if you could join me." He forced a blithe cheerfulness his weary eyes
As Hawksworth listened, he realized he very much wanted to go. To lose
himself for a time. And suddenly the words of Huyghen, and of Roger
Symmes, flashed through his mind. Of the India you would not want to
leave. _Until you would not be able to leave.
_As they rode toward the town, Mukarrab Khan fell silent. And Abul
Hasan, too, seemed lost in his own thoughts. Hawksworth slowly let his
horse draw to the rear in order to count the governor's personal
retinue of guards. Thirty men, with quivers of arrows beside their
saddle, pikes at their right stirrup, and a matchlock musket. As they
rode, the other horsemen eyed Hawksworth warily, keeping to themselves
and making no effort to talk. Hawksworth thought he sensed an
underlying hostility lurking through the crowd, but whether it was
between the merchants and officials, or toward him, he could not
Then a presumptuous thought passed through his mind.
Could this entire scene have been staged by Mukarrab Khan to somehow
test me? But to what purpose? What could he want to find out?
Whatever it was, I think he just may have found it.
Then he leaned back in the saddle, pushed aside his misgivings, and
sampled the perfumed evening air.
They were deep within the center of Surat, nearing the river,
when suddenly the street opened onto a wide stone-paved plaza. The
first thing Hawksworth saw through the torchlight was a high iron
fence, sentries posted with bucklers and pikes along its perimeter, and
an ornate iron gate. Then, as they neared, he realized the fence was
the outer perimeter of an immense pink sandstone fortress, with high
turrets and a wide, arched entryway. Finally he spotted the water-
filled moat that lay between the fence and the fortress walls. The moat
was spanned by a single wooden bridge, and Hawksworth noted that when
the bridge was drawn inward it neatly sealed the entry of the fortress.
As they approached the iron outer gate, the party of _chaugan _players
began to disperse; after formal and minimal farewells the merchants and
officials turned and disappeared into the night. Soon only Hawksworth
and Mukarrab Khan were left, together with the governor's private
grooms and guards. Hawksworth studied the departing players with
curiosity. What sway does Mukarrab Khan hold over them? Respect? Fear?
Then the iron gate swung wide and their horses clattered across the
wooden drawbridge. Hawksworth looked about and began to understand that
the governor's palace guards were not merely ceremonial. Lining both
sides of the drawbridge were uniformed infantrymen armed with pikes.
Then as they passed under the stone archway leading into the fortress,
Hawksworth turned to see even more armed guards, poised just inside,
pikes in formal salute. And farther back he saw two armored animals,
gigantic, many times larger than the biggest horse, with massive ears
and a snout several feet in length.
That must be what a war elephant looks like. So they really do exist.
But why so many guards? It's virtually a private army.
Then he felt a groom tug the reins of his horse and signal for him to
dismount. They were now inside the palace grounds. Ahead, through an
intricate formal garden, stood the residence of the governor of Surat.
The elaborate carvings of its pink sandstone decoration reflected hard
red in the torchlight.
Mukarrab Khan directed him through a marble entryway,
ornately rounded at the top like the turret of a mosque. They had
entered some form of reception hallway, and Hawksworth noticed that the
marble floor was decorated with a complex geometry of colored stone.
Above his head were galleries of white plasterwork supported by
delicate arches, and along the sides were ornate, curtained recesses.
Hanging oil lamps brilliantly illuminated the glistening walls, while
rows of servants dressed in matching white turbans lined the sides in
As they approached the end of the reception hallway, Hawksworth studied
the door ahead. It was massive, and thick enough to withstand any war
machine that could be brought into the hallway, and yet its protective
function was concealed from obvious notice by a decoration of intricate
carvings and a flawless polish. The servants slowly revolved it outward
on its heavy brass hinges and Mukarrab Khan led them into a vast open
courtyard surrounded by a veranda, with columns supporting balconies of
marble filigree. It seemed a vast reception hall set in the open air,
an elegant plaza whose roof was stars, and whose centerpiece was a
canopied pavilion, under which stood a raised couch of juniper wood
lined with red satin - not unlike an English four-poster bed, save the
posts were delicately thin and polished to a burnished ebony. Large
bronze lanterns along the balconies furnished a flickering vision of
the complex interworking of paths, flower beds, and fountains
surrounding the central pavilion.
Waiting on the veranda, just inside the entryway, were six tall
figures, three on either side of the doorway. They were turbaned,
exquisitely robed, and wore conspicuous jewels that gleamed against
their dark skin. As they bowed to the governor, Hawksworth examined
them for a brief moment and then his recognition clicked.
Eunuchs. They must be Mukarrab Khan's private guards, since they can go
anywhere, even the women's apartments.
"Captain Hawksworth, perhaps you should meet my household officials.
They are Bengalis - slaves actually - whom I bought young and trained
years ago in Agra. One must, regrettably, employ eunuchs to maintain a
household such as this. One's palace women can never be trusted, and
one's intriguing wives least of all. I named them in the Arab fashion,
after their position in the palace, so I need not trouble to remember
their names, merely what they do. This is Nahir, who is in charge of my
accounts." He gestured toward a pudgy face now glaring out from beneath
a deep blue headdress, a tall conical turban tied in place with a wrap
of white silk that circled his bloated throat. The eunuch's open jacket
was a heavy brocade and it heaved as he breathed, betraying the sagging
fat around his nipples.
"The one next to him selects my wardrobe." The second eunuch gazed at
Hawksworth impassively, his puffed, indulgent lips red with betel
juice. "That one selects the clothes for my spendthrift women, and the
one on his left is responsible for all their jewels. The one over there
takes care of the household linens and oversees the servants. And the
one behind him is in charge of the kitchen. You will be asked to endure
his handiwork tonight."
The eunuchs examined Hawksworth's ragged appearance with transparent
contempt, and they seemed to melt around him as he walked through the
doorway - two ahead, two behind, and one on either side. None spoke a
greeting. Hawksworth examined them carefully, wondering which was in
charge of the women's apartments. That's the most powerful position, he
smiled to himself, nothing else really counts.
A servant came down the veranda bearing a tray and brought it directly
to the governor. Then he kneeled and offered it. It was of beaten
silver and on it were two large crystal goblets of a pastel green
"Captain, would you care to refresh yourself with a glass of _tundhi_.
It's the traditional way we break the fast of Ramadan." He directed the
servant toward Hawksworth. "It's prepared in the women's apartments
during the day, as an excuse for something to do."
Hawksworth touched the drink lightly with his tongue. It was a mixture
of sweet and tang quite unlike anything he had ever known. Perhaps the
closest was a brisk mug of spiced
ale, pungent with clove and cinnamon. But this spiced drink was
mysteriously subtle. Puzzling, he turned to Mukarrab Khan.
"What is this? It tastes like the air in a garden."
"This? I've never paid any notice, although the women down it by the
basinful after sunset." As he received his own goblet he turned to one
of the eunuchs. "Nahir, how do the women prepare _tundhi_?"
"With seeds, Khan Sahib. Seeds of melons, cucumber, lettuce, and
coriander are pounded, and then blended with rosewater, pomegranate
essence, and juice of the aloe flower. But the secret is to strain it
properly, and I find I must carefully oversee the work."
"Doubtless." Mukarrab Khan's voice was curt. "I suspect you should
attend the accounts more and the women's apartments less." He turned to
"Is my bath ready?"
"As always, Khan Sahib." As the eunuch bowed he examined Hawksworth's
dust-covered face and hair discreetly. "Will the distinguished
_feringhi _also require a bath?"
"He was on the _chaugan _field this afternoon, just as I was."
Hawksworth groaned inwardly. What English host would have the
effrontery to suggest a guest needed a bath? For that matter, what
Englishman would even consider bathing more than twice a year? It's
known well enough King James never bathes, that he never even washes
his hands, only brushes them with a moist napkin at mealtime. Yet this
Moor wants a full bath before a meal, merely to remove a bit of dust.
"I would be content to rinse my hands."
Mukarrab Khan examined him for a moment and then broke into a wide
smile. "I always forget _feringhi _are positively afraid of water." He
spoke quickly to one of the eunuchs, who turned and barked orders to
the servants in a language Hawksworth did not understand.
"The servants will provide whatever you require." Mukarrab Khan bowed
perfunctorily to Hawksworth and disappeared through one of the arched
doorways leading off the courtyard, followed by the eunuchs. Then
Hawksworth turned to see a dark-skinned man bearing a large silver
basin down the veranda. Behind him a second man carried a red velvet
cushion, shaped like a long cylinder, and placed it on a stool next to
the canopied pavilion, gesturing for Hawksworth to sit.
As Hawksworth seated himself and turned toward the basin the servant
held waiting, he caught the fresh aroma of a full bouquet, as though
the fragrances of some tropic Eden had been distilled into the water.
He looked down to see flower petals floating on its shimmering, oil-
covered surface. How curious, he thought. English countrywomen
sometimes distill toilet water from the flowers in their gardens, but
never in such quantities'that it can be used merely to wash hands. And
while English toilet waters are cloying and sweet, violets and
gilliflowers, this aroma is light and delicate.
War elephants and perfumed waters, in the same palace. It's incredible.
He gingerly splashed his hands, and looked up to find a steaming towel
being proffered. He sponged away the remaining mud of the playing field
and watched as one by one the servants began to melt into the darkened
recesses of the marble galleries. The last was an old withered
gamekeeper, who wandered through the garden berating a sullen peacock
toward its roost. And then the courtyard fell austerely quiet.
Illuminated now only by lanterns and pale moonlight, it became a
fairyland almost outside of time. He smiled as he thought of where he
had been only the previous night - fending off an attack by Portuguese
infantry. And now, this.
His thoughts began to drift randomly, to float in and among the marble
latticework of the veranda. And he thought once more of Roger Symmes
and his bizarre stories of India.
He was right. It's a heaven on earth. But with an undertow of violence
just beneath the serene, polished surface. All this beauty, and yet
it's guarded with war elephants and a moat. It's a world that's . . .
artificial. It's carved of marble and jewels, and then locked away. Now
I'm beginning to understand why he found it so enticing. And
frightening. God, for a brandy. Now.
"Khan Sahib awaits you." Hawksworth looked up to see the eunuch
standing directly in front of him, freshly attired in a long robe of
patterned silk. As he rose, startled from his reveries, a pudgy hand
shot out and seized his arm.
"Your sword is not permitted in the banquet room."
Hawksworth froze. Then he remembered the knife strapped inside the top
of his boot and the thought gave him comfort.
He unbuckled his sword slowly, deliberately, pausing to meet the
eunuch's defiant stare as he passed it over.
The eunuch seemed to ignore Hawksworth's look as he continued.
"You will also remove your boots. It is against custom to wear them in
the banquet room."
Hawksworth moved to protest, then sadly concluded there would be no
point. Of course the room would be filled with carpets. And that must
be the reason everyone I've seen here wears open shoes with the backs
folded down: they're constantly being removed at doorways.
He bent over and unbuckled his boots. The eunuch stiffened momentarily
when he saw the glint of the knife handle in the lamplight, but he said
nothing, merely swept up the boots with his other hand.
As they walked slowly down the marble hallway toward the bronzed door
of the banquet room, Hawksworth tried to rehearse what he would say to
He has to petition the court in Agra to grant safe conduct for the
trip. He just has to send one letter. How can he possibly refuse?
Remember, you're an ambassador. . . .
The eunuch shoved wide the bronzed door, and Hawksworth was astonished
by what he saw.
The governor of Surat lounged against a purple velvet bolster at the
far end of a long room whose walls were a cool expanse of flawless
white and whose marble floor was softened with an enormous carpet in
the thick Persian style. His skin glistened with light oil, and he had
donned a fresh turban, patterned in brown and white, tied in intricate
swirls, and bound with a strand of dark jewels. A single large pearl
hung over his forehead, and two tassels, each also suspending a pearl,
brushed his shoulders. He wore a tight-fitting patterned shirt in pale
brown, and over this a heavy green vest lined in white satin and
embroidered in gold. It was bound with a woven cinch decorated with
brocade. Around his neck were two strings of pearls, the shorter
suspending a large ruby from its center. He had put on heavy bracelets,
and intricate rings circled the first and fourth fingers of both hands.
Hawksworth also noticed for the first time that he wore earrings, each
a tiny green emerald.
The eunuchs stood behind him, and around the sides of the room servants
and slaves stood waiting. Along a back wall two men sat silently
poised, one behind a pair of small drums and the other holding an
ornate stringed instrument, its polished body glistening in the light.
The only women in the room mingled among the servers.
"Captain Hawksworth, our fare tonight will be simple and unworthy, but
please honor my table by your indulgence." Mukarrab Khan smiled warmly
and motioned Hawksworth to enter. "At least we can talk freely."
"Is this an official meeting?" Hawksworth did not move, but stood as
officiously as he could muster.
"If you wish. Our meeting can be considered formal, even if we are
"Then as ambassador of His Majesty, King James of England, I must
insist that you rise to receive me." Hawksworth tried to suppress the
feeling that he looked vaguely foolish as a barefoot ambassador. But no
one else in the room wore shoes either. "A governor is still his king's
subject. I represent my king's person."
"I was not informed you were an ambassador." Mukarrab Khan's face
sobered noticeably, but he did not move. "You are Captain-General of
two merchant vessels."
"I'm here in the name of the king of England, with authority to speak
for him in all matters regarding trade." Hawksworth recalled the effect
this had had on the Shahbandar. "I'm entrusted with his personal letter
to the Moghul."
Mukarrab Khan examined Hawksworth for a long moment, seeming to collect
and assemble a number of thoughts.
"Your request would be proper for an ambassador. Let us say I comply in
the interest of mutual good will." He rose and bowed formally, if only
sightly, more a nod. "The governor of Surat welcomes you, a
representative of the English king."
"And I convey my king's acknowledgement of your welcome." Hawksworth
entered and seated himself facing Mukarrab Khan, against a large velvet
bolster already positioned for him.
"And what is this letter your English king sends to His Majesty?"
Mukarrab Khan reclined back on his own bolster and arched his
"That is a concern between King James and the Moghul." Hawksworth
caught the quickly suppressed flash of anger in Mukarrab Khan's eyes.
"I only ask that you petition the court in Agra for permission to
travel there. It would also be helpful if you would order the
Shahbandar to allow our merchants to trade their goods at the port of
"Yes, I understand you had the pleasure of meeting our Shahbandar. I
regret deeply having to tell you I have virtually no influence over
that notorious man. He was appointed by the Moghul's son, Prince Jadar,
who is in charge of administering this province. He acts very much as
Lie number one, Hawksworth thought: you forced him to order my transfer
"Surely you're aware," Mukarrab Khan continued evenly, "that no other
Europeans besides the Portuguese have ever before landed cargo on the
shores of India. Arabs, Persians, even Turks are a common sight, but no
other Europeans. Not even your Dutch, who, I'm told, consort with some
of our southeastern neighbors. In fact, the Moghul's trade agreement
with the Portuguese is intended to exclude all other Europeans."
Mukarrab Khan stirred on his bolster and signaled one of the eunuchs to
prepare the carpet for dining. "Although frankly he has little choice,
since they control the seas. In fact, it might be said that they allow
our merchants to trade. Indian cargo vessels must all acquire a license
from Portuguese officials in Goa before leaving port."
"The Portugals control India's trade because you've allowed them to.
Your territorial waters belong to India, or should."
Mukarrab Khan seemed to ignore Hawksworth as he watched the servants
spread a large covering of tooled leather across the carpet in front of
them. After a moment his concentration reappeared, and he turned
"Ambassador Hawksworth, we do not need to be advised by you how India
should manage her own affairs. But perhaps I will advise you that His
Excellency, the Portuguese Viceroy, has already sent notice by
messenger that he intends to lodge charges of piracy against your two
ships. He has requested that they be confiscated and that you, your
merchants, and your crews be transferred to Goa for trial."
Hawksworth's heart stopped and he examined Mukarrab Khan in dismay. So
the _chaugan _match had merely been an excuse to take him into
confinement. After a moment he stiffened and drew himself erect. "And I
say the Portugals were the ones acting as pirates. Their attack on our
English merchantmen was in violation of the treaty of peace that now
exists between England and Spain, and by extension to the craven
Portugals, who are now nothing more than a vassal of the Spanish king."
"Yes, I've heard rumors of this treaty. We in India are not entirely
ignorant of Europe. But His Excellency denies there's any such treaty
extending to our shores. As I recall he characterized England as an
island of stinking fishermen, who should remain content to fish their
"The treaty between England and Spain exists." Hawksworth decided to
ignore the insult. "We have exchanged ambassadors and it is honored by
both our kings. It ended almost two decades of war."
"I will grant you such a treaty may indeed exist. Whether it applies
here I do not know. Nor, frankly, do I particularly care. What I do
know, English ambassador, is that you are very far from the law courts
of Europe. The Portuguese still control the seas off India, as they
have done for a hundred years. And unenforceable treaties have little
bearing on the rule of might."
"We showed you the 'might' of the Portugals yesterday."
Mukarrab Khan laughed heartily, and when he glanced toward his eunuchs,
they returned obsequious grins. "You are truly more naive than I ever
imagined, English Captain Hawksworth. What effect can one small
engagement have on the fleet of warships at Goa? If you want protection
at sea, you will have to provide it yourself. Is that what your king
hopes to gain from the Moghul, or from me?"
"I told you I have only two requests. One is your message to Agra
requesting permission for my journey. The other is your approval to
trade the cargo we've brought."
"Yes, so you have said. Unfortunately, what you ask may not be all that
easy to grant. Your unhappy engagement with the Portuguese Viceroy's
fleet has made my situation more than a trifle awkward." He leaned back
and spoke rapidly in Persian to the eunuchs standing behind him. Then
he turned back to Hawksworth. "But as one of our Agra poets, a Sufi
rascal named Samad, once penned, The thread of life is all too short;
the soul tastes wine and passes on.' Before we explore these tiresome
concerns further, let us taste some wine."
The eunuchs were already dictating orders to the servants. A silver
chalice of fresh fruit appeared beside Hawksworth, brimming with
mangoes, oranges larger than he had ever before seen, slices of melon,
and other unknown fruits of varied colors. A similar bowl was placed
beside Mukarrab Khan, who seemed to ignore it. Then as Hawksworth
watched, the servants began spreading a white linen cloth over the red
leather coverlet that had been placed on the carpet in front of them.
"A host is expected, Ambassador, to apologize for the meal he offers. I
will take the occasion to do that now." Mukarrab Khan flashed a
sprightly smile. "But perhaps after your months at sea, you will be
lenient. For my own part, I have fasted today, and there's an Arab
proverb that hunger is the best spice. Still, I prefer leisurely
gratification. I concur with our Hindu sensualists that pleasure
prolonged is pleasure enhanced. All pleasure. Perhaps this evening you
will see their wisdom."
Before Hawksworth could respond, two heavy doors at the back of the
room slowly opened, glinting the lamplight off their elaborate filigree
of gold and bronze, and the first trays appeared, covered with silver
lids and borne by young men from the kitchen. Uniformed servants
preceded them into the room. One by one the trays were passed to the
eunuchs, who removed their lids and carefully inspected the contents of
each dish. After a brief consultation, the eunuchs ordered several of
the dishes returned to the kitchen.
Hawksworth suddenly realized he was ravenous, and he watched the
departing dishes in dismay. Did they somehow fail the eunuchs' exacting
standards? Sweet Jesus, who cares? It all looks delicious.
After final approval by the eunuchs, the silver serving bowls were
passed to servants waiting along the sides of the room, who in turn
arrayed them across the linen cloth between Hawksworth and Mukarrab
Khan. A chief server then knelt behind the dishes, while several stacks
of porcelain plates were placed next to him. Hawksworth tried to count
the silver serving bowls, but stopped after twenty.
One by one the server ceremoniously removed the silver lids from the
bowls. Beneath them the contents of the dishes had been arrayed in the
colors of a rainbow. On beds of rice that ranged from white to saffron
to green, and even purple, was an overwhelming array of meats, fish,
and birds of all sizes. There were carved baked fruits; tiny balls of
meat flaked with spice and coconut; fried vegetables surrounded by
silver cups of a pastel green sauce; large flat fish encased in dark
baking shells flecked with red and green spices; and a virtual aviary
of wild fowl, from small game birds to plump pea hens.
The server dished hearty helpings from each bowl onto separate
porcelain plates, together with mounds of almond rice and jellied
fruits. As he started to pass the first plate to Hawksworth, Mukarrab
Khan roughly arrested his hand. "This ill-bred kitchen _wallah_ will
serve in the stables after tonight." He seized the serving spoons and,
with a flourish of traditional Moghul etiquette, personally laded extra
portions from each of the dishes onto Hawksworth's plates. The server
beamed a knowing smile.
Hawksworth stared at the food for a moment, dazzled, and then he
gingerly sampled a meatball. The taste was delicious, yet hardy, and he