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Equal of the sun, p.33
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       Equal of the Sun, p.33

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  I called one of the graveside attendants to sweep away the dirt and wash the slab with buckets of water. While he did his work, I heard the cry of birds above me. I looked up and saw a flock of white geese that were leaving on the vanguard of winter for warmer climes.

  An old man in a tattered cotton robe approached me. “Shall I recite the Qur’an for you?” he asked in a hoarse voice.

  “No, thank you, I will do it myself,” I replied, and gave him a coin anyway.

  “Blessings on you and all your children.”

  “Thanks, but I don’t have any.” I heard the bitterness in my own voice.

  “Trust in God, my good fellow. You shall.”

  He sounded so sure of it I almost believed him.

  Once he and the grave washer had gone, I closed my eyes and recited prayers for the dead, losing myself in the rhythm and the rhyme of the words. They rolled off my tongue in the crisp air, softening my heart and everything around me.

  I crouched on my heels and gazed at my father’s gravestone. He had only been about ten years older than me when he was murdered. It was one thing to be felled by God, through illness or an accident, which we all expect one day or another; it was quite another to be felled by a man.

  I sprinkled the rose water on the stone. “May your soul rise to heaven, and may you revel in the reward you deserve,” I whispered.

  The flock of geese soared overhead again, crying out as they passed. Looking up at their pure white bodies, I was filled with lightness, as if my father’s soul had just then been freed. In the vastness of the sky, I could feel his warm brown eyes smiling on me.

  I heard the call to prayer from a nearby mosque and felt moved to communicate with God. I beckoned to the grave washer and asked for water, a prayer mat, and a tablet of clay from Mecca. After spreading out the mat near my father’s grave, I washed my hands, face, and feet. As I bent low to pray, my heart was full of more things than I could say. I thanked God for His protection and prayed for His judgment on my soul to be light. I asked Him to look kindly on me because I was a strange creature, one that He had not designed and perhaps did not countenance. Feeling the caress of the tablet of dried earth against my forehead, I prayed for the tenderness and mercy that He showed all his creatures, even the most humbled.

  In the bazaar there were always strange creatures like the one-eyed goat that were derided and jeered at, yet I always tried to stroke their noses for a moment or two, because how could they have come to be, without God’s hand? Soldiers returned from wars with missing parts—limbs torn off or eyes gouged out. The old lost the powers they had had as youths, becoming as gnarled as branches and as sedentary as trees. My mother developed a fissure in her heart and was felled by sorrow. God had created perfection in man, but time on earth ate away at him, part by part, until finally nothing remained and he vanished into spirit. Yet there was glory in being half, not whole, glory in the task of it. I thought of a blind man who had recited poetry at court and how he cried out the lines of the Shahnameh as if they were seared into his heart, as if the loss of his eyes had allowed him to see more clearly into the soul of the words. He spoke true, truer than a man with eyes could ever speak, and he cracked open the hearts of those who heard his call.

  The lines of a poem suddenly blazed within me:

  Praise, oh praise! Praise for the not-whole

  Praise for those who stumble along

  Though wounded in body or soul

  Praise for the one-legged man

  Who runs races in his mind

  Praise for he who sees truth as clear

  As light, though he is blind

  Praise for the deaf man who hears nought

  But the voice of God all the time

  Praise for the woman forced to trade

  Her dearest possessions for bread

  Praise for all who have been cut or lamed

  Twisted, wrenched, battered, or torn

  Within or without, whatever the wound

  Oh praise! For when the soul’s mirror is cleaned

  Then man becomes spirit while still man.

  When I stood up from prayer, my heart finally felt at ease for the first time in twelve years. No doubt it had been my fate to become a eunuch. If I hadn’t, I would never have gotten close enough to Isma‘il Shah to avenge my father.

  CHAPTER 8

  A STAR PLUMMETS

  When Faranak heard that her son had unseated Zahhak, I am certain she threw herself down in prayer and thanked God for his blessings. No doubt she opened her home to the less fortunate and offered a feast to them every day for a week.

  If I had been present at the festivities, I would have called the crowd to attention and said this: “Kind Khanoom, there is more to this story than you in your modesty have revealed. If you had not been clever enough to find the cowherd and his glorious cow, Fereydoon would have perished before he started to walk. If you had not taken him to India to be trained by a sage, he would have failed to learn wisdom. If you had not demanded justice for the murder of his father, he would not have burned for revenge. If you had not prevented him from attacking Zahhak before he was ready, he would have been killed. If you had neglected to share your kind heart with him, he would never have learned mercy. Praise, oh praise for Faranak the wise!”

  Word was sent to Mohammad Khodabandeh in Shiraz that he had been chosen as the new shah. Like Isma‘il, he didn’t believe it at first. He had been under house arrest for so many months, it was no surprise he thought it was a trick to test his loyalty to his brother. At first, he ordered that the envoy be executed to avoid the plot he was certain was being laid for him, but the envoy saved himself by suggesting that he merely be imprisoned for a few days until the truth about Isma‘il’s death could be verified. Eventually, when the evidence was overwhelming, the envoy was released and Mohammad agreed to come to Qazveen and take up his new post.

  At the palace, no serious attempt was made to discover who had poisoned Isma‘il. After the physician’s final report deemed the cause of death unclear, Mirza Salman had worked hard to convince the amirs that running the country was more important than chasing a plot that may not have existed. Since it was uncertain what had killed the Shah, he argued, it was senseless to seek reprisal. They had enough to do.

  Naturally, I was relieved when it became clear that no one would be punished, yet surprised the men relinquished their duties so easily. They seemed to me to be the worst kind of cowards: cringing under their leader’s demands, mouthing the right words to win his approbation, hating him in their hearts, yet doing nothing to stop his evil deeds while he was alive—nothing. These were the nobles of our land, the men whose presence had filled me with adulation when I was a child. Now I knew that despite all their gold and titles and weapons, they quaked with fear. Brave men were rare indeed.

  After three days of mourning, the noblemen were summoned to the princess’s house for their first meeting with her. On the appointed day, her servants set up the blue velvet curtain that would conceal her from the men at her home. Pari secreted herself behind the curtain, and we tested whether I could hear her voice from every corner of the room, just as we had long ago. But this time, she delighted me by reciting a section from the Shahnameh about how the great hero Rostam had tamed his ferocious steed, who became his most loyal companion. From every point I listened, her voice was loud and strong.

  Soon after the cannon boomed, everyone sat down to their first meal of the day, as it was still Ramazan. Hands reached eagerly for drinks, and once the first wave of thirst was satisfied, we settled down to enjoy bread, cheese, nuts, and fruit. I was still chewing my food in the company of Pari’s other eunuchs when Shamkhal Cherkes arrived. I leapt to my feet to attend to the princess.

  After greeting Pari, Shamkhal said, “I came early to ask if you wish me to be your representative to the men, as before.”

  The princess thought about it for a moment and then said, “Thank you, Uncle, but you won’t be needed.”

&nb
sp; Shamkhal looked as if he wished he could fold into his own large body. In that moment, the cowardice shown by Pari’s own kin struck me with full force. Court life had made them fearful and changeable. Even as they swore loyalty, they were peering over their shoulder to see who could boost them higher.

  “Are you certain?” he asked.

  “I have been on my own all this time, haven’t I?”

  He looked chastened. “If I may assist you, I will do so gladly.”

  “Perhaps another time.”

  I had never seen her look more like a princess than at that moment.

  “Actually,” she added all of a sudden, “I have already asked Javaher to lead the meeting.”

  She hadn’t asked, but I was pleased by the faith she showed in me. Of course I wanted to represent her to the nobles.

  Before the men began to arrive, Pari seated herself behind the curtain. I was gratified to see a dozen of the leading noblemen and palace officials, notably Amir Khan Mowsellu, Pir Mohammad Khan, Anwar Agha, Khalil Khan—who had been Pari’s guardian when she was a child—Morshad Khan, Mirza Salman, and several others take their places according to rank. They were as quiet and respectful as if meeting with the Shah. How different from when the princess had called them to order before Isma‘il had arrived!

  Standing on the platform in front of her curtain, I looked out with confidence on the sober nobles, their silk robes impeccable, red batons erect in the qizilbash’s turbans. “Prepare to pay heed to the princess, lion of the Safavis, lord of orders,” I instructed them in a firm voice.

  The men heeded me in a way they had never done before, my changed status reflected in their very posture. When they were so still that we could hear the footsteps of someone walking through the square, the princess began to speak from behind the curtain in a low, melodious voice.

  “My good noblemen,” she said, “welcome. Once again in little more than a year, we face the necessity of keeping the country intact until our new shah arrives to claim his throne. My goal is to deliver to him a functioning government and a capital city where law prevails. All of you will be asked to assist me in avoiding the problems we had last time.”

  “It is our duty, princess,” Mirza Salman replied, speaking for the men.

  “Our shah-to-be will arrive soon. First he will travel to Qom to pay his respects to his mother and to thank God for the safety of his sons, except for the much-lamented Sultan Hassan Mirza. Then he will enter the palace according to his astrologers’ recommendations for an auspicious arrival. If everything is to be ready, we have much work ahead of us.”

  “Mark well the words of royalty,” said Shamkhal Cherkes proudly, even though Mirza Salman now outranked him and should have been the one to speak.

  “Anwar Agha will be in charge of organizing the coronation ceremonies within the palace,” Pari continued. “He and I will be consulting daily, and he will inform you of your responsibilities in this matter.”

  “When shall we go to Qom to pay our respects to our new shah?” asked Mirza Salman.

  “Not until the palace is completely in order,” Pari replied. “No one has permission to leave his post unless it is given directly by me. Is that understood by everyone?”

  “We shall obey,” the men replied.

  “Good. That said, let me remind you that the principal duty of a leader is to provide justice. Remember Nizam al-Mulk’s story of the poor widow and Anushirvan the just? One of Anushirvan’s nobles expropriated the land of the widow because he wanted to expand his estate. After the woman complained to Anushirvan and he verified her story, the nobleman was skinned and stuffed. All of his property was bequeathed to the woman, but even more important, Anushirvan’s subjects learned he would be uncompromising about enforcing justice. That is the kind of court we will aspire to in the future.”

  The noblemen looked at each other, wondering, it seemed, what exactly Pari was going to hold them responsible for. But then she added sugar to the stew.

  “Accordingly, my first act as the new shah’s representative will be to restore justice. Many noblemen have been sent to the palace prison because they fell out of favor. I hereby order that those men be released to their families.”

  A great shout of approval burst out from the men. “May God be praised!” said Khalil Khan.

  “Are you including those who supported Haydar?” asked Pir Mohammad Khan.

  “I am. Sadr al-din Khan Ostajlu will be one of the first to be set free.”

  “May God rain his blessings on you!” he replied. “How sweet is this day.”

  “Before celebrating, I need to hear from all of you about the problems in the realm. Mirza Salman, you may speak first.”

  He cleared his throat. “Many provincial governorships still remain empty, threatening our stability. They include the posts vacated by the tragic demise of the princes.”

  “The delays have been inexcusable,” Pari replied. “You and your men may develop a list of recommendations in consultation with me. I will present the list to the new shah and urge a quick decision, especially where our borders are most vulnerable.”

  “Chashm,” said Mirza Salman.

  I could already see some of the men looking hopeful; they would be sure to petition her for their sons and retainers to be granted those posts. For Pari, it would be an excellent opportunity to put her own men in powerful positions, men who would then owe allegiance to her.

  Morshad Khan, the noble in charge of the palace guard, asked to be recognized next.

  “I am concerned about the treasury. Isma‘il’s men are still on guard, but with a change of shah at hand, they may not be trustworthy. In addition, if our enemies hear the news and suspect we’re vulnerable, they could attack.”

  The treasury was located in a low, fortified building near Forty Columns Hall. It was hidden behind thick walls and guarded by soldiers. Very few people were permitted to enter, and every entry was recorded in a book.

  Pari’s answer was immediate. “Shamkhal Cherkes, organize a retinue of Circassian guards and make sure they don’t stint in their duty to protect the treasury day and night.”

  “Chashm,” he replied, smiling broadly now that he had been honored with such an important task.

  “Princess, wouldn’t it be better if the guard consisted of several groups, including the qizilbash?” Mirza Salman asked.

  “Don’t you trust us?” Shamkhal shot back.

  “That is not the point. A mixed group will require everyone to take responsibility for protecting the country’s wealth.”

  “Answer my question!” commanded Shamkhal.

  “It is not a real question,” said Mirza Salman, holding his ground. “Moreover, it seems to me it would be easy to prove which one of us is the most loyal.”

  “Are you threatening me?” Shamkhal’s eyes bulged with his overeagerness to do something.

  “I am merely stating a fact.”

  Two weeks before they had barely been speaking to Pari, and now they were ready to come to blows to prove themselves!

  “Stop this unseemly sparring,” Pari commanded from behind the curtain. “Mirza Salman has a point. I will ask the Takkalu to join the Circassians in guarding the treasury.”

  The Takkalu had become her allies, ever since the Ostajlu had returned to Isma‘il’s favor.

  “That would be the only fair thing to do,” said Mirza Salman.

  Shamkhal looked enraged; he had lost almost every battle so far. Mirza Salman smiled at him, taunting him. All of a sudden, I remembered how hard Mirza Salman had worked to take Mirza Shokhrollah down. It had started just like this, with a sneer at a meeting.

  “The princess has closed discussion on this issue,” I told the assembly in a firm voice. “We will proceed to the next topic.”

  “What about our revenues? Are we receiving the monies owed from the provinces?” Pari asked.

  “We have a shortfall from the southwest,” replied the eunuch Farhad Agha, whom Isma‘il had put in charge of
treasury revenues.

  “Why?”

  Khalil Khan asked to be recognized. He had a formidable nose and was known for playing backgammon with masterly deception. He would appear to lose for a long time into the game, then score point after point until his enemy was crushed.

  “There has been an earthquake in my province, and many harvesters have been killed. We need time to recover.”

  “It is granted,” Pari replied, “but I will expect a thorough report on the status of the harvest in the next month.”

  Hameed Khan, a young nobleman, asked to be recognized next. “I wish to report a success. After Badi al-Zaman died in Sistan, we endured a full-scale rebellion in my province, but the conspirators have been unmasked and vanquished, and now our border is safe and strong. I thank the esteemed princess for understanding the severity of the danger we faced before anyone else did.”

  “That is what a leader is for,” Pari replied.

  “We honor you for it. You have been a lion where others might quake.”

  “After this meeting, everyone should contact their retainers and ask if there are any threats of revolt or invasion in their provinces. Report to me as soon as you receive an answer. Don’t forget that our enemies will soon learn about the Shah’s death and will be eager to take advantage.”

  “Chashm,” the men replied.

  “I continue to be concerned about affairs in Van. Rumors abound that the Ottoman governor there, Khosro Pasha, is poised to attack us. Ali Khan Shamlu, I want you to lead an army to Khui to show our strength and discourage his plans. Nothing is more important than preserving my father’s hard-won peace with the Ottomans.”

  “Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!” chanted the men, and Ali Khan looked pleased that he would finally get to carry out the mission that Pari had assigned before Isma‘il had stopped him.

  “Are there any other concerns?”

  Khalil Khan stood up. “There have been rumors of irregularities at the palace,” he said, wagging his finger at the curtain. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

 
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