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. The 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.

Seeking distraction, Dara again took up the gun he’d had as a wedding gift from Father last year, the inlaid piece monstrous 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 that would hold the gun’s weight when aimed into place, 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.

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 emperors.”

“I did not say it was, Asaf Khan,” Aurangzeb said, 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.

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.”

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 howdah.”

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!” one of Grandfather’s cronies cried.

****

Nur Jahan respectfully asks a visit, Begum Sahib.”

Jahanara had been expecting such a request since arranging her great-aunt’s poisoning, if not so soon.

“She is recovered, then?” she asked the eunuch.

“Indeed, her illness has passed, thanks be to God.”

“Praise Him,” she answered in reflex. And because, while she had been expecting the request, Jahanara did not feel ready to grant it: “I shall consult my astrologer before visiting. He found some peril to my health in his last reading, and advised me to caution.” She waved dismissal at him. “You may take my words to her.”

The eunuch bowed low, yet remained before her.

She let him grow uncomfortable before asking: “There is more?”

“I pray you will forgive me, Begum Sahib, but my mistress waits without.”

Jahanara tried not to display her concern—Nur Jahan’s eunuch would surely report everything observed to his mistress. Still, a bit of pique was called for: “She presumes much, my grandfather’s sister.”

The eunuch pressed his head into the ground, “As you say, Begum Sahib. Nur Jahan commanded that I convey her assurances that the illness is not catching, and that she has words of import for your ears.”

“Very well, I will trust to her greater experience in this. She may attend me. Go and fetch her.”

The eunuch said nothing further, just bowed and withdrew.

Jahanara used the time to shore up her mental defenses. Tending Father’s re-ignited grief had proved draining, leaving her tired and out of sorts. Worse yet, the result was still uncertain. Shah Jahan had risen this morning and made only one command after attending morning prayers: he ordered his daughter to summon someone literate in English to Red Fort. Knowing no other she dared call on, Jahanara sent for Salim. He had yet to answer her summons, just as Dara had yet to respond to her messenger.

And now Nur Jahan, veteran of thirty years of imperial harem politics, was coming.

She wished Dara were here. She wished Mother was here. She wished for many things, yet none of them had come to pass when Nur Jahan entered her receiving chamber.

Head high, the older woman’s direct gaze immediately fixed on Jahanara. Nur Jahan approached with the supple grace of a woman much younger than her fifty-six years, a result of a life-long regimen of dance and diet. Dressed in fine silks and damasks of her own design and pattern, Nur Jahan called to mind a great cat stalking prey.

Nur Jahan came to a halt, bowed, a delicate scent teasing Jahanara’s senses. “Grand-niece.”

Wishing to keep things formal, Jahanara used the other woman’s title, “Nur Jahan,” as she gestured the other to take a seat.

A brilliant, cheerful smile answered the formality and called to mind the reason for her title as “Light of The World.” So great was the charm of that smile that Jahanara could not be certain it was false, despite knowing that it had to be.

“Must we be so formal, Janni?” Nur asked as she reclined on cushions across from Jahanara. “I am fresh recovered from illness, and would celebrate another day among the living with my family. And—as all the boys are hunting and your sister is with your father—I naturally thought of you.”

Jahanara hid her displeasure at the other woman’s use of her childhood nickname, and answered in even tones: “I merely pay you the respect my grandfather bestowed upon you in recognition of your beauty, especially as you appear so well and happy.”

Nur Jahan blushed, actually blushed, at praise she had likely heard far more times than the sun had risen over Jahanara. “Jahangir was a great man, always kinder to me than I deserved.”

Marveling at the woman’s control over her body, Jahanara ordered refreshments for them both.

She looked back at Nur, found the older woman regarding her with a steady gaze.

Wishing for more time, Jahanara stalled: “A new perfume, Aunt?”

A nod of the head. “Yes, I have been working on it for some time. Do you like it?”

“Very much.”

“I shall see some delivered to you, then.”

A silence stretched. Refreshments arrived, were served.

Jahanara let the silence linger, armoring herself in it.

“I have something I wish to tell you, Janni.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.”

“Must I ask?”

A throaty chuckle. “No, of course not. It is a tale. A tale from my first year with your grandfather. A tale of the hunt, in fact.”

****

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, matchcord 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, heartshot. The gunsmith handed him another piece.

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

He 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. “The 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 instant, 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 from blood loss, 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. He 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.

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. The tiger does 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.

****

I had only been married to Jahangir for a brief while when he invited me to join him on a tiger hunt. I leapt at the chance to join him in the howdah, and had the mahouts paint his favorite elephant for the occasion. A great party of us set out, camping of a night and slowly moving through the areas where your grandfather’s armies were concentrating the game for his pleasure.

“But, as you may know, your grandfather Jahangir enjoyed smoking opium far more than was good for him, and he dozed through much of the hunt, the swaying of the howdah—” She gave a throaty chuckle. “—and perhaps the swaying of my hips, lulling him to sleep a few times.”

Jahanara, used to Nur’s earthy storytelling, still blushed. Scandalous! To think of sexual congress in the hot confines of a howdah, of all places, jali or no!

Nur pretended not to notice. “It was during one of his naps that there was some consternation ahead of us. I put on my veils and opened the curtains of the howdah.

“Several slaves were running from a wadi some tens of gaz away. It was then that I saw the reason for their flight: a pair of tigers flashing through the undergrowth after them.”

Jahanara noticed the older woman’s gaze grown distant, breath quickening; felt her own pulse rising.

“They were magnificent. Terrible. Bloodlust made manifest. One man had his head nearly removed with one rake of claws. Others fell, were torn open. Blood was everywhere.” Her nostrils flared, remembering.

A tiny smile. “The screams of his slaves at last woke Jahangir from his stupor. He moved to join me, took my hand in his.

‘Protect your servants,’ I told him.

“He looked at me. Too late, I could tell my command had made him most angry.

“After a moment he pressed his great bow into my hands. ‘One with this. Then one with the gun, if you succeed.’

‘What?’ I asked, incredulous.

‘Protect them if you wish them protected, wife.’

“I do not think he knew then, that my brother had taught me the bow in our youth. I think he thought to test me, hoping I would fail. He sought to put me in my place as twentieth wife, however favored . . .” Nur Jahan let her words trail off into brief silence.

Jahanara found herself leaning forward, eager to hear more. Slowly, conscious of the other woman’s skill at courtly intrigues and careful of some trap, she sat back.

Nur resumed her tale. “I resolved to show him I was no wilting flower,” the older woman sat straighter even as she said the words.

“While we had spoken another pair of slaves had perished, and the tigers had pursued them much closer to our elephant. Hands shaking, I drew the bow, loosed. That first arrow missed. I did not miss with the second, though it was not enough to kill the beast. Enraged, it leapt into the air and spun in a circle. I loosed again. A lucky shot, it took the cat in the throat, stilling its roar.”

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 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 fir—”

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.”

****

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 the herd and their own mounts.

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 shrugged. “. . . 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 y—” Asaf stopped in mid-sentence, peering into the dust beyond Shuja.

Dara followed the line of his gaze, saw it at 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, scrambled for his newest gun.

Shuja, hearing the shout, did the wrong thing. He reined in to look toward 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 into 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 younger prince heaved the heavy corpse aside and stood up, 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 his weight in silver, Talawat. Were it not for you, I would have surely rushed the shot.” He swallowed. “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 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 dead game at hand,” Asaf gasped.

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

****

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

“Shehzadhi?” 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 slave was found dead just outside the harem walls, Begum Sahib. Nothing special in itself, but my friend who is also your sister Raushashana’s nurse, says that her mistress was heard to claim the slave betrayed Nur Jahan. Just now, while you entertained her, I confirmed with one of the eunuchs that have responsibility for guarding her quarters that Nur is seeking a new cook-slave.”

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 her mistress. 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 of her enemy.

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

Jahanara nodded. “He is 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.”

“And still no word from Salim?”

“That messenger also has yet to report success in his duties. I begin to worry he might have been waylaid.”

“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 last year.”

“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, then.”

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 messenger’s failures 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, 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?”

****