Copyright
Thomas Hoover.

The Moghul online

. (page 45 of 52)
Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 45 of 52)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


field commanders, someone experienced in handling Rajput concerns,
though not necessarily a general. Then the command could remain
unified, with orders passing through this other individual, who would
ensure compliance."

"Again, is there someone you would recommend?"

"There are several men near His Majesty who could serve. It is, of
course, essential their loyalty to you be beyond question. In a way
it's a pity Prince Allaudin is not . . . older. Blood is always best."

"That leaves only you, or Father, who is far too old."

"My responsibilities here would really make it impossible for me."
Nadir Sharif turned and walked again to the door of the tent, pulling
back the portiere. "Certainly I could not leave His Majesty for an
extended campaign."

"But if the campaign were short?"

"Perhaps for a few weeks."

Janahara studied him silently, her thoughts churning. At times even
Nadir Sharif's loyalty seemed problematical. But now there was a
perfect way to test it in advance . . .

"I will advise Inayat Latif you are now in charge of the Rajput
commanders."

"Your Majesty." Nadir Sharif bowed lightly. "I'm honored by your
confidence."

"I'm sure it's well placed." She did not smile. "But before I make the
arrangements, there's one other assignment for you. Totally
confidential."

"Anything within my power." Nadir Sharif bowed elegantly.

"Tonight I want you to order the Imperial guards stationed in your
compound to execute the Englishman and the woman Shirin. On your sole
authority."

"Of course." Nadir Sharifs smile did not flicker.



Hawksworth finally returned to his compound near midnight, carrying his
empty flask of brandy. He had wandered the length of the chaotic tent
city searching for Shirin. Over the past five hours he had combed the
wide streets of the bazaar, searched through the half-empty elephant
stables, and circled the high chintz border of the Imperial enclosure.
The periphery of the camp swarmed with infantrymen and their wives
gathering supplies for the march, and already there had been numerous
fights in the bazaar, where prices had soared after the announcement
the army would march.

As he neared his tent, he looked up at the stars, brilliant even
through the lingering evening smoke from the cooking fires, and mused
about Jadar. The rebel prince would soon be facing Inayat Latif, just
recalled to Agra two months earlier after a brutally successful
campaign in Bengal extending the Imperial frontier against local Hindu
chieftains. Inayat Latif was a fifty-five-year-old veteran commander
who revered the Moghul and would do anything in his power to protect
him. Although he had made no secret of his dislike of the "Persian
junta," he shared their common alarm at the threat of Jadar's
rebellion. It was Arangbar he would be fighting to defend, not the
queen.

The Imperial army is invincible now, Hawksworth told himself, its
cavalry outnumbers Jadar's easily three to one, and its officers are at
full strength. There are at least a hundred and fifty thousand men
ready to march. How many can Jadar have? Fifty thousand? Perhaps less.
Jadar can never meet them. The most he can possibly do is skirmish and
retreat.

Perhaps, he thought ruefully, it was all just as well. A decisive
defeat for Jadar would _Resolve_ the paralysis at court, and the
indecision in Shirin's mind. She would realize finally that Jadar had
attempted to move too fast.

The mission might still be saved. With the Portuguese resistance
neutralized - there were even rumors that Arangbar had ordered Father
Sarmento back to Goa - there would be no voices in Agra to poison
Arangbar's mind daily against the _firman _for King James. After all,
he asked himself, who else could Arangbar turn to? England alone has
the naval strength to challenge Portugal, even if it might require
years to break their monopoly completely. He would bargain for a
_firman _in exchange for a vague promise of King James's help against
the Portuguese. It was a bargain England surely could keep. Eventually.

He slipped through the doorway of his tent and groped for the lamp, an
open bronze dish of oil with a wick protruding through the spout. It
rested where he had left it, on a stand near his sea chest, and he
sparked a flint against the wick. Suddenly the striped cotton walls of
the tent glowed around him. He removed the sword at his belt and
slipped it onto the carpet. Then he removed his leather jerkin and
dropped against a bolster, still puzzling about Shirin.

Her status during the past few days had been ambiguous. As a divorced
Muslim woman, she was free to move about as she chose. But everyone
knew she was on very uncertain terms with the Moghul. After they had
arrived outside the western wall of the old city of Fatehpur, Arangbar
had been too preoccupied to remember his threat to move her into the
_zenana_. She had remained free, able to move inconspicuously about the
camp, mingling with the other Muslim women. And each night, after the
final watch was announced, Hawksworth had been able to slip unnoticed
to her tent. Once, late one night, he had suggested they try to return
to the old palace of Akman, inside the walls of Fatehpur, but they both
finally decided the risk would be too great.

He had hoped the days, and nights, at the camp would bring them closer
together. And in a way they had, although Shirin still seemed to
retreat at times into a special realm of mourning she had devised for
herself. She could never stop remembering Samad and his brutal death.

Something, he told himself, had to change. He had begun to wonder if he
should gamble and tell her of the terms the Moghul had demanded for her
release. Would she then understand she had no choice but to return to
England with him?

He rose and rummaged through his sea chest, finding another bottle of
brandy, almost his last, and to fight his despondency he poured himself
a cup. The liquor burned its way down, like a warm soothing salve, and
he turned to begin assembling his few belongings for packing in the
morning. He had reprimed and loaded his remaining pistol, and now he
laid it on the table beside his chest. Then he drew his sword from its
scabbard to check its edge and the polish on the metal. Holding it to
the lamp, he spotted a few random flecks of rust, and he found a cloth
and burnished them away.

His few clothes were already piled haphazardly in the chest, now
virtually empty save for his lute. He found his leather purse at the
bottom and counted his remaining money. Five hundred rupees. He counted
them twice, beginning to wonder if he might eventually have to walk all
the way back to Surat.

He searched the floor for any stray items, and came across Vasant Rao's
katar caught between the folds of the carpet. It seemed years now since
the Rajput aide of Jadar had slipped it into his hand in the square of
the Diwan-i-Am, and he had almost forgotten he had it. With a smile of
recollection he gingerly slipped it from its brocade sheath and held it
in his hand, puzzling how such a curiously constructed weapon could be
so lethal. The grip was diagonal to the blade, so that it could only be
used to thrust, like a pike head growing out of your fist. Rajputs were
said to kill tigers with only a katar and a leather shield, but he
wasn't sure he believed the stories. He grasped it and made a few trial
thrusts, its ten- inch blade shining in the lamplight like a mirror,
then tossed it atop his sea chest. It would make a nice memento of the
trip; every fighting man in India seemed to carry one. Who in London
would ever believe such a weapon unless they saw it?

Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flutter in the portiere of his
tent, and he looked up to see Shirin standing silently in the doorway.

"What . . . ?" He looked up to greet her, unsure whether to betray his
relief by taking her immediately in his arms, or to scold and tease her
a bit first.

She silenced him with a wave of her hand.

"Are you ready?" Her voice was barely above a whisper.

"Ready for what? Where in Christ's name have you been? I've been . . ."

Again she silenced him as she moved inside.

"Are you ready to ride?" She glanced in dismay at the belongings he had
scattered about the tent. "We have to leave now, before dawn."

"Have you gone mad?" He stared at her. "We're returning to Agra day
after tomorrow. The Moghul has . . ."

"We have to leave now, tonight." She examined him in the lamplight,
consternation growing in her eyes. "The prince . . ."

"Jadar is finished." He cut her off. "Don't be a sentimental fool. He
brought this on himself. You can't help him. Nobody can now."

They stood, eyes locked together, for a moment that seemed as long as
eternity. Hawksworth did not move from his place on the carpet.
Gradually her eyes clouded with sorrow, and he thought he saw her begin
to turn.

He was on his feet, seizing her arm, pulling her toward him. "I'm not
letting you die for Jadar. If he's meant to win, he'll do it without
either of . . ."

He sensed a movement in the portiere behind her, and looked up to see
the glint of a sword thrust exactly where she had been standing. She
caught his bewildered look and revolved in time to see the sword slash
through the fringed cloth. An Imperial guard, wearing light chain mail
and a red turban, moved through the doorway, weapon in hand.

"You son of a whore!" Hawksworth reached back for the naked sword lying
on the carpet behind him and grabbed his leather jerkin. Holding the
leather as a shield, he lunged at the attacker.

As Hawksworth's sword thrust reached him, the guard caught the blade
with his own and instinctively parried it aside, throwing Hawksworth
against a tent pole.

As he tried to regain his footing, he heard Shirin cry out and turned
to see a heavy sword cut through the side of the tent behind them,
creating a second opening. A hand ripped away the striped chintz and
another Imperial guard entered, weapon in hand.

"Jesus! Shirin, get back!" Hawksworth shouted in English and shoved her
across his sea chest, sending her tumbling away from the second
attacker. As she fell, he saw her grab the pocket pistol lying on the
table and turn to face the guard approaching her.

Hawksworth felt a blade rip through the jerkin in his hand and tangle
in the leather. He shoved the jerkin and sword aside and cut upward
with his own blade, miraculously imbedding it in the exposed neck of
the turbaned guard. The man yelled out and dropped his weapon, which
slid harmlessly onto the carpet. Then he stumbled and fell forward,
holding his neck. Still incredulous, Hawksworth looked up to see two
more Imperial guards standing in the doorway behind him, both with
drawn swords. As he moved to keep them at bay with his own weapon, he
turned and saw the guard who had entered through the side of the tent
advancing menacingly toward Shirin. Just as the guard raised his
weapon, Hawksworth heard a sharp report, followed by a moan, and
watched the man crumple and fall directly in front of her smoking
pistol.

As he fell, two more guards appeared at the opening behind him and
began pushing their way through.

"Shirin, the lamp!" Again he shouted in English before realizing she
could not understand. Without waiting, he grabbed the open oil lamp and
flung it against the uniforms of the guards, bathing them in burning
oil. Their turbans and hair ignited and they pulled back against the
side of the tent, slapping at the flames.

He turned back to the doorway in time to see the other two

guards coming toward him. As he attempted to parry them away, he found
his feet tangled in the leather jerkin on the carpet and he stumbled
backward, losing his balance long enough for one of the attackers to
bring his sword around with a heavy sweep and knock his own weapon
spinning into the dark recesses of the tent.

As he grabbed a tent pole for balance he suddenly noticed the dark
outline of two more men approaching behind the guards at the door. In
the shadows he could tell they were shirtless, wearing only dirty
loincloths and the gray turbans of servants. They carried no weapons
and had been attracted by the uproar.

Looking quickly around the tent, he noticed the burning outline of his
oil-soaked powder horn lying on the carpet near his feet. He kicked it
toward the approaching guard and as it struck his leg, the cap jarred
free, sending hissing powder flaming through the tent. The man stumbled
backward in surprise and lowered his sword. Just as he did, Hawksworth
saw one of the servants standing at the doorway slip a naked katar from
his loincloth and seize the guard by the neck. He pulled the attacker
around and with a flash of steel gutted him silently with a savage
upward thrust. The other Imperial guard at the doorway turned just in
time to watch the katar drawn by the second servant enter his own
throat.

Hawksworth stared in astonishment, realizing he had never before seen
the two servants. Even now their faces were largely obscured by the
loose ends of their turbans.

He revolved to see the other two guards turning back toward the opening
that had been cut through the side of the tent, still slapping at the
burning oil on their uniforms. As they reached the opening, they seemed
to hesitate momentarily, then stumbled backward. As they sprawled
across the carpet in front of him, their throats cut, he saw two more
grimy servants standing in the opening, holding bloody katars.

The burning oil blazed across the fringe of a carpet and suddenly the
interior of the tent was crisscrossed with fire.

The four alien servants, all still holding katars, seemed to ignore the
flames as they advanced on Shirin and Hawksworth without a word.

He watched them for a moment in horror, then reached and groped blindly
across the top of his sea chest. It was bare. Then he remembered
Shirin's fall and he felt along the carpet behind the chest, next to
where she stood.

Just as the first man reached the edge of the chest, Hawksworth's hand
closed around the handle of his katar.

Jesus, what do they want? Did they kill the Imperial guards so they
could have the pleasure of murdering us themselves?

Bracing himself against the side of the chest, he swung the blade
upward. He still could not see the attacker's face, masked behind the
end of his turban.

The man stepped deftly to the side and caught Hawksworth's wrist in a
grip of iron, laughing out loud.

"Never try to kill a Rajput with his own katar, Captain Hawksworth. He
knows its temperament too well."

Vasant Rao flipped back the ragged end of his turban.

"What the bloody hell. . . !"

"We've been waiting for you by Shirin's tent. It would appear your
welcome here has run out." He glanced mockingly at Shirin. "So much for
your famous Muslim hospitality."

"You know very well who's responsible." Her eyes snapped back at him.

"I can probably guess." Vasant Rao released Hawksworth's wrist and
stared about the burning tent. "Are you ready to ride?"

"What the hell are you doing here?"

"This is hardly the spot for long explanations. The fact is I'm here
tonight to lead some of our friends back to the camp of His Highness,
the prince. And you, if you cared to join us." Vasant Rao signaled the
men around him to move out through the doorway. The smoke was already
growing dense. "I'm afraid your fire has made our departure that much
more difficult. It wasn't a particularly good idea on your part. Now we
have to ride quickly."

"What about all this?" Hawksworth looked about the burning tent. "I
have to . . ."

"Just roll what you need in a carpet. If you're going with us, you'll
have to leave now. Before the entire Imperial army comes to see us
off."

"But who'd want to kill us?" Hawksworth still could not move as he
stared through the smoke.

"Whoever it was, they'll probably succeed if we wait here talking much
longer."

Hawksworth turned on Shirin.

"You knew!"

"I couldn't tell you before. It would have been too dangerous." She
quickly grabbed a carpet from the floor, stamping out the burning
fringe, then flipped open Hawksworth's chest. She grabbed his lute, a
handful of clothes, his boots, his books, and his depleted purse. As he
watched in a daze, she rolled them in the carpet and shoved it into his
hands. He looked around the burning tent one last time and caught the
glint of his sword lying behind a tent pole. He grabbed it, scooped up
his pistol and jerkin, and took Shirin by the arm as they pushed
through the smoke toward the entrance, stepping over the bodies of the
guards as they emerged into the night air.

Ahead, beside Shirin's tent, waited saddled horses and a group of
turbaned riders. As they ran toward the horses, Hawksworth recognized
several Rajputs from Arangbar's private guard among the horsemen.

"We were ready to ride." Vasant Rao seized the rein of one of the
horses and vaulted into the saddle. "You were out walking or we could
have left sooner. Shirin demanded we wait. It was well we did. Lord
Krishna still seems to be watching over you, Captain."

"Which way are we headed?" Hawksworth helped Shirin into a saddle,
watching as she uncertainly grabbed the horn for balance, then, still
clasping the bundle, pulled himself onto a pawing Arabian mare.

"West. The rest of the men are already waiting at the end of the
valley." Vasant Rao whipped his horse and led the way as they galloped
toward the perimeter of the tent city. "This will be a long ride, my
friend."

As Hawksworth watched the last of the tents recede into the
dark, he saw disappearing with them his final chance for a firman. He
would never see Arangbar again. Probably he would never see London
again.

I've traded it all for a woman. And I still wonder if she's mine.

God help me.




BOOK FIVE




PRINCE JADAR




CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN


Hawksworth heard the exultant cheer of the Rajputs riding
behind him and snapped awake. It was midmorning of the third day and he
had been dozing fitfully in the saddle since dawn, fatigue deep in his
bones. Through the trees ahead the camp of Prince Jadar lay spread
before them, blanketing half the valley.

"I told you we'd make the camp in three days' ride." Vasant Rao smiled
wearily at Hawksworth and spurred his lathered mount forward. "Every
man with us is eager to be with the prince."

They had covered, it seemed to Hawksworth, well over a hundred miles
since departing the environs of Fatehpur. Between five and six hundred
Rajputs rode behind them, all heavily armed with an array of swords,
pikes, clubs, saddle-axes. Each man's body armor, a woven network of
steel and the quilted garment worn beneath it, was secured behind his
saddle, ready to be donned for combat. Hanging at the side of each
rider was a round leather shield and a large quiver containing his horn
bow and arrows. None carried muskets.

Hawksworth glanced back at Shirin, who rode a few paces behind, and
they shared a tired smile. She had ridden the distance like a Rajput,
but now her eyes were glazed with weariness. He had suddenly realized,
the morning after they all galloped out of the camp at Fatehpur, that
he had never before seen a woman in India ride. Where had she learned?
He had pondered the question for an hour, riding behind her to watch
her easy posture in the saddle, and then he had pulled alongside and
asked her point-blank. She said nothing, merely smiled and tossed the
loose strands of hair back from her face. He understood her well enough
to know this meant she had never ridden before . . . and didn't wish
Vasant Rao to know.

"This is the moment I've waited for so long." She reined her mount
alongside Hawksworth's, reached out and touched his hand. "You must
help the prince now too."

"I'm not so sure I'm eager to die for Prince Jadar."

"You can always go back to Agra. And wait to be murdered by Janahara's
guards. The prince has saved your life, and mine, once already. What
makes you think he'll bother with you again?"

"To tell the truth, he also saved my life several months ago, the night
we made landfall at Surat and were ambushed on the Tapti River by the
Portugals."

"I know." She spurred her horse ahead. "I received the pigeon from
Prince Jadar ordering it. I passed the message to the Shahbandar, Mirza
Nuruddin, who sent his personal Rajputs to protect you."

Hawksworth urged his horse back alongside. "So I was right. You were
one of Jadar's agents in Surat. What did Nadir Sharif once call them .
. . _swanih-nigars_?"

"I gathered information for the prince." She smiled in consent. "I kept
his accounts and coded his ciphers at the old observatory. Then you
came along and started combing through it. You made my work that much
more difficult. I never knew when you'd decide to go out there. Or what
you'd find."

"Why didn't you just tell me? What did I care?"

"Too much was at risk. The prince once said never to trust a
_topiwallah_."

Hawksworth laughed. "But surely Mukarrab Khan knew what you were
doing?"

"I think he probably guessed. But what could he do? He was only the
governor, not Allah. He finally forbade me to go into the palace
grounds alone. When I refused to obey, he thought of sending you to the
observatory, just to annoy me." She smoothed the mane of her horse. "So
I think he knew I was doing something there. But he was too entangled
by his own intrigues for Janahara to really care."

"Mukarrab Khan worked for the queen? How?"

"Two ways. Naturally he gathered intelligence for her, mainly about the
Portuguese. But he also collected her Portuguese revenues at the ports
of Surat and Cambay."

"Her revenues? I thought all duties went to the Moghul's Imperial
treasury."

Shirin stifled a smile. "That's what Arangbar thinks too. And at Surat
it's mostly true. She collects very little. Mirza Nuruddin despises her
and always finds devious ways to muddle her accounts, probably keeping
some of her money for himself. But the Shahbandar at the port of
Cambay, where Mukarrab Khan used to go every two weeks, would accept
bribes from the Portuguese to undervalue their goods, and then split
the money with Mukarrab Khan and Janahara." She paused to watch a
bright-winged bird dart past. "Arangbar could never understand why his
revenue from Cambay was so low. I heard he's thinking about closing the
port." She laughed. "If only he knew it's going mostly to Janahara."

Hawksworth rode silently for a moment, thinking. "You know, Nadir
Sharif once proposed the same arrangement for English goods, if I would
trade with him personally through the port of Cambay. I ignored him. I
suspected he planned to find some way to confiscate the goods later on,
claiming nonpayment of duty."

"No, on that I think Nadir Sharif would have been very fair. He always
honors his agreements, with friend or foe." She looked ahead, her weary
eyes brightening as they approached the first jumble of tents and
roaming livestock that formed the edge of the camp. Servants in soiled
_dhotis _were leading camels bearing huge baskets of fodder along the
makeshift streets between the tents. "But their swindle will be
finished when Prince Jadar becomes Moghul. He despises the Portuguese
traders and their Christian priests."

The perimeter of the compound reserved for Jadar and his _zenana _was
clearly visible now, towering above the center of the camp. It was
bordered by a ten-foot-high wall of billowing red chintz, decorated
with a white hem at the top and held up with gilded poles spaced no
more than two feet apart. Spreading out around it were clusters of
smaller tents - red and white striped cloth for noblemen, and onesided
lean-to shelters ranging from brocade to ragged blankets for their
troops.

"The prince asked that we all ride directly to the _gulal bar_, his
personal compound," Vasant Rao shouted back over his shoulder at
Hawksworth. "I think he'll particularly want to see you, Captain."

Cheers erupted as they entered the camp. Tents emptied and infantrymen
lined the sides of the wide avenue leading to Jadar's compound, beating
their swords against their leather shields. As Hawksworth studied the
forest of flying standards spreading out on either side, he suddenly
realized that each _mansabdar _nobleman was flying his own insignia
above his cluster of tents.

Ahead, rising upward from the center of Jadar's compound, was a pole
some fifty feet high with a huge vessel of burning oil secured on its
tip. Hawksworth examined the flame with astonishment, then drew his
horse alongside Vasant Rao's.



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 45 of 52)