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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 19:55 EDT



Agra, Red Fort, The Diwan-i-Khas
November, 1634

    Expectations high, Jahanara and Nadira eagerly awaited their first sight of the envoys from the future as Father made short work of the day’s regular business.

    Jahanara glanced up as Nur entered the women’s area. Her great-aunt sent a nod Jahanara’s way before sitting with her typical grace.

    Jahanara hid her discontent. It would have been nice to have had this bit of excitement to herself. Now she would have to conceal the depth of her interest, lest Nur use it against her.

    “Bring them forth, then,” Father said.

    Realizing she’d missed an announcement, Jahanara put away her thoughts and looked through the jali.

    Amir Salim appeared, a significant party of strangely-dressed men in his wake.

    Jahanara forgot Nur’s presence, leaning forward to peer at the foreigners. Almost all of them stood a head taller than the courtiers lining their path. One was of such enormous size she was sure he could crack a skull with but one hand. Two of the men had beards so blond she thought them beardless at first. Craning her neck, she spied several burkhas at the rear of the party.

    Amir Yilmaz strode forward and bowed three times before the Peacock Throne. The ferenghi did likewise, some with a good deal less grace.

    Father eyed them a moment, his expression inscrutable, then waved permission for Salim to speak.

    “Al-Sultan Al’Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Abu’l-Muzaffar Shihab ud-din Muhammad, Sahib-i-Qiran-i-Sani, Shah Jahan I Padshah Ghazi Zillu’llah, I present to you the party of envoys representing the trade interests of Gustavus Adolphus, Emperor of the United States of Europe.” He made a sweeping gesture that took in the entire party.

    One man stepped forward and bowed again, then spoke in a deep voice that was immediately translated by a fellow in his party that looked somewhat familiar. “Sultan Al –”

    “Sultan Al’Azam! Sultan!” the shouts coming from somewhere else took everyone completely by surprise, Father’s guards included. Blades were bared and the dais between the ferenghis and Father quickly covered in armed retainers ready to cut down any threat.

    Those courtiers closest to the throne edged away, their own retainers closing about them. While not permitted arms in the royal presence, still they stood to defend their rulers and chieftains. Such were the dynamics of power in Father’s lands that there were many who had cause to fear assassination, even at court.

    Jahanara looked from them to search for the source of the shouts, eventually spotting a man pushing through the envoys, turban and sash marking him as a post-rider.

    She saw the giant foreigner put his weight on the balls of his feet as if preparing to rush the messenger.

    Before he could launch his attack and push things even further into chaos, Salim had him by the wrist. He must have found the right words to calm the big fellow, because he settled back on his heels.

    “What is the meaning of this interruption?” Shah Jahan shouted, standing, ringed with steel.

    “Sultan Al’Azam, terrible news!” the messenger cried, waving the satchel that was as much a mark of his station as the turban and sash.

    A muttering like the wind through tall grass swept the Hall of Audience.

    Nadira’s hand shot out, clutching hers in a painful grip.

    “What news is of such import that you interrupt the court?” Father’s question knifed through the muttering with such menace it stopped the messenger in his tracks.

    “Sultan Al’Azam, I bear horrible news.”

    Too late, Jahanara saw tracks of tears in the dust coating the man’s face.

    Still clutching Jahanara’s hand painfully, Nadira released a slow, animal groan of purest agony, tears coursing down beautiful cheeks.



    Salim released Rodney’s wrist as the wailing of a fresh-made widow reached his ears. None of the envoys moved, quite likely a good thing under the circumstances.

    “Lost, Sultan Al’Azam! Your son and nearly all his host were lost!” the messenger threw himself on the ground before the dais, landing beside Salim’s feet.

    Mutters of shock and disbelief made the rounds through the hall. He dimly heard Angelo, the Venetian translator, making sure John understood.

    Though Salim had trouble understand this himself. Dara, gone? And with him, hope of religious tolerance.

    Through his own stunned surprise, Salim saw Shah Jahan pale. “Lost? How?”

    “Set upon from ambush and cowardly tricks as they invested Ramdaspur.”

    More mutters, though now there was a hot blade of anger and rage cutting between the sobs still sounding from behind the jali.

    “My son?” the emperor choked.

    This time the man bowed so low it was almost a complete prostration. “Struck down while leading a counter-charge that nearly saved the situation.”

    The court groaned as Shah Jahan, Sultan of Sultans, Ruler of the World, swayed on his feet.

    “This will not stand!” That was Aurangzeb’s voice, cracking across the hall.

    Dragged from his fugue by the cry, Shah Jahan drew himself to his full height and raged: “And it will not! I shall have a mountain of skulls set in a tower to rival the monuments of my forebears! Gather the hosts, I ride to crush this upstart and all his people! Gather them now!”

    Cries of, “Allahu Akbar!” and “Sultan Al’Azam!” crashed against the walls of the Hall of Public Audience like waves on stone, doubling back among the pillars and courtiers.

    Belatedly, Salim realized that the people in his charge were not only discomfited by the shouts and anger surrounding them, but had reason to fear for their safety.

    Like hungry lions, the gathered nobles were looking for something to tear into. The foreigners were not members of the pride, and therefore game to be brought down.

    Rodney leaned down, said so quietly that Salim barely heard him, “Things is about to go very bad, J.D.”

    “Yeah, I know,” John answered, hands balling into fists.

    “Do nothing untoward, gentlemen,” Salim hissed. He turned to the throne and the emperor.

    “Sultan Al’Azam, please!” he bellowed, raising his arms above his head. “Sultan Al’Azam!” He had to get the emperor’s attention or things would — “Sultan!”

    The emperor turned furious eyes on Salim and barked: “What?”

    All of the hall went silent.

    Salim lowered his arms, head, and voice. “Sultan Al’Azam, the envoys were in the midst of introducing themselves. They understand what a shock this news is, and ask leave to retire, under your protection, until such time as the Sultan Al’Azam wishes to see them again.”



    Shah Jahan’s face didn’t soften, but the mad anger of a moment before was replaced by a colder, more calculating one. “Yes, by all means. Keep them close, keep them safe. I will want them with us as I travel.”

    Salim bowed. “Your will, Sultan Al’Azam.”

    “Come to me once they are lodged and you have ensured they have mounts suitable to travel.”

    “Your will, Sultan Al’Azam.”

    The emperor turned and left, taking his councilors, Shuja, and Aurangzeb with him.

    Salim slowly released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Feeling as if he’d just survived a battle, he turned to his charges and gestured them out.

    Angelo, a step ahead of the rest, spoke in hushed tones.

    “Don’t have to tell me twice,” John muttered.



    Salim excused himself, stepping aside with a man — or perhaps a eunuch — in rich silks, as the rest of the mission moved out into the courtyard in front of the emperor’s throne room.

    “Now that didn’t go as planned, did it?” Rodney asked as they halted in a loose circle near the center of the courtyard.

    “No shit. I didn’t relish speaking in front of the emperor, but that was no fun,” John said, mopping his brow. The morning sun hadn’t yet climbed over the walls, but it was still considerably warmer than it had been when they’d entered the Hall of Audience.

    A steady stream of men were leaving the court to mount up in the courtyard. Most were dressed like the man who’d interrupted their audience. Messengers, John supposed, dispatched with orders.

    “Did anyone else get the feeling we were about to be torn limb from limb by that crowd?” Gervais asked.

    “It certainly seemed likely, but for the amir’s timely intervention,” said Angelo.

    John nodded. “Salim does have good timing.” He lowered his voice and asked, “Hey, Angelo, you didn’t have a chance to translate everything in there…So what, exactly, happened?”

    “Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh, was killed in battle along with his army. The one that yelled for blood, that’s another of his sons, Aurangzeb, I believe. Or Murad. I’ve never seen them in person. Regardless, the emperor has called on all his might, planning to crush the Sikhs and make towers of their skulls.”

    “You said that before. Did he really mean it? I mean, actual, real towers? I mean, we saw some on the way here, but I thought they were old.”

    “They don’t joke about such things. The Mughal dynasty traces its line straight back to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, don’t forget. The last two emperors put up several such towers on the road between here and Lahore.”

    “That’s some real medieval shit.”

    “John!” Ilsa snapped.

    John sighed, spared an old fashion look for Rodney. “Couldn’t say something? Maybe tell me she was coming?”

    Rodney shrugged. “Nope. Pris is with her.”

    “I sure am, Rodney, and try not to put me in the middle of fights between our friends, please?”

    “Will do, honey. Sorry.”

    John turned to face his wife, hating not being able to see all of her behind the veil. “And I’m sorry, too.”

    She shook her head, took his hand in hers. “Remember how Nasi told us to act at court: as if we have no friends here, which is true, and that the walls have ears that understand English. And for good measure, we just had a great example of how volatile the court can be.”

    “Duly noted. Trust no one.”

    Rodney nodded. “X-Files all the way.”

    “What does that mean?” Gervais asked.

    “A show…oh, I’ll tell you later, our host is coming back.”

    Salim returned with several people in tow. “The diwan of the harem has arranged quarters for everyone. The unmarried men will be staying with me, I’m afraid.”

    “And my daughter?” Gervais asked.

    “She has been invited to stay with Begum Sahib, if that is acceptable?”

    “With the princess?” Monique asked, eyes wide.

    “If that is acceptable? It is considered quite an honor, but I can explain, I think, if your traditions require otherwise.”

    “Will I be able to reach her in an emergency?” Gervais asked.

    “Only via messenger. The other ladies of your party will be free to call on her, of course.”

    Monique cocked her head, switched to French to rattle at her dad, “Mais, nous ne pouvions pas demander une meilleure chance de se rapprocher de quelqu’un dans la famille royale!”

    “Oui, Bien sur.” Gervais, still looking uncomfortable with the idea, switched back to English. “She gladly accepts.”

    Salim nodded. “And the other ladies?”

    “What about us?” Pris asked, clearly resenting being cut out of the conversation.

    Salim kept his eyes off her, answered as if one of the men had asked the question: “Should they wish it, they may also reside with the emperor’s ladies. They will certainly be traveling with them.”

    “What is your thought on this, Salim?” John asked.

    Salim spread his hands wide. “I have been a widower for longer than I was married, so I can hardly speak to the difficulties of being separated from a wife, but the emperor will see that lavish gifts are given them and ensure their every need is met, not to mention ensuring their absolute safety. To do otherwise would be a great blow to his pride and primacy among sultans.”

    He bowed his head slightly and spoke even more quietly. “Begum Sahib is also excellent company, a great wit, and someone I know to be most interested in you up-timers.”

    Gervais cocked his head. “Excellent company? I thought the harem is closed to those not of royal blood?”

    “Dara and I were — friends might be too strong a word — but we shared common interests and concerns.”

    “Our condolences,” John said. Realizing, belatedly, that he hadn’t offered them to the emperor. So much for being a diplomat.

    Salim accepted the platitude with a graceful nod. “When I returned from Europe, it was Dara who first heard me. Begum Sahib was behind the jali for that interview, and questioned me at length. As a result of that interview, I was eventually brought before the Sultan Al’Azam.”

    John nodded, looked a question at his wife.

    “I think it’s a good idea, John.”

    “Me too,” Pris said. She turned to face Salim, who promptly averted his gaze. “Could you also help us with the proper way to show our respects and convey our sincere condolences to Begum Sahib?”

    A bow. “Of course. Communication will remain difficult, however.”

    “It will?”

    “There are a very few here who speak English, fewer still who are not men and therefore barred from the harem.”



    “French?” Gervais asked.

    “I’m afraid not. Portuguese, English and Dutch are the most common European languages here, and even they are not at all common.”

    “I speak Dutch, and we’ve all been working on our Persian,” Monique said.

    “I will ask the diwan what servants he can assign you that may be able to interpret.”

    The silk-robed man Salim had been speaking to earlier emerged from the shadowed portico, calling the amir to him. After a brief consultation, Salim summoned them and said, “It appears I should not have been so concerned. Begum Sahib is, as usual, a step ahead. She has already obtained a translator for the ladies. It seems everything is prepared.”

    John hugged Ilsa, whispered, “Be safe.”

    “I will.”



Agra, Red Fort, The Harem

    Monique and the other ladies looked about themselves in awe as they followed the eunuch through the harem.

    “Mein Gott!” Ilsa whispered.

    Everything was either covered in silks, decorated in precious stones, made of gold, or a combination of all three. Thick, luxurious carpets deadened sound and gentled each step.

    “A girl could get used to this,” Priscilla said.

    “Papa would have a fit, there’s so much gold lying around…”

    “It’s no wonder the men are kept out, these girls are wearing next to nothing!” Ilsa said, watching a pair of women cross the gallery ahead of them.

    Ilsa plucked at her burkha. “It would be nice to wear something lighter than this blanket.”

    Priscilla nodded. “We’ll need to figure out exactly what we can get away with, first.”

    Trying to hide her own level of unease with the amount of skin the women — girls, really — were showing, Monique said, “Keep in mind that what is acceptable for the family or their servants may not be for us, or for me, as an unmarried woman.”


    The eunuch led them into a square chamber about ten yards on a side with a pair of arches set in each. A young girl of about twelve stood in the center of the room, head bowed.

    Monique shook her head. God, but they know how to show their wealth. If the halls leading here had been richly decorated, this room showed so much wealth as to verge on the obscene.

    Papa would have a stroke.

    The eunuch came to a halt beside the girl and spoke with her a moment before turning to face the mission women and addressing them in Persian. The girl began translating into thickly-accented but understandable English almost immediately, “Diwan Firoz Khan would welcome you to the harem of the Sultan Al’Azam, and wishes you to know that whatever your needs, he will see them filled if it is within his power to do so.”

    Neither of the other women seemed to understand what the girl was saying, so Monique stepped forward, “Our thanks, Diwan Firoz Khan, we are most impressed with our…common living area?”

    The diwan flushed, stepped over to one of the arches and lifted the silk hanging. Beyond was a boudoir dressed in a riot of silks and plush pillows. “Each of you will, he hopes, be comfortable in your individual sleeping quarters.”

    “Of course we will.”

    “You have but to call, and someone will answer. Now, he begs leave to depart, as there are a great many…” she paused, looking for the word, “things he must attend to.”

    “Of course. We hope to see him again under better circumstances.”

    The eunuch left, obviously in a hurry.

    “And what is your name, young lady?”

    “Sahana, Mistress.”

    “Monique, please.”

    “Pardon, Mistress?”

    “Monique is my name, and these ladies are Priscilla Totman and Ilsa Ennis.”

    Both her companions nodded.

    “Where we are from, we like to be on a first name basis with those whom we are closest with.” A white lie, for her part, but one that did no harm. “Now, I would love to know, how is it you came to speak such excellent English?”

    “My mother served Sir Thomas Roe, and taught me the rudiments of the language. Later, I was purchased by Jadu Das, a servant of the English Company, to work at their factory, where I continued to listen to that language.”

    Both her companions looked uncomfortable at something the girl said. She mentally reviewed the statement, then asked, “Purchased?”

    “Yes, Mistress Monique.”

    “And were you purchased again for this duty?”

    “Yes, Mistress Monique.”

    She wondered just how much loyalty a slave had to any master, let alone new ones. “I see. Will there be anyone else to assist you?”

    The girl looked scandalized. “No, Mistress Monique! I can do the work myself.”

    “Of course you can. I was only worried that speaking for three garrulous women like us might be something of a trial.”

    Sahana bit her lip. “Forgive my ignorance, Mistress Monique, but I do not know this word: Garuliss.”

    “Garrulous. It means talkative.”

    A broad smile drove the girl’s looks from merely pretty to exotic, impish beauty. “If I can manage to understand the drunken louts of the English Company, I durst think I can keep track of the words of a few women.”

    “Oh dear,” Priscilla said, “I think we may have stumbled upon a young lady much like ourselves, Monique.”

    Monique grinned. “I think you are correct.”

    “Well then, on to the important stuff: can we take off these infernal blankets?” Priscilla asked.

    Another grin. “Of course. Durst ye have clothing suitable to the harem?”

    “No,” the women lamented.

    The girl’s smile nearly split her face in half. “Well then, let me offer my first service.” She clapped her hands, calling out in liquid Persian.

    Young, attractive attendants came from two of the alcoves, quickly stripping all three naked, then clothing them in garments that were far less modest but also far more appropriate to the climate.

    Monique overcame her body-shyness by focusing on the clothes. She had rarely seen such fine silk, let alone worn the like. The feel of the shift was a fantastic experience. She was almost ashamed to don it, sweaty as she was.

    “What’s the bathing situation?” she asked.

    Another, wider smile and another clapping of hands was Sahana’s answer.

    Monique could see how one might grows to like this, despite the hateful nature of keeping free people in bondage.

    The other women, while each likely had their separate reservations, were likewise overcome by the luxurious comfort of their clothing and surroundings, at least for now.

    Tomorrow for thought, today to ease fear and fatigue.

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