1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 17

“Yes, I can see how you would take comfort in that belief. It was not you who was taken from the arms of loved ones.”

Her only response was to sit silent, expression unreadable.

Silently, he cursed himself. That had not been a useful thing to say. She needed to think that all was forgiven, that she was a partner in his plans, if he wanted her to be the lodestone for any ill-will his actions might cause.

Resolving to exert more control over such fits of temper, Aurangzeb looked her in the eye: “That was unworthy. It was not my intent to speak thus. Forgive me?”

She nodded.

“Any idea what news this amir carries?”

“None.” A delicate sniff. “My astrologer claims the man carries news from the future.”

He smiled. “She does, does she?”

She did not return the smile. “Yes.”

Aurangzeb cautioned himself to have a care with casual dismissals of possible truths: such was the claim of the Portuguese, as well, and all things were possible in God’s Design.

Agra, The River Yamuna

As his hired boat turned in toward Agra’s docks, Salim noticed a boat that had departed Red Fort just after his changing course for shore. Two armed men stood behind the boatman paddling at the bow, but there was no visible cargo for them to guard, and both looked away when Salim turned his face in their direction.

He leaned over and spoke to the boat’s master. “If you can push the men hard for shore without appearing to, it will mean another rupee for you.”

The boatman, likely experienced with court intrigues, simply bobbed his head and started pulling deeper and harder with his paddle. His men took their lead from him and did so as well. Salim, not wanting to give the game away, looked straight ahead and fished in his sash for the payment.

During the last hundred paces to the dock, his boat had to maneuver around an outgoing craft. Salim took the opportunity to cast a surreptitious glance at the other boat. The distance between them had grown to nearly fifty paces, but he could see one of the armed men was bending their boatman’s ear about closing the distance while the other openly stared in Salim’s direction.

Now certain they were following him, Salim wondered who they served: Nur Jahan, would-be chooser of emperors, or her brother, Akbar Kahn, the emperor’s First Minister — or perhaps Mullah Mohan, Aurangzeb’s strictly orthodox teacher and advisor?

Not that it mattered if they were sent to do him harm. And, being armed and lacking in subtlety, just watching him go about his business didn’t seem likely.

Their lack of skills at intrigue did seem to rule out Nur Jahan, but she might be running short of skilled servants this long after being consigned to the harem with her grandniece.

Asaf Kahn was still in favor at court, and therefore had no need of subtlety, but Salim knew of no reason the wazir would want him accosted or killed.

No, the more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed that Mullah Mohan was behind these men. The mullah had no love of Mian Mir’s accepting policy toward the Hindus and other religions of the land, and had tried to get the living saint removed from his position as teacher to Shah Jahan’s children on more than one occasion.

As the boat nudged the dock, Salim dropped payment in the master’s lap and stepped off. The man’s breathless but cheerful thanks followed the Pashtun as he turned for the crowded market at the foot of the docks. He glanced back as he neared the first of the merchant’s stalls. The men had made landfall and were hurrying to catch up, shoving people out of their way.

Salim merged with the crowds of shoppers, bearers, and traders. The market had the frenetic atmosphere such places took on before the muezzin called the faithful to sunset prayers. Not that all, or even most, of the people shared faith in Allah and His Prophet; but the Hindus of the capital were cautious, not inclined to even the appearance of disrespect toward the religion of their ruler, and would slow or cease business during the hours of prayer. That could pose problems once the call to prayer began.

He lost track of the men within three steps. Hoping they would do the same, he started in the direction of his lodgings. The sun continued its dive to the hills beyond the river.

Salim saw the boy hanging by one hand from the trellis of an inn as he was leaving the market. He wouldn’t have thought anything of the skinny urchin but for the fact the boy pointed straight at him and continued to do so as he moved through the crowds.

“Paid eyes,” he muttered. Were he given to cursing, Salim would have. Instead he quickened his steps, hoping to get out of sight before the boy could direct the men to him.

“There!” It wasn’t a shout, but the word was spoken with an air of command.

Salim turned and saw one of the men from the boat. The man was already pounding his way, naked steel in hand. The more distant man was waving an arm, most likely summoning more men.

Breaking into a run, Salim looked for places to lose his pursuers or, if he must, make a stand. Nothing looked promising in the first length of road but he hesitated to take one of the side streets for fear it would dead end. He held little hope of outrunning the pursuers. Had he a horse, even a nag, under him, things would be different. But afoot — he could already hear the first man closing the distance.

He picked a spot, deciding it was as good as any. Placing his back to a stack of great clay urns, Salim turned to face his pursuer, blade flickering to hand.

The younger man didn’t slow, charging in, howling “God is great!” as he swept his blade down in an untrained and fatally stupid overhand cut.

Salim deflected the blade to his outside right and twisted his wrist, sending his own slashing across the man’s torso.

Unable to stop, the man ran up the blade and opened his gut to the evening air, the battle cry becoming a wail for his mother. He tripped in his own entrails, fell to his knees. Salim hacked his head from his shoulders, counting it a mercy.

He turned and saw that the easy killing of the one had given his other pursuer pause. Knowing he was done for if the man waited for more assistance, Salim smiled.

The man didn’t respond.

Salim rolled his wrist. Steel hissed as it parted air, casting a thin line of blood in the dust of the street. By happenstance instead of intent, a drop of blood just reached the other man’s boot.

Eyes wide with rage, uneven teeth bared behind his thick beard, the man advanced. Despite the anger, this man was a far more capable adversary. Salim was forced to retreat, working to deflect several fast and powerful strokes.

Timing them, he found an opening and chopped a short hard strike at the other man’s hand. It missed the mark but slapped the inner curve of the other’s sword, sending it out of line.

Switching tactics, Salim stepped closer and forced the other man’s sword farther out of line. He shot his free hand around the back of the man’s neck and pulled, hard, even as he threw his own head forward.

Cartilage and bone ruptured under his forehead.

Fireworks exploded.

Still blinking, he chopped a blow at his reeling opponent that had more of savagery than art. His sword cleaved the man’s collarbone and hacked through the first three bones of the upper ribcage.

“Heretic!” the man burbled, mouth quickly filling with blood.

Mullah Mohan, it is, then.

The dead man collapsed, eyes still full of hate.

The muezzin called the faithful to prayer as Salim turned and resumed his run.