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Equal of the sun, p.16
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       Equal of the Sun, p.16

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “Light of the universe, that is not my purpose,” Pari said. “I come to you with great humility to ask a favor.”

  “What is it?”

  “I have heard of your decision to execute Kholafa Rumlu and Hossein Beyg. As your sister and as a member of the royal family with years of experience at court, I beg you to show them mercy.”

  “Hossein is a traitor, and Kholafa is an ungrateful wretch. They don’t deserve mercy.”

  “Perhaps not, but the question is how the noblemen will view their executions,” Pari said. “If you kill Kholafa, they will wonder why a man of wisdom and high standing, who did everything to bring you to power, has been sacrificed. Being fearful of the same fate will make them dangerous. If you kill Hossein Beyg, they will understand why, but show clemency and they will see you as merciful.”

  “Why do you care? What are these men to you?”

  “They are nothing to me, but it is a matter of justice. Kholafa was your biggest ally. I think we owe him thanks for his support.”

  “And Hossein Beyg?”

  “The loyalty of the Ostajlu is worth a great deal.”

  “Even though he was a traitor?”

  “He wasn’t a traitor; he simply didn’t select the winning side.”

  Isma‘il turned to Sultanam. “Mother, what do you think?”

  Pari looked at her expectantly; she had often been successful in begging Tahmasb Shah for clemency and had no doubt saved Isma‘il himself.

  “I think your sister is right about Kholafa,” Sultanam said. “Why destroy a brilliant strategist?”

  “To demonstrate that no disobedience will be tolerated is valuable.”

  “But it wasn’t disobedience; it was merely disagreement,” Pari interjected.

  “What is the difference?”

  Was the Shah incapable of seeing the distinction?

  Pari looked bewildered. “Surely you will permit your subjects to disagree at times?”

  “Of course,” he said. “I am listening to you right now, aren’t I? But Hossein Beyg is a lost cause. By opposing my accession, he will always be a rallying point for the dissatisfied. As for Kholafa, his execution sets an important example to the others about the behavior I expect. By dying, he will serve me better than by living.”

  “But, brother of mine—”

  “I have made my decision.”

  “I beg you to reconsider. When our father was alive, his brother rebelled against him several times, but it wasn’t until Alqas joined forces with the Ottoman army that he had him captured and executed. Surely your noblemen deserve mercy.”

  “I am not Tahmasb,” Isma‘il said, “and I intend to be quite a different shah than he was.”

  Pari looked exasperated. “But if not for his clemency, you yourself would not be alive!”

  Isma‘il’s face flushed with anger. “I am alive because it was God’s will that I should become shah.”

  No one could disagree with that.

  “Kholafa isn’t the only person at court who needs to be disciplined,” he continued. “Some wish to usurp my power, but they won’t succeed.”

  Pari remained calm at the insinuation. “I offer my opinion with the sole goal of strengthening your rule, brother of mine.”

  Isma‘il snorted. “Next time, you should wait to ask if I desire your opinion.”

  Pari drew back, offended, and turned to Sultanam for reinforcement.

  “You must heed the words of my son,” Sultanam said quietly.

  “But you are depriving a man of his life, the only worthwhile thing he has! Surely you would expect an argument.”

  “On the contrary, I expect to be thanked for listening,” he said.

  Isma‘il put a roasted pumpkin seed in his mouth and cracked it open. I hoped Pari would say something conciliatory, but she frowned, as if a bad smell had invaded the room.

  Isma‘il spat out the shell. “There is nothing left to discuss. You may go.”

  Pari arose stiffly and walked out of the room without thanking him for seeing her. I asked permission to be dismissed and followed behind, cringing at the disrespect she had shown.

  “I should have fought harder,” she said as we walked through the gardens. The roses looked wilted in the heat.

  “What good would that do?”

  “Perhaps none, but I owe it to Kholafa. He deserves to live.”

  “May God have mercy on his soul tomorrow,” I replied. “Yet I think it is most important now to earn back Isma‘il’s trust.”

  “He doesn’t desire honesty.”

  “Isn’t it vital to convince him that you are his ally?”

  “Not if it means compromising what is right,” she said angrily.

  The men would be executed in the morning. I felt sorry for their wives and families, for I knew how their faces would twist with agony when they received the bodies wrapped in bloody white sheets. Their children would suffer, too: I remembered Jalileh’s screams of distress even though she was too young to understand what had happened. And yet, rather than advance the cause of the condemned, Pari had managed to hurt her own standing with Isma‘il.

  Pari was watching me closely. “What is it, Javaher? If your brow could make storm clouds, it would be pouring.”

  I took a deep breath. “Princess, you know the old saying: The rose is heartless, yet the nightingale sings to it all night long.”

  “Why should I sing to a stem of thorns?” she scoffed.

  “Because you want to win.”

  Her face darkened. “Shit-eater!”

  I was offended and slowed my gait so that she would know it.

  Pari waited for me to catch up. “Javaher, I know your advice comes from the bottom of your heart, but you cannot understand the fury that seizes me in his mule-like presence.”

  “Princess, don’t you fear for your life? Look how casually he destroys his allies.”

  Pari threw back her head and laughed. “The blood of the Safavi lions roars in my veins!”

  A few evenings later, Pari summoned me to her house to fetch her most private correspondence and deliver it to a special courier. I arrived at the same time as Majeed, whom I escorted behind the lattice. His cheeks looked yellow with fear. In a shaky voice, he told us that when he had gone home that evening, he had been prevented from entering his own door by a group of soldiers, who told him that all his possessions had been confiscated by order of the Shah.

  “Esteemed princess, have I offended you in any way?”

  “No, my good servant.”

  “Then why—?”

  I scrutinized Majeed carefully. A man who wishes to succeed at court can’t collapse when the earth trembles, because when it shakes, pitches, and rolls, he will break into seven hundred and seventy-seven pieces. A bubble of hope opened up in my heart, for Majeed seemed to be crumbling.

  “Do you think you can still be effective as my vizier? Be truthful. Whatever your answer, I shall treat you fairly.”

  “I am afraid that showing my face at court would seem like an aggravation. Perhaps another man would do better . . .” His voice trailed off, as if he hated himself for admitting it, and his young face looked as soft as rice pudding.

  “Very well, then. Stay out of sight, and I will contact you to serve me when the court is safe.”

  “As you wish.”

  Pari made him pledge to spread the story that she herself had requested the expropriated house. Then she released him from her service with a generous sack of silver for his expenses and the promise to resettle him in a new home. I showed him out and joined Pari on her side of the lattice.

  “How I miss my father!” she said, her voice thick with feeling. The princess bowed her head for a moment to compose herself, and the room was silent except for the sound of the wind outside. Then she said, in a tone of wonder, “How did you survive your grief all those years ago?”

  I had to think for a moment; no one had ever asked me that question before.

  “Princess, I wish I c
ould give you an answer coated in honey. The best I can do is to suggest that you bask in the memories of his love, the sweetest balm for your heart.”

  She sighed. “I shall.”

  “Why do you think Majeed’s house was taken?”

  I was certain it had to do with her behavior toward the Shah, but knowing the specific reason was essential.

  “I sent him back to Mirza Shokhrollah to ask for an army to protect our northwestern border. The grand vizier must have spoken out against me,” she said, but looked uncertain.

  “Is it possible that the Shah objected to your plea for clemency?”

  “If so, his response is cruel,” she said. “Every citizen has the right to the Shah’s ear.”

  Pari batted at her temple to brush a strand of hair away from her face, but there wasn’t one. She sought neatness in times of distress. Something in her gesture made me wonder if she was telling the truth about everything.

  “Can you think of any other reason for this punishment?”

  “No. On the occasions that I disappointed my father, he told me why and allowed me to make amends. He didn’t punish my vizier. What a sinister way to make a point.”

  “Esteemed princess, how shall we break the scepter of royal displeasure?”

  “I don’t know.”

  I decided I would risk making a visit to Khadijeh, who might be able to tell me what was in Isma‘il’s heart. “I will see what I can find out about this, discreetly, of course.”

  “Good,” she said. “Before you go, I wish you to think upon something. Now that Majeed has been released temporarily, I would like you to become my acting vizier. The position will pay more and will require becoming my liaison to the noblemen of the Shah’s court.”

  Panah bar Khoda! I was rocked by surprise to learn that Pari believed in me enough to make me her most trusted officer. I would have expected to serve for many years before receiving such an offer. A current of emotion rushed up and down my spine, and it took a moment before I could trust my voice.

  “Thank you, esteemed princess. What a great honor! May I think about it until tomorrow?”

  “Give me your answer in the morning. But please remember, Javaher, how much I have come to rely on you.”

  She said this so sweetly that I felt ready to lay down my life for her.

  Khadijeh had moved into one of the buildings that the late Shah had used to house his favorite ladies. I told the eunuch on duty that I wished to see her on a matter of business for Pari Khan Khanoom, and he announced me and allowed me to pass.

  Khadijeh received me dressed in a robe of orange silk, which was brightened by her clove-colored skin. Seeing her, so unlike the other courtiers draped in dark colors, was like happening upon a field of poppies. Gold bracelets made music at her wrists. She smiled at me, but because her ladies were present, maintained her formality. I told her I needed to see her on a delicate matter about a woman in distress. Khadijeh waved her chief lady, Nasreen Khatoon, to a distant corner of the room, where she could observe but not overhear. The planes of Nasreen’s face were sharp and beautiful, but I only had eyes for Khadijeh.

  “With all respect to your new status, you are even more glorious than ever to my eyes,” I said quietly. “Your new post agrees with you.”

  Her smile was bright. “I am happy to be my own mistress.”

  “I am sure many are asking for your favor,” I said, feeling a squeeze at my heart, “but I am here about a troubling matter.”

  “What is it?”

  In a quiet voice, I told Khadijeh about Majeed’s house and asked if she had heard anything from Isma‘il that would help explain the ferocity of his anger.

  Khadijeh looked as if she were searching for an answer. “I don’t know him very well yet,” she admitted. “He summons me at night and delights in my company, but doesn’t say much.”

  “And you delight in his?” I could not help asking.

  “It is not the same as with you,” she said gently.

  I was glad to hear that, but brought myself back to my duty. “Has he said anything at all about Pari?”

  “You won’t wish to hear it.”

  “I must hear it.”

  “He called her a pretend shah.”

  “On what grounds?”

  “I can’t remember. It was a passing comment.”

  I thought about it. “She has been leading the amirs in meetings, so I suppose in that way she resembles a shah.”

  “Shahs are men,” she pointed out.

  “So true,” I said, “but she has the royal farr.”

  “He does, too,” she said, “and he demands more deference than you might expect. I think his years as a prisoner have made him feel entitled to it. When he speaks to me about the cruel destruction of his youth by his father, the pain in his heart flares on his face like a flame. The princess should never appear to cross him.”

  “It will test her severely,” I said.

  “That is too bad. He is the Shah, and she has sworn obedience to him like everyone else.”

  “Has anything happened lately that he might hold against her?”

  “I heard of one thing,” Khadijeh said in a whisper. “Someone sent a group of soldiers to combat a rebellion in Khui. The Shah is very angry that it was done without his knowledge.”

  Ya, Ali!

  “Was it Pari?”

  “He didn’t say.”

  I thought back to my last meeting with Pari; her answers now struck me as intentionally vague. My head grew hot with anger. Was I not to be informed of a clandestine military action of such a magnitude? Was my life to be put at risk without my consent? I might as well be one of Pari’s tea boys.

  As I struggled to master my feelings, I was certain I felt Nasreen Khatoon’s eyes on me, but when I glanced up she was standing against the far wall of the room looking at the carpet in front of her.

  “By the way,” I said to Khadijeh in a lighter tone, “the color of your robe suits you very well.”

  “I keep a sober robe handy in case I need to throw it over my clothes when someone important comes to visit.” She giggled at her own audacity.

  “Your spirit refreshes my soul. Are you happy?”

  “I have everything a woman could want,” she said, gesturing around her. I noted the soft, new carpets on the floors, the matching velvet cushions, and a rich assortment of blue and white porcelain dishes arranged in alcoves. “And the best part is I have more time than ever to cook. Try this.”

  She handed me a plate of paludeh, the long thin rice noodles enlivened by sugar, cinnamon, rose water, and one strange spice I couldn’t name, which shocked my tongue into uncommon joy.

  I ate it in a rush of fierce hunger, licking my lips. This taste of Khadijeh’s delights made me keenly aware of what I had been missing in past weeks. I dared not look at her for a moment.

  “Little did he know what a treasure would come to him when he married you.”

  She smiled. “There is another thing that makes me happy, and that binds you and me together. The Shah has appointed my brother, Mohsen, as the master of cavalry to Mahmood Mirza. He loves his new posting.”

  “Congratulations. What does he say of the prince?”

  “Mohsen said that the two of them get along like family.”

  “That gladdens me!”

  “And you, how are you faring?” She didn’t attempt to conceal the tenderness in her voice, which flayed my heart. My skin longed to feel the heat of hers, my nostrils cried out for the scent of her rose oil after it had mingled with her flesh, and my thumbs itched for the feel of her—

  “Javaher?”

  I clasped my hands in front of me to keep them still. “The princess asked me to be her acting vizier.”

  She looked awed. “What a big honor, and so soon!”

  “But if the Shah dislikes her, it could prove to be a difficult job—and dangerous.”

  “I promise to let you know what I hear.”

  “Thank you.”


  “I imagine your new position will allow you to help your sister more than before.”

  “It will, but my chief desire is to bring her to the capital. I still don’t have the funds necessary to care for her here or to provide her with a generous dowry.”

  “May God rain silver on your head!”

  The memory of Jalileh’s long lashes, made starry by tears the last time I saw her, pierced my heart. “I don’t even know her anymore. All these years, I have not been able to visit her.”

  “How could you, when you have been sending all your extra money for her upkeep? I am certain you are the light of her eyes.”

  “I hope so.”

  Khadijeh noticed Nasreen Khatoon looking at us. “I think you had better take your leave.”

  “May I come again?”

  “Yes. Be sure to come accompanied by court business,” she replied, and called her ladies to rejoin her.

  “Nasreen Khatoon, prepare a robe with some tunics and trousers for charity,” she commanded. “You will deliver them to Javaher Agha when they are ready.”

  For Nasreen’s ears, I said formally, “The princess will be pleased to know that you have pledged clothing to a woman who has lost her home. I will report to you how Rudabeh fares.”

  “It is my pleasure,” Khadijeh replied.

  With longing, I remembered the sweetness of her thighs under my tongue. The rip in my heart, which had just begun to heal, tore afresh and bled. It could not be helped: In the harem, there was no avoiding a former love and no escaping the relentlessness of desire. Khadijeh, who knew me so well, pretended to be busy with the paludeh so that I could preserve my dignity and take my leave.

  Pari was drinking tea when I greeted her with a grim face.

  “Javaher, do you bring me ill news?”

  “Yes. I have thought carefully about your offer to make me your acting vizier. I am sorry, but I can’t accept.”

  Pari looked shocked at my bluntness. No one but a fool would reject such a promotion.

  “Are you joking?”

  “No.”

  “What is it, money?”

  “No.”

  “Are you frightened?”

  “No.”

  “Well, then?”

  I looked around as if I hated for the truth to be squeezed out of me and hesitated until I had her full attention.

 
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