1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 19
Agra, Red Fort, The Harem
“What is it?” Nur asked.
“My Lady, your servant Vidya has taken ill.” Gargi made a small gesture that indicated Vidya was dying, if not already dead.
“Oh?” Nur said, conscious of the eunuchs listening at each guard post. Something was seriously amiss. Gargi had identified the young woman as a spy in someone’s service almost as soon as she started working for Nur, but they had still been trying to discover who, precisely, her hidden master was.
“Yes, some ailment of the digestion. I am afraid she will soon die.”
Nur arched a carefully manicured brow.
Gargi gave a barely perceptible nod in response to the unspoken question. She’d ordered the girl killed, then. For Gargi to take such precipitous action indicated a greater threat.
Damn these listeners, I did not want to get the new henna wet. “Come with me, Gargi, this sad news makes me wish to see growing things and feel the grass beneath my feet. Let us walk in the gardens.”
They stepped out of the apartments and into the gardens, making their way to one of Nur’s favorite features: a man-made stream rushing down a sloping ramp of scalloped stone, causing it to ring and splash like playful music. The grounds immediately next to the fountain were damp with cast-off water, but the noise served to cover her murmured question: “Why did you kill her?”
Kneeling, Gargi extended a cupped hand to the fountain as if catching some spray. Only Nur could see the small vial nestled there. “She was going to poison you.”
Nur Jahan hid a smile. Someone thought her a threat significant enough to warrant assassination. That was quite flattering.
“How was it done?”
“I fed her some of my own.”
“I see. And the body?”
“It will be dumped this evening. Another dead slave.”
“Did you discover her master or mistress first?”
Gargi sniffed. “There was no time.”
“Make time, in future.”
Gargi bowed her head, all humility.
“She will not be easily replaced. We will have to watch carefully who is selected to replace her.”
Gargi stood. “Yes.”
“What to do in the meantime?” Nur mused.
“I will be sure to check with our sources, see if I can uncover who is discomforted by news the girl is dead.”
“Wait a bitâ€¦Perhaps I should take ill?”
Gargi nodded, thoughtful. “That might prove useful. I can observe who seems pleased at your ‘illness’ or takes some unprecedented action with you out of the way. What were you to do tonight?”
Nur shook her head. “Nothing special: feasting with the emperor and his harem.”
A thin smile creased Gargi’s lips. “And how much would we have given for you to be able to say that this time last year?”
Nur matched the smile with her own. “True.”
Aurangzeb’s face flashed before her eyes, killing the smile.
“What is it, mistress?”
“Aurangzeb said something that remained with me, if only because it seems to indicate he does not consider himself an ally: he said Baram Khan had been the last of my allies here at court.”
“If he does not think you can aid him in his designs, why ask you here at all?”
“He plays a deep game, my brother’s grandson. Deeper than I would have thought for one so young.”
Gargi’s lips twisted, a good indication she didn’t believe the words about to come from her mouth: “Perhaps he has no other design than to have you here, under his eye?”
“He has other designs, of that I am sureâ€¦”
“No, I don’t see him attempting something like this, his nose pressed in Hindu texts.”
That gave Nur pause. She shook her head, eventually. “I see no reason he should suddenly shift from his longstanding policy of ignoring me.”
Gargi shrugged. “You have come to his court, making it harder for him to ignore the fact that you yet live.”
“A point, but he could have simply denied my request and sent some favor-currying courtier to end my life in Lahore, had that been his wish. No, a slave-girl poisoner is not Shah Jahan’s style, nor has it ever been. He was my adversary too long for me to fail to recognize his hand, were he involved.”
“No, and for much the same reasons as the emperor. Besides, he — even more than the emperor — would not stoop to use a woman to do such things.”
“Which sets me to thinking that this does smack of a woman’s handâ€¦”
“Or a eunuchâ€¦”
“Certainly the haremâ€¦”
“Yes –” she shook her head, “It’s all just conjecture until we have more information. I will stay in tonight, and you will send messages to Jahanara and the emperor that I have taken ill.”
“And keep watch.”
Nur smiled. “Oh, yes.”
* * *
Father settled himself, the unrelieved white of his robes of mourning making him stand out among the reds and golds of the cushions like a lily among orchids. Prayer beads in hand, he nodded at Jahanara.
Two slaves, selected for their pleasing manner and skill at anticipating the emperor’s needs as much as their desire to serve as tasters, knelt to either side of him, ready to serve the choicest morsels. At her direction, other harem girls entered carrying tray after tray of delights for his meal.
Beyond ensuring the service was faultless, Jahanara spared no thought for the food. Instead she watched Father closely from under long lashes. There were lines on his face and white in his beard that had not been there before her mother passed. The thought of Mother, especially at this moment, brought a hollow ache to her spirit.
Instead of turning from the ache, she embraced it, armored herself in it, knowing Mother would approve of her actions today, despite what woe she might bring Father. And Jahanara had no doubt the plan would add to Father’s woes, just as she had no doubt that what she was about was absolutely necessary for the survival of the family — most especially if her family were to mean more to history than a divisive, degenerate, and despotic dynasty that left the varied nations under their care open to occupation and subjugation by the English.
Jahanara glanced down the line of women to her left, those who were not his wives but lived under Father’s protection in the harem. As she had arranged, Nur Jahan was not present due to an upset stomach. It had been the one point of failure of the plan: it was never certain exactly when her woman in Nur’s service could administer some of the mild poison, and harder still to judge when it would take effect. That difficulty combined with the fact that Dara could not very well linger in the harem led her brother to grant permission for her to speak to their father on behalf of both of them.
No sooner had Dara agreed to let her speak for him than Asaf Kahn had invited Dara to a hunt a few days from Agra. He had only departed this morning, so it had been just barely possible her eunuch messenger Prasad would find Dara and return in time. Father finished the main courses, began to indulge in a few desserts.
Time was nearly up.
All the preparation and planning had led to this moment. Despite Dara’s absence, she must move forward.
Mustering courage, she spoke: “Father?”
He turned his head to look upon her, eyes warming ever so slightly as they lit on her face. “Yes, daughter?”
“I have something I wish to show you, something important.”
He waved a hand, granting her leave to approach.
She rose and padded to him on henna-painted feet. The slave-girls rose gracefully and retreated to stand with their backs to the wall of the Red Fort.
Father watched her, a sad smile making his beard twitch. “You are so like your mother, Jahanara.”
The princess knelt before her father and bowed deeply, smiling in return. “It is good to hear you speak of her without such pain.”
He punched his bearded chin in the direction of the growing monument to his love. “The heart heals as her monument rises, daughter. Even so, I will never be whole again until we are together in Paradise.”
She bowed her head again, suddenly uncertain.
He sighed, the sound bearing more of quiet contentment than pain. He took her hand. “What is it, beloved daughter?”
“Father, I would show you a picture.”
“But first — do you remember sending Baram Kahn on his errand?”
Shah Jahan’s grip tightened on her hand. “To the village the Jesuits reported had sprung into being someplace in Europe?” he asked sharply.
“Yes, Father,” Jahanara answered, worried that she had chosen the wrong entry to the conversation. The Jesuits and their hosts, the Portuguese, were only recently returned to, if not favor, then the tolerance of the emperor. The Portuguese and their priests had proved faithless when Father requested their aid in his rebellion against Jahangir and his step-mother, Nur Jahan. Possessed of a long memory, Shah Jahan had ordered punitive raids into the Portuguese colonies along the coast almost as soon as he took the throne, taking many slaves.
“What of it?” he asked, more calmly, gaze already drifting over her shoulder to the distant site of her mother’s tomb.
She took a breath, dove in: “It did come from the future, as Mother’s astrologers claimed.”
His gaze snapped to her face, locking her eyes to his like chains of hardened steel. “And where is Baram Kahn?” he demanded. “Where is that craven supporter of Nur Jahan? Does he think to avoid my eternal anger by telling my daughter his report in my stead? I am not the man I was when his perfidy –”
Jahanara, shaken by the heat in him, spoke quickly: “Dead, Father. Baram Kahn sickened and died in that far off land that is host to the village from the future.”
Shah Jahan looked away, sniffed.
Released from his gaze, Jahanara felt as if she had stepped from a cold darkness into warm sunlight. Remembering her purpose, she gathered her tattered calm and summoned her body-slave to bring forward the “postcard.”
“Who brings his lies before us, if he is dead?”
She took the card. “I beg your indulgence, Father. Decide after you have seen the proofs before dismissing the claims.”
“Who?” he asked, still insisting, but more gently.
“No one you know, Father. He is another disciple of Mian Mir, one who has proven an honest and loyal servant to the living saint and, by extension, your person. He took great risks — even feigning his own death — to bring word ahead of Baram Kahn’s remaining servants.”
Clearly still skeptical, the emperor opened his mouth to ask another question.
Greatly daring, Jahanara spoke over him. “This, Father, is one of the proofs.” She lowered her head and presented the postcard.
His hand left hers and pulled the postcard from her fingers.
She left her hand extended, hoping he would take it again.
Long moments passed in a silence Jahanara barely dared breathe into.
A tear struck her palm. Jahanara looked up.
Shah Jahan, Sultan of Sultans, Sultan of The World, cried a river of tears in total silence, postcard in hand.