brilliantly against the dark pile of earth at the front of the pit.
God Almighty! No! Hawksworth instinctively started to reach for his
A deafening chorus of wails burst from the waiting women as the young
man flung the torch directly by the head of the bier. Next the priests
threw more lighted torches alongside the corpse, followed by more oil.
The flames licked tentatively around the edges of the wood, then burst
across the top of the pyre. The fire swirled around the woman, and in
an instant her oil-soaked robes flared, enveloping her body and
igniting her hair. Hawksworth saw her open her mouth and say something,
words he did not understand, and then the pain overcame her and she
screamed and tried frantically to move toward the edge of the pit. As
she reached the edge she saw the hovering priests, waiting with long
poles to push her away, and she stumbled backward. Her last screams
were drowned by the chorus of wailing women as she collapsed across the
body of her husband, a human torch.
Hawksworth stepped back in horror and whirled on Vasant Rao, who stood
"This is murder! Is this more of your Rajput 'tradition"?"
"It is what we call _sati_, when a brave woman joins her husband in
death. Did you hear what she said? She pronounced the words 'five, two'
as the life-spirit left her. At the moment of death we sometimes have
the gift of prophecy. She was saying this is the fifth time she has
burned herself with the same husband, and that only two times more are
required to release her from the cycle of birth and death, to render
her a perfect being."
"I can't believe she burned herself willingly."
"Of course she did. Rajput women are noble. It was the way she honored
her husband, and her caste. It was her _dharma_."
Hawksworth stared again at the pit. Priests were throwing more oil on
the raging flames, which already had enveloped the two bodies and now
licked around the edges, almost at Hawksworth's feet. The five women
seemed crazed with grief, as they held hands and moved along the edge
in a delirious dance. The heat had become intense, and Hawksworth
instinctively stepped back as tongues of fire licked over the edge of
the pit. The mourning women appeared heedless of their own danger as
they continued to circle, their light cloth robes now only inches from
the flame. The air was filled with the smell of death and burning
They must be mad with grief. They'll catch their clothes . . .
At that instant the hem of one of the women's robes ignited. She
examined the whipping flame with a wild, empty gaze, almost as though
not seeing it. Then she turned on the other women, terror and confusion
in her eyes.
Hawksworth was already peeling off his jerkin. He'd seen
enough fires on the gun deck to know the man whose clothes caught
If I can reach her in time I can smother the robe before she's burned
and maimed. Her legs . . .
Before he could move, the woman suddenly turned and poised herself at
the edge of the roaring pit. She emitted one long intense wail, then
threw herself directly into the fire. At that moment the robes of a
second woman caught, and she too turned and plunged head-first into the
Merciful God! What are they doing!
The three remaining women paused for a moment. Then they clasped hands,
and, as though on a private signal, plunged over the edge into the
inferno, their hair and robes igniting like dry tinder in a furnace.
The women all clung together as the flames enveloped them.
Hawksworth tried to look again into the pit, but turned away in
"What in hell is happening?"
Vasant Rao's eyes were flooded with disbelief.
"They must have been his concubines. Or his other wives. Only his first
wife was allowed to have the place of honor beside his body. I've. . ."
The Rajput struggled for composure. "I've never seen so many women die
in a _sati_. It's . . ." He seemed unable to find words. "It's almost
"How did such a murderous custom begin?" Hawksworth's eyes were seared
now from the smoke and the smell of burning flesh. "It's unworthy of
"We believe aristocratic Rajput women have always wished to do it. To
honor their brave warriors. The Moghul has tried to stop it, however.
He claims it began only a few centuries ago, when a Rajput raja
suspected the women in his palace were trying to poison him and his
ministers. Some believe the raja decreed that custom as protection for
his own life, and then others followed. But I don't think that's true.
I believe women in India have always done it, from ancient times. But
what does it matter when it began. Now all rani, the wives of rajas,
follow their husbands in death, and consider it a great honor. Today it
seems his other women also insisted on joining her. I think it was
against her wishes. She did not want to share her moment of glory.
_Sati_ is a noble custom, Captain Hawksworth, part of that Rajput
strength of character wanting in other races."
A hand seized Hawksworth's arm roughly and jerked him back through the
crowd, a sea of eyes burning with contempt. Amid the drifting smoke he
caught a glimpse of the bullock carts of the caravan, lined along the
far end of the road leading into the fortress. The drivers were nowhere
to be seen, but near the carts were cattle sheds for the bullocks.
If they can send innocent women to their death, life means nothing
here. They'll kill us for sure.
He turned to Vasant Rao, whose face showed no trace of fear. The Rajput
seemed oblivious to the smell of death as smoke from the fire engulfed
the palms that lined the village roads. They were approaching the porch
of the great house where the head of the dynasty had lived.
Two guards shoved Hawksworth roughly to his knees. He looked up to see,
standing on the porch of the house, the young man who had tossed the
torch into the pit. He began speaking to them, in the tones of an
"He's the son of the man you killed. He has claimed leadership of the
dynasty, and calls himself Raj Singh." Vasant Rao translated rapidly,
as the man continued speaking. "He says that tomorrow there will be an
eclipse of the sun here. It is predicted in the Panjika, the Hindu
manual of astrology. His father, the leader of this dynasty of the sun,
has died, and tomorrow the sun will die also for a time. The Brahmins
have said it is fitting that you die with it. For high castes in India
the death of the sun is an evil time, a time when the two great powers
of the sky are in conflict. On the day of an eclipse no fires are lit
in our homes. Food is discarded and all open earthenware pots are
smashed. No one who wears the sacred thread of the twice-born can be
out of doors during an eclipse. The Brahmin astrologers have judged it
is the proper time for you to pay for your cowardly act. You will be
left on a pike to die in the center of the square."
Hawksworth drew himself up, his eyes still smarting from
the smoke, and tried to fix the man's eyes. Then he spoke, in a voice
he hoped would carry to all the waiting crowd.
"Tell him his Brahmin astrologers know not the truth, neither past nor
future." Hawksworth forced himself to still the tremble in his voice.
"There will be no eclipse tomorrow. His Brahmins, who cannot foretell
the great events in the heavens, should have no right to work their
will on earth."
"Have you gone mad?" Vasant Rao turned and glared at him as he spat the
words in disgust. "Why not try to die with dignity."
Vasant Rao stared at Hawksworth in dumb amazement. "Do you think we're
all fools. The eclipse is foretold in the Panjika. It is the sacred
book of the Brahmins. It's used to pick auspicious days for ceremonies,
for weddings, for planting crops. Eclipses are predicted many years
ahead in the Panjika. They have been forecast in India for centuries.
Don't Europeans know an eclipse is a meeting of the sun and moon?
Nothing can change that."
"Tell him what I said. Exactly."
Vasant Rao hesitated for a few moments and then reluctantly translated.
The Rajput chieftain's face did not change and his reply was curt.
Vasant Rao turned to Hawksworth. "He says you are a fool as well as an
"Tell him that if I am to die with the sun, he must kill me now. I spit
on his Brahmins and their Panjika. I say the eclipse will be this very
day. In less than three hours."
"In one _pahar_?
"No god, and certainly no man, can control such things. Why tell him
this invention?" Vasant Rao's voice rose with his anger. "When this
thing does not happen, you will die in even greater dishonor."
Vasant Rao again translated, his voice hesitant. Raj Singh examined
Hawksworth skeptically. Then he turned and spoke to one of the tall
Rajputs standing nearby, who walked to the end of the porch and
summoned several Brahmin priests. After a conference marked by much
angry shouting and gesturing, one of the Brahmins turned and left.
Moments later he reappeared carrying a book.
"They have consulted the Panjika again." Vasant Rao pointed toward the
book as one of the Brahmins directed a stream of language at Raj Singh.
"He says there is no mistaking the date of the eclipse, and the time.
It is in the lunar month of Asvina, which is your September-October.
Here in the Deccan the month begins and ends with the full moon. The
_tithi_ or lunar day of the eclipse begins tomorrow."
As Hawksworth listened, he felt his heart begin to race.
The calculations at the observatory had a lot to say about your
Panjika's lunar calendar. And they showed how unwieldy it is compared
to the solar calendar the Arabs and Europeans use. A cycle of the moon
doesn't divide evenly into the days in a year. So your astrologers have
to keep adding and subtracting days and months to keep years the same
length. It's almost impossible to relate a lunar calendar accurately to
a solar year. Jamshid Beg, the astronomer from Samarkand, loved to
check out the predictions in the Hindu Panjika.
If I deciphered his calculations right, this is one eclipse the Panjika
called wrong. The astrologer must have miscopied his calculations. Or
maybe he just bungled one of the main rules of lunar bookkeeping. Solar
days begin at sunrise, but lunar days are different. The moon can rise
at any time of day. According to the system, the lunar day current at
sunrise is supposed to be the day that's counted. But if the moon rises
just after sunrise, and sets before sunrise the next day, then that
whole lunar "day" has to be dropped from the count.
Today was one of those days. It should have been dropped from the lunar
calendar, but it wasn't. So the prediction in the Panjika is a day off.
According to Jamshid Beg's calculations, at least. God help me if he
"Tell him his Panjika is false. If I'm to be killed the day of
the eclipse, he must kill me now, today."
Raj Singh listened with increasing disquiet as Vasant Rao
translated. He glanced nervously at the Brahmins and then replied in a
Vasant Rao turned to Hawksworth. "He asks what proof you have of
Hawksworth looked around. What proof could there be of an
"My word is my word."
Another exchange followed.
"He is most doubtful you are wiser than the Panjika." Vasant Rao
paused for a moment, then continued. "I am doubtful as well. He says
that if you have invented a lie you are very foolish. And we will all
"Tell him he can believe as he chooses. The eclipse will be
Again there was an exchange. Then Vasant Rao turned to
Hawksworth, a mystified expression on his face.
"He says if what you say is true, then you are an _avatar_, the
incarnation of a god. If the eclipse is today, as you say, then the
village must begin to prepare immediately. People must all move
indoors. Once more, is what you say true?"
"It's true." Hawksworth strained to keep his voice confident,
and his eyes on the Rajput chieftain as he spoke. "It doesn't matter
whether he believes or not."
Raj Singh consulted again with the Brahmin priests, who had now
gathered around. They shifted nervously, and several spat to emphasize
their skepticism. Then the Rajput leader returned and spoke again to
"He says that he will take the precaution of ordering the high
castes indoors. If what you say comes to pass, then you have saved the
village from a great harm."
Hawksworth started to speak but Vasant Rao silenced him with a
"He also says that if what you say is a lie, he will not wait
until tomorrow to kill you. You will be buried alive at sunset today,
up to the throat. Then you will be stoned to death by the women and
children of the village. It is the death of criminal Untouchables."
As the smoke from the funeral pyre continued to drift through the
village, the high-caste men and women entered their homes and sealed
their doors. Women took their babies in their laps and began their
prayers. Only low castes and children too young to wear the sacred
thread remained outside. Even Vasant Rao was allowed to return to the
room where they had been held prisoner. Hawksworth suddenly found
himself without guards, and he wandered back to the square to look once
more at the pit where the funeral pyre had been. All that remained of
the bodies were charred skeletons.
An hour ago there was life. Now there's death. The difference is the
will to live.
And luck. The turn of chance.
Was Jamshid Beg right? If not, God help me . . .
He knelt down beside the pit. To look at death and to wait.
Prince Jadar passed the signal to the waiting guards as he
strode briskly down the stone-floored hallway and they nodded
imperceptibly in acknowledgment. There was no sound in the torch-lit
corridor save the pad of his leather-soled riding slippers.
It was the beginning of the third _pahar_, midday, and he had come
directly from the hunt when the runner brought word that Mumtaz had
entered labor. It would have been unseemly to have gone to her side, so
he had spoken briefly with the _dai_, midwife. He had overruled the
Hindu woman's suggestion that Mumtaz be made to give birth squatting by
a bed, so that a broom could be pressed against her abdomen as the
midwife rubbed her back. It was, he knew, the barbarous practice of
unbelievers, and he cursed himself for taking on the woman in the first
place. It had been a symbolic gesture for the Hindu troops, to quell
concern that all the important details attending the birth would be
Muslim. Jadar had insisted that Mumtaz be moved to a velvet mat on the
floor of her room and carefully positioned with her head north and her
feet south. In case she should die in childbirth - and he fervently
prayed she would not - this was the position in which she would be
buried, her face directed toward Mecca. He had ordered all cannon of
the fort primed with powder, to be fired in the traditional Muslim
salute if a male child was the issue.
Preparations also were underway for the naming ceremony. He had prayed
for many days that this time a son would be named. There were two
daughters already, and yet another would merely mean one more
intriguing woman to be locked away forever, for he knew he could never
allow a daughter to marry. The complications of yet another aspiring
family in the palace circle were inconceivable. The scheming Persian
Shi'ites, like the queen and her family, who had descended on Agra
would like nothing better than another opportunity to use marriage to
dilute the influence of Sunni Muslims at court.
Allah, this time it has to be a son. Hasn't everything possible been
done? And if Akman was right, that a change of residence during the
term ensures a male heir, then I'll have a son twelve times over from
this birthing. She's been in a dozen cities. And camps. I even tested
the augury of the Hindus and had a household snake killed and tossed in
the air by one of their Brahmin unbelievers, to see how it would land.
And it landed on its back, which they say augurs a boy. Also, the milk
squeezed from her breasts three days ago was thin, which the Hindus
believe foretells a son.
Still, the omens have been mixed. _The eclipse_. Why did it come a day
earlier than the Hindu astrologers had predicted? Now I realize it was
exactly seven days before the birth. No one can recall when they failed
to compute an eclipse correctly.
What did it mean? That my line will die out? Or that a son will be born
here who will one day overshadow me?
Who can know the future? What Allah wills must be.
And, he told himself, the meeting set for the third _pahar_ must still
take place, regardless of the birth. Unless he did what he had planned,
the birth would be meaningless. All the years of planning now could be
forfeited in this single campaign.
If I fail now, what will happen to the legacy of Akman, his great work
to unify India? Will India return to warring fiefdoms, neighbor pitted
against neighbor, or fall to the Shi'ites? The very air around me hints
With that thought he momentarily inspected the placement of his
personal crest on the thick wooden door of the fortress reception hall
and pushed it wide. A phalanx of guards trailed behind him into the
room, which he had claimed as his command post for the duration of his
stay in Burhanpur. The immense central carpet had been freshly
garlanded around the edges with flowers.
The fortress, the only secure post remaining in the city, had been
commandeered by Jadar and his hand-picked guard. His officers had taken
accommodations in the town, and the troops had erected an enormous tent
complex along the road leading into the city from the north. Their
women now swarmed over the bazaar, accumulating stores for the march
south. Bullock carts of fresh produce glutted the roads leading into
the city, for word had reached the surrounding villages that Burhanpur
was host to the retinue of the prince and his soldiers from the north -
buyers accustomed to high northern prices. The villagers also knew from
long experience that a wise man would strip his fields and gardens and
orchards now and sell, before an army on the march simply took what it
Rumors had already reached the city that the army of Malik Ambar,
Abyssinian leader of the Deccanis, was marching north toward Burhanpur
with eighty thousand infantry and horsemen. An advance contingent was
already encamped no more than ten _kos_ south of the city.
Jadar inspected the reception room until he was certain
it was secure, with every doorway under command of his men. Then he
signaled the leader of the Rajput guard, who relayed a message to a
courier waiting outside. Finally he settled himself against an immense
velvet bolster, relishing this moment of quiet to clear his mind.
The Deccan, the central plains of India. Will they ever be ours? How
many more campaigns must there be?
He recalled with chagrin all the humiliations dealt Arangbar by the
When Arangbar took the throne at Akman's death, he had announced he
would continue his father's policy of military control of the Deccan. A
general named Ghulam Adl had requested, and received, confirmation of
his existing post of Khan Khanan, "Khan of Khans," the supreme
commander of the Moghul armies in the south. To subdue the Deccan once
and for all, Arangbar had sent an additional twelve thousand cavalry
south and had given Ghulam Adl a million rupees to refurbish his army.
But in spite of these forces, the Abyssinian Malik Ambar soon had set
up a rebel capital at Ahmadnagar and declared himself prime minister.
In disgust Arangbar had taken the command from Ghulam Adl and given it
to his own son, the second oldest, Parwaz. This dissolute prince
marched south with great pomp. Once there he set up an extravagant
military headquarters, a royal court in miniature, and spent several
years drinking and bragging of his inevitable victory. Ghulam Adl had
watched this with growing resentment, and finally he succumbed to
bribes by Malik Ambar and retreated with his own army.
In anger Arangbar then appointed two other generals to march on the
Deccan, one from the north and one from the West, hoping to trap Malik
Ambar in a pincer. But the Abyssinian deftly kept them apart, and badly
defeated each in turn. Eventually both were driven back to the north,
with heavy losses.
This time, on the advice of Queen Janahara, Arangbar transferred his
son Parwaz out of the Deccan, to Allahbad, and in his place sent Prince
Jadar. The younger prince had marched on the Deccan with forty thousand
additional troops to supplement the existing forces.
When Jadar and his massive army reached Burhanpur, Malik Ambar wisely
proposed a truce and negotiations. He returned the fort at Ahmadnagar
to the Moghul and withdrew his troops. Arangbar was jubilant and
rewarded Jadar with sixteen _lakhs_ of rupees and a prize diamond.
Triumphant, Jadar had returned to Agra and begun to think of becoming
the next Moghul. That had been three long years ago.
But Malik Ambar had the cunning of a jackal, and his "surrender" had
been merely a ruse to remove the Moghul troops again to the north. This
year he had waited for the monsoon, when conventional armies could not
move rapidly, and again risen in rebellion, easily driving Ghulam Adl's
army north from Ahmadnagar, reclaiming the city, and laying siege to
its Moghul garrison. The despairing Arangbar again appealed to Jadar to
lead troops south to relieve the permanent forces of Ghulam Adl. After
demanding and receiving a substantial increase in _mansab _rank and
personal cavalry, Jadar had agreed.
The wide wooden door of the reception hall opened and Ghulam Adl strode
regally into the room, wearing a gold- braided turban with a feather
and a great sword at his belt. His beard was longer than Jadar had
remembered, and now it had been reddened with henna - perhaps, Jadar
thought, to hide the gray. But his deep-set eyes were still haughty and
self-assured, and his swagger seemed to belie reports he had barely
escaped with his life from the besieged fortress at Ahmadnagar only
five weeks before.
Ghulam Adl's gaze quickly swept the room, but his eyes betrayed no
notice of the exceptional size of Jadar's guard. With an immense show
of dignity he nodded a perfunctory bow, hands clasped at the sparkling
jewel of his turban.
"Salaam, Highness. May Allah lay His hand on both our swords and temper
them once more with fire." He seated himself easily, as he might with
an equal, and when no servant came forward, he poured himself a glass
of wine from the decanter that waited on the carpet beside his bolster.
Is there anything, he wondered, I despise more than these presumptuous
young princes from Agra? "I rejoice your journey was swift. You've
arrived in time to witness my army savage the Abyssinian unbeliever and
"How many troops are left?" Jadar seemed not to hear the boast.
"Waiting are fifty thousand men, Highness, and twenty thousand horse,
ready to tender their lives at my command." Ghulam Adl delicately
shielded his beard as he drank off the glass of wine and - when again no
servant appeared - poured himself another.
Jadar remained expressionless.
"My reports give you only five thousand men left, most _chelas_.
Chelas, from the Hindu slang for "slave," was a reference to the
mercenary troops, taken in childhood and raised in the camp, that
commanders maintained as a kernel of their forces. Unlike soldiers from
the villages, they were loyal even in misfortune, because they
literally had no place to return to. "What troops do you have from the
_mansabdars_, who've been granted stipends from their _jagir_ estate
revenue to maintain men and horse?"
"Those were the ones I mean, Highness." Ghulam Adl's hand trembled
slightly as he again lifted the wineglass. "The _mansabdars_ have
assured me we have only to sound the call, and their men will muster.
In due time."
"Then pay is not in arrears for their men and cavalry."
"Highness, it's well known pay must always be in arrears. How else are
men's loyalties to be guaranteed? A commander foolish enough to pay his
troops on time will lose them at the slightest setback, since they have
no reason to remain with him in adversity." Ghulam Adl eased his
wineglass on the carpet and bent forward. "I concede some of the
_mansabdars_ may have allowed matters of pay to slip longer than is
wise. But they assure me that when the time is right their men will