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Equal of the sun, p.34
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       Equal of the Sun, p.34

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “State your business,” I demanded.

  “Some have gone so far as to claim that the Shah was murdered,” he charged.

  Since Khalil had been Pari’s guardian long ago, which usually resulted in a lifelong bond, I wondered why he had decided to challenge her so publicly.

  “The physician’s report was inconclusive,” I reminded him.

  “It is my duty to let the princess know about rumors that a murder plot was hatched in the harem.”

  I stiffened and frowned at him.

  “That is preposterous,” said Shamkhal, leaping to his feet. “What are you implying?”

  From behind her curtain, Pari said, “Curious rumors are always circulating among you men about the royal harem. You seem to imagine it as an opium den full of connivers, but it is more like an army regiment organized by rank and task. How could you know what goes on in the harem? Have you ever been inside?”

  “Of course not,” said Khalil Khan.

  “Then I think you are best off leaving such concerns to me.”

  The men laughed, and Khalil Khan’s face reddened. “Now wait a minute. If Isma‘il Shah was murdered, what is to prevent the same thing from happening to the next one? We would all be fools not to fear a murderer on the loose.”

  Some of the men actually looked disquieted. Amir Khan’s mouth pulled down into a frown. God be praised, they were afraid of her!

  “It is difficult to imagine things will worsen, after all that has happened in recent months,” Pari replied. “Still, I give you my word that as long as you obey orders, I will stand by you. As you know, I never abandoned you. Even when I was forbidden to participate in palace affairs, I argued for clemency for the condemned at great cost to myself.”

  “She speaks the truth,” said Shamkhal.

  “In exchange, I ask for your loyalty now as I assume my new role as Mohammad Khodabandeh’s chief advisor. Men, what is your verdict?”

  “Make all your voices heard,” I instructed the nobles.

  “Hail to the best graybeard a country could have!” shouted Pir Mohammad Khan, whose enthusiasm no doubt reflected the news about his imprisoned relative.

  “Al-lah! Al-lah!” yelled Shamkhal, starting up the chant.

  The rest of the men joined in the roar. “Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!”

  The sound echoed the joyous pumping of my heart. I rushed behind the curtain to find Pari already on her feet. She looked, all of a sudden, exactly like her father, tall and slender in a saffron robe. She was neither smiling nor cowed, but completely at ease with being in charge. Though the men would never admit it, her bravery had tamed them. It seemed to me that the royal farr had penetrated her so completely that it illuminated her from within. Some would say it was in her blood, but I knew she had earned every glimmer of it, and my heart swelled with pride.

  Organizing the upcoming coronation occupied everyone for the next few days, including the lowliest errand boy. The noblemen arrived to receive their orders early in the morning, eager to show their loyalty. Everyone took a long rest in the afternoon. After breaking the fast at night, Pari and I continued working on the essential tasks of running the palace. Then she and I often consulted until shortly before dawn, when we would take a break to eat another meal. Pari was finally being permitted to do the work she had trained for at her father’s side, and she glowed with satisfaction. Even her mother remarked that she seemed as radiant as a new bride, and she no longer bothered her about getting married.

  As for me, I had become a man of significance. When the nobles assembled in her waiting room, they arrived early to get my ear. They told me their problems, begging for my intercession. I did what I could to help those who seemed honest and who could aid the princess.

  On the last day of Ramazan, the Day of Feasting, we were all in the mood for a grand celebration. Excessive indulgence was forbidden because the Shah had died so recently, but Pari prepared a respectful celebration for her ladies and her eunuchs to mark the end of the fasting month. A woman schooled in religion recited to us, reminding us that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, during Ramazan. I prayed fiercely, asking for forgiveness for my recent deeds and hoping they would be judged justified in the eyes of God.

  Right after the new moon was sighted, we were served a festive meal beyond our imaginings. There were haunches of roast lamb, long skewers of kabob, rice studded with herbs, beans, or dried fruits, and countless stews. I started with one of my favorite dishes of lamb stewed with parsley, fenugreek, coriander, and green onion, flavored with the small tart lemons that gave the dish its special bite. I ate it with a cooling serving of yogurt mixed with cucumber and mint, enjoying the way the flavors married each other on my tongue. The errand boys, who were especially attentive to me now that I was Pari’s closest confidant, came by repeatedly offering me drinks and hot bread, and to satisfy them, I accepted their offerings. Massoud Ali sat with me for a few moments until the lure of games called him into Pari’s courtyard, where the other boys were lighting fireworks and shouting with excitement. I went outside and watched the children play for a while.

  “Oy, defective!” I heard all of a sudden. “Are you man enough to play a game of backgammon with me?”

  It was Ardalan taunting Massoud Ali. I squelched the urge I felt to jump up and defend him. I had worked for months to strengthen him in body and mind, and now I must let him test his own resolve.

  The taunts continued. Massoud Ali’s small fists tensed at his sides. “You talk big, but you are nothing but a coward!” he yelled back.

  Ardalan’s face reddened. Massoud Ali charged toward him and poked him in the sternum with the knuckles of his left hand.

  “Are you man enough to lose?”

  “What?”

  “Well, are you?” Massoud Ali demanded, bristling like a cornered cat.

  Ardalan stepped back and raised his open hands. “Of course. Let’s set up the board.”

  I made sure that Massoud Ali saw my proud smile. Then I left the boys to their game and returned inside.

  It was time for the poetry recitation. The princess had found a blind man who used to perform for her father, and since he could not see, there was no problem admitting him into the ladies’ quarters. Once we had all eaten our fill, she asked him to recite for us from the Shahnameh. As he tuned his six-stringed tar, Pari turned to me. “Tonight my dear father is much on my mind,” she said. “So much has happened in the year and a half since he died.”

  “You speak the truth. It is as if we have lived two lifetimes in that short period. How proud he would be to see how well you rule!”

  Her smile reflected something more noble than pride; it was the certainty of how well she now fulfilled her role. “Yet my plans are different from his,” she said. “He gave up the arts of the book and most kinds of poetry because he wished to be pious. I want to bring all those things back and make this court the paragon of its age. We will hire artists, calligraphers, gilders, painters, and poets, and we will create competitions and prizes to encourage talent both old and new. Men’s hearts will soar again from contact with the joy of poetry and the beauty of art. Instead of simply honoring masters of the past, we will create the lights of the future. Javaher, I want you to help me achieve this dream.”

  After all we had endured, to be able to create a court celebrating beauty, learning, and dignity! How glorious!

  Pari smiled and I felt her radiance, strong and true, as the reciter began. The birooni became quiet and we listened to his melodious voice bringing to life Ferdowsi’s words. Although written five hundred years before our time, they still stirred my blood with the desire to fulfill Pari’s dreams.

  Noble and valiant warriors, see that you

  Act righteously in everything you do—

  If you would have God turn your present night

  To dawn and victory with His glorious might

  See that in darkness when trumpets sound

  You leap into the
saddle from the ground

  And ride as if the sun itself arose

  At midnight to do battle with our foes.

  Don’t dream of rest until the battle’s done

  Rest is for when our victory is won.

  I looked at Pari, who was listening to the reciter as if he were the only person in the room, and I imagined her as Fereydoon liberating the people from an evil force. I thought it was no accident that Ferdowsi’s greatest tale made heroes of three different types of people: a mother, a blacksmith, and a noble. Without all of them working together, how would victory ever have been achieved?

  The end of the month of fasting was always a time of high spirits and generosity. I took the opportunity to ask Pari if I could send for Jalileh, and she graciously granted her permission for her arrival after the New Year holiday, when new recruits to the harem would begin receiving their training. By then I would also have received a substantial portion of my increased salary. Since the New Year was more than three months away and the succession of the new shah could disrupt all promises, I decided not to share the specifics of the news with Jalileh until it was a certainty. She had been so disappointed by the last delay that I did not want to bruise her again. Instead I wrote to say that things were settling down at the palace and that I was hopeful for a resolution in the spring.

  Right after Ramazan, Mohammad Khodabandeh sent a group of his men to ready the palace for himself and his family. They met with Anwar Agha, who permitted the eunuchs among them to examine the buildings on the harem grounds, scrutinizing the residence for sharp corners, unexpected flights of stairs, or open balconies that could prove dangerous to a blind man. The eunuchs suggested modifications after consulting with the palace architects.

  The next time that Mohammad Khodabandeh’s retainers came to the palace, they arrived in a much bigger group that included soldiers. Pari and I were told that they had been sent to check on the status of the modifications to the palace. Late that afternoon, however, Anwar Agha sent a message to the princess that there was conflict brewing at the treasury, and she dispatched a message to her uncle and sent me to the birooni to determine what was happening.

  As I wrapped myself in a warm robe and rushed toward Forty Columns Hall, I remembered the soldiers tearing the hearts out of the rosebushes when Haydar was killed and hoped I wasn’t about to witness another clash. It was a cold, wet day, and the trees I passed looked burdened with snow. In front of the treasury, Shamkhal’s Circassian soldiers stood guard along with the Takkalu, as I had expected. They stamped their feet and shuffled from side to side to stay warm. But there was also another group of armed men facing them.

  “The shah-to-be commands it,” their leader was saying, his breath visible in the air. I recognized him as one of the Ostajlu.

  “My orders are to stay here,” replied the head of the Circassian guard.

  The men glared at each other, their hands on their weapons.

  “Salaam aleikum, my good soldiers,” I said in my most commanding voice. “Shamkhal Cherkes is on his way. You must respect the palace grounds until then. Have you already forgotten what happened the last time a group of soldiers brought their squabbles here?”

  I gestured meaningfully in the direction of the prison. That quieted them for a moment, and they agreed to wait for Shamkhal. I ran back to tell Pari the news. She and her uncle were meeting with Mirza Salman.

  “Princess, I beg you to change your mind,” I heard Mirza Salman say from his side of the lattice.

  “What is your reasoning?”

  “The first thing the new shah will want to know is whether you are bowing to his wishes.”

  “But his idea is terrible.”

  “I think that disobeying will bring even worse results.”

  “Don’t you see this as the tribal conflict it is? The Ostajlu are trying to dominate the court again. We can’t permit that.”

  “But the Shah can favor whomever he likes.”

  “Do you obey an order even when it is stupid?”

  Shamkhal guffawed loudly. “Obviously he does.”

  “What idiot said that?” asked Mirza Salman.

  “It is Shamkhal, and you are the idiot now.”

  I wished Shamkhal and Pari would be more diplomatic. Mirza Salman had become too powerful to offend.

  “Your question brings to mind one of the stories in the Shahnameh about the ruler Kavus,” he replied in a neutral tone. “Do you remember how he decided to invent a flying machine and tried to soar in it like a bird? His men thought it was a stupid idea, but they assisted the king until Kavus injured himself in the failed invention. The lesson of that story, I think, is that when you are in service, you must stand by your leader’s decisions, even if they are wrong.”

  “So I should put our country’s finances at risk and allow the tribes to clash just to show Mohammad that I am at his service?”

  “Yes, princess. That is my opinion.”

  Pari turned to me to ask what I thought. “He is right,” I whispered. “Let us make sure the new shah loves and trusts you before opposing him.”

  Pari’s face darkened. “Mohammad is too weak to oppose anything,” she whispered back.

  “What about his wife?”

  “She is only a woman,” she said, which made her uncle laugh.

  In a louder voice, she said to Mirza Salman, “I am grateful for your counsel, but for the good of the country, I can’t agree. Mohammad’s men will be sent away.”

  There was a long silence on the other side of the lattice while Pari waited, pulling impatiently at a loose thread on her sash.

  “Esteemed princess, I implore you not to countermand his orders. Don’t get shunted aside like the last time,” Mirza Salman said.

  “But I am right about this!” Pari replied, her voice rising in frustration. “If the Ostajlu succeed, they will feel entitled to concessions. Moreover, how do I know they can be trusted as guards? I refuse to risk my country’s wealth.”

  “Princess, what if the treasury is placed under the control of all three tribes—the Circassians, the Takkalu, and the Ostajlu?”

  I thought this was a good solution. Pari could claim to have obeyed the order while still retaining a lot of control. “It is an excellent idea!” I whispered.

  She ignored me. To Mirza Salman, she said, “They will squabble among themselves.”

  “Your refusal could expose the palace to an internal war,” Mirza Salman argued.

  “My answer is no.”

  “How, then, do you plan to pacify the men?” he asked.

  “I will take care of it,” said Shamkhal. “There are some things a Tajik administrator just can’t do.”

  The insult was as harsh as the taste of metal.

  “Uncle!” Pari exclaimed. “Tajik and Turk commingle in the blood of the Safavis, as you know! How can one live without the other?”

  Since I had the veins of both, I had to agree.

  “And what of the Circassians?” Mirza Salman charged, but wisely didn’t say more. All of us knew that the Circassians and the Georgians, being newcomers to the court compared to the qizilbash, were trying to force their way into better positions.

  “What of them? We are as fierce as anyone,” Shamkhal said.

  “We are all Iranians,” Pari pointed out.

  “If only the tribes saw it that way. Everyone is working for the advantage of his own group: Ostajlu for Ostajlu, Circassian for Circassian. Must it always be so?” Mirza Salman asked.

  In other words, would Pari take her uncle’s side against him from now on?

  “No,” she replied. “But my decision about the treasury stands.”

  There was a long, aggrieved pause. “For God’s sake, princess! It is a mistake,” he said.

  “I agree with Mirza Salman,” I insisted in a whisper, although it felt peculiar to do so, given that he had failed to tell me how well he knew the accountant who murdered my father.

  Pari’s eyes shot flames of disapproval at me.
Shamkhal, go quell the men,” she ordered. “Mirza Salman, you are dismissed.”

  Had she learned nothing from her experience with Isma‘il? Why must she insist on maintaining control when it might cause her to lose her battle of influence over the new shah? I could only hope that Mohammad was as willing to be swayed as she seemed to think.

  “Javaher, I told you long ago that I won’t always agree with your advice,” she said when we were alone.

  “Yet I must give it. I fear you are being swayed by your desire to rule.”

  “You are quite wrong: My decision is entirely strategic. Mohammad must understand that he cannot wrest anything away from me. I will not repeat the mistakes I made when I trusted Isma‘il to reward my efforts. I failed to maintain any leverage, which made it easy to shunt me aside. This time, I will meet power with power of my own, and the fiercest lion will win.”

  Her eyes blazed as if she was ready to fight then and there. I stared at her, awestruck.

  “I am risking everything with this strategy,” she continued, “but I am doing it for Iran. Think of the people who will suffer if the Ottomans or the Uzbeks invade! Think of how our land will be bloodied by our own soldiers if there is another civil war! I must act for Iranians who can’t act for themselves. Royal blood flows in my veins, and this is my duty, whether I live or die.”

  Her impassioned words sounded like a battle cry. I was silent for a moment, contemplating the weightiness of her declaration.

  “Do you mean to rebel?” I asked quietly.

  “If I must.”

  I stepped back in surprise.

  Her eyes sought mine and held them. “If it comes to that, I will need your help more than ever.”

  Was this what loyalty required? Had my father felt similar doubts about his leader?

  Of course he had.

  That evening, Balamani told me that Anwar had witnessed Mirza Salman and Shamkhal Cherkes arguing in front of the treasury. Mirza Salman urged the Circassian and Takkalu guards to obey Mohammad’s orders by disbanding, while at the same time, Shamkhal threatened the Ostajlu with reprisals if they didn’t disperse. When Mirza Salman wouldn’t back down, mighty Shamkhal drew his sword and brandished it.

 
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