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Equal of the sun, p.24
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       Equal of the Sun, p.24

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “I will.”

  An owl hooted, a bad omen, and Khadijeh shivered in the cold night air.

  “I must go.”

  She disappeared into the garden without another word, and I remained under the walnut tree for a long time so that no one would suspect the two of us had been together.

  The moon hung full and lovely in the sky. I permitted myself to think for just a moment of what might happen if the Shah were gone. Would Khadijeh be mine again? Would I be able to take her into my arms and lie with her until the sun rose? The thought of possessing her again filled my heart with joy, but that emotion was quickly succeeded by dread. Would we survive this terrible time? If there was one life I wished to shield from harm, it was hers.

  When I returned to my quarters to ponder what to do next, Massoud Ali was waiting with another letter from my mother’s cousin. I had come to dislike her letters. The only time I heard from her is when she wrote to demand something. I felt powerless to care for Jalileh the way I wished to, and I must pacify every demand for fear that Jalileh would be made to suffer. I broke the seal.

  Greetings and may the blessings of God be upon you. As you know, your sister Jalileh is fifteen now and nearly pickled. Since you haven’t managed to bring her to Qazveen, it is time for us to find a good husband for her and allow her to become the treasure of another family. We have endeavored to fulfill your mother’s dying wish by caring for her, and although she is a lovely child, we regret that we cannot do so for the rest of her life. Can you send a generous dowry for her? We will find a good man to take responsibility for her. Please let us know if this accords with your wishes.

  The threat was clear: They were tired of caring for her. They were probably already looking for a husband. I hastily penned a reply, insisting that no marriage should be contracted without my permission and promising to bring Jalileh to Qazveen as soon as I could. I wrote that since the palace was teeming with problems, they must be patient, for I would not expose Jalileh to danger. I promised them a generous reward for all their help once Jalileh was returned to my care, but I did not send money, to avoid facilitating a marriage. I hoped my response would placate them until I figured out what to do.

  Balamani had gotten much better. His toe wasn’t hurting anymore, and his appetite had returned. We decided to have lunch together during the workweek, a rare treat that our duties usually prevented. We met in the guest room of our building and started our meal with hot bread, sheep’s cheese, and mint, along with yogurt mixed with diced cucumber. As we began eating, the noon call to prayer resonated throughout the palace.

  “Have you heard the latest rumors about Isma‘il’s faith?” Balamani asked.

  “No.”

  “People say he is a secret Sunni.”

  “A Sunni!” I exclaimed, so surprised that I withheld a morsel of bread from my mouth.

  “The clerics are angry,” Balamani said, “but they can’t do much about it, since their spiritual leader is the Shah.”

  “What a reversal for a dynasty founded on Shi’ism! The qizilbash whose grandfathers fought for the dynasty must be outraged.”

  “To be sure. And that is not the only reason. Lately, Isma‘il has been arguing that we should start a war with the Ottomans.”

  “Why?”

  “He wishes to regain territory lost by his father.”

  “But that is preposterous,” I said. “Why disturb a long-lasting peace with one of the world’s most powerful empires? Pari will be furious on both counts.”

  Balamani wrapped some greens and sheep’s cheese in lavash. “I didn’t say these things were logical.”

  “In that case,” I said, “why don’t those fiery, well-armed qizilbash khans take charge of the situation?”

  A servant from the harem kitchens brought in dishes of stewed lamb and rice with lentils and cinnamon. I wrapped some rice and lamb in a piece of bread and ate it.

  After the servant left, Balamani said, “It would mean death for many of them. You know the risks.”

  “So you are telling me that all those warriors, whose balls are so big that they dangle near the ground and whose penises are as thick as tent poles, are cowards?”

  We laughed so hard that the walls shook.

  “Balamani, I ask you again: How can I learn more about Hassan Beyg?”

  “Easily,” Balamani said, his dark eyes twinkling. “Not long ago, Anwar sent me to deliver a document to the Shah. Did I ever tell you I was directed to leave it at Hassan’s home inside the Ali Qapu gate?”

  “Don’t tease me,” I replied. “I know the name of every family that has a home inside the Ali Qapu. His is not one of them.”

  Balamani smiled, triumph gleaming in his eyes. “It is well disguised,” he replied. “From the outside, it looks like an old administrative building. Go stand in the courtyard facing the Ali Qapu and look toward the city for the minaret of the Friday mosque. Walk directly toward the minaret, and when you get to the palace wall, count three doors to your right. You will see a battered old wooden door that looks as if it might lead to a servant’s quarters. In fact, the door opens onto a huge garden with a house in back of it. There are always guards inside the old wooden door, so don’t do anything foolish.”

  I laughed in admiration. He was still the master, after all.

  It was easy to locate the old wooden door, but I could hardly stand there and watch it without arousing suspicion. Up on Pari’s roof I found a spot with a partial view of the house’s interior courtyard. Since the ladies of Pari’s household used the roof to hang laundry and to dry fruits and herbs in the hot sun, I was able to conceal myself beneath a chador. Sitting on a small cushion and an old rug, I shelled peapods or picked the debris out of rice, just in case anyone observed me from below. Azar Khatoon came and went with herbs and fruit and occasionally stopped to tease me about the poor quality of my work.

  “Look here!” she said, sifting through my rice and uncovering a few tiny stones. “A child could do better.”

  I had to agree. Mostly I kept my gaze fixed on the activities at Hassan’s door. Tradesmen arrived laden with goods, which were accepted in the courtyard by servants, but no one of high rank ever went in or out. My vigil lasted for five days with no results, and I decided to stay on the roof all night as well. For three nights nothing happened. Then one night when I had dozed off, I was startled awake by the sound of a door slamming shut. The moon was bright, and I could make out the shapes of several men in the courtyard. Hassan was wearing a simple white cotton tunic and cotton trousers rather than his usual silk finery. A tight-fitting black cap covered his head. Except for his handsome face, which was unlined from sun or work, he could have been an ordinary fellow of modest means, like a merchant who owned a small shop in the bazaar. It was odd for someone so close to the Shah to be so casually dressed. The person with him had darker skin, and it was difficult to see his features clearly. His robe was brown and nondescript, and he had wrapped a cloth around the lower part of his face. Yet there was something familiar about the way he moved, a slouching gait that made me suspect it was the Shah in disguise. A few men that I recognized as bodyguards accompanied them.

  The men walked toward the back of the house’s gardens and all of a sudden disappeared from view. On a hunch, I threw off the chador, ran downstairs, and exited the palace through a side gate with the help of a friendly guard. I arrived just in time to catch sight of the men disappearing into one of the alleyways in the direction of the bazaar. By God above! Hassan’s house must also have a secret exit that led to the Promenade of the Royal Stallions.

  I assumed the men were going to a tavern or some other pleasure house, but I didn’t dare follow them for fear of being discovered. I decided to enlist Massoud Ali, who would be less recognizable than me and could pretend to be out on an errand. We kept vigil together on the roof for several nights, during which his refusal to succumb to sleep and his desire to perform his job as well as a grown man made my heart swell with pride. We spent th
e long hours telling each other stories and playing backgammon, and I taught him a few new game strategies to try out on the other errand boys.

  One night, when we were both restless, he began to demonstrate the techniques he had been learning in combat class to block hand strikes. Still clad in my disguising chador, I raised my arm as if to hit him, and he practiced batting it away and landing his own strike. Although he wasn’t strong, he was very fast. At one point he scored a strike on my chest that I had failed to see coming.

  We were so engrossed that I didn’t notice when men appeared in Hassan’s courtyard, but Massoud Ali alerted me to their movements in the dark. Stealthily the men moved toward the secret exit. Massoud Ali jumped up and raced after them, armed with a plausible excuse. I watched him until I could see him no more, a twinge of fear in my heart.

  Several hours later I went to see Pari, who was wearing fine ivory cotton pajamas and a long yellow silk robe. She was sitting on a cushion, and Maryam was brushing out her long black hair, which reached her waist. Maryam must have recently applied henna to Pari’s hair, because it glistened in the lamplight like a black grape bursting with juice.

  “I am very sorry to disturb you, esteemed princess,” I said, “but I have information for your ears only.”

  Maryam didn’t pause her brushing. Pari said to her, “Soul of mine, you must leave for your own protection,” and only then did Maryam arise and quit the room, her face sour.

  I imagined she would return to brush Pari’s long black hair, and then they would disrobe and hold each other in the dark. I tried to keep my mind away from the thought of the strong, wiry body of the one and the plump, peach-like curves of her fair-haired friend. I missed Khadijeh more and more. Aside from the pleasures of exploring her body, I yearned for the ordinary expressions of affection I used to enjoy, her back curved into my chest or mine against hers, the heat rising in the space between our bodies.

  “What is it?” Pari asked impatiently.

  “My nighttime vigil has taught me that the Shah leaves in disguise to pursue his pleasures in the bazaar,” I said. “Massoud Ali has discovered that he buys halva from the same sweets vendor every time he goes out.”

  We discussed the merits of replacing the vendor with a man of our own, but decided it would provoke too much suspicion. Then we talked about the possibility of modifying the Shah’s opium before it was formed into balls. That, too, seemed fraught with peril.

  “Have the Shah’s women been forthcoming about his other habits?” I asked.

  “Not really. Mahasti talks about nothing but the baby in her belly. Koudenet is only fifteen, but she is not stupid. I whisper that I am trying to redeem myself in her husband’s eyes and insist that if she came to know me, she would agree my cause is just. She looks as if she wonders when I will strike with my snake’s venom.”

  Maryam entered the room uninvited. “It is time for bed,” she announced. She flung back the velvet bedcover on the bedroll, revealing embroidered silk pillows, and stared at me.

  “The princess is tired,” she said pointedly.

  Pari leaned back into a cushion and closed her eyes. “Good night, Javaher. Tomorrow morning we will talk more.”

  Maryam began brushing Pari’s hair with the ivory brush as if they were already alone. A small sigh of pleasure escaped the princess’s lips. I left them to one another and returned to my empty bed.

  The goading look in Balamani’s eyes when I had mentioned my father made me wish to prove my skills by solving the puzzle of his death, despite what I had said. There was a gap in the information I had gleaned from Looloo, Balamani, and from Mirza Salman that bothered me. Why would the Shah choose to protect an accountant who had killed one of his men? I was haunted by the mystery and felt humbled that I, the vaunted information gatherer, could not get to the bottom of it.

  I went to the office of the scribes and requested the History of Tahmasb Shah’s Glorious Reign. Abteen Agha, the sunken-chested eunuch, hadn’t looked impressed with the fine gift I brought on my last visit, so I had taken pains to inquire about his taste in sweets. This time I brought white nougat studded with pistachios from his favorite sweets vendor. He raised his eyebrows at me as he whisked away the gift. “More business for your princess?” he asked sarcastically as he delivered the documents. I ignored him.

  I found the entry for Kamiyar Kofrani easily enough and read through it. He was born in Shiraz and had been an accountant until he retired. He had married a woman who was unnamed and had four sons. Presumably two of them had died, since Balamani knew of only two living sons. He had assisted the late shah with some financial reforms that allowed the ledgers to be read and understood more easily, making it possible to uncover fraud. He had retired and died a few years later in Qazveen.

  There was no mention of my father’s murder, which was odd, and no reason to think that high status or family connections had prevented the Shah from punishing him for it.

  Something was bothering me, something just beyond my grasp. Mirza Salman and the histories averred that the killer was dead, but Looloo’s suggestion that he might be living had taken root in my thoughts. Unable to make sense of this contradiction, I returned to the entry about my father.

  Mohammad Amir Shirazi: Born in Qazveen, he served the Shah for twenty years, becoming one of his chief accountants. Many colleagues praised the accuracy of his accounts and his swift dispatch of court business. He seemed destined to rise up through the ranks of the men of the pen, until one day he was accused of crimes against the Shah and executed. Later, doubts were raised about the truth of the accusations. In his world-illumining mercy, the Shah did not execute his accuser, but it is also possible that his decision was influenced by the fact that the man had powerful allies whom the Shah didn’t wish to offend. Only God knows all things with certainty.

  I scrutinized the words, but the mosaic didn’t form a clear picture; a critical piece of tile was missing. I stared at the words again, which seemed to reveal and conceal the truth at the same time. It seemed to be right there—the pieces going in and out of focus, until suddenly, I shouted out loud.

  Abteen Agha’s rounded shoulders spasmed, and he glared at me. “What is your problem? You could make a scribe ruin an entire page by hollering like that.”

  “I—finally found the answer to a question.”

  “Next time, keep the good news to yourself.”

  I looked down and reread one fragment of a sentence: the Shah did not execute his accuser. . .

  What if the paragraph referred to two different men? The murderer was Kamiyar Kofrani. The accuser was a man with powerful allies who was probably still alive. The way the paragraph had been written suggested that someone, perhaps a scribe in the accuser’s pay, had purposely obscured the truth. If so, I realized with growing excitement, I could pursue the man after all.

  The next morning, I had just begun strategizing with Pari when we heard a series of long, anguished cries, followed by the sound of running. I jumped up and ran to the door, my hand on my dagger. Azar Khatoon came rushing in, out of breath.

  “What is the trouble?”

  “Sultanam. She is in a woeful state.”

  “Show her in right away,” Pari said.

  The moans became louder and Sultanam burst into the room, her leather slippers still on her feet. She stepped onto Pari’s best silk carpets as if she didn’t know they were there. Her kerchief had fallen off the crown of her head, and her white hair was a nest of snakes around her face. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, her mouth as wobbly as a suppurating wound.

  “Eldest mother of the palace, what ails you?” Pari said, rising to her feet, as it was her duty to be solicitous. “How can I ease your suffering?”

  “My heart has been torn out of my chest and eaten by a wolf,” cried Sultanam. “Help me! By God above, help me!”

  She fell to the floor on all fours like an animal and beat her fists against the hard ground. The princess tried to coax Sultanam to a cushion, but
she shook Pari’s hand off her arm as if the very touch burned her.

  “Has someone hurt you, revered mother? Let me know who it is. I will render justice.”

  “Yes, you must render justice!” Sultanam cried, raising herself to a seated position. “I am sick with grief. I have lost the light of my eyes!”

  “Who has been harmed?”

  “It is my grandson, Sultan Hassan Mirza. I wish I could have died in his place.”

  My eyes met Pari’s in alarm. Sultan Hassan was the eldest child of Mohammad Khodabandeh by his first wife.

  “What happened to him?”

  Sultanam wailed so loudly I felt the sound of her grief in my teeth. “He has been strangled in Tehran by Isma‘il’s men!”

  “What a calamity!” Pari said. “I thought Isma‘il had promised you that he would keep Mohammad Khodabandeh and all his children safe.”

  Sultanam’s anguished wail made it clear that he had changed his mind. “Isma‘il heard that some of the qizilbash were planning to support Sultan Hassan Mirza in a bid for the throne,” she replied, “but I know that the boy had gone to Tehran simply because he wanted to request a better position at court. Now Isma‘il has put Mohammad Khodabandeh and all his other sons under house arrest in Shiraz and Herat. I am terrified he will kill them all.”

  I tightened my hand on my dagger.

  “May God keep them safe!” Pari replied. “Mother of so many Safavi generations, let me offer medicine to help relieve your pain.”

  “I don’t want medicine,” Sultanam raged. “I want justice!” She threw her arms high in the air and let her hands fall from above and strike her head and chest, battering herself.

  “What would you like me to do?”

  Sultanam stared at Pari with red-rimmed eyes. “I am here to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that my son must be deposed for the good of the state.”

  I could hardly believe my ears.

  “Revered elder, are you certain? You said otherwise the last time I saw you.”

 
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