Equal of the Sun, p.22Anita Amirrezvani
“My father was right to imprison him,” she said. “I wish I had taken heed. He understood things about Isma‘il that none of us knew.”
“Can you at least protect Sultanam’s grandchildren?”
“Not if the Shah wishes them dead.”
“Shamkhal! What has become of you?”
“I survive as well as I can. That is all a man can do under these circumstances.”
“It is an ugly way to live.”
His broad face seemed to swell with anger. “You think so? It is much less ugly than other possibilities.”
“Meaning at least I advise Isma‘il on a daily basis, arguing for clemency and mercy. I attempt to influence his decisions by pointing out examples of goodness. What do you do?”
“He hasn’t given me a chance to do anything.”
“My point exactly. You treated him with disdain. You defied his orders. You didn’t take the time to become a trusted servant. As a result, you have had no influence at all.”
Pari’s face flushed dark. “I deserved better.”
“Because of all I know. Because of who my father was. Because I am better at governing than he is.”
“All of that is true, but it doesn’t help us now. I begged you to bow before him and show your humility. But you wouldn’t make compromises, so you have been rendered impotent.”
“At least I am not a coward. I stand tall for what I believe.”
“Those are very fine words,” he said. “They will probably sound even better when you turn them into poetry. But what good are words? Now when you are needed the most, you can’t even get an appointment to see your own brother.”
“I’m glad that I don’t bow my head before his ridiculous orders, like you do. How many men will you stand by and see murdered?”
“As many as is necessary, while I influence him as much as I can and adjust when I can’t.”
“What if you awake to find his men hovering above you with a cord in their hands to strangle you?”
“I will have done my duty as well as I could.”
Pari was so exasperated she hit both sides of her head with her hands. “It is like trying to get a rat to stop feeding at the latrines!”
“You are the shit-eater!” Shamkhal bellowed, his voice so loud I felt it in my teeth. “What if you try to remove him and awake to see those same men waiting for you?”
“At least I will die knowing I have done what I could to oppose him.”
Pari stood up abruptly and wrapped the chador over her body.
“Daughter of my sister, wait a minute. Everyone would be grateful if you were able to tame him.”
“How can I do that now?” she replied. “All of you men were happy to allow him to shut me out of palace affairs. How quick you were to do so!”
“It was a direct order.”
“But if you had argued against it, I might have retained some influence. Maybe I am impotent, but you helped Isma‘il put me in that position. Now how is anyone to stop him?”
Despite his big black beard and broad shoulders, Shamkhal looked helpless for a moment.
“I don’t know. We will have to wait until the qizilbash come back from chasing the Sufis to see if they will help.”
“But their absence is making it possible for the princes to be exterminated!”
Shamkhal opened his palms to heaven as if to say the matter was in God’s hands.
Pari’s lips turned down with disgust as she flipped the picheh over her face. “And they say that women are cowards!” she exclaimed as she clutched her chador under her chin and strode toward the door. Her uncle didn’t plead with her to stay. Clumsily, I covered my face and body.
Outside, the princess could not contain herself.
“Oh great God above,” she prayed as we walked down the street, “look kindly on your child, I beg you. Advise me on the correct course of action, for I am lost. These times are as dark as times have ever been. Gazzali has written that without justice there is nothing—no loyalty, no citizenry, no prosperity, and finally, no country. We are at risk of losing everything. Oh Lord, show your servant a ray of light in her darkest moment!”
I echoed her prayer as we entered the park, descended into the passageway, and walked quickly in the cold. I felt relieved not to be on the street, where there was a possibility of being discovered. We emerged into the crumbling pavilion without incident, flung off our wraps, and walked back to her home through the harem gardens. In her rooms, the princess sat down, looking shaken. Her own uncle! It was the worst blow of all.
“Who can we turn to now? Mirza Salman?”
Her smile was ragged and defeated. “He is a man of the pen of second rank. The qizilbash won’t listen to him.”
Pari’s eyes looked unveiled for the first time in months. What I saw reminded me of the despair of a prisoner being led to execution. Her hands lay palm up in her lap, small, tender things, the henna designs now faded. She looked down at them for a moment.
“I am frightened,” she whispered.
I was thunderstruck by the rawness of her admission. Deep in my heart, it stirred a desire to sacrifice myself for her. I had fight enough for three men, and I vowed to do all I could to keep her safe from harm.
THE CALL TO BATTLE
Kaveh received word that his eighteenth and last son had been called to present himself to Zahhak and his snakes. Upon hearing the news, he abandoned his forge and marched to the palace, the thick muscles of his forearms clenching with rage. So great was his anger that he rushed past the guards and interrupted Zahhak while he was holding court.
“Illustrious King,” he roared, his eyes flashing like the sparks from his forge, “you rule over seven realms and a treasury bursting with gold. Why must you rob me of my only wealth? If you are as just as you claim, you will leave my last son alone rather than perpetrating such evil.”
Zahhak tasted metal on his tongue. How could he defend his own actions? He longed to make himself look clean in the eyes of the world.
“I will release your son,” he replied, issuing the order. “Now you must sign this proclamation attesting to the justice of my reign. Is that easy enough?”
When Kaveh read the proclamation and saw the names of all the nobles there, his cheeks turned purple, his eyes bulged, and the muscles in his neck throbbed.
“What a pack of cowards you all are!” he shouted at the nobles. “How can you put your names to such lies and still call yourselves men?”
With a great roar, he ripped the document to bits and stomped on it, while the nobles gaped at him as if he were a mad dog. Then he stormed out of the palace in a rage. At the town’s central square, he tore off his blacksmith’s apron and raised it high in the air on the point of a spear so that people could see it far and wide. They flooded in from everywhere and rallied around his cause.
“Justice!” they cried. “Justice!”
The ladies’ section of the palace was as quiet as a graveyard, and the faces of most of its inhabitants were drawn with sorrow. Fear permeated every room like a dense, stagnant fog. Was it over? Who would be next?
My mother’s cousin wrote to ask when Jalileh could be sent to Qazveen, and I was suffused with relief that Pari had told me to wait. Never would I put Jalileh, who was unschooled in the intricacies of palace politics, at so much risk. I wrote back and explained as best as I could, without any details, that the situation was unsafe.
After all the mourning ceremonies for the dead princes were completed, Pari summoned me to her home. Azar Khatoon showed me into her most private chamber, where Pari met intimates like Maryam and her mother. It was the one with the mural of the nude Shireen, fine peach-colored silk rugs, and matching cushions. Pari was reading a copy of the Shahnameh, one that I had never seen before. The book was open to a page of ornate calligraphy illustrated by a gilded painting, rich with jeweled colors.
“Thank you, kind princess.” My heart flowered under the warmth of her words.
“What sorrows we have endured together! If I had known they would be so great, I wouldn’t have burdened you with becoming my vizier.”
“Princess, it has been the greatest honor of my life to serve you. I would have done so no matter what,” I replied, and that was the truth.
“I am glad to hear that,” she said. “I hope you still desire to be in my employ.”
“With all my heart.”
“I expect that you don’t say so lightly. The tasks ahead are very grave.”
Pari looked thoughtful. “It is strange how many portents are around us, if only we care to see them. I have been rereading the story in the Shahnameh about how Zahhak demanded that the skulls of young men be cracked like walnuts so that his snakes could feed on their brains. It was no more than a story to me until recently, but now I see it afresh. Haven’t we experienced the very same disaster? Our leader has destroyed some of the brightest stars of his court, from young meteorites educated in the princely arts ever since they were small, to bright blazing suns like Ibrahim who are born only once in a generation. Our leader has become the very image of Zahhak.”
Everything in me had been trained to be loyal to the Shah. I couldn’t help but look around to see if anyone was listening.
“Until now, he has spared Mohammad Khodabandeh and his children, but it is still possible he will send someone to destroy them. If he and his family are murdered—and may God prevent it—who will be left to lead the dynasty?”
“What about Mahmood Mirza? What about Isma‘il’s unborn child?”
“I don’t know who will survive. My responsibility in this matter is to defend all the princes who might lead the dynasty in the future. I must do everything I can to protect them.”
“That won’t be easy.”
“As things stand, it is impossible. I can no more prevent Isma‘il from sending out assassins than I can tell the sun when to rise. There are those who believe they can control the orbits of the planets, but I am not one of them.”
The gravity of her tone and the privacy of our meeting made me acutely sensitive to whatever was coming next.
“In times of confusion, I turn to the Shahnameh because my father held it so dear. I have been reading it for Ferdowsi’s guidance about the righteous ways to handle a disordered shah. He is very cautious on this point. After all, he was hoping for remuneration from the Ghaznavi sultan and couldn’t be seen as opposing his reign, even indirectly.”
I had continued reading my own copy of the Shahnameh almost every night, holding it with affection because it had been a gift from Mahmood.
“But look what happens to the voracious Zahhak: Kaveh sparks a rebellion. So even Ferdowsi, who is usually so careful not to offend the institution of royalty, is willing to suggest that a truly evil shah must be resisted.”
Pari was drawing a noose of logic around my neck, and I didn’t wish to be captured in a knot that couldn’t be untied. My face must have shown my feelings, because her voice softened.
“Sometimes, one person must make a sacrifice for the good of all others,” she added. “Kaveh was such a man. What an inspiration he is to all who suffer from tyranny! I can’t sit by any longer while a fire consumes the house of our future. Too often, I have acted in the hope of some gain for myself. Now I must act for others, regardless of my fate.”
She said this with so much delicacy and such understanding of her own flaws that I was touched at the core of my heart.
“May God always protect you! You are the brightest star among women.”
“Thank you, Javaher. But tell me: Do you feel as strongly as I do that our leader is disordered?”
“Yes, of course. Your revered father would never have killed his own kin with no reason.”
“I know the sacrifice you made to serve him was dear. Now I am going to request that you make an even greater one, but I won’t demand it from you. It must be freely given.”
A feeling of dread suffused me. “What are you asking for?”
“That is always yours. What else?”
Pari lowered her voice. “He must be removed.”
My heart began pounding like the drums that march men to war. How could I agree to what she was asking of me? For a man to raise his hand against his leader, for a sister to strike at her own brother—that was cause for death if discovered, and for eternal damnation if God deemed it unjust.
The princess wanted to rip the proclamation. Yet we couldn’t do it the way Kaveh had done, because our shah was not a character in a poem; he would simply have us put to death if we openly protested his rule.
Pari was scrutinizing my face. “Javaher, will you help me bring justice to this land?”
“In the name of God above!” I thundered. “I have delivered everything but my last breath to this dynasty, including the possibility of raising my own sons. Now must I turn traitor in order to serve this same line? What kind of servant would I be? What truth would ever seem solid?”
“Your questions are fair,” said Pari, “but I suggest that you would be serving the cause of justice. That can be the only reason for agreeing to such a request. You have my permission to assist me only if you believe the cause is righteous.”
If she had said anything else—if she had mentioned personal gain or glory, I would have refused her. But she was reaching for the only part of me that was tender to her request. Isma‘il had become the very image of Zahhak; there was no denying it. Would we remain silent and allow him to destroy us at his whim? Or would we become as brave as Kaveh?
“What do you intend for him?”
“The fate he brought to others.”
“Even your father, may his soul be at rest, let Isma‘il live,” I argued.
“My father had the authority to imprison him and render him powerless. We do not. I have recently asked Sultanam if she would allow the qizilbash chiefs to remove him on the basis of insanity, but she said no. There is only one way to rid ourselves of this scourge, just as there was only one way to unseat Zahhak.”
“This defies all I have been taught ever since I was a youth! How can you ask this of me?”
“How can I not, when it is the only just thing to do? He will kill us all if we leave him be.”
“All my life, I have striven to be loyal to the throne. After my father was murdered, I wished to set an impeccable example.”
“You have done so.”
“Thank you. But now I must throw away my morals and rebel?”
“Sometimes it is the only choice.”
“I can’t answer yet; I must think.”
“I understand,” she said, “and I honor your need for reflection. Return to me as soon as you have made a decision.”
As I took my leave, I glanced back and was struck by the pretty picture she made. Sitting on a cushion in a purple robe embroidered with sparrows, surrounded by a delicate manuscript illustration of courtly women and men in a garden, with elegant peach silk rugs beneath her, she exuded feminine grace and learning. The lushness of her surroundings, the fineness of her robe, her curved, regal forehead, all made her look rare and delicate. Yet buried within her tall, thin frame was something harder than I had ever seen in her father, something harder still than what lay in the qizilbash warriors whose turbans held the erect red batons that made them look like giants. She had come to a conclusion so awful it would incite many a warrior to flee, but she didn’t flinch from it.
Pari’s request made me restless, and so did not knowing about the fate of Mahmood. I still had had no letter from him and no news. I hoped Khadijeh might be able to enlighten me about
When I arrived and was shown in, I was surprised to see Khadijeh dressed all in black, her hair covered by a black silk scarf, which made her tamarind skin look pale.
“My condolences,” I said, as I took my seat on a cushion across from her.
“Thank you. And mine to you.”
I wasn’t related to anyone who had died, but had dressed soberly to reflect the state of the palace.
“I have come to speak with you about a private matter on behalf of my lieutenant,” I said. Khadijeh turned to Nasreen and told her to bring me hot coffee.
The minute she had left, Khadijeh said, “You look as if you have seen the dead.”
“I feel as if I have,” I replied. “Six princes have been killed, and Gowhar is behaving like a madwoman. She is so sick with grief I am not certain she will find the strength to live. It is terrible to see.”
“May God shower us with mercy!” Khadijeh replied, a tear sliding onto her cheek.
I couldn’t help myself. I leapt up from my cushion and claimed her hand, wishing I could take her in my arms and feel the warmth of our bodies entwined.
“Has he said anything about when the killing will stop? I fear for Mahmood!”
Khadijeh looked so startled that I regretted saying anything. She stared at the door, and I quickly withdrew my hand and regained my position on the other side of the room.
“Poor Javaher. You have reason to fear,” she said softly, her eyes wells of grief.
“I know, I know,” I replied. “Why are you so sad?”
“I too have suffered a terrible loss.”
“But you are not related to any of the royal princes, except by marriage.”
“That is true,” she replied. “They are not whom I mourn. I learned this morning that my brother, Mohsen, is dead.”
Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes