1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 21

As if sensing Dara’s thoughts were upon him, Dara’s grandfather turned from watching the slaves collect carcasses and approached Dara.

Talawat bowed and silently withdrew a few paces, giving them some privacy.

Asaf pushed his beard out toward Shuja’s retreating back, “Well, first among the sons of my daughter, it seems your brothers would hunt as our ancestors preferred.”

Dara nodded. “I would as well, but for this,” he said, gesturing with his free hand at the new gun on its tripod.

Smiling, Asaf bowed his head and squinted at the weapon a few moments. “Big ball?”

“Large enough to down nilgai in one shot…or a tiger.”

“Brave man, hunts a tiger with powder and shot rather than bow and spear.”

Dara shrugged. “Surely not in the company of so many men, Asaf Khan?”

Asaf Khan waved a hand. “Abdul, or…grandfather…if it pleases.”

Catching the plaintive note in his grandfather’s voice, Dara smiled. “Surely, grandfather, I would not be at risk among so many men.”

“Jahangir once lost three favored umara to one, a great she-tiger. And they were all armed to the teeth and born to the saddle. Tigers do not feel pain as we do; most wounds merely madden them.”

Dara was about to answer when another herd, or perhaps the larger body of the one just harvested, emerged from the wood line, dashing for the open space between the watering holes. At the rate they were fleeing, the beasts would be in range in moments.

Asaf Khan stepped clear as Dara raised his gun. He felt, rather than heard, Talawat edge closer with his remaining light pieces.

He sighted along the barrel. That part of his mind not engaged with aiming noted an anomaly: the blackbuck were running straight and true rather than bouncing back and forth along a line of travel.

Just as he was ready to squeeze the lever, a thundering of hooves caused him to lower his muzzle. Aurangzeb and Shuja were riding to meet the herd, bows in hand.

Aurangzeb and Shuja had split up to either side of the herd, and were standing in the stirrups, loosing. Where their arrows fell, antelope staggered out of the herd, dead or dying. Shuja ended up on the near side of the herd, Aurangzeb disappearing into the dust kicked up by both prey and hunters.

Dara shook his head. While impressive, their antics were denying him a shot. Not that he couldn’t rely on his skills and shoot anyway, it was simply not a good idea to go firing into a field occupied by two princes, whether the shooter was a brother or not.

He briefly considered taking to his own horse while summoning a drink from one of his body slaves.

“Don’t want to take to your own horse?” Asaf Khan asked.

Having already decided against it, Dara punched his chin toward where his brothers were now racing back towards the firing line in a cloud of dust. “When their horses tire, there will be other game.”

Asaf nodded, looked sidelong at his eldest grandson. “Married life agrees with you, grandson.”

“Oh?” Dara asked, taking the gem-encrusted goblet full of iced fruit juice from his servant.

“You are more patient than you were. I may presume too much when I think it your wife’s doing,” he said, shrugging, “but there are worse reasons for change in the behavior of men.”

Dara hid his smile by slaking his thirst. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he answered: “Yes, many things are put in their proper places, now I have a son on the way.”

“A son? You are so sure? The astrologers tell you it is so?”

“Yes,” Dara half-lied. The up-timer history had it that his son rode to battle with him in his war against Aurangzeb, many years in the future.

“You must send me –” Asaf stopped in mid-sentence, peering into the dust beyond Shuja.

Dara followed the line of his gaze, saw it a heartbeat later: something gold-orange flowing along in the wake of Shuja’s horse.

“Tiger!” Asaf bellowed in his general’s voice, pointing at the great beast stalking his grandson.

Dara tossed his goblet aside and scrambled for his newest gun.

Shuja, hearing the shout, did the wrong thing: he reined in to look at Asaf Khan. The tiger was within twenty gaz of Shuja. When he came to a stop, it did as well. In fact, it went forequarters down, hunching its rear end.

Asaf was screaming, as were more and more of his men. He started running for his own horse and household guard.

Dara knelt and lifted the butt of his gun, surging upright.

Shuja was looking around, trying to identify the threat. His horse tossed its head, shied sideways, uneasy.

Dara pressed his shoulder into the stock, trying to cock the lock, find his target, and get his hand on the firing lever — and had a moment’s panic when he couldn’t find it: Not a lever, a trigger, you fool!

The tiger was rocking its hips, getting ready to charge.

Talawat was beside him, quietly urging: “Shehzada, please do not try to do too much at once. Slow down. Calmly.”

Dara stopped. Breathed out. Found his aim point and his target. Slid his finger inside the trigger guard.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Talawat’s silhouette nod. The gunsmith cocked the hammer back for Dara. “She kicks like a mule, Shehzada. Now kill us a tiger.”

Dara squeezed the trigger. The lock snapped forward, steel and flint sparking into the pan. A half-heartbeat later, the gun discharged with a thunderous roar and brutal kick to Dara’s shoulder.

The tiger leapt.

Smoke obscured Dara’s sight for a moment.

Shuja’s horse bolted, riderless, into view.

Talawat stepped forward and turned to face Dara, hands busy as he reloaded the piece with quick, economical motions. He could hear the gunsmith praying even over the shouts of Asaf’s men.

Asaf had stopped his rush to mount. It was too late.

The smoke cleared.

The tiger lay prone, part of one of Shuja’s legs and a boot protruding from beneath it.

Dara’s heart stopped.

It seemed years later when Shuja sat up from between its paws, face as white as bleached linen. Hands shaking, the young prince heaved the heavy corpse aside and stood, apparently unscathed.

Suddenly thirsty, Dara wished for strong drink.

The line erupted in crazed shouts of joy. Asaf came charging back toward Dara, teeth bared in a smile that split his beard.

Shuja was walking, somewhat unsteadily, back toward the line.

Placing powder in the pan and stepping back, Talawat murmured, “Fine shooting, Shehzada.”

Dara pointed a trembling finger at his sibling. “I will give you its weight in silver, Talawat. Were it not for you, I would have surely rushed the shot and missed.”

Talawat bowed his head, clearly aware of how badly things might have turned out. “God is merciful and loving-kind, to place one of my tools in the hands of one so gifted in their use. I will use the silver to make more fine guns for your use, Shehzada.”

Aurangzeb rode into view behind his dismounted brother, stopping over the tiger for a moment. After a moment’s examination, he nudged his horse into motion. Quickly catching up to Shuja, he said something the other responded to with an angry shake of the head. Shrugging, the mounted brother rode on toward the firing line.

As he came closer, Dara noticed his quiver was empty and his face had a thin smile drawn across it. For dour Aurangzeb, such an expression was a broad smile of unrestrained glee.

“I see we each took a tiger this day, brother.”

“What?” Dara asked.

Aurangzeb nodded his head in the direction he’d come from. “Another one, possibly this one’s mate or nearly adult offspring, took the last blackbuck in the herd. He took some killing: all my remaining arrows are in him.”

Asaf Khan arrived in time to hear the end of Aurangzeb’s speech, sweating from his exertions. Pausing to catch his breath, he was still beaming when Dara remembered to be civil: “Congratulations, brother, I’m sure it was a fine kill.”

“And to you on yours, Dara, though it appears your beast had an old wound to slow it — an arrow in its flesh, turned to poison.”

“Might explain why it went for Shuja with wounded game at hand,” Asaf gasped.

“Anger is the poison that stirs the killer residing in the hearts of both man and beast,” Dara said, trying not to look at his brother as he did so.