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Equal of the sun, p.35
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       Equal of the Sun, p.35

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “You may be the grand vizier,” he shouted, “but you are still a weakling!”

  Mirza Salman flushed to the top of his forehead and stormed away, his face as red as if he had a sunburn. What a humiliation for someone who fancied himself in the role of a soldier!

  After that, Shamkhal threatened the Ostajlu until they backed down. The Ostajlu didn’t like it, but Shamkhal was a powerful nobleman, with the intimidating girth of a bear. The only other choice would have been to fight him, the Circassians, and the Takkalu, which they decided wasn’t worth the likelihood of relinquishing all the pleasures of this earth.

  When Pari heard about Mirza Salman’s behavior, she was greatly displeased that he had inflamed the situation rather than obeying her orders. She called him in to explain himself, and I joined him on the visitor’s side of the lattice, the better to watch him.

  “I am sorry, princess. I was deeply afraid that Mohammad might consider your opposition an act of treason,” he said. “I was trying to protect you from being branded disobedient.”

  “How dare you suggest treason?” asked Pari, her voice shaking with fury.

  “Princess,” said Mirza Salman, with desperation in his voice, “I feel it is my duty to warn you of consequences, however unpleasant.”

  “Don’t you understand? Nothing is treasonous unless it is treason against me!”

  It was tantamount to declaring herself shah. Mirza Salman looked as astounded as I felt. No matter how angry, she couldn’t make such claims without the risk of being declared a traitor.

  “Princess, all is being done as you ordered. The treasury is being guarded as you wish. The royal armies have been sent to the northwest to protect our borders. The palace runs according to your desires. And yet—a new shah will take over very soon.”

  “Leave me to manage that.”

  “The situation is very delicate.”

  “Did you hear me?”

  “Yes, my lieutenant.”

  There was a long silence, during which Mirza Salman paced around the small room. “Princess, may I speak? There is something else that concerns me greatly.”

  “Well?”

  “It is your uncle. Will he ever be reined in?”

  “He was protecting my desires. I don’t approve of his behavior toward you, but neither do I condone yours toward me. You were disobedient.”

  “Rose of the Safavis,” said the grand vizier, “I expect that family ties will always bind you two together. But how do I stand now in your eyes? Will you advocate for me with the new shah?”

  In other words, would she recommend that he be retained as the grand vizier? Most servants wouldn’t have dared ask so directly. I sensed so much urgency in the question that I left the room abruptly to tell Pari I thought she should hear him out.

  When I arrived on her side of the lattice, the princess still sounded angry. “There is always a place for obedient servants,” she was saying. “Are you such a servant?”

  “I do my best,” Mirza Salman replied. “Right now, it is difficult to avoid being caught between your desires and those of the shah-to-be.”

  “Princess—” I whispered, but she held up her hand to silence me.

  “I should like you to prove your loyalty to me in coming weeks.”

  “God willing, I shall.”

  “Do that, then. You may go now, and return when you have found a way to show the depth of your obedience.”

  Her tone was quite cold.

  “Princess,” I said after he had left, “let’s not make the mistake that your brother did by refusing to show favor to his best servants. Let Mirza Salman know that you still value him and give him a reason for hope.”

  Pari’s fury evaporated so quickly I realized that she had been playing a role. “Don’t worry, I will. Mirza Salman must not think, just because he is grand vizier, that he can take his position for granted or that he can tell me what to do. When he disobeys, he must be chastised, otherwise he will do it again. I am testing him right now to see whether he will be a faithful servant, and whether he has the ferocity of character to stand with us to the end.”

  Shortly after the incident at the treasury, Mohammad Khodabandeh and his family arrived at the holy city of Qom. They lodged at the home of his mother, Sultanam, who had moved there because she could no longer bear court intrigue, and they paid their respects to God at the local mosques. The noblemen at court began to agitate to be allowed to visit him in Qom, hoping to begin the process of winning his favor, but Pari insisted that they remain at the palace to finish their duties. They chafed under her rules, but so great was her power that most obeyed.

  Mirza Salman was an exception. He called on her and asked her permission to pay his respects to Mohammad, arguing that he thought it would be wise if he explained the incident at the treasury as well as her decision to send armed men to shore up the country against Ottoman invasion.

  Pari and I heard him out on her side of the lattice.

  “Princess, I wish to smooth the way for your first meeting with the Shah. I will ensure that there are no malicious tongues sowing seeds of conflict between you and your brother. You asked me to prove my loyalty to you. I will do so.”

  “What is the hurry?”

  “I am a cautious man. When the Shah arrives, he will be overwhelmed with visitors and it will be difficult to make an impression on him. I wish to tell him of all your successes, starting with how you helped Isma‘il to power and ending with your efforts to put the palace in good order before Mohammad’s own arrival. I believe I can convince him how much he needs you.”

  “Is that the sum of what you plan to do?”

  “No,” he said. “Naturally, I wish to be retained as grand vizier. If he agrees, I will continue to be of service to him and to you.”

  Pari whispered to me, “At least he admits to his own desires.”

  Shamkhal had been terrorizing Mirza Salman whenever he saw him around the palace. He would draw his dagger and slit the tip of his finger to show how sharp the weapon was or make gruesome comments about enemies left on the battlefield as fodder for vultures. He kept threatening Mirza Salman as if to make up for the fact that his own position at the palace was now inferior to the grand vizier’s. Mirza Salman wanted to leave, I suspected, because he felt threatened. I was of two minds about whether he should be let go.

  “Mirza Salman, you have my permission to leave under two conditions. You won’t announce your departure, and you will write to me shortly after you meet with my brother to let me know his views of my actions. You are being granted an exception because of my faith in you.”

  “Thank you, esteemed princess. I am honored by your confidence in me.”

  “What are you planning to say about the treasury?”

  “That you had the best interests of the country at heart.”

  As I showed him out, a brief smile brightened his features. He looked like a man who had gotten something he wanted very badly.

  Pari and her uncle Shamkhal had become close again and strategized together every day, although they often disagreed. Despite Shamkhal’s role in Mirza Salman’s departure, he thought Pari had made a grave mistake by letting the grand vizier go to Qom. During one of the times that they sat closeted together in her private rooms, Shamkhal argued that Mirza Salman would be free to say whatever he wished about her to Mohammad.

  “Advancing his own position is his greatest skill. Look how he rid himself of Mirza Shokhrollah.”

  “Uncle, do you have evidence of his disloyalty?”

  Shamkhal equivocated, his eyes flicking around the room. “Why not wait until the Shah arrives and explain your decisions to him yourself? No one can do so better than you.”

  Pari paused to think for a moment. “I don’t oppose Mirza Salman advancing himself. If he convinces Mohammad to retain him as grand vizier, that will serve my interests. The three of us will be an excellent team. Mirza Salman and I will strategize, and the Shah will tell the nobles what to do.”

>   “You don’t know him the way I do, from all the times we served Isma‘il together.”

  “What exactly do you know?”

  “He is not trustworthy.”

  “What is the evidence?”

  “His behavior. I have seen him flatter a courtier one day as if he were his best friend, then scheme to bring him down the next. By God above, child, why don’t you heed my words?” Shamkhal sounded exasperated.

  The princess gave him a cold stare. “I think it is time for me to follow my own counsel,” she replied.

  The big man wilted under her gaze, her royal farr too bright for him to withstand. I decided to visit Fereshteh. Perhaps one of her clients would have heard something about Mirza Salman’s true intentions.

  I walked to her house one morning feeling heavy in my heart for a reason I didn’t understand. It was the middle of winter, and the city looked cold and frozen in the early light. I counted the months since Khadijeh’s death and realized that the better part of a year had passed. My single-minded pursuit of the shah had allowed me to squelch my grief. Now that the terror of Isma‘il was finally gone, my grief for Khadijeh surged afresh. I didn’t know where she had been buried—no doubt in an unmarked grave—so I couldn’t vent my sorrows there. Fereshteh had had sorrows enough of her own to be able to understand.

  When I arrived, Fereshteh’s maid showed me directly into her private room. Today it smelled of frankincense, and there were bowls filled with red apples, whole walnuts, and dates. I removed my shoes, leaned against a silk cushion, drank tea with cardamom, and felt myself beginning to relax. The lady painted on the wall still sported with her amorous lover, and I tried not to think of Khadijeh.

  When Fereshteh came in, I caught my breath. Her eyebrows looked like brown velvet, and her eyes were as huge in her face as a doe’s. Her cheeks and lips shone red, and her skin was as unblemished as ivory silk. Her long, thick black hair hung unbound over her turquoise robe. How lovely she was!

  “Salaam aleikum, Javaher. Your presence brings happiness.”

  “And yours, too. Fereshteh, you were good enough to invite me to visit you again. I have come because I need your counsel.”

  “I am always happy to help an old friend.”

  I folded my legs under my robe. “As you know, the new shah will arrive soon. In the meantime, I need some information about the man who hopes to be his grand vizier.”

  “He too has been one of my clients,” she said.

  “Mirza Salman?”

  Her wry smile said it all.

  I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. “Have you learned anything about his views of Pari?”

  “No. What do you wish to know?”

  “If he is loyal.”

  “And if he isn’t?”

  “Pari could be in grave trouble with the new shah.”

  She paused for a moment. “Given the rumors about Isma‘il’s death, wouldn’t Mohammad be afraid she might try to poison him? As a blind man, he is especially vulnerable.”

  “It is possible. That is part of the reason I need to know if Mirza Salman will speak well of her.”

  “I will let you know if I learn anything.”

  “When will you see him again?”

  “Not until he returns from his voyage.”

  “I see.”

  Mirza Salman had been instructed not to discuss his trip, but he had already told Fereshteh.

  There was a silence, during which I realized that I needed to talk about something else. Since I had first found Fereshteh, I had been remembering our times together and I realized that I had loved her. I had not understood this at the time: I was too young and too full of myself. She was a prostitute, and I had thought she wasn’t worthy of my love.

  Fereshteh’s eyes didn’t leave my face. “My friend, you look sad.”

  “Lately, I have been thinking about when we were young,” I said, “and what it was like to be in each other’s arms. I don’t know what you felt for me, but I have come to realize how much I wish I had been able to save you from the streets.”

  Her eyes were skeptical. “Really?”

  “At the very least, I wish I could have told you that I longed to save you—because I did.”

  “You were confused,” she said. “Although you were passionate in my arms, when our lovemaking was done, I could feel your heart turning away from the very idea that you might love a woman of low standing.”

  She had understood me correctly, and I was mortified.

  “I was still a nobleman’s son,” I replied. “I thought such liaisons were beneath me. I expected to marry a pretty, sheltered girl who would serve me all of my days. What an irony that I became a servant of women.”

  She smiled. “And I became a servant of men. I would have preferred that my body remain my own territory, but I haven’t been so fortunate.”

  Neither had I.

  “Do you blame me?”

  She sighed. “I wish you had been courageous enough to admit that you cared for me and wanted to help me.”

  She was right; back then, I had not had the wideness of heart to admit to loving her or to acknowledge the severity of her suffering. I had assumed, with childish disgust, that a woman in her position was forever tainted by what she had done. But look what I had done to myself! At least she had not lost her ability to bear a child.

  “I apologize from the depths of my heart,” I said. “I failed you because I was a child of privilege, but I no longer feel as I did. I understand now that life requires sacrifices, many of which are bitter.”

  Fereshteh’s eyes were sympathetic, reminding me of how she had comforted me in my struggles when I was young.

  “Your own sacrifices have changed you,” she replied. “The bird of your understanding has spread its wings, and now it flies free.”

  Something in my heart lifted at her kind words.

  “Perhaps we won’t always be caged,” she added. “I shall escape as soon as I can, and you will do the same.”

  “Insh’Allah. If Pari succeeds with her plan, I will be closer to realizing my independence. If she falls from grace, I will, too. That would ruin all my plans.”

  “What plans?”

  I told her about Jalileh and my worries about her future, which was so dependent on mine. By the time I had finished, my voice was thick.

  “Poor child. Why didn’t you tell me about her earlier? There is a small chance I can help. Before Mirza Salman left, I gave him the name of a lady of high price to visit in Qom. I will send a messenger and ask her to tell me if she learns anything useful.”

  “I would be very grateful,” I replied. “Would silver help?”

  “She will help as a favor. I have a web of such friends in all the major towns.”

  When I returned to Pari’s side, I told her about our conversation and suggested that she dispatch a gift to Fereshteh. The princess sent a pair of pearl and filigree earrings beautiful enough to loosen any tongue.

  A few days later, Mohammad and his entourage traveled from Qom until they were only a few farsakhs from Qazveen. They set up a camp while awaiting the astrologers’ determination of an auspicious day to enter the city. Looloo had recently been rehired by the court on my recommendation. I hoped he would be consulted.

  Mohammad summoned Pari to his camp to pay her respects. I helped organize her entourage including her ladies, her eunuchs, and Shamkhal’s soldiers. Pari and I agreed that it was essential to demonstrate her strength through the size and grandeur of her guard.

  On the day of our departure, everyone expected that the princess would be riding in a gold-domed palanquin, but I had sent it on its way earlier, and it was awaiting her outside the city. Pari wished to exercise her horsemanship. It was against the rules for her to ride unaccompanied by an entourage, but we had achieved it with a bit of subterfuge.

  Soon after the city gates opened, the princess and I emerged in the small park near the Promenade of the Royal Stallions, met the horses that awaited us, an
d rode out together in the chill air. She was mounted on her favorite Arabian mare, Asal, so named because she was the color of forest honey. She wore a long, fur-lined gray robe, with slits designed for riding, plus thick woolen trousers, leather boots, a fur hat into which she had put all her hair, and a gray woolen cloth wound around her face for warmth that covered everything but her eyes. A little boy, seeing her pass, exclaimed to his mother, “I want to be just like him!”

  We proceeded at a dignified pace toward the Tehran Gate. Its large central archway was flanked by two smaller ones so that traffic could proceed in both directions. The white, yellow, and black tile patterns on the gate made me think of butterflies and filled me with the optimism that accompanies a much-anticipated journey.

  Not far behind us were Pari’s eunuchs and errand boys, led by her still-retired vizier Majeed, as well as chests containing her clothing, personal necessities, and the gifts she would present to her brother. Behind them rode a large contingent of Circassian and Takkalu soldiers organized by her uncle, as well as servants bearing the necessities for setting up camp.

  As we rode through the gate, the princess looked back toward the long procession that would accompany her and said, “May God be praised. Isn’t it a fine sight?”

  “It is, indeed!”

  The procession would be slow and stately because of the amount of baggage it carried. As soon as we left the gate, she said, “Let’s go!”

  Pari spurred her horse and rode off into the distance, following the spine of the snow-covered mountains. The glorious land around us was wide open, and the frozen road was empty. I tried to keep up with Pari, my breath steaming around me, but couldn’t. As her horse sped farther away, I admired her grace as a rider: I had had few opportunities to witness it. She rode as if sitting on air. After a while, she began to disappear into the landscape, and it seemed to me that she might never come back. If only there were somewhere for her to go! Her responsibilities inside the palace consumed her every breath. No wonder she thrilled at the sight of open country.

  After a long gallop, Pari turned around and returned to me, and then we rode together.

 
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