vaulted ceiling of the crypt, where dark musket barrels were visible
through slits in the carved decoration. He barked a command in Urdu and
the barrels slowly withdrew.
"Why don't we talk about releasing me and my chest to travel on to
Agra." Hawksworth lowered the pistol, but kept it still cocked, in his
"Agra, you say? Captain, there are already Europeans in Agra." Jadar
leaned against one of the bundles. "Portuguese. They've been there many
years. How many more Christians can India endure? You infidel Europeans
are beginning to annoy me more than I can tell you."
"What do you mean?" Hawksworth tried to read Jadar's eyes, remembering
Shirin's story of the Persians and Portuguese both hating the prince.
"Tell me about your English ships, Captain." Jadar seemed not to hear
Hawksworth's question. "Tell me how you defeated the Portuguese so
"English frigates are better designed than the Portugals' galleons. And
English seamen are better gunners and sailors."
"Words, Captain. Easy words. Perhaps the Portuguese allowed themselves
to be defeated. This one time. Waiting for a bigger prize. How can you
"Is that what the Portugals say happened?"
"I asked you."
"A well-manned English frigate is the match of any two galleons."
"Then how many of your 'frigates' would it take to blockade the port at
Hawksworth saw a small flicker in Jadar's eyes as the prince waited for
the answer. "I think a dozen could do it. If we caught their fleet in
the harbor, before they could put out to sea."
"Christians typically exaggerate their strength. How many would it
really take? Five times what you've said? Ten times?"
"I said it depends on seamanship. And surprise."
"Christians always seem to have answers. Particularly when there is no
answer." Jadar turned and pointed to the stacks of bundles. "By the
way, do you know what the caravan carried, Captain?"
"I doubt very much it was lead. So it's probably silver." Hawksworth
marveled at the way Jadar seemed to lead the conversation, always
getting what he wanted before what he wanted had become obvious. And
then quickly moving on.
"Your 'probably' is exactly right. And do you know why it carried
"You have a long supply line. You needed to buy supplies and arms."
"I see you don't think like a Moghul after all." Jadar moved closer,
studying Hawksworth's eyes. "Why bother to buy what I could easily
take? No, my Christian captain, or ambassador, or spy, I needed men.
What is it about human character that allows men to be bought like so
many _nautch_ girls?"
"Not every man is born to wealth." Hawksworth glared directly at Jadar,
beginning to find the conversation growing sinister.
"And few men are without a price, Captain. I think I could even find
yours if I looked enough for it." Jadar paused reflectively for a
moment, then continued. "Tell me, should I be pleased with your
"You have no reason not to be. My only mission here is to open trade
between our kings."
"You know your 'mission' has brought about many deaths since you landed
in India. The most recent were the deaths of forty of my best men."
"I didn't order the attack on the caravan. Those men's lives are on the
head of whoever did." Hawksworth stopped, and as he looked at Jadar
something clicked in his mind. Something about the attack that had
bothered him ever since.
"Your caravan was attacked by bandits, Captain. Who could order them to
do anything? But the men I provided as escort gave their lives
"Those men were murdered. They never had a chance."
Hawksworth's mind was racing. Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle began
to fall together. Everything fit. Vasant Rao had been too nervous. He
must have known the attack was coming, but not when. It was all a game.
Some deadly serious war game. And none of the other men knew.
"But I think I have an idea who did order the attack." Hawksworth
continued, glaring at Jadar. "And you do too."
"Your Rajputs guards were growing careless, Captain. They made a
foolish mistake. What commander can afford men who make mistakes? Even
if they are Rajputs. All men grow complacent if they are never tested."
"It was vicious."
"It was discipline. Security has improved considerably here since that
incident." Jadar continued evenly, ignoring the look on Hawksworth's
face. "The only real difficulties that night were caused by you. It was
very imprudent of you to kill one of the bandits with a pistol. They
were instructed merely to disarm you. You were completely safe. But
after your rash killing it became much more difficult for me to try to
rescue you. And after the eclipse, it actually become impossible."
Jadar wanted to ask Hawksworth what had really happened, but he
suppressed the impulse. "Still, after your first mistake, you appear to
have handled yourself reasonably well. That's why we're having this
"In a dungeon? Surrounded by muskets?"
"In a room surrounded by silver. More, I suspect, than you have ever
known. How many sailing ships, your 'frigates,' could be bought with
this much silver?"
"I don't know exactly. I do know English frigates are not for sale."
"Come, Captain. Would you have me believe your king never has allies
who share a common cause? That he never aids those who war against his
"Allies have been known to become enemies. If they grow too ambitious.
Just who would your frigates, assuming you had them and the trained
seamen to man them, be used against? The Portugals? Or against the
"Sometimes, unfortunately, an ally becomes a tyrant, forcing you to act
in your own interest. I know it all too well." Jadar was silent for a
moment, then he smiled smoothly. "But tell me about your plans when you
reach Agra. You'll have no frigates there. What do you hope to gain?"
"Open trade. That and nothing more. England wants no war with the
"Truly? I believe they may think otherwise. Time will tell. There may
be changes in Agra soon. The Christian Portuguese may find their time
has run out. If that happens, what will you do?"
"I'll wait and see."
"There may be no time to 'wait,' English Captain Hawksworth. The times
may require you to choose. If the Portuguese decide to act in the
interest of one party here, will England act in the interest of the
other? I want to know."
"The king of England acts in his own interest."
"But your king will not be here. You will be here."
"Then I will act in his interest." Hawksworth fixed Jadar squarely.
"And the king of England is not interested in who rules India. Only in
free trade between us."
"But the one who rules India will have the power to permit or deny that
trade. You know, there's an Indian folk tale of a Brahmin who once
discovered a tiger in a well. He gave aid to the tiger, helped him
escape from the well, and years later when the Brahmin was starving the
tiger brought him a necklace of gold and jewels won from a rich man in
a battle to the death. Do you understand?"
"I understand. But I still serve my king first."
Jadar listened silently, but his eyes were intent.
"And that king is English. For now." Jadar filled the last words with a
tone of presumption that left Hawksworth uncomfortable. "But enough.
Let's talk of other matters. I assume you are aware the Portuguese will
probably try to have you assassinated when you reach Agra. Already
there are many rumors about you there. Perhaps you should remember your
own personal interests too. As well as your king's. One day, I think,
we will meet again. If you are still alive."
"And if you are still alive."
Jadar smiled lightly. "We're both difficult to kill. So we both must
think of the future. Now I have a last question for you."
Jadar retrieved his knife from atop the bundles and deftly ripped open
the side of one. Rolls of new silver coin glistened in the light. "What
do you see in this package, Ambassador Hawksworth?"
"A king's ransom in silver."
"I'm surprised at you, Captain. For a seaman you have remarkably bad
eyesight. What you see here, what came with you from Surat, is lead,
Captain. Ingots of lead."
"That forty men died to protect."
"Those men died protecting you, Captain. Don't you remember? Your
safety is very important to me. So important that it may be necessary
to keep you under guard here in the fortress until this campaign is
over. Look again at the bundle and tell me once more what you see."
"You can't hold me here. I have a safe conduct pass from the Moghul
"Do you? Good. In that case there shouldn't be any difficulty. I'll
only need to examine it to make sure it's not a forgery. There should
be an opportunity sometime after I return from this campaign."
Hawksworth examined Jadar and realized the threat was not empty.
"There's no reason for me to stay. You have your lead."
Jadar smiled an empty grin, but with a trace of bizarre warmth. "At
last we're beginning to understand each other. Neither of us has a
Rajput's honor." He tossed Hawksworth the Portuguese stiletto. "An
interesting knife. Did you know it took me almost two weeks to find out
for sure who really hired the assassin? And for all that trouble it was
exactly who you'd expect."
Hawksworth examined him in amazement, and decided to gamble another
"I suppose I haven't thanked you yet for saving us from the Portugals'
ambush on the river, the day we made landfall."
Jadar waved his hand in dismissal. "Mere curiosity, nothing more. If I
had allowed them to kill you, we could never have had this interesting
talk. But you still have many troubles ahead."
"We both do."
"But I know who my enemies are, Captain. That's the difference."
The door had begun to swing slowly inward.
"Yes, these are interesting times, Captain. You may find it difficult
to stay alive, but somehow I think you'll manage for a while longer."
Hawksworth watched nervously as the Rajput guards filed into the room
and stationed themselves by the door.
"I plan to march south in ten days. You would be wise to leave tomorrow
for the north, while the roads are still secure. Vasant Rao has asked
to accompany you, and I'm afraid I have no choice but to humor him. I
need him here, but he is a man of temperament. I will provide guards
for you as far north as the Narbada River. After that he will hire his
own horsemen. I'll give him a letter for a raja in Mandu, who can
supply whatever he needs." Jadar studied Hawksworth one last time, his
eyes calculating. "We both have difficult times ahead, but I think
we'll meet again. Time may change a few things for both of us."
As Hawksworth passed through the open doorway, he looked back to see
the prince leaning easily aginst a stack of bundles, flipping a large
silver coin. And suddenly he wanted to leave the fortress of Burhanpur
more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.
The next morning Vasant Rao and forty horsemen were waiting with
Hawksworth's cart. By midday they had left Burhanpur far behind, and
were well on the way north. The journey north through Mandu, Ujjain,
and Gwalior to Agra normally took six weeks, but when roads were dry it
was an easy trip.
Two days later five prominent _mansabdars_ in the northern Deccan died
painfully in separate ambushes by bandits. Their _jagirs_ were
confiscated immediately by Prince Jadar. Ten days from that time he
moved south with eighty thousand men and thirty thousand horse.
Nadir Sharif leaned uneasily against the rooftop railing of his
sprawling riverside palace, above the second-floor _zenana_, and
absently watched his Kabuli pigeons wing past the curve of the Jamuna
River, headed toward the Red Fort. They swept over the heavy
battlements at the river gate and then veered precisely upward, along
the sheer eastern wall of the fort, until they reached the gold minaret
atop the Jasmine Tower, the private quarters of Queen Janahara. They
circled her tower once, then coalesced into a plumed spear driving
directly upward toward the dawn-tinged cloud bank that hovered over
Agra from the east.
Imported Kabuli pigeons, with their flawless white eyes and blue-tipped
wings, were Nadir Sharifs secret joy. Unlike the inferior local breeds
of the other devoted pigeon-fliers along the west bank of the Jamuna,
Agra's palace-lined showplace, his Kabulis did not flit aimlessly from
rooftop to rooftop on their daily morning flight. After he opened the
shutters on their rooftop grillwork cage, they would trace a single
circle of his palace, next wing past the Red Fort in a salute to the
queen, then simply disappear into the infinite for fully half a day,
returning as regally as they had first taken wing.
Nadir Sharif was the prime minister of the Moghul empire, the brother
of Queen Janahara, and the father of Prince Jadar's favorite wife,
Mumtaz. Even in the first light of dawn there was no mistaking he was
Persian and proud. The early sun glanced off his finely woven gauze
cape and quickened a warm glow in the gold thread laced through his
yellow cloak and his pastel morning turban. His quick eyes, plump face,
and graying moustache testified to his almost sixty years of life,
thirty spent at the Moghul court as close adviser to Arangbar and,
before that, to Arangbar's father, the great empire-builder Akman. In
power and authority he was exceeded only by the Moghul himself.
Nadir Sharifs palace was deliberately situated next to the Red Fort,
just around the broad curve of the Jamuna. The Red Fort, home of the
Moghul, was a vast, rambling fortress whose river side towered over a
hundred feet above the western curve of the Jamuna. From Nadir Sharifs
rooftop the view of the river side of the fort and Arangbar's _darshan_
window was unobstructed.
Darshan was the dawn appearance Arangbar made daily at a special
balcony in the east wall of the Red Fort, next to the river gate. It
was strict custom that the chief officials of Arangbar's court also
appear daily, on a high platform just beneath the _darshan_ balcony,
where along with the Moghul they greeted the well-wishers who streamed
in through the river gate and provided visual confirmation that India's
rule was intact.
The square below the balcony - a grassy expanse between the side of the
fort and the river wall, where Arangbar held noontime elephant fights
and, on Tuesdays, executions by specially trained elephants - had already
filled almost to capacity. Agra's most prominent noblemen were there,
as prudence required, and today there also were clusters of important
visitors. Several Rajput chieftains from the northwest, astride
prancing Arabian horses, passed regally through the river gate and
assumed prominent positions. Then a path was cleared for a large
embassy of Safavid Persian diplomats, each of whose palanquins was
borne by four slaves in gleaming velvet liveries; next several desert
Uzbek khans in leather headdress rode into the square; and finally
three Portuguese Jesuits in black cassocks trooped through the river
gate and moved imperiously to the front of the crowd.
Nadir Sharif watched as his pigeons were swallowed by the morning haze
and then settled himself onto a canopied couch to observe _darshan_.
The eunuchs of the _zenana_ had whispered that this morning would be
different, that there would be a precedent-shattering occurrence. For
once a _zenana_ rumor seemed all too plausible, and late the previous
evening he had sent a dispatch through a _qazi_, a high judge, pleading
illness and excusing himself from _darshan_. And now he had stationed
himself to watch. How would the court officials react? Had they too
heard the rumors? And what of those who had gathered below to salute
Arangbar with the traditional _teslim_.
Most importantly, what of Nadir Sharif? This day could well be a
turning point in the course of India's history . . . and in the three
decades of his preeminence at court. If the rumors were true.
Nadir Sharif was easily the most accomplished courtier in India, a
skill that had earned him the most splendid palace in Agra after the
Moghul himself. His position brought with it not merely a palace, but
also the _mansab_ rank and _jagir_ wealth required to maintain it. Only
enormous wealth could sustain the hungry host of slaves, eunuchs,
concubines, musicians, dancers, and wives who thronged his Agra palace.
Success for Nadir Sharif had always seemed so effortless, so
inevitable, he often marveled that so few others had ever grasped the
elementary secret. His simple formula for longevity, in a court where
favorites daily rose and fell, was first to establish with certainty
which side of a difference would inevitably triumph, and then to unveil
his own supporting views.
He had made a lifelong habit of seeing everything. And saying almost
nothing. He understood well that thoughts unsaid often served better
than those voiced too hastly. Whereas the way of others might be flawed
by a penchant for the _zenana_, or jewels, or those intoxicants the
Prophet ha so futilely prohibited, Nadir Sharifs sole worldly obsession
was power - from which nothing, absolutely nothing, had ever turned his
head. For a decade he had ruled the Moghul empire in all but name,
forwarding to Arangbar only those petitions he favored, holding in
advisement any he opposed, counseling the Moghul at every turn - but
always through other, unsuspecting voices if the advice was anything
save disguised flattery.
His meticulous attention to affairs at court did not exclude foreign
trade. For years his voice had been raised against any who counseled
Arangbar in directions adverse to Portuguese interests. This attention
did not pass unnoticed in Goa, and when a kingly jewel was sent to
Arangbar, another of only slightly inferior dimensions always found its
way into the hands of Nadir Sharif.
The first rays of sun struck the hard ocher sandstone of the Red Fort's
east wall and suddenly it glowed like an inflamed ruby, throwing its
warmth across the face of the Jamuna River. Moments later the
heightening sun illuminated the rooftops of Agra, a sea of red tile and
thatch that spread out in a wide arc west of the fort.
Agra, the capital of Moghul India, was one of the great cities of the
East. It was home to over half a million, more than lived in any
capital of Europe, and some said a man on horseback could scarcely
circle it in a day. Yet most of the city was far from grand. It was a
jumble of two-story brick and tile merchant houses, clay-faced homes of
Hindu tradesmen, and a spreading sea of mud and thatch one-room hovels
that sheltered the rest.
But along the river on either side of the Red Fort had been created a
different world. There glistened the mansions of Moghul grandees like
Nadir Sharif, magical and remote, behind whose walls lay spacious
gardens cooled by marble fountains and gilded rooms filled with carpets
from Persia, porcelains from China, imported crystal from Venice. Their
_zenanas_ thronging with exquisite, dark-eyed women, and their
tapestried halls with hosts of slaves and eunuchs.
Nadir Sharif inhaled the clean air of morning and surveyed the palaces
on either side along the riverbank. They were all sumptuous, but none
more than his own. A vainer man might have swelled with pride at such a
moment, but Nadir Sharif knew from years of court experience that
vanity always led, inevitably, to excess, and finally to debt and ruin.
To keep one's place, he often told himself, one must know it. He also
knew that to hold one's ground, one must know when to shift.
His reverie was abruptly dispelled by the noise of shuffling feet, and
then a hesitant voice.
"A man is at the outer gate, Sharif Sahib, asking to see you."
Nadir Sharif turned to see the eunuch's spotless white turban bowing
toward him. He flared inwardly that his orders for absolute privacy had
been ignored, and then, as always, he waited a few seconds for
composure before speaking.
"I'm too ill to receive. Have you already forgotten my orders?"
"Forgive me, Sharif Sahib." The eunuch bowed ever lower and raised his
clasped palms in involuntary supplication. "He has demanded an
audience. He claimed he has arrived last night from the Deccan. He was
with the prince . . ."
Nadir Sharifs body tensed perceptibly. "What name did he give?"
"A Rajput name, Sharif Sahib. He said he was requested by Her Highness,
the princess, to report to you immediately on arriving."
Nadir Sharifs heart skipped a beat. Does this mean the English
_feringhi_ has arrived? Allah! On this of all days.
"Tell him I am at home." The voice was coolly matter-of-fact.
The eunuch bowed again and disappeared without a word. As Nadir Sharif
watched his skirt vanish past the doorway tapestry, he tried to clear
his mind and decide quickly what now must be done. Instinctively he
turned once more to monitor the _darshan_ balcony. Still nothing. Then
he smiled fleetingly, realizing that the fate of the Englishman would
depend very much on what happened at _darshan_ this very morning.
The visitor appeared, in freshly brushed red turban and jeweled
earrings, and wordlessly strode past the eunuch at the doorway, pushing
the partially opened tapestry aside as though a foe in battle. There
was about the man the haughty carriage and contemptuous eyes always
encountered among Rajputs in high places, and Nadir Sharif recognized
him immediately. The prime minister also knew this particular Rajput
had never trusted him, and never would.
"Nimaste, Sharif Sahib." Vasant Rao's salaam was correct but cold.
"It's always a pleasure to see you."
"When did you arrive?"
"Have you arranged lodgings for the English _feringhi_? Even before
informing me you were here?"
"He has no lodgings yet, Sharif Sahib, only rooms at a guest house. The
_feringhi_ insisted no one be informed of his arrival. He did not say
why." Vasant Rao returned Nadir Sharifs expressionless stare. "The
prince's orders were to honor the _feringhi's_ requests whenever
Nadir Sharifs face betrayed none of his anger as he turned again toward
the _darshan_ balcony. A flock of vagrant pigeons darted overhead,
following the line of palaces along the river.
"How is the child?"
"He is well formed, Sharif Sahib. Your daughter, Her Highness, was also
well when I left Burhanpur. She gave me this dispatch for you."
Nadir Sharif accepted the bamboo tube and, controlling his expression,
tossed it aside as though it were of no more consequence than a
gardener's report brought by a eunuch. "I've received no pigeons from
her for four weeks. Only official dispatches from Ghulam Adl's
secretary in Burhanpur, which tell nothing. Why isn't he in the field
with Jadar? What is happening?"
"I'm not with the army now, Sharif Sahib." Vasant Rao casually stroked
his moustache. "Perhaps the prince has ordered secrecy to protect his
movements toward the south."
Nadir Sharif started to reply, but immediately thought better of it.
Instead he traced his finger along the railing of the balcony in
silence and seemed to listen to the distant pigeons as he rotated the
answer in his mind, knowing it was a lie and quickly evaluating the
possible reasons why.
In the north, dispatching pigeons in the field might be a risk, but
never in the south, where the infidel Deccanis always know the
deployment of our army better than its own commanders. No. There's
something planned that Jadar does not want me to know. Which can only
mean His impulsive Highness, Prince Jadar has undertaken something
foolish. I know him too well.
After a moment Nadir Sharif broke the silence, without turning his face
from the _darshan_ balcony.
"Tell me about the _feringhi_."
"Do you mean what he says? Or what I think about him?"
"He claims to be an ambassador for the English king, but his only
credentials are a letter he brings, said to request a trading _firman_
from His Majesty."
"What are the intentions of this _feringhi_ king? Trade, or eventual
"No one has seen the letter, Sharif Sahib, but the Englishman says his
king merely asks to trade yearly at Surat."
"Which means the English must again contest with the Portuguese. Until
one of them eventually abandons our ports. They cannot both trade. The
Portuguese Viceroy would never allow it."
"What you say seems true. It's said the Christians in Europe are having
a holy war. I don't understand the cause, but the English and the
Portuguese seem to be historic enemies because of it. However, the