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Equal of the sun, p.11
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       Equal of the Sun, p.11

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “But I insist on knowing.”

  “Perhaps you have already heard that a few nobles refused to heed me. When I read to them from your letter, however, they fell into line.”

  “Who? You must not hold anything back from me.”

  “Well, it was mainly Mirza Shokhrollah, the chief of the treasury, and his supporters.”

  “I see. I will take that into account.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Brother, may I tell you now about court business?” Pari was overeager, but it was impossible to know how soon he would allow her to see him again. Isma‘il’s eyes scanned the area around him as if he needed something.

  “What is it, my son?” asked Sultanam.

  “Nothing,” he replied. “I must go.”

  He arose abruptly, signaling that the meeting was over. All the ladies stood up, surprised.

  “I thank you all for your attendance. Now I leave you to feast, while I attend to a matter of some urgency.”

  He hadn’t even graced the women with his presence during a meal. They looked at each other, perplexed, except for Sultan-Zadeh, who seemed relieved. Pari’s mother and Zahra Baji filled the awkward silence by offering their congratulations to Sultanam.

  I took the damp handkerchief from Pari.

  “What is wrong with him?” she asked in a low tone.

  “I fear he has forgotten himself,” I whispered. “He wouldn’t be in power if it weren’t for you.”

  “Yes, whether he admits it or not.”

  “Perhaps he requires time to settle in. It must be difficult to be a prisoner one day and a shah the next.”

  “It was like speaking with a hermit who has forsaken proper manners,” she said, her face drained of color.

  Servants entered with tablecloths and the beginnings of a feast of roasted meats and stews, but Pari told me she had no appetite and didn’t wish to stay. As she said her farewells, pleading a womanly ache, Khadijeh smoothed both ends of the kerchief that covered her hair and caught my eye. I adjusted my sash, our signal that I would visit her later in the evening, and she looked over her right shoulder to give her assent.

  When it was so late that the moon had risen and all that could be heard was the howling of jackals, I arose from my bed to go see Khadijeh. The moon was obscured by a cloud, and I had to count the steps to where the path branched to the one I followed to her quarters. When I arrived, the eunuch on duty was asleep on the ground, his head against the door, his jaw open, his weapon slack in his hand. All the better for my purposes, since it saved me a coin. I stepped over him into the building and walked down the corridor softly until I came to Khadijeh’s door, which I pushed open. Despite the late hour, she was dressed and seated in a dark corner of the room. I sat beside her and took her small brown hand in my own.

  “How I needed to see you!” she said. “Was it easy to get past the guard?”

  “He is as fast asleep as if he were dead.”

  Khadijeh smiled. “I put a sleeping potion in a jug of wine and offered it to him,” she admitted.

  “Why?”

  “Because he must not know you are here. No one must know,” she added vehemently, and then flung her arms around me and buried her head in my neck. I felt a tear on her cheek.

  “Khadijeh—soul of mine—what ails you?” I asked, perplexed.

  Her body trembled against mine. “I am to belong to another.”

  My throat closed for a moment. I held her tightly and stroked her hair, inhaling the rose oil she used on her temples.

  “Alas! I hoped it wouldn’t be so soon.”

  She pressed herself against me, and I felt the roundness of her breast and thought about how she would soon be pressing against someone else.

  “Ah, my beloved. How I will miss you!”

  “And I you,” she said, tears springing to her cheeks.

  “Who is your intended—a warrior from the provinces?”

  “Better than that.”

  “A nobleman here at court?”

  “Wrong again.”

  “What could be better than that?

  “You won’t believe it. It is the new shah himself.”

  “Deh!” I stared at her in surprise.

  “It is the truth.”

  “How wondrous is your fate. When you were ill on the slavers’ boat, when you and your brother were burned raw by the sun and scorned by men, you probably never imagined yourself as a queen!”

  “Never,” she said, “except in my dreams. It is, of course, a temporary marriage.”

  The Shah would save his four permanent marriages for women of good families with whom he wished to make alliances.

  “No matter! One day you will be a royal mother, with your own quarters and your own servants. If you have a son who lives and prospers, you could become as powerful as Sultanam.”

  I was babbling to avoid facing the terrible truth: that the one sweetness I had in the world was about to be taken away and given to a man who had done nothing to earn it.

  “I would be grateful to have my own household rather than serving at the whim of others.”

  “How did this come to pass?”

  “Ever since Isma‘il was released from prison, Sultanam has been talking about finding him a wife. In his letters, he has fretted that he has only been able to sire one daughter. Sultanam thinks someone has laid the evil eye upon him, and she is determined to remove the curse. He will marry a few noblewomen to cement his political alliances, but I am the first woman he will take into his bed. Sultanam has consulted auguries and believes I will bear him sons. She has ordered me to wear charms and report on our activities—busybody that she is!”

  “She won’t have such influence over the noblewomen he marries, who will have their own mothers to advise them,” I said. “And she will be happy to give you to her son, because she knows firsthand the loveliness of your character.”

  “I have done my best, even when I didn’t wish to be a servant.”

  “This is your just reward.” I felt my throat tighten again with sorrow.

  “Insh’Allah. Javaher, you are kind. You always have been.”

  “My beloved, your absence will leave a hole in my heart. I—”

  My voice stopped dead in my throat, my grief so consuming that I could not continue. Khadijeh pressed her face against mine, and the tear that slid down her cheek coursed over my own. We clung to one another as if it were possible to remain joined forever.

  Khadijeh reached for my sash and pulled it open. The sheep’s balls I had eaten seemed to stir in my blood, and I put my hands on her collarbones and lifted the clothes off her body. I removed my robe, tunic, trousers, and turban, and pushed her gently back into the cushions. I started with small bites on her buttocks, teasing the soft, generous flesh. I traveled to her ears and plundered them with kisses, then teased her lips with my tongue. I skipped, for the moment, the parts of her that were crying out for me, and visited the soles of her feet. I sucked and nibbled, and I began to hear Khadijeh’s breath rise until it sounded almost as if she might lose herself right then. I journeyed back across her calves and thighs to return to her breasts, so round and firm, and kissed the rubies that surmounted them. She rolled gently from side to side, thrusting first one breast at me, then the other.

  When I was sated, I traveled farther down, kneeled in front of her, lifted her legs onto my shoulders, and began drinking at her trough. I started with teasing, flicking movements, and then as she became crazed, I became very slow, licking her with my full flat tongue, pressing my nose into her stream-filled cave, and finally, when her eyes looked as glassy as if she had consumed a strong cup of bang, I reached out to her nipples and stroked them with great gentleness. She became as wet and fertile as an oasis, and I felt as if I were drinking the milk and honey of paradise. Then I let my tongue become fleet, surprising her, and before long, Khadijeh’s legs began trembling and jerking so hard, I was almost thrown. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and her hands clutched at t
he cushions. I held her gently until she was through.

  She remained motionless for a while, and all I could hear was her soft breathing. Then she rolled her body against mine and held me.

  “Your place will be empty,” she said.

  A profound sadness washed over me as I imagined how many women I would meet, only to have to say goodbye to them when they found someone to marry. Most women crave children, and that was the one thing I could not provide. Yet I was still a man, wasn’t I?

  When she had rested, Khadijeh attended to me. In her embrace, caught up by the scent of frankincense in her hair and the things her mouth could do, I was able to forget for a moment what I was about to lose.

  It was close to dawn—far too close—when we were finally done. I rushed to put on my trousers as well as the rest of my clothes. Then I arose and said my tender goodbyes, touching her hyacinth curls as I took my leave.

  “When will you return?” she asked.

  “Never.”

  “Never?” Her eyes looked hurt. Being promised to the shah had not stopped Khadijeh from risking everything to see me. I was grateful that she still cared.

  “It is too dangerous, especially for you. We can’t risk any suspicion now that you have been claimed.”

  I leaned over her and laid my palms tenderly against the sides of her neck, feeling her heart’s pulse in my fingers.

  “I will always think of you,” I said, “and will hope for your happiness.”

  “And I yours!” she replied, but I caught a trace of pity in her tone.

  The eunuch on duty was still asleep, even though the birds had already started singing. When I was a good distance away and concealed by trees, I threw a handful of stones in his direction to wake him up. He would be punished if discovered snoring when he was supposed to be protecting the ladies—including the slave soon to be favored by the shah. But I had thrown the stones much harder than I intended, and they struck his calf and foot. He uttered a loud curse and leapt up to regain his post. I sped away. A sharp gust of wind rushed through the gardens, concealing the sound of my steps and moaning as it stripped the trees of their leaves.

  Back in my room, I fell asleep for another hour. I dreamed that my penis was so erect that it hurt like a wound. All I wanted was to plunge myself into a woman to relieve the ache. Dark-eyed Fereshteh appeared like a savior in my dreams, seeking out my penis with her soft hands, making it even larger and more racked by pain. Tormented, I crawled on top of her and slid in. Just at the moment when I was about to find release, Fereshteh’s eyes filled with disappointment.

  “What are you?” she asked accusingly. My penis shrank.

  I woke up, sweating all over. Seeking out my parts with my hands, I encountered a sickening void and wrapped my arms around my chest to keep from groaning out loud.

  The next day was Friday. Pari sent Massoud Ali to me with a message that I was at leisure until the following morning, when she planned to hold the usual daily meeting with the nobles. Thus liberated for the first time in weeks, I went to the Friday mosque outside the palace to say my prayers. The mosque was located at the end of the Promenade of the Royal Stallions and had been founded during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. Its turquoise dome was lightened by white swirls of tile that made it look as if it were whirling into the heavens.

  Later that day, I took Massoud Ali to town with Balamani and a few of the other eunuchs, and we bought fresh skewers of lamb kabob in the bazaar. We walked to a stream not far from the palace and cooked the lamb over a hot fire, and then we ate the charred meat with bread and drank tea with dates.

  As the stars began to come out, all of us took turns telling stories, and Massoud Ali asked if he could tell one to me.

  “My youthful Ferdowsi, please go ahead!”

  Massoud Ali tucked a curl into his turban, which he had just learned to wrap correctly, and whispered a story in my ear until his eyes grew heavy and he wished to be cuddled as if he were a small child. I took him back to the palace so he could get a good night’s sleep, while the rest of the eunuchs went to a tavern, where they could eat opium until they felt completely at home with themselves.

  By the time I rejoined them, the tavern was full of men talking and laughing. Balamani had stretched out on a cushion and was sharing a jug of spirits with Mateen Agha, another eunuch.

  “Did you tuck him in?” Balamani asked.

  “First I had to wipe away his tears.”

  He sat up abruptly. “What is the matter?”

  “He told me a long story about a boy enslaved by a jinni. The jinni kills his father, marries off his mother, and makes the boy do his dirty work.”

  Balamani looked puzzled.

  “Massoud Ali’s mother remarried when he was six and abandoned him at court. The jinni is the only way he can explain it.”

  “Poor creature! What kind of mother would do that?”

  Balamani passed the jug of spirits to Mateen, who refilled both of their cups.

  “As soon as I retire,” Balamani added, “I am going to marry a widow with a couple of boys just like Massoud Ali. Praise be to God, I will have a family of my own.”

  “Get out of here, papa!” scoffed Mateen. “What is going to stop your widow from craving a tent pole?”

  Balamani laughed uncomfortably; he had never experienced sexual desire. “I suppose Javaher can tell me how to . . .”

  His words trailed off abruptly when he looked at me. I drank some bang, and then I drank a lot more. There came a happy moment when it didn’t matter so much that Khadijeh was no longer mine, and the other eunuchs began to rib me for singing alone and in such a broken voice.

  Pari continued holding her daily meetings with the nobles, but some of the regulars began to drop away. Shamkhal sent us a message that he was too ill to attend meetings. Shokhrollah’s absence was unexplained until Mirza Salman brought us the surprising news that he had been appointed grand vizier. Pari and I were shocked that her brother had chosen him even though she had reported on his poor conduct.

  At about the same time, Pari received a letter from Rudabeh, the woman who had come to her for help in reclaiming her home. Rudabeh had returned to Khui and was waiting for the local Council of Justice to revisit her case. She wrote that there was talk of rebellion in her province of Azerbaijan in favor of the Ottomans and that attempts were being made to recruit citizens to join the effort. “I pray every day for our safety—but please send help!” she wrote in handwriting that looked shaky with fear.

  Pari sent Majeed to the new grand vizier to ask for funds to put down the rebellion in Azerbaijan. When he was unable to get an answer, despite repeated efforts, Pari decided to visit Isma‘il herself and bring the problem to his attention. Tahmasb Shah’s peace treaty with the Ottomans had endured for more than twenty years, and Pari was fearful that the treaty might collapse.

  I advised her to bring her brother an offering, since he hadn’t shown her favor on our first visit.

  “An offering? So many gifts are pouring into the royal treasury that the official record keepers can’t even keep up with them in their ledgers.”

  “I know,” I said. “Instead of a gift, why not write your brother a poem celebrating his great deeds as a warrior? That way, you will soften his heart and make him receptive to your demands.”

  Pari thought for a moment and then said, “You are right. I need a better weapon than reason.”

  She called for pen, ink, and a writing table, sat down on a cushion, and began composing in Farsi. From time to time she lifted her head and asked me to fetch her books, such as court histories that recounted the details of the battles in which Isma‘il took part. Once she had her theme, I helped her develop resonant rhymes.

  In half a day, Pari was able to write a long poem that celebrated Isma‘il’s prowess as a young warrior and anticipated the brightness of his reign. When she had finished composing, she called for paper made of linen and hemp. It was so fine that I was moved to give silent thanks to the Chinese eu
nuch Cai Lun, the first man to make real paper.

  I read Pari’s poem out loud to her, while she wrote the words slowly in her most elegant handwriting. The next day, I accompanied her to Kholafa’s house. She was greeted by his wife, shown with respect into the andarooni, and offered many refreshments, but we waited a long time before being granted a visit. An awkward silence settled on the room, during which Pari flicked at the fringes on her sash. It was a humiliating experience for a princess who only months before had been able to command the Shah’s attention whenever she asked for it.

  Finally, Isma‘il deigned to see his sister. He still looked sallow, as he had the first time. He and his mother sat so closely together it was as if they were reconnected by an umbilical cord.

  “Brother of mine, thank you for agreeing to see me,” Pari began. “I have come to offer you a small gift, although I fear it is unworthy.”

  Pari proffered the poem, which was encased in a strong leather binding to keep it flat. Isma‘il beckoned to indicate that he would receive it, and one of his servants came forward with a silver tray and brought the poem to him. He opened the binding and began reading, and I waited breathlessly until a few moments later, when a smile broke over his face.

  “Here, Mother,” he said. “I beg you to read this aloud, so that you can enjoy it, too.”

  Sultanam began reading, and Isma‘il leaned back to enjoy Pari’s fluid lines. In them he emerged as a young warrior astride a horse, filled with loyalty to his country, drawing his bowstring and striking his target with ease. His mother’s voice increased its excitement as the poem leapt forward, and I, too, felt as if I could see him on the battlefield, his sword flashing in the sun, his future as bright as his heart.

  “Bah, bah, it is beautiful!” he exclaimed when she was done. “Who wrote it? I should like to meet the man and reward him.”

  “I did,” replied Pari in a modest tone.

  “Indeed? Then you are very talented. Did you know that I, too, compose poetry?”

  “I hadn’t heard.”

  “As I suspected, there is much you don’t know about me. I write under the pen name Adeli.”

 
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