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Equal of the sun, p.14
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       Equal of the Sun, p.14

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  Khadijeh and Isma‘il had mounted their Arabian mares; they spurred their horses and disappeared into the distance in a mock race. All the unmarried women followed them with their eyes, watching Isma‘il’s horse overtake hers. When they returned, Khadijeh’s cheeks were glowing like the moon, and for a bitter moment, I hoped she would not take pleasure in his male parts.

  Before lunch, Isma‘il invited Pari to shoot with him, and we all gathered around the archery range. Women spoke together so excitedly that Balamani and Anwar had to march to opposite ends of the field and demand silence. Finally, all was ready, and Pari stepped onto the range. I was eager to see how well she could shoot. Her brown cotton robe draped gracefully over her long, lean body as she threaded an arrow between her fingers, placed its nock against the bowstring, drew it back to her cheek, and fired. The arrow obediently struck a target, and her ladies ululated so loudly that the air seemed to vibrate with their high-pitched cheer. One voice was higher and louder than the others: Maryam’s.

  Pari waved her hand to indicate that no further ululation would be necessary. Then she began firing one arrow after the other at targets placed near and far. The arrows thwacked into the middle of the targets with so much regularity that they mimicked the beat of a drum, and a thin veil of sweat shimmered on her forehead.

  Pari stood aside to relinquish the targets to Isma‘il. The bowmen cleared her arrows from the targets and stepped away. Isma‘il reached out tentatively for his bow. He pulled back the bowstring with great effort, his arm trembling, and shot a few arrows, which missed their mark. Sweating profusely, he tried a few more. I shifted anxiously from foot to foot until, finally, one of his arrows struck the edge of a target. The ladies ululated so loudly, led by Sultanam, that the birds flying overhead veered away from us.

  Isma‘il ceded the range to Pari. Instead of politely pleading fatigue, she turned her attention to an empty target and struck it with arrows marking north, south, east, and west. Her ladies couldn’t help themselves; they ululated again, their tongues moving faster than the eye could see, but I was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

  Pari placed another arrow against the bowstring and concentrated so hard and for so long that the whole crowd seemed to hold its breath. Not a single silk sash fluttered while we waited to see what the princess would do. Finally, when the suspense was almost too great to bear, she loosed the arrow. It flew straight and true, striking the middle of the target to mark Mecca, the center of all things. All of us gaped in amazement at her prowess.

  Isma‘il’s lips drew down at the corners. “Let’s hear your voices for my talented sister,” he choked out.

  Pari beamed with pride. Isma‘il approached his mother and conferred with her for a moment.

  “My mother says it is time to eat,” he announced and walked away without firing another shot. Balamani gave me a knowing look.

  Servants began bringing out platters of barbecued meat. Balamani and I walked toward a blanket near the water and sat down.

  “Pari is the better marksman,” I said. “Why should she conceal it?”

  “The greatest skill, for those close to the Shah, is making him look good.”

  “You believe he is quite so fragile?”

  “He is a man, isn’t he?” He crooked his index finger obscenely, and I snorted with laughter.

  Massoud Ali came running to us, his eyes shining with excitement. “I won a game! I won!” he said with a grin that seemed as huge as his face. “I beat Ardalan.”

  “Of course you did, my little radish,” I replied. “Mash’Allah!”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the errand boy scowling in our direction. Ardalan was known for getting into scraps. I fixed a stare on him until he looked away.

  Anwar and a few of the other eunuchs joined us for the meal. A platter of lamb kabob arrived, its juices soaking the bread underneath it. We waited for Anwar to begin. Wrapping a piece of lamb in lavash, he began telling a story about how his father, who had been a chief in Sudan, had decided a dispute over a sheep. In the end, all the parties felt that they had gotten the better deal.

  “Now that is good diplomacy!” he concluded, and we all laughed.

  “I wish I remembered my father better,” Balamani said wistfully. “I was younger than Massoud Ali when I was brought here.”

  Several of the other eunuchs murmured that they had also arrived as children.

  Massoud Ali looked puzzled. “Your parents brought you to court?”

  “No, my child. My father was very ill, and I spent my time at the seashore trying to fish or find a little work. One day, a dhow sailed in, and a sailor asked me if I wanted to train as a captain’s boy. I got my family’s blessing and joined the crew, surprised to find eight or nine boys already on board. Before we arrived at the next port, the sailors strapped us down and chopped off our parts. One of the boys, Vijayan, got an infection and died. He was my only friend on board.”

  Balamani brushed at his eyes. “A few weeks later, we arrived at a port. After we were fully healed, an agent of the court bought us and brought us here.”

  Massoud Ali stared at Balamani, his eyes round, as if he couldn’t believe that the robust man in shining silk robes whose orders were law had once been a child slave.

  “What about you?” Massoud Ali asked me innocently. An odd hush fell on the group. Some of the other eunuchs looked away or fidgeted.

  “I remember my father well; he was a courtier before he was killed,” I blurted out, hoping someone could help. “I am still trying to find out what happened.”

  Massoud Ali’s brow became so furrowed that I wished I hadn’t said anything.

  “God willing, you shall,” replied Anwar.

  In the distance, I spotted an old, ripped ball used by horsemen in their games of chogan. I got up and kicked it around until all the stuffing had leaked out of it, and then it was time to pack up and go home.

  After Isma‘il was crowned, many people who had previously fallen out of favor with his father felt safe returning to Qazveen and attempting to win royal grace. One of them, a former court astrologer named Looloo, wrote to me unexpectedly to say that he had known my father and wished to see me.

  Late one afternoon, I walked toward Looloo’s home in the southern part of the city. My path took me through the Ali Qapu gate and past the large, beautiful homes that lined the Promenade of the Royal Stallions, most of which were owned by nobles and their kin. Nearby lay the town’s main bazaar and just beyond it, a river full of cold mountain water that pierced the heart of the city. Families picnicked on its banks, their children dashing around with glee, and smoke from charcoal fires danced above them.

  I took the long way through town just for the pleasure of it, passing the part of the bazaar where animals were sold. Sometimes there were rare animals like cheetahs for sale or strange creatures from as far away as Hindustan or China. The healthy odor of sheep and goats filled the air. The bazaar was crowded with men examining the animals’ mouths and flanks and bargaining for the best creatures.

  The sound of young boys’ jeers made me stop. Surrounded by the youths was a small goat with its head bowed. A single eye dominated the center of its forehead. Its nostrils were missing, and for lack of another way to breathe, it drew rasping breaths through its mouth.

  One of the boys poked the goat with a stick. Another pelted it with a stone. The animal backed away, though it had nowhere to escape, and its frightened eye darted around in fear. Rage coursed through me.

  “Scatter, you brats! Leave the goat alone or I will whip every one of you until you bleed.”

  I grabbed the ringleader and pulled the stick out of his hands. When I lifted it above my head, the pack scattered, leaving the boy alone. Fear blurred his eyes.

  “Now you are just as scared as the goat. Have some mercy, illiterate!”

  “Let me go,” he whimpered. I released him and sent him on his way with a poke in the back.

  The sight of the Friday mosque’s tu
rquoise dome restored my spirits, its swirling white lines seeming to carry all of mankind’s hopes heavenward. Past the mosque lay the flat stones in the town’s cemetery. I hurried my pace, my heart heavy. My father was buried there. It had been a long time since I had visited his grave. I knew I should pay my respects more often, but every time I thought about it, my stomach burned at the idea of going to him empty-handed. I wanted to visit only when I could rejoice that justice had been served, and when I could whisper to the soul of my mother, who was buried in the south, that I had heeded her cry for revenge.

  Beyond the cemetery lay a cluster of small homes where people of modest means lived. The neighborhood, though not wealthy, was tidy and well kept. Looloo’s home looked as if it had only three or four rooms. How had a court astrologer come to this? Such men were usually well rewarded.

  I found Looloo in his birooni with his two sons, who were about my age. The paint on his walls was old but very clean, as were the wool carpets on the ground. The men were sitting on simple cushions and drinking glasses of tea, their legs sprawled out in front of them. I thought with regret of how I had never been able to share such simple pleasures as a grown man with my father.

  “Welcome, my friend!” said Looloo. A black cap covered his head, and the lines at his eyes looked like the rays of the sun. His white beard and mustache were closely cropped and bright against his walnut-colored skin. “Your presence adds joy to our festivities. Please join us for tea.”

  The astrologer was in the middle of describing how he had once accompanied Tahmasb Shah on a fishing expedition to a river full of small, tasty trout. He had lost his balance and fallen in, getting soaked from his beard down. When he emerged wet and confused, the Shah burst into laughter, and the astrologer, though embarrassed, joined in with his whole heart.

  “My sons, be sure to take any dunking with a sense of humor, even a big one,” he concluded.

  When they had finished their tea, his sons left, and Looloo turned his attention to me.

  “Thank you for visiting. I was released from service by Tahmasb Shah shortly after you joined the court. I have returned to see if I can find employment with the new Shah, and I hoped you could help. Also, I wanted to see how you were getting along after all these years.”

  “I apologize, but I don’t recall your name. Did you know my father well?”

  “Just as a passing acquaintance. How sad for you that his life was cut short when you were so young.”

  “It was,” I replied. “For many years I have been trying to find out exactly what happened to him. Do you know anything about his murder?”

  Looloo tugged at his black cap. “Yes, but I must caution you that I always seem to be telling people things they don’t wish to hear. The reason I was banned from Tahmasb Shah’s court was because of an astrological reading that outraged him.”

  “I wish to hear everything. I have always wanted to clear my father’s name.”

  His eyes darkened. “I can’t help with that.”

  I was taken aback. “Why not?”

  “Every man wishes to think his father innocent,” he said.

  “Mine actually was.”

  “How would you feel if you learned yours wasn’t?”

  “I wouldn’t believe it.”

  “My friend, let me tell you what I remember. Your father was a good man, may God be praised. But the reason he was killed is that he was discovered diverting money from the treasury.”

  “That is preposterous! We had plenty of money. My father wasn’t a common thief.”

  “No, he wasn’t,” Looloo agreed. “He didn’t take money for his own personal gain, but to fund a rebellion.”

  “My father was a loyalist to his core! He would never have done such a thing.”

  “Sometimes being a loyalist means rebelling,” he replied. “It is one of the paradoxes of serving the court. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had decided to rebel for your sake, with the idea of bequeathing you the results of his labors.”

  “I have faced such malicious slander about my father ever since I was a young man,” I said, in an angrier voice than I intended. “I am sick of it!”

  The astrologer’s eyes were compassionate. “Yes, I can see that.”

  “Who made these allegations against him?” I said, feeling the angry perspiration gathering at the back of my neck.

  “I think it was another accountant.”

  “But why?”

  “Most likely he would have found a discrepancy in the accounts and reported it, or if he was eager, he might have taken justice in his own hands by murdering your father and explaining himself to the Shah later.”

  Something in Looloo’s sincere demeanor made me feel I should listen. As I tried to speak, my voice closed in on itself and grew tight. “Your words bruise me. I have been trying to return the luster to my family name. How can I do that, especially in my own heart, if my father wasn’t loyal?”

  “Some men would consider your father moral for trying to change a situation he felt was wrong. It takes great bravery to do that.”

  Could it be true? Could I love my father for being a rebel?

  “You and your mother were probably the dearest things to him in the world. He must have felt very strongly to risk so much.”

  “But do you think he had good cause? What are the just reasons a shah can be removed?”

  “If you are the shah, there are none,” Looloo replied with a laugh. “But from the point of view of citizens, the reasons can include incapacitating illness, imbecility, inability to sire an heir, or madness.”

  “What about evil behavior?”

  “That, too,” the astrologer said. “The question is how much evil is too much. That is when some men, like your father, take the law into their own hands. Had he been successful, everyone would now praise his name.”

  My father would have become one of the closest allies of the new shah, and as his son, I would have been catapulted to high position. I might well have married one of the shah’s daughters. That much was true, but the rest of his story didn’t make sense.

  “If the Shah thought my father was guilty, why would he allow me into his service?”

  “For two reasons. First, you astonished him by becoming a eunuch in order to serve him. How many men would do that?”

  He paused and stared at me curiously. I stayed mute, not wishing to explain myself yet again.

  “Then, before he met you, he asked me to prepare your astrological chart. Did you know that?”

  “No.”

  “I discovered something I have never forgotten. The conjunction of planets present at your birth indicated that your destiny and the dynasty’s are interwoven like warp to weft.”

  “Is that such a big surprise? I work for them.”

  Looloo laughed. “You don’t understand. The chart is the reason you were taken into service.”

  “Why?”

  “Your stars foretold that you would help spur the rise of the greatest Safavi leader ever.”

  “Me?”

  “Yes.”

  “How?”

  Looloo chuckled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “The stars are never quite that specific. I suggested that the Shah stay attuned to details that might emerge in his dreams, which gave him excellent guidance all his life. But that is about all I know, because I was banished not long after.”

  “What crime did you commit?”

  “The Shah asked me to make charts for all his sons to determine who would be the greatest leader. He didn’t like the results.”

  “What were they?”

  “Not one of them was destined to be great, and I refused to pretend otherwise.”

  “Is that why he didn’t name an heir before he died?”

  “Possibly. It may also explain why he was so eager to hire you and keep you in his service.”

  “What a surprise!” I said, thrown into a whirl of confusing thoughts. “But there is something else that bothers me about my father
s story. The official court history says that the Shah decided not to punish his murderer because he was so highly placed, but doesn’t name him. Do you know who he was?”

  “No, but I suspect that once the Shah had been apprised of the murder, he would have talked the matter over with one or two of his closest advisors. After deciding not to punish the murderer, they would have all kept his name quiet for the same reason the Shah decided not to punish him to begin with.”

  “Why wouldn’t his name appear in the court histories?”

  “Did you ask the historians?”

  “One of them claimed he didn’t know.”

  “There is another possibility: What if the man is powerful and still alive?”

  I thought for a moment. “They would omit his name?”

  “Why should they risk his wrath?”

  “By God above! You may be right. Thank you.”

  “You are welcome. Please return to take tea with me and my sons at any time. We would enjoy your company.”

  “I will. And I will be sure to recommend your services to the palace.”

  “I am deeply grateful. As you can see, I could use the work.” He gestured around him at the threadbare carpets and humble furniture. I thought about the court astrologers I had known, who spent much of their time observing the stars in the countryside at night. They rode out of town on the finest Arabians I had ever seen, sparing no expense on trappings or tents or tools. How costly it was to fall out of favor!

  Balamani was already asleep when I returned to our quarters. I lay on my bedroll and thought about my father, remembering how he would come home every day in time for afternoon tea, spin stories about the court, and make my heart thrill at the idea of being part of it. But now that I was grown, I realized that my father had chosen to show me only the brightly shining silver of the court, not its old, tarnished samovars.

 
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