“You will have opportunity to prove my words properly weighted in your favor: I grant you command of five hundred, a robe of office and incomes necessary to act as host to the envoys from the USE and send you forth to deliver the dastak to the envoys.”
Salim sat silent, stunned. He had thought himself come into Shah Jahan’s presence ready for anything, only to have the emperor surprise him yet again.
“Did I surprise you?”
“Yes, Sultan Al’Azam.”
“Good. Gather men, and quickly. The envoys are already well on their way.”
“That may prove difficult, Sultan Al’Azam. Between the armies of your son and those of Asaf Khan, there are scarcely more than a hundred men not already in your direct service worthy of the name.”
“You have not called upon your clansmen?”
It was Salim’s turn to smile. “I have. Those are the hundred I spoke of. Most already ride with one of your hosts.”
The emperor returned the grin. “Well then, you have a core of fine riders. Still, we cannot have so small a party greet our guests.” He turned and spoke briefly to an attendant, who left at the run.
“I have summoned Diwan Firoz Khan, who has the care of the harem in his department. He will supply you another hundred warriors to fill your numbers while we await fresh sowar seeking employment.”
Those would likely be eunuchs and Turki warrior-women. Still, each would be a blooded warrior. In any event, if things turned to fighting, then the situation would have truly gone to ruin.
He bowed. “As you wish, Sultan Al’Azam.”
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