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Equal of the sun, p.36
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       Equal of the Sun, p.36

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “How good it feels to be unencumbered!” Her skin was flushed with the joy of the gallop.

  “You look happy, princess. It is a pleasure to see.”

  “A new shah and a new era are at hand. This time, everything will be different.”

  “Insh’Allah.”

  We rode together until we reached a river near the mountains, where I had sent the gold palanquin earlier that day with Azar Khatoon inside. When we arrived, Azar spread out a warm blanket and Pari threw herself down in front of the river near a crackling fire. She untwisted the cloth that covered her face, shed her big warm robe, and sat for a moment in the free, open air. More color flooded her cheeks, and her brow looked relaxed for the first time in months.

  “Bah, bah!” Pari exclaimed. “Who needs more joy than this? I wish I could live like this every day of my life.”

  Azar Khatoon shelled some walnuts and handed them to us. We ate them contentedly, watching the birds overhead, while Azar poured steaming cups of tea. I stretched out my legs. Soon, very soon, I would be with my sister again, and I would show her all the things I loved about Qazveen. On our free days, I would take her for walks in the countryside and bring a picnic of her favorite foods. How glad I would be to know her at last!

  A thick cloud of dust in the distance stirred me out of my happy thoughts. “Princess,” I cautioned, “I see your guard approaching.”

  “So soon?”

  With a sigh, Pari picked herself up and reluctantly concealed herself in the gold palanquin.

  When her men arrived, Pari’s palanquin was placed at the head of the procession, and we continued on our way. We proceeded very slowly now that her bearers had to go on foot. I walked alongside the palanquin. It was a clear, cold day, and the frozen ground crunched under my feet. We passed fields that would be alive with wheat and barley in summer. Shepherds tending to their flocks greeted us and asked us if they could offer us milk. We thanked them and continued to the camp.

  In the distance, I saw a cluster of large black tents, and before long, the individual soldiers guarding them. When we reached the entrance to the camp, Pari’s palanquin was greeted graciously by one of Mohammad Khodabandeh’s eunuchs, while his groomsmen took charge of our horses. Pari and Azar were escorted to the tent that would be theirs in the women’s section of the camp, and I followed closely behind.

  The tent was made of a thick, coarse fabric to protect inhabitants from winter winds. When the eunuch lifted the flap of the tent and we stepped inside, Azar gasped with delight. The interior had been furnished with ruby-red rugs and cushions, which made it seem warm. The walls were hung with crimson satin embroidered with whirling flowers and other twirling forms dancing within them. Soft cushions were arranged into seating areas and a bedroll was placed behind a long embroidered cloth. Wooden trunks had been brought in for Pari’s clothing and cosmetics.

  We were admiring the tent when another eunuch arrived promptly with steaming vessels of tea and pastries. We refreshed ourselves, then unpacked Pari’s things. By the time everything was set up, it was the hour for the evening meal, which was brought to the princess by Mohammad Khodabandeh’s servants. They spread out a clean cotton cloth and served a large platter of roast lamb on hot bread, which soaked up all the meat juices, as well as yogurt and greens. I left Pari and her ladies to their meal and walked to a tent used by Mohammad’s eunuchs. Before I entered the tent, I heard some of them talking.

  “Have you seen that woman’s retinue? It is as if she thinks she is shah!”

  “With an armed guard like that, he will have to think twice about offending her.”

  I chuckled. When I walked in, I was welcomed like an old friend. Together we supped and conversed and celebrated late into the night.

  The next morning, Pari was summoned to meet the shah-to-be. A eunuch led us to his tent, which, for his safety, was not identified in any way from the outside. Inside, though, it was even more opulent than Pari’s. The carpets on the floor were deep indigo wool with white silk patterns that sparkled like stars in a twilight sky. There were porcelain vessels for water and wine that had been transported all that way, despite their value, and porcelain cups and serving platters. Fruit and sweets and nuts were piled high on engraved silver trays.

  Mohammad Khodabandeh was seated on cushions, his wife, Khayr al-Nisa Beygom, on his right side. His dark eyes were blank, and he sat with his head thrust forward as if to better position his ears for listening. He wore a brown robe, a gray sash, and a white turban, subdued attire that made him look like a man of God. Next to him, his wife glittered like a peacock. Her pink robe seemed bright over a green tunic, which matched a triangular headdress made of pink and green silks. She wore gold bangles on both wrists, rings on every finger but her thumbs, a chain of pearls on her forehead, and large pearl and ruby earrings. Her full lips glowed red from madder, as did her cheeks. While her husband gave the impression of being thoughtful and retiring, she threw off sparks like the jewels she wore. Her eyes swept across us and around the room with frequency, as if to make up for the fact that her husband could see nothing.

  “Welcome, sister. Your arrival brings us happiness,” Mohammad said to Pari.

  “Yes, welcome,” added his wife in a voice that was high, nasal, and loud. “I have rarely had the pleasure of seeing you, but all of us have heard your father’s praise of you as a paragon among women.”

  Pari dropped gracefully onto a cushion facing them, while I remained standing near the door. “I am unworthy of your generous words, but I thank you for your kindness. How are you? How are your children?”

  “All are well, except, of course, for my husband’s son Sultan Hassan Mirza, whose loss we still mourn,” she replied.

  “The loss of a child is worse than anything that can be described,” Mohammad said. “Truly it was as if the light of my eyes had been extinguished.”

  “May God comfort you in your sorrow. What a terrible affliction you have endured.”

  “Your losses have been equally great,” he said.

  “I hope that God has granted you good health during this difficult time.”

  “Since we last saw you, my husband’s eyesight has worsened,” Khayr al-Nisa replied. “It is a calamity for a man so gifted at reading and writing poetry.”

  “It is the will of God,” he interjected, sounding resigned. “Now I compose my verses in my head, and my scribes write them on paper. By then I have committed my poetry to memory anyway.”

  “Shall we exchange verses?” Pari asked. “It would be a joy to hear your words.”

  “We will organize that when we are settled in the capital.”

  Mohammad Khodabandeh ordered some refreshments, including tea and rice pudding made with saffron and cinnamon, which warmed us on that cold day. I was very pleased with how the visit was proceeding so far, yet I was on my guard, since nothing of substance had been discussed yet. After the refreshments, the talk finally turned to the business of the palace.

  “Sister, we have heard much about the goings-on at court. You must tell us everything.”

  “Of course,” Pari replied. “I have worked closely with Mirza Salman these past weeks. I gave him leave to report to you, but haven’t heard from him since then. Has he told you all that has happened?”

  There was a moment’s pause before either of them answered.

  “He told us everything,” Khayr al-Nisa Beygom said in a flat tone.

  “Did he tell you about why we sent the army to Khui? Did he explain about the treasury guard?”

  “Yes, everything,” Mohammad Khodabandeh said, echoing his wife.

  Their responses were odd. I had expected them to praise her for her excellent service.

  “It has been my duty to serve you,” Pari said, filling the empty space. “After you are crowned, I will spend day and night by your side implementing your commands.”

  She sounded just right: confident, yet humble.

  Mohammad Khodabandeh sighed. “You should know t
he truth: I am not a man who has ever aspired to be shah, and I doubt I will change my ways.”

  Pari smiled in anticipation of fulfilling her new role. “Put your mind at rest,” she replied. “The men are used to me now, and they will do what I command. I will make sure your orders are carried out.”

  Khayr al-Nisa Beygom’s eyebrows shot up. “That won’t be necessary.”

  Pari looked surprised. “I mean no offense, but the palace is a complicated world. Someone without intimate knowledge of it will find it difficult to gain obedience.”

  “We are glad you have such knowledge,” said Mohammad Khodabandeh. “After you tell us all that we need to know, daily affairs will be handled by my wife.”

  “By your wife?”

  “That is correct.”

  Pari’s lips drew down. “I really don’t understand why the mother of four children would wish to add to her burdens by trying to manage the affairs of state. It is too much for someone who has not been raised with this life, as I have.”

  My heart sank at the implied insult.

  “Yet that is what I shall do,” said Khayr al-Nisa Beygom haughtily.

  “I have spent all my years studying such things, from even before the time I became my father’s advisor when I was fourteen. These matters aren’t trivial.”

  “No, they aren’t,” said Mohammad Khodabandeh. “That is why you will train my wife, and she will implement my wishes.”

  “Brother, I beg you to consider, given all my learning and experience, that there should be a permanent position for me in your court. Even the nobles have agreed that I am the best choice for this job.”

  “If the two of you can find a way to work together, that is fine with me,” Mohammad Khodabandeh said placidly.

  The fine embroidered bands at the edges of Pari’s robe trembled. I chafed at the injustice of it.

  “The noblemen are nothing to be trifled with. If they suspect hesitation, they will take advantage. A weak person will be crushed. It is not just for myself but for your own protection that I make this demand to be your chief advisor. I have, after all, risked my life for you.”

  She meant by removing Isma‘il, but of course she couldn’t say that.

  “What do you mean, risked your life?” Khayr al-Nisa Beygom asked.

  “Living under such a murderous rule, we didn’t know whether we would remain in possession of our lives. If not for Isma‘il’s death, and if not for the fact that the nobleman assigned to kill your family found excuses to delay his visit to Shiraz, you would be a childless widow now—or worse.”

  “That is certainly true, but what did you have to do with that? I thought Isma‘il’s doctor said he died of too much opium and too much food, which twisted his organs into a fatal knot.”

  Khayr al-Nisa Beygom looked triumphant, which made me uneasy.

  “I meant that I did all I could to persuade him and those around him to call off the murders,” Pari said, “including those of your children.”

  “The fact is, God didn’t decree such a fate, so it didn’t happen,” Mohammad Khodabandeh replied. “Why fight about such things? The hour is getting late and my books are calling. I will leave the two of you to work things out.”

  By God above! It was even worse than I had feared: He wouldn’t even stay long enough to keep his wife in check.

  Khayr al-Nisa’s smile was like ice. “Yes, indeed. We will work things out. You may begin by kissing my feet to show your fealty.”

  It was such an insult to make this demand of a Safavi princess that I had trouble masking my shock.

  Pari stood up, her chin high in the air. “You are asking a woman of royal blood to kiss the feet of a child of the provinces?”

  “I am asking you to acknowledge she who is first among women.”

  “If you knew court protocol, you would understand that my status is higher than yours.”

  Khayr al-Nisa Beygom batted at the air as if waving away a fly. “Not for long.”

  “Now, Pari,” said her brother in a mild tone. “You must respect my wife at all times.”

  “I have respect for sensible people,” Pari said angrily. “If you insist on toying with matters of governance, you could lose not just the court but the country. Let me remind you of what we face. In the north, the east, and the southeast, the people have sickened of our rule and rebelled. In the northeast and northwest, we face invasions by the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. Our land is ringed with troubles. Our people are threatened with suffering. Remember, without justice there is no prosperity and no country. Take heed!”

  Mohammad Khodabandeh sighed. “We will see what needs to be done after the coronation. Thank you, sister, for coming to visit us.”

  “It is my duty,” she replied, “as it is to speak unpleasant truths when necessary.”

  Khayr al-Nisa’s pretty red lips puffed out as if she had eaten something sour, an expression that her husband could not see. I was proud of Pari for having spoken the truth, yet concerned about what her sharp words boded for her future.

  “Don’t worry, Javaher,” she said as we left them and began walking back to her tent. “I will find ways to master her. She is no match for me.”

  Her breath steamed in the cold air. Rather than looking daunted, her eyes sparkled as if she was excited by the prospect of a new battle. Conflict always spurred her to fight harder, but was it the best strategy?

  “I think you should visit your brother in private, drop to the ground and swear your loyalty, and prove it every day until he trusts you with his very soul.”

  “And if he still denies me my right to rule?”

  “Then accept your fate as God-given.”

  She laughed. “Javaher, you have the perfect servant’s heart, but I don’t. If that happens, my uncle and I will be ready to take over.”

  “Take over? If Mohammad learns what you are planning, he will surely destroy you! No shah can permit rebellion within his own palace.”

  “Not necessarily. If he understands our strength, he may be more willing to make concessions, like the ones he has already made to the Ostajlu.”

  “It is a dangerous strategy,” I said. “Why not compromise instead?”

  “I have come to despise that word,” she said. “I am nearly thirty years old and have never been able to rule, even though I am more knowledgeable than most about Islamic law, the mathematical and physical sciences, the customs of the court, the rules of poetry, and the art of governing. Even my dear father, may God bless his soul, had eccentricities that led to poor decisions I had to accept. Now, at last, the noblemen have recognized that I have earned the right to rule, and I won’t let Mohammad or his wife spoil my plans.”

  I stared at her in awe and terror, remembering Balamani’s words in the hammam. I had thought of the decision to remove Isma‘il as a one-time necessity, while by contrast, it had emboldened Pari to demand her entitlement to rule. Deep inside her beat the vigorous heart of a shah.

  “I suspect you find me intransigent,” she said as we arrived at her tent, “but I have earned the right to be that way. Are you with me, Javaher?”

  She gazed at me as if to pierce through my secrets.

  “I swore to be your faithful servant always,” I replied, but for the first time, I wasn’t sure I meant it.

  While we were at the camp, messengers arrived from the palace with letters for the princess as well as one for me. The letter was from my mother’s cousin. It was brief and cutting, like a hot knife:

  Greetings and I pray that this letter finds you well. Thank you for continuing to send the money for your sister’s upkeep, although it is difficult for us to make do, given how much she imposes on our slim budget every day. We regret that due to financial problems of our own, we cannot wait for you to fulfill your promises any longer. Thanks be to God, we have found a solution. A man in our neighborhood has his eye on her. He is older, to be sure, but he is willing to take her without a dowry. Trust me, speedy acceptance is a good idea. Men with means
don’t choose impoverished wives very often, and we must take care of this problem before Jalileh is pickled. We imagine you will be overjoyed at this news. All we need is your permission and we will proceed with the marriage. If we do not hear from you soon, we will assume that you have given your assent, and we will proceed.

  I felt hot with shame at the tone of the letter. Even less did I like the one I received an hour later.

  Salaam Javaher jan. I have paid one of the scribes in the market to write you this letter so that no one learns about it. Our mother’s cousin has just introduced me to the man she wishes me to marry. He is an old fellow with only four teeth who has already outlived two wives and whose children are older than I am. When I met him for the first time, he chastised me for not serving his tea as dark as he liked it, as if I ought to know. I think his mind is addled by memories of his dead wives. I suspect he wants a servant, not a wife. I know that I have been nothing but a burden to you, but have mercy on me, I beg you. Save me from his flaccid hands.

  My heart burned in my chest. What kind of man could I claim to be if I could not rescue my sister from a life that would make her young eyes dim with grief? I wrote back to my mother’s cousin and promised to send money as soon as I could, explaining that I had been promoted to an exalted position and that rivers of silver would be forthcoming. I reminded them that palace servants were paid a lump sum twice a year, and that the next payment was due in a month. In addition, I forbade the marriage, swearing that I would provide a rich reward for all their services as long as they did not give my sister away.

  When there was a lull in our business, I explained to Pari that my mother’s cousin was threatening to marry off Jalileh and I needed a large advance on my salary so that I could pay them back for her upkeep and bring her to Qazveen as soon as possible.

  “Of course I will assist you,” she replied. “We will discuss the specifics when we have returned to the palace.”

  I clapped my hand to my chest and bowed to express my gratitude, and her eyes told me that she understood.

 
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