The novel opens with a traveler approaching Sikri, the royal city of Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor. The city sits on a great lake that seems to be made of molten gold until the traveler realizes he is only seeing the reflection of the setting sun. As he enters the gates, he attracts notice because of his height and yellow hair, which mark him as European. He thinks of the secret he has come to tell the emperor, but he realizes it is too late to see the emperor and ends up staying at a brothel, the House of Skandra.
The traveler, a Florentine, came to India on a Scottish pirate ship that was commissioned to bear a message to Akbar from England’s Queen Elizabeth. Despite being discovered as a stowaway, the traveler, now called Uccello, earned the confidence of the captain. After the captain poured them each a goblet of brandy, Uccello poured laudanum into the captain’s drink, which caused him to slip into a coma. Uccello diffused suspicion from himself by showing concern and by helping the ship’s doctor tend to the stricken captain. Uccello, however, was only searching for the letter from Queen Elizabeth, which he found the night before the ship reached its destination, the port of Surat. Then Uccello killed the captain and slipped away in the middle of the night in one of the ship’s dinghies.
As the story returns to Sikri, the emperor Akbar is revealed to be a man of both great power and strange fantasies. Despite his many royal consorts and concubines, the woman he cares for the most is Jodha, an imaginary wife he has dreamed into being. Akbar has just returned from a military campaign in Surat, where he put down a rebellion by the Rana of Cooch Naheen. While on campaign, he was wrestling with the possibility of calling himself “I” rather than the royal “we,” which reflects his growing interest in questions of identity and belief. Inspired by these questions, Akbar has founded a temple in Sikri dedicated to argument and truth, the Tent of the New Worship, where all men are free to speak their minds.
Uccello, now called Mogor dell’Amore (Italian for “Mughal born out of wedlock”), met a woman at the House of Skandra. She is called Mohini the Skeleton and is a master of potions and unguents. She prepares a scent for Uccello that will allow him to get past the emperor’s bureaucrats and talk directly to Akbar. He succeeds and relays the message from Queen Elizabeth, which he describes as a missive asking for Akbar’s alliance against the Jesuits of Spain and stating that the two empires will be mirror images of each other’s glory. Impressed, Akbar takes the foreigner to his new temple devoted to argument and philosophy, where Mogor dell’Amore argues with and makes an enemy of Crown Prince Salim.
After it is revealed that Niccolò Vespucci is Mogor dell’Amore’s real name, he relays the secret he has come so far to tell the emperor: he is related to the emperor. The emperor sends for his mother and aunt for advice. Vespucci relays the story in more detail. His mother, whom he calls Angelica, was a sibling of the first Mughal Emperor of India, Akbar’s grandfather. She was taken hostage by Lord Wormwood, an Uzbeg warlord. Ten years later, Lord Wormwood was defeated by the Persian king Shah Ismail, who also took Angelica until he was later defeated by the Ottoman sultan.
Akbar’s mother and aunt confirm that there was a princess who was erased from the family history. The forgotten princes had remained in Persia with her servant, called the Mirror, and her name was stricken from the official record because she preferred the Persian king to her own family. Vespucci then continues the story, relating that after the Ottomans defeated the Persians, his mother, Angelica, reached Italy in the company of the warrior Argalia.
As Vespucci tells his story, the emphasis shifts from Qara Köz, or Lady Black Eyes, Angelica’s original name, to the story of three boyhood friends in Florence: Antonino Argalia, Niccolò “il Machia,” and Ago Vespucci. Not long after the Medici family comes to power in the city, Argalia’s parents die from an outbreak of the plague. Although he is only ten years old, he leaves Florence to take service with the Band of Gold, a mercenary company headed by Andrea Doria that is currently fighting in Genoa. Ago...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)