The two young men stood in silence on the terrace, oblivious to the splendour of the setting sun, which was discarding its golden rays like a gorgeous woman undressing at leisure as the sky blushed and shut its eyes, allowing the darkness to descend. Both were lost in their own thoughts – Abu, at least, was more than a little worried. This was certainly not the best of times. Blood flowed freely and the spectre of death loomed over them all.

Jauna seemed composed. Relaxed even, for someone who seemed determined to embark on a reckless mission that was certain to get them both killed, or worse. If caught, death was the best they could hope for. But that was a fool’s notion. Their captors wouldn’t dream of giving them such a merciful release. But Abu knew better than to try and dissuade his friend. Fakhiruddin Muhammad Jauna Khan was nothing if not mulishly obstinate.

“It has to be done.” Jauna’s voice was steadfast. “There is no other way. Besides, my blood is boiling. That upstart slave, Khusrau Khan, and his posse of perverts are a disgrace to god and man!”

“Careful, old friend! The former slave is Nasiruddin Shah now and has been known to treat those who point out his lowly antecedents most cruelly. Those panwari scum of his are everywhere, spoiling for a fight. I still think it would be best to wait,” Abu’s voice was low, “for your father’s response. You should play it safe.”

Jauna smiled at him in that easy, effortless manner of his. “There is no need to whisper! It will only make people strain their ears to hear what we are saying. Besides, we have been silent and held our peace for too long. In doing so, we have been complicit in his wrongdoing.”

Jauna’s eyes darkened as he remembered the things he had allowed to happen. He refused to dwell on them now. Not today. He forced himself to go on, “But now, the fool slave is so busy keeping a wary eye on the father, he hardly expects the son to strike. It’s time for the seeds of rebellion to be planted and nourished, all in plain sight. Under the circumstances, my position couldn’t be more secure.”

“Secure? I wouldn’t go that far...” Abu had to stop himself from looking around nervously to check for spies.

“If he had wanted to, Khusrau Khan could have had me killed easily. But if he were to do that, my father would mourn the loss of his heir and console himself with the fact that he has a few spares, before giving orders to march immediately and massacre the lot of them. With a single stroke, he would have avenged himself for the slaying of his son and the annihilation of his ill-fated benefactor, the late Alauddin Khalji, and his descendants. My father is efficient that way.” Jauna’s smile was bitter.

“I’ll grant that Khusrau has low cunning,” Jauna continued, “but that reprobate is no strategist and he is no match for Ghazi Malik!”

“Yes, of course. Everybody knows that! Your sainted father, Ghiasuddin Tughlaq, was the Warden of the Marches, appointed by Alauddin Khalji himself,” Abu said enthusiastically, “and he repulsed the Mongols on twenty-nine separate occasions, a feat that will never be matched, and led to his being appointed as the governor of Punjab. Everybody knows that he is loyal to the Alai family, or what remains of them, but he dare not make a move with the Sultan keeping his firstborn so close to him.”

“Which is why it is imperative that I join him at the earliest,” Jauna was unperturbed, “or risk being held hostage to keep my father in check. That impostor becomes surer of his usurped position with every passing minute. He has no qualms about spilling innocent blood and has been particularly generous with the contents of the treasury that he has appropriated for his own personal use. The scions of the Alai family have been treacherously murdered by that monster. Yet he has managed to secure the allegiance of spineless scoundrels who formerly served the royal family – all with indecent amounts of gold! All that stands between him and success is my father, whose hands are tied as long as I am held here.”

“But you are most certainly being watched,” Abu pointed out. “The Shah is not going to allow you to just saunter out of here!”

“I was thinking more in terms of a canter if not an outright gallop!” Jauna smiled at his own joke. “Last time I checked, it was I who was the superintendent of the royal stables.”

“One way or the other, we will be free and clear of this unholy mess within a matter of days!” Abu sounded resigned. “And hopefully we will still have our lives and all body parts intact so that we may commit a few transgressions of our own.”

The two men were silent for a few moments, reliving the turbulence and violence that had become the norm ever since the demise of Alauddin Khalji. Too many princes of the Alai family had been imprisoned, blinded or killed outright, their tender years notwithstanding. It was a blot against all who had served the emperor faithfully that they had allowed such a travesty of justice to take place.

The scions of the Khalji dynasty weren’t the only ones to die, though. All those who hadn’t convinced Nasiruddin Khusrau Shah of their loyalty, those whose property he coveted, and the unfortunates who merely looked at him wrong, were crushed. It was madness. Anarchy prevailed and roared along a river of blood.

Jauna drew in a sharp breath, his eyes blazing with fierce intensity. “The Tughlaqs have Alauddin Khalji to thank for their exalted position today and we are grateful. But truth be told, he is entirely responsible for the inglorious end of his line. In his prime, he was a canny ruler and a capable administrator, but in his old age, the Shah managed to undermine every one of his achievements. My father refuses to hear a word against his overlord but despite Alauddin’s many admirable qualities, his reign became accursed the day he murdered his uncle, father-in-law and Shah, Jalaluddin Khalji, for an empire.”

Abu looked at his friend. What a contradictory creature he was! No one could question his loyalty to the Khaljis, and yet he had never been one to support his benefactors blindly. Unlike Ghazi Malik, Jauna could never forgive the dear departed for their depredations.

“Personally, I think he did the right thing by murdering Jalaluddin,” Abu said. “If there is one thing that is truly unforgiveable in an emperor, it is weakness. Intemperate kindness is a close second.”

“Every emperor has his faults, and some deserve to be killed, but staining your hands with the blood of your relatives is insupportable,” Jauna said firmly.

Abu nodded. “However, it was Alauddin Khalji’s unholy dalliance with another upstart slave, the late and not quite lamented Malik Kafur, that was even more inexcusable. He could not trust his own sons, convinced they may murder him for the throne, and chose to give his love to the eunuch instead.”

“It wasn’t love that corrupted Malik Kafur,” Jauna remarked. “It was the dizzying ascent to power and authority. That dog repaid the Shah’s blind trust by having him condemned to an excruciating death by slow-acting poison. If that were not bad enough, he imprisoned and blinded the heir apparent, Khizar Khan, as well as poor Shadi Khan, who had his eyeballs torn out with rusty razors. Mubarak would have met the same fate, but at least he had the wherewithal to talk the paiks sent to do the nasty deed into sparing him. Being his father’s loyal foot soldiers, they were happy to spare him and murder Malik Kafur instead. Fortunately, Kafur’s reign of terror lasted only thirty-five days. If only Mubarak had displayed the same resourcefulness as a ruler!”

Excerpted with permission from Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale Of A Tyrant, Anuja Chandramouli, EBury Press.