middle of some Muslim holy war?
"But why do these Persians, or their _imams_, want to be rid of Samad?"
"Because he's a Sufi, a mystic, who teaches that we all should find God
within our own selves. Without the mullahs. That's why the Persian
Shi'ites despise him and want him dead."
"Then he's supporting Prince Jadar?"
"Samad does not concern himself with politics. But it's the duty of the
others of us, those who understand what is happening, to help Prince
Jadar. Because we know he will stop the Persians and their Shi'ites who
are now spreading their poison of hate in India, and he'll also rid
India of the Portuguese. I'm sure of it." She paused for a moment. "You
know, it's always seemed ironic that the Persians and the Portuguese
should actually work together. But in a way each needs the other. The
Portuguese have made the Persians, particularly the queen and her
brother, Nadir Sharif, very rich, and in return they're allowed to send
their Jesuits to preach. So both the Persians and the Portuguese want
to prevent Prince Jadar from becoming the next Moghul, since they know
he'd like nothing better than to rid India of them both."
"But what does this have to do with me? I just want a trading _firman_
from Arangbar. He's still alive and healthy, and he should know the
Portugals can't stop English trading ships from coming here. Why
shouldn't he give us a _firman_?"
"Can't you see? The English can never be allowed to trade here. It
would be the beginning of the end for the Portuguese. It would show all
the world they no longer can control India's ports. But what I'm really
trying to make you see is that it's not only the Portuguese who want to
stop you. It's also the people who support them. So no one can aid you
openly. The Persians are already too powerful. Still, there are those
here who would protect you."
"Who do you mean?"
"How could I possibly tell you?" She held him with her eyes. "I
scarcely know you. But you should listen to your intuition. Samad says
we all have an inner voice that tells us what is true."
This time she did reach and touch his hand, and her touch was strangely
warm in the chill of the room. "I can't tell you any more, really. So
now will you play for me? Something tender, perhaps. A song you would
play for the woman you left behind you in England."
"I didn't have all that much to leave behind." He picked up the lute.
"But I'll be happy to play for you."
"You have no one?"
"There was a woman in London. But she married while I was . . . gone."
"She wouldn't wait while you were away?" Shirin sipped again from her
cup and her eyes darkened. "That must have been very sad for you."
"It could be she didn't think I was worth waiting for." He hesitated.
"I've had some time to think about it since. In a way it was probably
my own fault. I think she wanted more than I was ready to give."
She looked at him and smiled. "Perhaps what she wanted was you. And you
wouldn't give yourself. Tell me what she was like."
"What was she like?" He looked away, remembering Maggie's face with a
strange mixture of longing and bitterness. "Well, she's like nobody
I've seen in India. Red hair, blue eyes . . . and a salty tongue." He
laughed. "If she was ever anybody's fourth wife, I'd pity the other
three." He felt his laugh fade. "I missed her a lot when I was away
before. But now . . ." He tried to shrug.
She looked at him as though she understood it all. "Then if you won't
play for her any more, will you play just for me? One of your English
"What if I played a suite by Dowland, one of our English composers?
It's one of my favorites." He found himself smiling again, the lute
comfortable and reassuring in his grasp. "I hope you won't think it
sounds too out of place."
"We're both out of place here now." She returned his smile wistfully
and glanced at the papers on the desk. "You and me."
Hawksworth saw George Elkington approaching and dropped the dagger
quickly into his boot.
"'Twill take a lifetime the rate these heathens dawdle." Elkington
wiped a sweaty arm across his brow. Deep bags sagged under his
bloodshot eyes. "An' we'll be months movin' the lead and ironwork with
these damn'd rickety carts. Not to mention the silver bullion for
buyin' commodity. We'll have to get a barge."
"How many more trips do you need to bring in the wool?"
"Can't say. But 'tis clear we'll need more of these damn'd carts, for
what little they're worth." As Elkington turned to spit, he spotted a
porter who had let a roll of woolen cloth dip into the river, and his
neck veins pulsed. "Hey, you heathen bastard, mind the water!" He
stumbled after the terrified man trailing a stream of oaths.
Hawksworth leaned against the wooden spokes of a bullock cart and
quickly passed the stiletto from his boot back to his belt. As he
watched, the bark tipped, beginning to list dangerously, and then he
heard Elkington command the porters to stop the loading and prepare to
get underway. Only five of the twenty-five bullock carts had been
emptied, and the sun was already approaching midafternoon. As
Hawksworth had watched the men at work, some corner of his mind had
become dimly aware of a curious anomaly. Whereas the Shahbandar's
porters were working at full speed, the drivers of the bullock carts
seemed actually to be hindering the unloading - moving the carts around
in a confused way that always kept the work disorganized. And a number
of answers began, just began, to fall into place.
"Captain-General Hawksworth, do you expect to be joinin' us?" George
Elkington stalked up and began to scrape his muddy boots on the spokes
of the bullock cart
"Elkington, I want you to dismiss these drivers." Hawksworth ignored
his sarcastic tone. "I want the Shahbandar to supply all our men from
"What the bloody hell for?" Elkington tightened his hat and hitched up
"Something's wrong. Did you have any accidents coming in from Swalley?"
"Accidents? Nay, not a bleedin' one. Unless you'd call the axle of a
cart breakin' the first day and blockin' a narrow turn in the road,
with mud on both sides so we couldn't pass and had to unload the whole
bleedin' lot and look half the mornin' for another cart to hire. An'
then the drivers had a fight over who was responsible, and who'd pay
for what, and we couldn't start till after midday. And yesterday one of
their damn'd bullocks died, right in the road. Which is scarce wonder,
considerin' how worn out they are. Nay, we had no accidents. The whole
bleedin' trip was an accident."
"Then let's get rid of them all. Men, carts, bullocks, the lot. And
hire new. Let the Shahbandar hire them for us. We pay in silver, and
give him his commission, and I'm sure he'll provide us what we need."
"Think he can do any better?" Elkington's skeptical eyes squinted
against the sun. "These damn'd heathens all appear similar."
"I think he'll make a difference. They all seem terrified of him. We
have to try." Hawksworth started for the barge.
"You don't have much time left." Shirin had said. "Try to understand
The porters were loosening the lines on the pegs. The bark was ready to
"Don't assume you know who'll aid you," she had said. "Help may come in
a way that surprises you. It can't be known who's helping you."
He waded through the mud and pulled himself onto the
bark. Then he turned and rolled over onto a bale of cloth. The sky was
flawless and empty.
"Just trust what feels right," she had said, and for no reason at all
she had reached out and touched his lute. "Learn to trust your senses.
Most of all" - she had taken his hand and held it longer than she should
have - "learn to open yourself."
They were underway.
The Shahbandar watched from the _maidan_ as the bark of English woolens
moved in short spurts toward the steps below him. Oars sparkled in the
sunshine, and the faint chant of the rowers bounced, garbled, across
the waves. Behind him two short, surly-eyed men held the large umbrella
that shaded his face and rotund belly. A circle of guards with poles
pushed away traders who shouted begs and bribes for a moment of his
time injtheir tent, to inspect their goods please and render them
salable commodity with his chapp and an invoice stating their worth,
preferably undervalued. The 2 1/2 percent duty was prescribed by the
Moghul. The assessed value was not.
Mirza Nuruddin ignored them. He was calculating time, not rupees.
His latest report was that four weeks more were needed for the Viceroy
to outfit the galleons and fireships. But the single-masted frigatta
bringing the news from Goa was two weeks in travel. Which means the
galleons will be here within three, perhaps two weeks, he told himself.
A Portuguese armada of twelve warships. The Englishman's luck has run
out. They'll be caught unlading and burned.
He fingered the shred of dirty cloth tucked in his waist. It had been
sent by Shirin, wrapped with a gift of aga of the rose. Her cryptic
note had told him all he had needed to know. When his spies reported no
one recently injured among the servants of the Portuguese Jesuits, the
search had begun in the horse bazaar. They had found the man the next
day. The truth had come quickly when Mirza Nuruddin's name was
And nothing had been learned. The man had been given the knife by
Hindi-speaking servants. Their master's name was never divulged. But
they knew well the routine of the Englishman, and the location of the
And now I must tamper with your destiny, English captain. We are all -
you, I, the prince - captives of a world we no longer can fully control.
He asked himself again why he had made the choice, finally. To take the
risks Jadar had asked, when the odds against the prince were growing
daily. It was stupid to support him now, and Mirza Nuruddin had always
held absolute contempt for stupidity, particularly when it meant
supporting a hopeless cause.
If the queen crushes him, as she very likely will, I've jeopardized my
position, my holdings, probably my life.
The prince does not understand how difficult my task is. The infidel
Englishman is almost too clever.
I had planned it perfectly. I had shown them the opportunity for great
profit, then denied it to them. They were preparing to leave, but
surely they would have returned, with a fleet. Then Mukarrab Khan
approved their trade, after waiting until he was certain the Portuguese
preparations were almost complete. So now they remain, awaiting their
own destruction, never to leave again. And when these frigates are
destroyed, will any English ever return?
The Englishman will surely be dead, or sent to Goa. There'll be no trip
to Agra. And Arangbar will never know why.
But the silver coin will soon be ready. And the prince's cipher today
said Vasant Rao himself will arrive in ten days to escort the
Englishman and the silver as far as Burhanpur. Time is running out.
There's only one solution left. Will it work?
The barge eased into the shallows and the porters slid into the water,
each already carrying a roll of cloth.
"I expected this difficulty, Captain Hawksworth. But your
path is of your own making. You yourself chose to unlade at that
distance from the port." They were in Mirza Nuruddin's chamber, and the
Shahbandar faced Hawksworth and Elkington with his rheumy, fogbound
eyes. The chamber had been emptied, as Hawksworth had demanded. "I
propose you consider the following. Unlade the woolens from your
smaller frigate immediately, and let me oversee their transport here."
He drew nonchalantly on the hookah. "My fee would be a small commission
above the cost of hiring the carts. One percent if they are delivered
here within two weeks. Two percent if they are delivered within one
week. Do you accept?"
Hawksworth decided not to translate the terms for Elkington.
"We accept." It seems fair, he told himself. This is no time to
"You show yourself reasonable. Now, the lead and ironwork you have
cargoed is another matter. Bullock carts are totally unsuitable for
those weights in this sandy coastal delta. The weights involved require
they be transported by river bark. And that means unlading at the river
Hawksworth shook his head. "We'll dump the cargo first. We can't take
the risk now."
"Captain, there is risk and there is risk. What is life itself if not
risk? Without risk what man can call himself alive?" Mirza Nuruddin
thought of his own risk at this moment, how his offer of help to the
English would immediately be misconstrued by the entire port. Until the
plan had played through to its ending. Then the thought of the ending
buoyed him and he continued, his voice full of solicitude. "I can
suggest a strategy for unlading your ironwork at the river mouth in
reasonable safety, after your frigates have been lightened of their
wool. With an experienced pilot, you can sail along the shoreline,
south to the bar, and anchor under cover of dark. Barks can be waiting
to unlade you. If the lead and ironwork are ready for unlading, perhaps
it can be completed in one night. You can unlade the smaller frigate
first, return it to the cove you call Swalley, and then unlade the
other vessel. That way only one frigate is exposed at a time."
As Hawksworth and Elkington listened, Mirza Nuruddin outlined the
details of his offer. He would hire whatever men were needed. He
normally did this for foreign traders, and took a percentage from them -
as well as from the meager salary of the men he hired. And he already
had a pilot in mind, a man who knew every shoal and sandbar on the
As Hawksworth listened his senses suddenly told him to beware. Hadn't
Shirin told him to trust his intuition? And this scheme was too pat.
This time his guts told him to dump the lead in the bay and write off
the loss. But Elkington would never agree. He would want to believe
they could unlade and sell the lead. His responsibility was profit on
the cargo, not the risk of a vessel.
So he would take this final risk. Perhaps Mirza Nuruddin was right.
He smiled inwardly and thought again of Shirin. And of what she had
said about trusting his instincts.
Then, ignoring them, he agreed to Mirza Nuruddin's plan.
And the Shahbandar produced a document already prepared for their
"Now we will begin. As my guest, you have first throw of the
dice." Mirza Nuruddin fingered the gold and ivory inlay of the wooden
dice cup as he passed it to Hawksworth. Then he drew a heavy gurgle of
smoke from his hookah, savoring the way it raced his heart for that
brief instant before its marvelous calm washed over his nerves. He
needed the calm. He knew that any plan, even one as carefully conceived
as the one tonight, could fail through the blundering of incompetents.
Or betrayal. But tonight, he told himself, tonight you will win the
The marble-paved inner court of the Shahbandar's sprawling brick estate
house was crowded almost to overflowing: with wealthy Hindu money-
lenders, whose mercenary hearts were as black as their robes were
white; Muslim port officials in silks and jewels, private riches
gleaned at public expense; the turbaned captains of Arab cargo ships
anchored at the bar, hard men in varicolored robes who sat sweltering,
smoking, and drinking steaming coffee; and a sprinkling of Portuguese
in starched doublets, the captains and officers of the three Portuguese
trading frigatta now anchored at the bar downriver.
Servants wearing only white loincloths circulated decanters of wine and
boxes of rolled betel leaves as an antidote to the stifling air that
lingered even now, almost at midnight, from a broiling day. The
torchbearers of Mirza Nuruddin's household stood on the balconies
continuously dousing a mixture of coconut oil and rose attar onto their
huge flambeaux. Behind latticework screens the _nautch_ girls waited in
boredom, braiding their hair, smoothing their skintight trousers,
inspecting themselves in the ring-mirror on their right thumb, and
chewing betel. The dancing would not begin until well after midnight.
As Hawksworth took the dice cup, the sweating crowd fell expectantly
silent, and for the first time he noticed the gentle splash of the
river below them, through the trees.
He stared for a moment at the lined board lying on the carpet between
them, then he wished himself luck and tossed the three dice along its
side. They were ivory and rectangular, their four long sides numbered
one, two, five, and six with inlaid teakwood dots. He had thrown a one
and two sixes.
"A propitious start. You English embrace fortune as a Brahmin his
birthright." The Shahbandar turned and smiled toward the Portuguese
captains loitering behind him, who watched mutely, scarcely masking
their displeasure at being thrown together with the heretic English
captain. But an invitation from the Shahbandar was not something a
prudent trader declined. "The night will be long, however. This is only
Hawksworth passed the cup to the Shahbandar and stared at the board,
trying to understand the rules of _chaupar_, the favorite game of India
from the Moghul's _zenana _to the lowliest loitering scribe. The board
was divided into four quadrants and a central square, using two sets of
parallel lines, which formed a large cross in its middle. Each quadrant
was divided into three rows, marked with spaces for moving pieces. Two
or four could play, and each player had four pieces of colored teak
that were placed initially at the back of two of the three spaced rows.
After each dice throw, pieces were moved forward one or more spaces in
a row until reaching its end, then up the next row, until they reached
the square in the center. A piece reaching the center was called
Hawksworth remembered that a double six allowed him to move two of his
pieces, those standing together, a full twelve spaces ahead. As he
moved the pieces forward, groans and oaths in a number of languages
sounded through the night air. Betting had been heavy on the
Shahbandar, who had challenged both Hawksworth and the senior
Portuguese captain to a set of games. Only an adventurous few in the
crowd would straddle their wagers and accept the long odds that the
English captain would, or could, be so impractical as to defeat the man
who must value and apply duty to his goods.
"Did I tell you, Captain Hawksworth, that _chaupar _was favored by the
Great Moghul, Akman?" The Shahbandar rattled the dice in the cup for a
long moment. "There's a story, hundreds of years old, that once a ruler
of India sent the game of chess, what we call _chaturanga_ in India, to
Persia as a challenge to their court. They in return sent _chaupar_ to
India." He paused dramatically. "It's a lie invented by a Persian."
He led the explosion of laughter and threw the dice. A servant called
the numbers and the laughter died as suddenly as it had come.
"The Merciful Prophet's wives were serpent-tongued Bengalis."
He had thrown three ones.
A terrified servant moved the pieces while Mirza Nuruddin took a betel
leaf from a tray and munched it sullenly. The crowd's tension was
Hawksworth took the cup and swirled it again. He absently noted that
the moon had emerged from the trees and was now directly overhead. The
Shahbandar seemed to notice it as well.
Mackintosh watched as the last grains of red marble sand slipped
through the two-foot-high hourglass by the binnacle and then he
mechanically flipped it over. The moon now cast the shadow of the
mainmast yard precisely across the waist of the ship, and the tide had
begun to flow in rapidly. The men of the new watch were silently
working their way up the shrouds.
"Midnight. The tide's up. There's nae need to wait more." He turned to
Captain Kerridge, who stood beside him on the quarterdeck of the
_Resolve_. George Elkington stood directly behind Kerridge.
"Let's get under sail." Elkington tapped out his pipe on the railing.
Then he turned to Kerridge. "Did you remember to douse the stern
"I give the orders, Mr. Elkington. And you can save your questions for
the pilot." Captain Jonathan Kerridge was a small, weasel-faced man
with no chin and large bulging eyes. He signaled the _Resolve_'s
quartermaster and the anchor chain began to rattle slowly up the side.
Then the mainsail dropped, hung slack for a moment, and bellied against
the wind, sending a groan through the mast. They were underway. The
only light on board was a small, shielded lantern by the binnacle, for
reading the large boxed compass.
The needle showed their course to be almost due south, toward the bar
at the mouth of the Tapti. On their right was the empty bay and on
their left the glimmer of occasional fires from the shoreline. The
whipstaff had been taken by the Indian pilot, a wrinkled nut-brown man
the Shahbandar had introduced as Ahmet. He spoke a smattering of
Portuguese and had succeeded in explaining that he could reliably cover
the eight-mile stretch south from Swalley to the unloading bar at the
Tapti river mouth in one turn of the hourglass, if Allah willed. With
high tide, he had also managed to explain, there were only two sandbars
they would have to avoid.
And there would be no hostiles abroad this night. Even the Portuguese
trading frigates were safely at anchor off the river mouth, for this
evening their captains had been honored by an invitation to attend the
gathering at Mirza Nuruddin's estate.
"Your beginning has been impressive, Captain Hawksworth. But now you
must still maintain your advantage." Mirza Nuruddin watched as
Hawksworth threw a double five and a two, advancing two of his four
pieces into the central square. The crowd groaned, coins began to
change hands. "You have gained _rasida _for two pieces. I'll save time
and concede this game. But we have six more to play. _Chaupar _is a bit
like life. It favors those with endurance."
As the board was cleared for the next game, Mirza Nuruddin rose and
strode to the end of the court. The wind was coming up now, as it
always did on this monthly night of full moon and tide, sweeping up the
river bringing the fresh salt air of the sea. And the currents would be
shifting along the coast, as sandbars one by one were submerged by the
incoming tide. He barked an inconsequential order to a hovering servant
and then made his way back to the board, his guests parting
automatically before him. The drinking crowd had already begun to turn
boisterous, impatient for the appearance of the women. As always, the
_nautch _girls would remain for additional entertainment after their
dance, in private quarters available in the rambling new palace.
"This game I will throw first." The Shahbandar seated himself, and
watched as Hawksworth drew on a tankard of brandy, especially provided
for the Europeans present. Then Mirza Nuruddin made a deft twist of the
cup and the ivories dropped on the carpet in a neat row of three sixes.
barked the numbers and the crowd pressed forward as one to watch.
"Fifteen fathom and falling." The bosun leaned back from the
railing and shouted toward the quarterdeck. In disbelief he quickly
drew the line in over the gunwale at the waist of the _Resolve_ and fed
it out again.
"Now she reads thirteen fathom."
Kerridge glanced at the hourglass. The sand was half gone, and
the compass reading still gave their course as due south. Ahead the sea
was blind dark but on the left the fires of shore still flickered, now
perhaps even brighter than he had remembered them. Then he realized a
cloud had drifted momentarily over the moon, and he told himself this
was why. The pilot held the whipstaff on a steady course.
"I'd reef the foresail a notch, Cap'n, and ease her two points
to starboard. I'll lay a hundred sovereigns the current's chang'd on
us." Mackintosh ventured to break protocol and speak, his concern
I dinna like the feel of this, he told himself. We're driftin'
too fast. I can feel it.
"Eight fathoms, sir." The bosun's voice again cut the dark.
"Jesus, Cap'n," Mackintosh erupted. "Take her about. The pox-
rotted current's . .."
"She'll ride in three fathom. I've sailed the James, six hundred
ton, in less. Let her run." He turned to Elkington. "Ask the Moor how
much longer to the river mouth."
George Elkington turned and shot a stream of questions rapidly
at the pilot, whose eyes glazed in his partial comprehension. He shook