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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Twenty
Last updated: Wednesday, March 29, 2017 19:20 EDT
Agra, Red Fort, The Harem
“Shehzadi, Diwan Firoz Khan humbly requests a moment of your time this morning,” Smidha said, overseeing the slaves as they applied the last touches of henna to Jahanara’s feet.
̶#8220;Oh? Do you know why? We aren’t due to go over the harem’s financials for several days.”
“No, Shehzadi, I do not.” Smidha shooed the slaves away. “He would only say the matter was of some import.”
“Very well, send for him.”
Smidha nodded to one of the attendants, who went in search of the harem’s diwan.
When they were reasonably alone, Smidha leaned in close. “How are you feeling, daughter of my heart?”
Jahanara shrugged. “As well as can be expected. Father maintains his distance, but has not otherwise punished me for whatever it was I did to incite his anger the other night.”
“You speak, yet do not answer my question.”
Feeling a smile curl her lips, the first since Father’s outburst, Jahanara explained: “I hurt, Smidha. I do not know why. I have known my place for many years, yet when Father was yelling, it was as if I was hearing those things for the first time ” She shook her head, drew a deep, cleansing breath. “I suppose I had not realized how much hope I still held that he might be swayed from his position.”
“Perhaps he will change it of his own accord, given time, Shehzadi.”
Jahanara nodded, was saved from voicing her doubts by Diwan Firoz Khan’s arrival.
“You wished to see me, Diwan?”
“Indeed, Shehzadi: foreign travelers we have never seen before made landfall in Surat and are now making their way inland in hopes of an audience with Shah Jahan.”
“All foreigners must use Surat if they wish to trade within the Empire. Why should this group rouse your interest?”
“For three reasons, Begum Sahib. One: our spies in service to the English Company report that their factors expressed some consternation at their presence.”
“Wait, something about these folk displeases the English?”
“Yes, Shehzadi. I had suspicions who they might be, but wanted confirmation before reporting to you. Diwan Kashif was able to furnish such confirmation: the strangers are, at least in part, from that town from the future that furnished the papers and books, this –” He had difficulty with the odd word — ‘Grantville.’ ”
“I see now why they interest you! Please continue.”
“Two: the diwan you assigned to oversee your interests in Surat had reason to interact with them.
“Lastly: the emperor met privately with the man he has chosen as mihmandar to the visiting dignitaries.”
“Fascinating. When will they get here? Never mind that! Who else knows of their approach?”
“They are two, perhaps three days from Agra, Shehzadi. The latest information — merely a day old — and learned at your father’s knee: they stopped at one of your caravanserai just five days slow ride from here.
“As to who may know,” he waggled his head, “I do not think a great many, despite the selection of a mihmandar. As you know, the court has been focused of late on your brother’s campaign to punish the Sikhs. Between that and the departure of Asaf Khan’s army, there has been little attention to spare.”
“He what?” Smidha blurted.
“Who?” Jahanara asked, at nearly the same time.
“The emperor has chosen and dispatched a mihmandar to see to the needs of the foreign dignitaries and return them to court. I only know of it because he called upon me to provide riders from the harem guardians.”
“Who did Father choose?” Jahanara repeated, suspecting she knew the answer.
“Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz, who has also been promoted to command five hundred and given robes so that he cut a suitable figure and the mace for presentation to the envoys.”
“I see,” Jahanara said, glancing excitedly at Smidha.
“Why did Diwan Kashif treat with them?” Smidha asked, caution driving her back to her original question.
“They were unclear on certain of our ways, and thought Kashif the governor.”
“Kashif corrected that misapprehension, did he not?” Jahanara asked, suddenly fearful. The last thing she wanted was for Father to remove Kashif for overstepping his authority. He’d barely taken up the post and finding a replacement would be most problematic.
“Yes, Shehzadi. He also ordered the escort we provided him when you assigned him to Surat — which was to return to Agra anyway — to escort the foreigners here to Agra.”
“Somewhat beyond his purview,” Smidha said.
“But excusable, given the ferenghi’s error,” Firoz Khan offered.
“He was ordered to keep his head down and simply work at improving our holdings in Surat,” Smidha continued.
“And has done an excellent job, even in the short time he has been in charge.”
Jahanara hid a smile. Such public statements of support for the people he’d put up for appointment was one of the reasons Jahanara had chosen Firoz Khan to manage Father’s harem. He was — if not overburdened with too many scruples — at least not inclined to withdraw his support from a subordinate at the first sign of royal displeasure.
“Still, what did they offer Kashif, to encourage him to take such risks?”
“Kashif said they gave him a number of high quality sequins. He requests orders as to how to dispose of them. Both the quantity and quality reported by Kashif are confirmed by my independent sources in this letter, here.” The diwan presented a letter.
She waved his proof away, trusting his word on this subject.
The diwan slid the letter back into his robes, but Jahanara did not miss his pleased smile.
Patting the letter, he went on, “Kashif explains that the people from the future did not deign to reveal what they plan to offer in trade, but that they purchased forty pack horses from your concerns there, mounts for a dozen riders, re-mounts for same, and hardly blinked at the costs, which were quite high.”
“Only a dozen in their party?”
“Including the wives of three of them, yes.”
“Wives!?” Smidha and Jahanara chorused in surprise.
He nodded, smile dimpling smooth cheeks once more. “Indeed, Shehzadi.” He waved a hand as if such information was of little import, “There were more men aboard their ship, but they remain there as of the last report.”
“You tease!” Jahanara said.
He wagged his head, put a hand to his breast. “Who, me, Shehzadi?”
“Tell me of these women, you reprobate.”
He pretended a swoon. “Forgive me, Shehzadi!”
Jahanara couldn’t — entirely — prevent a snort of laughter, choked out: “Only if you desist immediately and tell me of these wives!”#8221;
“They were respectful of modesty, and went about covered when required, but Khashif’s spies claimed that when aboard their ship one of them displayed golden hair and all of them went about on the ship dressed in clothing completely inappropriate to the climate.”
“Woolen dresses, I think.”
She gestured at her own silk top, one of the class of fabrics called water for its utter sheerness and translucent qualities. “Wouldn’t that itch terribly?”
Firoz Khan shuddered. “I imagine so.”
“Do we have translators for these women when they join us in the harem?”
“Not at the moment, Begum Sahib.”
“Who was it the amir stayed with when we finally found him?”
Firoz nodded, taking her unspoken advice. “The home of Jadu Das, a merchant factor for the English. I shall start there. Thank you, Begum Sahib.”
“Any idea why the women accompany this mission?”
Along the river Yamuna
“When do we arrive?” Bertram asked, trying out his Farsi. He had been practicing intensively with Angelo, but knew he was some months, at best, from fluency. Every member of the mission needed to learn or forever be at the mercy of translators, assuming someone could be found.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Iqtadar said. He gave Bertram a measuring glance and added, after a moment: “You learn quickly.”
Bertram thanked the chieftain and reigned in to wait for Rodney and John. Both up-timers sent a lazy wave his direction. John even smiled. Smiles had been more frequent from him since he and his wife had survived the bandit attack unscathed.
“Iqtadar says we’ll make the gates of the city tomorrow.”
“Nearly there, at last,” John said, adjusting his seat in the saddle.
“Ever fly anywhere? You know, before?” Rodney asked.
“A few times.”
“The world got a whole lot bigger after the Ring of Fire, though there’s lots of folks in the USE trying to shrink it back up again.”
“Sure, they’re working miracles with what we’ve got,” John said, “but we’ll be in our sixties before there’s enough planes to make even short passenger flights commercially viable, let alone international flights.”
“No argument here.”
Bertram shook his head.
“What?” John asked.
“So much change, so quickly, and yet you complain that things are proceeding too slow!”
John shrugged. “Not complaining, exactly. I always preferred riding rails to flying wherever possible, anyway. It’s just the pace of things was –”
John cut off mid-sentence, looking ahead. Bertram followed the line of his gaze, saw one of Iqtadar’s scouts riding back at the gallop.
“He looks in a hurry.”
Bertram looked back along the line of the column, found Angelo riding with the ladies a hundred paces or so to the rear, giving them their language lessons. He whistled as loudly as he could. Everyone in earshot looked his way. He pointed at Angelo and waved the translator forward, speeding up to a canter to rejoin Iqtadar himself. He heard Rodney and John fall in and was comforted by their armed presence at his back.
The chief was speaking to his second as Bertram rode up. Neither seemed tense, but Bertram had seen how the Afghans could go from seeming indolence to violent action in a heartbeat.
The outrider pulled up and spoke too rapidly for Bertram to understand. From his tone, the man wasn’t distressed, which was some slight comfort.
Iqtadar sniffed loudly through his hooked and oft-broken nose, said something Bertram translated as, “pretty smells.”
Iqtadar’s men laughed harshly.
Angelo trotted up a moment later, immediately asked what was afoot.
Bertram understood one in five words that followed and what he could comprehend left him confused.
Angelo asked a one-word question, got a curt reply. He shrugged and translated. “A party approaches. Iqtadar says they are armed, but says that, as the party is composed of eunuchs and women, it is of little concern.”
“But, I thought they closeted all women, kept them from public view.”
“The Muslims do, for the most part. This is different.”
“How does that work?”
Angelo shrugged, “The Turki women are an exception. There are some tribes among them that are known to provide warrior women as guardians for the harems of potentates, but it is not very common and certainly unusual in the numbers the outrider claims ride toward us.”
“Then the numbers indicate someone powerful enough to ignore certain irregularities?”
Angelo nodded. “Almost certainly. In fact, they are likely commanded by someone in the emperor’s household.”
A troop of cavalry appeared in the distance, riding the shaded road that led to the capital.
“Headed toward us, that’s sure,” Angelo said.
“Yup,” John murmured. “And Angelo’s right, there’s some Amazons with ’em. In fact, only a few of them have what the locals consider a proper beard.”
Bertram glanced back at the up-timer, saw the man was using the telescopic sight of his rifle to get a better look.
“No guns, though. Just bows, swords and lances.”
“Perhaps you should lower the rifle, John. They may take umbrage.”
Salim let out a slow breath as the man in the van of the column lowered the up-timer rifle.
He’d seen what the weapons could do one cold European afternoon. The Albernian Mercenary Company had held the bridge against formidable odds all day, using rifles much like the one the up-timer held. That skirmish had furnished plenty of evidence that a trained rifleman could easily remove any of his riders from the saddle at distances far greater than the two hundred gaz or so of road separating them. He’d even done a fair amount of shooting with one, himself. In fact, it had only been running out of ammunition that had made him toss a wounded North off the bridge and light the bomb fuse meant to bring the bridge down. The memory of the freezing waters closing over his head and the desperate swim that followed caused him to shiver despite the rising heat of the day.
“What is it, Amir?” The woman’s voice drew him from the spell of memory.
Salim glanced aside, found bright eyes regarding him over a chain mail veil and recognized Atisheh, one of the warrior-maidens of the harem. Despite her seeming inattention, she rode with ease and practiced grace.
He waved a hand, clearing away the memories. “Nothing. A memory.”
She nodded at the party on the road ahead. “This is them?”
“Oh, yes. They have at least one of the weapons from the future. See the man sitting next to the giant one, the one settling something that looks like an arquebus on his back?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I see him.”
“That is a rifle. A much more dangerous firearm than any to be had outside of the village from the future.”
“The bearer is no rider, though. Look how he sits his horse. He’d be thrown after shooting.”
“Perhaps. The up-timers are not known for their skill at horsemanship. They relied on mechanical contrivances to convey them about.”
The conversation had carried them across much of the distance separating the two columns of horse. He raised a hand. His riders slowed, came to a halt a bare hundred gaz from the up-timers. “Atisheh, you and Abdul are with me.”
Abdul’s expression soured slightly. Clearly, his lieutenant did not care for this assignment — or perhaps, simply didn’t like to be seen riding with women and eunuchs.
“Let’s not make any sudden moves,” Angelo said, eyeing the riders just coming to a halt about a hundred yards away.
“No, let’s not,” John agreed. Every one of the warriors bore bow and blades, riding with an easy grace John could never hope to match. The women and some of the men — eunuchs, he supposed — wore both silks and mail. He never would have thought someone wearing that much silk could be so intimidating.
A big fellow emerged from the center of the riders, bearded and capable-looking. One of the women rode with him, as well as another man with a full beard, this one cut from the same mold as the first guy and — John looked sideways at Iqtadar. Looks like small West Virginia towns ain’t the only places to spawn folks with a similar look.
By pre-arranged plan, John, Iqtadar, and Angelo rode forward ten yards or so and came to a stop.
Iqtadar edged forward a bit more, peering at their opposites. After a moment he shouted, “Abdul?”
John flinched. The sudden noise and his rider’s movement made his mount rear. John kept his seat with far greater ease than he would have just a week ago. So much so that he was able to watch as the man to the right of the leader smiled broadly and called back, “Iqtadar!”
“You know this man?” he asked, through Angelo.
Iqtadar smiled, nodding. “I do. He is my kinsman.”
When the two parties drew close enough for regular conversation, the central figure spoke in accented but perfectly understandable English, “You are the envoy from the United States of Europe?̶#8221;
Swallowing surprise at the man’s command of English, John nodded. “I am both envoy and authorized to speak on behalf of the others with that status in our party.”
“Shah Jahan, the Sultan Al’Azam ” the man launched into another series of untranslated titles and powers before returning to English, “greets you and offers you shelter in the shadow of his power for as long as you desire.”
Angelo gave a barely audible sigh. John shot a look the Venetian’s way. He looked a little deflated he hadn’t been called on to translate.
“We accept in the name of His Majesty Gustavus Adolphus and the duly elected government of the United States of Europe.”
“I am Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz, your mihmandar — your” — he searched for the proper term — “host for the duration of your stay. I am at your service. Whatever your needs, I will make every effort to see them met.”
“That is most kind of both the emperor and you, Amir. I am Mister John Dexter Ennis of Grantville.” He gestured at Iqtadar. “It appears our guide and defender, Iqtadar, is known to some of you.” He nodded at Angelo. “And this is Angelo Gradinego, our translator, late of Venice. There are others in the mission I’ll have to introduce you to, but on behalf of all of us, and Gustavus Adolphus, Emperor of the United States of Europe, I wish to inform you how pleased we are to be to be met with such a strong party.”
“As soon as he learned of your coming, Shah Jahan was overtaken with desire to see you in person.”
That might not be an entirely good thing: Don Francisco had said the Mughal diplomat bought some books in Grantville that revealed the history of European dealings in India — which had often been anything but savory.
“We also look upon the chance to meet the emperor with excitement and hope for a prosperous future.”
The amir relaxed fractionally and then waved a big hand at his male companion and across at Iqtadar. “With your permission, my kinsmen desperately want to talk to one another.”
“Your kinsmen?” John asked as the men in question started catching up with one another in rapid-fire Persian.
A small smile, nearly lost in the man’s beard. “Iqtadar does not recognize me, as I have been gone for some time, but we are cousins as well.”
“I am only recently returned from Europe myself. I was part of Baram Khan’s diplomatic party.”
Salim’s expression did not betray any feeling, one way or another, on the matter of Baram Khan’s fate.
“Shall we join our two parties and continue?”
Angelo spoke up, translating for Iqtadar, who called a command and waved at the rest of the mission, even as the amir did the same to his warriors.
The escorts quickly formed up on either side of the mission.
Rodney, Gervais, and Bertram put heels to their horses, moving to join them at the front. Further back, John saw their wives and the warrior women among their escorts eyeing one another like two rival packs of wolves from some nature show, each pack uncertain of the other.
He turned back to Salim in time to catch the other man watching him.
“We had information that you were traveling in company with your wives.”
“Yes. Will that pose a problem?”
“No, not at all. I believe an opportunity to converse with your wives will please Begum Sahib immensely.”
“The Princess of Princesses: Jahanara, eldest daughter of Shah Jahan.”
“Right, I knew that. It was her that, indirectly, provided our escort. Please forgive my lapse. The ah The royal family is in good health, then?”
“Good to hear.”
“What is it?”
“Forgive me if I misspeak, but I think you, like me, are not made for diplomatic speeches.”
John laughed, and was still laughing when Rodney, Bertram and Gervais joined them.
“What has you in stitches?” Rodney asked in English.
“We were just commiserating over our mutual lack of appreciation for the niceties of diplomatic speech,” Salim explained.
Rodney’s expression on hearing both Salim’s excellent English and the entirely accurate assessment of John’s character was so priceless it set John off again.
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