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Equal of the sun, p.20
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       Equal of the Sun, p.20

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  That night, I waited impatiently for Balamani to finish his work so that I could tell him what I had learned. I longed for the sweet relief of confiding in a friend, and I hoped he would be able to shed more light on what had happened. But he did not arrive at the usual time.

  The hours went by, the moon rose, and still Balamani did not appear. I began reading the Shahnameh that Mahmood had given me, and its felicitous rhymes helped keep me awake for a long time before I succumbed to sleep, the book on my chest. When finally Balamani entered our chamber, it was daylight. He removed his outer robe and sat on his bedroll, his face drawn with fatigue.

  “What happened?”

  “One of the Shah’s women was pregnant, but she lost the baby a few hours ago. She is sick with grief.”

  “Mahasti?”

  “No, another slave. She was losing a lot of blood. We sent for a physician and a woman schooled in religion to console her.”

  “That is terrible news.”

  “Then I had to go to the Shah’s quarters and wait until he arose to tell him what happened. He took his time.”

  Balamani looked more melancholy than I would have expected.

  “What is troubling you so?”

  He threw himself back on his bedroll. “While the lady was suffering, I was flooded with memories of my mother’s death. I was only about four years old. A group of women came to our house and shut me out of her room; I remember their awful wails. No one ever told me what happened, but now I suspect that my mother died in childbirth. Today I had the eerie feeling that I was one of the attendants at her deathbed. I feel sometimes as if all the moments of my life existed simultaneously—as if I am living in the past and present at the same time.”

  “May God keep the souls of your family in His gentle embrace.”

  He sighed. “You are lucky to have a sister. In memory of my lost sibling, I shall give double my usual amount to the orphans of Qazveen. And now, tell me your news. Why are you awake so early?”

  I sat up. “Balamani, I have finally learned the name of my father’s killer. It was Kamiyar Kofrani!” I blurted out.

  “You mean the accountant? How do you know?” He didn’t sound as surprised as I thought he would be.

  “Mirza Salman told me.”

  “Are you sure he is the right man?”

  “Do you think Mirza Salman would lie?”

  “Any man can lie.”

  I thought his answer very strange. “What about this Kofrani—was he a good servant?”

  “Yes. One of the best.”

  I did not like the sound of that.

  “And his children?”

  “He had three boys. One of them is dead, but I am fairly certain the other two serve the government in Shiraz, and have wives and children.”

  “Which I will never have. I hope they all burn in hell.” I stared at him suspiciously. “How do you come by so much information about them?”

  “Javaher, you know that I know almost every family who has served at court for the last fifty years.”

  I lifted the blanket off my bedroll with so much force that it flew onto the floor.

  Balamani shrugged off the rest of his clothes and got into his bed. “My friend, I can understand why you are angry. But since the man is dead, what can you do?”

  I glared at him from my bedroll. “That is good advice—unless your father has been murdered, in which case something must be done.”

  “Remember that I lost my father all the same. Or rather, he lost me to a slaver. But I haven’t been spending my time trying to track down the merchant who chopped off my eight-year-old penis and sold me to court.”

  “Wasn’t it wrong?”

  He snorted. “If it wasn’t, Muslims would castrate their own boys instead of buying gelded Hindus and Christians.”

  “Aren’t you angry?”

  “It is not that simple. If I hadn’t lost my keer, I would never have feasted on kabob, lived in a palace, or worn silk. My family was as poor as dirt.”

  “Balamani, stop equivocating.”

  Compassion softened his eyes. “My young friend, it is not just your father’s murderer you have to forgive.”

  “Who is it then?”

  “Yourself.”

  “For what?”

  “For what you did.”

  Rage surged through me. “All this time, I thought you wanted to help me!”

  “Of course I do,” he replied, but for the first time I could remember, he sounded as if he didn’t really mean it. I maintained an angry silence. Balamani rolled over and began snoring before I could think of what to say next.

  A group of Sufis met on Thursdays to whirl their way closer to God. From time to time, I attended their sama to imbibe the peacefulness of the ceremony. After hearing the news about my father, I decided to avoid the usual Thursday-evening leisure activities, which I had no stomach for, and go to the sama. I sent a message to Pari that I was ill and left the palace through a side gate.

  The Sufis gathered in a large building with windows high in the walls and roof, so that the room was dappled as if in the shade of a walnut tree. When I arrived late in the afternoon, the ceremony had already begun. The anguished notes of the flute called out the desire of the reed for reunion with its maker, throwing me deeper into memories of my father.

  I took a place on a cushion and watched the Sufis whirl. They wore long white tunics belted at the waist, white trousers, and tall tan hats, while their spiritual leaders performed music to help guide their journey. The aspirants used one leg as a pivot, turning their bodies around it with surprising speed. To keep their balance and channel divine energy, they lifted one arm to the sky, palm up, and directed the other to the earth, palm down. They whirled for a long time, turning as gracefully as a leaf twirling on an autumn breeze. Their inward-focused eyes made it look as if they had briefly left the earth, and their white tunics billowed around them so that they resembled the pure white roses in the royal gardens.

  I weighed the burdens on my heart. My father, whose soul cried for justice. My mother, who had died without the satisfaction of seeing her family’s honor restored. My sister, who had been deprived of the ordinary happiness of growing up with loving parents and siblings. I thought of the parts of my body that were missing and of the sons I would never have. Had I made the right choice, if I could not avenge my father? Had my sacrifice been for nothing? As I watched the Sufis whirl, I wished I could spin with them and purge my heart of all its suffering.

  Eventually, the music slowed and the men began turning more slowly until they gradually came to a halt. They paused to collect themselves, then drifted to a group of cushions to sit and refresh themselves with tea and sweetmeats. They looked peaceful and happy. I envied their stillness. In the press of my daily service to Pari, it was easy to forget that such communion between the self and the divine was a gift always at hand.

  An older man with a face as lined and as bumpy as a walnut shell sat down beside me. I greeted him and asked about his health.

  “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “The world is ending, alas! And it is all because of a sheep.”

  “Indeed? Now how is that?”

  “The sheep has become ill,” he replied. “It fell down with limbs so straight and stiff it could no longer right itself.”

  “Your riddles are too deep for this humble seeker. How does that presage the end of the world?”

  “There are no riddles at all, my child! Not for those who know the truth.”

  I pretended to be distracted by a tray of tea carried by a boy.

  “We are in disgrace,” the old man insisted, his wrinkles deepening with concern. “All of us.”

  “May I offer you some tea?”

  I stood up to signal the boy.

  “I don’t need tea. I need a remedy.”

  I agreed with him silently about that. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

  “The Ostajlu,” he blurted out, which surprised me into sitting dow
n again.

  “What about them?”

  “A Sufi sold them a sick sheep,” he said, “and now they are angry.”

  It sounded simple enough. “Why not have a specialist examine it, with restitution to follow if required?”

  “It is too late,” he replied. “Men have drawn their daggers and each other’s blood.”

  I sighed. “If it was only a squabble, put your trust in God, arbiter of all things.”

  “God was on our side,” he whispered, leaning toward me as if I were a conspirator. “Our men beat back the Ostajlu, who have not forgiven us.”

  “Your men must be fierce,” I said, to encourage him to talk.

  “They are fierce, but few. Now they are in hiding, fearing for their lives. The world is ending, alas!”

  He uttered an unearthly groan after he said this, but the men around us paid no attention. I persevered.

  “Why is the world ending?”

  “They wish to destroy us!” he said, his voice rising, and it sounded as if he might start raving. “Who can hope to resist the combined efforts of all the qizilbash?”

  “All the qizilbash? Isn’t the argument just with the Ostajlu?”

  “It is, but all the men of the sword have been sent against us.”

  “They have? By whom?”

  The boy arrived with the tea. The man placed a date in his mouth and took a swallow of tea. I stared at him, wondering if what he said could be true.

  “By the one and only,” he replied, obviously too frightened to name Isma‘il Shah.

  “But why would he send them against the Sufis?”

  As the man paused to drink more tea, I remembered that the Sufis had regarded Kholafa as their spiritual leader.

  “They fear our power,” he replied.

  “May God keep all your members safe from harm.”

  “Insh’Allah.”

  I drained my tea, thanked the man for sharing his company, and left quickly. Why would the Shah feel it necessary to use the pretext of a quarrel over a sick sheep to punish the Sufis? He could punish anyone he wished. And if the Shah wanted the Ostajlu to take revenge on the Sufis to prove their loyalty to him, why would he bother to send all the qizilbash? I had to figure out how these strange, misshapen shards might coalesce into a picture of perfect clarity.

  I rushed back to the palace and told Pari what I had learned from the Sufis, enjoying how her eyes drank in the information. But then she frowned.

  “I thought you were ill.”

  “I was,” I said quickly. “I went to the sama for its healing powers.”

  Pari looked skeptical. “For your own protection, you had better make sure to tell me what you are doing.”

  “I will.”

  Before we were able to discuss my conduct or the meaning of what I had heard, her mother arrived with her ladies. I paid my respects and then awaited orders near the door.

  The princess greeted her mother and called for refreshments, but she fidgeted so much on her cushion that her discomfort was obvious.

  “My child, I come bearing news. Remember I said I would return to you with a list of qualified suitors?”

  “I do, but I am busy today,” Pari replied, her long forehead crinkling. “I face several crises more pressing than finding a husband.”

  “Hear me out,” said her mother, wincing as she placed her hip on a cushion. “I received a letter this morning from a kinswoman in Sistan, whom I had written to ask about the marital status of your cousin Badi al-Zaman.”

  Pari sighed, and I echoed her impatience silently.

  “Don’t worry that I will suggest him as a possibility,” said her mother. “Badi al-Zaman is dead. He was found in bed with a dagger in his heart.”

  Pari’s eyes clouded, making her look as if she could no longer see. “May God be merciful!”

  “It is not just him,” her mother added. “He had an infant son only a year old who was found strangled in his bedchamber.”

  We were all shocked into silence. Azar Khatoon’s shoulders rounded as if she had received a blow. I could feel my face crumpling in disbelief like the faces around me.

  “What a horror,” breathed Pari. “What could be more fragile, more beloved, and more precious than a baby boy? What more sickening than the murder of a child brought into the world with great suffering by his mother? It is unimaginable.”

  “May God shelter his tiny soul,” whispered Daka Cherkes.

  “We must not lose our ability to reason now that we need it the most,” Pari said. “The child’s death assures us that this was a political murder designed to destroy Badi al-Zaman’s entire line. Who is responsible?”

  “The letter didn’t say. However, it is clear that the people of the region are disgusted with the rule of the qizilbash, and they intend to set up their own ruler.”

  “So we have another rebellion on our hands!”

  “I am afraid so.”

  Pari’s eyes locked with my own; I knew at once what she feared. “Has anyone had news of the other princes in the last few days?”

  “I haven’t,” Daka said.

  “Javaher, go check on Ibrahim and Gowhar immediately.”

  I rushed out of the palace and down the Promenade of the Royal Stallions to Ibrahim and Gowhar’s house. I hoped that my errand would find them safe. If so, I would be honored by the opportunity to glimpse their famous library, which housed thousands of books, including a priceless manuscript of Jami’s poems ten years in the making.

  I was not even permitted to enter their courtyard. Armed soldiers halted me and told me that Ibrahim was under house arrest. Breathless, I returned to Pari’s quarters, only to be greeted by the sound of great wails. Pari’s mother clung to her, tears flowing. Pari held her gently, trying to soothe her.

  “What happened?” I asked Massoud Ali, whose eyes were dark with horror.

  “Pari’s brother Suleyman is dead,” he whispered.

  I rocked back on my heels in shock.

  “Pari’s half brothers, Imamqoli Mirza and Ahmad Mirza, have also been found slain in their chambers.”

  They were only twelve or thirteen years old. I dropped to a cushion, my mind clearing all of a sudden as all the tiny bits of colored clay formed themselves into a mosaic. With the qizilbash busy chasing the Sufis, no one remained to protect the princes and Isma‘il was free to order the remaining nobles to execute whomever he wished. I was grateful that Mahmood lived in a remote province in the heart of the Caucasus, but the news filled me with terror, and I resolved to warn him right away.

  “Why does God visit so much sorrow upon me?” Daka exclaimed through her tears. “First my husband, now my only son. I will never bear another. Was any woman more bereft?”

  “Or any daughter?” Pari replied. “How much death must one witness?”

  “My child, you who are still young have already endured so much!”

  Daka brushed her fingers under Pari’s dry eyes, searching for water. “Why don’t you mourn?”

  “Black clouds are pouring rain on my heart,” Pari replied. “The weather inside me is as bleak as any you have ever seen. But I won’t allow myself to break at a time when I may be able to help princes who are still alive.”

  “You poor child!” Her mother collapsed into sobs.

  “Mother, I must abide.”

  Pari’s eyes searched mine, begging for the balm of good news. “What have you learned?”

  My stomach lurched with a desire to make her feel better. “The Shah’s guard has been posted at Ibrahim’s, but I believe he is still alive.”

  “Come, Javaher, we must see if someone will help us defend him.”

  “Yes, and the other princes,” I said quickly, “like Mahmood.” I choked saying his name.

  Pari called for her wraps, and I followed her out the big wooden door, while her mother was helped by her ladies to her own quarters.

  “I blame myself for not thinking fast enough,” Pari said to me. “I saw some soldiers assembling i
n the Promenade of the Royal Stallions yesterday. When you told me about the Sufis, I should have figured it out. Which of the Shah’s nobles would know the full extent of his plans?”

  “Perhaps no one. I suspect he would have called in his men one by one when ordering the executions.”

  “We shall go see Sultanam. I am hopeful that her mother’s heart knows more.”

  As we walked through the gardens, a hard freezing rain fell, lashing us with its sting. The princess’s face looked as if it was covered with tears. She wiped at her red eyes, and only then did I understand that she had not been able to prevent the escape of rivers of grief.

  When we entered Sultanam’s quarters, Pari asked her eunuch to show us in to see the great lady. He replied that he would ask if she was available.

  “It is an emergency,” Pari said. “We won’t leave until we see her.”

  “As you wish.”

  Before long, we were summoned. Kicking off her wet shoes outside Sultanam’s door, Pari entered the room. I arranged the gold-embossed black slippers neatly and placed my boots beside hers.

  Sultanam was seated on a cushion dressed in a black mourning robe. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her magnificent curly white hair was loose and wild around her shoulders. Pari greeted Sultanam respectfully as the “first wife of my revered father.” After Sultanam welcomed her, Pari dropped to her cushion and began speaking in a quiet, serious voice.

  “Know that I will humble myself in any way to gain your help,” she said. “Five princes are dead, including my brother, another is under house arrest, and the fate of the others is unclear. Does your son intend to destroy the entire dynasty?”

  Sultanam’s eyes filled with water and her mouth bowed in defeat.

  “I wish I knew what was in his heart,” she replied. “This afternoon, after I heard about the princes, I went to see him. I threw myself on my knees, tore at my hair, and begged him to spare my son Mohammad Khodabandeh and his five children. Isma‘il declared that rebellion is everywhere and that I must leave it to him to root out evildoers.”

 
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