The penultimate scene of the next installment of the Mughal Court serial:
Aurangzeb and Shuja had split up to either side of the herd, and were standing in the stirrups, loosing. Where their arrows fell, antelope staggered out of the herd, dead or dying. Shuja ended up on the near side of the herd, Aurangzeb disappearing into the dust kicked up by the herd and their own mounts.
Dara shook his head. While impressive, their antics were denying him a shot. Not that he couldn’t rely on his skills and shoot anyway, it was simply not a good idea to go firing into a field occupied by two princes, whether the shooter was a brother or not.
He briefly considered taking to his own horse while summoning a drink from one of his body slaves.
“Don’t want to take to your own horse?” Asaf Khan asked.
Having already decided against it, Dara punched his chin toward where his brothers were now racing back towards the firing line in a cloud of dust, “When their horses tire, there will be other game.”
Asaf nodded, looked sidelong at his eldest grandson, “Married life agrees with you, grandson.”
“Oh?” Dara asked, taking the gem-encrusted goblet full of iced fruit juice from his servant.
“You are more patient than you were. I may presume too much when I think it your wife’s doing,” he shrugged, “but there are worse reasons for change in the behavior of men.”
Dara hid his smile by slaking his thirst. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he answered: “Yes, many things are put in their proper places, especially now I have a son on the way.”
“A son? You are so sure? The astrologers tell you it is so?”
“Yes,” Dara half-lied. The up-timer history had it that his son rode to battle with him in his war against Aurangzeb, many years in the future.
“You must send me y–” Asaf stopped in mid-sentence, peering into the dust beyond Aurangzeb and Shuja.
Dara followed the line of his gaze, saw it at a heartbeat later: something gold-orange flowing along in the wake of Shuja’s horse.
“Tiger!” Asaf bellowed in his general’s voice, pointing at the great beast stalking his grandson.
Dara tossed his goblet aside, scrambled for his newest gun.
Shuja, hearing the shout, did the wrong thing: he reined in to look at Asaf Khan. The tiger was within twenty gaz of Shuja. When he came to a stop, it did as well. In fact, it went forequarters down, hunching its rear end.
Asaf was screaming, as were more and more of his men. He started running for his own horse and household guard.
Dara knelt and lifted the butt, surging upright.
Shuja was looking around, trying to identify the threat. His horse tossed its head, moved sideways, uneasy.
Dara pressed his shoulder into the stock, trying to cock the lock, find his target, and get his hand on the firing lever–and had a moment’s panic when he couldn’t find it: Not a lever, a trigger, you fool!
The tiger was rocking its hips, getting ready to charge.
Talawat was beside him, quietly urging: “Shehzada, please do not try to do too much at once. Slow down. Calmly.”
Dara stopped. Breathed out. Found his aim point and his target. Slid his finger into the trigger guard.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Talawat’s silhouette nod. The gunsmith cocked the hammer back for Dara, “She kicks like a mule, Shehzada. Now kill us a tiger.”
Dara squeezed the trigger. The lock snapped forward, steel and flint sparking into the pan. A half-heartbeat later, the gun discharged with a thunderous roar and brutal kick to Dara’s shoulder.
The tiger leapt.
Smoke obscured Dara’s sight for a moment.
Shuja’s horse bolted, riderless, into view.
Talawat stepped forward and turned to face Dara, hands busy as he reloaded the piece with quick, economical motions. He could hear the gunsmith praying even over the shouts of Asaf’s men.
Asaf had stopped his rush to mount. It was too late.
The smoke cleared.
The tiger lay prone, part of one of Shuja’s leg and a boot protruding from beneath it.
Dara’s heart stopped.
It seemed years later when Shuja sat up from between its paws, face as white as bleached linen. Hands shaking, the younger prince heaved the heavy corpse aside and stood up, apparently unscathed.
Suddenly thirsty, Dara wished for strong drink and his pipe.
The line erupted in crazed shouts of joy. Asaf came charging back toward Dara, teeth bared in a smile that split his beard.
Shuja was walking, somewhat unsteadily, back toward the line.
Placing powder in the pan and stepping back, Talawat murmured, “Fine shooting, Shehzada.”
Dara pointed a trembling finger at his sibling, “I will give you his weight in silver, Talawat. Were it not for you, I would have surely rushed the shot,” he swallowed,”and missed.”
Talawat bowed his head, clearly aware of how badly things might have turned out, “God is merciful and loving-kind, to place one of my tools in the hands of one so gifted in their use: I will use your silver to make more fine guns for your use, Shehzada.”
Aurangzeb rode into view behind his dismounted brother, stopping over the tiger for a moment. After a moment he nudged his horse into motion. Quickly catching up to Shuja, he said something the other responded to with angry shake of the head. Shrugging, the mounted brother rode on toward the firing line.
As he came closer, Dara noticed his quiver was empty and his face had a thin smile drawn across it. For Aurangzeb, such an expression was a broad smile of unrestrained glee.
“I see we each took a tiger this day, brother.”
“What?” Dara asked, wondering where his wits had gone.
Aurangzeb nodded his head in the direction he’d come from. “Another one, possibly this one’s mate or nearly adult offspring, took the last blackbuck in the herd. He took some killing: all my arrows are in him.”
Asaf Khan drew close enough to hear this last, sweating from his exertions. Pausing to catch his breath, he was still beaming and making happy noises when Dara remembered to be civil: “Congratulations, brother, I’m sure it was a fine kill.”
“And to you on yours, Dara, though it appears your beast had an old wound to slow it; an arrow in its flesh, turned to poison.”
“Might explain why it went for Shuja with dead game at hand,” Asaf gasped while Dara tried, mightily, to still his angry tongue.
He failed: “Anger stirs the killer in the hearts of both man and beast,” Dara said, trying not to look at his brother as he did so.