1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 20

Chapter 12

Three day’s ride from Agra

August, 1634

Her patience growing short in the afternoon heat, Dara’s favorite leopard yowled and spat at her handler, ready to hunt.

Dara grinned, ready as well, welcoming the prospect of release from the tension being around Aurangzeb always provoked in him. Now, if only they could begin. His small army of beaters had started the day before, working through the night to drive all the wild game resident in several square kos toward where the hunting party lay in wait. The camp was loud with the voices of men and animals, many of Father’s more notable umara present to witness the hunt and curry favor with the wazir and princes.

Seeking distraction, Dara again took up the gun he’d had as a wedding gift from Father last year, the inlaid piece monstrously heavy yet reassuring in its solidity. He sighted down the nearly two gaz of barrel, arms immediately trembling from the weight of iron, ivory inlay, and mahogany. Among the many refinements, the weapon sported one of the new flintlocks rather than the traditional matchlock, and even had a trigger rather than lever.

“Here,” he grunted.

Body slaves overseen by his Atishbaz gunsmith, Talawat, hurriedly set up the iron tripod needed to support the hunting piece while he struggled to hold position.

“Ready, Shehzada,” Talawat said.

Trying to keep the weight under control, Dara slowly lowered the gun onto the mount. Talawat slotted the pin into place that would hold the gun’s weight when aimed, easing the awkward weight from Dara’s arms. The prince knelt and placed the butt of the weapon on the cushion another slave hurriedly set in place.

Rubbing the ache from his biceps, hoofbeats drew Dara’s attention. He looked down the gradual slope to the pair of watering holes that formed the two sides of the killing zone for the hunt. About one hundred gaz of grassy clearing lay between the slowly-drying watering holes, with about half that much distance between grandfather’s tent and the open space. The beaters were working toward that spot in a steadily shrinking circle.

One of Asaf Khan’s men emerged from the wood line at a gallop, crossing the clearing and pounding up to the camp. In a fine display of horsemanship, the sowar swung down from his mount to land lightly a few paces in front of Dara’s grandfather.

Standing in the shade of his tent, Asaf Khan stepped forward and listened as the young trooper made his report: “At least a hundred head of blackbuck and red antelope, a small herd of nilgai, Wazir. Tiger spoor was also found, but no one has laid eyes on it, yet. Should not be long, now, before the first of the beasts make an appearance.”

Asaf Khan dismissed his man. Gray beard dancing, the aging but still-powerfully-built wazir called out: “A tiger would make a worthy prize for one of my grandsons!”

“Perhaps for Dara, grandfather. He has yet to take one,” Aurangzeb drawled from inside the tent.

Dara watched Asaf’s smile dim before he turned and answered, “One tiger could never be enough for the sons of Shah Jahan.”

“I did not say it was, Asaf Khan,” Aurangzeb replied, striding from the tent into the sun.

“I will kill it, grandfather!” Shah Shuja, crowed, raising his bow. Born between Aurangzeb and Dara, Shuja seemed always afire with desire to please his elders. At eighteen he was a man grown, however, and larger than Dara by a head. Of course, that head was rarely full of things other than those he might hunt, fight, or ride.

Asaf turned to face his eldest grandson. “And you, Dara?”

“I will take what it pleases God to place before me.”

“Pious words,” Asaf said, nodding approval.

Behind grandfather’s back, Aurangzeb shook his head and commanded his horse be brought up.

“Where are you going?” Asaf asked, edges of his beard curling down as he frowned.

“I will take the animals my brothers miss. That way I am sure to have a good day hunting.”

Shah Shuja grunted as if punched in the belly, face darkening. He too had been shamed by the poem making the rounds of the court. Further, there was the wager.

Doing his best to ignore the insult, Dara gestured at his leopards. “Brother, that is why I have brought my cats, to run down escaping game.”

Aurangzeb shrugged, took up a lance. “Then I will race your cats, and beat them to the kill as well.”

Asaf stepped toward Aurangzeb, raising hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I would advise caution, Brave One. If there is a tiger in among them, it will easily overtake a horseman. They can only be hunted safely from elephant back.”

Aurangzeb shrugged again. “Then it will be as God wills it,” he said, putting spurs to his tall horse and speeding off to the left of the firing line and the sole exit to the killing ground, a trail of attendants and guards in tow.

“Here they come!” cried one of grandfather’s cronies.

As the man’s cry faded, a small herd of blackbuck, no more than eight animals, spat from the line of brush and trees. Bounding with the outrageous speed of their kind, the antelope seemed to fly across the open ground.

Dara shook his head, irritation flaring. Blackbuck were perfect game for his hunting cheetahs but he couldn’t risk one of the cats attacking Aurangzeb or his horse.

Dara held out a hand. Talawat filled it with one of his lighter pieces, match cord already glowing. Shouldering it, Dara picked his target: a good-sized, healthy animal just behind the leading beast.

He heard Shuja’s bowstring slap bracer. A moment later Shuja muttered angrily.

Ignoring all distraction, Dara’s world shrank to the chest of the beast he’d chosen. Finding it, he moved his point of aim two hands ahead along the shallow arc of its jump.

He pulled the lever and averted his eyes at the very last moment.

The gun thundered.

Dara handed it off to Talawat as the blackbuck fell, heart shot. The gunsmith handed him another piece.

Shuja shouted, his second arrow striking the lead buck in the belly.

Dara ignored the cheering of his grandfather’s entourage, chose another buck, aimed, fired. Another clean hit to the chest. The antelope collapsed after a few strides.

“Well done, Talawat. Your guns speak truly,” he said, passing the weapon off.

Talawat bowed, presenting another piece. “Shehzada is too kind.”

Taking the third gun in hand, Dara waited a moment, allowing the smoke to clear. Behind him, Talawat’s apprentices busied themselves reloading the discharged weapons.

“Your modesty is a sign of fine character, but” — Dara tapped a knuckle against the gun’s hardwood stock — “in this instance, misplaced.”

Talawat smiled and bowed again before gesturing at the field. “I merely prepare the weapons, Shehzada; it is not everyone that has your fine eye for shooting.”

Shuja downed another of the blackbuck with an arrow that nearly passed through the animal. The first beast he’d hit finally collapsed, blood frothing from its muzzle.

The remains of the herd cleared the firing line, only to run into Aurangzeb and his mounted party. Dara’s brother took an antelope with his spear as its herd mates ran past. Leaving the weapon behind and spurring his horse into a gallop, Aurangzeb switched to the horse bow. The prey were far faster than his mount, stretching their lead even as Aurangzeb drew, aimed, and loosed twice in quick succession. Each arrow struck home in a separate neck, a fine feat of archery.

Asaf’s cronies cheered, as did Shuja, who had approached Dara.

Cradling his gun, Dara smiled, despite himself.

Aurangzeb cased his bow while sending his finely trained mount circling back among his followers with just the pressure of his knees, an act of understated pride in its own right.

“I should have ridden instead of standing here with you and your guns,” Shuja grumbled, loud enough for Dara to hear.

Dara did not answer, even when his younger brother ordered his horse brought up and left to join Aurangzeb.

He watched his grandfather instead, pondering the old man’s place in the family history as well as his possible future. Abdul Hasan Asaf Khan had turned against his own sister to support Father when Dara’s paternal grandfather, Jahangir, passed and the succession came into question once again. Dara had himself been hostage and surety against his father’s loyalty after that first rebellion, and was no stranger to the price of failure for princes engaged in rebellion. Shah Jahan and his allies had emerged victorious, but it had been a close-run and uncertain thing, all the way to the end. Asaf had been rewarded with position, titles, and power, though recent failings had reduced his favor at court. Father was considering removing him from the office of wazir and sending him off to govern Bengal.