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Equal of the sun, p.17
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       Equal of the Sun, p.17

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “Princess, the game of this court is as intricate as the pattern on the carpet you are sitting on. A vizier and his commander must work together with as much unity as a husband and wife; otherwise they can lose everything.”

  “True. And so?”

  “The best marriages, in my observation, are based on trust.”

  “Javaher, are you proposing to me?” she asked jokingly.

  “In a manner of speaking.”

  I paused for effect and watched her eyes grow serious.

  “Well?”

  “My proposal—such as it is—goes further than the usual halfhearted alliances, as when a husband requires his wife to tell him everything while he enjoys living a secret life. Do you know what I mean?”

  “Of course. Which of us is the husband?”

  “You are.”

  She laughed. “That suits me better than the other way around.”

  “I know.”

  “So I shall wear the turban, spend the silver, and make the decisions.”

  “Yes.”

  “And what shall you do?”

  “I shall provide excellent counsel and prevent you from making mistakes that could kill us both.”

  Pari looked uncomfortable. “Such as?”

  “I have it on good authority that Isma‘il has intercepted money sent to support soldiers on our northwestern border and is choking with rage.”

  “Oh,” she said, and her face went white. She brushed at her kerchief, looking for absent strands of hair.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Javaher,” she said passionately, “you know as well as I do that there are spies all over the palace. I have to be very careful about whom I trust.”

  “I know,” I said. “That is why, in asking for your trust, I offer to lay down my life for you if necessary. But if you can’t trust me, I would rather be in charge of your handkerchiefs than pretend to be your chief strategist.”

  I waited, firm in my resolve.

  “Is there anything else?”

  “Do I have permission to speak honestly?”

  “Yes.”

  “To win over the Shah, you must cage your feelings.”

  “But he does nothing!” she cried, her cheeks blazing. “How can I stand by and watch the ruination of my father’s hard work? How can I let the people who live around Khui rise up in rebellion—I, who know so much better than he what to do!”

  “But, Princess, our job must be to persuade the Shah to do what is right.”

  “I don’t wish to! I want to rule on my own,” she blurted out, and then looked as if she had accidentally released an angry jinni from a bottle.

  At long last, she had admitted it! In my bones I had sensed the ferocity of her ambition. It was like a mountain, looming over everything and impeding all progress. Now we could finally discuss what she craved and what was possible.

  “Even your father didn’t allow such liberties,” I replied. “To rule at all, you must have a willing partner. At the moment, you face a shah who has thwarted and punished you.”

  Pari jumped up, her dark robe fanning out around her as if it wished to escape her fury. “Are you suggesting I have done something wrong? How dare you?”

  I stood my ground. “I am the son of a noble,” I said quietly, “and I trust that I have served you well so far. I respect your royal blood with every drop of my own, but, Princess, if I see you on a path to destruction, I will say so. Never shall I be like a cringing dog that evinces affection only in order to obtain scraps, even if you release me from your service—never! For I would rather tell you the truth at my own expense than betray you with false kindnesses. So I promised your father, and so I shall do always.”

  The blood pounded in my temples as I turned my gaze on her.

  “You are the one who dips so freely in the ocean of smooth words,” she replied angrily. “What do you suggest?”

  “As your vizier, I would do my best to calm the waves,” I said, “but it won’t be possible if you keep taunting the Shah.”

  She sat down again, smoothing her robe around her. “I am willing to keep you better informed of my plans,” she conceded, “but I won’t promise to accede always to your advice.”

  I could see from her stormy brow that I had pushed her as far as was possible. “Agreed.”

  “Now are you willing to become my acting vizier?”

  “It is the greatest honor of my life to accept,” I replied. My heart soared like that of a soldier prepared to die for his commander. “I pledge to always encircle the emerald of your trust with the gold of my loyalty.”

  “That is better than any marriage vow I have ever heard!” she said, a hint of flirtation in her tone. “But I presume it is a metaphorical one.”

  “Of course.”

  “In that case, I accept.”

  The princess’s eyes, which looked a little moist, sought mine. I felt as if we had made a pact binding us together forever.

  Pari called Azar Khatoon and told her to fetch something. She returned with a package wrapped in silk and presented it to me. Inside I found a dagger in a black leather scabbard. Its fearsome steel blade bore protective words from the Qur’an worked in gold by a master metallist.

  “May it keep you from harm,” Pari said, in a voice more tender than she had ever used with me before. Then and there I fastened the scabbard to my sash.

  “I will wear it always.”

  The next day, we discovered that Isma‘il had quietly married two women. One of them was an Ostajlu, which demonstrated that he had forgiven the whole tribe and welcomed its nobles, except those that he had executed or imprisoned, back into his closest circles. The other was a big surprise: Shamkhal Cherkes’s daughter Koudenet Cherkes, who had been raised away from court.

  Pari was furious. She summoned her uncle, and he came after dark, like a thief. Pari told me to sit in a nook outside one of her private rooms and observe the meeting secretly, so that I could remember his exact words and discern whether he was telling the truth. I suspected she wished to tongue-lash her uncle, but would spare him the humiliation of doing so in front of a servant.

  When Shamkhal entered the small room, he consumed so much of its space that his muscular arms and chest seemed to press against the walls.

  “Salaam, daughter of my sister!” he said in a booming voice as he lowered himself onto the cushion across from hers. “I am glad to see you looking as bright as the dawn itself. What is the emergency?”

  “Is your health better, dear Uncle?” Pari replied sweetly.

  “Better?”

  “You were sick, remember?”

  He paused for a moment. “Ah, of course! I am healthy now.”

  “That is good to hear. I assumed I didn’t see you for so long because you were ill. And now I hear that your daughter has become one of the Shah’s new wives! What an honor.”

  Shamkhal was watching her closely. “It is.”

  “I understand that the Shah has invited you to visit him every day, as well.”

  “Who told you that?”

  Pari smiled with the certainty of her information.

  “In short, the Shah has seen fit to favor you, while he has decided to punish me. Why is that? Don’t we share the same blood?”

  “We do.”

  “Well, then?”

  “It is fate, I suppose.”

  “Uncle,” Pari said, her tone sharp, “a shah does not marry the daughter of a man, thereby tying his bloodline to that of royalty for all time, unless that man has provided a great service to him or has promised to do so.”

  There was a long silence. Shamkhal looked terribly hot next to his glacial niece. In the small room I could see every bead of sweat that formed where his turban met his brow.

  “Someone has damaged me in the eyes of the Shah. Having noticed your recent success, I can’t help but wonder if it has been responsible for my problems.”

  Shamkhal burst out laughing. “Of course not. You have managed to
create your problems all by yourself.”

  “Such as?”

  “Haven’t you learned that this shah won’t permit haughty behavior? You may be correct about the rebellion, but you have behaved like a fool.”

  Pari looked stung, and I was secretly glad. Her uncle was able to talk to her in a way that I could not.

  “How do you expect to win him over now?”

  “I don’t know,” she said bitterly. “Right now, I want you to answer my question: What have you done for Isma‘il?”

  “I took care of Haydar, remember?”

  “Others helped vanquish him but were diminished anyway.”

  “I do whatever he asks.”

  Pari leaned her slender body toward his. “Have you spoken of me to him?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “Too dangerous.”

  “All this time, you have been thinking only of your own success!”

  “Of course not,” Shamkhal said, adjusting his legs underneath his robes. “Don’t forget that I represent thousands of Circassians. If I am honored at court, all our people will benefit. We can’t ignore that.”

  Pari gave him a knowing look. “And you yourself will become very rich.”

  “That, too. Remember, the Circassians have only been a force at court for thirty years. We still don’t get the gifts of land and gold that the shah bequeaths to the qizilbash. The Circassians need a man like me to lobby for them.”

  He had a point, but the scorn in Pari’s eyes was impossible to miss. “Don’t you understand the Shah’s strategy? He has offered you an alliance in order to curtail my power.”

  “True.”

  “I thought you were my ally.”

  “I am your ally forever,” Shamkhal replied earnestly. “You are the child of my favorite sister, and there is no woman like you in all of Iran. But your desire to rule is not the only thing that matters.”

  Pari drew back, sensitive to the insinuation that she sought power for her own sake. “Haven’t you noticed that nothing is getting done at court?”

  “Of course. Isma‘il doesn’t know how to govern. He issues an order and then rescinds it. He has no idea whom to trust. His rule is a disaster so far.”

  “Then how do you expect to help?”

  “I know you could do a better job and I will advocate for you when the Shah learns to trust me, but no advocacy will work unless you change your ways. Isma‘il doesn’t feel he owes you anything. He is suspicious of your power. If you don’t bow down before him, you will never get anywhere.”

  “But he is incompetent!”

  “Don’t you understand? Your business now is rehabilitating yourself.” His tone was kind but patronizing, as if he were addressing a child. How the power between them had shifted!

  Pari was silent for a long time. Desperation entered her eyes. Even though her uncle was right, it disturbed me to see her suffer. I had to stifle an urge to interrupt their meeting.

  “Uncle, my father honored you after I advocated for you. Now you must help me as I helped you.”

  “I will,” he said, “but not right away. Our shah doesn’t feel secure. That is why I visit him every day and do whatever he asks of me. That is why I have even offered him my best Circassian soldiers as his personal guards.”

  “Why didn’t you defend me at the meeting?” Pari’s back was pressed against her cushion as if she were trying to draw support from it.

  “Because he is like unexploded gunpowder: One must not set him off.”

  Shamkhal reached for one of her hands and held it between his old bearlike paws.

  “I will help you as soon as I can,” he said. “Trust me.”

  That is what everyone said to Pari, yet who, in fact, could she trust?

  “Daughter of my sister, I took a risk by coming to see you today. Isma‘il would object if he knew, even though we are kin. For this reason, I am not going to visit again unless absolutely necessary. It is silly to fuel his anger right now.”

  Pari looked crestfallen; her long, thin frame seemed fragile compared to his robust one. “So you, too, are abandoning me?”

  “Not abandoning you,” he said. “Waiting quietly until we have a chance to pounce.”

  “Insh’Allah,” she said softly, but when she sought the comfort of his gaze, his eyes flicked away.

  After we discussed Shamkhal’s advice, Pari finally admitted to the need to repair her relationship with Isma‘il Shah. Together we drafted a letter to him begging forgiveness for any transgression and requesting a meeting to show her contrition. It was a fine document, filled with flowery language and deep submission. As Pari wrote it out in her excellent hand, she grimaced now and again. But it had its intended effect: The Shah summoned us to a meeting a few days later.

  I put on the “head-to-toe” that Pari had sent to me right after I had accepted my new appointment. Although such garments always accompanied a big promotion, they were finer than I had expected. The dark blue silk robe was patterned with small pale blue irises on golden stems. The robe was brightened by a pale gold shirt, a blue and gold sash, and a golden turban striped pink, black, and blue. Dark leather shoes printed with gold arabesques completed the outfit. The fineness of the head-to-toe shouted out my new rank.

  “As your new acting vizier,” I said, enjoying the sound of the words, “I must remind you that the greatest humility will be required to move Isma‘il’s heart in your favor.”

  “I know, I know,” she said impatiently.

  We walked through the gardens and entered an elegant courtyard with a long rectangular pool of water flanked by caged parrots, which filled the air with their chattering. We stood by the pool until a eunuch arrived and showed us into a more secluded waiting room. After a while, we were summoned into Isma‘il’s private sanctum, the room where I imagined he met with Khadijeh and feasted on her beauty before taking her to his bedchamber to perform his nightly work. I tore my eyes away from the carved wooden door that led into his private quarters and tried not to think of how the servants outside would listen to the symphony of their grunts and cries. The bitterness of my feelings twisted in my belly and made me wonder whether I could ever love another woman. How could I let myself, knowing that she would one day push me aside?

  When Pari and I were ushered into the room, I bowed with my hand on my heart. Sultanam was just leaving, but when the princess introduced me as her acting vizier, she congratulated me and greeted me as “the shining light of Pari’s sword of wisdom.” I thought of my father. How I hoped he was looking down on his son with pride!

  The ceiling and the walls of the room were decorated with tiny mirrors arranged in patterns. Light came through a window in the roof and was reflected a hundred times into each shard of mirror, so that the room seemed to shimmer. Looking more closely, I saw a spot of darkness in the mirrors and realized it was the Shah’s eye, shattered into prisms of darkness that were reflected a thousand times around us, as if he were watching our every pore.

  The Shah lay reclined against silken cushions, his legs sprawled out in front of him, his jewel-studded turban flung to the side. With his balding head exposed, he looked like an ordinary man, as subject as anyone to the cruelties of nature. On a silver tray in front of him, tea steamed in glasses, accompanied by a six-sided inlaid ivory box.

  “Come sit down,” he said, his tone gentler than it had been during our last meeting.

  The princess did so, while I hugged the wall at the back of the room to be close in case she needed anything.

  “Light of the universe, I am here to do your bidding as your loyal sister,” she said, her voice soft, her gaze averted.

  He offered her a glass of tea, which she accepted, and took one himself. Opening the box in front of him, he removed a confection and placed it in his mouth but didn’t offer one to Pari.

  “I hope you are sincere in that desire,” he replied. “I haven’t seen evidence of it so far.”

  Pari stiffened but made an eff
ort to be polite. “My brother, perhaps you haven’t heard the details of what I have done on your behalf. It was I who gave my uncle the key to the harem so that he could lead his men onto the grounds and defeat those who supported Haydar.”

  “I have heard,” he replied, “but of course, it was the will of God that I should come to power.”

  “And I was His instrument,” she said, her voice low and soft. “I did what I could to assist you, and all I have wished for since then is to be your ally.”

  “My ally?” he replied. “You can’t be my ally if you insist on going your own way. Your actions have proved to me that you are willful.”

  “What actions?”

  “Funding an army.”

  My legs tensed in alarm. Pari didn’t deny the charge, which would have been dangerous. Her cheeks bloomed with color, but her voice remained quiet.

  “Do you think I can stand by and watch the disintegration of the momentous treaty our father fought for? What kind of daughter of the Safavis would I be?”

  Isma‘il looked away. “I have seen to that problem by appointing a new subgovernor of Azerbaijan, who will be responsible for investigating the problems in Khui.”

  “Who is it?”

  “You will wait until I announce it to everyone at once.”

  He sat up on his cushion, his back straight and angry, as if responding to her unspoken charge. I suspected the Shah had not selected anyone, and Pari looked as if she thought the same.

  “What about naming Ali Khan Shamlu? He is loyal,” she pressed.

  “Pari, you know as well as I do that we can’t have two governments. Not even our father, who loved you so much, would have permitted you that.”

  Pari sat up until she and Isma‘il appeared to be of equal height.

  “I don’t want two governments,” she said. “I only wish to ensure our success in governing. Brother of mine, you were young once, and I think you felt as I do. When you were sent away to the fortress at Qahqaheh, it was because of your great zeal. Your mother told me that you wanted to score such a decisive victory against the Ottomans that they would leave us alone for generations. You took it upon yourself to raise an army for the good of your country, though some called it a rebellion.”

 
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