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Equal of the sun, p.25
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       Equal of the Sun, p.25

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “That is because no mother can conceive of deposing her own son, until she discovers that her son is a monster. Pari, you must take charge.”

  “How? The nobles won’t help.”

  “Then you must find other means.”

  “What has changed your mind so completely? Isma‘il has already killed far and wide!”

  It was as if the princess were speaking the same thoughts that were forming in my mind.

  “If Isma‘il kills Mohammad and all his children, the dynasty will be finished. I must relinquish him to safeguard the future of my country.”

  Pari’s face shone with awe. “How brave you have become!”

  Sultanam’s face looked like bread that has fallen flat. “This is also for myself. I do—not—wish to lose the rest of my family and be alone for the remainder of my days.”

  “Of course not. God willing, you will live to see many more generations.”

  I hoped Sultanam could help us catch our prey.

  “Esteemed mother,” I said, “your son, the lord of the universe, is very well defended. Surely it is impossible to remove him!”

  “You must try to extract information from someone who knows Hassan Beyg.”

  “Such as who?” I asked.

  “A prostitute named Shireen.”

  “How do you know such a woman?” Pari asked.

  “She came to see me a few months ago after she had begun serving members of the court. After unveiling herself, she showed me the black bruises under her eyes and the welts on her legs. ‘I pay my taxes like any honest prostitute,’ she told me, ‘and I beg you to protect me from customers who behave like madmen.’

  “The culprit was the son of a khan. I directed my vizier to reprimand him, as well as to tell his father that his son would be beaten exactly as he had beaten her if it ever happened again. Shireen was so grateful for my protection that she has been feeding me information on her clients ever since. Hassan Beyg is one of them.”

  I almost laughed out loud at the thought of the Shah’s favorite escaping into the arms of a prostitute.

  “Can you get any information from Hassan for us?” Pari asked.

  “No. Even the mother of a monster can do only so much. Go to Shireen and tell her I sent you.”

  “Where does Shireen live?” I asked, my feet as impatient to march as a soldier’s.

  “Near the Sa’eed water reservoir.”

  “Where the rich merchants live?”

  “Yes; she is very beautiful.”

  The most beautiful prostitutes had to pay a higher tax than other women who sold themselves, but they also earned the most money.

  Pari’s eyes filled with admiration. “Your courage is an example to all women. I will never forget your words today, yet I know your heart bursts with sorrow over your grandchild. May I visit later today and weep with you over your losses?”

  Sultanam stood up tall and broad, consuming the space of two women.

  “Don’t waste time grieving with me,” she replied. “Just do what I command before more of my kin are executed. Hurry!”

  “Chashm, gorbon.”

  Sultanam returned to her quarters, leaving Pari and me dumbfounded over what we had just witnessed.

  “What a wonder,” Pari said, her eyes liquid with sympathy. “Can you imagine bearing a child, only to have to destroy it?”

  “I don’t think I could do it. Could you?”

  “My job is to mother my country, not bear children. Yours is the same.”

  Our eyes locked in understanding. How different we were from ordinary men and women! No children would issue from our loins, but we would endure the birth pangs of a better Iran. That mission, so much more grand and strange than any I had originally imagined for myself, made me buoyant with hope.

  Pari gave me an engraved silver ewer to give to the prostitute as a gift, implying the promise of greater future rewards. After wrapping it in silk, I rushed toward the homes clustered around the bazaar, using the Sa’eed water reservoir as my landmark. It was one of dozens of underground reservoirs in the city that stored water directed from the mountains through gently sloping underground tunnels.

  The mud-brick houses surrounding the reservoir were pleasant and well-kept. When I saw a group of children playing in the street, I asked for directions to Shireen’s house. A boy led me there through winding alleys, as if he had done this many times before. When we arrived, he gestured to the house with an embarrassed look. I thanked him with a small coin.

  I stepped through Shireen’s wooden door into a tiny but neat courtyard with well-kept apricot trees. The brick walls of her house were covered with serene blue and yellow tiles, and I smelled musk at the doorway. I told her servant I had been sent by a member of the royal family and gave him the ewer. After being shown into Shireen’s waiting room, I was served a vessel of tea flavored with rose water, along with a plate of thick dates and honeyed pastries. Birds sang merrily from somewhere in the house.

  Just when I had finished my tea, a servant arrived to tell me that Shireen would see me. I arose and entered a smaller private room deep in her birooni. It was painted with a mural showing a man and a woman reclining in a garden. The woman’s back rested against the front of the man’s body, and his hands explored the secret passageways inside her robe, whose folds parted teasingly at her breast and knees. In the next scene, the one I began imagining in my mind, her robe would be halfway shed, revealing pomegranate breasts. Shireen’s clients would be eager for her services after being so aroused.

  When Shireen arrived at the door, still giving instructions to a servant, I inhaled an unforgettable perfume that combined smoke, frankincense, and rose. Her back was to me, and under her long dark hair, her cherry red robe brocaded with golden songbirds shimmered.

  When she turned, I was startled by what I saw. Her dark eyes were huge, like deep wells below thick, velvety eyebrows. Her nose and mouth looked tiny by comparison. No one could ever forget such a face.

  “Fereshteh!” I exclaimed. “Is it you, or do I dream?”

  Her lovely eyes searched mine. Then she replied, in sober but sweet tones, “It is me. But when my servants come in, please call me Shireen. I don’t use my real name anymore.”

  “May God above be praised!” I said. “I didn’t think I would ever find you, especially after I heard you had gone to Mashhad.”

  “I decided to go all of a sudden,” she replied, but she did not say why. “I was sorry when I learned what you had done to yourself. Payam, is it true?”

  The sound of my old name brought perspiration to my brow. She was the only woman from my past who knew all about me; the only one who had seen my adult male parts. Many times I had dreamed of telling her, remembering her tenderness.

  “Yes.”

  “Thank God you survived.” Her face didn’t show any of the disgust or horror I feared, nor did she turn her gaze away. I took a breath.

  “When did you return to Qazveen?”

  “About a year ago,” she said. “I had done so well in Mashhad that I was able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. While I was there, I vowed that as soon as I had earned enough money, I would relinquish my means of earning my living. I asked one of my clients in Mashhad to recommend me to members of the court.”

  “So I can call you Hajjieh Fereshteh,” I said. “May God be thanked that you have made the hajj!”

  “It has changed me through and through,” she said. “God is merciful, and He has poured His grace on me. I am still an outcast of course—my sisters refuse to see me or accept my gifts—but I had to do what was necessary at the time.”

  “It was the same for me.”

  “Really? Why did you do it?”

  Her gentle curiosity filled me with an urge to tell her everything. I began recounting my youthful despair, my dreams, and my progress since I had seen her last. As I spoke, something large and tight seemed to loosen in my breast.

  “Back then, I thought it was my only choice. Now that I am older,
I wonder if something deep within me wanted to sacrifice myself for my father, just as he had given his life for us.”

  I had never expressed that feeling before, not even to myself. How good it felt to admit the truth after so many years!

  Fereshteh’s gaze was affectionate. “I am not surprised. You were so young and so passionate about everything! The way you ate, the way you made love—it was as if your heart were newly born. I confess I thought of you often.”

  I had not expected her to say that, and her words warmed me through and through.

  “And I, you,” I replied, my mind alive with memories of how we had devoured each other in the dark. Her skin had been almost translucent, like fine paper, against the blackness of her hair. After our lovemaking, she had curled my body around hers like a snail snuggling in its shell.

  “How has being a eunuch changed you?”

  I stopped to think for a moment. “No one knows the ways of both men and women as well as I do—except perhaps you.”

  She smiled.

  “But that’s not all. Had I been a nobleman serving at the court as planned, I would have shunned many of those I have come to love.”

  “Is there someone you love?”

  “An African slave has become my friend,” I replied, trying to keep my heart still. “If I had remained a nobleman of rank, I doubt I would have spent so much time with her.”

  “I am glad to hear you have found love despite your changed state.”

  I looked at her. She was the same Fereshteh, but grown more beautiful. True, there were small lines at her mouth, but she was a ripe woman now, and her graciousness enveloped me like a sweet-smelling cloud.

  “What about you? Would it have been better to remain at your stepmother’s house?”

  She smiled sadly. “I would have been married to the first man who asked, no matter what I thought about it. I doubt I would have been happy.”

  “Are you happy now?”

  “More or less.”

  “Have you found love?”

  “No,” she replied. “What man wishes to make a prostitute his wife? But I have other boons, like my daughter, whom I love with all my heart.”

  The hope that filled me was so great I was afraid to speak. What if, by the grace of God, Fereshteh had left Mashhad because she was pregnant with my child? A little girl with Jalileh’s pretty dark eyes sprang to life in my mind. Silently, I prayed to God, offering any sacrifice He desired.

  “How old is she?”

  “Six.”

  I sighed; she was far too young to be my child.

  “What a lovely age.”

  A servant poked his head in the door and announced the arrival of another visitor.

  “My friend, I wish I could stay with you longer, but for my daughter’s sake, I must attend to business. Perhaps you will come another time.”

  “I will,” I said, “but let me tell you why I am here. Sultanam has sent me. You have probably heard about the problems at the palace.”

  “I hear about them all the time. I have already received a message from her asking me to help you—but she called you Javaher.”

  “That is my palace name. Tell me, what do you know of Hassan Beyg?”

  A knowing smile played at her lips. “Hassan Beyg is comely, but not bold. He trembles with fear that he will be killed when the Shah tires of him.”

  “Does he wish for another situation?”

  “No, he is a loyalist. But he loves women, too.”

  I thought about how impossible it was to know a man’s true face without knowing about every place he showed it.

  “What does he say about the Shah?”

  She paused for a moment. “Very little. If he is in a rambunctious mood, Hassan always mentions one thing—but it is quite impolite.”

  “What is that?”

  “The Shah bloats like a pig, but nothing comes out.”

  I guffawed. This was the frank, funny Fereshteh I remembered from so long ago.

  “Do you suppose that could make a man ill-tempered enough to kill?”

  She laughed. “No doubt.”

  “How does the Shah treat his condition?”

  Fereshteh stared at me, alert to danger. I would not have wished her to behave otherwise. No one is more dangerous than a reckless informant.

  “Why do you want to know?”

  “Sultanam has asked me to find out everything I can about her son. You may check with her if you don’t believe me.”

  “I will.”

  “Can you ask Hassan about the Shah?”

  “Perhaps.” Her eyes told me she would think about it.

  “I would be grateful for any help, Fereshteh. You are as celestial as your name, yet you are an earthy angel, too.”

  “And your eyes are still kind, but your mouth has become shrewd. May God be praised! Despite what you have endured, you have changed for the better.”

  No wonder Hassan Beyg visited so often! Fereshteh had a way of making a man feel embraced without even touching him. As I left, I remembered how velvety her skin had once felt under my fingertips, and how the huge wells of her eyes had always seemed to reflect my own sorrows. Her eyes, like mine, were much more guarded now.

  A few days later, I received a brief coded letter from Fereshteh, which must have been penned by a scribe, since when I knew her years ago, she couldn’t read or write. It said,

  Remember the problem I mentioned to you? A friend says that the remedy is specially prepared digestives. Can you help me obtain some for my mother? God willing, they will greatly ease her suffering.

  When I told the princess, she looked excited by the news for the first time since we had made our pact.

  “I understand now. Do you?”

  “I imagine the digestives loosen his bowels.”

  “There is more to it than that. Opium can turn a man’s innards into sludge. If he is truly an addict, he is probably constipated for days at a time.”

  Pari’s face suddenly lit up. “I have just remembered a peculiar poem by Sa’adi:

  “The capital of man’s life is his abdomen.

  If it be gradually emptied there is no fear

  But if it be so closed as not to open

  The heart may well despair of life;

  And if it be open so that it cannot be closed,

  Go and wash your hands of this world’s life.”

  “How frank! I have never heard anything quite like it,” I said.

  “Sa’adi didn’t hesitate to write about any topic, even the bowels.”

  “What a gassy imagination.”

  She laughed. “How can we infiltrate the Shah’s digestives?”

  The apothecary in the second courtyard of the palace provided all the medicines used by the palace’s inhabitants. Eunuchs delivered the medicines into the women’s and the Shah’s quarters.

  “Good question. I am certain that his medicines undergo special security.”

  “I will pretend I am having a stomach problem and order some digestives to see what they look like. In the meantime, try to find out who brings them to him.”

  Late the next afternoon, I went to see Khadijeh again. I bought pastries in the bazaar and went to her quarters, claiming they were a gift from Pari. It was a rather poor excuse, but I couldn’t help myself.

  I was shown in to see Khadijeh in the kitchen she sometimes used within her quarters. She was wearing a purple cotton robe and lemon-colored trousers, and had wound her long hair at the back of her head. An ivory kerchief held the rest of it away from her eyes, but a few curls escaped at the back of her neck. Her dark lips looked plump enough to eat. Nasreen Khatoon was peeling a knobby quince, slicing off the thin skin with an expert touch. A pot full of quince boiled bright orange on a flame behind her, and ground nutmeg and cardamom lay ready in mortars, along with sliced lemon, rose water, and sugar.

  “Good afternoon,” I said to Khadijeh, who stood at the stove stirring the pot. “I bring you a gift of pastries from my lieutenant,
with thanks for your help on that charitable matter we discussed earlier.”

  Nasreen Khatoon’s eyebrows shot up.

  “It is always my pleasure to help,” Khadijeh replied. “Nasreen Khatoon, please bring coffee for my guest.”

  “May I make it here?”

  “No. Get it from the main kitchen. It will be quicker.”

  Nasreen Khatoon’s lips twitched as she left.

  “How are you faring?” I asked her tenderly.

  She sighed. “When the Shah touches me, my belly contracts with loathing.”

  I wanted to save her from him with all my heart. “One possibility has come to light.”

  “What is it?”

  “Digestives.”

  Khadijeh put down the quince she had begun to peel. “Good idea. He ate some the last time he visited.”

  “Really? What do they look like?”

  “They are about the size of a grape, and they seem to be made from herbs and honey.”

  “Who brought them?”

  “He asked a servant to fetch them.”

  “Then how does he know the medicine is safe?”

  “The box was closed with a seal.”

  “Whose seal?”

  “Hassan’s.”

  I wasn’t surprised. A shah’s closest companion would typically take care of the things he needed to have at hand—medicines, handkerchiefs, and the like.

  “How does the medicine get to Hassan?”

  “I don’t know. Most likely a messenger brings it to him from the apothecary, and he tastes it before adding his seal.”

  “Can you obtain one of the digestives for me?”

  “I can try.”

  The jam was boiling delicately. She stirred it, tasted it, and added more sugar and rose water. The floral scent saturated the air, reminding me of the first time we had kissed. When Mahmood’s mother was ill with the stomach ailment that eventually killed her, I used to go to Khadijeh to request soft foods she could digest, like rice pudding. One day, after we had begun flirting, Khadijeh offered me a serving of baklava redolent of rose water and bade me eat it from her fingers. I licked them, and then—

  “Javaher, please don’t.”

  My hands shook with frustration. “Does he still speak of plots? Does he arise in the night and grab his dagger?”

 
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