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Equal of the sun, p.12
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       Equal of the Sun, p.12

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  The name he had chosen meant “man of justice.”

  “Justice will indeed be yours,” Pari replied.

  “I should like to hear your other poems.”

  “Thank you. Perhaps you would also like to hear some of the poetry I commissioned about our father.”

  “Yes, we must plan an evening together very soon. We can recite to each other.”

  “I would be honored,” Pari said.

  Isma‘il called for more refreshments, during which time I suggested to Pari in a low voice that we should go. But she pressed ahead, even before the sharbat arrived.

  “Brother of mine, may I tell you about a matter of state?”

  His eyes became suddenly wary, his tone cold. “What is it?”

  She changed course and said, “I only meant . . . I wondered if I could assist you with the governorships that need filling. I could suggest some good men.”

  “Everyone wants to suggest his own men,” he replied. “The problem is, whom can I trust?”

  “I can advise you,” Pari said confidently.

  “There are vipers everywhere,” he replied, his eyes darkening. “Again and again I have escaped their venom through the grace of God.”

  The princess looked puzzled.

  “Do you know why it took me so long to come to Qazveen? I foiled several assassination plots by changing my plans on a moment’s notice. It is a wonder I arrived safely.”

  “Thanks be to God for His beneficent protection,” Sultanam said, her protective gaze on her son.

  “And now that I am here, I see that the palace is divided into those who supported me and those who didn’t. I haven’t stayed alive for twenty years in confinement only to be assassinated upon my return by traitors!”

  “Of course not. May God keep you safe,” Pari replied.

  “Yet my enemies are everywhere,” he continued. “I won’t feel secure until my coronation, when every man and woman makes a vow before God to obey me and is reminded that the punishment for disobedience is death.”

  “Your heart will be much easier,” said his mother.

  The astrologers had recently determined that all the stars were aligned perfectly, and the coronation had been scheduled for the following week.

  “But even then I will have to be vigilant, because men’s hearts are blacker than dirt. My greatest wish would be to have the contents of every man’s mind revealed to me like the pages of a book so that no thought of treachery could ever escape my eye. Then, and only then, would I feel safe.”

  The princess and I exchanged a troubled look.

  “It will be some time before I know who has my interests foremost in mind,” he added, his eyes resting on his mother.

  “Brother of mine, I offer my services whenever you need them. As you know, the nobles have been meeting with me every morning so that the business of the palace can proceed.”

  I was glad Pari had mentioned the meetings. Now Isma‘il couldn’t claim that she was doing something behind his back, and could tell her what he thought about her actions. I awaited his answer anxiously.

  “Yes, I know about the nobles who come to you,” he replied. “Time will show me who is loyal.”

  It was an odd answer, neither positive nor negative, and I wondered if he included his sister in his concerns about loyalty.

  “I wouldn’t recommend a man to you if I was uncertain about him,” Pari said. “There is one man whom I question, however: Mirza Shokhrollah.”

  “I remember your concerns,” replied Isma‘il, “but his confusion over whether he should serve a woman was understandable.”

  “I am royalty,” said Pari. “There is no confusion there.”

  “True. Still, I need men like Mirza Shokhrollah. He understands court finances better than almost anyone.”

  Pari was unable to prevent a frown from flitting across her face.

  “My son,” interjected Sultanam, “it is time for your afternoon rest. Little by little, you must regain your strength.”

  “Just one moment—my business is vital,” Pari replied.

  “Yes, Mother,” said Isma‘il, ignoring the princess. “How grateful I am to have someone who looks after my well-being. I will go now and have my nap.”

  Sleep, when there was so much to do?

  “Thank you for the poem. We will speak again soon.” He arose and took his leave, his mother following closely behind.

  As we walked back to the palace, Pari’s eyes seemed to be looking inward. When I asked her if I could do anything for her, she replied sadly, “All the time I imagined my brother coming home, I never suspected it would feel like I was talking with a stranger. I only hope that time will turn him back into a brother.”

  “Esteemed princess, I think he is afraid of you. He is all dark instinct and confusion, while you are like the sun of reason.”

  “And that means I shall have to prove to him day by day that my intentions are loyal.”

  “That is wise.”

  We strategized about the best ways for her to show her loyalty, but before we could implement any of our ideas, Isma‘il announced that he would not see anyone but his closest advisors until after the coronation. When Pari received the news, the hurt in her eyes was deep. How could Isma‘il cut off his own sister, the person who had done so much to bring him to the throne? Was someone close to him sullying her name?

  Early the next morning, I went to Shamkhal’s house with a small bag of silver in my hand. When a servant opened the door, I asked to see one of his eunuchs, whom I knew from when he had served at the palace as a messenger boy. As I kissed him on both cheeks, I slipped the bag of silver into his sleeve and asked him whether his master had been ill. He said he hadn’t. When I pressed him for details, he whispered that Shamkhal had been invited to keep company with Isma‘il every day.

  I returned to Pari’s and told her I had something to reveal to her, but that the very thought made me choke. Fortunately, she did not require the lengthy protestations of regret that were usually necessary in such a circumstance.

  “Out with it.”

  “Is it possible your uncle has found favor with Isma‘il?”

  “Of course not. He would have told me.”

  I assumed a concerned look, as if worried about his health. “But we haven’t seen him for days. Do you think he is still ill?”

  “He must be.”

  “Perhaps, then, he would welcome a visit from you.”

  Pari’s eyes sought mine. “What exactly do you know? Speak!”

  “Isma‘il has invited him to make daily visits.”

  “Him, not me? How have you learned this?”

  “I paid someone to find out.”

  “With whose money?”

  “My own.”

  “When did I grant you permission to do that?”

  “You didn’t.”

  Her brows knitted together, and I feared a storm. “Are you implying that my uncle is betraying me?”

  “Surely not, esteemed princess. I simply thought you would wish to know his movements.”

  I had to be diplomatic.

  “How dare you? If my uncle finds out you were spying on him, you will be pounded into pudding.”

  “My duty is to protect you, no matter what.”

  “That is what all servants say to earn their keep,” Pari scoffed.

  It wasn’t uncommon for palace servants to put themselves at risk to earn their master’s trust, but my own reasons went deeper. Lately I had begun to develop tender feelings for Pari. Her vulnerability brought out all my protective urges, almost as if she were the sister I had never been able to watch grow up. Seeing her struggle with what fate had allotted her made me think about Jalileh and how much I wished I had been able to soften the blows she had endured. Something in my face must have spoken out loud, because the storms on Pari’s forehead cleared.

  “I won’t judge your actions until I investigate this matter further. You prove your loyalty to me every day.”

&nb
sp; I let out my breath. I hoped she would begin to think about how she could appear to serve Isma‘il rather than demanding things from him.

  “Esteemed princess, the nightingale finds it easy to be loyal to a rose,” I said. “Your task is much thornier than mine.”

  CHAPTER 4

  THE ROSE IS HEARTLESS

  During Zahhak’s reign, a noble child named Fereydoon was born. The destiny of this child was so powerful that his birth penetrated and disturbed the sleep of the king. Zahhak dreamed that Fereydoon would become a brave warrior and unseat him from his throne. He awoke in terror, so disturbed that he ordered a manhunt for the child.

  When Fereydoon’s mother, Faranak, heard about the king’s edict, she agonized about how to protect him. Where could she conceal him in a place no one would look? One day she passed a resplendent cow whose coat of hair shone with thousands of colors. She approached the cowherd and asked if he would allow his glorious animal, Pormayeh, to nurse her only child. He agreed, and Faranak entrusted him with her son. Pormayeh nourished Fereydoon every day on her sweet milk until he grew into a strong little boy. Still, Faranak sensed that he was not safe. After he was weaned, she secreted him away to India, where she found a sage who promised to teach him all he knew.

  Zahhak was not far behind. Having learned that a cow had nurtured Fereydoon, he had his men inspect all the cows in the land until they located Pormayeh, whose coat still shone with thousands of colors, and he butchered her with his own hands. After the deed was done, peasants must have gathered round and stared at the dead cow, aghast that a life-giving animal should be so wantonly slaughtered. What a terrible waste, they must have cried, tears streaming and bellies rumbling. What kind of king would destroy a nurturer of men?

  The coronation was scheduled for the hottest month of the year, so most of the festivities would take place in the Promenade of the Royal Stallions for the public and under pavilions within the palace for the courtiers. Preparations at the palace had started from the moment that Isma‘il had been welcomed at Kholafa’s house. All the chambers had been aired, scrubbed, and perfumed with frankincense from Yemen. Roses were cut and placed throughout the palace in large vases. A grand feast was under way; all of the cooks in the court’s private kitchens had been hard at work. The trays of sweetmeats alone would probably feed all the citizens of Qazveen.

  On the morning of the coronation, the palace was astir well before it was light. Balamani and I went to the baths with the other eunuchs. We donned our best robes and turbans and proceeded to the large courtyard closest to the Ali Qapu. All of the servants of the shah—the royal family, the men of the pen, sword, and religion, the eunuchs, the messenger boys, and the male slaves—were assembling there in order of rank. I took my place among the eunuchs, well behind Anwar, whose position in charge of the royal household made him one of the most exalted servants, but far ahead of those who served ladies of lower status than Pari.

  Before long, we heard the pounding of horses’ hooves and the powerful blast of the royal drums. Thousands of us stood up to greet Isma‘il. The palace gates were opened, and we saw the crowds of citizens lining the Promenade of the Royal Stallions to welcome the new shah. Isma‘il charged in on an Arabian mare, whose skin was so dappled it looked wrapped in snow-white lace. Its saddle was covered with a crimson velvet cloth worked with silver. Great shouts of welcome rose up from among us: “Thanks be to God!” “The star of the universe has arrived!” “We would sacrifice ourselves for you!”

  Isma‘il was followed by a large retinue on foot, including soldiers dressed in battle armor. As he rode through a channel that had been cleared for him, all of us fell to the ground and placed our foreheads against the courtyard’s stones, which vibrated in response to the horses’ hooves. Saleem Khan commanded all of us to stand, and we arose as a single body to salute our new leader. Isma‘il wore a green velvet robe, sober yet very fine, bound by a white silk sash threaded with gray, and a turban of the same white silk with a gold aigrette surmounted by an emerald the size of my eye. Around his waist, a jeweled belt held a curved damascened sword. The jewels threw off brilliant sparkles in the morning sun, so bright that they looked as if they might annihilate any man they struck.

  The Shah proceeded through the palace to Forty Columns Hall, and all of us followed. The crowd was so large that many of us had to assemble in the gardens outside the hall. The long fountain was lined with courtiers, and all of the open-air pavilions were thronged. Only royalty and the highest-ranking nobles fit inside the hall.

  When every man was in his proper place, Isma‘il mounted a jewel-encrusted throne. Then Saleem Khan recited his lineage, starting with the mystic Safi al-din, who gave the Safavi dynasty its first inspiration, followed by the great deeds of his grandfather Isma‘il, who declared Shi’ism the official religion of Iran; his father Tahmasb’s long reign; and his own valor on the battlefield. A crown the length of a man’s arm was offered to Isma‘il on an engraved silver tray. The crown was decorated with small pearls and beads of pure gold, and at its peak gleamed a ruby the size of my fist surrounded by diamonds. Isma‘il removed his white turban, revealing wisps of thin black hair. He lifted the crown and placed it firmly upon his balding head. No one could crown an adult shah except for himself, since no one overmastered him but God.

  Saleem Khan spoke to the assembly. “I call upon all of you to take the oath of loyalty to Isma‘il II, our new shah. Today you swear to follow his commands, to protect him at all costs, and to offer your lives for his. Remember, your oath is a legal contract; the penalty for breaking it is death.”

  Our voices raised such a thunder that I am certain it was heard in heaven. At last, after months of waiting, we had a new leader! The orderly palace I remembered under the late shah would finally return, and peace and prosperity would be our everyday fare.

  Isma‘il’s favorite companion, Hassan Beyg Halvachi Oghli, knelt down to pull off the Shah’s dusty riding boots and replaced them with pristine gray silk slippers. Hassan Beyg had voluntarily endured five years of confinement with Isma‘il at Qahqaheh, earning his master’s trust. Anwar described him as a trained monkey; now that monkey would sleep under bedcovers embroidered with gold.

  Saleem Khan called Sultanam’s eldest son, Mohammad Khodabandeh, to approach the Shah. Mohammad walked toward him slowly because of his poor vision, led by his handsome eldest son, sixteen-year-old Sultan Hassan Mirza. As the elder brother, Mohammad might have wished to compete for the throne, but his near blindness made him ineligible. I had heard that he had no such desires and not enough force inside him to master other men. Rather than governing, he preferred to spend his time listening to poetry. He bent low, reaching out his hands tentatively in search of his brother’s feet. When he finally found them, he kissed their insoles and congratulated his brother with dignity.

  Next came the late Shah’s sons born of other wives, consorts, or slaves: among them was the feckless Suleyman Mirza, Pari’s brother, whose clay had not received the blessings that had gone to her. He lumbered to the throne. Mahmood, by contrast, although still young, strode confidently toward the Shah, his bearing erect from his lessons in swordsmanship and horse riding. I felt a surge of pride. He kissed the Shah’s feet in a good-natured but not servile fashion.

  After all of Isma‘il’s brothers had come forward and kissed his feet, they were followed by their uncle Bahram’s sons and then their children. All the highest-ranking members of the clergy, dressed in their black robes, came forward next; the Shah would be their spiritual guide. Then followed the Mowsellu nobles of Sultanam’s family, their red batons fiercely erect in their turbans even as they bent down for the kiss. Other qizilbash were honored, too: the Rumlu, the Shamlu, the Qajar, and the Afshar, followed by the Georgians, the Kurds, and the Circassians. As Shamkhal bent to perform the kiss, Isma‘il flattered him with a smile.

  Then salutations were read by ambassadors from Murad III of the Ottomans, Akbar the Great of the Mughals, Zhu Yijun of the Ming, a
nd Abdullah Khan of the Uzbeks, the most exalted and powerful rulers on earth, as well as a few from those who ruled the Christian kingdoms to the west, Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, who were currently sparring with one another over faith. Each of the great empires had sent delegations with hundreds of emissaries and dozens of animals laden with precious gifts. The richest offerings were presented for all to see, including a beautiful copy of the Qur’an by the finest calligraphers of the Ottoman court, huge blue porcelain vases from the Chinese emperor, and ewers made of gold from the Uzbeks. A hush fell on the crowd when a mahout sent with the Mughal delegation paraded an elephant before us. I had never seen such a creature before, nor such costly trappings. The animal wore a jeweled cap on its intelligent brow, and its tusks were wrapped in sheets of gold.

  When the ceremony was almost finished, I slipped away, walked through the checkpoints, and entered the harem. The women had sworn their oath to Isma‘il earlier in the day, and now they were taking turns watching the ceremony from screened areas on the top floor of Isma‘il’s new residence. He had spared no expense in appointing the building. The large guest room where the women had gathered was filled with the sweet aroma of jasmine and the soothing burbling of a fountain that wafted up from the floor below, which was open to the air. I slipped off my shoes; the carpets were made of such thick silk that they seemed to caress the soles of my feet. A wall decorated with battle shields caught my eye. One was made of lacquered black leather with a central medallion of gold, pale turquoise, and pearls; another boasted open silver metalwork with a spray of emeralds, like drops of dew caught in a spiderweb.

  The ladies had attired themselves in robes the felicitous colors of a sunrise and laid chains of gems against their foreheads or under their chins. How beautiful they were, from the golden-haired women of the Caucasus to those from the south whose curls glistened as black as naphtha! They kept their eyes on the coronation scene below, and the room buzzed with excitement when the elephant moved into view.

 
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