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Equal of the sun, p.21
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       Equal of the Sun, p.21

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  The two women exchanged a sympathetic look.

  “I am deeply sorry for your loss,” Sultanam added.

  “And I for yours.”

  “Are all the princes at risk?”

  “Not all,” she said. “After I swore that I would die from grief, Isma‘il promised to spare Mohammad and his children, as long as they stay away from Qazveen. Still, I have sent a courier to Mohammad and to his eldest son, Sultan Hassan Mirza, to tell them to regard any strangers as potential murderers.”

  “But Mohammad doesn’t even qualify for the throne,” said Pari. “Why would Isma‘il condemn a man who is already blind?”

  Sultanam sighed. “Perhaps you don’t realize how children change,” she said. “They start life attached to your body, but grow into foreigners.”

  No one said anything. What was there to say when even the Shah’s own mother didn’t have an explanation for his behavior?

  “Revered lady,” I said, “may I ask if the sisters of the Shah are also at risk of his wrath?”

  Sultanam looked at Pari. “I don’t believe he would hurt a woman,” she said. “After all, even the brightest of them may not take the throne.”

  “Never mind about that,” said Pari, careless as always about her own safety. “What about the other princes?”

  “I don’t know,” said Sultanam with an air of helplessness.

  “But Ibrahim is under house arrest. He is one of the flowers of our dynasty, as you know. I ask you, with great humility, can you plead with your son to save him?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “I have already extracted a concession from my son. The rest is in God’s hands.”

  Pari looked as if she thought Sultanam had not understood her words. “Do you understand that my other brothers and cousins are at risk of being executed?”

  “I will pray for their safety.”

  “That is not enough.”

  Sultanam remained seated and composed. “I have done what I can.”

  Pari looked as if a vein had snapped inside her head and poured blood into the skin of her face.

  “I need more help than that. You are queen of all women, charged with protecting the health of the dynasty.”

  “This Shah’s hand is stronger than his mother’s.”

  “A queen mother must do more than protect her own interests,” Pari insisted. “Think what my father would say if he knew that you were abandoning his other children to the grave!”

  Sultanam was stung. “Those are fine words coming from a woman who promotes only herself.”

  “Forget about me. Stand up and do your duty!”

  “You seem to think a woman can do anything, but she can’t. Don’t forget, you are a woman, too. Despite all your maneuvering, a woman will never take the throne.”

  “Who cares what swings between my legs?” Pari’s voice rose, her body stiff with rage. She stood abruptly, walked out the door, and grabbed her black slippers. “At least I would have been a good shah rather than a murderer.”

  “You are neither a prince nor a mother, so what use are you? You should have chosen an appropriate role rather than aspire to one you could never own.”

  Pari stumbled as if she had been struck. She turned toward the room and threw a shoe at Sultanam’s head so quickly that the lady didn’t have time to shield herself. My breath stopped as the black leather slipper flew toward Sultanam and slid over the part in her hair, then slapped against the wall, leaving a wet mark.

  Pari had already disappeared down the corridor, leaving me to face Sultanam’s wrath.

  “A thousand apologies for my princess,” I said quickly. “The enormity of her grief has disordered her mind. Please forgive her.”

  Sultanam’s cheeks were red with anger. “She has never learned to control herself. She will lose her head if she keeps up this way.”

  “I beg forgiveness,” I replied, mortified. “May I remove the offending shoe from your presence?”

  Sultanam made a dismissive gesture with her hand. I retrieved the shoe and asked if I might follow the princess. When permission was granted, I fled Sultanam’s chambers. Pari had put a shoe on her right foot and was walking home through the wet gardens with the other foot bare. The ground was frozen in some spots, and her foot was already tinted blue, but she seemed impervious to the cold. I handed her the shoe, and she slipped it on as if nothing had happened.

  “What did she say?”

  “That you have no manners.”

  “Better to be ill-mannered than a coward.”

  Pari was right: Sultanam had a duty to protect all her husband’s children and grandchildren, not just those who had sprung from her loins.

  “We must send word to the qizilbash leaders, if we can find any in town, and ask if they will advocate for Ibrahim,” Pari said. “We should also send speedy couriers to the princes who are still alive, and to their guardians, to tell them what has happened and urge them to go into hiding. We will save them if we can.”

  At her house, the princess flew into action.

  “Azar Khatoon!” she yelled fiercely, and her chief lady sped into the room. Her lively step made her just the type of person that Pari liked to employ.

  “Bring me paper, fresh ink, two reed pens, another wooden desk, and hot coffee, in that order,” she said. “Run!”

  The lady disappeared with alacrity, and we could hear her calm but firm orders to the other servants.

  “Princess,” I said, “we must word the letters carefully in case they fall into hostile hands. Let us write about the princes as if our goal is to inform the recipients that those who fall out of the Shah’s favor inevitably come to evil ends. In this way, we won’t appear to be opposed to his will in case the letters are intercepted.”

  “Very clever,” she replied. “Both of us will write letters at the same time, and I will sign them. We must reach as many members of my family as we can.”

  Azar brought in a silver tray with coffee, which we drank to give us fortitude. I balanced a desk on my lap, smoothed out a sheet of paper, and dipped my reed pen in ink, wiping it to avoid smudges. I penned the first letter as quickly as I could and passed it to Pari for her signature; then I penned the next one. In the middle of the night, I put the first few letters to her half brothers in a cloth bag, took them to her most trusted courier, and told him to dispatch his men immediately.

  All through that long night we wrote letters to her family members, pausing only to eat a sweetmeat or drain another cup of coffee. Azar kept the oil lamps brightly lit and melted wax so that Pari could press her seal into it as soon as each letter was dry. When our forearms became tired from writing, her lady massaged them with vigor. As she kneaded my arms, I relaxed into my cushion and stared at the pretty beauty mark near her lip. I was achingly tired, and lonely. I wondered if Azar Khatoon would take me into her bed, but her indifference announced to me that she had no need.

  We heard the first call to prayer while sealing the final letters. I wrote a quick additional note to Mahmood, although Pari had already written to him, urging him to take care of himself in every respect, and I signed it, “your loving tutor.”

  Pari’s eyes had deep hollows under them, and I was certain they mirrored my own.

  “I pray that we will save your family,” I said. Eight of her brothers and male cousins were still alive, as far as we knew.

  “Insh’Allah,” she replied, and then she looked at me with new compassion in her eyes. “Now I know something of the heart-tearing sorrow that you endured when you were a young man. Death is always ugly, but to lose a family member to murder is horrifying. Alas, my broken heart!”

  “Princess, I am so sorry,” I replied softly. “Please know that I understand that no consolation is possible.”

  I put the letters in a bag and made another trip to her chief courier, silently praying they would be delivered in time.

  A few hours later, Pari told me to go to Ibrahim’s house to check on him aga
in. It was a cold morning, and the streets were icy as I walked down the great avenue, whose trees were now all bare. I hoped that having made his point, Isma‘il Shah would show Ibrahim mercy. Perhaps this time, I would be admitted to his house and catch a glimpse of him that I could take back to Pari as a treasure.

  When I arrived, I was relieved to see that the Circassian guards were gone. I knocked using the round knocker for women, and one of Gowhar’s ladies opened the door. She told me that I could find her mistress in the courtyard.

  “I cannot accompany you,” she added brusquely. “I must attend to my own work.”

  I suspected her rudeness had to do with the fact that the household had been turned upside down by the guards. I proceeded down a corridor and passed a large room whose shelves were so bare they looked blue in the early morning light. No doubt this had been the famous library, but where were the books? My heart clenched at the sight of loose manuscript pages on the floor, some bearing the imprint of men’s boots.

  As I approached the courtyard, I smelled a fire, which was strange for this snowy time of year. Outside, a great bonfire roared to the heavens, tended by an elderly man. Gowhar sat on the frozen ground near the fire as if she were a common servant, her back rounded under her dark robe, her sober face reflecting the leaping flames.

  “Salaam aleikum. I bring greetings from Pari Khan Khanoom,” I said. Gowhar continued staring into the flames, silent as the grave. A wave of discomfort overtook me.

  “My lieutenant asks after your well-being and wishes to know if there is anything she can offer to help you.”

  Gowhar closed her eyes and two large tears slid down her cheeks. “Pari was right. We should have left.”

  She collapsed into sobs so piteous I am certain they would have broken even Isma‘il’s heart.

  “They killed him this morning,” she added, “and didn’t even have the grace to kill me with him.”

  No words, no expressions could suffice in such a case. I was speechless.

  The manservant poked at the fire, which ejected bits of burned paper into the sky. I suspected Gowhar had tried to destroy incriminating papers, but then I noticed several charred poetry manuscripts, their pages browned and curled.

  “Agha!” I cried out in alarm to the manservant. “Some books are being burned by accident!”

  He looked away. Gowhar threw back her head and laughed, making a terrible sound.

  “Not by accident.”

  I stared at her.

  “Isma‘il will not have them!” Gowhar cried. She opened her palms and gestured to the air around her. “They’re safe at last.”

  “You mean—you mean—” I could not put the question into words. “Where are they?”

  “I burned them.”

  “All of them?”

  “All except for those,” she said, gesturing toward the charred remains in the fire.

  Thousands of books—the work of countless scribes, gilders, and illuminators—converted into smoke in one morning! The loss was too large to fathom.

  Gowhar’s triumph faded when she saw my expression. Her sobs racked her body with so much force that she gasped and choked. I rushed to Pari’s house and fetched several eunuchs and a lady physician. They brought a sleeping potion to Gowhar, who drank it and said, “I pray I may never wake again.”

  In the midst of all of these calamities, Mirza Salman summoned me to his office to tell me that Shamkhal Cherkes had been named Guardian of the Shah’s Most Precious Seal, taking Ibrahim’s place. Ibrahim’s grave had not even been dug when the announcement was made. How quickly a favorite had been destroyed, and how quickly all traces of him were already being rubbed away!

  Pari resolved to visit her uncle to ask him to help save the remaining princes. As guardian of the seal, he now held one of the highest positions in the land.

  “We can no longer think of ourselves, nor worry about proprieties,” Pari said sternly. I didn’t realize what she meant until she reached into a nearby trunk and handed me some women’s clothing: a black chador and a picheh for covering the face.

  “As soon as we leave the palace, you must remove your turban and cloak yourself in these.”

  “Leave the palace?”

  “We are going in secret to see Shamkhal at his home. That will protect him from having to acknowledge our visit.”

  “That is forbidden!”

  “Javaher, we have no choice.”

  If we were caught, I would be punished for allowing her to leave. I was risking my livelihood and possibly even my life. But Pari spoke the truth: What good would our lives be if Isma‘il killed all his brothers and, possibly, his sisters?

  “Princess, how do you expect to get out?”

  “Follow me.”

  We walked through the harem gardens so quickly that the air around Pari seemed to move out of her way. I followed her to a remote corner of the grounds, which were surrounded by smooth walls too high for anyone to climb. To my surprise, she disappeared into thick hedges. Beyond them lay an old pavilion that might have once been used for outdoor picnics, but was now crumbling and surrounded by weeds. Pari stepped into a room inside the pavilion, whose flooring consisted of green and yellow glazed tiles, some of which were chipped. Bending down in the middle of the floor, Pari pushed aside a large, heavy tile, panting with effort. A wide opening led down into a passageway.

  “Ajab!” I said. So that was how she and Maryam had managed to visit the gypsies. Nothing about the princess could be predicted.

  We walked down an incline into the dank passageway, and I pulled the tile into place above us. We continued in the dark until we reached a tall wooden door, which Pari unlocked with a key the size of my hand.

  “I don’t have a lamp,” she said, “but I know the way without fail. Hold the end of my kerchief so you don’t get lost.”

  Pari locked the door behind us. The tunnel was as cold and silent as the grave.

  “You must never speak of this,” she said.

  “I promise,” I replied, delighted that she trusted me enough to reveal her secret exit.

  We walked for a long time before arriving at a second door. Pari unlocked it and we entered another passageway, stepped up on a landing, and kept shuffling in the dirt until we emerged into another crumbling building in a copse of trees in one of the rarely used parks near the Promenade of the Royal Stallions.

  I wrapped myself in the picheh and the chador, holding the black cloth under my chin. It was possible to see through the loose weave of the face veil, but I felt blinded. As we traversed the park, I tried to mimic Pari’s graceful gait.

  “You walk like a man,” she complained. “Take tiny steps, not wide strides. Move like the shadow of a cloud.”

  I pressed my legs together and minced my steps, the way I saw women do.

  We walked briskly down a side street to the neighborhood where Shamkhal lived. Men leered at us and uttered coarse suggestions that made me feel strangely dirty. Was this what it was like to be a woman, always on display? I missed my usual comfortable anonymity.

  Pari announced us to Shamkhal’s servants as his sisters, refusing to remove her face covering before being shown into her uncle’s presence.

  Shamkhal was drinking his afternoon tea. He looked at the shapes in front of him with surprise, until Pari began speaking and it seemed that he recognized her voice. Then he told his servants to leave and stay away until he called for them. As soon as the door closed behind him, Pari lifted her picheh, and I threw off my wraps altogether.

  “By God above!” Shamkhal said, his normally florid face whitening. “How did you get permission to leave the palace?” He rushed to the door to make sure that it was bolted tight, but even with the door firmly closed, his eyes darted around.

  “Has someone smacked you in the head? Imagine how you would be punished if Isma‘il found out.”

  “I had to come.”

  “What risks you take!”

  Pari sat down while I stood at the back of the r
oom. “I am here because of the princes who have been killed,” she said in a strangled voice.

  “I am deeply sorry.”

  “I didn’t come for condolences. I came to ask when the men of the Safavi court are going to halt this slaughter.”

  Shamkhal stepped back. “How can we do anything? The murders are by direct order of your brother, the light of the universe.”

  “Uncle, please omit the palace formalities. The Shah has destroyed half of the dynasty. Are the nobles going to do anything about it?”

  “What can we do?”

  “Disordered shahs can justifiably be removed.”

  “But this one isn’t insane, sick, or blind. We don’t have a valid reason.”

  “Isn’t injustice a reason?”

  “There is no injustice when it comes from the Shah!”

  “That is palace garbage,” Pari said. “Don’t the nobles care about what is happening?”

  “Of course they care. No one is happy about this state of affairs.”

  “Have you asked the qizilbash nobles to help?”

  “No, because they have been sent to kill the Sufis.”

  “Why? They don’t deserve it.”

  “I know.”

  “Are the nobles men or not?”

  His shoulders stiffened. “Isma‘il’s spies are everywhere. No one can breathe without him hearing the sound.”

  “By God above! I am an unarmed woman begging for help, and no one will do the right thing?”

  “What is the right thing?”

  “When a leader at other courts has been found to be of unsound mind, their nobles ask his eldest female relatives for permission to unseat him. If permission is given, they remove him. I suppose their men are braver than ours.”

  He looked as uncomfortable as if she had held a hot poker near his eyes. “I wish I could help.”

  “Aren’t you and the other men afraid that he won’t stop at killing his own flesh and blood?”

  “Of course. Every man is hoping that by showing fealty, he will remain unscathed. Any sign of disloyalty is so rapidly punished that we don’t even dare to think disloyal thoughts.”

 
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