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Equal of the sun, p.18
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       Equal of the Sun, p.18

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “That is true.”

  “With zeal similar to your own, I instructed Ali Khan Shamlu to enforce the Treaty of Amasiyeh, and I spent my own money with the sole purpose of protecting our land. Isn’t it almost the same as what you did? Don’t we share the same royal blood?”

  She opened her palms to the ceiling to emphasize her point, and it was as if she were offering her open heart at the same time.

  “The same blood—but not the same purpose. It was stupid of our father to sign that treaty when I could have led us to victory.”

  “But that’s all in the past now!” Pari protested. “Brother, I beg you to let me help you,” she added in a pleading tone that made me hope for the best. “I advised our father for years, and I could be as useful to you as I was to him.”

  “You didn’t move a muscle without his approval,” he replied. “Yet you have tried to move a fighting force without my say. I am a military man, while you have never even seen a battlefield. The fact that you dare to employ such grandiose tactics can be explained by only one thing: pride.”

  He tapped two fingers against his box of confections to emphasize his last few words.

  “Pride? But this is what I have trained for all my life,” Pari protested. “I didn’t learn by my father’s side for so many years for nothing.”

  “I differ from our father on this point,” Isma‘il replied. “He didn’t wish you to marry and leave him.”

  “Nor did I wish to marry.”

  “I suspect you didn’t know who you were getting when I became shah,” he said. “If you had wanted to rule through someone, you should have thrown yourself behind Haydar.”

  “Haydar didn’t have the makings of a shah,” Pari said. “But if for some reason he and his soldiers had won, my support for you would have meant my death at his hands. You have shown courage on the battlefield, and I have tried to show my mettle here at the palace. I thought—I hoped—you would be pleased by my fealty.”

  The edges of Pari’s silk robe trembled.

  “Your fealty?” His laugh sounded as ghastly as the howl of jackals at night. “Whatever do you mean? You once said that as a child you loved me, but where is the truth in that?”

  Pari stared at him, perplexed. “You doubt the love that I bore you as a little girl? Surely you must have felt how I wanted to burst with joy when you spent time with me.”

  “And I loved you as if you were my own daughter,” he said, and the truth of his feelings clouded his eyes. “I would have done anything for you.”

  “And I for you,” Pari replied.

  He laughed again. “If only I could believe that were true.”

  “What makes you doubt it?”

  “If you loved me so much, what did you do to release me from prison when you had our father’s ear?”

  “Release you from prison? I was a child of eight when you were taken away!”

  “You weren’t a child forever. You could have urged our father to set me free. Did you ever speak in my favor?”

  “You don’t understand. Our father turned yellow at the very mention of your name, sometimes even at the mention of another man with the same name as yours. I remember that when one of the nobles referred to his own father as a donkey, the Shah reached over and struck him in the face. The man was lucky to escape with his life. Another time, he asked his children to recite poetry to him, and I began reciting a tale from the Shahnameh about how two of the sons of the legendary king Fereydoon had rebelled against him and tried to destroy him, although he had given them most of his kingdom. Our father began to look very ill, and without warning, he vomited in front of everyone. I didn’t understand why until I was older and realized that what he saw as your rebellion tormented him every day. Even your mother couldn’t change his mind, although she begged him so often that he refused to see her or visit her bed. How could I, as a child, hope to calm such wrath?”

  “Did you ever try?” he repeated, his small black eyes fierce.

  Pari remained silent.

  “That is what I thought,” he said. “And why would you? By the time you were fourteen, you had his ear to yourself. If you had succeeded in bringing me home, I would have usurped your place. I was the golden son, beloved by all, and the warrior who had led the country to victory. How could you have competed with that? You would have married Badi al-Zaman and lived in some far-flung province for the rest of your life.”

  “That was never in my plans,” she replied. “It never occurred to me that I could gain some advantage through your disgrace.”

  “And yet you did,” he replied. “You were my father’s companion while I wasted my youth. For this reason I am just now trying to beget sons as an old man, and I have shriveled in body and in mind. It is a wonder I didn’t become a madman, locked away as I was! But what happened to me is ugly enough.”

  His eyes burned with anger as if he thought Pari was responsible for everything he had endured. For the first time, I understood the extent to which the fortress at Qahqaheh had imprisoned Isma‘il’s soul, darkened his heart, and blackened his vision. It was chilling to see his feelings so nakedly displayed.

  “I was not the shah to make such decisions about your fate,” Pari replied staunchly. “Our father sent away his own mother and punished his own brother when they rebelled. On the heels of that, how could I convince him of your innocence?”

  Isma‘il snorted. “Sultanam told me you did everything you could to shut her out. You pushed all the royal women away and took the place that belonged to me.”

  “I could never hope to be you, brother of mine,” she said.

  Isma‘il bucked impatiently against his cushion, and the tiny mirrors in the room reflected his movement a thousand times before becoming calm again.

  “Then why did you try?”

  Pari’s face was flushed, and yet I saw goose bumps on her arms. Her chin jutted forth defiantly.

  “The minute it was possible to do so, I delivered the palace to you.”

  Isma‘il sat up against his cushion, and now somehow he seemed the taller of the two.

  “You are as aggressive as a man. Not long after I arrived at court, Mirza Shokhrollah told me how you pushed the men to declare you had the royal farr. What could be more insulting to a new shah? How dare you assert such a thing? But now the royal farr has passed to me. You are no longer the Shah’s favorite, and you may not make policy decisions on your own. If you do, I will consider it an act of disobedience. Is that understood?”

  The cords at Pari’s neck tightened and she looked as if she were choking. She bent her head and remained silent long enough for him to know that her reply was given under protest.

  “Chashm, gorbon,” she said, her voice thick with anger.

  Now that it was clear that Isma‘il thought Pari had usurped him from the time she was a child, I surmised that he had interpreted all of her subsequent actions as part of the same grab for power. As her new vizier, I must intervene.

  “Light of the universe, may I have permission to speak?”

  The Shah looked as if he would welcome any diversion. “You may.”

  “We are so awed by the royal radiance that we cannot always say what is foremost in our hearts,” I said, speaking for myself and Pari. “If there have been errors in the past, we are deeply regretful, and we seek only to right them in the royal eyes.”

  “It is fitting that you are awestruck by my presence.”

  “How can we serve in a way that would please the light of the universe? That is the reason we live and breathe. We will do anything”—I looked at the princess for confirmation—“that would satisfy the shadow of God on earth.”

  Isma‘il glanced at Pari. She clenched her jaw, bowed her head, and humbled herself as far as she could.

  “Brother of mine, I swear that is my fondest wish,” she said.

  “How can I know that you will work for me, not just for yourself?”

  “I would like to prove myself to you—to be your confidante
to use all I have learned to advance your interests.”

  Pari was on the right track at last. Kiss his feet! I commanded her in my head.

  “There is so much I can do,” Pari continued, and I became ill at ease again. Why couldn’t she stop there?

  “I can advise you on the best governors to rule, recount the deeds of all the khans who served our father when you were away, or provide you with suggestions for wives—and that is just the beginning.”

  He looked skeptical again, his desire to believe her fading as quickly as it had bloomed.

  “I have plenty of men to advise me,” he said.

  “Then what can I do?”

  He was at a loss, but then he rallied. “If you like, I will arrange a marriage for you to help fill your days. Small children are very demanding of their mothers.”

  Pari shivered as if ill with a fever, and I was reminded of a maple denuded of all its leaves by an autumn wind.

  “How very gracious,” she replied coldly, “but I prefer to remain alone and devoted to the memory of our father.”

  “It is up to you,” he said indifferently.

  Yet again, I was maddened by his lack of statecraft. After you kick a faithful dog, even if it has misbehaved, you would be well advised to throw it a bone. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if it sinks its fangs into your throat. But it was Pari’s task to try to tame him, since she had the most to lose, and instead she had merely managed to make him growl.

  As we left, Pari looked as if the fire that raged inside her might consume all who were near her. Her cheeks and her normally pearly forehead were red, and a wave of heat emanated from her body. I didn’t dare to touch her even by accident for fear she might loose her rage upon me.

  When we were in the gardens far from malicious gossips, Pari’s words tumbled out on top of one another. “How dare he claim the royal farr! It remains with whoever deserves it most,” she said between gritted teeth. “We will see who that is.”

  “We already know it is you.”

  Pari sighed. “I have been given all the tools of a ruler—except the blind, blunt instrument that seems to matter—but none of the opportunities. When I read through history, my desires don’t strike me as so exceptional. Genghis Khan placed his daughters on the throne in every corner of his empire, where they ruled in his name. Our qizilbash ancestors allowed women more freedom because they lived a nomadic life. Those traditions are being buried, alas, and our women with them.”

  “It is the same in many places,” I replied. “Yet the ruler of England has been a woman for the last twenty years because her father didn’t produce a male heir.”

  “That is not quite true,” said Pari. “King Henry had a son or two, but they weren’t born of the one wife he was allowed to marry at any given time. What a foolish practice to deny his children their patrimony.”

  “It is very limiting,” I agreed.

  “But what a boon for Elizabeth. Here we are awash in male heirs; the dozens of women my father bedded made sure of that. My only chance is as an advisor to one of his grown sons or as a regent, which would suit me best.”

  “You would be an excellent ruler,” I replied, “but I must admit I had to learn this by serving you. Esteemed princess, I used to think my father superior to my mother. After I began serving the royal women, I learned they could surpass men in intelligence and strategizing.”

  “How well you understand! Sometimes I feel like the one solitary creature of my kind, malcontent with the way the world is made and my place in it. Yet what am I but what those around me have created?”

  Her black eyes became as transparent as pools, and I felt as if I could see straight into the dark loneliness of her soul, which reminded me of my own.

  “Lieutenant of my life,” I replied softly, “I empathize with your troubles with all my heart.”

  She put her hand on my arm. “I know you do,” she replied. “How curious it is that you were sent to me: I would never have expected to feel such kinship with a eunuch.”

  The tender bud in my heart bloomed, its petals unfurling so quickly that my chest ached.

  “Remember when I asked you, months ago, about how you got cut? I know you suffered a great deal. Selfishly, though, I am glad it was your fate, because otherwise I would never have come to know you as I do. What a precious jewel you are! How brightly you shine!”

  It was a sign of her great generosity that she lavished such compliments on me right after her lowest moment with the Shah. Feelings that I had never allowed to show prickled my eyes. Rather than being criticized or derided for what I didn’t have, I felt appreciated, for the first time, for all I knew and could do. An understanding passed between us that seemed as bottomless as a well.

  With great delicacy, Pari suggested that perhaps I wished to return to my quarters and refresh myself with afternoon tea.

  CHAPTER 5

  TEARS OF BLOOD

  One of Zahhak’s subjects was a blacksmith named Kaveh, who worked hard at the forge every day to support his family of eighteen sons. Kaveh was a blessed man until Zahhak began requiring each household to deliver a tribute of young men to feed the hungry snakes on his shoulders. Kaveh’s bounty of sons made him unluckier than most. He watched his sons get taken away one by one, and each time, their heads were smashed and their brains delivered to the serpents. The blood boiled within Kaveh, but what could he do? No one dared refuse an order from the king.

  At the palace, Zahhak’s peace was still being disturbed by his nightmare about Fereydoon and by intimations that his own rule had been unjust. One day, he decided to create a record of his reign that would clear his name for all time. He ordered his scribes to write a proclamation describing him as a paragon of justice in every respect. Then he commanded the nobles of his court to sign the statement. Once again, no one dared refuse an order from the king.

  As the days grew darker, colder, and shorter, a new order was created at the harem. Sultanam, who had the Shah’s ear, was at the top, with the Shah’s new wives jockeying for power below her. Pari, who was now firmly associated with her dead father and the past, had been neutered. No longer her father’s advisor or the protector of the dynasty, she was relegated to the role that out-of-favor women played, doomed to struggle to find relevance in any way she could. In this, she was like many courtiers who strove to ingratiate themselves to the court after dishonor. But if Isma‘il reigned for a long time, it would be a long wait.

  When someone fell out of favor with a shah, it was common to enlist allies to help with rehabilitation. The allies would report on the offending party’s feelings of contrition and would request clemency, or suggest a way to placate the shah. They would look for moments when he might be likely to soften, such as times of good fortune or religious celebrations that incited feelings of charity. Such petitions could carry on for months or years and might require enduring punishment. But I was hopeful. The Ostajlu were now the Shah’s best friends again. It could be done, and it could be done in a matter of months, as my own case had shown.

  “Princess, be patient,” I told Pari. “I myself once endured the same cold winter. The best thing we can do now is to enlist your allies’ help in creating a thaw.”

  I said this in part to try to console myself. With Pari so out of favor, my new role as her acting vizier didn’t provide the access I had expected, but rather obscurity and irrelevance.

  During that time, Pari spent long hours in correspondence, writing to kinswomen and courtiers all over the realm to keep apprised of goings-on and to petition those who could help her. After she asked for assistance from her half sister Gowhar, who was married to Ibrahim Mirza, Gowhar revealed that despite Ibrahim’s support for Haydar, he had been invited to visit the Shah daily and had been selected as the Guardian of the Shah’s Most Precious Seal. She promised to talk to Ibrahim and let Pari know if there were any opportunities to soften the Shah’s heart. Gowhar was delightfully irreverent; once when she visited Pari, she sang a song Ibrahim had c
omposed that referred to Shamkhal as the Ingratiator, Mirza Shokhrollah as the Naysayer, and the Shah as the Vacillator. Pari laughed so hard, she told me, she was at pains not to spit out a slice of quince.

  The princess and I agreed that Mirza Shokhrollah’s position as grand vizier was a great obstacle. In addition to the fact that he had criticized her in the Shah’s presence, he was neither efficient nor clever. Isma‘il needed a smart deputy who could compensate for his own weaknesses. Pari began doing what the royal women have always done: working quietly to discredit an official she disliked and replace him with her own man.

  We decided it was wise to continue to cultivate Mirza Salman. Pari asked me to visit him and take his measure, but before I could, he sent a message asking to see the princess, even though the Shah had expressly forbidden the nobles from visiting her.

  From behind the lattice, Mirza Salman told us that he had been reconfirmed as Guardian of the Royal Guilds. We both felt that he deserved much better. He also reported that the business of the court was at a standstill—many governors had not been appointed, the Councils of Justice were barely functioning, and the rebellion in Khui had been ignored. For about an hour, the three of us strategized about whom to contact and what exactly they could do to throw doubt on Mirza Shokhrollah’s effectiveness.

  “Ah, Princess! I miss your glorious efficiency,” said Mirza Salman as he prepared to take his leave.

  “Thank you,” she replied. “I have dreams of reshaping the court so that it is neither the strict and pious regime of my father nor the lackadaisical playground Isma‘il prefers, but rather one that re-creates the glorious age that produced so many great poets and thinkers: Hafez and Rumi, Avicenna and Khayyam—such an age requires prosperity, peace, and tolerance. Yet it is possible, I swear.”

  “It will rival the promise of paradise!” Mirza Salman said, his eyes shining.

  “It is worth dying for,” I added.

 
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