1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 38

Shah Jahan’s face didn’t soften, but the mad anger of a moment before was replaced by a colder, more calculating one. “Yes, by all means. Keep them close, keep them safe. I will want them with us as I travel.”

Salim bowed. “Your will, Sultan Al’Azam.”

“Come to me once they are lodged and you have ensured they have mounts suitable to travel.”

“Your will, Sultan Al’Azam.”

The emperor turned and left, taking his councilors, Shuja, and Aurangzeb with him.

Salim slowly released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Feeling as if he’d just survived a battle, he turned to his charges and gestured them out.

Angelo, a step ahead of the rest, spoke in hushed tones.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” John muttered.

* * *

Salim excused himself, stepping aside with a man — or perhaps a eunuch — in rich silks, as the rest of the mission moved out into the courtyard in front of the emperor’s throne room.

“Now that didn’t go as planned, did it?” Rodney asked as they halted in a loose circle near the center of the courtyard.

“No shit. I didn’t relish speaking in front of the emperor, but that was no fun,” John said, mopping his brow. The morning sun hadn’t yet climbed over the walls, but it was still considerably warmer than it had been when they’d entered the Hall of Audience.

A steady stream of men were leaving the court to mount up in the courtyard. Most were dressed like the man who’d interrupted their audience. Messengers, John supposed, dispatched with orders.

“Did anyone else get the feeling we were about to be torn limb from limb by that crowd?” Gervais asked.

“It certainly seemed likely, but for the amir’s timely intervention,” said Angelo.

John nodded. “Salim does have good timing.” He lowered his voice and asked, “Hey, Angelo, you didn’t have a chance to translate everything in there…So what, exactly, happened?”

“Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh, was killed in battle along with his army. The one that yelled for blood, that’s another of his sons, Aurangzeb, I believe. Or Murad. I’ve never seen them in person. Regardless, the emperor has called on all his might, planning to crush the Sikhs and make towers of their skulls.”

“You said that before. Did he really mean it? I mean, actual, real towers? I mean, we saw some on the way here, but I thought they were old.”

“They don’t joke about such things. The Mughal dynasty traces its line straight back to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, don’t forget. The last two emperors put up several such towers on the road between here and Lahore.”

“That’s some real medieval shit.”

“John!” Ilsa snapped.

John sighed, spared an old fashion look for Rodney. “Couldn’t say something? Maybe tell me she was coming?”

Rodney shrugged. “Nope. Pris is with her.”

“I sure am, Rodney, and try not to put me in the middle of fights between our friends, please?”

“Will do, honey. Sorry.”

John turned to face his wife, hating not being able to see all of her behind the veil. “And I’m sorry, too.”

She shook her head, took his hand in hers. “Remember how Nasi told us to act at court: as if we have no friends here, which is true, and that the walls have ears that understand English. And for good measure, we just had a great example of how volatile the court can be.”

“Duly noted. Trust no one.”

Rodney nodded. “X-Files all the way.”

“What does that mean?” Gervais asked.

“A show…oh, I’ll tell you later, our host is coming back.”

Salim returned with several people in tow. “The diwan of the harem has arranged quarters for everyone. The unmarried men will be staying with me, I’m afraid.”

“And my daughter?” Gervais asked.

“She has been invited to stay with Begum Sahib, if that is acceptable?”

“With the princess?” Monique asked, eyes wide.

“If that is acceptable? It is considered quite an honor, but I can explain, I think, if your traditions require otherwise.”

“Will I be able to reach her in an emergency?” Gervais asked.

“Only via messenger. The other ladies of your party will be free to call on her, of course.”

Monique cocked her head, switched to French to rattle at her dad, “Mais, nous ne pouvions pas demander une meilleure chance de se rapprocher de quelqu’un dans la famille royale!”

“Oui, Bien sur.” Gervais, still looking uncomfortable with the idea, switched back to English. “She gladly accepts.”

Salim nodded. “And the other ladies?”

“What about us?” Pris asked, clearly resenting being cut out of the conversation.

Salim kept his eyes off her, answered as if one of the men had asked the question: “Should they wish it, they may also reside with the emperor’s ladies. They will certainly be traveling with them.”

“What is your thought on this, Salim?” John asked.

Salim spread his hands wide. “I have been a widower for longer than I was married, so I can hardly speak to the difficulties of being separated from a wife, but the emperor will see that lavish gifts are given them and ensure their every need is met, not to mention ensuring their absolute safety. To do otherwise would be a great blow to his pride and primacy among sultans.”

He bowed his head slightly and spoke even more quietly. “Begum Sahib is also excellent company, a great wit, and someone I know to be most interested in you up-timers.”

Gervais cocked his head. “Excellent company? I thought the harem is closed to those not of royal blood?”

“Dara and I were — friends might be too strong a word — but we shared common interests and concerns.”

“Our condolences,” John said. Realizing, belatedly, that he hadn’t offered them to the emperor. So much for being a diplomat.

Salim accepted the platitude with a graceful nod. “When I returned from Europe, it was Dara who first heard me. Begum Sahib was behind the jali for that interview, and questioned me at length. As a result of that interview, I was eventually brought before the Sultan Al’Azam.”

John nodded, looked a question at his wife.

“I think it’s a good idea, John.”

“Me too,” Pris said. She turned to face Salim, who promptly averted his gaze. “Could you also help us with the proper way to show our respects and convey our sincere condolences to Begum Sahib?”

A bow. “Of course. Communication will remain difficult, however.”

“It will?”

“There are a very few here who speak English, fewer still who are not men and therefore barred from the harem.”