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Equal of the sun, p.27
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       Equal of the Sun, p.27

           Anita Amirrezvani

  He looked uncomfortable. “I am just an ordinary servant.”

  “That is exactly what we need. I understand that you served Gowhar and Ibrahim honorably for many years.”

  “True. I feel very sorry for her now.”

  “As do I. What do you do at the palace?”

  “I make deliveries.”

  “Of what?”

  “Food, mostly.”

  “Do you like working here?”

  He was silent for a moment. “I used to.”

  “What has changed?”

  “The palace has become a place of fear,” he said. “One day a man is raised high; the next day his head is displayed on a stake outside the Tehran Gate. There is no logic to it.”

  “That is the problem we wish to address,” said Pari.

  “If your cause is pure justice, why do you pay?”

  “In consideration of the great risk to you. We would do it ourselves, but we can’t go where you can.”

  He took a deep breath. “Whom do you wish to extinguish?”

  “I will tell you what you need to know if you accept my commission. If not, our conversation is finished. What is your decision?”

  “It depends how you will protect me.”

  “After you perform the deed we require, you will receive these coins and will be escorted outside, where a horse will await you. You will depart for a distant city and will live as a rich man from then on.”

  “I would rather stay in Qazveen.”

  “You can’t. It is not safe for any of us.”

  “How do I know you won’t turn on me? Or blame me for what you yourself have tried to do?”

  “I will give you my word.”

  “And why should I take your word?”

  “Royal blood flows through my veins. Isn’t that good enough?”

  “Not if you can’t prove it.”

  “What would satisfy you?”

  “Only one thing: I need to see you.”

  “And how do I know you won’t betray me?”

  “I give you my word.”

  Pari laughed. “That is not good enough.”

  “That is what I want,” he said. “Show me your face to prove who you are, and I will do what you ask.”

  “Don’t do it,” I whispered to Pari. If he could name her, and he betrayed us or was caught, people would believe his story was true.

  Heedless of her own safety, Pari lifted her picheh and revealed her face. Her dark eyes were just visible in the moonlight that filtered into the pavilion. A drop of turquoise set in gold gleamed at the center of her forehead. The silver threads in her robe glowed as if she were a ghostly apparition. She was fearless—and in that moment my heart swelled to bursting.

  “When you perform what I command, know that you do so by order of a princess who has the good of her dynasty foremost in mind.”

  He was speechless at the sight of her.

  “Our time is at an end,” I said. “Will you help us or not?”

  He eyed the money on the floor one last time as if making calculations. I could imagine what he must be thinking: He would never have to work again, and he would live a life of ease. I envied him.

  “What must I do?”

  “When we summon you, you will come here alone to pick up a box. You will deliver the box to a location outside the harem and return here. Then you will receive your money and be escorted outside of the palace. Is that simple enough?”

  “It is simple enough to kill a man.”


  There was a long silence. There was no turning back now.

  “When the time is right, I will summon you,” I said.

  “Not so fast. I want half the money now, and half when I return from delivering it.”

  “No,” I said. “Half when you pick up the box, and half when you return.”


  “May God be with you,” he said, and I watched him disappear into the dark. I returned the coins to the cloth bag. When he was far enough so that he would not hear or see anything, I gently lifted the tile, descended into the passageway, and left the bag of money there. Beside it, I placed the Shah’s inlaid ivory box, which had been concealed in my room. We were almost ready.

  When I awoke a few days later to the sound of music, I thought I was dreaming. It seemed as if an orchestra were exploding with joy. How long had it been since I heard such notes of happiness at the palace? I sat up to ask Balamani the reason, but he had already left for the day. Massoud Ali knocked and entered my quarters dressed in a new blue robe. A curl of unruly black hair had escaped from his turban, as if the forerunner of the exciting news.

  “The whole palace is rejoicing. The Shah has an heir!”

  “My little radish, are you sure you don’t have some bad news for me?” I teased. “Where are the dark clouds that always ring your youthful head?”

  I collapsed on my bedroll, pleased that I didn’t have to rush out to attend to a problem.

  “You will see nothing but blue skies today,” he said. “Unless you want me to look harder for rain clouds!”

  I swatted the air and told him he was a shaytoon—devil—which made him laugh.

  “What is the child’s name?”

  “Shoja al-din Mohammad. The light of the universe has rewarded the messenger with a silk robe of honor. There will be a grand celebration, and all the townspeople will be invited to feast and celebrate the Shah’s good fortune in the Promenade of the Royal Stallions.”

  He paused, his black eyes dancing. “Can we play a game of backgammon to celebrate? I bet I can beat you now.”

  I laughed. “Certainly. But first, how is Mahasti?”

  “She is healthy and has already received visits from some of her kinswomen.”

  Even though Mahasti was a slave, she would be sure to claim better rooms and more servants, and perhaps she would even receive her freedom or an offer of permanent marriage from the Shah. I could only imagine how Khadijeh and the other wives felt now that she had succeeded in giving him his first son.

  “Does Pari know?” I asked.

  “She has just gone to visit Mahasti.”

  “Quick, set up the board while I get ready.”

  We played a game, and for the first time, I had to pay close attention to every move. Massoud Ali made his plays with skill and zeal, and although he did not win, the sparkle in his eyes revealed how much he relished the closeness of the battle.

  “Mash’Allah!” I said, and rewarded him with a big chunk of halva. While he ate it, I told him another installment of the story of Zahhak and Kaveh. When he heard the part about how Kaveh had confronted the tyrant, stomped on his proclamation, and raised his leather banner in the air, his eyes widened with disbelief.

  “How brave!”

  “Especially because Kaveh didn’t even brandish a weapon—just the strength of his own character and the truth of his own words.”


  “But a man who takes such a stand has to believe in it with his whole heart and soul. That is the only way that his enemy will be overcome.”

  “With his whole heart and soul,” Massoud Ali repeated softly.

  It was getting late. I sent Massoud Ali on his errands and went to Pari to find out about her visit.

  “He is a handsome child with a great howl,” she told me enthusiastically. “I could see my father in his eyes.”

  “How is Mahasti?”

  “Like all new mothers, she behaved as if drugged. I tried to ask her about the Shah, but she was so preoccupied with the baby that I think she has forgotten the name of his father.”

  We laughed together.

  “How is Koudenet?”

  “Full of envy. She wishes she had borne the first son. She is also peevish because the Shah isn’t visiting her as much as he used to.”

  “I imagine he wishes to be with Mahasti right now.”

  “I don’t think so. Mahasti mentioned that he won’t return to spend the night until the child
is sleeping through the dark hours.”

  “When is the celebration?”

  “Tomorrow, and it will last for three nights. The first night is for the Shah and his closest retainers. The next night will include all the noblemen. The third night is the public celebration for the citizens of Qazveen.”

  Our eyes met and we did not have to say much.

  “The third night?” I asked softly.

  “Yes. If God is with us, we will succeed.”

  Pari sent word to a groom to order the horses that would carry Fareed to safety three nights hence, and I sent a message to the physician ordering the digestives. As I went about my tasks, I felt the enthusiasm of a soldier primed to meet his enemy on the battlefield. We had been planning our assault for a long time. At last, victory seemed close at hand.

  That night, I fell into a deep sleep, a luxurious blackness in which I would have liked to remain. But some time very early in the morning—too early—I heard a noise near my door. It must be my little radish coming to bring me some news, I thought fondly, smiling a little, but then came the sound of iron ripping wood. Before I had time to leap out of bed, the door split open, its lock broken, and four eunuchs armed with daggers and swords burst in. Ya, Ali! I didn’t recognize them, but from their engraved shields and metal helmets, I knew they were part of the Shah’s guard.

  Balamani opened his eyes. “What is all this noise about?” he asked almost lazily, and I realized he was hiding any sign of concern.

  “Get up. You have been summoned by the Shah,” the captain announced to me.

  I acted as if I had a clean conscience. “It is my pleasure to be of service,” I replied, getting out of bed.

  “The work of a loyal servant is never done,” Balamani said. “Wake me when you get back.”

  He rolled over, and before long, a believable snore escaped from his nose.

  As I wrapped myself in a dark robe, placed my turban around my hair, and put on my leather shoes, I silently inventoried all the things that could have gone wrong. Had the physician betrayed me? Had Sultanam laid a trap for us? Had Fareed blabbered to someone? Had I made the same mistakes as my father by talking to too many people?

  “Follow me,” said the captain, and when I did, one of his soldiers hugged closely behind. Massoud Ali came speeding down the corridor, but when he saw the soldiers, he wisely continued elsewhere, his eyes wide with worry. The other soldiers remained in my room, which meant they would be searching my things. I broke out into a sweat.

  We walked through the still-dark gardens, which were heavy with dew, and entered the Shah’s birooni. Its ceiling was decorated with plaster carved into the shape of icicles, which made it look as cold as a cave. A mosaic of tiny mirrors on the walls reflected every detail of my frightened face and made me imagine that the Shah’s eyes and his spies were everywhere.

  I was called in right away, a terrible sign. My heart fell further at the sight of Pari, who had dressed hastily in a plain robe, with no jewelry, her hair loose over her shoulders except for a white kerchief holding it in place. I tried to discern from her eyes what to say or do, but she made no sign. Sweat leaked from my armpits into my sash.

  The Shah was seated on a low throne covered with cushions on a blue silk carpet. There were hollows under his eyes, and although he wore a fine silk robe, he had not bothered to put on his turban, and his hair stood on end. I pressed my hand to my chest, bowed low, and waited.

  “Let’s hope your servant can explain himself,” the Shah said to Pari, with no preamble. His voice rumbled with rage. “Why have you been visiting my servant Khadijeh? Remember that you lie to your shah on pain of death.”

  I saw Nasreen Khatoon sitting by herself at the back of the room. I would have to be as smooth as perfumed oil.

  “Light of the universe, I have visited your servant on several occasions to request charity. She has been very generous.”

  “Charity for whom?”

  “For unfortunate women who presented themselves to my lieutenant, Pari Khan Khanoom, and begged for help.”

  “That is ridiculous. My sister has enough money to help anyone who asks.”

  “Yes, but the need is great, and often other women wish for an opportunity to help their fellow Muslims.”

  He stared at me skeptically. “Tell me about every visit.”

  I looked at Pari for a sign that I was on the right track, but she gave no clue.

  “Certainly. I will try to remember. The first time, a lady had come to my lieutenant after losing her house because she needed assistance in the form of clothing for herself and her child. She was from Khui. The second time, the lady had recovered her house and sent a thank-you gift of embroidery, which I delivered to your servant. It was very fine, with poppies and roses.”

  “You can omit the florid descriptions.”

  “I beg your pardon. On another occasion, a lady that my lieutenant knew was ill needed medicine to quiet her grieving heart. I had heard that your servant was skilled at such things—”

  “Skilled indeed!” interrupted the Shah, looking around at his assembled staff. “But not as skilled as she had hoped!” His laugh was loud and horrible. All the eunuchs and the women in the room looked chastened, as if the subject were too ghastly for words. A pit of fear opened in my belly.

  “That is three visits. What about when she was making jam?”

  “Jam?” I said, to give myself time to think. Nasreen Khatoon had seen me with Khadijeh that day. Delivering a gift from Pari seemed like a flimsy reason, especially since the two women hardly knew each other.

  “Answer me!”

  I feigned embarrassment. “Forgive me, lord of the universe, but I went to see her because I was ill. Since she is famous for her medicines, I asked for some.”

  As Nasreen Khatoon hadn’t stayed in the room, she wouldn’t be able to contradict my assertion. I only hoped I wasn’t laying a trap for Khadijeh.

  “That is a stupid excuse. You have use of the palace apothecary.”

  “I needed it right away,” I said. “I was having trouble with something I dare not mention in the royal presence.”

  “Give me an idea.”

  I hoped that the Shah might have a shred of sympathy for a roiling stomach, since he had a bowel problem of his own.

  “Something I couldn’t stop from pouring out of me—”

  “Diarrhea? Don’t mince words.”

  “Like water, lord of the universe.”

  “Is the medicine in your chambers?”

  “No. She didn’t give me any.”

  His eyes were cold. “If you have nothing to fear, why are you so nervous? You are sweating.”

  “I am afraid I may have somehow offended the royal radiance. Nothing pains me more than that idea.”

  The Shah turned to Pari. “Did you know he asked one of my women for medicine?”

  “No,” she replied angrily. “It is not correct for my vizier to make personal requests of the women close to you. He will be reprimanded for his transgression.”

  I assumed a fearful look and threw myself at the Shah’s feet. “Light of the universe, I beg your forgiveness!”

  “Get up,” said the Shah, and I rose slowly to my feet, my face crumpling out of concern. I was frightened in a way I had never been before—for myself, for Pari, and for Khadijeh.

  The Shah called in the captain who had broken my door. He entered and bowed low. “Did your men find anything in his room?”

  “Nothing but a book of poetry,” said the eunuch. “But a messenger has just arrived for him from a physician.”

  I realized with a jolt that the messenger had come to lead me to the poison in the bazaar. My mind became clear and cold as I began to think of what I might say to justify buying poison, and I decided that although I would lose my life, the only way to protect Pari, and maybe even Khadijeh, would be to swear that I had decided on my own to poison the Shah.

  “What did he want?”

  “His stomach medicine is
ready,” the guard replied.

  “What is it with you eunuchs?” the Shah demanded. “You always have problems at one end or the other!”

  “Please forgive me for my unworthiness.”

  Someone whispered in the Shah’s ear, and he turned his attention on me once again. “Ah. You are the self-gelder, aren’t you?”

  “I am.”

  “What a freakish tale. I expect you think you have proved your loyalty once and for all. Know that I will require further demonstrations of it.”

  “Chashm gorbon,” I replied, my head bowed.

  The Shah turned to Pari. “Do you understand now why I have to be so thorough? You never know when a murderer will strike.”

  His words threw another arrow of fear into my liver.

  “The light of the universe is wise,” Pari replied.

  The Shah looked pleased. “I intend to root out every would-be killer in the palace,” he added.

  His courtiers’ faces blanched with fear; the silence in the room felt suffocating. For a moment I caught Nasreen Khatoon’s eyes, which were like ice.

  The Shah waved his hand to dismiss me. “Your servant has leave to go,” he said, not bothering to use my name. “But you had better keep a closer eye on him in the future.”

  I walked to Pari’s home and gave my heartfelt thanks to God that I had survived. It was just becoming light, and birds had begun singing in the trees. Their cheerful tune filled me with sweet relief.

  When Pari arrived, her face was closed. She called me into her private rooms and slammed the door. Rather than sitting down, she stood so close to me I could smell the sharp scent of fear emanating from her body.

  “Javaher, have you lost your reason?”

  I didn’t care for her angry tone. “It was for the sake of getting information.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me about her?”

  “I gave you an idea of my source. I thought ignorance would protect you, and her, too.”

  “Was she the person who gave you the digestive?”

  “Of course.”

  “What else were you trying to discover?”

  “The Shah’s personal habits.”

  Her frown was so deep it made her face look like a weapon. “You could have gotten us killed. Now he is going to be more careful than ever, and it is all because of you.”

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