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Equal of the sun, p.1
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       Equal of the Sun, p.1

           Anita Amirrezvani
 
Equal of the Sun


  Praise for Equal of the Sun

  “ Equal of the Sun is a page turner, with plenty of gripping moments. Here’s hoping Amirrezvani will write many more tales illuminating the incredible history of the Iranians.”

  —The Washington Post

  “Expertly woven.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “ Equal of the Sun is a fine political novel, full of rich detail and intrigue, but it’s also a thought-provoking study of the intersection between gender and power.”

  —Historical Novel Society

  “Amirrezvani’s fans will feel silk carpets under foot, taste black tea, and delight in the language of old Iran in this new tale, one every bit as intriguing as her internationally best-selling debut, The Blood of Flowers.”

  —San Francisco State Magazine

  “Amirrezvani’s sixteenth-century Iran is a world as complex as Shakespeare’s London, that seethes with intrigue, passion, and lawlessness, a world where a brilliant young princess, who longs for power denied her as a female, and a servant, with a desire so relentless he half destroys himself, make a desperate pact to control the government and fate of the country, and in doing so discover their greatest loves and sorrows. In this astonishing novel, Amirrezvani reminds us what all human hearts suffer and dare. Equal of the Sun is an irresistible novel.”

  —Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

  “A dazzling historical novel of ancient Persia, a fairy tale of universal resonance, Equal of the Sun is a story of love and ambition, loyalty and intrigue, the eternal anguish of a heart—and a country—at war with itself.”

  —Gina Nahai, author of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith and Caspian Rain

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  CONTENTS

  Prologue

  Chapter 1: A New Assignment

  Chapter 2: An Animal Mood

  Chapter 3: Man of Justice

  Chapter 4: The Rose is Heartless

  Chapter 5: Tears of Blood

  Chapter 6: The Call to Battle

  Chapter 7: An End to the Chase

  Chapter 8: A Star Plummets

  Chapter 9: Bread and Salt

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgments

  Key Sources

  Reading Group Guide

  Author Q&A

  About Anita Amirrezvani

  FOR MY PARENTS

  AND

  FOR ALL THE KAVEHS

  LIST OF KEY CHARACTERS

  TAHMASB SHAH AND HIS FAMILY

  Tahmasb Shah, second ruler of the Safavi dynasty (reigned 1524–1576)

  Sultanam, his Mowsellu wife and mother of Mohammad Khodabandeh and Isma‘il

  Daka Cherkes, his Circassian wife and mother of Pari Khan and Suleyman; sister of Shamkhal Cherkes

  Sultan-Zadeh, his Georgian wife and mother of Haydar

  Zahra Baji, his other Georgian wife and mother of two young sons

  Mohammad Khodabandeh, his eldest son

  Isma‘il, his second eldest son

  Haydar, his third eldest son

  Gowhar, his eldest daughter

  Pari, his second eldest daughter

  Mahmood, his son by a slave

  Bahram, his brother (deceased)

  Ibrahim, Bahram’s son; married to Gowhar

  Hossein, Bahram’s son, governor of Qandahar

  Badi al-Zaman, Bahram’s son, engaged to Pari

  ISMA‘IL SHAH AND HIS FAMILY

  Isma‘il Shah, third ruler of the Safavi dynasty (1576–77)

  Khadijeh, his wife; a slave from Africa

  Koudenet, his wife; daughter of Shamkhal Cherkes

  Mahasti, his wife; mother of his son Shoja al-din; a slave from the Caucasus

  Mohsen, Khadijeh’s brother

  MOHAMMAD SHAH AND HIS FAMILY

  Mohammad Shah, fourth ruler of the Safavi dynasty (1578–1587)

  Khayr al-Nisa Beygom (Mahd-e-Olya), his wife and mother of his sons Hamza, Abbas, Abu Taleb, and Tahmasb

  Sultan Hassan, his eldest child by another wife

  SERVANTS OF THE SAFAVI COURT

  Amir Khan Mowsellu, Sultanam’s brother

  Amin Khan Halaki, a physician

  Anwar, a eunuch from Sudan; head of the royal harem

  Azar, chief lady to Pari

  Balamani, a eunuch from Hindustan; Anwar’s chief assistant

  Fereshteh, a prostitute

  Javaher, a eunuch from Qazveen and servant to Pari; also known as Payam

  Jalileh, Javaher’s sister

  Hassan Beyg Halvachi Oghli, Isma‘il’s favorite companion

  Hossein Beyg, leader of the Ostajlu

  Khakaberi Khan, Sultan-Zadeh’s brother

  Khalil Khan Afshar, Pari’s childhood guardian

  Kholafa, a leader of the Rumlu

  Looloo, a court astrologer

  Majeed, Pari’s vizier

  Maryam, Pari’s favorite

  Massoud Ali, an errand boy in Javaher’s service

  Mirza Salman Jaberi, chief of the royal guilds

  Mirza Shokhrollah, chief of the treasury

  Mohammad Amir Shirazi, Javaher’s father (deceased)

  Nasreen, chief lady to Khadijeh

  Rasheed, head of the scribes

  Saleem, chief of protocol

  Shamkhal Cherkes, Pari’s uncle, a leader of the Circassians

  Note: Agha, Beyg, Beygom, Khan, Khanoom, Khatoon, Mirza, and Sultan are titles. Titles typically appear after the first name.

  PROLOGUE

  I swear to you on the holy Qur’an there has never been another woman like Pari Khan Khanoom. A princess by birth, a strategist by the age of fourteen, fierce but splendid in her bearing; a master archer, an almsgiver of great generosity, and a protector of prostitutes; a poet of uncommon grace, the most trusted advisor to a shah, and a leader of men. Do I exaggerate, like a court historian writing flowery panegyrics to a leader in the hope of being rewarded with a robe of honor? No such gift is forthcoming, I assure you: I am a man without a protector.

  I wrestled over whether to attempt this work, since I am neither biographer nor historian. Despite the danger, the ignorance of the men around me compels me to set down the truth about the princess. If I refuse this task, her story will be misrepresented or distorted to become a tool of those in power. Court historians report only the best known facts about how royal women have led troops into battle, deposed shahs, killed their enemies, and thrust their sons into power. They are forbidden from observing the lives of these women directly and therefore must rely on rumors and invention.

  As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story. But I must proceed in the greatest of secrecy. If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal—although what man hasn’t? Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.

  Perhaps, now that I think of it, I exaggerate slightly in saying that Pari was the only woman of her kind. She came from a dynasty that bred valiant women, starting with her grandmother Tajlu Khanoom Mowsellu, who had helped elevate her own ten-year-old son, Tahmasb, to the throne; and her aunt Maheen Banu, who advised Tahmasb until she died. By then, Pari was fourteen and wise enough to take Maheen Banu’s place, and she rei
gned unchallenged as her father Tahmasb’s advisor, above and beyond his wives, until his death almost fourteen years later. But Pari’s deeds outshone those of her foremothers, and her boldness knew no bounds.

  When I think of her, I remember not only her power, but her passion for verse. She was a poet in her own right and lavished silver on the poets she admired, keeping bread and salt on their tables. She had read all the classics and could recite long sections from them. Of the books of poetry she loved, a single tome stood out above others: the Shahnameh, or Book of Shahs, in which the great poet Ferdowsi recounted the passions and struggles of hundreds of Iranian rulers. During the time I served her, one story from that great book—about the usurper Zahhak and the hero Kaveh—guided our thoughts, directed our actions, and even invaded our dreams, so much so that I sometimes wondered if the story was about us. We turned to it for advice, wept over it in despair, and drew comfort from it in the end. It guides me still, as I celebrate Pari for the sake of generations to come.

  CHAPTER 1

  A NEW ASSIGNMENT

  The way Ferdowsi tells it, Jamsheed was one of the first great civilizers of mankind. Thousands of years ago, he taught the earliest humans how to spin yarn and weave cloth, how to bake clay into brick for dwellings, and how to make weapons. After dividing men into craftsmen, tillers, priests, and warriors, he showed each group their duties. Once they had learned to work, Jamsheed revealed the world’s sweetest treasures, such as where to find the jewels in the earth, how to use scent to adorn the body, and how to unlock the mysteries of healing plants. During his reign of three hundred years, nothing was lacking, and all were eager to serve him. But then one day, Jamsheed called on his sages and announced to them that his own excellence was unparalleled, wouldn’t they agree? No man had ever done what he had, and for that reason, they must worship him as if he were the Creator. His sages were astonished and appalled by his extravagant claims. Back then, they dared not oppose him, but they began to desert his court. How could a leader become so deluded?

  On the morning of my first meeting with Pari, I donned my best robe and consumed two glasses of strong black tea with dates to fortify my blood. I needed to charm her and show her my mettle; I must demonstrate why I would be a fitting match for the dynasty’s most exalted woman. A thin sheen of sweat, no doubt from the hot tea, appeared on my chest as I entered her waiting area and removed my shoes. I was swiftly shown into one of her public rooms, which glowed with turquoise tile to the height of my waist. Above it, antique lusterware caught the light in alcoves and mirror work shimmered all the way to the ceiling, mimicking the radiance of the sun.

  Pari was writing a letter on a wooden lap desk. She wore a blue short-sleeved silk robe covered with red brocade, belted with a white silk sash woven with bands of gold—a treasure itself—which she had tied into a thick, stylish knot at her waist. Her long black hair was loosely covered by a white scarf printed with golden arabesques, topped with a ruby ornament that caught the light and drew my eye to her forehead, which was long, smooth, and as rounded as a pearl, as if her intelligence needed more room than most. People say that one’s future is inscribed on the forehead at birth—Pari’s forehead announced a future that was rich and storied.

  The princess continued writing as I stood there, her brow furrowing from time to time. She had almond-shaped eyes, forceful cheekbones, and generous lips, all of which made the features of her face appear to be writ larger than other people’s. When she had finished her work, she put the desk aside and scrutinized me from head to toe. I bowed low with my hand at my chest. Pari’s father had offered me to her as a reward for my good service, but the decision to retain me would be hers alone. No matter what, I must persuade her I had much to offer.

  “What are you, really?” she asked. “I see ropes of black hair escaping from your turban and a thick neck, just like a bear’s! You could pass for an ordinary man.”

  The princess stared at me in such a penetrating fashion it was as if she were asking me to reveal my very being. I was taken aback.

  “It is helpful to be able to pass as ordinary,” I replied quickly. “In the proper attire, I can be convincing as a tailor, a scholar, or even a priest.”

  “So?”

  “It means I am equally accepted by commoners and royalty alike.”

  “But surely you cause consternation among the ladies of the royal harem, starved as they are for the sight of handsome men.”

  Panah bar Khoda! Had she learned about me and Khadijeh?

  “It is hardly a problem,” I parried, “since I lack the tools they crave the most.”

  Her smile was broad. “By all accounts, you are good at gathering intelligence.”

  “Is that what you require?”

  “Among other things. What other languages do you speak and write?” she asked.

  Switching from Farsi to Turkish, I replied, “I speak the language of your illustrious ancestors.”

  The princess looked impressed. “Your Turkish is very good. Where did you learn it?”

  “My mother was Turkish-speaking, my father Farsi-speaking, and both were religious. They required me to learn the languages of the men of the sword, the men of the pen, and the men of God.”

  “Very useful. Who is your favorite poet?”

  I groped for an answer until I remembered her favorite.

  “Ferdowsi.”

  “So you love the classics. Very well, then. Recite to me from the Shahnameh.”

  She kept her gaze on me and waited, her eyes as sharp as a falcon’s. Verse came easily to me; I had often repeated poems while tutoring her half brother, Mahmood. I recited the first verse that came to my mind, although it was not from the Shahnameh. The lines had often filled me with comfort:

  If you are a child of fortune, every day is blessed

  You drink wine, eat kabob, your skin is sun-kissed

  Your beloved hangs on your every word

  Your children love you like you are a god.

  Ah, life is rich! Your goodness is deserving,

  And just as soon as you start relaxing

  Like a baby in its mother’s warm embrace

  Like a bird in flight soaring at its own pace

  Joyous, carefree, fully adored,

  The world snatches away what you most loved.

  Your stomach burns with shock

  Your heart stands still as you take stock.

  Me? But I am the world’s special one!

  No, my friend, you were never a favorite son

  But just another human sufferer, once loved,

  Now pierced by sorrow, weeping tears of blood.

  When I had finished, Pari smiled. “Well done!” she said. “But is that from the Shahnameh? I don’t recognize it.”

  “It is by Nasser, although but a poor imitation of Ferdowsi’s world-brightening verse.”

  “It sounds like it is about the fall of the great Jamsheed—and the end of the earthly paradise he created so long ago.”

  “That is what inspired Nasser,” I replied, astonished that she knew Ferdowsi’s poem well enough to question whether a small section of verse formed part of his sixty thousand lines.

  “The great Samarqandi says in his Four Discourses that a poet should know thirty thousand couplets by heart,” she said, as if reading my thoughts.

  “From all that I have heard, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”

  She ignored the flattery. “And what do the lines mean?”

  I pondered them for a moment. “To me, they mean that even if you are a great shah, don’t expect your life to proceed unblemished, since even the most fortunate will be tamed by the world.”

  “Have you been tamed by the world?”

  “Indeed I have,” I said. “I lost my father and my mother when I was young, and I have relinquished other things I had not expected to lose.”

  The princess’s eyes became much softer, like a child’s. “May their souls be in peace.”

  “Thank you.”


  “I hear you are very loyal,” she said, “like others of your kind.”

  “We are known for that.”

  “If you were in my service, to whom would you show fealty, me or the Shah?”

  How to respond? Like all others, I was bound first to the Shah.

  “To you,” I replied, and when she looked quizzical, I added, “knowing that your every decision would be made as the fondest slave of the Shah.”

  “Why do you want to serve me?”

  “I was honored with the care of your half brother Mahmood for many years, and then I served as his mother’s vizier. Now that she is no longer at court, I crave more responsibility.”

  That was not the real reason, of course. Many ambitious men ascended the ranks by serving the royal women, and that was what I wanted to do.

  “That is good,” Pari replied. “You will have to be bold to survive in my employ.”

  I like a challenge and said so.

  Pari arose abruptly and walked to the alcoves in her wall, pausing before a large turquoise bowl whose design showed a black peacock fanning its beautiful tail.

  “This is a valuable old bowl,” she said. “Where do you think it is from?”

  “Nishapur.”

  “Of course,” she scoffed.

  Sweat traveled down the back of my neck as I tried to decipher a few hints from the color, the pattern, and the brushwork. “Taymur’s dynasty,” I added quickly, “though I could not say whose reign.”

  “It was his son Shahrukh’s,” Pari said. “Only a few pieces of this type have survived in perfect condition.”

  She lifted the bowl to admire it, holding it in her hands like a newborn baby, and I admired it with her. The turquoise was so brilliant it was as if the glaze were made of gemstones, and the peacock looked as if it might peck for grain. Suddenly Pari opened her hands and let the bowl fall to the floor, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. A shard came to rest near my bare feet.

  “What do you have to say about that?” she asked in a tone as sour as green almonds.

 
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