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Equal of the sun, p.28
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       Equal of the Sun, p.28

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean you have overstepped your authority.”

  “By the fires of hell! How did you think I procure such excellent information for you?”

  She pointed her finger at me accusingly. “You need to tell me when you take such risks. You have violated one of your own rules by keeping your activities secret from me all this time.”

  “I wanted to keep everyone safe, including myself. That is my job.”

  She guffawed suddenly, but the sound was devoid of mirth. “Okh, okh! You donkey! You have behaved like a know-it-all.”

  I was in no mood to be accused of things, even if they were true. I turned my face away as if from a bad smell.

  “Fortunately, I knew enough to tell the Shah that you had requested charity for my petitioners. When he pressed me for more details, I told him I had so many cases I didn’t know which ones you had brought to which ladies. It was only luck that you had mentioned charity to me not long ago—pure luck. We need a better strategy than that.”

  “It seemed to work well enough,” I retorted.

  Pari glared at me as if I were a worm. “By God above, don’t you understand what has happened?”

  “No.” My belly clenched with pain.

  “Last night, the Shah was awakened by suspicious noises. He noticed that Khadijeh was standing near his flask of water and fumbling with something. When he jumped up and grabbed her around the waist, she screamed. Crushed in her hand was a clay vial, which she claimed bore amatory musk. She told him she hoped the potion would work its magic and allow her to bear a child.

  “The Shah was almost convinced until he decided to order her to drink it. She argued that she didn’t need it to feel amorous. When he insisted, she tried to rid herself of the vial, but he forced her to drink its contents. Before long, she began clutching her stomach and writhing in agony. Just before she died, she told him she had acted on her own to avenge the death of her brother, but he didn’t believe her. All this morning, he has been interviewing her ladies and her visitors to discover who else is to blame.”

  The room around me had grown dark and suffocating. I clapped my hands against my chest and held them there.

  Pari stared at me. “Javaher, why do you look as if you have lost the light of your eyes?”

  “I have!” I exclaimed, but stopped myself there. I couldn’t admit to Pari that I had been in love with one of the Shah’s wives. She would consider it an unpardonable transgression.

  “If only I could take her place!”

  Pari’s lips turned down in surprise. “Why?”

  “Because,” I continued, half-choking, “because this means the Shah has proven himself willing to kill a woman, and now you are no longer safe, either.”

  I couldn’t stop angry tears from dampening my eyes, so stricken was I by the news.

  “Javaher—you are truly frightened for me—is that it?”

  “Yes, my lieutenant,” I replied, wiping my face and trying to collect myself. “I am truly frightened.”

  “Don’t worry about me. Very few people know of our plans: only Gowhar and Sultanam, who are on our side, plus Fareed, who needs money, and the physician, who is compromised by his own past. Is there anyone else?”

  “No,” I said, because I did not want to implicate Fereshteh or Balamani. And then I was filled with fear: Would they betray us?

  “All right, then. We will curse Khadijeh’s name and express righteous pleasure that the Shah has foiled a slave’s plot against his life.”

  “It was brave of her to make the attempt,” I insisted.

  “I can’t approve of a slave deciding to poison the Shah. It was overstepping her station.”

  “Overstepping? Then why is it right for us to do so?”

  “I have royal blood.”

  I was flooded with rage. She should be praising Khadijeh’s name, not condemning her.

  “Javaher,” Pari said, looking at me strangely, “you are shaking. Did you have anything to do with Khadijeh’s plan?”

  “Nothing at all,” I replied, and it was the one true thing I had said all morning. “But I am sick over it. I only wish I had known so I could have stopped her.”

  “By God above, I have never seen your heart so inflamed. What are you keeping secret from me?”

  I remembered Khadijeh offering me a taste of jam, her eyes sweeter than the sugared quince. Now those eyes were sightless forever. Fervently I wished I had never revealed our plans; what a fool I had been!

  “We were good friends,” I confessed. “Now she is dead, and it is all because she wanted to help.”

  I fell to a squat, my arms dangling brokenly between my knees. I felt as if my skin had peeled off, leaving all my organs bare to the elements and every nerve pulsing with pain. I longed from the depths of my soul for the extinction of all my senses. Had I been near a high mountain pass, I would have leapt with gratitude to my death. For a long time, I forgot where I was.

  When my head finally cleared and I stood up, shaken, a tray had appeared beside me with one of Pari’s handkerchiefs and a vessel of something. I wiped my face.

  “Javaher, drink the mixture. It will soothe you.” Pari’s voice seemed to come from far away.

  I smelled bitter herbs and honey, which I consumed in a single draft. Dullness flooded through me.

  “I am sorry about your friend.”

  I could not speak.

  “How I wish that even one of my brothers could boast the kind and loyal blood that sparkles like rubies in your veins! I deeply regret that your service to me has caused you so much grief. Oh, Javaher! If you only knew how much I wish I could shield you from the ugly business of the court, how I long to make our lives shine as bright as gold. How can I ever thank you enough for the risks you take for me every day?”

  Her moist eye and anguished lip revealed the depth of her concern. How caring she was in that moment of my most crushing sorrow! Was it even—could it be—the tenderness of filial love that I saw blossoming in her regard? She had virtually said so, had she not? As I walked back to my quarters in the harsh morning sun, I felt as if my heart would shred with feeling, like a peony swirling its bloody skirts.

  For the rest of that week, I was at pains to assume the expression that I must wear when Khadijeh was mentioned, one of grim satisfaction that justice had been served at the palace. But when I allowed myself to think of her, I remembered the delicacy of her brown body under her orange robe, and I drew courage from knowing that she had needed nothing to guide her but her determined heart. Had there ever been a man who could claim to be as fearless? She had never even held the heavy swords and sharp daggers that gave soldiers their swagger. Khadijeh may have been a slave, but in her heart, she was a lion-woman.

  CHAPTER 7

  AN END TO THE CHASE

  As soon as he was old enough, Fereydoon began learning the arts of horse riding, swordsmanship, and military strategy. Once he had mastered these endeavors, he began training an army in the desert to combat Zahhak’s tyranny. For good luck, he asked a blacksmith to make him an iron mace topped by an animal’s head. Some say it was a cow, but I like to think it was an ox—a castrated bull.

  One day, from his camp, Fereydoon saw Kaveh marching to him with his leather apron flying high in the air and his army of protestors behind him, and he knew that the time to liberate Iran had come. Fereydoon gave Kaveh a hero’s welcome and decorated his humble apron with jewels, gold brocade, and fringes until the banner glittered in the sun. Then, when all was ready for battle, Fereydoon’s soldiers carried the banner on the front lines as he led his army to the city to fight Zahhak.

  Upon arriving, Fereydoon discovered that Zahhak had left for a campaign of pillage in India. He stormed his empty palace, liberated those who had remained, and took possession of the women.

  Before long, Zahhak returned with an army to reclaim his city. His men surrounded the palace, only to find that the local population had sided with Fereydoon. Enraged, Zah
hak broke away from his army and used a rope to lower himself over his palace walls to try to take Fereydoon by surprise. But Fereydoon recognized him right away by the snakes slithering on his shoulders, and he struck Zahhak with enormous blows of his mace until the tyrant was subdued. Then Fereydoon claimed Zahhak’s throne and declared himself the ruler of a new era.

  That is how the brains of the men of Iran were saved from destruction, and justice returned to the land.

  When my father died, it was as if I were being pulled deep into a lake of grief; it seemed impossible to swim to the surface. After Khadijeh’s death, I sorrowed just as deeply, but not with the helplessness I had felt as a boy. Instead, what grew inside was a sharp coldness like the edge of a sword. I became unswerving and vowed to carry out my mission even unto my own death.

  To keep strong in my purpose, I began visiting the House of Strength at the palace and training with the heavy wooden clubs that athletes swing over their shoulders to tone their bodies. As the weeks passed, the muscles in my arms, chest, and thighs became as dense as the clubs themselves. My neck became even thicker than before. I developed a ravenous appetite for meat and ate lamb kabob daily, even as the excess weight on my body began to fall away. When I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I realized I looked more like a normal man than I ever had.

  For some time after Khadijeh’s death, Pari and I struggled to reestablish the solidity of our relationship. We still met daily and she delivered assignments to me, but they were minor and I could see in her eyes that despite the affection she had expressed for me, she wasn’t certain she could trust me. This new veil saddened me. I longed to feel as if we were comrades in arms again.

  One night, I dreamed that Isma‘il Shah had discovered our plot and that we were about to be executed. I woke up sweating with fear, my sheets damp. In the dark, I admitted to myself that I had been wrong not to tell Pari about Khadijeh, especially after I had taken the princess to task for not keeping me informed. As the sweat on me cooled, I shivered at my foolhardiness, which could have doomed us.

  The next day, I told Pari about the dream and begged her forgiveness for jeopardizing our lives. I had been too stricken with grief to admit that I had erred, I told her, and I promised to modify my approach. Pari accepted my apology graciously; but more importantly, it lightened her spirit. A smile appeared on her lips the next time she greeted me, and I began to feel that she was enjoying my company again. As the weeks went by, we found a new way of working together, and trust grew quietly between us like that of an old married couple.

  Pari and I didn’t discuss how we would rid ourselves of the ongoing scourge. It was too dangerous to mention any plans; security had become tighter than ever, and anyone around us could be in the pay of the Shah. But we both knew our goal remained the same. When no new murders came to light, we thought it prudent to bide our time until our sleuthing revealed an ideal time to strike.

  While we were engaged in this dangerous business, it would have been folly to bring my sister to court. I took Balamani aside and gave him a sealed letter with my final instructions. If anything happened to me, he was to use all my means—including my precious dagger and my Shahnameh—as a dowry for my sister and make certain that she was settled in a good family in Qazveen. I did not trust my mother’s cousin to treat her well in the event of my death.

  Six months passed, and life returned to its accustomed patterns. The snows gave way to spring, the New Year, and a hot summer. We commemorated Moharram and the martyrdom of the Imam Hossein with ceremonies recalling his immense suffering on the battlefield, and we thought about all the other injustices that we had yet to tackle.

  Gradually, the palace hierarchy began to shift in our favor. Shamkhal Cherkes won a few high postings and land concessions for the Circassians. Mirza Salman managed to get himself appointed grand vizier, through a relentless campaign of sabotaging the reputation of Mirza Shokhrollah, who was ultimately dismissed in disgrace. We hoped that Mirza Salman’s appointment as second in command meant that Pari could be rehabilitated one day, even though he must now keep his distance from her.

  Ramazan arrived that year in the second month of autumn. For weeks in advance, preparations were made at the palace for the fact that day was about to become night, and night day. Tradesmen brought in plenty of oil, since lamps would burn all night while we were awake, as well as all the necessary supplies of food that did not need to be fresh—rice, beans, dried fruit and vegetables, spices, and the like.

  On the eve of Ramazan, I stayed up late with Balamani, a few of the other eunuchs, and Massoud Ali. We took a walk near the mountains and sat in the open country, wrapped in wool blankets, to drink hot tea that we made over a charcoal brazier. I watched the night light up with stars and imagined that I saw Khadijeh’s eyes there. When the night grew late, Balamani suggested we recite some poems. The flasks of wine and much stronger aragh came out and all of us grew emotional as the night wore on and we recited the lines that were dearest to our hearts.

  I stood up and addressed the moon, calling her beautiful, but in my heart I was speaking of Khadijeh. The poem I declaimed was about a lover whose love had gone to another, leaving the flower of his soul withered forever.

  Then I recited a poem about a young man lost in battle, while thinking of Mahmood. The other men shouted, “Bah, bah!” when I recited an especially beautiful line, and I wiped dampness from my eyes. It was safe to weep together over the beauty of the lines of poetry, even though all of us were no doubt thinking of our own losses.

  Massoud Ali, who had stayed by my side all evening, begged to practice a few submission holds he had been learning in his one-on-one combat class. Gleefully, he wrapped one arm in front of my neck and one arm behind it, locking me in a deadly embrace. I praised him and showed him a few tricks to increase his power.

  Even though it was very late, he asked me to finish telling him the story of Zahhak and Kaveh. I sat up on a cushion and began where I had last left off. When I reached the part about how Fereydoon struck down Zahhak with his great mace, I emphasized the role of the hero’s great strength. Massoud Ali’s eyes lit up with joy.

  “How can I be just like Fereydoon?” he asked. Before I could answer, he yawned, curled up against me, and sank into a deep sleep. From the lively, changing expressions on his face, I had no doubt that he was playing the role of Fereydoon in his dreams.

  All of us ate a large meal before dawn, returned to the palace, and performed our morning duties. Then we returned to our quarters to rest. When I awoke in the afternoon, Balamani was still asleep on his bedroll, a pillow cradled in his arms. During the month of Ramazan, many of our official duties took place after the cannon boomed and lasted well into the night. There was no need to disturb him yet. I got up quietly and went to the baths, where I saw Anwar and another eunuch through a veil of steam. Both had pendulous breasts and flat pubic areas, which made them resemble women. In another corner of the bath, a younger, sylphlike eunuch flirted with an older one, displaying his pretty, smooth body as if it were for sale. I was glad I had not developed such feminine traits, due to being cut so late. My chest was still hairy, square, and manlike, God be praised, and my arms bigger than before due to lifting the heavy wooden clubs.

  When I was clean and dressed, it was still too early to go see Pari. Alone in the quiet afternoon, I felt the heaviness of the loss of Khadijeh. If I had had a mother or a sister close at hand, I would have gone to one of them for comfort, but now I had no one nearby. So I left the palace and walked toward the well-tended neighborhood where Fereshteh lived. People were just starting to open their shops. I passed a fruit seller whose bright red pomegranates made my stomach growl loudly at the thought of their sweet juice.

  When I was shown in to see Fereshteh, I noticed that her pillow had left a mark on her face. She looked fresh in a pink robe with a purple tunic underneath. I removed my shoes and sat down on a cushion across from her.

  “Your visit brings happiness,” she began.


  “Thank you. I came because problems continue at the palace. I am wondering if you have heard any news about the Shah’s habits.”

  “Nothing important. What is new?”

  It took a moment before I could continue. My voice seemed to have stopped deep in my chest. When I could speak again, I told her what had happened to Khadijeh.

  “I couldn’t save her—”

  Fereshteh’s large eyes filled with concern. She reached over and cupped the top of my bare foot with her warm palm, which was hennaed a beautiful shade of red. I remembered how the mere touch of her hand used to send desire jolting from my toes through the rest of my body.

  “Ah!” I exclaimed, surprised through and through. I felt it again, my missing limb, just as clearly as if it were stiffening against my clothes. How could it be? I hadn’t expected that feeling to surge through me.

  Fereshteh could read the signs in a man’s body as easily as others read the written word.

  “Is this the reason for your visit, then?” Her tone was cold. Abruptly, she pulled back her hand.

  “I admire you as much as before,” I said, “but I didn’t come as a client.”

  “Then why did you come?”

  I reached out for her hand and held it between both of mine. It trembled. I felt as if I were enclosing a butterfly that demanded the greatest gentleness.

  “I need a friend. I have lost many, and you are one of the few people I remember with affection.”

  “I will always be your friend,” she said evenly.

  “And I yours. In addition, when it comes to matters of the body, I am not the same man as before. I remember being very demanding, but now I will only lie with a woman if she both desires and demands it.”

  Fereshteh looked surprised. “I don’t know if I desire such things anymore. I do them so often that they have fallen out of the realm of desire.”

  “I understand. As for myself, I don’t proceed in the same way.”

 
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