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Equal of the sun, p.23
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       Equal of the Sun, p.23

           Anita Amirrezvani
 
“My dear Khadijeh! What happened?”

  She wrapped her arms around her body. “He died trying to protect someone else, which was very like him. Mohsen always watched over me and defended me when we were young.”

  Her eyes overflowed with tears, which she left glistening on her cheeks. “When I lost my parents, I thought I had lost all a woman could lose. But the fresh grief that fills my heart will never depart, no matter how long I live.”

  “How I wish I could hold you in my arms and comfort you!”

  “Hush!” she whispered and looked as if she were listening for something. All of a sudden Nasreen Khatoon came in bearing the coffee, arriving so soundlessly that I wondered if she had been trying to catch a few words of our conversation. I changed the subject quickly.

  “The esteemed princess would like to know if you have any special medicine that would help Gowhar vanquish the worst part of her grief.”

  “I do,” Khadijeh said. “In recent days, I have had many requests for the mixture, and have been taking it myself. Nasreen Khatoon, please prepare another serving of the herbs I showed you and bring it here for our guest.”

  The lady laid down the tray and left again to do her bidding. Now I understood why Khadijeh seemed so composed. Her medicines were potent enough to take away all pains.

  “Javaher—” Khadijeh said, but I interrupted her.

  “How can we stop him?”

  Her mouth turned down in disgust. “I only hope he doesn’t call for me. How can I lie under him, knowing what has happened to my brother?”

  I was puzzled. “What does Mohsen’s death have to do with the Shah?”

  Khadijeh sighed. “Javaher, it pains me that you must know the truth. My brother died defending Mahmood.”

  I felt as if an iron hand were squeezing my heart. “May he always be safe!” I said, but my words sounded angry.

  She looked at me with such compassion that my rage embarrassed me. “If you don’t want to know what has happened, I won’t tell you.”

  I had no choice but to ask her.

  “Mohsen was with Mahmood at a hunting camp. The Shah’s men found them by following the smoke of their fire and attacked them. A friend of my brother’s who was with them escaped with his life. He wrote that Mahmood was strangled, and Mohsen was killed with a dagger. Their bodies were taken back to Mahmood’s home to be prepared for burial. A few hours later, Mahmood moaned and woke up. His neck was badly bruised, but he wasn’t dead.”

  The rage drained out of me, and I breathed in the sweet air of life, just as Mahmood must be doing. It was the first time in days that the air seemed to flow easily down my throat and into my lungs.

  “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to get so angry,” I said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.”

  I think I even smiled, until I realized that Khadijeh’s lovely face was twisted with grief.

  “I wish I didn’t have to tell you the rest of the story,” she continued. “The assassins asked their leader what they should do about Mahmood, and he ordered that they extinguish his life. This time, they were successful.”

  I leapt to my feet and kicked the tray of coffee as hard as if I were trying to score a goal. The glasses broke against the tray with a crash, and the coffee threw drops all over a blue silk rug owned by the Shah.

  “He was like family!” I shouted.

  “I know,” she murmured softly.

  “We are being led by a dog! I spit on his face, I curse his eyes! May his star fall from the sky! May he burn in hell!”

  Khadijeh twisted her body around in fright to see if someone had heard. I didn’t care, even if my treasonous words meant my death. I strode out of the room, deaf to Khadijeh’s pleas to take some of her medicine for myself. At that moment, I hated everyone in the world. Walking furiously into a secluded part of the gardens, I hurled my body against a cedar tree again and again, watching its branches quiver each time I thudded against it. Unhinged leaves drifted through the air, and broken twigs struck my shoulders. I pounded the tree as if I were thrashing the Shah to death. Then I did my duty by telling Pari the news.

  While I was in the deepest throes of mourning, I reached for my Shahnameh, the only thing I had left of Mahmood, and opened it at random. Tears welled in my eyes and I could not make out the words. As I shut the book and placed it beside my bed, some lines written by Sa’adi sprang to mind:

  O tyrant, who oppressest thy subjects,

  How long wilt thou persevere in this?

  Of what use is authority to you?

  To die is better for thee than to oppress men.

  God demanded that his leaders rule with justice, but what if they did not? Must we simply endure tyranny? Must we allow children to be murdered? Must we fear to draw a breath?

  No! No! a voice inside me cried. If I didn’t do anything about Isma‘il, others would surely die. But if I tried to put a stop to him, would God condemn me to hell for my actions? I couldn’t know. All I could do was try to make things better for those who were still alive. So I went to Pari and swore to help her achieve her mission, and we agreed to work together even if it meant the loss of our own lives.

  But how to hunt such well-concealed prey? Everything was designed to foil us. The palace itself with its high walls, the scattered, guarded buildings within its grounds secluded by trees, the labyrinthine courtyards and passages—all were built to disguise the specific locations of those within. Isma‘il surrounded himself with an army of servants whose lives and livelihoods depended on protecting him. He had secreted himself even further by withdrawing from most public appearances, and it was impossible to ask about his whereabouts because any query was bound to provoke suspicion. We would have to be more clever than a shah who was both powerful and frightened, more clever than all the walls and obstacles and guards that were purposely in place to protect him. We would have to defeat a system that was designed to thwart us.

  We decided to gather more information about Isma‘il’s minutest habits, which meant getting closer to those people who knew him best. Pari said she would call on his Circassian wife, Koudenet, to see what she could learn, as well as Mahasti, his pregnant slave. Sultanam could not be expected to help us, but I told Pari I would become friendly with the ladies who knew Sultanam and might learn of his movements. I wrestled with whether I should reveal to her that one of my sources was very close indeed to the Shah, but I decided not to mention Khadijeh, out of a desire to protect her.

  Most interesting was the Shah’s closest friend, Hassan Beyg Halvachi Oghli, who had such special status that even though he was a man, he was permitted to stay with the Shah in his private quarters. Pari gave me a nearly impossible task: to try to watch him, discover with whom he was friendly, and see if those people could tell me anything to make him vulnerable. She also instructed her other servants to report to her everything they heard around the palace, no matter how trivial.

  Late one afternoon, when I returned to my room, I was surprised to find Balamani lying on his bedroll. His skin looked dusty gray, like an elephant’s, and his forehead was creased with pain.

  “Oh jewel of the heavens! Where have you been?”

  “At my usual evil deeds. What ails you?”

  Balamani pointed at his foot, which he had stretched out away from everything else. His toes looked swollen.

  “I can’t stand on it,” he replied. “My big toe feels like it is being burned by a flame.”

  Balamani used to be as vigorous as an ox. It pained me to see him laid low.

  “Do you want some medicine?”

  “I am using a salve, but it does no good.”

  “Well,” I said, “since your body has proved it could withstand the removal of a much bigger joint, it will no doubt heal your foot.”

  Balamani laughed, but his laugh had a woeful sound. “It is ridiculous to be felled by a toe.”

  “Ah,” I said, “but a man like you will never be felled so long as he can think. As it happens, I need your intelligence.”


  “For what purpose, good or ill?” Balamani’s dark eyes sparkled with mischief and for a moment he looked as if he had forgotten his malady.

  “Ill, of course,” I said. “After all, who could not feel ill over what has occurred?”

  “Indeed; these are the darkest days I have ever lived.”

  “Tell me: Were the murders necessary?”

  “The Shah’s tactics are as subtle as a butcher’s knife—but then again, look at how effective a butcher’s knife is at doing its job. There is almost no one left who could challenge him for the throne.”

  A cold draft of air entered the room; Balamani grimaced when it reached his toe.

  “Not to mention the vanity of it,” he added.

  “Vanity?”

  “If the Shah has a son, he will face few rivals when he grows up.”

  “But what if the killings never stop?”

  Balamani adjusted his heavy body against the pillows and repositioned his leg far from any obstacle.

  “Javaher, be careful. The Shah has spared his sisters, but there is no telling if he will continue to believe that they won’t harm him. As Pari’s vizier, you could be in grave danger as well.”

  I decided to take a risk. I leaned close to him and whispered, “Why should a viper be permitted to rule?”

  Balamani laughed out loud. “He is the shadow of God on earth, remember?”

  “Do you believe this one walks in the shadow of God?”

  “Do any of them?”

  Panah bar Khoda! I had never heard him speak this way before.

  “Men must have their fictions,” he added. “If the Shah is not God’s shadow, what reason is there for the elders to obey him? Which man’s word would be taken as final unless it were somehow tied to God’s?”

  “That is not how it is supposed to be,” I argued. “We offer our loyalty in return for justice, remember?”

  “Of course,” he replied. “But when there is no justice, who suffers?”

  “Right now, many people,” I said through gritted teeth.

  Balamani’s eyes grew tender. “I was very sorry to hear about Mahmood.”

  “Thank you.”

  My eyes moistened as if a spring had just been loosed behind them. Knowing that Balamani was one of the few souls in the world to whom I could show my true feelings, I bent my head and let flow my sorrow.

  “May God give you strength in your suffering,” he said gently. “Remember what I told you long ago? Never, ever love any of the royals.”

  I wiped my face with one of Pari’s handkerchiefs and composed myself. “Mahmood is part of the reason I came to talk with you. I have a mission, and I need help.”

  “What is it?”

  “Is there any way to prompt Hassan to beg the Shah to be merciful and stop the killings?”

  “Hard to say,” Balamani replied. “He spends day and night with the Shah, so no one can get close to him. That is his job.”

  “I need to find out more about him.”

  Balamani looked at me as if reading the thoughts imprinted on my soul. “You, the tender young agha whose tongue seemed as absent as his keer, are now involved in palace intrigue?”

  “I won’t speak of intrigue,” I said, “only of wishing to capture Hassan’s ear.”

  “Still attached to his head, I hope.”

  “Of course.”

  “Yet something smells ill.”

  “Your foot?”

  Balamani snorted. “What information do you need?”

  “How to reach him,” I insisted, although what I really wanted was Balamani’s help with our plans.

  He paused. “Not even Hassan is going to succeed in convincing the Shah to be just.”

  “You may be right,” I replied. “But shouldn’t we try?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “We aren’t going to do anything. I am old now. I don’t wish to be like that eunuch who lost his life just days before his time came to retire and swim in the waters of Bengal.”

  “But, Balamani, there is a madman in our midst. We could all be cut down.”

  “No.”

  “I will be your eyes and ears—and your feet,” I said. “You will direct me and I will carry out this business.”

  “Too dangerous.”

  “But I can’t do it without you,” I insisted. “How can you obstruct what you know to be right?”

  Balamani was watching me closely. “Ah, my friend, you still don’t know.”

  “What?”

  “What you are.”

  “What am I?”

  “You are me.”

  I was taken aback.

  “Yes,” he said, “I have taught you all I know, and now I pass my place to you.” He leaned over and slapped my chest. I felt a surge there, which heated me to the top of my head.

  “Balamani—”

  “You have earned it. What you don’t know yet, you will learn. It is time for you to be master.”

  “But, Balamani—” I said, feeling like a disciple whose master has abandoned him too soon. It was a strangely lonely yet buoyant sensation, like being released on the wind and flying high above the earth, as free as a cloud.

  “Everything I am, I owe to you,” I said in a voice I didn’t trust.

  “God sent you to me,” Balamani replied humbly. “He said, ‘Take this proud, shattered child and make him whole.’”

  “That was asking a great deal, wasn’t it?”

  His smile was pained, like that of a parent helping his child through a devastating illness.

  “Indeed. But don’t imagine that your quest is complete. What have you discovered lately about your father?”

  The sudden look of enthusiasm in his eyes surprised me. It was as if he were goading me to prove my skills.

  “I haven’t had time to pursue it. Solving an old murder doesn’t seem as important right now as preventing a new one.”

  “God be with you, my dear friend,” he replied, and I had the impression that I had just passed an important test. “Now get to work!”

  The next time I visited Khadijeh, I used the pretext of requesting more medicine for Gowhar. When Nasreen Khatoon left the room to prepare it, I asked Khadijeh to contrive to meet me as if by accident in the gardens that evening, following the last call to prayer. After Nasreen returned with the medicine, I took my leave promptly and delivered it to Pari, but I didn’t tell her where it came from.

  Later that evening, I strolled through the dark among the tall walnut trees deep in the harem gardens until I found Khadijeh, who had hidden herself behind a huge tree. She had covered her face and wrapped a black scarf around her hair and body so that she could not be easily recognized. I feigned surprise when I saw her, and she replied, “Be quick. I mustn’t tarry.”

  I stood near her under the tree and imagined, for only a moment, lying down and taking my pleasure with her there.

  “Khadijeh, I need your advice,” I whispered. “Are the killings done?”

  She shuddered. “I don’t know. He called me to him a few nights ago, and I pretended delight although I am sickened by him. To get him to talk, I told him I was glad he was destroying his enemies, and he replied, ‘I plan to root them out one by one.’”

  “Did he say anything about your brother?”

  “He didn’t even know he had been killed!” she replied. “When I told him, he expressed regret, but suggested that since Mohsen sacrificed his life for him, he would find his reward in heaven.”

  My throat burned from bile. “How unnatural!”

  “I think his twenty years of confinement have shattered his reason.”

  “There are some who feel that he must go.” I was testing her to see how she would respond to this unholy idea.

  “Vohhh!” she said, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth out of fear that we might be heard.

  She was silent for such a long time that I feared, for a moment, that she did not agree. Then, in a low voice, she
confessed, “I must admit that I pray for it daily.”

  “How can it be done?”

  “Do you mean—permanently?”

  Her eyes searched mine to confirm what I meant, and then her teeth shone in the darkness like those of an animal on the prowl.

  “It won’t be easy. He removes his dagger when he sleeps, but I don’t know which of his women would have the stomach to stab him, especially since the perpetrator of such a deed would immediately be killed. Poisoning would be more difficult to trace, but everything he eats or drinks is sampled first by the royal taster. Even my own pastries must be tested before the Shah touches them.”

  “Does he drink water in the middle of the night?”

  “Sometimes, but he won’t touch a flask—water or wine—unless its contents have been tested and sealed.”

  “Does he ever open a vessel and drink from it after time has elapsed?”

  She paused. “It is possible he would do that in a moment of inattention—after much wine and much love,” she conceded.

  “What can you tell me of his other habits?”

  “Very little,” she said. “He doesn’t announce his plans to me. But I know of one thing he can’t live without.”

  “What is it?”

  “Not long ago, I noticed that he often became irritable without provocation. A box of sweets he always kept nearby seemed to calm him. Once, when I thought he was asleep, I lifted the lid and peered in to see what kind of magical confections had tempted him away from mine. He woke up, discovered what I was doing, and became angry until I explained that I wanted to make him my own recipe of date pastries with cardamom to rival what was in the box. He smiled at me then, because he thought I hadn’t seen what was there. It was opium.”

  May God be praised!

  “How often does he eat it?”

  “Every few hours, except when he is sleeping,” she replied. “He receives a sealed box and keeps it with him at all times.”

  “So he can’t live without it?”

  “That is how he endured the long years of his confinement.”

  “Who prepares the contents of the box?”

  “I don’t know. It would be best to look for a situation in which he forgoes caution.”

  “Will you let me know if such a situation suggests itself to you?”

 
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