Salim let the door to Baram Khan’s sickroom close before addressing the man who walked out. “Any change?”
The physician started, wheeled to face him. “I didn’t see you there.”
Salim stepped into the light of the candle the man held, and quirked an eyebrow.
The local man shook his head. “No, no change. I must be going. A”“another patient, you understand.”
Salim did not blame him for being frightened. Knowing the fate of physicians who failed to save the lives of powerful men in his own nation, Salim could forgive the man thinking Salim might attack him.
Waving him away, Salim turned to look at the door. Beyond it, surrounded by a very few of his remaining loyal servants, the emperor’s envoy was dying a slow, painful death. A week, perhaps a bit longer, and the man would breathe his last and go to his final reward, whatever it might be.
Taking his prayer beads in hand, Salim said a prayer in the darkness to speed Baram Khan’s passage to Paradise. Just because one thought little of another man’s deeds did not make them less likely to attain Paradise. It only showed the unworthy state of one’s own soul.
Hearing a horse in the courtyard below, he stepped to the window at the end of the hall in time to see the physician ride out of the torch-lit courtyard. Good riddance. The man had proved almost worthless, failing, even, to see what was plain to Salim and anyone else with experience of court life: Baram Khan had been poisoned.
It wasn’t even entirely the pompous courtier’s fault he was dying. Baram Khan’s tasters had all died in various mishaps before the envoy even entered the Germanies. Then, understandably angry at being robbed by Grantville’s mercenaries—which the Mughal noble could only see as confirmation of the histories Salim was translating for him—Baram Khan departed the wonders of Grantville before new tasters could be found.
No one knew who had killed Baram Khan but, like everyone else in the man’s entourage, Salim had an idea who it might be.
Salim shook his head. Regardless of the who and the how of the current situation, decisions had to be made.
Rehan Usmani, Baram’s first servant, would want to return immediately to Aggra and report events to Nur Jahan.
Fear seized his heart at the thought. Little could be worse for the Empire and Mian Mir’s hopes than that woman possessing proofs Aurangzeb would, in his hunt for the throne, imprison his own father and murder his brothers.
Baram Khan’s exile on what the court had believed a fool’s errand had led to this much, at least: Salim had the books from the future, he had the pictures.
He could return to Mian Mir and ask the living saint what to do, couldn’t he?
Finding his answer in the question, Salim turned from the window, started for his chamber.
Grantville’s mercenary company might have stripped Baram Khan of everything of value he’d carried on his person, but his servants had passed largely unmolested. Salim still had several small pouches of fine gemstones, and knew where to sell a few.
At least five hours remained before morning prayers. He would pack quickly, walk a couple of the pathetic excuses for horseflesh from the manor and, once out of hearing, be on his way.
A long, dangerous journey lay ahead.
He smiled to think of it.
The siblings had barely greeted one another when the honeybee flew between them to land on the orchid and crawl into the purple folds of the flower, seeking the nectar within and drawing the Prince and Princess to watch in appreciative silence. Long moments passed, the heavy bloom trembling. Eventually the honeybee took flight from the flower, releasing the siblings from stillness much as it scattered the flower’s golden pollen.
As the interloping insect disappeared deeper into the gardens, wingbeats joining the hum of the others of its hive, Dara Shikoh and Jahanara leaned back and regarded one another, much as they had many times before and, God willing, would have opportunity to do for many years to come.
Putting away her desire to immediately transcribe the beauty of the bee’s flight into poetry, Jahanara waited for her brother to speak. She noted his smooth brow was furrowed under the gorgeous yellow turban. She had not seen him so troubled since Aurangzeb’s poem had embarrassed him before all the court. Jahanara suppressed a shudder, recalling the events immortalized therein: the great war elephant, mad with rage and entirely out of control, trampling slaves and scattering the Imperial household. Her younger brother Aurangzeb, barely sixteen, calmly sitting his horse while everyone fled. The way clear, Aurangzeb charged the great bull elephant and struck it between the eyes, stinging it so badly it ceased its rampage.
The later poem that shamed those that fled brought mother’s sage advice to mind: “Men, they will always feel the bite of words stronger than steel. Steel kills, but one must live on with the words of others. Remember this, and keep your words like sharp steel, with caution and care.”
Keeping that advice uppermost in her mind, Jahanara folded hands in her lap, waiting. It was not often that their father’s eldest son came to visit, but when he did, it was nearly always to ask the same questions.
“And what of Father, sister mine?”
She smiled inwardly, but not wanting to show how easily she had read him and therefore hurt his feelings, she didn’t let the smile curve her lips. “He still pines for our beloved mother, of course. The only thing he looks forward to is the daily meeting with his advisors regarding Mother’s tomb.”
“His remaining wives?” Dara asked.
She smiled openly. She had been composing a verse this morning, a playful little thing, and used part of it now: “The harem persists in its perennial practices: showing their love of Father and whining at his inattention.”
Dara nodded absently but didn’t return her smile.
It was rare that he missed an opportunity to show his appreciation for her work. Resisting the urge to show her displeasure, she asked, “What troubles you, brother?”
“I wonder what it will take to shake Father from his grief.”
She strangled a sigh. “Must he be shaken?”
“Our family does not sit idle while one man mourns, sister.”
“No, but neither are they gathering armies to usurp Father’s place.”
“Not that we know of, at least.”
“Our friend Mian Mir, in his wisdom, would have you set aside your fear, brother.”
Dara sniffed, “I know. I would argue: it is no sin to fear for one’s family.”
“If you only feared for your family, rather than fearing certain members of it.”
Another sniff, this one companion to a bitter twist of the lips, “It has always been thus for the sons of our house.”
Thinking on the unfairness of that remark, Jahanara refused to let him see how much his self-pity annoyed her. “But our father would have it otherwise, for you.”
Looking through the walls of the garden, Dara whispered, voice so low it nearly drowned in the buzz of industrious insects about them: “Some days, I fear he might have chosen the wrong son. . . .”
The stream, swollen with the last of the monsoonal rains, presented less of a challenge than climbing the far bank, an unstable slope of dark, wet earth. Salim stood in the stirrups as his recently purchased and exceedingly expensive Arab slipped sideways half-way up the bank.
Something pointed made a dangerous whistling as it hummed through the space he’d just left, cutting off all thought of cursing his as-yet-unnamed horse.
He heard the snap of more bowstrings as he heeled his mount up the bank. Powerful hindquarters bunched, released, sending mount and rider surging up over the lip of the ravine and out of the path of the arrows.
Two men rushed from the tree line with spears, another emerging from the wood behind, urging them to the attack.
His horse’s scrambling leap had landed them perpendicular to the charging men. He added their position to the tally of the many things he would have to thank the Almighty for when next he had opportunity to face Mecca.
For now, though, the sword. It hissed from sheath and to hand.
His horse, shying from the shouting men, curvetted. Salim leaned sideways, using the mount’s momentum to bring his curved Persian steel sweeping across in a cut that connected with a spear shaft. Surprising him, the crude iron head flew free and over Salim’s shoulder, wielder staring at the cloven wood stump just above his hand. From the youth’s open-mouthed expression, he was clearly imagining what might have been had the sword struck below where he held it.
The other spear-bearer bored in and stabbed. The blade swept past Salim’s nose by a hand’s breadth.
While the first man stared at his severed spear, Salim’s still-spinning horse clipped his companion with a hoof, folding him with a grunt that ended in a roll down the riverbank.
Mindful of the target he now presented to the archers on the opposite bank, Salim spurred the Arab into flight. He angled away from the track and any additional brigands who might be lying in wait.
He heard the horseman pound into pursuit behind him.
An arrow flew past from the far shore, then another. A third traced a hot red line across his forearm, making him drop the reins. Thanks be to the Almighty, the horse had drawn his own conclusions about where safety lay and ran flat out through the narrow opening among the trees.
Out of sight of the archers, Salim spared a glance for his wound. It would keep. Leaning low over the horse’s neck, he retrieved the dropped rein and glanced behind.
On an inferior mount, the horseman had fallen behind in Salim’s short gallop to cover. Now, however, the tight confines of the trail favored the shorter horse and the rider with more intimate knowledge of the land.
At least the other wouldn’t be able to ride up alongside to strike.
There being nothing for it but to ride, Salim did just that. Long moments passed, the blowing of his horse and the pounding of hoofbeats beneath and behind his only company.
With a suddenness that hurt the eyes, the pursuit exploded from the wood and into bright sunlight. He felt his mount lengthen stride and gain speed, hoping it could see better than he could. Knowing he was gaining distance, Salim kept his face in the mane, hoping to present as small a target as possible in case his pursuer had a horse-bow.
Eyes adjusted, he looked back and saw the other rider was letting his horse slow, giving up the pursuit in a storm of curses.
Good. For a moment he’d worried that—despite all the measures he’d taken to avoid it—one of the prince’s rivals knew of his return and sought to kill him before what he carried could be explained.
He let his mount slow to a walk once he was certain the chase was ended. Remaining in the saddle, he spent some time dressing his wound and eating some of the food he’d purchased at the last caravanserai.
Many kos remained between him and Lahore, but he was at last nearing home. Checking the straps of his saddlebags, Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz rode on, contemplating suitable names for the horse.
Her favorite garden was quiet but for the buzz of insects and the musical sounds of water on stone. Most of the court were at Mother’s tomb while the emperor oversaw some detail of its construction. His absence and the oppressive heat left the Red Fort unusually quiet. Jahanara was taking full advantage of that quiet, enjoying a mango julabmost, idly crunching the flavored ice between her teeth while pondering the next few lines of the poem she was composing. The scroll lay ready before her, as were ink and brush.
She would commit nothing to paper until the verse was ready in her mind.
One of the harem eunuchs entered the garden and approached her small pavilion. As was proper, he knelt some distance away and waited to be recognized, sweating in the afternoon sun.
Taking pity on him, she handed the remainder of the julabmost to one of her Tartar guard-maidens and said simply, “Speak.”
“Begum Sahib, your brother’s wife, Nadira Begum Sahiba, inquires whether you are available to come to her sometime this afternoon?”
Sudden concern stabbed her. Nadira was pregnant with Dara’s first child. “Did she say why?”
“It is some matter that Shahazada Dara Shikoh brought to her attention, Begum Sahib. Something between him and one of the amirs of the court,” a brief hesitation and licking of lips, “whose name escapes this witless servant.”
The eunuch bent forward over his large belly, head nearly touching the grass. “Begum Sahib, I beg forgiveness; it is a worthless slave who forgets too much of his mistress’ business to ever warrant the trust placed in him.”
Jahanara nodded, understanding the subtext quite well”“Nadira had not told the slave the name of her husband’s guest, clearly wanting to surprise her. Or the prince himself wanted to limit the ears that would hear the Amir’s name.
Interest piqued, she spoke: “I will attend Nadira Begum once I am finished here. Take word, and know that she will not hear of your lapse in memory from me.”
“You do me great honor, Shahazada Dara Shikoh,” Salim said, bowing low over rich carpets. It was not often a lowly amir found himself invited into the inner chambers of one of the Princes of the Blood. So private was the interview that only the beautifully carved sandstone of a jali separated the men from the prince’s harem. A rare honor indeed.
“It is I who is honored by your fine service in the face of terrible obstacles.” Dara waved a hand at a cushion beside him. “Please, take your ease and tell us of your travels and the fate of Father’s mission to the west and this city the Jesuits claim appeared with a snap of Shaitan’s fingers.”
A wordless sound of surprise escaped the jali at this announcement of Salim’s most recent adventures. Careful not to look too closely at the screen and therefore see the forbidden, Salim crossed to the offered seat and bowed deeply again. Hedecided it was better not to ask who was watching from the harem, assuming the prince would tell him if the prince wished him to know.
So close was the rich cushion to the Dara Shikoh that Salim was suddenly very glad he’d had opportunity to bathe and perfume himself before the audience. He leaned on his injured arm as he sat, wincing as the movement pulled at the wound. He ignored the pain, hoping it had not been pulled open: far easier to replace a bit of blood than the cotton tunic purchased for this interview. Or worse yet, to spill blood on a cushion or carpet worth more than his entire clan’s yearly income.
The prince’s slaves entered and presented refreshments on ornate trays of plate of gold. “First, take refreshment before you tell us of your adventures and the fate of Baram Khan.”
Salim protested, only to have the Dara direct a mischievous grin at the jali while speaking to him: “Salim, allow me to fill your belly before you fill our ears. It will serve to whet our appetite for your news.”
A throaty, musical note of feminine laughter issued from beyond the jali.
Dara ate little himself, but encouraged Salim to try some of the more exotic dishes.
Too nervous to take note of what he was eating, let alone enjoy the delicacies offered, Salim managed to eat a few sweets and was sipping a deliciously cool drink when a soft voice issued from beyond the jali. “The amir is hurt, brother.”
Dara stopped packing his pipe of opium and looked at Salim, brow arching.
Mortified, Salim glanced at his arm. Sure enough, blood stained the sleeve. “It is nothing, Shahazada, a momentary disagreement between flesh and arrow.”
“Arrow?” Dara asked, setting aside his pipe.
He answered carefully. “Robbers on the road, Shahazada.”
“A plague. Some hillmen never learn.”
Salim nodded. “They are a problem in every kingdom.”
The voice returned. “Hillmen or robbers?”
Unsure if he should respond directly to the woman, Salim did not answer.
Another wicked grin from Dara. “My sister, the Begum Sahib, would have an answer, I think.”
Clearing his throat, Salim spoke, “Begum Sahib, not all robbers are hillmen, though it has been my experience that the more successful are.”
Another woman giggled, but the penetrating questions continued through it, “Then you were not attacked by hillmen, were you?”
“I thought them Bhils, from their lack of horses and skill at archery. I would not be before you if they had such knowledge.”
“And you are a proper hillman, are you not?”
Salim nodded. “My village is just this side of the Khyber Pass, Begum Sahib.”
He nodded again. “Yusufzai, yes.” He glanced at Dara, found the young prince looking at him, eyes glittering.
“Our forebear passed through there after many great battles.”
“A similar tale is told in my family, Begum Sahib,” Salim answered, thoughtlessly.
The Princess of Princesses pounced on it. “Similar, only?”
Salim’s heart seized.
“Oh, you’ve done it now!” Dara chortled.
“Stop it, Dara! I will not beg Father to have this man trampled by elephants simply for disagreeing with me on points of history!”
Dara laughed outright, then held his breath.
Salim prayed silently.
The moment stretched like the skin of a drum.
Softly, Begum Sahib spoke again: “Though I might consider going to him if the amir doesn’t answer promptly.”
The prince doubled over on his cushion, laughing hard and loud at Salim’s expression.
“Yes, Begum Sahib. Our family history claims that Emperor Babar took for one of his ten wives the daughter of one of our greatest chiefs, a beauty named Bibi Mubarika. Thus, he and his armies had the way opened for them through the Khyber.”
“Don’t let my little brother—or my father’s generals—hear you say that,” Dara said between fits of laughter.
A delicate sniff from beyond the jali. “Aurangzeb will not hear it from me, Dara.”
Hoping to return the conversation to safer ground, Salim ventured, “It is that marriage, in a roundabout way, which brings me to serve the Emperor’s firstborn, Begum Sahib.”
Dara gestured at his guest. “The amir Salim is also a fellow student of Mian Mir’s teachings, sister.”
Salim nodded. “The saint is wise, and asked me to accompany Baram Khan on his mission.”
Dara looked at the jali. When there was nothing further from Begum Sahib, he gestured Salim to continue.
“Nur Jahan’s man, Baram Khan, is dead. Poisoned by someone in the kingdom of Thuringia. It was done so that he would not bring back word of the future and what happens to this land.”
“Thank you, Sahazada Dara Shikoh,” Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz said with a bow. The man turned and faced the jali, bowing nearly as low as he had for Dara.
She willfully turned away from the impure thoughts that rose up as she looked into the man’s pale green eyes, aided by the fact that he could not see her strong reaction.
Nadira, sitting beside her, nudged her with an elbow.
She looked at her sister-in-law. A great beauty, she was also a great friend to Jahanara. When Mother died, Jahanara had been left with responsibility of planning Dara’s marriage celebrations, during which she had come to know and appreciate the kind and gentle spirit of her sister-to-be. Such spirit was not common in the harems of powerful men.
Nadira bent close, whispering, not unkindly, in her ear, “Do not make your brother kill the honorable—and handsome—amir for loving what he cannot have, Begum Sahib.”
Obeisance paid, Salim departed with a horseman’s rolling gait.
The Princess of Princesses tried—and failed—to avert her gaze from his strong, broad back.
Nadira giggled softly, shaking her head.
Dara, meanwhile, picked up one of the books the Amir had left behind and muttered, “Fascinating.”
Fingers twitching with the desire to read them for herself, she cautioned him, “And dangerous, brother.”
He glanced at the jali, frowned, “Well, of course.”
“If it is true, how do we present this information to father?”
“Well, I haven’t seen the images he gave, and his story beggars belief.”
Dara, more excited than she had seen him since his wedding day, picked up the books and two flat pieces of paper Salim had called “photographs” and walked toward the jali. One of his eunuchs opened the concealed portal, ensuring his master did not have to slow. A few more strides and Dara was standing over his wife and sister.
He handed Jahanara the image. It was on a piece of paper, glossy on one side, no bigger than a large man’s hand. The subject within was of a large white-marble building of enormous size and great beauty, surrounded on all four sides by matching minarets with a great giant onion of a dome in the middle. Lettering in the Latin alphabet, inked in lurid red, lined the top of the image.
Nadira, leaning to look over her shoulder, asked, “What did he say this reads?”
“Greetings from the Taj Mahal! Greatest of The Seven Wonders of the World!” Dara answered from memory, smiling fondly at his wife. “They even have the coloring of the letters the correct red, to honor the family war-tent colors.”
“It is a corruption of mother’s title,” Dara answered her question before it was fully voiced.
Nadira even scowled prettily, “Mumtaz Mahal becomes Taj Mahal? How does this happen?”
“I presume it happens after near four hundred years and across several languages, my love.”
“But how do you know it’s accurate, light of my heart?”
“Father’s plans are set and construction begun.” He tapped the photograph. “Mother’s tomb will look like this, though I do not see the MoonlitGarden across the river.”
Tears filled Jahanara’s eyes. To think her father’s grief had carried across the centuries and thousands of kos to peoples so distant caused her heart to ache—not for her father—but for her own fate. She would, as a daughter of her house, never marry, never know the heat of a love that would make a man like her father to grieve so terribly he would build a monument to their love that would last through the ages.
She lowered her head, shamed by the depth of self-pity she felt. It seemed extraordinarily sinful in the face of what the amir had told them the future histories contained: that two of her brothers would be executed—and her father left to wither and die—while Aurangzeb expended the strength of the Empire in bloody attempts to suppress the Hindu religion and conquer the remainder of the sub-continent.
Fear and concern for the future of her family rode self-pity and shame down under flashing hooves. Jahanara cleared her throat. “I am willing to believe the amir, but how do we tell father?”
“Don’t you mean what?”
“No, I mean how.”
Dara shrugged, “I didn’t think he needed to—”
She interrupted: “Father will not be inclined to overlook anything less than full disclosure, Dara. The amir told us that the remainder of Baram Khan’s followers should return within the month.” She gestured at the books. “And that they have more of these.”
She held up a hand. “Father will find out if we withhold information—Nur Jahan will make sure of it—first Aurangzeb, and then Father, will be told what we have learned today.”
Dara sighed so deeply his wife laid a hand on his arm. “I still hold hope that we might yet get Aurangzeb to abandon his religious bigotry and open his heart to Mian Mir’s teachings.”
“An admirable—even saintly—hope, Dara. Unfortunately, there are far fewer saints in the world than sinners.”
As his hired boat turned in toward Agra‘s docks, Salim noticed a boat that had departed Red Fort just after his was now changing course for shore. Two armed men stood behind the boatman paddling at the bow, but there was no visible cargo for them to guard, and both looked away when Salim turned his face in their direction.
He leaned over and spoke to the boat’s master, “If you can push the men hard for shore without appearing to, it will mean another rupee for you.”
The boatman, likely experienced with court intrigues, simply bobbed his head and started pulling deeper and harder with his paddle. His men took their lead from him and did so as well. Salim, not wanting to give the game away, looked straight ahead and fished in his sash for the payment.
During the last hundred paces to the dock, his boat had to maneuver around an outgoing craft. Salim took the opportunity to cast a surreptitious glance at the other boat. The distance between them had grown to nearly fifty paces, but he could see one of the armed men was bending their boatman’s ear about closing the distance while the other openly stared in Salim’s direction.
Now certain they were following him, Salim wondered who they served, Nur Jahan, would-be chooser of emperors, or her brother, Akbar Khan, the emperor’s first minister—or perhaps Mullah Mohan, Aurangzeb’s strictly orthodox teacher and advisor?
Not that it mattered if they were sent to do him harm. And, as they were armed and lacking in subtlety, just watching him go about his business didn’t seem likely.
Their lack of skills at intrigue did seem to rule out Nur Jahan, but she might be running short of skilled servants this long after being consigned to the harem with her grandniece.
Asaf Khan was still in favor at court, and therefore had no need of subtlety, but Salim knew of no reason the wazir would want him accosted or killed.
No, the more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed that Mullah Mohan was behind these men. The mullah had no love of Mian Mir’s accepting policy toward the Hindus and other religions of the land, and had tried to get the living saint removed from his position as teacher to Shah Jahan’s children on more than one occasion.
As the boat nudged the dock, Salim dropped payment in the master’s lap and stepped off. The man’s breathless but cheerful thanks followed him as he turned for the crowded market at the foot of the docks. He glanced back as he neared the first of the merchant’s stalls. The men had made landfall and were hurrying to catch up, shoving people out of their way.
Salim merged with the crowds of shoppers, bearers, and traders. The market had the frenetic atmosphere such places took on before the muezzin called the faithful to sunset prayers. Not that all, or even most, of the people shared faith in Allah and his Prophet; but the Hindus of the capital were cautious, not inclined to even the appearance of disrespect toward the religion of their ruler, and would slow or cease business during the hours of prayer. That could pose problems once the call to prayer began.
He lost track of the men within three steps. Hoping they would do the same, he started in the direction of his lodgings. The sun continued its dive to the hills beyond the river.
Salim saw the boy hanging by one hand from the trellis of an inn as he was leaving the market. He wouldn’t have thought anything of the skinny urchin but for the fact the boy pointed straight at him and continued to do so as he moved through the crowds.
“Paid eyes,” he muttered. Were he given to cursing, Salim would have. Instead he quickened his steps, hoping to get out of sight before the boy could direct the men to him.
“There!” It wasn’t a shout, but the word was spoken with an air of command.
Salim turned. It was one of men from the boat. The man was already pounding his way, naked steel in hand. The more distant man was waving an arm, most likely summoning more men.
Breaking into a run, Salim looked for places to lose his pursuers or, if he must, make a stand. Nothing looked promising in the first length of road but he hesitated to take one of the side streets for fear it would dead-end. He held little hope of outrunning the pursuers. Had he a horse, even a nag, under him, things would be different. Afoot though—he could already hear the first man closing the distance.
He picked a spot, decided it was as good as any. Placing his back to a stack of great clay urns, Salim turned to face his pursuer, blade flickering to hand.
The younger man didn’t slow, charging in, howling, “God is great!” as he swept his blade down in an untrained and fatally stupid overhand cut.
Salim deflected the blade to his outside right and twisted his wrist, sending his own slashing across the man’s torso.
Unable to stop, the man ran up the blade and opened his gut to the evening air, battle cry becoming a wail for his mother. The man staggered another step, tripped in his own entrails and fell to his knees.
Salim took a two-handed grip, brought the sword down with all the power of back and shoulders. The blade nearly severed the man’s neck, ending the cries.
As the corpse fell he turned and saw the easy killing of the one had given his other pursuer pause.
Knowing he was done for if the man waited for help, Salim spat in his direction.
The man didn’t respond to the insult.
Salim rolled his wrist. Steel hissed as it parted air, casting a thin line of blood in the dust of the street. By happenstance instead of intent, a drop of blood just reached the other man’s boot.
Eyes went wide with rage. Uneven teeth bared behind his thick beard, the man advanced. Despite his anger, this man was a far more capable adversary.
Salim was forced to retreat, working to deflect several fast and powerful strokes. Timing them, he found an opening and chopped a short hard strike at the other man’s hand. It missed the mark but slapped the inner curve of the other’s sword, sending it out of line.
Reversing direction, Salim stepped close and forced the other man’s sword away. He shot his free hand around the back of the man’s neck and pulled, hard, even as he threw his own head forward and dipped his chin.
Cartilage and bone ruptured under his forehead.
Fireworks exploded and danced.
Blinking, he chopped a blow that had more of savagery than art at his reeling opponent. His sword cleaved the man’s collarbone and hacked through the first three bones of the upper ribcage before lodging fast.
“Heretic!” the man burbled, mouth filling with blood.
Mullah Mohan it was, then.
The dead man collapsed, eyes still full of hate. Salim put boot to corpse to wrest his sword free.
The muezzin called the faithful to prayer as Salim turned and resumed his run.
Father settled himself, the unrelenting 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 by Jahanara 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, others of the harem slaves 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 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 her mother would approve of her actions today, despite what woe she might bring to 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 Europeans.
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 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 father on behalf of both of them.
God, of course, quickly made them glad of their careful plotting. No sooner had Dara agreed to let her speak for him than Asaf Khan, Father’s wazir and their maternal grandfather, had invited Dara to a hunt a few days from Agra. He had only departed this morning, so it had been just barely possible Prasad would find Dara and return in time. Father finished the main courses, began to indulge in a few desserts.
Time was nearly up.
Weeks of 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, sad smile making his beard twitch. “You are so like your mother, Jahanara.”
The princess knelt before 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 the walls of her monument rise, daughter.” He blinked, spoke to the distance. “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— you remember sending Baram Khan 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, a little sharply.
“Yes, Father,” Jahanara answered, wondering if she had not 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 prisoners.
“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 as he snapped questions at her. “And where is Baram Khan? Where is that craven supporter of the pretender to power, Nur Jahan? Does he think to avoid my eternalanger by telling my daughter his report in my stead? I am not the broken man I was when his perfidy was discovered. I will not fail to punish him this time!”
Jahanara, shaken by the heat of him, spoke quickly, “Dead, Father. Baram Khan 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.’
Father’s anger was not entirely gone. “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—at hazard of his own life—to bring word ahead of Baram Khan’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, pulled the photograph from her outstretched hand.
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, emperor of the Mughals, cried a river of tears in total silence, postcard in hand.