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Equal of the sun, p.4
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       Equal of the Sun, p.4

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  Close at hand was Sultanam’s plump maid, Khadijeh, whose face glowed like the moon. My heart sped up, but I forced myself to turn away as if she meant nothing to me.

  The room was crowded with dozens of women who had been favored by the late Shah during his long life. His three other wives, Daka Cherkes, Sultan-Zadeh, and Zahra Baji, had claimed the best places close to the reciter. Next came eight or nine adult daughters of the Shah and their children—too many to count—followed by several consorts and their children, and finally, a much larger circle of women who had never shared his bed.

  Pari was sitting close to her mother, Daka Cherkes. The two women had wrapped their arms around each other, and their heads were leaning together in sympathy. Daka was known for having a mild and placating personality, quite the opposite of her daughter, whom she often tried unsuccessfully to rein in. Copious tears watered Daka’s cheeks, and I suspected she was concerned about what the Shah’s death would mean to Pari’s future.

  Sultan-Zadeh, the Georgian mother of Haydar, began tearing at her fine camel-colored hair. The older women disliked her because she was one of the few who had ensnared the Shah’s heart, and they had done everything they could to thwart her attempts to gain status. No wonder the tears in her green eyes looked real.

  Pari whispered something in her mother’s ear, arose, and disappeared down a corridor. I followed her into one of the side rooms, where women were comforting one another in smaller groups. My blood froze at the thought of the Shah lying silent and cold in his death room in the palace. Something started to loosen in my own breast, and I concentrated on quieting myself as I scanned the room. Pari was sitting with Maryam at her side. Her walled-in silence was far more awful than the shrieks and cries of sorrow from the others.

  I crouched down beside her and whispered, “Lieutenant of my life, is there any service I can provide to you right now?”

  “Watch them all in the main room,” she replied, “and when this terrible day is through report everything you have seen.”

  The women in that room had not moved except to keen. But behind them, servants were whispering to one another as if bursting with news, and Balamani was talking to a slave; he had a disturbed look in his eye.

  As the reciter’s voice rose high and sharp, the women filled the air with terrible moans, and the space grew hot and thick with the smell of rose water and sweat.

  When Balamani stopped talking to the slave, I walked toward him softly. He didn’t notice, so I tugged his robe to get his attention. He jumped like a cat about to pounce, his big belly bouncing.

  “It is me,” I said soothingly, “your doctor.”

  The gray skin under his eyes looked darker than usual. He smiled slightly and said, “If only you could cure me this time.”

  “I can see that something new ails you,” I replied.

  “Ah, friend of mine, if only you knew what I know.”

  I felt a twinge of disappointment that he had won this skirmish.

  “What is it?”

  “The succession.”

  “Who will it be, then?”

  “That is just it,” Balamani whispered, an edge of terror in his voice. “No one knows how to proceed.”

  “What does the chief of protocol say?”

  “Saleem Khan? He says nothing.”

  “Nothing?”

  He leaned closer to my ear. “There is nothing to say, because there is no will.”

  A loud expostulation escaped my lips, and I bent my head and pretended to be overcome by a fit of coughing. No will? Who would tame the Shah’s ferocious sons, each of whom probably dreamed of being ruler, not to mention the sons of the Shah’s brother Bahram? My vertigo returned for a moment.

  “May God save us all! How will the heir be decided?”

  “If all goes well, the nobles will agree on the new shah, and the other Safavi sons will accept him.”

  “And if it doesn’t?”

  “They will ally behind different men and throw the land into chaos.”

  “What do you expect?”

  “The worst.”

  I resumed my post and watched every gesture like a hawk in search of prey. A few of the women were reading from copies of the Qur’an, but most were so involved in their grieving that they were not moving or talking much. From time to time they drank from vessels of melon sharbat served on large trays, or nibbled at halva to keep themselves strong. They would need to be strong.

  The reciter had begun recounting stories of the blessed Prophet’s family. Her voice surged high with pain as she described baby Ali-Asghar, whose throat was struck by an enemy arrow and who drowned in his own blood. Pinpricks stung my eyes. I remembered the dirt falling onto my father’s body, the screams of my mother and sister, and my own anguish. Now was a respectable moment to vent my grief, for my father, for the fate of my mother and sister, for the dead Shah, for Pari, and for the future of us all. Pari’s eyes caught mine, and I saw sympathy there. For a few hours, there was nothing but unity in the room as we recalled and relived the sorrows we had known on this earth.

  It was late afternoon before the Shah’s eldest female relation, Fatemeh Beygom, made her ceremonial appearance at the proceedings, dressed in proper court attire.

  “Good women,” she said to the crowd, “you have mourned with your hearts full and shed all the water in your body in the form of tears. Now it is time to halt this river of suffering and return to your private grief. To God above we give our trust, from God above we beg for protection.”

  The room became very quiet. The women began wiping away their tears, smoothing their hair, and gathering their things, all rather slowly, as if they were reluctant to leave the safety of shared mourning.

  As the royal women began to say their goodbyes, a group gathered around Sultanam. Even the tallest among them looked like frail reeds near her broad body. One of the first to leave was a consort of the Shah’s who had two young sons and could be expected to throw her weight behind one of the adult contenders. I watched Sultanam kiss her with gratitude. No doubt she would rally the support of her allies behind Isma‘il.

  Women were also lingering around Sultan-Zadeh, Haydar’s mother, ostensibly to console her. Her face was red from the exertion of honest weeping, yet there was a spark in her eyes. The Georgian women approached her; then Gowhar, the late Shah’s eldest daughter, gave Sultan-Zadeh a goodbye kiss on each cheek and whispered into her ear. Sultan-Zadeh brightened. Gowhar said a perfunctory goodbye to Sultanam, wrapped herself in her black chador, and departed.

  The room was emptying rapidly. Pari paid her respects to Sultan-Zadeh, and both women uttered condolences about the rewards in heaven for a life well lived.

  “Everything will be different now,” Sultan-Zadeh added, her pretty mouth pursed as if she were about to plant a kiss on Pari’s cheek. “May I hope for your support of my son Haydar?”

  I knew Haydar as a spoiled pleasure-seeker who had never made a serious study of the business of governing. But when had that ever stopped a prince from believing he deserved the throne?

  Pari drew back. “How can you ask now, when my father is so newly—?”

  Sultan-Zadeh’s lip curled slightly, as if she were a small starved animal baring its teeth.

  “I mean no disrespect. I suppose you would understand if you had your own sons.”

  Pari ignored the slight. “No matter how eager you are for your son’s advancement, you should not breach the established traditions,” Pari replied. “There is a procedure to follow when there is no will. Do you know what it is?”

  “No.”

  “The elders meet and discuss who is the best candidate. That is what happened when my father was selected. In times of uncertainty, procedure is all we have.”

  “But, Pari, let me tell you why my son—”

  “Not now,” said Pari, moving away from her.

  Sultan-Zadeh frowned, and her pretty green eyes looked hard.

  Pari crossed the large room to kiss Sul
tanam. The two women talked politely for a few moments, even though Sultanam had never approved of Pari because she dominated her husband’s attention.

  As the princess took her leave, the somber, grieving face that Sultanam had shown Pari transformed, and her strong white teeth flashed in a nakedly victorious smile. As soon as we left the building, I told Pari what I had seen.

  “How they delight in the idea of squelching my power!” she said as we walked past the garden of red and pink roses. “Until today, they didn’t dare be so bold. Now I expect to bear the brunt of all their aspirations. My mother will plead with me to marry and be safe, but a life of safety is not what I desire.”

  I was struck by how different Pari was from everyone else. A desire to protect her surged through me.

  “I promise to fight to keep you secure.”

  “I thank you,” Pari said, resting her hand for a moment on my arm.

  I heard footsteps behind us and turned around to see Massoud Ali speeding past the rosebushes toward us. He was panting, but that didn’t prevent him from trying to tell us something.

  “What is it, my little one?”

  “All the noblemen have left their mourning ceremony and are gathering for a meeting at Forty Columns Hall,” he said, almost out of breath.

  “About the succession?”

  “Yes.”

  “You must go,” said Pari.

  “Chashm,” I replied. Since the royal women could not show themselves at the men’s meetings, I would be Pari’s eyes and ears. I told Massoud Ali to wait for me while I walked Pari back to her house. As we entered the gate to her courtyard, she was making plans. “As soon as you return from the meeting, we must review the details for the public mourning ceremonies for my . . .”

  I was shutting the heavy door behind us when her voice trailed off. Pari stopped moving and her shoulders slumped dangerously. For a terrible moment, I feared that she might drop to the ground.

  “Princess,” I said softly, rushing to her side, “I know all too well what oceans of sorrow drown your heart.”

  Her eyes filled. To my astonishment, she draped her arms on my shoulders and clung to me like a child, her head against my chest. Sobs shook her long, thin body, and hot tears soaked the front of my robe. I tried to stand as firm as the famous cypress in Abarkuh that has witnessed three thousand years of human sorrow.

  When her sobbing had subsided, Pari begged me for a handkerchief. Her eyes were bloodred, her nose wet with mucus. I handed her the cotton handkerchief that hung from my sash and watched her dry her eyes and her face.

  “My heart is breaking over the loss of my father,” she said.

  “I understand. I have shed the same bitter tears.”

  “I know you have. Thank you for allowing me to steady myself upon you”—here she noticed my stained robe—“and make you wet.”

  We were alone, so I decided to take a risk. “I am honored to be your human handkerchief. Never fear, it was like bathing in a river of diamonds.”

  I glanced at the gleaming mucus on my robe.

  Pari managed a smile, then could not prevent a small, sad snort of laughter, after which she had to dab further at her nose. She tossed the handkerchief back to me.

  “Here, you need this more than I do.”

  CHAPTER 2

  AN ANIMAL MOOD

  Jamsheed’s delusions opened the gates to greed, disorder, and despair throughout the land, even in places where chaos had never existed before.

  In a tiny corner of his kingdom, there lived a ruler named Mirdas who was so pious that he arose every day to pray in his garden before it was light. He was the lord of thousands of sheep and goats, and he shared their milk, cheese, and meat so that no man in his kingdom ever went hungry. His one weakness was that he was too indulgent with his only son, Zahhak. One day, Zahhak was approached by the devil, who expressed surprise at how patiently he waited for his father’s throne. Since his succession was ordained, surely there could be no harm in hastening it. Why should an old man be in charge rather than someone as vigorous and fresh as he?

  That night, the devil dug a deep hole on the path that Mirdas took every morning to the fire temple where he said his prayers, and covered it with leaves and branches. The next morning, when Mirdas walked forth into his garden, he fell into the hole and his spine snapped. The poor man howled and groaned, but none heard him, and finally, in great agony, he expired. So justice was supplanted by injustice, and a cycle of terror began.

  Massoud Ali and I left the walled quarters of the women, which lay deep inside the palace, through a thick wooden door embedded with metal in the middle of a tall wall. We saluted Zav Agha, the old eunuch on duty at the checkpoint leading to the birooni—the outside.

  “Not long until retirement?” I asked.

  “Only a few months, God willing, if I survive this latest upheaval!”

  He and Balamani often talked about the fierce ocean and the fresh fish of their childhood on the Malabar coast of Hindustan, before they had been cut and sold as slaves. Now, as free men, they longed to return there.

  Massoud Ali and I wound our way through twisting corridors studded with armed guards until we reached the large courtyard near the Ali Qapu gate. We traversed the courtyard, passing through a second gated and guarded checkpoint that led to the treasury, library, hospital, pharmacy, and morgue. Massoud Ali’s forehead was so pinched that I wanted to cheer him. I asked him if there were any games he liked to play with the other errand boys, but he shrugged. He was thin and small, and I surmised that even younger boys would be able to pummel him.

  “How about backgammon?”

  “I don’t know how.”

  “I will teach you. It is the game of shrewd statesmen.”

  His smile flashed so briefly it was as if he hadn’t learned how to use it yet.

  Shortly after the intersection of the two main avenues that crossed the palace grounds, we arrived at Forty Columns Hall, the palace’s most important meeting place. It was one of my favorite buildings because its large entrance portal was left open during the warmer months to a view of the fruit orchards and flower gardens. A court poet had once written more than a hundred lines about the exquisiteness of the melons grown on the palace grounds, and with good reason.

  Inside the hall, its high ceiling was arched, sectioned, and painted in pale shades of orange, turquoise, and green, overlaid with a pattern of gold flowers much like the design on a fine silk robe. Thick carpets and plush cushions covered the floors.

  Massoud Ali stood against the back wall with the other errand boys; I sat beside Balamani among the palace eunuchs. Balamani and I frowned at each other; we hadn’t learned anything new. Today the normally sober hall was alive with speculation about who would be the next shah. Members of the Ostajlu and Mowsellu tribes sat nearest to the platform where the late shah used to emerge and speak; this was their privilege as men of the sword who had helped the Safavi dynasty to the throne. Several Georgian and Circassian leaders who had married into the royal family claimed seats of honor, too. These groups had begun to vie for power against the more established tribes and against the most powerful men of the pen, who were in charge of keeping accounts and writing royal letters, orders, and histories. My father had been one such man, and for a moment I imagined the two of us sitting together near the top of the room, dressed in dark silk robes in honor of the Shah’s passing.

  Saleem Khan, the master of palace protocol, entered the room. He possessed a voice that could tame an army of men. When he called, “Come to order!” the nobles fell silent. The chief mullah of Qazveen, whose black turban and robes were a sobering sight, walked slowly to the front of the hall and said a prayer for the dead. Every head in the room was bowed, as if weighed down by the uncertainty of the future.

  After the prayer, Saleem Khan announced that a member of the Safavi dynasty wished to address us. The brown velvet curtain at the back of the platform stirred, and Haydar Mirza stepped out and stood in the Shah’s place.
He was a slight young man with a nervous left eye that sometimes blinked too much. His fitted dark gray robe made him look even smaller than usual.

  “Greetings to all the valued retainers of the Safavi court,” he began in a nasal voice that was too quiet to be heard well. “I give my thanks to you for attending upon us on this terrible day. Together we mourn the passing of my father, the fulcrum of the universe, even as we must turn our attention to what lies ahead. I call on you, great ones, to help me fulfill my father’s wishes for the future.”

  Not even the fringes on the nobles’ sashes stirred as they waited to hear what he had in mind, but Haydar faltered.

  “I request your indulgence for a moment,” he finally said before disappearing behind the curtain. We heard the high-pitched murmuring of a woman.

  “That sounds like his mother,” I whispered to Balamani.

  “If he can’t get through a meeting without her help, how does he expect to rule?” Balamani growled. Speculation filled the room until Saleem Khan’s voice boomed like a cannon, and the room quieted again.

  Haydar emerged from the curtain too quickly, stumbling as if he had been pushed out. In his fist was the great golden sword of the Safavi dynasty, a beautifully crafted weapon encrusted with emeralds and rubies. The matching belt at his waist emanated rays of light when he moved.

  “I hereby declare myself your new shah and demand your loyalty unto death!” Haydar shouted. “Those who serve me will be well rewarded; those who oppose me will pay the consequences.” He tried to thrust the sword high into the air, but the weapon was too heavy and his arm faltered midway.

  The room exploded. Men leapt to their feet—some cried out in surprise, others shouted their support.

  “Squelch your chatter!” commanded Saleem Khan, and gradually, the men settled down.

  Haydar’s uncle on his mother’s side, Khakaberi Khan, asked to be recognized and stood up to help his nephew. “By what authority do you make this claim?”

 
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