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Equal of the sun, p.37
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       Equal of the Sun, p.37

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  The camp astrologers were busy making forecasts to determine whether it was an auspicious time for Mohammad and his wife to enter the city, at which point we would accompany them as they rode into town. In the meantime, I received a messenger from Fereshteh, who had been sent by Massoud Ali to find us at the camp. The messenger told me that Fereshteh had such urgent information for me that I shouldn’t delay even a moment to receive it. I rushed to the princess’s tent to tell her the news.

  “I have been summoned by Fereshteh. I suspect she has vital information about Mirza Salman.”

  Pari smiled. “Ah, Javaher, you are a master of unlocking secrets. I hate to send you away from my side.”

  “I promise to return as soon as I can.”

  “Fereshteh has been very helpful. Commend her for me, will you?”

  “I will.”

  “You shall ride Asal,” she said, and instructed her eunuch groom to make the mare ready.

  “Thank you, princess, but an ordinary horse will do.”

  I had already donned my heavy cotton riding trousers, my thick wool vest, and a warm robe, and had wrapped a wool cloth around my neck and face.

  Pari smiled. “But you are no ordinary eunuch. You are a jewel, like your name. I know that well. You will shine always, even after I am gone.”

  I was taken aback. Her bright eyes, smooth olive skin, and gleaming black hair made her look immortal, yet her words sent a shiver through me.

  “If that is so,” I said, with the expected reversal of flattery, “it is only because I reflect the sparkle of the greater jewel that I serve. But, Princess, your words worry me.”

  “Don’t trouble yourself. I am prepared for whatever lies ahead. The only judge of me, flaws and all, is almighty God.”

  “Is there any human who isn’t flawed?” I asked, and Pari gave me a wry smile.

  The ride to Fereshteh’s house took much of the morning. The roads were frozen, and Asal was skittish. I tried to strategize about the future, but I had to coax along the horse, and my enthusiasm was dampened by the weather and by feelings of gloom. Wet, sticky flakes of snow blanketed the fields and my outer robe. By the time I rode into Qazveen, even the street vendors had deserted their usual posts.

  I handed Asal to Fereshteh’s manservant, who promised to have the horse fed and groomed at the royal stables. Fereshteh’s house was pleasantly warm. She wore a green robe that reminded me of a field of grass, and the pale tunic underneath was as softly lit as the bellies of clouds at sunset. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face.

  “Come in, Javaher. I see from your wet clothes that you have had a cold, hard ride. Would you like refreshment?”

  “Yes, please.”

  I removed my boots while Fereshteh called to her servant to bring sour cherry sharbat and tea. I remained standing, eager to hear her news.

  “Mirza Salman visited my friend in Qom the day before yesterday,” she said. “The news is so dreadful I had to tell you in person, to avoid any possibility of being betrayed.”

  Dread coursed through me. “What happened?”

  “Mirza Salman was preening like a peacock. He told my friend that although the royals think they’re superior, they can be brought down as easily as anyone else.”

  “Okh, okh!” I said, my stomach burning.

  “My friend plied him with bang, and when he had nearly lost his senses, she coaxed the details out of him. He told her that he had visited Mohammad and his wife, asking if they wished to be made aware of the happenings at court. Then, under the guise of being an honest servant, he argued that the person they should fear the most was Pari Khan Khanoom. He terrified them by hinting that she had been responsible for Isma‘il’s death, despite the safeguards over his person, and suggested that if left unchecked, she might put an end to them as well.”

  “What a traitor! I presume they will retain him as grand vizier?”

  “That is correct.”

  “Shamkhal Cherkes was right about him after all.”

  To my surprise, Fereshteh winced as if in pain, and her hands clenched at her sides. “Javaher, I have more news, and it is even worse.”

  I braced myself. “Mirza Salman told my friend that Shamkhal has been executed at the request of the Shah.”

  By God above! It was as if the stars in the sky had been extinguished all at once, except for the star I cared about the most.

  I strode to the door and shoved my feet into my riding boots. “Thank you, Fereshteh, for everything. The princess asked me to express her gratitude as well.”

  “May God keep you and your commander safe,” she replied.

  I rushed to the royal stables to get a fresh horse and rode it through the Tehran Gate in the direction of the camp. As soon as I left the city, I spurred my horse faster and faster until we were both heaving with effort. What would we do now? Shamkhal was dead. How would Pari bear it?

  Looking back on Mirza Salman’s actions at court, his tendency toward treachery seemed evident. He had taken two men down in order to advance himself; then he had done the same to us. I cursed myself for not understanding him sooner.

  When I approached the camp, I thought I must have lost my way. Only a few tent stakes remained in the sky, like a body reduced to bones. Large trunks had been packed, awaiting the donkeys that would haul them. An errand boy told me the astrologers’ readings that morning had been so favorable that Mohammad had thought it foolish to delay. He and his wife and Pari had ridden back to town on a road that was slower than the one I had taken but easier on caravans. After their arrival at the city gates, they planned to ride ceremonially through town. Pari would be taken to her home in her palanquin, and the new shah and his wife would be housed with Mirza Salman’s family until the right moment came for entering the palace.

  Mirza Salman again!

  I turned my weary beast around and headed back for the city, this time on the road that led to the Shah’s Gardens Gate. The day was growing grayer, and it started to snow again. My horse’s breath steamed in the cold air. High above, a flock of ugly crows blackened the sky. I spurred my horse faster, trying to catch up to the royal procession. After a while, I could see the gate in the distance, a mere speck at first. The royal party was nowhere in sight.

  When I arrived, the gatekeeper told me the royal procession had already gone through. I urged my horse, who was now wet, in the direction of Pari’s house. Many people thronged the streets, having been alerted that their new Shah had entered Qazveen. It was difficult to get through the crowd. Finally, though, I came upon the end of the procession and saw the gold-domed palanquins. I suspected that the one in front must house the Shah’s wife, and the one behind was probably Pari’s. I thanked God that she had almost reached her house. Turning down a side street, I galloped ahead.

  When I emerged, the lead palanquin was no longer in sight. Pari’s had gone through the Ali Qapu portal into the palace and had halted near her house, but she hadn’t been carried through her front gate. The bearers must be waiting for something.

  Her palanquin was borne by soldiers. At their head I recognized Khalil Khan, Pari’s former guardian. Behind them were all of Pari’s supporters, notably the Circassian guard. I resolved to open her gate myself and speed her return home. Dismounting from my horse, I knocked loudly, and when the gate opened, I handed the reins to a servant.

  “Make ready for your princess,” I said.

  I approached Pari’s palanquin and identified myself. “Lieutenant of my life, I bring world-shattering news!” I whispered.

  The brown velvet brocade curtains stirred slightly, and Azar Khatoon slid out, fully covered by her chador.

  “Jump in.”

  I hoisted myself into the palanquin, and the men who were holding it cursed out loud when they felt the extra weight. Pari was sitting cross-legged in the small domed space, framed by a canopy of saffron-colored velvet.

  The palanquin was small enough that my knees almost touched Pari’s. Her face was so close to mine that
I would only have had to lean forward to touch her lips. My heart beat faster, no doubt from my hard ride.

  “Princess—” I began, still panting. Pari’s furrowed forehead, which fate had distinguished with so many rich stories, told me she could see how bad the news was.

  “Tell me now.”

  “Mirza Salman has convinced Mohammad and his wife that you are a murderer. But that is not the worst of it: Shamkhal has been assassinated.”

  Pari reached out for my arm. I felt the warmth of her grip penetrate the sleeve of my robe, and wished that I could put my arms around her and comfort her against my chest like a child.

  “The dirt of the universe is on my head!” she exclaimed.

  All of a sudden, the palanquin jerked abruptly and we started off, but the bearers seemed to be heading away from her home.

  “Where are we going?” I shouted. When there was no reply, I opened the curtains and confirmed that we were traveling away from Pari’s house. Deh! I called out for help from the Circassian guard. They surrounded the palanquin, shouting at Khalil Khan’s men, who held us on their shoulders, and began to struggle for control of it. Pari and I slid around inside, bumping into each other as we were tossed back and forth. For a moment I felt her shoulder against my chest and smelled the fierce piney perfume in her hair.

  “May God protect us,” Pari said.

  At last the palanquin stopped jolting and jerking. From outside came the voice of a Circassian soldier. “Princess, you are safe now. We have you and we are taking you home!”

  The Circassians must have managed to wrest the palanquin away from Khalil Khan’s men. I put my head outside the curtain again. Khalil Khan, who was still mounted on his horse, addressed the Circassian guard, who protected us now.

  “Listen, soldiers. I am acting under orders of the new Shah himself. Oppose me only if you wish to explain yourself to him.”

  The Circassians hesitated, not knowing what to do. A chill froze my blood as I closed the curtains. “Lieutenant of my life, say something to your men so they defend you!”

  Her dark eyes looked as if all the light in them had been extinguished. “No.”

  “What?”

  “Tell them to go home. Otherwise, many will be killed in vain.”

  We could not give up the fight, not after we had endured so much. I stared at her.

  The palanquin shifted and jerked again; there were shouts and sounds of struggle, and we were thrown around inside until Khalil Khan’s men reclaimed us. The men began arguing over who had the right to the princess.

  Had the sun emerged from behind the clouds, or was it Pari’s royal farr that seemed to illuminate the inside of the tent? She put her hand over mine before I could speak.

  “Javaher, our game is finished. Hush and listen:

  “Weave not, like spiders, nets from grief’s saliva

  In which the woof and warp are both decaying

  But give the grief to Him, Who granted it,

  And do not talk about it anymore.

  When you are silent, His speech is your speech,

  When you don’t weave, the weaver will be He.”

  I recognized the poem from Maulana Rumi and felt touched to the depths of my heart when I realized that Pari was committing both of us to God’s care.

  “I will never abandon you. You are the star that I follow always.”

  Pari’s eyes misted. “Yes,” she said softly, “you alone of all my servants have truly loved me.”

  “With all my heart.”

  The palanquin jerked again, and clarity returned to Pari’s eyes. “Open the curtains for a moment and tell me what you see.”

  I parted the velvet curtains and put my head out. Suddenly I felt Pari’s strong hands pressing against my back. I slid out feet first, bumped into one of Khalil Khan’s soldiers, and landed in the street. Pari had tricked me; now I had no choice but to obey.

  “What does she say?” asked the captain of the Circassians, a burly man with bright blue eyes.

  Out of loyalty to her, I forced myself to say the most difficult words I had ever spoken. “The princess orders you to disassemble so you come to no harm. Go home now and await further orders.”

  “But she is being taken away,” he protested. “We won’t leave unless we hear the command from her lips.”

  He didn’t know yet that Shamkhal Cherkes was dead. If he had heard, he would not have dared to be so bold.

  “How lucky you would be if she graced you with her speech! But it is not for you to demand it.”

  The velvet curtains of the palanquin stirred. The men took note, knowing a royal hand had touched them.

  “Hear the words of your princess,” commanded Pari from inside.

  The men stood still, their faces transfixed. It was so rare for a princess to address a crowd of ordinary men that it was like hearing a voice from heaven.

  “I thank you for your excellent service. You are dismissed to your wives and children, and that is an order. May God bless you with good luck!”

  The men’s eyes softened, as if they had received a blessing from a saint. “We obey you with gratitude!” replied the Circassian captain.

  Without further protest, his men left the palanquin in the care of Khalil Khan’s soldiers, who held it gingerly, wondering what to do now that they, too, had heard the princess’s deep, lovely voice.

  “March,” shouted Khalil Khan. “Hurry! Hurry!”

  “No!” I yelled, not caring that I was risking my life. “You may not cart away a princess of Safavi blood!”

  Khalil Khan’s small eyes narrowed, and his lips curled with scorn. “How dare you challenge me, you gelding! Get out of my way before I strike you down.”

  I drew my dagger and rushed at his chest. The fear that entered his eyes only encouraged me to attack. From close up, his skin looked white with panic. When I was near enough to smell the fenugreek on his breath, I raised my dagger in the air, feeling the muscles of my neck stiffening. I am certain I snarled, anticipating the pleasure of feeling the dagger plunge into his undefended skin. When I saw him raise a long sword to defend himself, I blocked the maneuver and broke his nose with the heel of my hand. Water sprang into his eyes, and his sword arm grew limp. But then the side of my head seemed to slam into something hard, and the dagger slipped from my hand.

  Everything around me went black and quiet. I must have remained that way for several minutes. When I awoke, the captain of the Circassians and a few of his men were standing around me, dabbing my face with a cloth and holding a vial of rose water under my nose. The strong scent revived me.

  “Good work,” the captain said, chuckling. “Not one of us will ever forget the fear in Khalil Khan’s eyes. It isn’t often that a nobleman gets humiliated like that. He wanted to kill you, but when he saw that we were ready to fight, he gave up.”

  I put my hand on the place under my turban that ached. It came back covered with blood. White spots danced in my vision.

  “What happened?”

  “One of his soldiers flattened you with the side of his sword. I imagine your head is burning like an oven.”

  The square was quiet now except for a few onlookers. I had been down for longer than I realized.

  “Where are they?”

  “Khalil Khan gave them orders to go to his house. They marched the palanquin down the Promenade of the Royal Stallions.”

  He handed me my dagger, which I slipped back into its sheath. “May your hands never ache, Captain.”

  I got up and ran toward the Ali Qapu gate in the direction of Khalil Khan’s house.

  “Agha, wait! Are you sure you are well?” I heard behind me as I left, but I did not stop. My head was pounding as if I were banging it against a wall with each step. Warm blood trickled into my ear.

  When I arrived at Khalil Khan’s, some of Pari’s supporters were still milling around his door demanding that the light of the Safavis be released. Khalil emerged from behind the gate holding a bloodied cloth over his no
se and yelled at them to disperse, threatening that he would take a sword to them otherwise. Then he slammed the heavy wooden door in our faces.

  In despair, I called out to a boy in the street and told him to go to the palace and tell Daka Cherkes Khanoom about her daughter’s whereabouts. Placing a small coin in his hand, I promised to double his money when he delivered a reply.

  I walked around the perimeter walls of the grand home and tried to find another way in; there must be an entrance for the servants. Before long, I saw a young maid laden with cloth bags full of fruit stop in front of a small door that probably led to the kitchen.

  “Excuse me, kind Khanoom, do you work for Khalil Khan?”

  “I do.”

  “A great lady has been taken inside the house, and I would give much to see her. A small fortune, in fact.”

  She looked carefully at my expensive riding attire to gauge what I might be worth.

  “How much?”

  I showed her a heavy silver coin. It was probably the most money she had ever seen, and she dropped her bags and reached for the coin with both hands. I eluded her grasp.

  “If you want me to sneak you into the house, forget it. They would have my head.”

  “Then how about if you tell her I am here and bring me a message from her. My name is Javaher.”

  She reached out for the money again.

  “It is yours as soon as you bring me news from the lady.”

  After she went in, I crossed the street and stood in an alley where I could see the kitchen door but not be easily observed. The day grew colder, and my head pounded. I found one of Pari’s handkerchiefs in my robe and stuffed it into my turban to absorb the blood.

  I waited a long time before the door opened and the maid came out and looked around for me, her face covered now with a picheh. I stepped out of the alley and called softly, “Over here.”

  She approached and lifted her picheh. Her dark eyes were as troubled as a river whose muddy bottom had been stirred up by a stick.

  “It wasn’t worth the silver you promised. Never would I wish to see such a sight again.”

  I felt my heart clutch in my chest so tightly I could not breathe.

 
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