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Equal of the sun, p.32
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       Equal of the Sun, p.32

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  Mirza Salman rolled forward on the balls of his feet as if to make himself taller.

  “You don’t know how hard I tried.”

  “But you haven’t been successful.”

  “That is a strange thing for you to say.”

  “What is your meaning?”

  “My meaning is that no one has been more loyal to the princess than myself.”

  “You should have done more.”

  “If any man believes he can do better, he is welcome to try.”

  Shamkhal was in no position to force the qizilbash to do anything. His bluster was an attempt to win Pari’s love.

  “Why are you trying so hard to convince her that Mohammad Khodabandeh is a good choice?” Shamkhal asked. “Is it because his wife’s a Tajik, like you?”

  Mirza Salman looked offended, but his words were calm. “My concern is for the safety of the realm. We need to decide on the succession quickly to prevent invasions and to avoid another spate of lawlessness.”

  “I agree,” said Pari.

  “By the way,” Mirza Salman added, “I also argued that we shouldn’t waste any further efforts trying to determine if Isma‘il Shah, may his soul be at peace, was poisoned.”

  “Why not?” Pari asked in a sharp tone.

  “I argued that he is in God’s hands, and it is our job to think of the future.”

  “They should be grateful that Isma‘il’s death has shielded the surviving princes from his sword—not to mention themselves,” the princess said.

  Mirza Salman’s forehead creased a hundred times. “True. One of the men admitted that he had been ordered by the Shah only a few days ago to execute Mohammad Khodabandeh and his boys.”

  Pari drew in her breath so sharply we could hear it on our side of the lattice. “All of them?”

  “Yes. He delayed as much as he could because he was so loath to carry out his task. By the grace of God, he didn’t have to do so.”

  “How narrowly we have escaped a terrible fate! My dynasty would have crumbled.”

  “I reminded them of that.”

  So Pari had changed the course of history once again. For that matter, so had I. Was this what my stars had meant? Who, then, was destined to be the greatest Safavi leader? Could it be Mohammad Khodabandeh?

  “Why didn’t Isma‘il’s nobles bother to do anything about the injustice he imposed on those around him?”

  “They had sworn their loyalty to him.”

  “I see,” she said. “So I am correct that the amirs did nothing.”

  Her condemnation hung in the air for a moment before she continued. “Everyone acknowledges that a royal princess has saved the realm and deserves a reward. I want you to convince them to make me regent instead of what they suggested.”

  “I can’t. Not a single man spoke in favor of the idea after I proposed it. This was the best concession I could get after arguing with them for a long time.”

  I believed him. He had every reason to make a deal for her that would make him her most trusted ally.

  “Please consider, esteemed princess, that you will be performing that very role when you are Mohammad Khodabandeh’s chief advisor.”

  “Unless, for some reason, he doesn’t wish it.”

  “As you have pointed out, he is known to be malleable.”

  “Which amirs spoke in favor of the idea that I should advise him?”

  “All of the leaders agreed it is a good idea. They believe that you are fair and make good decisions.”

  “So they will support me as his advisor?”

  “They will.”

  There was a pause while Pari discussed with her uncle something that I couldn’t hear.

  “In that case, you may tell the men these exact words: I accept their decision that I shall become chief advisor to Mohammad Khodabandeh, but only if every one of them agrees to stand behind me in that role. Will you get their word man by man? And tell them there is no longer any prohibition against meeting with me. If they fail to appear at a meeting after the third-day mourning ceremony for the late Shah, we don’t have an agreement.”

  “Chashm. Thank you, princess, for ensuring that this transition will be more orderly than the last one. May I convey the news to the elders?”

  “You may.”

  Mirza Salman took his leave, and when he was gone, I rejoined Pari and Shamkhal. Pari looked angry.

  “What did he mean about you?” she demanded of her uncle.

  “Nothing,” he replied. “Can’t you see how he tries to manipulate you by pretending to be the most loyal of all?”

  “Isn’t he?”

  “I have my doubts.”

  Pari looked at him quizzically. I too was wondering whether he was trying to make Mirza Salman look deceitful to advance himself.

  “How well do you know Mohammad Khodabandeh?” Shamkhal asked her quickly, changing the subject.

  “Not well. He has served outside the capital ever since I was a child. But since he has no interest in ruling, I will take charge.”

  “What if the situation is like the last one?”

  “Mohammad Khodabandeh is much weaker than Isma‘il ever was, and more reasonable.”

  “His wife is fiery, I hear.”

  I remembered how Khayr al-Nisa Beygom had knocked over the tray of pudding when Isma‘il had been crowned.

  “She will arrive with very little standing in the palace. I will put her in her place if needed.”

  “Too bad Mirza Salman wasn’t able to be more effective,” he said with a dismissive sneer.

  “What do you think?” Pari asked me. It was rare for her to solicit my opinion in the presence of her uncle.

  “Serving as a blind shah’s chief advisor is a reasonable compromise,” I said. That was the truth of politics: A compromise was the best we could hope for.

  Shamkhal looked from me to her and back again, as if he could feel his influence draining away.

  “How can I help?” he finally asked.

  “I will let you know. Forgive me, Uncle, but now I must attend to other things.”

  “I see. May I call on you again soon?”

  “Yes, yes, of course.”

  Shamkhal stood up, clearly disappointed at being dismissed, and took his leave. Pari remained seated for a moment after he left; she looked lost in thought, and then she sighed.

  “I miss my father. Little did I understand, when he was alive, that no other man would ever match the constancy of his love.”

  An inadvertent protest escaped my lips. Pari added softly, “I meant no other relative.”

  As was customary, Isma‘il Shah was interred on the day he died. Before the official ceremonies late that afternoon, I met Balamani at the baths. After giving my robes to the bath attendant, an old eunuch who was missing a few teeth, I washed myself all over with soap and buckets of water, then eased myself into the hottest tub beside Balamani.

  “Aw khesh,” I exclaimed as the heat warmed my bones.

  “Hello, my friend,” Balamani replied, as the waves I made splashed against his chest. “What surprises have greeted us! The thirteenth of Ramazan is a day we won’t ever forget.”

  “God is great.”

  My affirmation echoed through the room. Balamani lowered his voice so that only I could hear him.

  “He is, but it is difficult for people to understand why this cataclysmic event occurred. A rumor has been circulating that the Shah was poisoned.”

  “Indeed?” I said, turning to Balamani, whose large body looked whitened by the steam. “And who is to blame?”

  “They say it is his sister.”

  His words alarmed me. “Does anyone believe that rumor? I happen to know she was writing letters all night, since I was with her.”

  “That is good to know,” he said. “I will pass on the information. In the meantime, I hope you are satisfied.”

  His tone wasn’t entirely friendly. I had closed my eyes, enjoying the heat, but I opened them to look at him.

&nbs
p; “I believe everyone is satisfied,” I said.

  “Not me.”

  “Why not?”

  He lifted water to his forehead and cheeks, smoothing away the lines for a moment.

  “I am thinking about Tahmasb Shah. He certainly sent his share of men to their execution, even his own kin. The problem comes when a man starts to believe that he is entitled to do such things all the time.”

  “True.”

  “I would hate to think you might become such a man,” he added.

  “Me? Are you joking?”

  Balamani ignored me. “Your lieutenant will become very powerful now. These rumors about her won’t hurt, as long as they can’t be pinned on her. In fact, they make her seem as tough as the men, if not tougher.”

  “She is fierce,” I agreed proudly.

  “Pari has proved herself willing to do something they were too afraid to do. They will fear her for it.”

  “What is wrong with that? It seems to work.”

  “Things could be tricky if she decides to take such action again. In that case, she will ask those closest to her for their help.”

  “That will never happen. Just because we have gotten rid of a Zahhak doesn’t mean we have to become one.”

  He poked my forearm the way he used to do when I was young and missing his point.

  “I would keep my eye on the question if I were you. Remember, others will now be watching you, and if they wish to bring her down, they will start with you.”

  I had expected praise from him, the man who had been like an uncle to me, but his words were harsh.

  “Balamani! Aren’t you my friend?”

  “Always,” he said, “but I am a friend of this court’s, too. If the point of your actions was to bring about the return of justice, don’t become uglier than what you destroyed.”

  His words offended me. I lifted myself out of the bath and signaled to the attendant that I needed a towel.

  “You have hardly begun to soak off the dirt,” Balamani said.

  I glared at him.

  “Listen, my friend,” he said. “Don’t make any mistakes that would require you to make a lifetime of amends.”

  “Of course I won’t,” I said as I dried my back.

  His expression was so full of something like remorse that it stopped me from leaving as quickly as I had planned. I wrapped the towel around my middle and sat down on the ledge above the water, immersing my legs again. Balamani slicked water over the crown of his bald head. His eyes were clouded as if he were remembering something.

  “Did that ever happen to you?” I finally asked.

  “Yes.”

  “How?”

  His face twisted with regret.

  “You still don’t know why I took such an interest in you?”

  He was like a big angel with his smooth charcoal-colored skin, lilting voice, and generous belly. He had been an angel to me many times. The ghosts of my past rose within me all of a sudden, and I shivered.

  “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

  “Yes, that is part of it.”

  “What else?”

  “You might dislike me forever. I know things that I couldn’t tell you—until now.”

  Looking into his dark eyes, I felt as if I were falling into a deep pit. Suddenly the image of a bloodied white sheet scalded my vision.

  “My father,” I said softly.

  “Yes.”

  “Why was he killed?”

  “You know why. He was accused of diverting money from the treasury.”

  “Who made the allegations against him?” Challenge roughened my voice.

  “What have you deduced?”

  “I have come to suspect that someone else gave the order to Kamiyar Kofrani to kill my father.”

  “Well done,” said Balamani, his almond-shaped eyes filled with appreciation for my sleuthing. “Have you figured out who it was?”

  He was ever the master pushing me to make discoveries on my own. My heart began pounding; my voice tightened in my chest.

  “I suspect Mirza Salman.”

  “No. Look higher.”

  Higher? That left only royalty and the handful of men closest to Tahmasb Shah. I thought about each one of them. Mirza Shokhrollah? The Shah’s previous grand vizier? The qizilbash nobles? I had no evidence against any particular courtier.

  “Here is your towel, my good man. Would you like a shave or a massage, gorbon, from the man with the golden hands? Surely an exalted fellow like you . . .”

  The voice of the bath attendant welcoming a new bather shattered my concentration. How fawning he was in the hopes of earning tips! Even the littlest man had his fiefdom to maintain, just like a shah. My father had lost his life to someone who was determined to protect his own. Who could it have been? Who, back then, would have been most passionate about the throne other than the Shah himself?

  Balamani’s eyes were full of encouragement, as they had been when he was first training me. All of a sudden, I shouted out loud.

  “Isma‘il?”

  “Yes.”

  I was incredulous. “From his prison in Qahqaheh?”

  “That is right.”

  “Why?”

  “The last thing he wanted was for another man to usurp the throne while he was incarcerated. He didn’t think Tahmasb Shah would believe his allegations, so he hired an assassin of his own.”

  “In that case, why didn’t Isma‘il have me killed when he became shah?”

  “Why should he risk incurring Pari’s wrath when he was so afraid of her? You were neutered in his eyes—though he was wrong about that.”

  “How do you know all this about my past?”

  “Isn’t that my job?”

  “Answer me.”

  Balamani shifted in the tub, sending a current of water to the other side. “Years ago, I was charged with taking messages between Isma‘il and his mother. Hidden within one of his letters was the order for your father’s murder.”

  “Wasn’t the order sealed?”

  Balamani laughed. “Of course.”

  “Once you had read it, why did you deliver it?”

  “I had to. A courier who destroys royal letters can be executed.”

  I felt as if a lightning strike had scrambled my thoughts. “Why didn’t you tell me all of this after I came to the palace?”

  “When you were a hotheaded young man, I feared you would try to take revenge on Isma‘il and get yourself killed.”

  I cast my hand over my forehead. Had all of that been written there?

  “And so I have.”

  “And so you have. Little did you know how I prayed for the success of your mission. There is justice in the world, although it takes unpredictable paths.”

  “May God be praised.”

  “Your father’s murder is one of the reasons that Tahmasb Shah kept his son locked away at Qahqaheh. After that episode, the Shah was doubly certain that he couldn’t trust him.”

  “Now I understand why you looked after me so well. But why did the Shah take me in to begin with?”

  “He decided to make it up to you.”

  “You mean I didn’t have to get myself cut?”

  Balamani grimaced, and I was pierced by a sensation as extreme as the one that had followed the removal of my parts. I had to clap my arms around myself to keep from crying out.

  “I don’t know. The Shah paid attention to your plight only after you requested an audience. That is when he told Anwar to investigate the matter, and Anwar reported his belief that your father had been falsely fingered by people who wished to bring him down because of the favor he enjoyed. When the Shah discovered that you became a eunuch out of a desire to serve him, he was doubly moved by your story.”

  “If the Shah thought my father was innocent, why didn’t he admit the mistake and give restitution to my family?”

  Balamani laughed ruefully. “How often does a leader admit someone has been killed in error? Besides, he wasn’t the one who ordere
d the killing.”

  “How strange my fate has been!”

  “One of the strangest. That is why I wished to help, as did others, like Tahmasb Shah. He thought highly of you.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I heard him tell Pari that your intelligence and loyalty made you one of the jewels of the court. He made her promise to treat you well.”

  Balamani sighed deeply, creating ripples in the bathwater. “I wish I could have told you all of this sooner. You are like the nephew I never had. I hated to have to withhold the truth from you for so long.”

  I looked at Balamani’s thick, knotted fingers and thought about how those very hands had carried the order for my father’s death. Yet the same hands had also massaged my temples when I was ill with a fever and had intervened for me whenever I needed help. Blaming him would be like attacking a messenger who happened to bring bad news.

  “Balamani, I owe you nothing but thanks,” I said in a congested voice. “How can I ever repay you for so many years of kindness, oh wise, fearless, and loving friend! You have taught me what it means to be a complete man.”

  Tears sprang to Balamani’s eyes. He rinsed his face with the bathwater, his broad shoulders shaking. How lucky I had been that God had sent me to him!

  The heat of the bath was making my head swim; the steam in the room obscured my vision. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Easing my legs out of the tub, I called to the bath attendant to bring my clothes and handed him a generous tip.

  “Javaher, are you all right?” Balamani asked.

  “I need air.”

  As I left the hammam, I felt a strong urge to visit my father’s grave. I hadn’t been there in years, and now the things I had learned made my spirit long to commune with his.

  I passed through the Ali Qapu gate and turned down the Promenade of the Royal Stallions toward my old family home, remembering the day my father’s body had arrived wrapped in a bloody cotton sheet. I didn’t know who lived in the house now and didn’t want to know. After leaving the Friday mosque behind me, I arrived at the cemetery at the southern outskirts of town where my father was buried. At the entrance, I bought rose water from a peddler and went in search of my father. The cemetery had grown since the last time I had visited, and it took me time to find the granite slab marking his grave.

 
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