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Equal of the sun, p.3
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       Equal of the Sun, p.3

           Anita Amirrezvani

  “Listen to this,” she commanded us.

  Princess, I wrote forty-eight sparkling lines about your dad

  You said you liked them: Are you in fact mad?

  If not, please send me what you pledged

  A rain of silver to keep me and my children fed.

  I humbly beg you to deliver what is overdue

  Then I will pen more dazzling gems for you.

  “Who could resist such a plea? Go to the head of the treasury and make sure the court poet is paid at once,” she ordered Majeed.

  In the afternoon, Pari held her usual public hours and saw palace women with a variety of requests: donations for the upkeep of a saint’s shrine, positions at court requested for relatives, the need for more tutors. At the end of a long day, the princess agreed to see an out-of-town petitioner, even though she was tired and the woman was described to her as unfit for royal company.

  The woman was shown into the room holding a sleeping baby, whose breath rasped when it exhaled. Her purple cotton robe was tired from days of journey. Her feet had been bound with dirty rags. My heart filled with pity at the sight of this friendless pair.

  The woman bowed deeply and took her place on the visitor’s cushion. She told Pari that her name was Rudabeh and that she had come all the way from Khui, not far from the border with the Ottomans. Her husband had divorced her and banished her from the home she had inherited from her father; he claimed it was his. She wanted it back.

  “I am sorry to hear of your troubles,” Pari said, “but why didn’t you take your case to one of the Councils of Justice that aid citizens with disputes?”

  “Revered princess, we went to the Council in my town, but the members are friends of my husband, and they said I had no claim. I had no choice but to appeal to someone here in the capital. I came to you because I heard that you are a protector of women.”

  Pari quizzed her on the details of her loss until she was convinced that the woman had a strong case. “Very well, then. Javaher Agha, you must escort our guest to a Council of Justice so that she may present her problem, and tell them I sent her.”

  “Chashm,” I said. “The next meeting is in a week.”

  “Have you any money or any place to stay?” Pari asked.

  “I have a few coins,” the woman replied gravely, “and I will make do,” but as she glanced down at her drowsy child, her eyes filled with fear.

  “Javaher, take this mother to my ladies and ask them to shelter her and give her plenty of fresh herbs so that milk flows for her child.”

  “Thanks be to God for your generosity!” Rudabeh exclaimed. “If I may ever assist you, I would gladly offer my eyes to cushion the steps of your feet.”

  “It is my pleasure. After you return home, write to me and tell me all the news of Khui.”

  “I promise to be your faithful correspondent.”

  When I had first joined palace service, a eunuch from the Malabar coast of Hindustan asked to train me. Balamani was a charcoal-skinned fellow with a big belly and dark circles under his wise old eyes who spent his day in casual conversation with maidservants, gardeners, physicians, and even messenger boys. He had an easy laugh and an avuncular manner that made his people feel that he cared about them. That is how he learned everything about the day-to-day news of the palace: who was jealous of whom, who was in line for promotion, and who was on his way out. His informants would tell him about things like the bloody contents of a noble’s chamber pot long before anyone else realized the man was dying. Balamani’s currency was information, and he traded it like gold.

  Balamani told me to memorize the Tanassour, a book that listed the proper titles used to address every type of man. I had to learn that mirza placed after a man’s name, as in Mahmood Mirza, indicated that he was a prince of royal blood, whereas mirza used before a man’s name was merely an honorific. When I made mistakes, Balamani sent me back to the book: “Otherwise the nobles will flay your back until it resembles a red carpet.”

  Once I knew how to address all the palace inhabitants, Balamani taught me the art of gathering information from them in such a clever way that I appeared to be dispensing it, as well as how to pay for it when necessary and how to use it as political capital. “You have no jewels between your legs or on your fingers,” he said once, “so make sure to acquire currency in your mind.”

  Balamani called every bit of information a “jewel”—javaher—and asked me daily if I had any for him. The first time I offered a gem to Balamani, I earned my nickname. After shadowing an errand boy who served one of the Shah’s ministers, I discovered that he was delivering messages to an unsavory book dealer. It turned out that the minister was trying to sell a priceless gold-illuminated manuscript he had intercepted before it reached the court treasury. When Balamani informed the Shah, the minister was dismissed, the book dealer was disciplined, and I was reborn with a new name. “Javaher” was normally used for women, but it became my badge of honor.

  I loved and respected Balamani like a favorite uncle. Now that he was older, I nursed him when he had bladder complications, probably due to the removal of his male parts, which caused a susceptibility to painful infections. I also did his work when he was too sick to do it himself. As second in command to Anwar, the African eunuch in charge of the harem, he had plenty to do.

  Working for Pari, I used all I had learned from Balamani to forge deeper connections with people close to the women of the royal household—maids, ladies, and eunuchs. Of special interest to the princess were those wives and consorts of the Shah who had adult sons. She wished to know their aspirations for their boys, particularly if they sought to place them on the throne.

  One afternoon, I returned from an errand and chanced upon Pari and her uncle, Shamkhal Cherkes, talking quietly together. Shamkhal was an unusually big man, broad of shoulder, with large hands and forearms the width of a mace. His face was sun-browned from riding, and when he talked, thick muscles bulged in his neck. His enormous blue and white turban, fashioned of two fabrics twined together, made him appear even bigger than he was. Pari looked as fine as a vase next to him, as if she had a different maker altogether.

  “. . . prepared for what happens after . . .” I heard Pari saying.

  Pari began naming kinsmen and Shamkhal replied either “with us” or “not with us.” A few times, he said, “I don’t know.”

  “Why not?” asked Pari each time, until finally she became exasperated and said, in a tone that brooked no argument, “We must know these things or we will fail.”

  “I promise to have more information the next time I see you.”

  His deference toward her surprised me.

  A few days later, I found a way to ask Pari about which man she planned to support for the throne. I told the princess that I had been hearing rumors about how Sultanam, the Shah’s first wife, had been searching for a suitable wife for her son Isma‘il, even though he was imprisoned. She suspected that Isma‘il’s lack of male children might be the result of a curse placed by enemies, and she had been consulting herbalists about how to open the gates of his luck.

  Pari drank in this news. “Good work.”

  “The speculation is that she intends to make him the next Shah,” I added.

  “So does every mother of a prince. We will have to wait and see. But we must be ready.”

  “For what?”

  “For whatever happens, so we can rally behind whomever my father designates as heir. The nobles have shown themselves to be divided, and I want to avoid another civil war at all costs.”

  “How will you do that?”

  “By making sure that the heir gets all the help he needs to be successfully crowned shah.”

  “And who is that?”

  “My father hasn’t announced his selection.”

  “Some say Haydar is the best man,” I said, trying to gauge her reaction, “although he has lived all his life in the palace.”

  “He is untested.”

  “And some think
Isma‘il is better, because he was such a brave warrior.”

  Pari’s eyes were sad. “He was my hero when I was young. My heart has ached for him in his exile. None of the royal family has been permitted to write to him or receive his letters, except for his mother.”

  “Do you think he would govern well after an absence of so many years?”

  “Choosing an heir is my father’s concern,” Pari replied sharply. “Ours is to ensure that a strong network of supporters is in place well before it is needed. Do you understand?”

  “Yes, esteemed lieutenant,” I answered, “but I would have thought you might advocate for your brother, Suleyman.”

  Pari’s mouth flattened. “I am not a sentimentalist. He is no match for the men he would have to rule.”

  So Pari was planning a decisive role in the succession! I suspected that a large batch of letters she had recently sent were intended to rally support, but for whom?

  For me, it wasn’t merely a matter of curiosity. If Pari’s star fell with the Shah’s death, mine would plummet.

  After entering palace service, I had begun making friends and had asked those close to me to help me find out more about my father. Mahmood’s mother had been too young to remember him, and as a slave, she did not have connections to leading families who might know more. Khadijeh had asked Sultanam once on some excuse, but Sultanam knew nothing about what had happened. Balamani and Anwar had pleaded ignorance.

  I had also tried to obtain access to the court histories to examine them for information about my father’s murder. Each time, I was told that a servant of my station was not permitted to lay eyes on confidential court documents. Years passed without progress. I had yearned to rise up through the ranks so that I would have access to powerful men who possessed the information I sought.

  After Pari hired me, I went to the office of the royal scribes to introduce myself as the princess’s new chief of information. The scribes worked in a large room illuminated by light streaming through tall windows. The men sat upright on cushions, their wooden desks over their laps, or wrote on top of chests made of inlaid wood that contained their supplies. The room was as quiet as a grave. The reed pens the men used hardly made a sound. The scribes who wrote letters for the Shah worked side by side with court historians who documented every breath of importance in the realm.

  I made the acquaintance of the head of the guild, a venerable old master named Rasheed Khan, who wore a black turban, a long white beard, and had wise eyes that looked red and tired from too much close work. He was known for the clarity and beauty of his handwriting, and had trained many of the men who now worked for him.

  My new employer has a scholarly bent, I told Rasheed. Once in a while, I might need to look at the court histories, perhaps even one currently being written about Tahmasb Shah’s long reign. Would that be a problem? Oh no, I was assured, any business required by the favorite daughter of the Shah would be treated with the utmost respect. All I would need was a note of permission written by Pari. Manuscripts could even be borrowed if she so wished, so long as they were not currently being worked on.

  Praise be to God! The princess’s name worked like a magic spell.

  In the middle of the night, there was an urgent tugging at my bedclothes, as if a jinni of ill fortune were disrupting my dreams. He was small, with large dark eyes and a crooked smile, and he would not let go. He tugged and tugged, and I batted his hand away, trying to lose myself in the blackness. But the tugging grew more insistent until I opened my eyes and, in the moonlight, perceived Massoud Ali, the nine-year-old errand boy Pari had placed in my service. His face was unwashed, and he hadn’t wrapped his head in the tiny turban that he was usually so proud to wear.

  “Wake up! Wake up, by God above!”

  I sat upright, tensed for attack. Balamani, who was a heavy sleeper, turned over on his bedroll in the small bedchamber we shared.

  “What is it?”

  Massoud Ali leaned close to my ear and whispered, as if it were too terrible a thing to say out loud, “Alas, the light of the universe has been extinguished. The Shah is dead.”

  There was fear in his dark eyes.

  “Balamani!” I called. He mumbled that I was the son of a dog and rolled over.

  “Wake him gently,” I told Massoud Ali.

  I threw off the bedclothes, slammed my arms into a robe, and shoved my hair inside my turban.

  Tahmasb Shah, who had ruled for more than fifty years, dead? He who had survived several poisoning attempts and a grave illness that lasted nearly two years? It was as if Canopus had been extinguished, leaving all of us mariners struggling to navigate in darkness.

  Only a few weeks before, the Shah had granted me the boon of serving his favorite daughter. “Do not forget, no other child is dearer to my eyes,” he had said, stabbing his finger at the air to emphasize his point. “You must swear to sacrifice your very life for hers if need be. Do you swear it?”

  I rushed into the gardens near my quarters, which bloomed without shame in the early dawn. Birds sang in the cedar trees, and the purple and white petunias were in full flower. A wave of vertigo assailed me; everything at the palace would now change—the ministers, women, eunuchs, and slaves the new shah favored. What would happen to Pari? Would she retain her role as a favorite? And what would become of me? Who would survive?

  I found Pari in a dim room illuminated by flickering oil lamps. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her face looked drawn and old. Two of her ladies, Maryam and Azar, attended to her, holding her hands and dabbing at the tears on her cheeks with a silk handkerchief.

  “Salaam aleikum, esteemed lieutenant of my existence,” I said. “My heart sheds tears of blood over your loss. If I could take away the poison of your pain, I would consume it with as much joy as if it were halva.”

  The princess beckoned me to approach her. “It is the worst heartbreak of my life. I accept your condolences with gratitude.”

  “How could this have happened so quickly?”

  Pari’s eyes looked like glass. “I went to his side yesterday evening as soon as I learned he had a fever,” she replied in a voice thick with grief. “He told me his problems had started at the hammam. After his manservant coated his lower limbs with a depilatory, he felt a stinging pain, but ignored it until he noticed that his legs had turned bloodred.”

  How like the Shah to want his body to be spotless when it was time to pray.

  “He leapt up from his bedroll and jumped into a pool. His manservant, who had been fetching sliced cucumbers, followed him into the water fully clothed, ripped off his turban, and used the cloth to wipe the sticky cream off my father’s legs. By then, they were already badly burned.”

  “May God save us from harm!” I said.

  Pari took a sip of her tea and cleared her throat. “Naturally, he suspected poison and instructed his chemists to examine the depilatory. His physician applied a soothing balm to his legs and told him he would recover. My father continued about his daily business, although he said his legs felt like poles of fire. By evening, he could no longer stand without agony, and he took to his bed. That is when he called for me.”

  She took a long breath and sighed deeply, while her ladies murmured soothing words. “When I arrived, I applied cold compresses filled with rosemary to his forehead, but his fever continued to mount. In the darkest hours of the night, it was as if his brain were boiling like a stew. Before long, he lost his ability to speak or to reason. I prayed and tried to comfort him, but his crossing into the next world was racked with anguish.”

  “Revered princess, no daughter could do more! May his soul be in peace.”

  “For this I hope and pray.” Pari wiped the tears angrily from her cheeks. “If only I could just grieve!” she cried.

  A look of understanding passed between us. If she had been anyone else, she would have visited her father’s grave site every day for forty days and watered it with an ocean of tears. But Pari did not have the luxury of woe; she must
get to work on the succession. I pitied her.

  Shortly after dawn prayers, I arrived at the mourning ceremony in Sultanam’s quarters, where the royal women had gathered to lament the loss of the Shah. The Shah’s first wife was known by her honorific, which meant “my Sultan.” Her home had an open-air sitting area on the ground floor with views of the rose gardens, and the guest rooms were furnished with pink silk carpets and embroidered pink and white velvet cushions. Today the rooms were filled with the plaintive wails of the women.

  I entered a large sitting room and put out my hands to accept the sprinkles of rose water offered to me by a servant. In the center of the room, an old woman seated cross-legged on a wooden platform was reciting the Qur’an from memory. The words flowed out of her so easily that I guessed she knew the entire blessed book by heart. The ladies seated on cushions on the floor around her wore black robes, and their hair was uncharacteristically loose on their shoulders, uncombed and wild. They wore no kohl on their eyes, no armbands, no earrings. Adornment was prohibited by grief, and its absence made them look more vulnerable than in their ordinary courtly attire.

  Sultanam greeted a new arrival and accepted her condolences. Upright, she seemed to consume the space of two women. Her layered robes made her appear even wider than she was, despite her tiny feet and ankles, which looked too small to support her. Her curly white hair fanned out like a pyramid from her tea-colored face and slanted eyes, and it was easy to imagine her as a proud horsewoman of the Mowsellu tribe, which she had been long ago. Her face did not bear any of the puffiness that comes from sincere weeping, nor did tears well up spontaneously in her eyes. I imagined that nothing could be more joyous to her than the possibility that her son Isma‘il would be released from his confinement—and perhaps even crowned shah. But that was the kind of loyalty you would expect of a mother. Who knew if after nearly twenty years of prison, Isma‘il was fit to rule?

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