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Equal of the sun, p.38
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       Equal of the Sun, p.38

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “What sight?”

  “That great lady in her bed.” She turned away as if to banish the thought. I grabbed her arm, too tightly perhaps, and said, “Tell me.”

  She shook off my hand.

  “The other servants told me that a group of soldiers had brought a lady into the courtyard in a palanquin. When Khalil Khan ordered her to come out, she cursed him and refused. He reached inside, took hold of her legs most disgracefully, and pulled her out. Her curses filled the air. Two of his men grabbed her body and forced her inside the house. She was yelling all the while, but soon after they closed the door behind them, the house grew deadly silent. No one wished to know what was happening. After only a few minutes, the soldiers departed. Khalil Khan gave orders that no one should enter that room, and no one dared. By the time I returned from shopping, the house was as quiet as the grave. After the master retired for his afternoon rest, I slipped inside.”

  Here she paused and put her hand against the mud wall to steady herself.

  “Is she alive?” I asked, feeling the breath freeze in my throat.

  “No,” she replied. “Her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. Her neck was bruised and bloodied, and the cord they had used to strangle her was still wrapped around it as if she were nothing more than chattel. Her forehead was creased with agony and her teeth were bared, as if she wished to maul those who had murdered her.”

  “Say no more,” I said. “No more.”

  “I wish you had never asked me to look. What I saw will haunt me until the end of my days. No amount of money could be worth such a sight.”

  Nonetheless she stretched out her hand. I steadied myself against the wall and fished out the coin.

  “You have received the better deal,” she said, turning to go. “May God be with you.”

  My heart felt as if it had turned to shards of ice. I grabbed at the wall behind me for support, but it crumbled in my hands. I drew the dirt on my fingers over my face and head as if it were the dirt of my grave. Pari dead? It could not be. It could not be!

  Racked with sorrow, I stumbled through the streets, drawing stares.

  “Agha!” an older man called as I passed. “What pains you? Are you all right?”

  I don’t know how long I walked, or where. All I know is that I ended up at a tavern in a low part of town, which stank of men’s feet. I sat on a cushion covered with a tattered, stained cotton cloth. A few men welcomed me as their new drinking companion. I called for spirits, and after a few glasses of a foul cinnamon-flavored concoction, I switched to bang. It was very strong. Whatever was put before me, I drank, and then I consumed some more.

  Before long, I lay on the floor of the tavern and began speaking to the angel who was ministering to me. She appeared in a blaze of light, her long hair like a comet whose tail turned into sparks. As I spoke, she hovered over me, her eyes filled with compassion. I told her the story of my life, starting with how my father had been killed and how I had been chopped at the middle. Then I described Pari and our times together.

  “I don’t have royal blood,” I told her, “but we two could have been twins. It was as if we swam in the same fluids in our mother’s womb, so that some of my maleness became hers and some of her femaleness mine. That made us strange in the eyes of the world, which does not care for in-between beings. We have both taken blows because of it. She was protean, as am I. She was fierce and affectionate and smart and unpredictable. That is why I loved her . . . that is why!”

  I told the angel what had happened in the streets. When I reached the part about Khalil Khan, I could barely speak. “She pushed me out of the palanquin. She wouldn’t let me try to save her!”

  The angel hovered over me, and I felt wrapped in a heavenly embrace. “My child,” she said, “don’t you see? She pushed you out so that you wouldn’t come to harm. She loved you, too.”

  God be praised! Pari loved me, too. Tears flowed from my eyes. I pulled out a handkerchief to wipe them away. Its perfume bore the pungent scent of pine—her scent, which I would smell no more. I wept so loudly that the tavern grew silent for a moment and my fellow drinkers clustered around to ask about my sorrows. I told them I had lost a treasured woman, and then they all wept with me, for who hadn’t? Mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters—we had all lost someone dear.

  Early in the morning I awoke on the tattered cushions, my head burning. My hair was matted with blood. All the other men were gone, and my money purse was gone, too. I lay there for a moment, wondering if I could arise without pitching over, and then I remembered the furtive maid and her account of what had happened to Pari. Oh my esteemed lieutenant! Oh my battered heart!

  I arose unsteadily, found my feet, and walked back to the palace in the cold. My turban had been stolen along with my warm outer robe, but the men had not wished me to freeze to death, as they had left me my shoes. The snow was thick and white on the ground. I hurried through the frozen streets. When I arrived at my room, I opened the door and was surprised to see that although Balamani was gone, a tiny figure was huddled on my bed. It was Massoud Ali. He woke up, rushed toward me, threw his arms around me, and howled, his tiny face collapsing with grief. I deeply regretted not having been there to comfort him.

  “My child, my child!” I said. “Don’t swallow so much sorrow.”

  “What will become of us?” he asked between sobs. “Where will we go?”

  I did not have an answer.

  “Who will take us into their service now?”

  “Her mother,” I replied promptly, trying to comfort him.

  His sobs became huge.

  “She has been killed as well.”

  I felt as if I had been stabbed with a sword. No wonder the boy messenger had never returned.

  “May God protect us. An old woman!”

  Massoud Ali sobbed harder all of a sudden. “And a little child has been killed, too!”

  “Who?”

  “Shoja.”

  By God above, they had not even spared an infant. Poor Mahasti! Pari had offered to send her child away from the palace to protect him, but Mahasti had refused.

  “Don’t worry,” I said. I wanted to sound calm and to reassure the poor child, who was quaking with fear. “We will find a new protector, I promise you.”

  “The princess was kind to me,” he said, still weeping. “Who will be kind to me now?”

  “I will,” I replied. “I promise to be kind to you always. Now come sleep, and we will sort all of this out later.”

  I led him to my bedroll, tucked him in, and held his small hand until he fell asleep. As I sat listening to Massoud Ali breathe, his mouth slightly open, his cheeks salted white from his tears, I knew that he had reason to be scared. We had been the closest servants of a princess who had fallen into the deepest disgrace. Would the new shah look upon us as traitors? We could not know. Our survival depended on being thought humble and powerless, but what if Mohammad and his wife judged us otherwise?

  My father’s death came to my mind as freshly as if it had just happened. I had become, once again, the closest servant of someone whose star had plummeted into the sea. My heart was torn anew, and I wept as if I were a young man again facing the rest of my life all alone.

  CHAPTER 9

  BREAD AND SALT

  Fereydoon trussed Zahhak, threw him onto a donkey, and rode with him to the foothills of Mount Damavand. He intended to kill him there, but an angel instructed him to stay his hand. Instead, Fereydoon climbed the mountain until he came upon a cave populated by boulders. Slinging Zahhak over his back, he scaled the tallest boulder, threw Zahhak onto the rock, and pounded nails into his arms and legs until he dangled over the middle of the cave.

  I suspect that Zahhak did not die. He and his snakes are eternally suspended, awaiting the moment when the forces of evil unleash their powers again.

  After Massoud Ali fell asleep, I bathed at the hammam, dressed in a black tunic and trousers, black robe, and black and brown sash, and walked to Pari
s house near the Ali Qapu. My head was pounding from my excesses of the night before, and the wound near my temple had swollen. Azar Khatoon opened the door clad in a dark mourning robe, her eyes red from weeping.

  “I take refuge in almighty God,” she said, her voice trembling. A tear slid down her cheek and coursed over her beauty mark.

  “Alas!” I said, stepping inside. “What can be said?”

  We went into Pari’s birooni, which was large and empty. A hard white light poured through the windows, making me wince. Some of Pari’s ladies wandered in and out of her rooms like ghosts who could find no rest.

  “How can they expect women to serve such a brutal court?” Azar asked, looking as vulnerable as if she had been struck. Her face crumpled, and she reached for me and cried into my robe.

  Hearing steps behind us, we turned and saw Maryam, whose body sagged within her clothes. Her tangled blond hair hung limply near her face, and she had wept so much that the lower half of one eye looked full of blood.

  “My poor, dear lady!”

  “Was there a braver woman? A fiercer flower?” Maryam asked. Angry tears fell onto her cheeks.

  “The loveliest roses are always plucked first,” said Azar.

  The three of us were quiet for a moment, paralyzed by woe. Then Maryam’s lips split into a ghastly laugh. “Anwar told us earlier today that the shah-to-be has prohibited a ceremony for Pari. Neither will there be an official burial. We will never know where her body lies.”

  She put her fists to her cheeks, and tears flowed over them. “I won’t ever be able to visit her grave, sweep off the dirt, and adorn it with flowers and my tears. It will be as if she had never existed.”

  “By the skull of the Shah!” I swore angrily. “Before they erase the woman we loved, let’s collect her letters, her poems, and her papers, and try to save them so that others may know her as we did.”

  “What about her heirs?” asked Azar.

  I thought for a moment. “Since she has no children, the law stipulates that her possessions must be divided among her brothers and sisters,” I said, realizing all of a sudden that Mohammad Khodabandeh would be included. “What a grotesque violation of propriety that the man who ordered her murder will inherit her property.”

  I shouldn’t have spoken so forthrightly about the new shah, but in my grief, I didn’t care.

  “Her poems will be valuable to those who loved her. Let’s work quickly,” I added.

  The three of us occupied her writing room and began looking through her papers. We left untouched the copies of her official correspondence—the letters she had written to the wives of other rulers, receipts she had received or given, deeds of ownership. When we found a scrap of anything personal, such as a poem or a personal letter, we hid it in between the pages of a Shahnameh. But we had barely begun when we heard a ferocious banging on the knocker for women, which felt like nails being driven into my pounding head. Maryam started and grabbed Azar Khatoon’s hand, and the two women looked at each other in alarm.

  I went forth and faced a group of eunuchs bearing shields and swords.

  “Who are you?” I growled.

  “We come from Khalil Khan,” said their leader. “Pari’s things now belong to him, so get out, and make sure the women leave with you before we invite the soldiers in.”

  I tried to slam the door in his face, but he and his eunuchs pushed their way into the house. Their eyes came alive with greed when they saw the fine carpets, silver samovar, and antique lusterware there. I rushed to tell Azar, Maryam, and the other women, who looked terrified at the thought of Khalil Khan and his soldiers. They covered themselves quickly and followed me out, and I accompanied them back to safe quarters within the harem, leaving the soldiers to plunder.

  I was deeply aggrieved that I had not even been able to save Pari’s personal papers. Almost nothing would be left, not only to those who had loved her, but to history.

  I went to Balamani in search of consolation and told him everything that had happened, including what I had learned about Mirza Salman’s betrayal. I was the only person at the palace who knew about it, other than the new Shah and his wife, and I wanted Balamani’s advice on how to discredit Mirza Salman.

  “But first I would like to slash his neck like a chicken’s.”

  Balamani eyed me as if I were a deranged dog. “Has someone smacked you in the head? He is the second most powerful man in the realm. You had better look to your own neck instead.”

  “Am I in danger?”

  “I don’t know. God be praised, as a clever vizier you are worth your weight in turquoise. Now our job is to convince those around Mohammad Khodabandeh that you are loyal. I will speak with Anwar. You need to do your part by singing the praises of the new Shah.”

  It was exactly the type of thing I had advised Pari to do, and it filled me with dread.

  “Don’t let your feelings for the princess impede what you must do,” Balamani chided. “What is wrong with you? Why is your heart so bruised?”

  “It is a matter of justice,” I said angrily. “It riles me to see men winning high position because they’re bullies and blackguards, while they send Pari to an early grave.”

  “She played a man’s game and fell with honor. Your only mistake was that you loved her.”

  “A man has to love someone.”

  “Perhaps you are no longer suited to palace life.”

  “What else is there for me? I have no male family and no other employ.”

  “I know.”

  “I miss her. I keep thinking I hear her voice.”

  “Are you forgetting your place? Your job is to serve the shah, no matter who it is.”

  “Balamani, please stop. You sound like a sycophantic slave.” I turned away in disgust.

  Balamani grabbed my sash, bringing me to a halt.

  “I intend to say whatever is required to save you,” he said, and in his eyes I saw the goodwill of a longtime friend.

  Because there was to be no public mourning ceremony, there was no place to grieve. Nor could I speak about Pari except in whispers because it was dangerous to show such partisanship for an executed princess. My grief felt as explosive as gunpowder packed in a cannon. Now I was mourning two treasures, Khadijeh and Pari, and thoughts of one would lead me to thoughts of the other until my heart felt pounded blue.

  The palace women asked me repeatedly to describe what had happened to Pari. I told the story without sparing the details so that everyone would know how the princess had been butchered.

  The younger women were frightened by the story. “That is what happens when you act like a man,” Koudenet said, a shiver running through her. “She should have married and contented herself with raising a family.”

  Sultanam, who had come from Qom for her son’s coronation, was more thoughtful: “If she hadn’t been so powerful, they would have sent her into exile. She terrified them.”

  To compound my grief, the loss of Pari’s patronage meant that my plans for bringing Jalileh to court had turned to dust. I suspected that if I wrote my cousin the truth—that my patron had died—she would give up hope and sacrifice Jalileh. Instead I gathered all the money I had and sent it as a gift, describing it as a foretaste of the reward I would provide when I was able to bring my sister to Qazveen. I wrote to Jalileh separately, hinted at my difficulties, and urged her to resist their marriage plans.

  This fresh defeat upset me deeply. If Jalileh were to suffer more bad luck, there would be no reason for me to awaken in this world. But I had no idea what I could do to save her.

  The day we went to Forty Columns Hall to witness Mohammad Khodabandeh taking the crown, I felt nothing but cynicism. A slightly different group of mullahs and nobles than the last time approached the throne in order of highest rank and kissed the feet of the man who would henceforth be known as Mohammad Shah. When Mirza Salman strutted self-importantly to the throne in his dandified clothes, a burst of loathing seized me like the trembling that comes from the pl
ague. As I swore loyalty to the Shah with the others, I dared to glance into Mohammad Shah’s dark eyes. They looked vacant and empty of feeling.

  In the days after the coronation, the few remaining princes, the nobles, and the highest-ranking palace employees began to be summoned one by one to see the Shah and given their posts and promotions. Anwar instructed me to report to him until it was my turn, which was likely to take weeks. He told me that my interim assignment would be to read the princess’s mail, which was still arriving at the palace in great quantities, and to inform him of any important news. For the sake of courtesy, I was also to write to correspondents of significant rank and announce her death; otherwise, they would be insulted that their letters had gone unanswered. “She was unparalleled,” Anwar whispered to me sympathetically, “and all of us who served her know the truth, even if it must die with us.” He told me to work in the company of the palace scribes, where I would find abundant supplies of paper, ink, and reed pens, and would be spared the grief of working in the princess’s old quarters in the palace, which in any case were about to be occupied by members of Khayr al-Nisa’s family.

  I arrived at my posting the next day shortly after the morning prayer. Once I had conveyed my orders from Anwar, I was welcomed into the large, light-filled office by Rasheed Khan, the chief of the scribes. He gave me a wooden lap desk and showed me how to request supplies. I thought I saw sympathy in his weary, red-rimmed eyes.

  Massoud Ali fetched and delivered all the letters that had come for Pari after her death, which had been held by the chief palace courier. Although it had been only a few weeks since her murder, it took Massoud Ali several trips to bring them in. He still looked wan with grief.

  “Want to play backgammon later, my little radish?”

  “All right,” he said in a dull voice, and I knew he was just trying to please me. How it pained me to see him suffer! I swore to myself that I would try to get him assigned to me permanently at my new posting so that I could watch over him every day.

 
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