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Equal of the sun, p.19
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       Equal of the Sun, p.19

           Anita Amirrezvani

  Pari’s quarters had always been filled with people, but after she fell out of favor, they were eerily quiet. I was able to spend more time at her side, helping her compose letters and discussing strategies for her rehabilitation. Sometimes, on cold days, we created a korsi by throwing blankets over a table and heating up the space underneath it with a charcoal brazier. Then we thrust our legs under the blankets—awkh joon!—and recited poetry to one another, including our own compositions. Pari shared her heart with me more than before, telling me of the great sorrows of her young life—the loss of a beloved mare, the death of her favorite aunt, Maheen Banu, but most of all, about her passionate desire to steer Iran into a period of greatness. I began to feel, when we were alone, that we were not just princess and servant—we were hamrah, companions on the same road.

  One day, Pari confessed her fear that Isma‘il would try to claim Maryam, her dearest treasure, as a way of punishing her further. Her eyes grew soft when she spoke of Maryam, which emboldened me to ask about her.

  “How did she first find favor with you, Princess?”

  “Her father offered her to the court because he had eight daughters and no dowry money. I was fifteen then, and I urged my father to take her in. After five years of training as a hairdresser, Maryam entered my service. Before I knew it, she had bewitched me.”

  “And you, her.”

  A handsome blush appeared on Pari’s cheeks.

  “I have made her wealthy, but she tells me she finds all the riches in the world by my side.” She glowed with satisfaction as she said this, and I thought about how often she must have faced sycophants who pretended to love her. I was glad that she was not blind, like so many other courtiers, to honest feeling.

  “And what has become of her sisters?”

  Pari looked at me curiously. “God be praised, she has provided six of them with excellent dowries.”

  “Princess, I confess there is someone I wish to help in the same way,” I blurted out. My heart was full as I confided in her about Jalileh and showed her one of my sister’s letters, which I kept in an inside pocket of my robe. Pari glanced at it and was sufficiently impressed to read out loud the part where Jalileh revealed her ecstatic feelings about Gorgani’s poetry.

  “What a thoughtful child! Surely no one is more important to you in the world.”

  “Except for you, lieutenant of my life.”

  She ignored the flattery, which pleased me. “And how strange that you, too, have had to live far away from a beloved sibling.”

  “It is a dagger through my heart. My fondest wish would be to bring Jalileh to serve in the harem, if you think there might ever be an appropriate position.”

  I waited with trepidation, knowing I was asking for a great privilege.

  Pari’s eyes were sympathetic. “I will try to grant your request, but not yet. It will not be wise until I am returned to favor.”

  My heart soared with new hope, and I wrote to my mother’s cousin right away to tell her the news. I worried that my letter was premature, but I was so eager to brighten Jalileh’s long exile that I sent it anyway. Then I redoubled my efforts to help restore Pari’s reputation.

  On the longest night of the year, the royal women usually stayed up very late together, telling stories, eating soup, feasting on pomegranate seeds and sweets, and celebrating the coming return of the light. After everyone went to sleep, I used to creep into Khadijeh’s warm bed. Even though I could no longer do that, the arrival of the shortest day of the year made me long for her.

  After my bath, I dressed in a fur-lined hat and robe to fight the cold. In the palace gardens, my breath steamed white around my face, and everyone I passed was veiled in the same way. I thrust my hands into my sleeves to keep warm. The trees in the palace gardens were stark and lined with snow, the flowers long gone, the bushes pruned back. The snow had been cleared from the palace walkways but the ground was frozen, and before long, I could feel the cold pushing its way through my leather boots.

  On my way to Khadijeh’s, I passed a woman who reminded me of Fereshteh, my erstwhile lover. She had the huge dark eyes and rosebud mouth that I had so admired in Fereshteh when I was young. I was seized with nostalgia for our time together and wondered what had become of her.

  It had been a revelation to show Fereshteh all my parts and to explore, with the enthusiasm of a nomad conquering new mountain passes, every corner of her body. It was she who first explained to me the mysteries of women’s cycles. With no shame, she showed me her blood. With no shame, she reached for my keer. The sex words she used reddened my sheltered ears, then stiffened me like a tent pole. I had never known another woman as frank as she. I still hoped to see her again one day and tell her of my strange fate.

  I entered Khadijeh’s building, saluting the eunuch on duty. The thick walls of the building defeated the worst of the cold, and the rooms were heated by charcoal braziers. Even so, I kept my outer robe wrapped around me and quickly drank the cardamom tea I was offered when I stepped inside.

  The spice made my blood circulate faster, and my heart thudded in my chest. After some time, a seamstress came out of Khadijeh’s rooms, holding in her arms several new silk robes that had been pinned to indicate changes. I was shown in, and Khadijeh greeted me formally. She wore a violet robe that made her skin look like dark satin. Her high-cheekboned lady, Nasreen Khatoon, gave me an appraising glance.

  “Your arrival brings happiness, Javaher Agha,” Khadijeh said.

  “Thank you,” I replied. “I wished to tell you about the fate of Rudabeh, the woman for whom I requested help the last time I visited you. She has written to my commander from Khui to inform her that her case has finally been settled there.”

  “That is excellent news,” Khadijeh said.

  I rubbed my hands together and shivered as if I were still cold. Khadijeh turned to her lady and said, “See to it that our guest is served hot coffee.”


  Nasreen rose to do her bidding, leaving us alone except for a eunuch who sat out of earshot near the door. Coffee was new to the court, and only the favored had access to it. It would have to be boiled fresh, unlike tea, which always simmered at the ready in a samovar. That would give us more time.

  When we were finally alone, Khadijeh’s whole body relaxed. I thought of her tamarind skin and how it once seemed to warm like honey under my hands.

  “How are you? You look as lovely as the moon.”

  “I am well,” she replied in a soft voice, “but not as well as I was.”

  “The new wives?”

  “Not just that,” she replied. “It is that I see him less now that he has new women, and my chances to bear his child decrease.”

  “You have hardly begun!”

  “Yes, but the more distracted he is, the less he will visit, and the less likely are my hopes.”

  I couldn’t argue with that logic, but I said, “With you so moonlike? You have no competition.”

  “Ah, but I do,” she replied. “You won’t believe what has already happened—and why I am so fearful.”

  She rubbed her nose with a gesture so endearing I wanted to wrap my arms around her.

  “Khadijeh, soul of mine, what is it?” The endearment escaped my lips.

  “She is pregnant!”


  “Mahasti, a slave that he has taken, like me, in a temporary marriage. She is one of those straw-haired women from the Caucasus whose pale beauty is so prized.”

  “She is already with child?”

  Fresh agony filled her dark eyes.

  “How do you know?”

  “My ladies talk with her maids. She has been sick every morning, but at the midday meal she eats like a starved dog. She has an obviously thickening belly and complains of sore breasts at the hammam, and her servant has been boasting so loudly it will be a wonder if she doesn’t call down the evil eye on the child.”

  “That is very reckless of her.”

  “But why isn’t
it me? I have been with him the longest.”

  “Remember, when other women are heavy with child, he will turn to you at night. You will have him to yourself again!”

  My heart dripped tears of blood as I comforted her, and I tried to pretend that I meant what I said. I was rewarded when a wan smile flashed on her face.

  “I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.

  “Khadijeh, who wouldn’t want you?”

  She smiled again, even more sadly.

  “Has he said anything to you about the pregnancy?”

  “Not a word, but he talks endlessly about how he longs for an heir, like all men.”

  I tried to keep my face neutral, but hearing this from Khadijeh was like a dagger in my heart. I wondered for a second what the child of our loins would look like, and a curly-headed boy with a mischievous laugh danced in my head, tormenting me.

  “Please forgive me,” she said quickly.

  “It is nothing.” It would do no good to discuss this with her, and I must make haste before her lady returned.

  “And that is not the only news. An astrologer told him the child will be a boy.”

  “You must make a charm for yourself—you are good at that.”

  “I face Mecca every day and pour water on my head. I make tonics to aid fertility, including one with ground rhinoceros horn. Still, pray for me. If you happen to go to a shrine, be sure to whisper my suit to the saint.”

  It cost every fiber of goodness that I had within me to say, “I promise.” She looked so hopeful I was happy to have lightened her mood.

  “Before your lady returns, I must ask you—has he said anything lately about the princess?”

  “He hasn’t mentioned her name,” she replied, “but he is always frightened that someone will try to usurp him. Whenever he disrobes at night, he takes off his sword and dagger and lays them within arm’s distance of the bedroll so he can find them in the dark.”

  “I can’t blame him.”

  Khadijeh leaned closer and whispered, “Once, in the middle of the night, I arose to get a drink of water, and when I returned, he threw himself on top of me and reached for his dagger, shouting ‘assassin!’ The guards rushed in, but by then he had felt my breasts against his chest and understood his mistake. His eyes looked as unpredictable as a wild dog’s, and he chided me for misleading him. I was so frightened that after he fell asleep, I pressed my body close to his so that he wouldn’t forget I was there, and I didn’t close my eyes for the rest of the night.” She shivered.

  Isma‘il remained so troubled about his own safety that he had come close to murdering my beloved Khadijeh! I had to shove my hands into my sleeves to quell my urge to throttle him.

  “Poor creature!” I said. “If anything ever happened to you, I would—”

  Khadijeh hushed me gently with her eyes.

  “It is all so strange,” I added. “The treasury functionaries count and recount every piece of silver for fear of being one coin short. The formerly gleeful bandits are so wary of him that they have stopped robbing travelers. Not even the qizilbash chiefs dare to rebel.”

  “Every day Isma‘il was in prison, he expected to be assassinated. That hasn’t changed. I think he fears his own kin the most.”

  “But he doesn’t fear you. Otherwise he wouldn’t leave his dagger within reach.”

  Nasreen walked in a moment later with coffee on a silver tray. I thanked her, adding that I would enjoy chasing the cold from my blood, and I drank the coffee in a few gulps.

  “May your hands never ache!” I said. The coffee Khadijeh served was the best. I ate a rice flour and pistachio pastry, which I recognized immediately as Khadijeh’s own from the way it tickled my tongue, and then I pretended that we were still speaking about Rudabeh.

  “To finish my story, she has just regained possession of her house. She is so overjoyed that she sent you a gift.”

  I unrolled a piece of embroidery displaying poppies and roses. It was stitched on pale cotton in an extremely fine hand, so fine you could not distinguish the individual stitches.

  Khadijeh touched the cloth. “What skilled fingers! Please convey my thanks to Rudabeh, and tell your commander I am always happy to help a woman in distress.”

  “I will do so.” With that, I protested that I had already consumed too much of her time and said my farewells.

  I was stricken with concern for Khadijeh. What if the Shah had attacked her before coming to his senses? His mind was even more disturbed than I had realized, and his nighttime fears were the proof.

  When I entered Mirza Salman’s waiting room for the first time as Pari’s vizier, I felt as if I had arrived at the pinnacle of my career. Mirza Salman’s salon was filled with qizilbash nobles and other men of high stature. Men went in and out of his rooms at a regular pace, an efficiency that pleased me. Because of my new status, I was shown in quickly.

  Mirza Salman worked in a small, elegant room with arched openings in the walls, attended by two scribes who sat on either side of him with wooden desks on their laps. One of them was finishing a document, while the other sat poised for current business. Mirza Salman congratulated me on being appointed Pari’s vizier, and I thanked him for seeing me. I told him that Pari wished for him to know the sad news that her cousin Ibrahim’s brother, Hossein, had died unexpectedly in Qandahar, leaving the province without a governor. The Shah had honored Ibrahim and Gowhar by visiting them to express his sympathy, but had forbidden them from wearing black.

  Mirza Salman frowned. “And so?”

  “Hossein was running Qandahar as if it were his own. There were concerns he might rebel by making an alliance with the Uzbeks.”

  “So now that Hossein is dead,” he said, “the Shah has no reason to be kind to Ibrahim?”

  Mirza Salman had a quick brain.

  “That is what the princess fears. She has written to Ibrahim and Gowhar to tell them she thinks they should leave town, especially since they supported Haydar. She wants to know if you can help them.”

  “I will try.”

  “Meanwhile, Pari has asked her uncle to advocate on your behalf. He remains in good standing with the Shah and will look for opportunities to suggest that you be promoted.”

  “Thank you.”

  “It is always my pleasure to serve.”

  Mirza Salman scrutinized me for a moment. I sensed that he wished to take my measure now that I was Pari’s vizier.

  “You say that as if you really mean it.”

  “I do.”

  “Your personal sacrifice is still mentioned at court as a paragon. What an uncommonly large gift you gave to the throne!”

  “Larger than you could possibly imagine,” I joked.

  Mirza Salman laughed but couldn’t conceal a slight shudder. He eyed me the way one regards an unpredictable sharp-toothed animal, with a mixture of curiosity and horror.

  “With balls as big as that, perhaps you should have been a soldier.”

  “I like this job better.”

  “I have always dreamed of being a military man,” he said, and I noticed that he had decorated one of his walls with old standards used in battle. “But administrators like me are thought to be too soft.”

  I made the obligatory sounds of protest.

  “Now that your star is ascending, I will keep my eye on you,” he added.

  “Thank you,” I said, wondering if I could goad him into revealing some information. “I always wished to fulfill my father’s dreams for me, especially after what happened to him.”

  “I remember your father,” Mirza Salman replied. “A good man, true to the throne. I imagine he was pulled off his course by smaller minds.”

  I felt perspiration under my arms. My heart began to race and questions flooded through me, but I concealed my feelings.

  “I suppose you are right,” I said agreeably. “Do you know who pulled him off course?”


  “Naturally, I have always wanted to know more about the circum
stances of his death. We were never told.”

  I tried not to appear overly eager.

  “Did you check the court histories?”

  I thought quickly about how to get him to talk. “There is only a brief mention of the accountant who killed him,” I lied. “No doubt you recall who it was. I have always heard that your memory far surpasses that of ordinary men.”

  Mirza Salman looked pleased and thought for a moment. “He had one of those common names . . . Isfahani? Kermani? Wait a minute . . . Ah, yes! Kofrani, that is it. If I am not mistaken, his first name was Kamiyar.”

  Finally, a name! I played along. “What a memory you have! How did you hear about his involvement?”

  “Palace rumor, I suppose. It has been so long, I don’t remember the source.”

  “Has he retired?”

  Mirza Salman was watching me closely. “Alas, he went to meet God a few years after leaving palace service.”

  I had been congratulating myself on luring Mirza Salman into my trap, but now I realized he was far too careful to make a slip: He wouldn’t have uttered the man’s name if he had been alive.

  “May he meet his just reward.”

  “Would you wish to revenge yourself upon him, if he were living?” he asked. “He was an excellent man. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought he was protecting the Shah.”

  I had to decide in an instant if it would be better for him to think me fierce or flaccid. For Pari’s protection, I decided on the former.

  “I would cut him.”

  Mirza Salman was no innocent, but he stared at me as if I were a crazed dog who might attack for no reason.

  “But if he killed my father mistakenly, perhaps I would just lop off his male parts and call it even,” I joked.

  Mirza Salman laughed uneasily.

  “Do you know why he was never punished?”

  “No.” His eyes flicked away, and I had a feeling he knew more than he was saying.

  I thanked him and left, abuzz with the name that he had planted in my mind. Kamiyar Kofrani. The murderer of my father. The name was ugly, and the man must have been, too. But worst of all, he was dead, and Mirza Salman had confirmed my father’s guilt. Now I could neither argue his innocence nor revenge myself on his killer. After all these years, I had finally collected a missing piece of colored clay from the mosaic of my own past, but I was too late to do anything about it.

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