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Equal of the sun, p.26
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       Equal of the Sun, p.26

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “Not anymore. But that doesn’t mean he won’t strike again.”

  I wished we had struck at him first.

  “What about the jam?” she said, staring into the bubbling pot. “Do you think I could put a dose of something into it?”

  I was horrified. “Where would you get such a dose?”

  “I know people.”

  “Don’t even ponder such a thing!” I said, angry at myself for having planted the idea in her mind. “His taster will try it, and then you will be sacrificed. No matter what happens, you can’t do that—for my sake.”

  She sighed. “I wish I could help you more.”

  “You are helping me more than you know. Just seeing you here makes me happy. Keep yourself safe for the sake of your future children.”

  Khadijeh smiled sadly. “Insh’Allah.”

  She lifted a spoon of the jam out of the pot and blew on it. When it had cooled, she offered it to me. I sucked the jam onto my tongue and held it there, feeling its sweetness flood my mouth. My eyes met hers, and I remembered the sweet taste of her tongue.

  “Incomparable,” I said. “I had better go before I violate all protocol and lay you down right here.”

  She looked away, and a pang in my heart prompted me to ask her a question. “Khadijeh—do you think, if you were ever free again, you and I would—”

  She put down her stirrer and pressed her lips tightly together. She looked at the floor.

  “I want children,” she said softly, “and besides . . .”

  She made a gesture of helplessness by opening her hands to the sky. I stared at her and guessed what she meant. She preferred a fully equipped man, now that she knew what it was like to have one.

  She smiled even more sadly. “I am sorry.”

  “You are in my heart always,” I said, feeling another rip in that tender place.

  “Javaher—” she said, and I saw pity clouding her eyes. That was something I couldn’t endure.

  “I must go.”

  I left the kitchen just as Nasreen Khatoon returned with the coffee. I thanked her and told her I had pressing business for Pari. She looked surprised by my abrupt departure.

  I should have reported to the princess for duty, but I didn’t have the heart for the business of the palace. I sent a message that I was ill, returned to my quarters, and lay awake most of the night, watching the sky change from indigo to ash. At dawn, a weak, useless sun failed to brighten the dim sky.

  Khadijeh sent me an octagonal wooden box inlaid with tiny pieces of gilded ivory that formed a pattern of golden stars against a shimmering white background. The box had been sealed with Hassan’s red wax seal. I lifted the lid, revealing a single digestive nestled in its own compartment.

  The digestive was a lemon-yellow ball about the size of the end of my thumb. The large size indicated to me that it was intended for chewing, not swallowing. It was missing a corner and bore a bite mark. I imagined Khadijeh complaining to the Shah of a stomachache in order to obtain one; then she would have had to eat some of it. I hid the medicine in a fold of my robe.

  That afternoon, Pari summoned me to show me the digestives she had received from the apothecary. They had been sent in a plain wooden box that bore the apothecary’s seal. Pari lifted the lid, and I probed one with my finger. It was sticky.

  “My messenger told the apothecary that I needed a digestive as good as what he makes for the Shah. He swore to my messenger this morning that he used exactly the same recipe.”

  I wondered about the veracity of that. “What do they taste like?”

  “Mint. Do you want one?”

  “No, thank you.”

  “Take them now and have them re-created by an expert who will not betray us.”

  “Just a minute,” I said, thinking it wise to be cautious. “I have obtained one as well. Let us compare them.”

  “From whom?”

  “An impeccable source.”

  I unwrapped the digestive I had received. It was larger than the others, despite its missing part, and a brighter saffron. Although it smelled of mint, the fragrance of cinnamon was much stronger.

  “Look at that! Are you certain it is from the Shah’s private stash?”

  “I am certain. I have the box as well. It is much finer than the one you received.”

  “Who gave it to you?”

  “I think it is better not to say, for everyone’s protection.”

  “I need a hint.”

  “Very well, then. It is one of his women.”

  “Someone you trust?”

  “With my life.”

  “Javaher, you are worth your weight in gold.”

  If we had copied the apothecary’s digestives, we would have been found out right away. Khadijeh had already saved us.

  “What excuse have you used for visiting her?”

  “I have requested charity for Rudabeh and the other women who petition you for favors.”

  “All right, then. Can you have the digestive re-created by someone who can’t betray us?”

  “I will try.”

  It wasn’t an easy task. I needed a person skilled enough to know how to make poisons, but compromised enough to prevent betrayal.

  I couldn’t use anyone with the slightest connection to the Shah, so I began to think about the men who had opposed him or who had suffered a grievance. The large family related to Kholafa was a possibility, but I couldn’t find any medical men or apothecaries among his kin. I didn’t wish to seek some unknown person in one of the alleyways of the bazaar who might decide to betray me in exchange for money. Finally, I remembered Amin Khan Halaki, the physician whose bright blue robe I had spotted when he was hiding in the harem—unsupervised—after Haydar had tried to take the throne. I knew he had escaped because I had seen him a few weeks later in the bazaar.

  The Halaki family owned a home near the river. The servant who opened his door didn’t wish to let me in when he discerned from the fineness of my attire that I was from the court. He tried to claim that his master wasn’t home, but I pushed open the door, stepped inside, and told him he had better rouse the physician. Cowed, the servant disappeared to do my bidding, returned quickly, and showed me into his master’s public rooms with florid apologies.

  Amin Khan had thick gray eyebrows that obscured his eyes. He wore a dark gray robe that added to the impression that he was trying to disappear. His jaw clenched at the sight of me.

  “So it is you.”

  “You sound as if you were expecting me.”

  “Of course. I knew you would want a favor in return.” His voice bled sarcasm.

  “I do.”

  “Well, come in. I was in the middle of making something. Follow me.”

  We entered a large room that held the tools of his profession. The alcoves were stuffed with clay jars filled with herbs, as well as medical texts such as Avicenna’s immortal treatises and a smattering of books by the ancient Greeks. The room smelled of hundreds of herbs, including a pile of something dark and green whose bitter aroma filled the air. I sneezed a few times as we continued into a courtyard, where a metal pot filled with a bright yellow liquid bubbled on top of a fierce charcoal fire. Another pot contained pale roots that were steeping. Amin Khan stirred the yellow liquid.

  “What are you making?”

  “My work is confidential,” he replied in a tone just short of snapping.

  “That is good to hear,” I replied, “since that is exactly what I require.”

  “State your business.”

  “I trust you can help me,” I said. “I know you will keep your promise of confidentiality, given where I last found you. No doubt you have heard that Isma‘il doesn’t take kindly to those he suspects of evil deeds.”

  “I cared for his father. Was that an evil deed?”

  “No, except for the small matter of the orpiment being poisoned.”

  “I know nothing about that,” he replied, his face closing as if he were withdrawing behind the thicket of his eye
brows.

  “You would have to persuade him. I am sure you don’t wish to have to do so, especially given all the people he has killed.”

  Amin Khan dropped the metal stirrer into the pot and uttered a curse as he fished it out.

  “What do you want?” He kept an eye on the pot while talking.

  “I have a personal matter to resolve,” I said, “and I need some poison to settle the matter to my heart’s content.”

  “Who is your prey?”

  “The murderer of my father.”

  “Is he a nobleman?”

  “No.”

  He laughed. “Don’t worry, I don’t believe a word of what you have said so far. What kind of poison do you need?”

  “Something quick and tasteless.”

  “That is what everyone wants. Do you need a powder, a cream, or a liquid?”

  “What do you advise?”

  He looked exasperated. “It depends how you are planning to use it.”

  I reached into my robe and drew out the digestive I had stored there. “I need eight servings that look and taste exactly like this.”

  He smelled the digestive and took a small bite, chewing it thoroughly. “Wormwood, cinnamon, peppermint oil, turmeric, honey, and a touch of ground rubies. Duplicating this will cost you plenty.”

  “Ground rubies? How can you tell?”

  Amin Khan smiled. “How much money do you have?”

  I put a bag of silver that Pari had given me on the table. Amin Khan’s eyebrows shot skyward.

  “Your life savings? The prey must be quite important.”

  “I am paying for an impeccable dose—and for your silence.”

  Amin Khan didn’t reply. He grabbed the pot of steeping roots and poured it through a sieve into the yellow liquid. The liquid jumped to the lip, bubbling fiercely. As it settled, it became white and opaque.

  “When you need your order, send me a messenger requesting your stomach medicine. I will send a boy back to you who will tell you where to go in the bazaar to pick it up. I don’t allow my messengers to go into the palace with such dangerous materials.”

  “All right.”

  “Once you have it in your possession, never let it out of your sight. You can guess why.”

  “Yes,” I replied. I never thought I would be pursuing such black arts, and I was surprised to discover that his work both repelled and fascinated me. A capacity for destruction seemed to lie within me. I thought about my father and wondered if he had experienced a similar feeling.

  “Who taught you how to make such things?”

  Amin Khan’s bushy eyebrows lowered in self-defense. “If you are hired to be the shah’s physician, you must know how to make everything,” he answered.

  I peered at the liquid in the pot. It was cooling and reducing in size. Small islands of white powder formed on its surface. I had never seen such alchemy before.

  “What is in the pot? It looks wicked.”

  He smiled. “It is. In a few hours, it will turn into a fine face powder. Ladies ensnare men with it as easily as if they were the devil himself.”

  Pari was getting thinner and thinner: Her drawn face made her cheeks look even more sculpted than usual, and her robes seemed to hang off her body. I knew she was worried about her brother Mohammad Khodabandeh’s safety and that of his four children, in the absence of any guarantee from Isma‘il Shah. Whenever a messenger rushed into her quarters, her eyes widened with alarm.

  I offered to visit Mirza Salman and ask if he had any information about Isma‘il’s plans. So far, Mirza Salman had been my best source of information about my father. I grabbed at any excuse to see him again.

  Mirza Salman’s waiting room was crowded, but I was shown in quickly.

  “The princess fears for the safety of Mohammad Khodabandeh’s family,” I told him. “She wonders if you think the killings are done.”

  Mirza Salman frowned. “Isma‘il must be careful not to offend Sultanam. People will become angry if they think he has wronged her excessively. Recently, though, he made some comments that were very disheartening.”

  “What were they?”

  “He said that everyone thought his grandfather was close to God. They were so convinced his royal farr could protect them that they would fight without armor. Today, no one believes Isma‘il is anything but a man. He blames that on his father. Who can believe in his omnipotence after he was imprisoned for nearly twenty years?”

  “True.”

  “That is why he feels he has to show his power through brute force.”

  “I see. Do you think Mohammad and his children are at risk?”

  “Yes.”

  “May God protect them. How about the princess?”

  “He hasn’t said anything about her.”

  “Will the nobles try to stop him?”

  “No, because only about half are against him.”

  “I see. And what is your strategy?”

  “To survive.”

  “I suppose that is better than the alternative.”

  He laughed, but once again, I sensed that he was ill at ease with me. I decided to try to take advantage of his discomfort.

  “Speaking of the alternative, may I ask you another question about my father?”

  “Certainly.”

  “What do you remember of him?”

  “Your father was an excellent raconteur who was welcome at every party he attended. But like many people who are good at talking, he didn’t know when to stop.”

  “Do you know how his plot was uncovered?”

  “From what I heard, he imbibed too much one night and couldn’t keep quiet. It didn’t take long for the story to find the ears of someone willing to betray him.”

  “That doesn’t surprise me. He loved to talk.”

  A eunuch entered and told Mirza Salman that Mirza Shokhrollah needed to see him. I would have to hurry.

  “There is just one other thing. The court history says that Tahmasb Shah didn’t punish Kamiyar Kofrani because he had such important allies. Do you know who they were?”

  Mirza Salman’s eyes looked guarded, and I had the distinct impression that something was amiss.

  “No. You have reached the limits of my knowledge on this subject.”

  The more I investigated my father’s murder, the more the truth seemed to slip from my grasp. I remained silent, which I often found was a good way to encourage people to keep talking.

  “The lesson in all of this is that a man must never be sloppy at court,” he added. “Look at Isma‘il Shah. What discipline he has! His security is impeccable. He hasn’t made a single mistake yet.”

  Mirza Salman was ever the slippery courtier.

  “Is that what matters most?”

  “Perhaps not, but it has certainly forestalled any attempts on his life.”

  The princess wasted no time before asking Gowhar if she knew anyone who might be able to help us deliver the digestives once we were ready. Gowhar mentioned a eunuch named Fareed Agha who had worked for her for several years before coming to serve at the palace. After Ibrahim was killed, he had visited her to pay his condolences and hinted about how unhappy he was regarding affairs at the palace. Gowhar summoned him and told him that if he would be willing to perform a special mission for her, it would make him rich, and he agreed to hear the terms of it.

  We made our plans, and then I sent Massoud Ali to Fareed Agha to tell him to meet me underneath one of the big walnut trees in the harem gardens at midnight the following day. At the appointed hour, I wrapped myself in dark cotton clothes and waited at the base of the tree, where it was as black as naphtha.

  When Fareed appeared, I recognized him slightly, not because of his looks but because of his scent. The acrid smell of urine wafted around him due to some leak that must have resulted from the way he was cut. Such unfortunate eunuchs were usually put in lowly messenger jobs so that they didn’t bother anyone by lingering too long. He would welcome Pari’s money.

  When he
saw me, he looked surprised. “Is this mission for your princess?”

  “Don’t ask questions. My orders are to lead you to the person who has summoned you.”

  Fareed followed me to the back of the harem gardens and through the hedges, which had grown thicker since my first visit with Pari. The night was flooded with moonlight. We would have to hurry to avoid being seen. I stepped into the old pavilion and looked around. It was empty. I told him to wait a moment for me, and then I went into the room with the green and yellow tiles and lifted the old tile so Pari could appear. She emerged wrapped in a black chador, which concealed her head and body. She had also placed a picheh in front of her eyes so she could see but not be seen.

  I called out for Fareed Agha, who entered behind me. He looked startled when he laid eyes on her. In her black clothing she was like a spirit hovering in the darkness.

  “What is it, a jinni?” he asked, as if making a joke, but I could see he was awed.

  “Come here,” Pari commanded, and he approached a little closer, but not too close.

  “Who are you?” he asked.

  “I won’t tell you who I am, only that I have a splendid gift for you. Behold!” she said.

  She opened a bag and spilled silver in front of him on the floor. The coins struck the tiled surface like music. Even in the dark of night, they gleamed, and his eyes became round with desire as he calculated what the money would mean.

  “So you are a jinni after all!”

  “Not so. I am a taskmaster.”

  “What do you require?”

  “Something very simple. I won’t tell you what it is unless you agree to be employed.”

  “What is its purpose?” he asked.

  “Ending the killings at the palace.”

  There was a long silence.

  “So this is a dirty business.”

  “It is an essential business, one that requires a trustworthy man like yourself.”

  “Why me?”

  “I thought you might be a man of justice.”

  “A man of justice? I have never seen myself that way.”

  “Most of us haven’t until we are called on to do something of great importance.”

 
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