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Equal of the sun, p.31
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       Equal of the Sun, p.31

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  My knees grew tense underneath my robe.

  “We must find him as soon as possible,” Pir Mohammad replied, but he didn’t sound equally upset. Some of the Ostajlu were still in prison, after all.

  “Wait a minute. Hakim Tabrizi, what is the cause of death?” Mirza Salman asked.

  The physician looked uncertain. “I will have to examine his body and issue a report.”

  “Is it poison?”

  “I don’t know yet.”

  The physician and the qizilbash leaders stared at the Shah’s corpse and then at each other, not knowing what to do. Only Mirza Salman looked as crisp and efficient as ever.

  “We must not let the news of the Shah’s death leak outside the palace,” he said. “Remember how the city sank into lawlessness when Tahmasb Shah died? I will ensure that the Ali Qapu gate is closed so that the news can’t penetrate into the Promenade of the Royal Stallions. Then we will convene the top-ranking amirs immediately and discuss how to guide the state through this crisis.”

  “What about the killer?” asked Amir Khan Mowsellu.

  “Is there one? Hakim Tabrizi, let us know if you find poison in the Shah’s body.”

  “I will.”

  The men left Hakim and Hassan in the room with the dead Shah. Hassan still had not budged. Pir Mohammad and Amir Khan departed to convey the news to the noblemen. When Mirza Salman came out of the Shah’s bedroom, I affected grief.

  “What a world-changing calamity. May God show mercy on us all!”

  “Insh’Allah,” he replied.

  “I only wish I didn’t have to inform my lieutenant of this terrible news.”

  Mirza Salman leaned close to me. “Surely there was no love between them!” he whispered.

  I squelched my surprise at his provocative words. “Siblings may quarrel and still love each other,” I replied gravely. It would only harm us if he spread the rumor that Pari was her brother’s enemy.

  “But not these two. In any case, please be sure to tell her I am at her service for anything she needs. She knows of my loyalty: I will not fail her even if people say the deed shows her hand.”

  “I will let her know.”

  As I rushed across the square to Pari’s house, my heart felt lighter than it had in more than a year. For the first time since Isma‘il had become shah, justice had finally been done at the palace.

  When I arrived, I told her servants I had an urgent message. She was sitting on a cushion in her private rooms with Azar and Maryam, who was massaging her hand. A cast-aside letter suggested to me that her hand had cramped from all the writing she had done lately.

  “My lieutenant, I regret that I come to you with a message of woe, one so grave I wish my tongue could turn to stone rather than utter it.”

  “But speak you must.”

  “The light of the universe didn’t emerge from his bedroom this morning. Suspecting illness or foul play, his noblemen broke down the door and discovered that he had breathed his last. One of his doctors believes he may have consumed too much opium.”

  I thought I should launch a plausible rumor about Isma‘il’s death as soon as possible. I would urge Azar Khatoon to spread the rumor far and wide.

  Pari let out a terrifying scream and collapsed forward, while her ladies bent forward to comfort her. In her scream I heard not woe but rather the ferocity of her relief, like my own. Her ladies began to keen with her. Now, I thought with satisfaction, everyone can scream with joy.

  “The gates to the Promenade of the Royal Stallions are being closed while the nobles decide what to do,” I added.

  “I understand. You may leave me to my sorrows.”

  I went back to my quarters, lay on my bedroll, and closed my eyes. My body pulsed as if I had just left a victorious battlefield. Whatever happened, even if my eyes should open to the sight of guards poised to kill me, everything would be different from now on. One disordered man would no longer terrorize us. We would no longer fear the cold blade of execution. Zahhak was dead.

  At every moment, I expected the Shah’s guard would come for me and call me to account. Someone would betray me: Fareed would be unable to restrain himself from confessing, or the physician would rule that poisoned digestives had killed the Shah and tie them to me, or Pari would be questioned and tortured, since even the person I trusted most could be broken through her body. But what actually happened surprised me even more.

  That afternoon, black cloths were draped from the windows and balconies of Hassan’s house. The Shah’s wives hosted a mourning ceremony, and from everywhere in the palace arose the sounds of lamentation. Sultanam’s sorrow was real; she had more of a right to it than anyone else. A few other people who truly loved the Shah or stood to benefit from association with him looked grief-stricken. All of us had donned black mourning robes and our faces were sober, yet there was an irrepressible feeling of relief in the air, like the one that precedes the first temperate day of spring after a cruel winter.

  I caught a glimpse of Haydar’s mother, Sultan-Zadeh, whose green eyes looked as unclouded and as radiant as a summer sky, even as she pretended to wipe away tears. She had received her revenge at last on the man who had displaced her son. The Shah’s sisters, many of whom had lost their favorite brothers to his murderous hand, were at pains to suppress their feelings. They kept their eyes downcast, but the corners of their mouths lifted spontaneously with joy.

  A woman with profound religious knowledge came to the grieving ceremony in the harem and spoke of the tremendous sadness of a man taken too soon. When a man was loved, such speeches would bring tears to the eyes of everyone in the room. This time, the official mourners howled frenetically as if to make up for the fact that the relatives couldn’t summon much grief. Sultanam’s face was grave, but she was not weeping. Only Mahasti’s eyes were red with sorrow. As the mother of the Shah’s firstborn son, she would have enjoyed high position all her life had the Shah lived. Now her future was in doubt.

  Afterward, I went to see Pari. She invited me into her most private room, the one with the mural of the unabashedly naked Shireen, and shut the door. I remained standing until, to my surprise, she gestured to the cushion to indicate that I should sit. I lowered myself onto the peach velvet pillow, feeling as if I were about to have tea with a friend.

  “My loyal servant,” she said, “the physician has just issued his report on the cause of death. It suggests several possibilities: Either the Shah ate too much opium, consumed so much food that it cut off his ability to breathe, or he was poisoned.”

  “Do you think our efforts produced the intended result?”

  “We will never know for certain.”

  “Is that a comfort to you, Princess?”

  She thought for a moment. “I suppose it is. I had to force every nerve in my being to hew to this task. Nothing could have been more unnatural to me.”

  “Only a lord of orders like yourself would have dared to be so bold.”

  Pari smiled. “If not for you, this terrible task could have foundered. I am pleased I decided to promote you to be my vizier. I wasn’t certain you were ready, but you have earned your promotion in seventy-seven different ways.”

  “I thank you, Princess.”

  “In gratitude for our good fortune, I have manumitted a dozen of my slaves, all of whom have chosen to remain in my service. They will be given employment for as long as they wish to stay with me. I have also promised to arrange for the adoptions of any girl orphans presented to me from the city of Qazveen. Finally, I have sworn to go on a pilgrimage to Mashhad and to endow a new seminary there.”

  “Your munificence makes your name shine bright!”

  “But now we have much to face in the days ahead. I refer to the future of this country.”

  “What do you anticipate?”

  “Iran needs a just leader,” she said. “The remaining princes are too young and inexperienced to rule. The only suitable person is me, even though no woman can rule officially.”

 
True. What do you desire now?”

  “I wish to be made regent to Isma‘il’s son Shoja. I will rule in his name until he is old enough to rule for himself. When I am finished with his education, he will be a leader of excellent character.”

  I was awestruck. “That means you would essentially serve as shah until he is of age.”

  “Yes! At last, I will claim my rightful sphere. I will rule this country with a loving hand and bring justice back to those who have lost it.”

  I was filled with pride at the sight of her in her dark robe, her intelligence bursting from her pearly brow, the very pinnacle of learning and grace produced by three thousand years of Iranian civilization. No one would be a better ruler! She had proved herself once, and now she would finally receive the opportunity to show all she could do. My heart soared with joy for her.

  “May God shower His blessings on you!”

  “As my devoted servant, your position will become more exalted,” she added. “I will provide a good title for you when I organize the men of the Shah’s inner circle.”

  “Princess, it is my life’s greatest honor to continue to serve you.”

  I had good reason for hope. I would finally be able to bring Jalileh to Qazveen and to provide her with a sumptuous dowry. If she married one day and had children, their laughter would echo all through the house. At last, I would be part of a family again.

  A messenger knocked at the door and announced Shamkhal Cherkes. It had been months since we had seen him. I stood up before he entered and positioned myself in my usual place near the door. There were more lines on his face and more gray hair in his beard than I remembered; it looked as if his service to Isma‘il had been hard on him. He sat on a cushion across from Pari, his powerful body tense.

  “Princess, I came as soon as I could to offer my condolences about your brother Isma‘il,” he said. “Not to mention all the other princes who died during his reign.”

  “Thank you,” Pari replied, then lapsed into silence.

  “May I speak with you in private?”

  “My servant Javaher is like one of my own limbs.”

  My heart bloomed under the sun of her words.

  “Of course,” he said, not bothering to glance at me, so great was his desire to please her. “I came to tell you how much I admire your courage.”

  “No doubt it comes from our family,” Pari said, returning the compliment, but with only the thinnest of politeness.

  “Really, I mean it.”

  There was an awkward silence, which Pari refused to fill.

  “I have come to ask whether, in this difficult moment, there is any service I can provide for you.” There was a pleading look in his eyes.

  “No, thank you.”

  Shamkhal adjusted his large white turban awkwardly. Pari didn’t bother to offer tea or sweetmeats or other comforts.

  “It is difficult to explain how trying it has been to live under the constant threat that the Shah might decide to kill me.”

  “You, too?” asked Pari sarcastically.

  “I deeply regret not helping you more,” Shamkhal continued. “We were all paralyzed by fear, as if caught in a fog through which we could not see. You alone weren’t afraid.”

  “I was afraid.”

  “But you didn’t permit your fear to stop you from taking care of the problem.”

  “Uncle, whatever do you mean?” she parried, wisely refusing to admit to anything. “My poor brother died from an opium overdose and extreme indigestion, by God’s will. The important question at the moment is what will happen next.”

  “That is why I am here. I want to assist you.”

  He was too vital an ally to dismiss outright, yet how could she trust him? Her eyes were full of reproach.

  “I haven’t always done what you wanted,” he said, “but have always kept you in my heart.”

  “Indeed? What I am to do with someone who promises loyalty to me, then gives it to someone else?”

  “What else could I have done? I couldn’t say no to the Shah’s promotions without offending, and I couldn’t countermand his orders without getting in trouble.”

  “Did you advocate for me?”

  “I tried, but he wouldn’t budge. I suspect that someone powerful has been speaking out against you, Pari.”

  “Mirza Shokhrollah?”

  “I don’t know. At one point, Isma‘il mentioned a reason for his animosity. He said that you had thrown your support behind Mahmood Mirza before he was crowned.”

  “You know I never did.”

  She spoke the truth.

  “I wonder if that rumor originated with Mirza Salman,” he continued.

  Pari looked unconvinced.

  “His promotion to such a high post was a surprise. What did he do to earn it?”

  “He is good at his job,” she said. “He is also fiercely loyal. He even came to visit me after the Shah had prohibited it.”

  Shamkhal looked abashed. “Pari jan—my life, listen to me. We are family. I will always advocate for you, unless the Shah orders otherwise. At least I am willing to admit to the truth of things, unlike others who walk a tightrope of loyalties, hoping that neither side tugs too hard.”

  “I require more than such a tentative vow. Say or do what you must regarding the next shah, but I don’t want your help unless you swear yourself to me.”

  “I understand. What do you wish to do now that the Shah is dead?”

  “I want to be Shoja’s regent, with your advocacy.”

  “How bold you are! No woman is like you, and no man, either. With deep humility, I swear my allegiance to you.”

  To my surprise, he bowed and bent to kiss her feet as if she were shah. Then he looked up in the hope of receiving her acceptance of his pledge.

  “All right, then. I will think about it.”

  “You will think about it?”

  “That is all.”

  “But, Princess—”

  Shamkhal looked as if he might burst out of his robe to convince her of his goodwill.

  “That is all that is possible at the moment.”

  I was glad that she disciplined him. How could she trust him otherwise?

  A messenger knocked at the door and announced Mirza Salman. “Here, now, is the grand vizier. Let’s hear his news.”

  In her birooni, Pari seated herself on one side of the lattice with her uncle while I joined Mirza Salman on the other side. He was still wearing the same robe as the day before. Judging by the darkness of his upper lids, he hadn’t slept.

  “Salaam aleikum, Grand Vizier. I am here with Shamkhal Cherkes,” Pari said through the lattice.

  “Salaam. I wish to report to you on the emergency meeting that I called to determine the future of our country. Alas, the amirs almost came to blows.”

  “How unusual,” she said archly. “Over what?”

  “Each group wants influence. I implored them to withdraw their swords until a new shah is named.”

  “Thank you, Grand Vizier. As always, you are as effective as a sharpened blade. I wish to congratulate you on your recent promotion.”

  “It is an honor, but one that didn’t last long. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your brother.”

  “And please accept mine in return. Some things . . . can’t be helped.”

  His eyes were untroubled; he was one of those courtiers who float over every wave.

  “Nothing has been settled yet. The amirs have inquired as to your wishes.”

  “Why didn’t they come to my quarters?”

  “Having been prohibited from seeing you by the Shah, they felt honor-bound not to flout his command. As I promised you earlier today, I proposed that you should be regent to Isma‘il’s son.”

  “And?”

  “The men didn’t like the idea.”

  “Why not?”

  “They were adamant that Isma‘il’s son shouldn’t rule. One of them stood up and recited a section of the Shahnameh.”

  “W
hich one?”

  “It went like this:

  “My noble lords, no man has ever seen

  A king as wicked as this king has been:

  He hoarded all he’d stolen from the poor,

  His reign was murder, rapine, grief, and war.

  No one has heard of any former reign

  That was so evil, or that caused so much pain.

  We do not want his seed here on the throne

  And from his dust we turn to God alone.”

  “Indeed? They fear baby Shoja?”

  Her tone was barbed, implying that the men did not like the idea of her ruling so unencumbered.

  “They suggested that the natural leader of Iran is your late father’s son, Mohammad Khodabandeh, who is after all the eldest.”

  “But he is blind! Why did that disqualify him only a year ago, but not now?”

  “For one thing, his mother Sultanam is qizilbash, and the qizilbash like to support their own. Also, he has four young sons who could succeed him, which gives them comfort. When his name was mentioned, the unanimous refrain of ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ was spoken and everyone swore to support him.”

  “What role shall I have then?”

  “You will be his chief advisor, since he cannot rule on his own.”

  “Mirza Salman!” exclaimed Pari. “Tell the truth: The men feel that Mohammad Khodabandeh will be easier to influence, isn’t that so? Everyone knows he has no interest in being ruler. The amirs will be able to get him to agree to whatever they propose.”

  “No one said that,” Mirza Salman replied.

  “But that is the reason, no doubt.”

  “I can’t report on words that weren’t spoken.”

  “Regardless, it is your duty to anticipate what the amirs are thinking and to be strong in the face of their demands.”

  “I will, I promise. And I assure you that I fought fiercely for you and did as much as a lone voice could do. But now the men are waiting for a word from you. They won’t inform Mohammad Khodabandeh until you agree. They recognize all you have done.”

  There was a long silence; Pari wasn’t pleased and neither was I. Shamkhal’s deep voice boomed from the back of the other side of the lattice.

  “You are the grand vizier. Why can’t you bend them to your will?”

 
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