1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 13
Agra, Red Fort
Her favorite garden was quiet but for the buzz of insects and the musical sounds of water over stone. Most of the court were at Mother’s tomb while the emperor oversaw some detail of its construction. His absence and the oppressive heat left the Red Fort unusually quiet. Jahanara was taking full advantage of that quiet, enjoying a mango julabmost, idly crunching the flavored ice between her teeth while pondering the next few lines of the poem she was composing. The scroll was ready before her, as were ink and brush, but she would commit nothing to paper until the verse was ready in her mind.
One of the harem eunuchs entered the garden and approached her small pavilion. As was proper, he knelt some distance away and waited to be recognized, sweating in the afternoon sun.
Taking pity on him, she handed the remainder of the julabmost to Atisheh, tipping it to indicate the Turkic guard maiden was free to drink it if she chose, and said simply, “Speak.”
“Begum Sahib, your brother’s wife, Nadira Begum Sahiba, inquires whether you are available to come to her sometime this afternoon?”
Sudden concern stabbed her. Nadira was pregnant with Dara’s first child. “Did she say why?” Jealousies ran deep in every harem, and poisoning a rival to end a pregnancy was far from unknown.
“It is some matter that Shehzada Dara Shikoh brought to her attention, Begum Sahib. Something between him and an amir,” a brief hesitation and licking of lips, “whose name escapes this witless servant.”
The eunuch bent forward over his large belly, head nearly touching the grass. “Begum Sahib, I beg forgiveness; it is a worthless slave who forgets too much of his mistress’ business to ever warrant the trust placed in him.”
Jahanara nodded, understanding the subtext quite well — Nadira had not told the slave the name of her husband’s guest, clearly wanting to surprise her. Or the prince himself wanted to limit the ears that would hear the amir’s name.
Interest piqued, she spoke: “I will attend Nadira Begum once I am finished here. Take word to her and comfort in knowing that she will not hear of your lapse in memory from my lips.”
* * *
“You do me great honor, Shehzada Dara Shikoh,” Salim said, bowing low over rich carpets. It was not often a lowly amir found himself invited into the inner chambers of one of the Princes of the Blood. So private was the interview that only the carved sandstone of a jali separated the men from the prince’s harem. A rare honor indeed.
“It is I who is honored to have you as guest.” Dara waved a hand at a cushion beside him. “Please, take your ease and tell us of your travels and the fate of Father’s mission to the west and this city the Jesuits claim appeared with a snap of Shaitan’s fingers.”
A wordless sound of surprise escaped the jali at this announcement of Salim’s most recent adventures. Careful not to look too closely at the screen and therefore see the forbidden, Salim crossed to the offered seat and bowed deeply again. While they had been students together, that had been long ago, and he wanted to show the prince every respect. He decided it was better not to ask who was watching from the harem, assuming the prince would tell him if the prince wished him to know.
So close was the rich cushion to Dara Shikoh that Salim was suddenly very glad he’d had opportunity to bathe and perfume himself before the audience. He leaned on his injured arm as he sat, wincing as the movement pulled at the wound. He ignored the pain, hoping it had not been pulled open: far easier to replace a bit of blood than the cotton tunic purchased for this interview. Or worse yet, to spill blood on a cushion or carpet worth more than his yearly income.
The prince’s slaves entered and presented refreshments on trays of ornate plate of gold. “First, take refreshment before you tell us of your adventures and the fate of Baram Kahn.”
Salim protested, only to have the Dara direct a mischievous grin at the jali while speaking to him: “Salim, allow me to fill your belly before you fill our ears. It will serve to whet our appetite for your news.”
A throaty, musical note of feminine laughter issued from beyond the jali.
Dara ate little himself, but encouraged Salim to try some of the more exotic dishes.
Too nervous to take note of what he was eating, let alone enjoy the delicacies offered, Salim managed to eat a few sweets and was sipping a deliciously cool drink when a soft voice issued from beyond the jali: “The amir is hurt, brother.”
Dara stopped packing his pipe of opium and looked at Salim, brow arching. “You were injured in our pulu match?”
Mortified, Salim glanced at his arm. Sure enough, blood stained the sleeve. “It is nothing, Shehzada, a momentary disagreement between flesh and arrow.”
“Robbers on the road here, Shehzada.”
“A plague. Some hillmen never learn.”
Salim nodded. “They are a problem in every kingdom.”
The female voice returned: “Hillmen or robbers?”
Unsure if he should respond directly, Salim did not answer.
Another wicked grin from Dara. “My sister, the Begum Sahib, would have an answer, I think.”
Clearing his throat, Salim spoke. “Begum Sahib, not all robbers are hillmen, though it has been my experience that the more successful are.”
Another woman giggled, but the penetrating questions continued through it. “Then you were not attacked by hillmen, were you?”
“I thought them Bhils, from their lack of horses and skill at archery. I would not be before you if they had such knowledge.”
“And you are a proper hillman, are you not?”
Salim nodded. “My village is just this side of the Khyber Pass, Begum Sahib.”
He nodded again. “Yusufzai, yes.” He glanced at Dara, found the young prince looking at him, eyes glittering.
“Our forebear passed through there after many great battles.”
“A similar tale is told in my family, Begum Sahib,” Salim answered, thoughtlessly.
The Princess of Princesses pounced on it. “Similar, only?”
“Oh, you’ve done it now!” Dara chortled.
“Stop it, Dara! I will not beg Father to have this man trampled by elephants simply for disagreeing with me on points of history!”
Dara laughed outright, then held his breath.
Salim prayed silently.
The moment stretched like the skin of a drum.
Softly, the Begum Sahib spoke again: “Though I might consider going to him if the amir does not answer promptly.”