Prologue: The Fall of the House of Timur

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As the mayhem played out and the corpses piled up, a one-eyed man listened to the whispers in the city, as he had always done. He carried them to his master, the Captain. The Captain commanded and the one-eyed spy-master acted. Sometimes he acted on his own. At other times, he used his ghosts.

***

The fierce old man sat in the mosque, drinking. It was not a mosque yet but it would become one soon –  a house of god where the faithful would come to pray. Today, it was a place like any other. A place built with bare hands and bone. Brick with brick, lime with mortar, stone with plaster. A place which had taken seven years and seven days. Days of dust that needed washing down by the fiery liquor.

With his back to the wall and the earthen jar full of fiery liquid by his side, he wondered what god would say. Drinking was a sin. But then, he thought, god might forgive him. If he did not, he would take it up with him when the Day of Judgement came. Soon, though, it would be time to join the others in the graveyard behind the mosque. He felt it in his bones.
He heard the clatter of hooves outside. He listened intently, eyes half-closed in concentration. One, two . . . three horses. Good. The boys all rode together. It bode well. There would be festivity and celebrations tonight. After all, it was not every day that you laid hands on the richest treasure of Hindostan. He took out three small earthen cups and poured liquor into them as he waited for the riders to join him.

***

Akbar dismounted first and tied his horse to a post outside the mosque. He went in. Iqbal and Abdullah followed. Even in the dim light, Akbar could see his father sitting in the corner. He saw the three cups waiting for them. He looked at his father and shook his head. With a sigh he sat down. The others squatted on either side of him. In unison, as if controlled by a single mind, they reached out for the cups and drained them in a single draught.
‘It was not there,’ Akbar began. He brought out a small ornate casket hidden inside the folds of his robes. Intricate silver work on hard wood. The heavy lid was opened to reveal nothing inside. ‘And now, for attempting to take it, we cannot go back,’ he said.
He began to narrate the events of the past week.
When he had finished, the old man spoke.
‘So that means you are outlaws. You will be hunted. For the sake of nothing.’
Everyone was quiet. The silence continued unbroken, until they heard the sound of approaching horses. Four, maybe five. They rose, alert. The three young men loosened their swords. They formed a protective arc around the old man and faced the doorway.
The horses outside halted, and there was silence again. They heard footsteps. A tall, dark young man entered the doorway.
The three relaxed. Akbar said with an edge in his voice, ‘Oi, Bungalee! What brings you here so early?’

***

Bayaz-ud-din Waris Ali Khan, sometimes called Ba’az and at other times Bungalee, looked at the four men and then at the empty casket at their feet. Turning to Akbar, he raised an eyebrow questioningly. Akbar sat down and gestured to Ba’az to sit, too. The others joined them in a circle around the empty box.
‘There was nothing inside,’ said Akbar. He proceeded to repeat what he had told them a little while earlier. Ba’az listened quietly, nodding now and then, without comment.
‘This should not be,’ he said after a while. ‘The information was accurate.’
There was silence again.
Then Ba’az said, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore. In any case, I have news.’
He began, and spoke at length, in short, staccato bursts.
When he was done, the old man asked, ‘Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar?’
‘Still in chains,’ answered Ba’az.
‘So the emperor remains captured, the exchange failed and the princes dead,’ summed up the old man, heaving a deep sigh.
The inevitable question came from Iqbal.
‘What happened to all the gold?’
Ba’az began to laugh. Without stopping, he looked at all of them. ‘I was wondering who would be the first to ask. I brought it with me, of course. I thought it would make a good accompaniment to what you would bring. That treasure should have gone somewhere else, but fate has its ways. Instead, we have thirty thousand gold mohurs. Double mohurs, actually. The ransom for an emperor. It is outside, on the mules.’
The old man rose quickly. The others did, too. They went out of the mosque in a rush. They returned after a while, but at a slower pace. The old man stepped forward and embraced Ba’az. Akbar looked at him and gave a short, sharp nod as a salute. Abdullah returned his gesture with a salaam. Iqbal slapped his back and kept thumping it hard until Ba’az began to groan. All this while the old man continued to pour liquor into the earthen cups. They drank quietly, in relief and fear. Fear of what may befall them.
The old man then said, ‘Rest for a while. Soon you must leave with the gold. There will be a price on your head. They are sure to be looking for you and the treasure.’
‘What about the three of you?’ asked Ba’az. ‘You are wanted men, too.’
‘We will stay here. No one will think of looking for us with you still at large. Besides, all we did was steal an empty box. But you must leave and hide the gold somewhere. Return when it is safe,’ said Akbar.
Ba’az hesitated. The old man said, ‘Do not worry. We know you will come back. A lesser man would have kept the gold for himself rather than bring it here. Do you know what to do with it? It will be cumbersome to lead the laden mules.’
Ba’az thought for a while and then nodded his head in agreement. ‘That makes sense. I know where to go. There is a man in Calcutta. Son of an Irish horse merchant who is like a father and a friend to me. He will help me.’
‘Will you be safe on the road to Calcutta?’ asked Akbar. ‘The fighting still rages in Lucknow and beyond.’
‘I will take the long road through the mountains. No one will think of looking for me there. Besides, I still have the dispatches of Hodson. I can always say I am delivering them. There are certain advantages of being a fighting scribe, you know. My letters will take care of some dangers. My sword and rifle will take care of the rest.’
The others nodded.
‘May God be with you,’ said the old man.
‘ May God be with us all,’ said Ba’az, ‘in these godless times.’
They all walked together to the door of the mosque. The old man and the three young men embraced Ba’az one by one and then watched him ride away into the darkness.

***

The one-eyed man stopped his mule in front of an archway. He saw the three corpses still hanging, as they had been the week before. Time had not been good to them. Carrion birds had stripped away their flesh. Scavengers of the human kind had stripped away their clothes and shoes. Their lifeless forms swayed in the warm evening breeze. Their blackened bodies contrasted against the red, sun-washed stones of the archway. The setting sun, low on the horizon, bathed them with fire. Shadows of their swinging silhouettes danced on the walls – an unruly, disorderly dance.
Till a week ago this was called the Red Gate. Whispers of a new name began after the Captain shot the princes and left them to hang here. These were hushed voices in the alleys and bazaars, not meant to be heard by the victorious sahibs or their men. A misplaced word was reason enough to be blown up by cannon these days. But it was the business of the one-eyed man, Rajab Ali, to know exactly what was being whispered, when and by whom. He knew exactly what they were naming this arched gateway. The Blood Gate. Khooni Darwaza.
He waited till after the sun had set. He gave a low whistle, and a few shadowy forms emerged from inside the gateway. They cut down the bodies and loaded them on the waiting mules. Rajab Ali followed the train of mules on his mount. An hour later, skirting Feroze Shah’s citadel, they stopped at a graveyard on the banks of the Yamuna. Three freshly dug graves awaited their occupants. The men dropped the bodies inside and quickly filled the graves. With just a word of acknowledgement from Rajab Ali, they disappeared into the darkness from where they had come.
Rajab Ali stayed there, looking at the unmarked graves that would soon merge with the earth and disappear. He whispered to his mule, ‘So, Khwaja, this is it. The Captain leaves his mark on this land. The House of Timur now lies here, and its glory fades away.’
Rajab Ali turned the mule around and set off at a leisurely trot back towards the fort. As they moved, he remembered a line from one of the Captain’s books. It was a play about princes and kings. In the language of the sahibs, he improvised a farewell speech to the two sons and the grandson of an emperor in chains.
‘Good night, sweet princes. May flights of angels sing you to rest.’
Far behind him, a desperate, hungry crow pecked hopefully at one of the freshly filled graves.

***

When Rajab Ali reached the English lines, he made his way to the Captain’s office. Hodson sat at his desk, nose buried in a pile of papers. As Rajab Ali walked in, the Captain looked up at him, and then stood up. He was a magnificently bald man. ‘Report,’ he said in a terse voice.
‘It is done, sahib,’ said Rajab Ali.
‘Very well.’
‘There is other news as well. About the other matters. The scribe, the Bungalee. As well as the three men who made off with the box in Agra.’
Hodson gave Rajab Ali a sharp look. He walked to the door and closed it shut. ‘Speak,’ he commanded.
‘I sent my trackers after the Bungalee. They followed him to a village north of here, a place by the name of Haider Kalan. I have an informer there. Rafiquddin. This is the same village where his three friends come from. The three who made off with the box.’
Hodson sat down, his head bowed in thought, eyes closed. To Rajab Ali, it seemed as if he was praying. After a few long minutes, Hodson opened his eyes.
‘The three are there then?’ he asked.
Rajab Ali nodded.
‘And the fourth as well – the Bungalee, that bastard scribe who should have been dead? Is he there, too?’
‘No, sire. It seems that he left. I will send my three best men after him. They will find him.’
‘The rains are coming. His tracks will get washed off,’ said Hodson.
‘My trackers can find a trail that is years old. They can track a decade-old caravan trail across the Rann.’
Hodson said, ‘I am sending Captain Morstan and Major Sholto after the three to their village. Tell them where to go. A few troops and some of the new Irishmen will go with them. The swine needs to be made an example of. You know what to do about this, don’t you?’
Rajab Ali nodded and then asked, ‘The Great Moghul?’
‘No one knows yet that the Great Moghul is gone. When found, he should be brought back only to me. The gold as well, when you find it,’ said Hodson.
Rajab Ali nodded and turned to go. As he opened the door to leave, Hodson said, ‘Ali, there is no room for a mistake here. The gold and the Great Moghul must be found. I have a lot to answer for already, for killing the three bastard princes. If they are not found, I am as good as finished.’ He paused and then said, ‘And so are you.’
Rajab Ali did not answer. He only looked at Hodson with his good eye. A cold, emotionless gaze that seemed to know everything.
Hodson flinched, ‘Don’t look at me like that, or I will put out that eye as well.’
‘Worry not, sahib. My trackers are the best. They will hunt down everything.’ Saying this, Rajab Ali left.


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