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Equal of the sun, p.29
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       Equal of the Sun, p.29

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “What do you do without those parts?”

  “I know what to do,” I said with a smile, “but I reveal my knowledge only if invited.”

  Fereshteh looked as if she was pondering something, and I wondered if I would be invited. The silence between us lasted a long time, until finally she said, “You look as though you could use an embrace.”

  I felt embarrassed at being so transparent.

  “I could,” I admitted.

  “In that case,” Fereshteh replied, “I invite you to embrace me as a friend. No one ever does.”

  I opened my arms and wrapped them around her, and she leaned the weight of her body against mine. I felt the gentle rhythms of her breath, like an ocean spreading its waves out onto a shore. I watched her eyes close, her dark eyelashes fringing her white cheeks.

  “Aw khesh,” I said in satisfaction, knowing that the embrace was for my sake.

  We stayed that way for a long time without speaking, and I thought about how differently I felt from when I knew her before. Rather than being possessed by an urgent animal desire, now I simply wished to give whatever comfort she needed and to take whatever she offered.

  The room darkened as the autumn day faded, and the cannon boomed, signaling that it was permissible to eat, drink, and love. I held Fereshteh until a servant knocked and announced that one of her clients had arrived. Reluctantly, I released her.

  Fereshteh rearranged her clothes and tightened her sash. “It is good to be cared for, even though it is so fleeting.”

  Something in her tone made me bristle. “Because I am a eunuch?”

  “Because long ago, you disappeared.”

  We were both silent, remembering those days. I thought about how confused my feelings had been. Because I had spent so many nights with her, she had meant more to me than someone to be used and discarded, yet I had not permitted myself to think of her as anything more than a prostitute.

  “Regardless, I will send a messenger to you if I hear anything useful.”

  “I would like to visit you again whether you discover anything or not.”

  “All right.”

  Her tone was cool, but it reminded me that some people become cruel when they say goodbye because it is the only way they can bear to part.

  Fereshteh’s maid showed me out into the courtyard, where a man dressed in a fine brown silk robe appeared to be dallying for a moment by the fountain. He turned around at the sound of our voices.

  “You are supposed to show him out through the back door,” he complained to the maid, who blushed in embarrassment.

  “I beg your forgiveness,” she said. “I won’t be so careless again.”

  I wondered why the man cared so much until I realized that it was none other than the Shah’s companion, Hassan Beyg. We stared at each other, mutually surprised. Hassan Beyg had unusually elegant eyebrows that looked as if they had been shaped to match the contours of his turban. They set off his high cheekbones and smooth brown skin. Although probably in his late twenties, he looked younger because his skin was so flawless. The haughty way he kept his chin lifted suggested he was well aware of his status as a handsome trophy. Introducing myself as a servant of the court, I signaled to Fereshteh’s maid with a nearly invisible flick of my hand that we were to be left alone. She scooted away, a quick learner.

  “I serve Pari Khan Khanoom,” I said, and when he showed no reaction, I made my lips jerk downward as if in an involuntary sign of resignation.

  He smiled, revealing small, perfect white teeth. “I have heard all about her.”

  “No doubt, but I am not sure any man alive knows what it is really like to work for such a woman. What have you heard?” I raised my eyebrows as if to indicate there were plenty of confidences to be had from me that Isma‘il might want to hear.

  “That she is a power grabber.”

  I laughed. “And what royal woman isn’t! But you wouldn’t believe what I have to go through sometimes. I don’t know what it is like for you, but her petty requests make me wish I worked for a man. The other day I was sent back to the bazaar three times until I delivered the right face powder. What a waste of time!”

  “I prefer to serve men,” he replied.

  “I understand.”

  The door cracked open and the maid indicated that Fereshteh was ready to see him.

  “What is the rush?” I said, turning back to Hassan.

  “Didn’t you enjoy yourself in there?” Hassan replied, and then he stopped for a moment. “Wait a minute. You don’t even have a . . . What are you doing here?”

  “It is true I didn’t come here for the usual reasons,” I replied swiftly. “The business I conduct is confidential. Today it has nothing to do with face powder, thank God.”

  “What is it?”

  “I really shouldn’t say.”

  I knew he would feel better if he forced it out of me. His opportunities for subjugating men of my rank were few.

  “As Isma‘il’s companion, I demand that you tell me.”

  I acted as though I had been humbled by one of my betters. “W-w-ell,” I stammered, “the t-t-truth is, I came to ask about a certain charm that makes people fall in love.”

  “For whom?”

  “I am not allowed—”

  “The princess wants a man to fall in love with her?”

  “But of course,” I replied disingenuously. “Doesn’t every woman?”

  “Her brother will kill her.”

  “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The charm is intended for him. She longs for his brotherly love.”

  He laughed. “I see. I will let him know.”

  “I beg you not to reveal the business of my princess,” I pleaded. “I will get in trouble.”

  “I won’t,” he said, but I knew he was lying.

  He had his tidbit, and now I wanted mine.

  “No doubt you came here on business, too. I am certain you are not here for yourself.”

  “No, of course not.” Hassan rubbed his fingertips across his pretty lips. I was certain he found it easy to distract others by doing that. “If you tell anyone you saw me here, I will deny it.”

  “Of course I won’t,” I said. “Like me, you must need an occasional reprieve.”

  A look of relief crossed his eyes at being understood, but he did not let it linger.

  “But surely you are taking a risk. Given all the murders around the palace, don’t you fear for your life?”

  He looked frightened; he was as soft as yogurt. “Don’t you?”

  “Every day. Serving the royals is like gambling one’s life on a game of backgammon. Some days I think it will either make my fortune or dig my grave.”

  He laughed. “So it might.”

  “Where do you find relief besides here? I have no way of taking advantage of what Shireen offers.”

  He held my eyes with his sugary brown ones. “During Ramazan, it is not so bad,” he replied. “The celebrations put him in a good mood.” But rather than look overjoyed at the prospect of entertaining the Shah, he appeared weary. As he adjusted the gold chain he wore around his neck, I caught a glimpse of his seal, which filled me with foreboding.

  “Well, then, I hope you enjoy yourself,” I replied. “Perhaps, like me, you are happy enough if the prospect involves drawing in another breath. Yet sometimes I wish I could take a breath like an ordinary man. Do you know what I mean?”

  The veil dropped from his eyes, and he looked as lonely as the goat who had been unable to escape his tormentors in the bazaar.

  “How do you plan to celebrate?” I prodded.

  He hesitated for a moment, and then he said, “Tomorrow night after breaking the fast, we will gallivant around the bazaar in disguise, just as if we were ordinary men.”

  I stared at him, surprised. His revelation seemed like just what an unhappy man might let slip to try to change his circumstances. He said a hasty goodbye and entered the house.

  Pari had just come back from visiting Mahasti and
Koudenet, who remained coy about revealing anything useful about the Shah. When I told her about the Shah’s plans, her eyes glowed with hope. She opened a book of poems by Hafez to take an augury and read the poem she chanced upon out loud:

  Seeing but himself, the Zealot sees but sin;

  Grief to the mirror of his soul let in,

  Oh Lord, and cloud it with the breath of sighs!

  “It is as if the poem had been written about Isma‘il,” she remarked. “A more committed zealot I have never seen. I will take that as an augury in our favor.”

  She closed the book. Her forehead was smooth and calm, her bearing decisive.

  “Proceed!”

  “Chashm.”

  I sent a message to the physician to let him know I was finally ready to receive the digestives. The next afternoon, I fetched them from his man in the bazaar, placed them carefully into their individual compartments in the octagonal box, and returned the box to the passageway. Pari summoned Massoud Ali and ordered him to tell Fareed to await our summons. He departed on fleet feet.

  “It is time to renew your vigil on my roof. Once you are certain they have gone out, Fareed can make his delivery.”

  “If I am discovered, what is my alibi?”

  “Say that you can’t resist the urge to dress up in a woman’s chador. It is hardly worse than claiming diarrhea.”

  I laughed so hard my turban loosened, and so did something in my heart. This was the first time that Pari had joked with me about the excuse I had made in front of the Shah. At last, she had forgiven me completely.

  Covered in a chador, I climbed the steps and sat on Pari’s rooftop watching the Ramazan revelers make their family visits. Each time I heard a door open, I thought it might be Hassan’s. After the cannon boomed, Azar Khatoon brought me hot milk and bread with cheese right away, followed later by lamb kabob with a generous serving of rice. “How lovely you look with your body obscured by your chador, like the moon by a cloud!” she teased.

  “Don’t the poets describe the fairest men and women in exactly the same way?” I teased back. “They have rosebud lips, cheeks as red as apples, large, soulful eyes, dark velvety eyebrows, curly black hair, and a beauty mark just like yours.”

  Her long, throaty laugh kept me company as she descended the stairs. As it faded I wondered, if boys and girls were so similar as love objects, both in painting and in poetry, why were they treated so differently when they grew into men and women? What was the difference between having a tool and not having one? Even I could not say.

  I had just finished my meal when the heavy wooden door to Hassan’s house creaked opened, and Hassan, the Shah, and their men, all in disguise, entered their courtyard and walked toward the wall with the secret door. I rushed downstairs to tell Pari.

  “They have gone out,” I said, hearing the excitement in my own voice.

  “I will summon Fareed,” Pari said, her hands trembling as she smoothed the hair at her temples.

  “I will go to the passageway to await him.”

  Just then my stomach roared nervously.

  “Wait!” Pari commanded. She bent down to a tray and wrapped some bread and cheese in a cloth. “At least take this.”

  I opened my palms and bowed to accept her offering, touched to the core of my heart. No doubt Pari had never handed food to a servant before. Her kind gesture acknowledged the risk I was taking on her behalf.

  From the Promenade of the Royal Stallions, I found the small park, disappeared behind the trees, and descended into the dark with the key to the passageway’s doors at hand. For a moment, I felt I had lost my sight, and not knowing the way as well as Pari did, I groped around the passageway and its many offshoots, but soon my feet remembered our previous walks and carried me along until the ground sloped upward and I felt the bag of money against my toe.

  Once I had assured myself that no one was near, I removed the tile and placed the box of digestives and a bag with half the money on the floor of the pavilion in the next room. Descending again, I pulled the tile into place above me, sat down in the passageway, and listened for footsteps. If there were more than one pair, I would know that we had been betrayed, and I would flee through the passageway and warn the princess.

  I ate my bread and cheese and prepared for a long night. The damp underground air seeped into my skin, as if I had been buried in my grave. I went over every detail of our plans in my mind, plagued by the one thing that could mean our doom: The box would not bear Hassan Beyg’s seal. I began thinking about what would happen if we were to get caught. Of course we would be killed, but before we died, we would be tormented in ways too terrible to contemplate. I imagined how the soles of our feet would be beaten until they bled, our eyes burned with hot irons, our backs broken.

  The sound of running made my hair stand on end, and my ears went on full alert. A deep scraping noise made me worry that someone was trying to remove the tile. Something brushed my knee, and I leapt to my feet, stifling a cry. Pulling my dagger out of its scabbard, I thrust it before me, determined to strike first. My dagger made contact with something firm, and I grunted with satisfaction and relief. I groped for my prey, but my fingers found only the dirt wall. Angry squeaks in the distance made me realize that I had been startled by rats.

  I don’t know how much time passed before I heard footsteps. They paused in the room where I had left the box. The coins jingled, then fell quiet. Wood scraped against the tiles. Then the footsteps retreated.

  I waited until the only sound I could hear was my own pulse before I lifted the tile and looked around. The box and bag were gone. I descended back into the passageway to await Fareed’s return. Now my agitation came back. Would Fareed perform his mission as he had promised? If he were caught, how quickly would he betray us? Had he already sent someone to investigate the pavilion? The scuttling of small animals in the passageway sounded to me as loud as an army of soldiers sent to hunt me down and kill me.

  It seemed like a long time had passed before I heard footsteps above me. I paused, hot with nerves. Fareed could easily have told soldiers to wait at a distance from the pavilion. I listened for voices and footsteps in vain until I had no choice other than to proceed. Lifting the tile gently, I stepped outside, leaving the passageway uncovered in case I had to run. Tiptoeing into the next room, I said, “Salaam aleikum.”

  Fareed jumped to standing. “By God above! You are a jinni.”

  “Were you successful?”

  “The servant who opened the door was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. I thrust the box into his hands, and he took it without asking any questions.”

  “All right, then. Let’s go.”

  “Where is the rest of my money?”

  I handed him a bag, which he stuffed in an inner pocket of his robe. Pulling a long cloth out of my robe, I covered his eyes. I walked him around the pavilion to try to make him lose his bearings, guided him down into the passageway, and quietly replaced the tile.

  “Hold on to the back of my robe,” I said.

  “It smells of death.”

  “Don’t worry, I will lead you.”

  “Is this a grave?” he said, his voice rising with panic.

  “Of course not.”

  “I don’t believe you!” he cried. “I will see for myself.”

  He let go of my back and, after a moment, began to shriek. “I can’t see! I can’t see! You have thrown me into a hole.”

  He was yelling so loudly I was afraid he could be heard aboveground.

  “Choke yourself!” I commanded. “We can’t walk out through the palace gates in full view of the guards, can we? Now grab my robe and hold on so that we can quit this place.”

  He began reciting passages from the Qur’an about protection from evil, and I felt his hand on my back again. It was trembling, and I knew he had understood the enormity of what we had done. I tried to soothe him.

  “There are horses waiting for you,” I said. “Your work is finished, you are rich, and you will soon b
e free. I envy you.”

  More verses issued from his lips, but he grabbed the back of my robe, and we stumbled slowly through the dark.

  “I don’t like this at all,” he said. “How can it be right to kill? Is God already punishing me for my role in this?”

  “Of course not. All you have done is deliver a box,” I said. “And what else are we supposed to do? Shall we act like sheep until we all get murdered?”

  “May God protect us,” he murmured.

  “Listen,” I said. “Let me tell you a famous story. Once, long ago . . .”

  I began telling him a tale from the Shahnameh, throwing in the actual lines of poetry where I remembered them, to soothe his nerves. To my relief, the tale worked its magic. Fareed stopped whining and seemed eager to follow the thread of the story.

  When we finally reached the end of the passageway, I covered my body in a chador and my face with a picheh and led him outside into the small park. Nearby, I saw the groomsman waiting with two horses, just as Pari had promised. Fareed couldn’t stop himself from breaking into a run. I accompanied him to the Tehran Gate and made sure that he left the city.

  The princess’s face beamed like the sun bursting out between the clouds. Her gaze warmed me to my very core, making me feel that all my hard work was worth it. I knew not to speak until she sent Azar Khatoon out of the room for tea and dates.

  “All is in order,” I said simply.

  “Did anyone notice the lack of a seal?”

  “No. Not yet, anyway.”

  “Fareed?”

  “Gone. He is so frightened I don’t think he will ever leave the imprint of his foot in Qazveen again.”

  She let out a long, deep sigh. “May God always keep you safe.”

  We discussed our movements during every hour of the last two days and agreed that if either of us were challenged, we would say she had been in her rooms writing letters to her female allies at other courts.

  “The Ottomans still haven’t sent an emissary to congratulate Isma‘il on his coronation,” Pari said. “It is such a breach of protocol that I need to write to Safiyeh Sultan, Murad III’s wife, to express my concern about maintaining the peace treaty, and naturally I will also send a gift. If questioned, I will say that I hired the horses and groom to send the items on the first stage of their journey.”

 
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