design, very swift. They may possibly have eluded us for a time."
Pinheiro's voice hardened. "But do not doubt our galleons are swifter
than any of the trading vessels of His Majesty's fleet. India's own Red
Sea trade continues only at the Viceroy's discretion."
"That is true enough. But are you prepared to demonstrate your . . .
displeasure." Nadir Sharif revolved back to the window. "I do not think
His Majesty actually believes the Viceroy would ever take hostile
"What are you suggesting?" Pinheiro's voice betrayed momentary
"Nothing that you have not already brought to His Majesty's attention.
But possibly he does not believe you have the conviction, or the
strength, to carry it through. The English _feringhi _constantly brags
to him of English superiority at sea, hinting that his king will soon
drive Portugal from the Indian Ocean. I've heard it so often myself I
confess I'm near to believing him too."
"I can assure you that the protection, and control, of India's ports
will always remain in Portuguese hands."
"Then you would still have me believe you have the power to impound
Indian shipping, even a vessel owned by His Majesty, thereby exposing
the English as helpless to prevent it?" Nadir Sharif seemed absorbed in
the garden, his hands clasped easily behind him in perfect repose.
"Of course." Pinheiro stood dazed at the implications of Nadir Sharifs
words. He paused for a moment, digesting them. "Do I understand you to
be suggesting the Viceroy take hostile action against one of His
Majesty's own trading ships?"
"You have contested the Englishman with words, and he seems to be
winning." Nadir Sharif turned and examined Pinheiro. "Your Viceroy is
undoubtedly aware that Her Majesty, Queen Janahara, is equally
disturbed by the Englishman. She too is concerned with the possible
effects on her . . . trading arrangements if the English gain undue
"Would she be willing to speak to His Majesty?"
"Again you talk merely of words. What have they gained you?"
"Father Sarmento would never consent to an overt action. He would be
too fearful of the possible consequences to the mission."
"Bold measures are for bold men. I think His Excellency, Miguel
Vaijantes, understands boldness. And His Majesty understands boldness
better than anyone." Nadir Sharif paused. "It may be of interest to His
Excellency to know that His Majesty currently has a vessel en route
from the Red Sea, with cargo owned by the mother of His Majesty, the
dowager Maryam Zamani. It is due to make landfall within the week, if
it has managed to hold its schedule. The vessel's safety is, quite
naturally, of utmost concern to His Majesty . . ."
"I think I understand." Father Pinheiro again swabbed the moisture from
his brow. "But Father Sarmento . . ."
"What possible concern could Father Sarmento have with decisions made
by His Excellency, Miguel Vaijantes? He is the Viceroy." Nadir Sharif
nodded toward a pudgy eunuch hovering at the doorway, who immediately
entered with a tray of betel leaves, signaling that the meeting was
"His Excellency will undoubtedly be most appreciative of your
thoughts." Pinheiro paused. "Still, wouldn't it be prudent to advise
Her Majesty, lest she mistake our Viceroy's intentions?"
"I will attend to it." Nadir Sharif smiled warmly. "You must be aware,
however, that if His Majesty chooses to respond irresponsibly, I will
know nothing about any action that may be taken. The Viceroy must
weather his own seas."
"Naturally." Pinheiro bowed. "You have always been a friend. I thank
you, and bless you in God's name."
"Your thanks are sufficient." Nadir Sharif smiled again and watched as
the Jesuit was led through the scalloped doorway by the waiting eunuch.
Only when he turned back to the window did he realize his palms were
drenched with perspiration.
Arangbar moved groggily through the arched corridor carrying a fresh
silver cup of wine and quietly humming the motif of his favorite
Hindustani raga. His afternoon nap in the _zenana _had been fitful,
unusually so, and when he finally admitted to himself why, he had
dismissed the two young women who waited to pleasure him, retrieved his
jeweled turban, and waved aside the attending eunuchs. He had announced
he wanted to stroll among the fruit trees in the courtyard of the
Anguri Bagh, which lay down the marble steps from the Khas Mahal, the
breezy upper pavilion of the _zenana_. But when he reached the trees,
he had turned and slipped through his private doorway leading to the
women's apartments in the lower level of the fort.
The _zenana _was quiet, even the eunuchs were dozing, and no one
noticed when he passed along the shadowed afternoon corridor toward the
circular staircase leading to the lower apartments. As he began to
descend the curved stone steps, he felt his legs momentarily grow
unsteady, and he paused to rest against the hard polished wall,
tightening his light brocade cloak against the cooler air and taking a
short sip of wine for warmth. Then he continued on, carefully feeling
for each step in the dim light of the overhead oil lamps.
He emerged on the next level and stopped to catch his breath on the
balcony that opened out over the Jamuna. This was the level where he
had built private apartments for his favorite women, and behind him was
the large room, with a painted cupola ceiling high above a large rose-
shaped marble fountain, which he had granted to one of his Hindu wives.
(Now he could no longer recall precisely who she was; she had reached
thirty some time past and he had not summoned her to his couch in many
years.) Since she was a devout Hindu, he had ordered it decorated with
brilliantly colored scenes from the Ramayana. The room itself was
cooled by a high waterfall in the rear that murmured down an inclined
and striated marble slab. Stairways on either side of the room curved
around to an overhead balcony, directly above where he now stood, which
was the post where eunuchs waited when the women came to cool
themselves by the fountain.
The balcony where he now stood jutted out from the fort, supported by
thick sandstone columns, and from his position he could look along the
side of the fort and see the Jasmine Tower of Queen Janahara. When he
realized he also could be seen, he instinctively stepped back into the
The women were inside their apartments, asleep, and the corridor empty
as he began to descend the circular stairs leading to the next level
below, the quarters for eunuchs and female servants. As he rounded the
last curve of the stair and emerged into the light, three eunuchs
stared up in shock from their game of cards. It vaguely registered that
they probably were gambling, which he had strictly prohibited in the
_zenana_, but he decided to ignore it this afternoon.
The circular pasteboard cards of the eunuchs' scattered across the
stone floor as they hurried to _teslim_. He paused to
drink again from the cup and absently studied the painted faces on the
cards dropped by the eunuch nearest him. It was not a bad hand. Lying
on the marble were four high cards from the _bishbar_, powerful, suits -
the lord of horses, the king of elephants, the king of infantry, and
the throned _wazir _of the fort - and three from the _kambar_, weaker,
suits - the king of snakes, the king of divinities, and the throned
queen. He stared for a moment at the king of elephants, the suit he
always preferred to play, and wondered at the happenstance that the
king had fallen beneath the queen, whose face covered his golden crown.
He shrugged it away as coincidence and turned toward the stairs leading
to the next lower level.
Two more levels remained.
The air was increasingly musty now, noticeably smoky from the lamps,
and he hurried on, reaching the next landing without stopping. The
windows on this level had shrunk to only a few hand spans, and now they
were secured with heavy stone latticework. The eunuchs were arguing at
the other end of the corridor and failed even to notice him. He told
himself to try to remember this, and drank again as he paused to listen
to the metrical splash of the Jamuna lapping against the outer wall.
Then he stepped quietly down the last flight of stairs.
The final level. As he emerged into the corridor, two guarding eunuchs
who had been dozing leaped to their feet and drew swords before
recognizing him. Both fell on their face in _teslim_, their turbans
tumbling across the stone floor.
Arangbar said nothing, merely pointed toward a doorway at the end of
the corridor. The startled eunuchs strained against their fat as they
lifted torches from the walls and then turned officiously to lead the
way. As they walked, Arangbar paused to stare through an arched doorway
leading into a large domed room off the side of the hall. A dozen
eunuchs were inside, some holding torches while others laced a white
cotton rope through a wooden pulley attached to the lower side of a
heavy wooden beam that spanned the room, approximately ten feet above
The two eunuchs with Arangbar also stopped, wondering
if His Majesty had come to supervise the hanging that afternoon of the
two _zenana _women who had been discovered in a flagrant sexual act in
the Shish Mahal, the mirrored _zenana _baths.
Arangbar studied the hanging room for a moment with glazed eyes, not
remembering that he had sentenced the women that same morning, and then
waved the guards on along the corridor, past the doors that secured
dark cells. These were the cells used to confine women who had broken
At the end of the corridor was a door wider than the others, and behind
it was a special cell, with a window overlooking the Jamuna. He walked
directly to the door and drank again from his cup as he ordered it
opened. The guards were there at once, keys jangling. The door was
massive and thick, and it creaked heavily on its hinges as they pushed
it slowly inward.
From the gloom came the unmistakable fragrance of musk and sandalwood.
He inhaled it for a moment and it seemed to penetrate his memory,
calling up long forgotten pleasures. Grasping the door for support, he
moved past the bowing guards and into the cell. There, standing by the
small barred window, her face caught in a shaft of afternoon sun, was
Her eyes were carefully darkened with kohl and her mouth red and fresh.
She wore a gossamer scarf decorated with gold thread, and a thin skirt
that betrayed the curve of her thighs against the outline of her
flowered trousers. The musty air of the room was immersed in her
perfume, as though by her very being she would defy the walls of her
prison. She looked just as he had remembered.
She turned and stared at him for a moment, seeming not to believe what
she saw. Then her eyes hardened.
"Shall I _teslim _before my sentence?"
Arangbar said nothing as he examined her wordlessly, sipping slowly
from his almost-empty cup. Now more than ever he realized why she had
once been his favorite. She could bring him to ecstasy, and then recite
Persian poetry to him for hours. She had been exquisite.
"You're as beautiful as ever. Too beautiful. What do you expect me to
do with you?"
"I expect that I will die, Your Majesty. That, I think, is the usual
sentence for the women who disobey you."
"You could have stayed in Surat, where you were sent. Or gone on to Goa
with the husband I gave you. But instead you returned here. Why?"
Arangbar eased himself onto the stone bench beside the door.
"I don't think you would understand, Majesty."
"Did you come because of the Inglish _feringhi?_ I learned yesterday
that you conspired to meet with him. It displeased me very much."
"He was not responsible, Majesty. I met with him because I chose to.
But I came to Agra to be with Samad again." Her voice began to tremble
slightly. "Samad is guilty of nothing, except defiance of the Shi'ite
mullahs. You know that as well as I. If you want to hear me beg for
him, I will."
Arangbar seemed not to notice the tear that stained the kohl beneath
one eye. "It was a death sentence for you to disobey me and come back.
Perhaps you actually want to die."
"Is there nothing you would die for, Majesty?"
Arangbar stared for a moment at the window, its hexagonal grillwork
throwing a pattern across his glazed eyes. He seemed to be searching
for words. "Yes, perhaps I might die for India. Perhaps someday soon I
will. But I would never die for the glory of Islam." His gaze came back
to Shirin. "And certainly not for some half-naked Sufi mullah."
"Samad is not a mullah." By force of will she held any trace of
shrillness from her voice. "He is a Persian poet. One of the greatest
ever. You know that. He defies the Shi'ites because he will not bow to
"The Shi'ites want his head." Arangbar examined his empty cup and
tossed it to the floor, listening as the silver rang hard against the
stone. "It seems a small price for tranquility."
"Whose tranquility? Theirs?" The tears were gone now, her eyes again
"Mine. Every day I'm flooded with petitions about this or that heresy.
It wearies and consumes me. Samad ignored the laws of Islam, and he has
" You ignore the laws of Islam."
Arangbar laughed. "It's true. Between us, I despise the mullahs. You
know I once told them I had decided to become a Christian, because I
enjoyed eating pork and the Prophet denied it to all men. The next day
they brought the Quran and declared although it was true pork was
denied to men, the Prophet said nothing specifically about what a king
could eat. So there was no need for me to become a Christian." He
paused and sobered. "But Samad is not a king. He is a well-known Sufi.
The mullahs claim that if he's dead, the inspiration for heresy will
die with him. They say his death will serve as an example. I hear this
everywhere, even from Her Majesty."
"Her Majesty?" Shirin searched for his eyes as she spoke, but they were
shrouded in shadow. "Does she make laws for you now?"
"She disrupts my tranquility with all her talk about Islam and
Shi'ites. Perhaps it's age. She never used to talk about the Shi'ites.
But now she wants to bring the Islam of Persia to India. She forbade
Sunni mullahs even to attend the wedding. But if it pleases her, what
does it matter? I despise them all."
"But why Samad? Why sentence him to death?"
"Frankly I don't really care about this poet, either way. But he has
not tried to help himself. When I allowed him to confront the mullahs
who accused him, he refused to recite the Kalima, 'There is no God but
"What did he say?"
"Perhaps just to spite them, he would only recite the first phrase,
'There is no God,' the negation. He refused to recite the rest, the
affirmation. He said he was still searching for truth. That when he
finally saw God he would recite the remainder; that to affirm His
existence without proof would be giving false evidence. I thought the
mullahs would strangle him on the spot." Arangbar laughed to himself as
he watched her turn again to the window. "You have to admit that
qualifies as blasphemy, by any measure. So if the mullahs want him so
badly, why not let them have him?"
"But Samad is a mystic, a pantheist." Shirin returned her eyes to
Arangbar. "For him God is everywhere, not just where the mullahs choose
to put Him. Do you remember those quatrains in his Rubaiyat that say,
_"Here in the garden the sunshine glows,
A Presence moves in all that grows.
He is the lover, the belov'd too.
He is the bramble and the rose.
We know Him when our hearts are moved;
He, our lover and our loved.
Open your eyes with joy and see
The hundred ways His love is proved."
"I've seen his poetry. It sings of the love of some God, although his
God sounds a bit too benign to be Allah. But I also know his Rubaiyat
will not save him. It may make him immortal someday, but he'll be long
since dead by then."
Arangbar rose unsteadily and moved beside her, staring out onto the
glinting surface of the Jamuna. For a moment he watched a fleet of
barges pass, piled high with dark bundles of indigo. "I believe I
myself will die someday soon. I can almost feel my strength ebbing. But
I hope I'll be remembered as my father Akman is, a ruler who tolerated
all faiths. I've protected Hindus from the bigoted followers of
Mohammed's religion, who would convert them forcibly to Islam, and I've
allowed all religions to build places of worship. Did you know I've
even built a church for the Portuguese Jesuits, who have to buy most of
their converts with bribes? I even gave them a stipend, since they
would starve otherwise. They tell me they're astonished I allow so much
religious freedom here, since it's unheard of in Europe. But I can do
all this only if I remain the nominal defender of Islam. Islam holds
the power in India, and as India's ruler I must acknowledge that. I can
defy the mullahs myself now and then. But I can't permit your Sufi
mystic to do it too. There's a limit."
"You can do anything. If you wish. The orthodox mullahs have always
hated mystics. The Shi'ite mullahs are men who live on hate. You see it
burning in their eyes. They even hate their own women, can't you see?
They keep them prisoner, claiming that's the way they honor and respect
them. The mullahs even resent that Samad allows me to come into his
presence without a veil."
"They say he's a poison in Islam."
"Yes, his example is poison. His poetry is filled with love. The
mullahs cannot bear it, since their own lives are filled with hate. God
help India if it ever becomes an 'Islamic' state. There'll be mobs in
the streets murdering Hindus in the name of 'God.' Is that the
tranquility you want?"
"I want to die in peace. Just like your poet. And I want to be
remembered, for the good I've done for India." Arangbar paused, seeming
to search on the stone ledge for his cup. "I think Samad will be
remembered too. Tomorrow I'll make him famous. Let him live on through
his words. He knows, and I know, that he must die. We understand each
other perfectly. I can't disappoint him now."
Arangbar suddenly recalled the high-ranking Rajput raja who had asked
for an early audience in the _Diwan-i-Khas_, and he turned and moved
unsteadily toward the door. When he reached it, he revolved and looked
back sadly at Shirin.
"I found myself dreaming about you this afternoon. I don't know why. So
I decided to come and see you, alone. I didn't come to talk about
Samad. It's you I'm uncertain about. Her Majesty wants you hanged. But
I cannot yet find the courage to sentence you." Arangbar continued on
wearily toward the door. "Where will it all end?" He paused and, as
though remembering something, turned again. "Jadar is plotting
something against me, I sense it. But I don't know what he can do.
Recently I've heard rumors you're part of it. Have you turned against
"If you kill Samad, I will defy you with every power I have."
"Then perhaps I should execute you." He stared at her, trying to focus.
"But you have no powers left. Unless you're plotting something with the
Inglish. If you are, then I will kill you both." He turned to leave,
tightening his cloak against the chill. The guards saw him emerge and
hurried from the far end of the corridor. Arangbar watched them for a
moment, then turned and looked one last time at Shirin. "Samad will die
tomorrow. You will have to wait."
Brian Hawksworth's lean frame towered above the crowd, conspicuous in
jerkin and seaboots. He had heard the rumor and he had come to the
plaza to watch, mingling among the turbaned assembly of nobles,
shopkeepers, mullahs, and assorted street touts. His presence was
immediately noted by all, especially the crippled beggars in dirty
brown _dhotis_, who dragged themselves through the crowd, their
leprosy-withered hands upturned, calling for a _pice_ in the name of
Allah. They knew from experience that, however ragged a _feringhi
_might appear, he was always more likely to be moved by their plight
than a wealthy Indian merchant.
The plaza was a confined area between the steep eastern side of the Red
Fort and the outer wall of the fortress. Beyond the fortress wall lay
the wide Jamuna River, while high above, and with a commanding view of
the plaza, sat Arangbar, watching from the black throne at the outer
edge of the _Diwan-i-Khas_. Next to him sat Queen Janahara and
Allaudin. The day was Tuesday and the sun was approaching midday. As
Hawksworth pushed his way to the front of the crowd, the last elephant
fight of the morning had just begun.
Two First-ranked bull elephants were locked head to head in the dusty
square. Their blunted tusks were wreathed with brass rings, and the
back of each was covered with a brocaded canvas on which sat two
riders. Perched on each animal's neck and directing it was its mahout,
and on its rump sat its Second-ranked keeper, whose assignment was to
urge the animal to greater frenzy.
The dusty air was alive with a festive clanging from large bells
attached to each elephant's harness. Hawksworth noticed that a long
chain, called the _lor langar_, was secured to the left foreleg of each
elephant and circled over its back, where it was attached to a heavy
log held by the second rider. Both elephants also had other keepers who
ran alongside holding long poles, at the end of which was crossed a
foot- long piece of paper-covered bamboo. Nearby another keeper stood
holding a smoldering taper.
Hawksworth watched in awe as the elephants backed away and lunged
together again and again, tusk resounding against tusk, often rearing
on their hind legs as each strained for advantage.
"Do you have a favorite, _feringhi _Sahib?" A brown-skinned man with a
slightly soiled turban was tugging at Hawksworth's sleeve. "There is
still time to wager."
"No thanks." Hawksworth moved to brush him aside.
"But it is our habit in India to wager on the elephants, Sahib. Perhaps
the Sahib does not yet know Indian customs?" He pushed closer, directly
in Hawksworth's face. His few remaining teeth were stained red with
betel. "I myself am a poor judge of elephants, l can never guess which
will win. Still I love to wager. May Allah forgive me."
"I'm not here to bet."
"Just this once, Sahib. For my weakness." He turned and pointed through
the dust. "Although the dark elephant is smaller and already growing
tired, I will even offer to bet on him to give you, a guest in India, a
chance to win. So when you return to your _feringhistan _someday, you
will say there is one honest man in India. I will wager you ten rupees
the dark one will be declared the winner." The man backed away for an
instant and discreetly assessed Hawksworth's worn jerkin with a quick
glance. "If ten rupees are too much, I will wager you five."
Hawksworth studied the two elephants again. The dark one was slightly
smaller, and did seem to be growing tired. The other elephant, larger
and brown, had a mahout less skilled but he also clearly was gaining
"All right. I'll take the brown." Hawksworth reached for his purse,
feeling slightly relieved that it was still there. "And I'll lay twenty
"As pleases the Sahib." The man smiled broadly. "The Sahib must be a
very rich man in his _feringhistan_."
Even as he spoke, the large brown elephant wheeled and
slammed its black adversary in the side with its tusks, barely missing
the leg of the mahout. The black elephant staggered backward, against
the side of the fort. It was now clearly on the defensive, as the
larger elephant began slamming it repeatedly in the side.
Hawksworth found himself caught up in the taste of imminent victory.
"Charkhi! Charkhi!" A cry began to rise from the crowd. The man holding
the burning taper looked up toward Arangbar, who signaled lightly with
his hand. Then the men holding the long poles tipped them toward the
taper, and the two ends of papered bamboo were quickly ignited.
The bamboo sticks started to whirl like pinwheels, popping and throwing
sparks from the gunpowder packed inside. The keepers turned and thrust
the poles under the face of the brown elephant, sending him rearing
backward in fright.
Although the black elephant now lay crushed against the wall, the brown
was too distracted by the sudden noise to press his advantage. Instead
he wheeled away from the exploding bamboo and began to charge wildly
toward the edge of the crowd. Retreating bodies pummeled about
Hawksworth, and there were frightened calls of "_lor langar_." As the