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Equal of the sun, p.10
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       Equal of the Sun, p.10

           Anita Amirrezvani

  “Now I need help choosing the garments to go with it. Maryam, you have the best eye for this.”

  Maryam bent over another trunk and assembled a pale blue tunic, beige trousers with bands of flowered embroidery at the ankles, a silk sash with bands of orange, beige, and gold, and a chain of dark rubies and pearls for Pari to wear on her forehead. Meanwhile, Pari directed Azar to put away the other garments, which she folded and stored away as tenderly as if they were precious gems. Then Pari called for tea and sweetmeats and for her box of earrings. Massoud Ali brought in a brass platter with small chickpea cookies shaped like clovers and round walnut cookies that made me think longingly of Khadijeh.

  Maryam spooned a surprising amount of sugar into her tea. Only a member of the court could be profligate with something so costly.

  “Your brother will be pleased to see you in such finery,” she said.

  “I hope he will recognize me. I was a child of eight when he was sent away.”

  Pari watched Maryam peruse her earrings, her eyes lighting with pleasure when she came upon an especially beautiful pair. Maryam looked up to find us staring at her, and a smile played at her lips.

  “What do you remember of him?”

  The princess put down her steaming glass of tea. “He was always in good spirits, his big laugh booming from one end of the courtyard to the other. My heart would leap at the thought of seeing him.”

  “How often did he visit?”

  “Often,” said Pari, her voice soft. “He gave me my first lessons in archery. He would even stand behind me and help me draw the bow. He could have allowed the archery masters to teach me, but he knew I adored him. After he left on campaign, I practiced every day. I liked to imagine myself riding on a horse beside him, shooting arrows and striking targets.”

  She looked thoughtful for a moment. “I wanted to be just like him.”

  “Why was he sent away?” Maryam asked. She bit into a thick date and took a sip of her tea.

  Pari called a eunuch to carry away the trunks of clothing and told Azar to follow him. Only when they were gone did she begin to speak. With troubled eyes, she explained that she had been too young to understand what had happened. Although everyone agreed Isma‘il had bravely beat back the Ottomans in the north, accounts differed as to why he raised his own army without his father’s permission. Some contended the purpose was to try to vanquish the Ottomans forever; others accused him of intending to overthrow their father. Before then, Tahmasb Shah had barely been able to squelch coups organized by his mother and by his brother Alqas, and dissent had become intolerable to him.

  “Yet it is also possible that my father was envious. It wouldn’t be the first time a man has wished to shine as brightly as his warrior son.”

  “What a tragedy to think of a family separated for so long,” said Maryam.

  “It was a dagger through our hearts.”

  Maryam took her hand. “When Isma‘il sees you in that gazelle-colored robe, he will be pleased by the way you reflect the beauty of your family.”

  Pari’s eyes brightened. “People always told us we looked more alike than any of my father’s children.”

  “I trust he will welcome your good counsel,” said Maryam.

  “It will be difficult for him if he doesn’t. My father’s courtiers have alliances and arguments that span generations. All Isma‘il knew before his imprisonment was how to command Turkic warriors, not how to manage Tajik administrators, Jewish tradesmen, Armenian exporters, Zoroastrian priests, Arab mullahs, diplomats from the Christian lands, emissaries from the Ottoman and the Indian courts, and all the other supplicants we see on a daily basis. He needs me.”

  “Isma‘il will be lucky to have such a powerful ally,” Maryam said.

  “Not just an ally.”

  Maryam looked at her, puzzled. “What more could you be?”

  Pari made as if pulling back the string of a bow; then she released her hand as if shooting the arrow.

  “I want to be his closest counselor, just as my aunt was for my father.”

  “Has he agreed to this?”

  Pari looked away. “Why wouldn’t he? The same royal blood runs through our veins.”

  “Esteemed princess,” I said, “I think we should plan what you will say to the new shah to obtain his favor.”

  “Obtain his favor? I am the reason he will be crowned!”

  “True, but I don’t think we can be too careful.”

  “There is no doubt he will shower her with love,” interjected Maryam, her warm eyes beaming so much admiration at Pari that I was discomfited to witness it.

  Maryam turned back to her task of perusing Pari’s jewelry. After a moment, she said, “I think I have found just the right pair. Try these.”

  She showed Pari a pair of gold earrings shaped like moons with dangling pearls and rubies.

  “Come here and put them on me.”

  Maryam leaned over Pari and gently inserted the end of each earring into her pierced ears.

  “Bah, bah! How lovely you look.”

  Pari looked up into her eyes, which were only a handsbreadth away, and Maryam’s cheeks bloomed like a pink rose. Then Pari reached for her chin and held it, her eyes filling with an animal gleam. Maryam’s lips parted. The moment lengthened until I became uncomfortable and pretended to a fit of coughing. Finally, Pari turned around and dismissed me.

  “Tell my servants not to disturb us,” she said as I left, her eyes fixed on Maryam’s.

  No wonder she cared so little about marriage! Why would she wish to ally herself to a man who could take away all her pleasures? The hunger I had witnessed in Pari’s eyes reminded me unnervingly of myself before I had been cut. With Fereshteh, I had been like a lion sinking its teeth into the flank of an onager, my appetite ferocious. How different I was now.

  I felt glad Pari had found someone to love, and even gladder that she trusted me enough to show how she felt. The women of the court who didn’t marry, either by chance or by choice, must either find love quietly among themselves or remain loveless and thwarted forever. When Maryam brushed Pari’s hair or drew a line of kohl on her eyes, the affection that poured through her fingers was as visible as sparks. The palace women scrubbed each other’s backs, drew henna designs on each other’s bodies, helped each other through the screaming pain of birth, washed each other’s dead, and held each other’s hands in moments of joy and grief. I envied them sometimes. They lived in such a deep state of feeling for each other, whether love or hate, that it surrounded them like the weather.

  As I left Pari’s rooms, my eyes rested on Shireen’s painted thighs and I thought with a pang about Khadijeh. She had ripened to bursting. She was likely to marry one day, as I could not offer her the things an uncut man could provide. But that did not mean I had been able to prevent myself from loving her.

  The next morning, Isma‘il rode into Qazveen on a fine Arabian mare whose saddle and bridle were studded with jewels, followed by a large retinue on foot, including soldiers in battle armor and dozens of young men dressed in velvet bearing hawks on their fists. The streets of the city were lined with citizens who had come out to witness his arrival. They had decorated every corner of the city with flowers and laid out an avenue of brightly colored carpets to welcome him. Citizens dressed in their best robes stood on the carpets and chanted blessings as he passed, and musicians placed at every corner of the city filled the air with sweet sounds to honor his arrival.

  Isma‘il’s men left him at the home of Kholafa Rumlu. Kholafa would expect significant rewards for assisting in the killing of Haydar, no doubt. The first one was that Isma‘il would honor him by staying at his house. Isma‘il would remain there until his astrologers decided the right moment had arrived for his entry into the palace itself, at which point more auguries would be taken and the coronation would be scheduled.

  As soon as he had settled into Kholafa’s house, Isma‘il started receiving visitors. One of the first to be called was a small group of
royal women including the princess. She asked me to accompany her, and when I arrived early in the morning to take her to Kholafa’s home, I drew in a breath at the sight of her in the rich brown robe, the ruby jewelry gleaming on her forehead. Maryam, who was an expert in the seven types of makeup that made a woman’s wardrobe complete, had scrubbed her skin until it shone, painted artful lines of black kohl on her eyelids, reddened her lips and cheekbones with madder, and anointed her with a perfumed oil that smelled like myrrh and lilacs.

  “You are even more beautiful than a princess painted by the master Behzad!”

  “Thank you,” Pari said. “At last I will meet my dear brother again, and rediscover one of the loves of my youth! I thought this day might never come.” Her eyes sparkled with joy.

  Pari covered herself in her chador and entered a domed palanquin draped with orange velvet. Her lower-ranking eunuchs bore her through the gate to Kholafa’s house at the northern end of the city, while I walked alongside them. It was a hot day, but our walk was canopied by the leaves of the large walnut trees that had been planted in abundance in this part of the city. Was there ever a better tree? The stately, gnarled trunks exploded into generous fields of green above us.

  As we passed the large gated homes along the street, citizens made way, stopping to stare at Pari’s retinue.

  “What rich velvet!” sighed a woman wrapped in a tattered robe.

  I too felt envious of Pari, but for a different reason. How my heart would be pounding with excitement if I were about to meet my own sibling, Jalileh, after an absence of so many years. Would she look like my mother? Like me? Would she be understanding when I revealed I had become a eunuch? I had not told my mother before she died, nor had I wished to convey the news to Jalileh by letter. Would her eyes grow tender when I told her the truth, or—

  I tripped on a stone, and the captain behind me barked that I had better pay my respects to royalty by paying closer attention to the road.

  When we arrived at Kholafa’s house, we used the knocker for women, a large brass circle, and were greeted first by his wife, who led us to a room in the andarooni—the area restricted to ladies and intimates of the family. It had finely knotted blue wool and silk carpets on the floors, embroidered cushions, large silver vases full of fresh flowers, trays heaped with grapes, peaches, pistachios, and sweetmeats, and fruit sharbats in large flagons.

  Pari greeted the women who were already present, the late Shah’s four wives Sultanam and Sultan-Zadeh, Pari’s mother, Daka Cherkes, and Zahra Baji, along with their ladies and attendants. Sultanam’s eyes and wrinkled cheeks glowed with motherly pride. Khadijeh sat near her to attend to her, her eyebrows as lush as brown velvet. I thought about the donbalan—sheep’s balls—I had eaten the day before and felt the heat rise at my groin. Despite the sobriety of the occasion, I imagined what we would do together the next time I saw her.

  Everyone looked her best in her mourning clothes except for Sultan-Zadeh, whose poorly tied headscarf and red eyes testified to her grief over the death of her son. She kept her head bent as if trying to be invisible.

  Before long, Isma‘il entered the room accompanied by a small retinue of fierce-looking eunuchs. The ladies rose and began ululating and shouting out praises to God. Isma‘il stood there in a gray silk robe and accepted the tribute, and when he seated himself on a handsome embroidered pillow that had been placed for him on the best carpet in the room, the ladies sat down again on their cushions. Along with other servants, I stood at attention at the back of the room.

  He was a medium-sized man with small eyes and a thin beard threaded with gray. He appeared confident and regal, quite unlike the boy Haydar posturing in front of the elders with his sword. Isma‘il claimed the best seat in the room like a man who believed he was finally getting what he deserved.

  But he hadn’t aged well. He appeared to be a man in his fifties rather than thirty-eight. The bones in his body seemed too fluid, as if held in a sack of animal gelatin rather than muscle. Looking closely at his face, I detected an unhealthy sallowness as if he were rotting from within. No one would ever mistake this slack-bodied man for the fierce warrior he had once been.

  “Welcome, womenfolk,” he began. “This morning, I had a private audience with my mother to express my gratitude to her. All the years I was away, she never relinquished hope that I would return. She is the shepherd of my conduct—of my life as a man, of my wives-to-be, and of my future. Mother, all praise is yours for my life and for the crown that I will soon wear upon my head!”

  I couldn’t help but think that the praise for the crown should be Pari’s, but perhaps he was simply being exuberant.

  Sultanam could not contain herself. “Insh’Allah! My thanks go to God for watching over my son. To show my deepest gratitude for your safe return, I hereby pledge to build a mosque and a seminary in Qazveen.”

  There was a low gasp, for we all knew the costs of hiring architects, engineers, and tile makers, and the labor of a building crew for several years. But all the late Shah’s wives and children had recently been informed by the treasury of the fortunes they had inherited after his death, which for the most favored, like Pari, included the revenue from entire towns.

  “Your piety is an example to all women,” he replied.

  Isma‘il greeted his father’s wives, each in order of seniority, including Sultan-Zadeh, until finally his attention came to Pari.

  “Sister of mine, the last time I saw you, you were a little girl,” he said. “How things have changed. Throughout my journey, I have been flooded with reports of your doings at the palace. Your reputation is larger than you could ever guess.”

  Pari bent her head to accept his tribute. I waited expectantly for him to shower her with words of praise, as he had his mother.

  “Tell me—do you find me much altered?”

  Pari lifted her head in surprise. She didn’t seem to know what to say.

  “I wish to know the truth.”

  A mist veiled her eyes for a moment.

  “I see before me the brother who was kind enough to teach me when I was just a child, though he was already a great warrior,” she said gently.

  “Teach you what?”

  “The art of the bow.”

  “And just look at me now!” he said with a ghastly laugh. Judging from his thin arms, he didn’t have enough strength to pull back a bowstring.

  “It would be my fondest wish for us to shoot together again soon,” said Pari softly. “I am at your service.”

  “And I suppose you will teach me this time,” he replied. Although his tone was playful, the skin on my neck tightened.

  “I shall forever be your pupil,” she replied. “I will never forget how you trained me to hold my bow and showed me to keep the target foremost in my mind. Find its soft fleshy weakness, you said, and strike where you cannot fail. I took those lessons to heart. After you left I practiced often, and when you didn’t return, I asked for you. One of our father’s generals took pity on me and told me your locations while you were on campaign. I requested a map of the region, which was drawn for me by a royal cartographer, and marked your progress on it with bits of turquoise.”

  She stopped there, no doubt wishing to avoid reminding him of his humiliating incarceration.

  “And then what happened?”

  “One day the map disappeared, and so did your name,” she replied. “I am very grateful God has sent you back to us again.”

  “It must be like seeing a man from the dead,” he said. His yellow countenance made it difficult to disagree.

  “I see a noble shah with cheeks as red as pomegranates,” Pari protested.

  He waved his hand to forestall any more talk he could not believe. “Speaking of which, I visited our father’s grave early this morning.”

  Pari tensed. Her father was still buried in a temporary grave at a nearby shrine, pending Isma‘il’s decision about where to inter him permanently. The other ladies began wailing, as they must do when the
late Shah’s name was raised. Tears sprang to Pari’s eyes, while Isma‘il’s remained dry.

  The moment was so awkward that I was glad I could justify loosening the silk handkerchief that I carried at my waist for Pari and offering it to her. She wiped her eyes and said, “Now we shall weep together, brother of mine.”

  He laughed again, a ghoulish sound. “My tears are all dry,” he said.

  His manners were very poor.

  “Your suffering has been great. My biggest wish is to devote myself to you, dear brother,” Pari said quickly, to change the subject. “I promise to be useful.”

  “Yes, I imagine you will, having spent so many years basking in the light of our father. What a waste!”

  Pari drew back on her cushion. “I am very grateful to have benefited from his wisdom.”

  “Oh, dear sister, don’t take offense. I only mean that his knowledge could have been put to better use by a child who could be shah.”

  Pari looked bewildered.

  “No matter,” he said. “That hasn’t been my fate, yet look what grand surprises God has brought me. I have selected a caravanserai in Ardabil as a gift to express my thanks for your service.”

  “Thank you for your generosity,” said Pari.

  It was a rich gift, since its rents would be a regular source of income, yet I was certain she would rather have had a humbler one given with true gratitude.

  “You are welcome.”

  “Brother of mine,” said Pari, “perhaps you will wish to hear about palace business. There are pressing matters to discuss.”

  “All in good time.” He shifted on his cushion. “There is only one thing I want to know right now. How did the nobles behave?”

  “With confusion.”

  “Did they treat our family with respect?”

  “Yes, for the most part.”

  “Who didn’t?”

  “I should hate to identify anyone. The situation baffled them.”

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