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Equal of the sun, p.30
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       Equal of the Sun, p.30

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “What shall I say about my whereabouts?”

  “You have been assisting me. If someone saw you in the bazaar fetching the digestives, you will say that I gave you permission to go in search of a new medicine for your stomach—which by now has been well established as a vexing problem.”

  I smiled.

  “Now, before you return to your quarters, I wish to read you a poem I have written.”

  “What a welcome surprise.”

  “Sit down.”

  I stared at her. Sit down, while she was still standing? It would be the first time I had ever violated this protocol.

  “Go ahead.”

  I lowered myself carefully onto one of her cushions. Pari picked up the burnished cotton paper on which she had written her poem and read it out loud.

  “At first you would think he was a mouse

  Scuttling discreetly through the house

  He could make himself seem to disappear

  In quietness and stealth, he had no peer

  Like an honest woman, he listened well

  His selfless words could comfort you in hell

  You might be tempted to think him soft as gruel

  As if weakened through lack of some tool

  Yet inside he was made of damascened steel

  His heart was a lion’s; his roar was real

  He proved the truth that a man’s fragile skin

  Gives no hint of the white fury within

  That a man of the pen schooled mostly in poems

  Can rise to a height surpassing the greatest domes.

  Was he a man? A woman? A bit of each?

  I would argue the third sex has plenty to teach

  From now till eternity, one name holds this key:

  It is Payam Javaher-e-Shirazi!”

  “May your hands never ache! It is beautiful.”

  “You say that because your ears hear only beauty,” she replied demurely.

  “I mean it,” I said, feeling myself soften. To think that the princess would write me such a loving poem! It was more than I had ever hoped for. Men would always think of me as lesser because of my missing tool, while women would imagine that I was exactly like them. They were both wrong. I was indeed a third sex, one more supple than those stuck in the rigid roles handed to them at birth. Pari had understood. Rather than seeing me as defective, she chose to celebrate the new thing I had become. My birth as a eunuch had finally been recognized and recorded with as much fanfare as the moment a male child enters the world.

  I was a man, so I wanted to embrace her; yet as her soldier, I must only salute her. The conflicting feelings made me leap to my feet in an effort to pursue the right course. Then I just stood there, not knowing what to do next, until Pari’s smile told me that she knew what was in my heart.

  The palace was quiet all that day. I was as skittish as a cat, wondering if every noise in the corridors announced that the deed was done. But all was calm. Late in the afternoon, I told Pari I wanted to return to my vigil on her roof to try to discern whether the digestives had been eaten.

  “You may go,” she said. “I will send one of my ladies with a platter of food for you.”

  “Thank you, Princess.”

  I removed my turban, borrowed one of her ladies’ chadors, covered my body, and ascended the staircase to the roof. A white chill pervaded the air. I covered my head and stared at the sky, watching the first few stars appear. When one winked at me, I imagined Khadijeh was signaling her approval.

  After the cannon boomed, Azar Khatoon brought me a blanket and my meal. Pari must have told her to spare nothing. I ate roast lamb falling off the bone, several types of rice, stewed lamb with greens and tart lemons, chicken with sweetened barberries, cucumber with yogurt and mint, and hot bread. When I had finished, Azar brought me a large vessel of tea flavored with cardamom.

  “That black garment brightens your coffee-colored eyes,” she teased, and her smile showed off the pretty black beauty spot near her lower lip.

  “Only a rose like you would be so gracious even to the humblest of flowers,” I flirted.

  “What are you doing on the roof?” she asked as she descended the stairs.

  “Studying the stars,” I replied. “The princess has asked me to improve my astrological skills.”

  I hoped not to see the door of Hassan’s house opening, because that would mean the Shah had survived. But when the moon rose high in the sky, the door creaked open and Hassan exited with a man swathed in ordinary robes—the Shah—and a few well-armed bodyguards. I burned with disappointment. Obviously, he had not eaten the digestives yet. But what if he had, and they had not been strong enough?

  After they disappeared, I didn’t see any reason to stay outside in the cold. I went downstairs and found Pari.

  “They have just left for their celebrations,” I said, feeling anger in my teeth.

  “Very well, then,” said Pari coolly. “Why don’t you help me with these letters?”

  My body was tensed for action. I reminded myself what Balamani had once told me about cheetahs. They are the fastest animals on earth, but they don’t eat very often. Sometimes, in a matter of seconds, they run out of energy and give up while their prey dances away.

  I forced myself to relax. “Of course.”

  While Pari finished her letter about maintaining the peace treaty, I voiced similar sentiments to other notable women, writing as her scribe. My pen flew across the page. All my nerves were so alert, I felt as if I would never need sleep again. We drank tea and ate sweets to keep our strength high. Pari called in her servants regularly so they could witness us at work and provide an alibi. The only sign of how the princess felt was that from time to time she dribbled ink onto her letter and had to start over.

  Deep into the night, she turned to me and said, “I think I have finally understood why my father didn’t designate an heir. He was only too aware of the problems each man would have brought to the throne and couldn’t settle on any one of them.”

  Her eyes were thoughtful, her face soft. I decided to take a risk and reveal some of what I longed to know. “Perhaps he wanted fate to reveal who would be the greatest Safavi leader.”

  Pari stared at me, surprised. “So you know about your chart? How did you find out?”

  I smiled. “I have my ways, Princess.”

  “I know you do.”

  “But I don’t know everything, of course. Is that the reason you and your father decided to employ me at court?”

  “It is one of the reasons, yes. But don’t think for a moment we would have kept promoting you if you didn’t deserve it.”

  “Thank you, lieutenant of my life. May I know why you didn’t tell me about my chart?”

  “We were advised not to. When people hear such a prediction, they try to fulfill it. We wanted you to be a vessel for truth.”

  Tahmasb Shah had followed the guidance offered by his dreams, and they had never failed him. It didn’t surprise me that he had taken the prediction about me so seriously.

  Azar Khatoon entered the room and asked Pari if she wished for more refreshments. I waited impatiently for them to be done. Sweat gathered at my temples where my turban hugged my head.

  When they had finished talking, I said, “May God grant that I fulfill the prophecy you mentioned! But right now something else troubles me. For a long time, I have been trying to unravel the story of my father’s murderer, Kamiyar Kofrani.”

  I thought it was safe to tell her now. She needn’t worry that a quest for revenge would split my loyalties.

  “I understand you have kept the court historians busy with your requests.”

  “Deh!” I should have known her spies would report me to her.

  “What is it you still wish to know?”

  “The histories say he had powerful allies.”

  “Really?” Pari’s forehead puckered, and her eyes looked puzzled. “As far as I know, the man was an ordinary accountant. You might ask Mirza Salman. He employed him a
long time ago in Azerbaijan.”

  Why hadn’t Mirza Salman ever mentioned that?

  “Do you know why he wasn’t punished?”

  “Yes.”

  Panah bar Khoda! I stared at her, my eyes full of questions.

  “Javaher, I can’t tell you the reason just yet. Have patience, and I will reveal it to you when it is safe for you to know.”

  Now my concentration disappeared entirely. Seeing me so flummoxed, Pari told me to return to my quarters and rest. The lines at her mouth looked deep with worry. I didn’t blame her.

  I went to my room, making sure to mention to a few eunuchs how tired I was from assisting Pari with letters all night. Balamani was already asleep. I lay on my bedroll with my copy of the Shahnameh, but instead of reading, I found myself thinking of the cord at Mahmood’s young throat, the poison in Khadijeh’s belly, and the dagger in my father’s chest. Why couldn’t Pari tell me what she knew?

  I lit a lamp and opened the Shahnameh to the page about how Kaveh had stood up to Zahhak and chastised him for his bloodthirstiness. Kaveh’s boldness in the face of injustice had so surprised the tyrant that he hadn’t been able to stop him. One man had to stand up to Zahhak so that others would finally gain enough courage to fight for justice.

  I marveled at the bravery of that humble hero of old, who had neither nobility nor money nor friends—nothing but his sense of justice to guide him.

  Well before noon, I arose, dressed, and went to see Pari. When I arrived at her house, she was wearing the same blue robe as the night before, and the hollows under her eyes were even darker. She was just where I had left her.

  “Princess, what ails you?”

  “I couldn’t sleep. Every time I heard a noise, I expected news. Just now, Mirza Salman sent a message that he needs to speak with me urgently. I must discover the reason.”

  “Could he have unearthed our plans?”

  “No. He would have sent the royal guard instead, and he wouldn’t have asked permission.”

  It didn’t take long for Mirza Salman to arrive. He came with only one servant rather than the usual large retinue that accompanies a grand vizier. My pulse quickened when I noticed a few stray hairs hanging out of his normally impeccable turban. I showed him to his side of the lattice in Pari’s birooni and stayed to better observe him.

  “Esteemed servant of the realm, your visit is welcome.” The princess’s low, sweet voice filled the divided room.

  “Princess,” Mirza Salman replied in a sober tone, “an unprecedented situation has occurred at the palace. Your brother, the light of the universe, hasn’t shown the sunshine of his face this morning, and everyone at the palace is worried.”

  My heart soared with hope.

  “Indeed?” Pari said, sounding surprised. “When did he go to sleep?”

  “A few hours before dawn. By midmorning, his retainers had gathered outside his rooms as usual to await his emergence, but there has been no sound. They don’t know what to do.”

  “Has someone knocked at his door?”

  “No. They have been fearful of disturbing him.”

  “For God’s sake!” said Pari, her voice rising in what sounded like distress. “What if he has fallen ill? You must knock on his door immediately.”

  “And if there is no answer?”

  “Break it down, and tell him you did so at my command. Go now without delay, and take my vizier with you. He will report to me what has happened.”

  “Chashm,” Mirza Salman replied, and said his farewells.

  I followed Mirza Salman and his man out of Pari’s door. He hadn’t said where the Shah had gone to sleep, but he crossed the courtyard, marched toward Hassan’s house, and banged loudly at the wooden door. It was opened by the servant who usually attended to tradesmen. We passed into the courtyard, which I had observed so many times from Pari’s roof. The servant showed us deep into the house’s andarooni, the most private quarters. The furnishings were opulent, but I could not focus on them.

  When we arrived at the rooms that adjoined the bedroom, we greeted the Shah’s physician, Hakim Tabrizi, as well as two of the most esteemed qizilbash amirs, Isma‘il’s uncle Amir Khan Mowsellu and his new Ostajlu chief, Pir Mohammad Khan. The Shah’s bedroom lay behind a thick carved wooden door, which even the amirs did not dare approach.

  After greeting the men, Mirza Salman said, “Has there been any sign?”

  “No,” said Amir Khan.

  “Is it possible the light of the universe has already departed through another door?”

  “That is the only one,” replied Hakim Tabrizi.

  “In that case, by order of the highest-ranking woman of Safavi blood, I am going to knock.”

  The men’s eyes widened with awe; probably no one had ever dared to disturb Isma‘il Shah before. Mirza Salman strode to the door and rapped on it with two polite taps.

  We waited a long time with no reply. He knocked on the door again, this time more firmly, and when all remained quiet, banged with his fist. I was filled with hope and fear.

  “What now?” asked Amir Khan.

  “Hush!” replied Mirza Salman. “Listen.”

  A weak sound reminiscent of a sheep’s bleats emerged.

  “Help!” I thought I heard. Was it the voice of the Shah?

  “Hassan Beyg, is that you?” asked Mirza Salman.

  “The d-d-door! H-h-help!”

  Mirza Salman directed a “four-shouldered” soldier to take charge of the door, and he swung a metal mace at it until it groaned under his attack. The wood began to splinter and crack. When the door was finally breached, the soldier bent his arm inside and released the bolt. The broken door swung open, and Mirza Salman and Hakim Tabrizi rushed inside. Two forms were huddled under bedcovers.

  “Light of the universe, can you hear me?” Hakim Tabrizi asked. When there was no reply, he pulled the covers gently away from the Shah’s face. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open. The physician bent over him and placed his ear against his chest.

  “His heartbeat is weak.”

  My own heart sank in my chest like a boulder falling into a river. How could the poison not have worked?

  Mirza Salman gingerly lifted all the bedcovers off Hassan’s side of the bed. He didn’t dare do the same for the Shah, who might not be in a proper state of dress. Hassan lay on his side, dressed in pale yellow pajamas.

  “By God above, what happened?” Mirza Salman demanded of Hassan, who hadn’t moved.

  “Can’t m-m-move . . . l-l-legs,” Hassan slurred. The skin over his sculpted cheekbones looked dull and slack.

  It took a long time to get the story out of Hassan because he could barely talk. He related that he and the Shah had gone out the night before and had eaten several pills of opium, as well as a large meal and a few servings of halva. When they returned home, the Shah asked for his digestives. The box had been refilled, but it didn’t have Hassan’s seal. Hassan advised the Shah not to partake, but he was insistent, so Hassan ate one first to make certain that they were safe. When he experienced no ill effects, the Shah ate three of them, and they went to bed. Hassan didn’t wake up until he heard the pounding at the door.

  “What a ridiculous story,” said Mirza Salman. “Who else but you could have poisoned him?”

  “Why? I would f-f-fall from the firmament faster than a shooting star. Do with me as you like, but that is the t-t-truth.”

  Mirza Salman crept around the bed to where Hassan couldn’t see him. He removed a small dagger from his sash and poked the tip of it into the back of Hassan’s thigh. Blood welled out and stained his pale yellow pajamas. Hassan did not move.

  “He tells the truth,” the physician declared.

  “What about the Shah?” asked Mirza Salman.

  “All we can do is pray for his recovery,” the physician said.

  Silently, I cursed the physician Halaki, who had promised to provide a perfect poison.

  “Is he comfortable?” asked Mirza Salman.

&
nbsp; “He feels nothing at the moment,” replied Hakim Tabrizi.

  “Let’s check the digestives. Where are they?”

  “C-c-cushions,” replied Hassan. Mirza Salman fetched the box and opened it.

  “Four are missing, as you have said. Now I need an animal.”

  A servant was dispatched to the street and returned quickly with a scrawny cat with yellowish eyes and long matted gray fur. It purred loudly as if hungry. By God above! If it ate one of the digestives it would surely die, and then they would know it was poisoned. I wiped my forehead as I watched, although the building was cold.

  The men put the digestive on the ground and pushed the cat toward it. The animal sniffed it and walked away. Even when coaxed, the cat refused to eat it.

  While the men were occupied with the cat, I kept my eyes on the Shah, hoping he wouldn’t open his eyes or speak. By God above! I felt as if my life hovered in balance with his.

  Hakim Tabrizi still had his fingers on the Shah’s pulse, but after a few moments, he suddenly cried out. “May God be merciful. His pulse is fleeing!”

  The Shah’s faint breathing sounded ragged, as if he were trying to grab air and failing. He began to make choking sounds that were horrible to hear.

  The physician patted the Shah’s face, but there was no response. Amir Khan and Pir Mohammad rushed into the room to see him for themselves. I remained outside since I did not hold such high rank.

  “Alas!” the physician cried suddenly. “I can no longer feel his breath!”

  Mirza Salman bent over and put his ear against the Shah’s nose, then moved it to his lips and back again to try to detect breath.

  “Woe to us, great woe!” he cried.

  Amir Khan, who stood to lose a great deal because of his status as Isma‘il’s maternal uncle, bent over the Shah, then arose with a grim expression.

  “By God above, his life has fled!”

  Pir Mohammad began reciting lines from the Qur’an.

  “Who is the culprit?” asked Amir Khan with a snarl. “I will kill him with my own hands.”

 
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