Extract of ‘The Serpent’s Tooth’

Chapter One

Agra Fort, North-Western India, 1628

The glint of the sunlight on the dagger’s serrated blade caught Shah Jahan’s eye at the last moment. As he flung up his right arm to protect his neck, he felt the blade slice into the muscle just below his elbow. Blood immediately began to drip down on to his silver throne. Launching himself with such force that his throne went crashing backwards, he seized the arm of his assailant before he could strike again. Using all his strength he threw the man, who was only slight, on to the marble dais on which his throne had stood. As his attacker hit the marble with a crash the impact knocked his purple turban from his head and loosened his grip on his dagger. Twisting his assailant’s hand back so hard that he heard the crunch as the wrist broke, Shah Jahan wrenched the weapon from his grasp and dropped with both knees and all his weight onto his would-be assassin’s chest. Immediately his green-clad bodyguards were around him but he knew that they would have been too late to save him.

As he got to his feet again the soles of Shah Jahan’s sandals crunched on rubies and turquoises dislodged from the silver throne by its fall. He looked hard at his attacker who his guards had first dragged roughly to his feet and then, after pulling his arms out tight behind him, kicked to his knees. Shah Jahan half recognised his assailant who was dressed in court garb and appeared no more than a youth.

‘Who are you? Why did you attack your emperor?’

At first the young man did not respond. Then a black-bearded bodyguard kicked him hard in his kidneys twice. ‘Ismail Khan, nephew of Jani. She died because you killed her husband, your own half-brother Khusrau. She could not live without him. I owed vengeance to her. She took me into her family when my parents died.’

Yes, of course, Ismail Khan … After his accession he had allowed him to remain at court at his own wife Mumtaz’s pleading. Clearly he had been too generous, naïve even to believe that the divisions of the civil war in which he had come to the throne could be quickly or easily healed. Increasingly aware of the pain in his right arm, he looked down. The gashed gold cloth of his tunic was soaked in blood. It was trickling down his hand and fingers on to the white marble to form a small crimson pool. He must have his wound attended to quickly. He raised his arm to stem the blood flow as he had done when injured in battle. ‘Have no doubt you will die, Ismail Khan, but first you will have a little time to fear death and to repent of your actions while I have the wound you caused your rightful emperor dressed. The manner of your execution will depend on what you tell me of your accomplices.’


‘I confess Majesty.’ An hour later Ismail Khan was once more on his knees before Shah Jahan – this time in the parade ground outside the Agra fort.

‘What else can you do? – you were caught in the act,’ retorted Shah Jahan. By an effort of will he had remained impassive while his hakim had used his needle to place ten stitches into the dagger slash in his forearm before smearing it with neem ointment and binding it tightly. The wound was still stinging but – as the continuing pure whiteness of the cotton bandages attested – no longer bleeding. It should soon heal. Unless … serrated weapons like Ismail Khan’s lent themselves to poison. ‘Did you poison your dagger blade?’

‘No, Majesty,’ Ismail Khan responded immediately, shock on his young face. ‘No, I would not do so … it would be as dishonourable as your action in sending henchmen to kill Khusrau, already blinded by his father … I wanted to strike cleanly, in person, as a man.’

Even if he was scarcely the age to claim the status of manhood, Shah Jahan could not but admire the youth’s courage, relieved as he was that he would live to fulfil those great ambitions he had had when crowned the fifth Moghul emperor only five months ago. Nevertheless, there could be no mercy, no pity, for any who dared attack the emperor. Ismail Khan must die. But first he must reveal his fellow conspirators.

‘Who helped you? You couldn’t have got through my bodyguards without some assistance.’

‘I had no help. I acted from family honour.’ There was defiance in Ismail Khan’s young eyes now and his beardless chin jutted forward. ‘I take all responsibility. I knew that even if I succeeded, I would not escape alive. Your death would have been no crime but just punishment for your sins. In killing you I would have been fulfilling God’s wishes.’

Looking into Ismail Khan’s face, Shah Jahan saw a martyr’s self-righteous determination. He was almost certainly the sole instigator and inspiration for the attack. Although junior accomplices he must have had, not even torture would be likely to make him reveal them. Why delay then? ‘Executioner, do your work.’

The executioner stepped forward from where he had been waiting just behind Shah Jahan. He was a burly man dressed in red with a red leather apron and had already unsheathed his sharp sword, two feet long and curving slightly towards the tip. Quickly one of his assistants spread a jute mat on the ground. Two of the guards pushed Ismail Khan forward onto it. ‘Extend your neck,’ the executioner commanded. Moments later his sword flashed in the sunlight above Ismail Khan just as his own dagger had done above Shah Jahan but Ismail Khan’s fate was set. His arms were pinioned and he could not raise them to protect himself. The sword swiftly sliced into the smooth skin and soft flesh of his young neck and then scrunched through the bone and sinew, severing head from torso. For a moment the head with its now sightless but still open eyes rolled towards Shah Jahan but almost before blood had ceased to spurt from the crumpled body two of the executioner’s assistants had gathered body and head into the jute mat and were carrying them away.

The crowd who had quickly assembled around the edge of the parade ground and were being held back by the spear shafts of some of his men cheered. Shah Jahan took little comfort from their enthusiasm. Life had taught him that the people’s affections were fickle and that if fate went against him they would readily enough cheer his own execution. He must ensure it did not. Therefore, although he had granted Ismail Khan a dignified death he could not spare his soulless body indignities. Raising both arms to command silence he spoke. ‘So will I reward all traitors whatever their status, however close or distant to me in kinship or in favour.  To remind my subjects great and humble of their fate, have Ismail Khan’s body quartered and a portion placed at each corner of the market place until it rots. Have his head impaled forever above the main gate of the fort.’ The crowd roared as he knew it would and at what he suspected was the instigation of some of his officers began to chant, ‘Zinderbad Padishah Shah Jahan, long live the Emperor Shah Jahan.’

Shah Jahan was still not finished. While his arm was being stitched he had asked Kamran Iqbal – his companion during both his long estrangement from his father and his subsequent fight for the throne against his half-brothers Khusrau and Shahriyar – to identify and arrest the guards through whom Ismail Khan had broken to attack him. He was sure at least one would prove to be an accomplice.

‘Bring the prisoners,’ he instructed. A few minutes later two men dressed in the Moghul green of his bodyguard but with their steel breastplates and helmets removed and their arms tied at the wrist emerged from a low gateway in the fort walls and surrounded by an armed group of their comrades marched towards him. As they were halted a few yards in front of him, he recognised both. The first was Hari Singh, a member of a military family from Lahore whom he had taken into his service from that of Shahriyar on the pleas of the man’s grandfather, a veteran of his own grandfather the Emperor Akbar’s campaigns. The second, a grizzled Uzbek, Majid Beg, had been in Shah Jahan’s armies for many years. Both looked composed.

‘Kamran Iqbal said that Ismail Khan broke through the guard cordon between you two to attack me. Why did you fail in your duty? Why couldn’t you stop him? He wasn’t a powerful man, after all.’ Neither man responded. ‘Speak or I will have the torturers heat their irons.’

Suddenly Majid Beg blurted out, ‘I felt Hari Singh move a little away from me just before Ismail Khan slipped between us despite my very best efforts to prevent him.’

So that was it, thought Shah Jahan, eyes turning to Hari Singh. He had retained a loyalty to Shahriyar, just as Ismail Khan had acted to avenge Jani and Khusrau. ‘What have you to say for yourself?’

Hari Singh looked directly at Shah Jahan. ‘Majesty I did not shrink back, I swear. I tried to protect you … to prevent Ismail Khan getting through. I almost succeeded in knocking his heels together to bring him to the ground as other comrades will bear witness,’

‘And what about Majid Beg? Did he do his best as he claims?’

‘I cannot say. Besides he is my comrade.’

‘It looks bad for you Hari Singh, you must speak …’

Before Hari Singh could say anything Shah Jahan saw the captain of his guard approach across the dry parade ground from which the breeze was raising puffs of red dust. ‘What is it?’

‘As you ordered we searched these men’s military chests in their barracks and we found this in one of them.’ As he spoke the captain up-ended a green velvet bag he held in one hand. Out into the dust tumbled several gold mohurs.

‘Whose chest?’ asked Shah Jahan.

‘Majid Beg’s.’

Taken aback that it wasn’t Hari Singh’s, Shah Jahan said nothing for a moment then demanded, ‘What are they Majid Beg? Your reward for treachery?’

‘No, my savings.’ Majid Beg remained impassive.

‘That cannot be true, Majesty,’ said the captain. ‘One of the other guards told me Majid Beg is well known as a gambler and has been trying to borrow money for his daughter’s dowry. He is guilty.’

‘Come, Hari Singh, now you must speak,’ urged Shah Jahan.

‘I cannot condemn a colleague without being entirely sure, but he moved away from me I’m almost certain,’ Hari Singh spoke quietly, his eyes this time on the ground. As he did so, Majid Beg made a desperate lunge as if to run but then as guards closed around him his whole body sagged.

‘Majid Beg, it was you.’

‘Yes, Majesty.’

‘Who approached you?’

Majid Beg was close to breaking down. ‘Ismail Khan himself. He said he had heard of my need for money from a guard who used to be one of his family retainers.’

‘Were others involved?’

‘No … Not to my knowledge, Majesty.’

‘Like Ismail Khan you will die, Majid Beg, but unlike him, because you tried to divert blame on to an innocent comrade you will die beneath the elephant’s foot. Bring forward the execution elephant.’

Slowly a large elephant, the edge of its ears tattered with age, was urged forward from the shade of the fort walls by the equally elderly mahout sitting on its neck. At the same time bodyguards roughly spread-eagled Majid Beg on the granite execution stone and tied his wrists and ankles to the steel rings embedded in each corner. At first he did not resist, seemingly resigned to his fate. However, as the execution elephant reached the stone, casting its shadow over him and began slowly to raise its right forefoot above his abdomen, he started to struggle, bucking and writhing. ‘Remember my past service, Majesty! Pardon me!’ he shouted hoarsely.

‘I cannot,’ said Shah Jahan, ‘proceed with the execution.’

At a tap on its head with the steel rod the mahout held in his hand, the elephant brought its foot down on to Majid Beg’s abdomen. His screams rose to an animal pitch and there was a crunch as his pelvic bones broke, crushed against the hard granite. A pop of air followed as his stomach wall burst and the stench of human faeces rose as his intestines ruptured. After a few moments he ceased both his screams and struggles. At another command from its mahout, the elephant raised its foot, turned and slowly plodded back towards the fort, more orange dust adhering to its bloodied right forefoot with each step.

‘So perishes another traitor,’ Shah Jahan shouted as once again the crowd roared. Then he turned to Hari Singh. ‘You are free and for your refusal – even at peril to your own life – to implicate Majid Beg before you were certain of his guilt, take these gold mohurs spilled in the dust there – Let Majid Beg’s pay for his treachery become your reward for loyalty.’

As guards cut Hari Singh’s bonds and he bent to retrieve the coins, Shah Jahan turned towards the fort, brushing aside the good wishes of his courtiers eager to congratulate him on his escape and to assure him of their loyalty. He must go to Mumtaz in the haram. While his injury was being treated he had given orders she was not to be told of the assassination attempt. It would alarm her less if she heard about it from him and saw with her own eyes that he was safe. But also, she might have tried to persuade him to pardon Ismail Khan. Jani’s horrible end – she had swallowed a hot coal on learning of her husband’s killing – had long preyed on her mind. But though he loved to make Mumtaz happy, for once he would not have been able to agree to her request.


‘No … no … Roshanara ..!’

‘Majesty, what is it?’

Mumtaz woke, body shaking and forehead damp with the perspiration that Satti al-Nisa, her strong-featured Persian lady-in-waiting was already wiping away with a yellow silk handkerchief. ‘I dreamed that the emperor and I were crossing the swollen Mahanadi River in a bullock cart when one of the animals slipped, tipping the wagon over … the torrent ripped Roshanara from my arms … I tried to swim after her but couldn’t reach her … I knew she was drowning but the water was choking me … closing over my head, filling my nostrils … I couldn’t breathe.’

‘Hush, nothing is amiss, madam. You’ve been having bad dreams again. Roshanara is with Jahanara. I saw your daughters together barely half an hour ago.’ Satti al-Nisa’s voice was as gentle and soothing as if she were speaking to a child rather than an empress aged almost forty. Lying back, Mumtaz willed her body to relax but some minutes passed before her heart ceased its hectic thumping. She had fallen asleep just after the midday meal but the room was now in shadow. Surely she hadn’t been asleep that long? Glancing around she realised that while she had dozed servants had covered the arched windows with tattis – screens filled with the roots of scented kass grass – to filter out the harsh summer sun. A dripping noise told her they had also begun trickling rose water down the screens – a trick to create fragrant draughts of air. Perhaps the sound of the water had prompted her sleeping mind to relive the moments when her younger daughter had nearly drowned.

Mumtaz turned on her side to watch the pricks of sunlight penetrating the screen create small, dancing pools of light on the rich Persian carpets around her couch. Shah Jahan had rescued Roshanara from the river that day – she would never forget his harrowed look as he had placed Roshanara – sodden but still breathing – into her arms. Simply staying alive as they had been hunted across India by Shah Jahan’s vengeful father, the Emperor Jahangir, was all that had mattered then. How strange that now she was Empress, living in luxury and security, those bleak years should so often haunt her. Sometimes she wondered if Roshanara, young as she’d then been, retained some memory of the incident. More than any other of her children she seemed to need the reassurance of her mother’s presence and love, hating to be alone for long.

‘Satti al-Nisa, send word that I wish all my children to eat with us this evening.’ Their company would revive her spirits Mumtaz thought,  impatient with herself for conjuring dark thoughts when she should be happy. Weren’t her six fine children proof that, despite past trials, God had been good? And it was right that just now they should be together as much as possible. In two weeks time Dara Shukoh would leave Agra with a Moghul embassy to the court of the Persian Shah. Shah Jahan had thought that at nearly fourteen and almost a man, it was high time for Dara Shukoh to start gaining experience of imperial duties and she had agreed.

Serenity regained, Mumtaz stretched. Soon she would prepare for the evening ahead. Her attendants would massage her body with scented oils, rim her eyes with kohl and dress her in the clothes her husband loved to see her wear – flowing pyjama of muslins so gossamer-thin the court tailors gave them names like ‘running water’ and ‘woven air’ and an embroidered choli, a tight bodice. Suddenly she thought she heard the beat of the drum which announced that the emperor had entered the haram. Startled, she sat up – it couldn’t be … Shah Jahan normally arrived just after sunset. Moments later attendants flung back the double doors and he entered.

One look at his face told her he was troubled. ‘What is it? What’s happened?’

He said nothing but pulled her to him and held her close. The warmth of her body, the familiar jasmine scent of her hair made him give thanks yet again that Ismail Khan had failed in his attack. He didn’t fear death but being parted from those he loved … At last he released her and stepping back slowly eased off his coat. Her eyes flew to his bandaged forearm. ‘You have had an accident?’

‘No. Not an accident.’

‘What then?’

‘Someone tried to kill me … don’t worry, there’s no need … It’s a fleshwound. The hakims have attended to it.’

‘Who was it?’ Mumtaz’s voice was a horrified whisper.

‘Ismail Khan. He burst through my guards and attempted to stab me.’

‘Jani’s nephew? But he’s only a boy … Why? What possessed him …? And will you do to him …?’

‘He wanted to avenge Jani. He’s already been punished. I was merciful – I granted him a quick death. I couldn’t let him live … not after he’d attempter to murder me …’

‘Perhaps not but …’ She stopped.

Shah Jahan took her face gently in his hands. ‘Ever since we married everything I’ve done has been for us and for our children … to protect our lives and our future.’

‘I’ve never doubted it … never … not in all these years. But it doesn’t stop me feeling guilty – and also a little afraid … We have everything we ever wanted but there was a price and it was paid in blood.’

Shah Jahan’s hands dropped to his sides. ‘If I had not had them killed, my half-brothers would have killed me … our sons as well. Their deaths are not something I’m proud of but they were necessary. It would be a lie to say I wished the deeds undone. Though the past troubles me sometimes – as I know it does you – there is nothing I’d change.’

‘You did what you had to … I understand that. But what if Ismail Khan was only the first? How many others will seek revenge because of your actions?’

‘I am the Moghul Emperor and rule over a hundred million souls. As such my life will always be at risk and from many quarters. But I will protect myself … and my family … I will never relax my vigilance. I will keep us safe, I promise you.’