1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 29

A shake of her head: “The other tiger left off killing a man to raise its head, then coughed strangely, almost as if asking why his brother had stopped talking mid-sentence.

“Jahangir laughed, slapped me on the back as if I were one of his sowar, and took the bow from my hands. He handed me one of his guns, igniting the match cord himself.

“I had no experience of guns, and told him so.”

“Look along the metal, point it at his great head, when the head is covered by the barrel, tell me, and I will light it. Turn your head when I do, or you might get burned.”

I did as he bid, aiming at a point between the great ears. I remember thinking how beautiful its fur was. “Ready,” I whispered.

He touched the match cord to the powder and the gun belched fire, punching me in the shoulder like nothing I felt before. I swayed back, my veil singed by the fire from the pan. I had forgotten to turn my head, you see.” She shook her head. “It is amazing, what I recall of that day: I remember the feel of the elephant shivering, wanting to flee the loud noise and tigers, but too well-trained to move, while I tried to see where my shot had fallen.”

She smiled, looking Jahanara in the eye, “I missed my mark.”

Jahanara realized she had been showing her eagerness for the tale again, and quickly leaned back. “Well, it is understandable: you were handling a gun for the first time.”

Another of Nur’s throaty chuckles broke Jahanara’s words. “I did not miss entirely, Janni. My ball took the tiger in the heart, killing it almost instantly. I still have the fur in my quarters.”

* * *

“An entertaining tale,” Jahanara mused aloud. Nur had only just departed, the air still hanging with the delicate scent of her perfume.

“Shehzadi?” her body slave and administrator of her personal staff, Smidha, asked.

“Nothing of import.” She lowered her voice, “Has Prasad returned?”

“No, Begum Sahib,” Smidha answered. She raised her voice slightly, “Begum Sahib, you asked to be informed when your ink was delivered. It arrived just this afternoon.”

“Good,” Jahanara said in an equally clear voice. She raised her head and ordered the remaining slave at the entrance to her receiving chamber, “Fetch my inks.”

When she had departed on the errand: “What is it, Smidha?”

Smidha edged closer and bowed her head, speaking quickly and quietly: “My sister’s man says a body was pulled from the waters of the river this morning, Begum Sahib. Nothing special in itself, but my friend who was also your sister Roshanara’s nurse says that her mistress was heard to claim it was a slave who betrayed Nur Jahan. Just now, whilst you entertained her, I confirmed with one of the eunuchs that have responsibility for guarding her quarters that Nur now seeks a new cook.”

Jahanara closed her eyes, said a brief prayer for Vidya. She had never personally met the young woman who, outraged by the mistreatment of her lover, had offered to spy on Nur.

Now, carrying out Jahanara’s will, she would become yet another of the faceless victims of courtly machinations. Victims Jahanara would carry the guilt of in her heart to the end of her days.

She shook her head, dread encroaching on her guilt. “Which eunuch?”

“Begum Sahib?”

“Which eunuch, Smidha?”

“Chetan, Begum Sahib.”

“One of the Rajputs?” she asked, running through her mental portrait gallery of the servants assigned to her enemy.

“Yes, the great big, round-headed one with the crooked nose.”

Jahanara nodded. “He was one of the first she turned. He is now entirely Nur’s. She wanted me to know she caught my spy. Do we know how Vidya died?”

Smidha bowed her head. “Poison is suspected, mistress.”

The princess bit her lip. “Then Nur was never successfully poisoned at all?”

Smidha shrugged. “That is possible, though she did request the Italian doctor come and examine her.”

“To complete her falsehood…or for something else?” Jahanara shook her head. “Set someone to watch him from now on.”

“Yes, Begum Sahib.”

“Any word from my diwan at Surat?”

“Kashif Khan?”

Jahanara nodded.

“He reports that Rehan Usmani made landfall last — no, two months — ago. The men set to watch his movements have not reported in since Rehan left the city with an armed party suitable for extensive travel. I begin to worry your watchers may have been set upon and killed. I also had word from my sources in Agra, proper: Salim was set upon in the city, which is why he was delayed in reporting to the emperor’s summons.”

“Where is she getting the men to do these things for her?” Jahanara asked.

“I do not know, Begum Sahib. She has not changed her habits significantly since Vidya came to us.”

“Oh, but that’s just it, Smidha. We can’t know how long Nur knew about Vidya’s allegiance to me. Much of our information is suspect.”

Smidha’s half-smile showed Jahanara that her agile mind was working at full speed. “Yes and no, Begum Sahib. I always try to verify from multiple mouths what my ears hear from one source’s lips. I do not like to look foolish, misinforming my mistress.”

“So, then: what do we know?”

“That Nur Jahan is dangerous even while in your father’s power.”

“Who, though, is providing her with influence beyond these walls?”

Smidha shook her head. “We cannot know she is responsible for your recent setbacks, just yet, Begum Sahib.” Another shrug of round shoulders. “Assuming your suspicions are correct, however, I can think of a few umara who remember Jahangir’s last years and Nur’s regency in all but name as good ones for their ambitions, but none that your father and grandfather are not already aware of and keeping an eye on.”

“What of Mullah Mohan?”

A delicate sniff. “That man, bend his stiff neck to treat with a woman? Hardly, Begum Sahib.”

“I love you dearly, Smidha, and value your service above all others, but I think you might be letting your feelings color your assessment. She has the skill, he has the manpower.”

Smidha flushed and bowed her head again. “It has been my pleasure to serve you, just as it was to serve your mother, Begum Sahib. Still –” She looked up. “I find that, of late, my heart is hard when it should be soft, and soft when it should be hard.”

Jahanara patted Smidha on the arm. “You are my wisest advisor, Smidha. I just want to be sure we are not dismissing a potential truth.”

The older woman bowed again, looked up sharply. “And now I think on it, the idea has merit: she did have occasion to speak with Mohan while arranging Jahangir’s tomb and the mosque dedicated in his name.” She shook her head again, concern drawing her brows together. “If she managed to draw that dried stick of a man into her web enough that he is willing to lend her his strength, what other dark miracles can she arrange?”

“And, having seen the steel of the trap the huntress has laid out for us, what bait is meant to bring us in, and how do we spring the trap without losing a limb?”