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Equal of the sun, p.39
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       Equal of the Sun, p.39

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  I stared at the pile of letters. The dry white paper made me think of Pari’s bones whitening somewhere under the earth. I could hardly bear to touch the pulverized linen and hemp, but as I was now under the scrutiny of Rasheed Khan and his staff, I assumed a workmanlike demeanor and began my task.

  The first letter I opened was from a prostitute Pari had met once when she had gone to the shrine of Fatemeh Massoumeh in Qum to honor that holy sister of the Imam Reza. The letter, which had been written by a scribe that the prostitute had hired, reminded Pari where they had met and that the princess had given her money to start a new life. The prostitute had spent the money on felt and tools and had started a business making felt blankets for horses. After two years of hard work, she had developed a small stream of income that allowed her to quit her old profession. She thanked Pari for her belief in her goodness, and promised to say prayers for her every week at the shrine.

  Yes, I thought, that was the princess I knew. Not the scheming Pari that tongues wagged about in the palace, but the Pari who would never let a request from a poor woman go unanswered, no matter how shameful her profession.

  I began composing the response to the prostitute in my mind. “Dear Friend of the Court, I am very sorry to have to convey to you the earth-destroying news that the princess Pari Khan Khanoom, the most celebrated and revered flower of the Safavi women, has . . .”

  I dropped the letter, my hands shaking.

  “What is the matter?” asked Rasheed Khan, who happened to be passing by my station. “You don’t look well.”

  “It is nothing,” I said. “I need some tea and sugar.”

  “Ask the tea boys; you can’t drink anything in here.”

  I went into the next room, away from all that precious paper, and a boy served me a glass of tea with a date before I had even asked for it.

  My new job was ghastly. To have to convey Pari’s death in formal courtly language made me feel as if I were reliving her murder. I imagined her bruised neck, gaping eyes, and bared teeth, and wished that Khalil Khan’s maid had spared me.

  When I returned to my task in the main writing room, I noticed a letter with a swooping, intricate royal seal indicating its provenance from the Ottoman court. I opened it carefully, certain that it must bear news of political import. Murad III’s wife Safiyeh wrote that she was eager to ensure that the long-running peace treaty between the two countries be maintained, but had been discouraged by friction between Safavi and Ottoman troops near Van. Were the reports true? She begged for a reply before the soldiers escalated the fighting. The tone of her letter was polite but not warm, which alarmed me since she and Pari had enjoyed friendly relations in the past. I put the letter aside to show to Anwar; it would require an immediate reply by the scribe in charge of political missives.

  I read a few more letters until I came upon one from Rudabeh, Pari’s correspondent from Khui. Rudabeh also wrote of skirmishes on the border between Safavi and Ottoman troops, but added that she had heard that Khosro Pasha, the governor of Van, had decided to teach Iran a lesson by organizing a fighting force of Ottomans and Kurds against the Safavis. She knew this because one of her family members had been solicited to be one of the soldiers. She thought the princess would want to know.

  I set the letter on the desk, alarmed. Pari had been right; the peace between the Safavis and the Ottomans had been based entirely on strength. The minute we looked weak, the countries on our borders became predators.

  I sought out Balamani immediately and gave him the letters, which he promised to bring to the attention of Anwar, who had Mohammad Shah’s ear.

  “But don’t expect much,” said Balamani. “The Shah is too busy emptying out the royal treasury.”

  “What?”

  “He has been heaping bags of gold and silver, as well as silk robes of honor, upon his new appointees. He is trying to buy loyalty.”

  “So he is desperate?”

  “His lavishness reveals how weak he is.”

  “Just like Haydar. What a pity.”

  It seemed to me then that the royal court would never reward honesty. It would breed sycophants eager for treasure; it would require capitulation. No truthful word would be spoken to the royals in power. Those who succeeded would slither like snakes to earn their rewards; those who protested would be struck down.

  “That is the least of it,” Balamani continued. “The Ostajlu and Takkalu are at each other’s throats again along with their allies, which makes me fear another civil war. Disgruntled citizens in the north and south are organizing revolts. The Ottomans and Uzbeks are threatening invasions on our western and eastern flanks. No corner of the country is safe.”

  Panah bar Khoda! Were we to live under the rule of yet another incompetent? Working for such an inept court was not just maddening—it was perilous.

  That night, I had a dream I will never forget. It was as if the Shahnameh had come to life and swept me into its stories. The blacksmith Kaveh appeared at my door and asked me to join him on a mission. His face was ruddy from the forge, his forearms as strong as steel. Together we stormed Zahhak’s palace, and Kaveh shredded his lying proclamation before his eyes. At the city square, Kaveh lifted his leather apron on the point of a spear and rallied the people against the evil leader. I marched with him, my heart bursting with pride.

  “Long live Kaveh!” I chanted. “Death to the tyrant!”

  The crowd swelled and yelled, their cheers like thunder. Surely our liberation was at hand! But when the cheers were at their loudest, Kaveh turned toward me.

  “I am born in every generation,” he whispered. “I protest and die, but still the tyrants prevail.”

  His black hair was flecked with gray, his leathery face creased with worry. I could not believe that he looked so despondent, and I was stricken with dread.

  “How much longer must we endure injustice?” I asked.

  But even Kaveh had no answer.

  Defying Balamani’s advice, I went to see Mirza Salman on the pretext that I needed to tell him what I had learned from Pari’s correspondence. He kept me waiting until I was the last person who wished to see him, and then he couldn’t put me off anymore. He was dressed in yet another magnificent robe, this one made of rose silk with paisley patterns, with a matching turban and sash. The opulence of his garments disgusted me.

  “I am sorry to hear the news about your lieutenant,” he said as he motioned from his cushion for his scribes to leave us. “Please accept my condolences.”

  I couldn’t conceal my outrage, despite all my years of training to be the perfect servant. “Condolences? From you?”

  “Of course. What a tragedy, a princess in her prime.”

  I laughed with such scorn that he put his hand on the dagger in his sash.

  “Leave it be. I have no fear of your blade.”

  “Did the blow you took addle your brains? What is the matter with you?”

  “With me? You are the one who spun tales to entrap the princess.”

  His face went white for a moment; I could see his mind buzzing over all the possible ways that I might have found him out. “Spun tales? I don’t know what you are talking about.”

  “How good you are at saving yourself—as good as a flea who jumps to dry land from a capsized boat.”

  “You are a fantasist. I didn’t give the order for her execution.”

  “But no doubt your propaganda made it seem like a good idea.”

  “I have never said anything different from what everyone else said about her thirst for power.”

  “You encouraged her to try to become the Shah’s chief advisor, remember? You arranged it with the nobles yourself.”

  “That was before I talked to his wife. She is just as fierce as Pari was, but has the advantage of being her husband’s main confidante. How could Pari fight that?”

  “She would have been a better ruler.”

  “Not as far as the Shah is concerned.”

  “He will be sorry one day.”
>
  “You fool! How dare you speak out against your new leader? You could get pitched out of court and thrown into the river.”

  “Through one of your campaigns of sabotage?”

  “You are one to talk. After all, you helped plan a murder.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  He laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the new Shah decided to get rid of you.”

  “A talented eunuch like myself shines brighter than gold. Remember, I am the crazy fool who cut himself to join the court.”

  “I doubt the new Shah cares much about what you did to your cock.”

  His language infuriated me. “I may not have a cock, but at least I am not a prick like you.”

  “Get out before I inflict a mortal wound on the parts of you that are still intact.”

  I laughed at him. “From what I have heard, you wouldn’t have the balls to do much.”

  He leapt off his cushion, his dagger drawn. To show him how concerned I was, I turned my back on him and strolled out of the room. As I expected, he didn’t follow.

  Shortly thereafter, Mirza Salman began a campaign of sabotaging my name. It started with small comments made in passing about my loyalty, which Anwar heard and mentioned to Balamani. Then it escalated to open accusations that I couldn’t be trusted. Mirza Salman even spread a rumor suggesting I had been affiliated with a physician who was suspected of poisoning Tahmasb Shah’s orpiment.

  I was in grave danger.

  Balamani’s creased forehead told me that he wished my situation at court were resolved, but neither of us could do anything to speed along my new posting. Nor could I leave palace service of my own accord: No servant was permitted to depart, even for a vacation, without permission. In any case, I didn’t have funds to support myself on the outside.

  Worse yet, my attempts to placate my mother’s cousin were not successful. I received a letter from her demanding a firm departure date for Jalileh and money for the caravan. If they did not see an end to my excuses soon, they would permit the old man to marry Jalileh. I was plunged into despair as dark and deep as the bottom of a well. Although now I had the means to bring my sister to Qazveen, I had no place to house her and no way to keep her. By God above, what was I to do?

  While I waited to be summoned to see the Shah, I continued my job of reading and responding to the princess’s letters. Because all the correspondents wrote to Pari as if she were still alive, I began to feel as if I could see her pearly forehead, smell her piney perfume, and feel her arm guiding mine as I selected letters and wrote my responses.

  I had been focusing my attention on the letters sent on the best paper with the most exalted seals, knowing that the writers would be demanding. One morning, however, a letter written on simple paper fell away from the rest of the stack. I picked it up and opened it. It was from one of Pari’s vakils, a landowner in Qazveen. He wrote as follows:

  Esteemed princess, I received the letter you sent from the Shah’s encampment and wish to inform you that I have fulfilled your request and have transferred the deed of the mill near the Tehran Gate into the name of your servant Payam Javaher Shirazi. It is now legally his property. I will keep the deed until he comes to claim it and will hold the revenues from the mill for him until then. Please let me know if I may be of service in any other way.

  I dropped the letter in surprise and then snatched it up again before anyone else could see it. Balamani had been right: Pari had wished to take care of me! She must have written the letter on the very morning of her death.

  I hid the letter in my robe when no one was looking. As soon as I could get away, I went to see the mill, which was located in a residential neighborhood in sight of the Tehran Gate. Donkeys walked in a circle around the mill to turn its heavy stone wheel, crushing sheaves of wheat into grain. Each person who used the mill paid a fee for this service. After watching for more than an hour, I determined that the mill was in such constant use that it would provide a steady stream of income. May God be praised! Sometimes fortune rains down from the sky.

  “Who owns this mill?” I asked the man in charge of the donkeys, who was skinny and wiry. I was eager to hear my own name. With what pleasure I would introduce myself as the new owner and claim all that was my due.

  “A generous patron. During the last holiday, poor people lined up here to receive free grain. May the gates of paradise open wide for him when the time comes!”

  I was puzzled. “What is his name?”

  “Khalil Khan.”

  The man halted his donkeys abruptly and rushed to my side. “Agha? Are you all right?”

  I hurried back to the palace to tell Balamani the news. He was leaning against cushions in the guest room in our quarters reviewing some documents for Anwar about the new Shah’s plans for religious endowments.

  “Balamani, you were right about the princess,” I said. “She did not forget me. She has left me the mill near the Tehran Gate.”

  He dropped the documents onto the wooden desk on his lap. “May God be praised! How much money does it bring in?”

  “I don’t know yet.”

  The relief in his eyes made me realize how worried he had been about me. “Now you can take good care of your sister, and maybe even of yourself.”

  “Perhaps,” I said, but my voice sounded gloomy.

  “Javaher, what is the matter? This should be one of the most joyful days of your life. You have been favored beyond imagining, even though your patron is dead.”

  “I know. My heart is full of gratitude toward her. How kind she was to remember me! Little did she know what problems would ensue. Khalil Khan has claimed the mill. How can I wrest it away from him?”

  Balamani looked puzzled. “You know how. Go to the grand vizier, show him the proof, and ask for his help in transferring the property into your name.”

  “Mirza Salman won’t help me.”

  “Why not?”

  “He despises me.”

  Balamani scrutinized me closely for a moment. “What have you done?”

  “I had an altercation with him.”

  “About what?”

  “About a few things that were bothering me.”

  “For example?” His brow furrowed, making him look like an avenging angel in his pale blue robe.

  “I lost my temper. I couldn’t help it.” Embarrassment crept through me; it was the last thing an experienced courtier was supposed to do.

  “What did you say?”

  I looked away. “I accused him of instigating Pari’s murder.”

  Balamani was stunned into a long silence. He stared at me, the skin between his eyes knitting into such fierce lines of concern that I felt as if I had disappointed my own mother.

  “And that is not all—I smashed Khalil Khan’s nose. It points to the left now.”

  He snorted. “It is a wonder you are still breathing. You are going to need the help of a power greater than any here on earth.”

  I did not reply.

  “Javaher, you have been a fool,” he added, his voice rising. “How do you think you are going to get the mill now that the grand vizier—who has the last word on all property documents—is set against you?”

  “I don’t know. All I can tell you is that I felt like the reed that has been torn from its bed. How can I play a sweet tune when all that pours from my heart is sorrow and loss?”

  “You know the rules at court. Why have you sabotaged all my hard work in your favor? What good do you do Pari if you destroy yourself? What a donkey you are!”

  I felt the blood rush to my forehead, and my hands balled into fists at my sides. “By God above, I couldn’t bear it anymore! Are we not men? Do we not have tongues? Have they been so severed by the tyrants who rule us that we have lost our ability to speak?”

  Balamani tried to interrupt, but I continued.

  “For the first time in my life, I stood up like a man. I may pay the price of my life for my words, but at least I said them. I don’t care that I
made an enemy. I don’t care that I may lose my posting. For once, I did not feel as if what was true in my heart was as different from what was on my lips as day to night. I became like hot white light, pure and clean. I felt as if my testicles had grown to the size of mountains and I had earned the right to shout out, ‘I am a complete man!’”

  Balamani’s eyes softened, and he looked older and sadder than I had ever seen.

  “I have never dared to do what you describe, my friend. I still think you are a fool”—he opened his palms to the heavens in wonder—“but I am proud of you.”

  A mist clouded my vision. I shook it away angrily and gratefully.

  “Balamani, what can I do now?”

  The skepticism in his eyes indicated that he didn’t think I had much of a chance. “What are your desires?”

  I thought for a moment. “I want the mill so I can leave court with an income, and then I want to learn what it means to be my own master.”

  “And how do you expect to achieve all that?”

  “I will go to Mirza Salman and ask for the mill because it is my right.”

  Balamani’s laugh was long and sad. With regret, I remembered all the time he had spent drilling me so that I would never slip at court.

  “Your behavior has been so provocative that he will refuse to help. At least accept one morsel of advice.”

  “Of course.”

  “Apologize. Explain that grief unhinged you. Swear to be an ally. That is the way of a smart courtier, and you have been one of the best.”

  I grew hot with anger. “So I am to return to subterfuge, is that it?” I barked.

  “Calm down,” Balamani ordered. “How badly do you wish to win?”

  Mirza Salman wouldn’t even allow me to be shown in to see him, although I waited all day. When I rushed past his servants into his rooms, insisting that I had urgent business, his face puffed out with rage. I was hardly able to get the request for the mill out of my mouth before he called me an illiterate fool and had me thrown out.

  I decided right then to visit Fereshteh with the excuse of wanting to exchange information with her about the court’s new personalities and plans. I needed her advice. Even more than that, I longed to see her and unburden my heart.

 
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