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Equal of the sun, p.40
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       Equal of the Sun, p.40

           Anita Amirrezvani

  When I arrived at her house, I was told Fereshteh was occupied and would admit me when she could. I drank some tea, ate some small cucumbers, and admired a new painting on her walls of a noblewoman serving wine to a smitten courtier. The day dragged on, and I realized that Fereshteh was probably servicing a client. What if it was Mirza Salman? I was filled with loathing at the thought.

  When I was finally shown in to see her, she didn’t rise to greet me. Her large eyes looked weary, her robe creased and tired.

  “What is the matter?”

  “My daughter has been vomiting,” she said. “I gave her some medicine and now she is finally sleeping.”

  “I hope she gets better soon.”

  “Thank you.”

  “I have come to thank you. You have helped me with many things.”

  “I only wish my intelligence on Mirza Salman had arrived soon enough to save your commander.”

  “I wish the same,” I replied. “It is strange, but I believe Pari knew in her heart that she was going to her grave.”


  “She spoke to me about death and judgment even before she knew about her uncle’s murder.”

  “Alas! What a tragedy. Was she as fierce as they say?”

  I thought back to Pari’s meeting with Mohammad and Khayr al-Nisa Beygom. “She was so bright that her light could burn. She was one of those people who neither compromise nor hold their tongue. She made people angry enough to want to destroy her.”

  “Because she was too outspoken?”

  “And because she had too many allies. Now that Mohammad Shah and his wife have also executed her mother and her uncle, they have uprooted Circassian power at court and made room for their own supporters. To me, though, it is as if they hacked a limb off their own tree.”

  My cheeks felt wet all of a sudden, and I wiped them with the cloth that I still kept tucked inside my sash. It was Pari’s silk handkerchief, and the sight of it only made me feel worse.

  Fereshteh’s eyes searched my face. “Did you love her?”

  “Yes,” I said, “in the way that a soldier loves a good commander or a nobleman loves a just shah.”

  “I understand. May this be your final sorrow!”

  “Thank you.”

  “It is a terrible loss. What will you do now?”

  “I don’t know. I must wait to see what plans they have for me at the palace. Balamani said he would try to help me.”

  “I hope you receive favor. In the meantime, I have heard some useful news,” Fereshteh continued. “Mirza Salman has just gotten married.”

  “Oh?” I said.

  “His wife’s name is Nasreen Khatoon.”

  I snorted with disgust. “She spied on me and accused me of wrongdoing, which could have gotten me killed. Have she and Mirza Salman been working together all this time?”

  “I presume so.”

  “They deserve each other.”

  “Mirza Salman doesn’t expect to be faithful to her, of course.”

  Everyone knew that a nobleman could have several wives and keep as many other women as he could afford. Why had Fereshteh bothered to mention that?

  “Come now: What are you saying?”

  She was watching me very closely. “He has made me an offer.”

  “Of marriage?”

  “Of upkeep. He has promised to pay all my expenses if I serve him alone—in which case I could see you no more.”

  I felt a violent surge of anger in my chest. “Does fate strew the man’s path with nothing but roses? A high posting, the removal of Pari, a well-placed wife, and now all your beauty? Good God! Why doesn’t he offer to marry you?”

  “You know very well that noblemen don’t marry prostitutes.”

  “He is a princess-killer, and he has tried to thwart me at every turn. How could you even consider him?”

  “What other options do I have?”

  “You said you wished to retire.”

  “This is the only form of retirement I have ever been offered.”

  I couldn’t stand hearing about him anymore. I leapt up, strode to the door, and thrust my feet into my shoes, hard with anger.

  “How is his offer different from prostitution?”

  “How is any marriage different?”

  “That is ridiculous.”

  I stopped in my tracks and turned to look at her, a cruel comment on my lips. She raised her hands as if in protection. The warning look in her large eyes stopped my tongue.

  “Javaher, I must think about what is best for my daughter. More than anything, I wish to relinquish my profession.”

  I paused. “What would you do if you had some money?”

  “I would set about making myself respectable by learning a craft so that I could earn money another way. When my daughter is grown, I wish her to marry a kind man from a good family. There is no chance of that unless I can show the world a new face.”

  She looked sad, and I thought about how no one had been able to save either one of us from our fate. What if, through the blessings of good fortune, we were able to save those who came after us? Only then would it seem as if our lives had been redeemed. What happiness we would feel if we could shelter our young ones from the lives we had endured!

  I kicked off my shoes and sat down again, sighing.

  “Fereshteh, I apologize for my outburst. Perhaps there is a way we can help each other. Pari left me a mill, but Mirza Salman won’t allow me to claim it. I need something damning about him in order to force his hand. If I can get ownership of it, I promise I will help you. The mill does well, and people always need its services. Its income would help you get started in a new life. I would like to be able to thank you for all your help, and I know that Pari would wish to do the same.”

  Her whole face brightened with hope. “How grateful I would feel to be in charge of my own person! I would never have to touch one of those things again.”

  I couldn’t help a wry smile.

  “Why don’t you ask the Shah for help with the mill when you are called in about your new posting?”

  “Mohammad Shah gave Khalil Khan all of Pari’s money as a reward for her murder. I doubt he would feel compelled to fulfill any of her last wishes.”

  Fereshteh thought for a long time. I watched her face and was surprised to see what looked like strong emotions playing over it, but I couldn’t read them.

  “I know of one person who might have the information you seek.”

  “Who is it?”

  “I can’t tell you,” she said.

  “If we are to be partners in this, I need to know who it is.”

  “Never mind. Leave this to me.”

  About a week later, Fereshteh sent a messenger to me requesting that I visit her immediately. On the pretext that I had an urgent errand to fulfill in the bazaar, I asked Rasheed Khan for leave in the middle of the day. He let me go, although I could see in his eyes that it was because he desired to help me, not because he believed me. Abteen Agha snorted at my back as I left.

  When I was shown into Fereshteh’s private guest room, she was completely veiled; I couldn’t even see her face because she had covered it with a white silk picheh.

  “You may leave us,” she told her maid, who shut the door as quietly as if it were a shadow.

  “Fereshteh, is it you?” I said lightly. “I have never seen you so covered.”

  She did not reply. A chill froze my heart as she slowly removed the picheh from her face. Her right eyelid was the color of a rotten pomegranate, and the area underneath it was yellow and black. Her bottom lip was swollen to twice its normal size and cleft by a dark scab. Her eyes glistened with what could only be tears.

  “By God above!” I roared. “Who did this to you? I will kill him.”

  Her hands were shaking, I suspect, from the pain. “Remember how I met Sultanam the first time?”

  I thought for a moment before recalling that a client had beaten her so badly that she had gone to the royal mother and d
emanded her help.

  “You went back to that terrible man?”


  Slowly she removed her outer robe, revealing that one of her pale arms and the top of her breasts were covered with eggplant-colored blotches.

  “Fereshteh, who would do such an ugly thing? Tell me and I will petition to have the monster punished.”

  She shuddered as one of her long sleeves grazed a tender part of her forearm.

  “I feel much better today than I did a few days ago. The pain has hardly been the worst of it. It was what he insisted on doing while having sex. I will omit the ugly details. I have paid very dearly for the information you wanted.”

  The pit of my stomach filled with bile. “I would never have asked you to sacrifice your person, not even to save my own life.”

  “I know,” she said. “That is why I didn’t tell you my plans. I decided that a week of pain would be worth the chance to win my freedom. Perhaps I have.”

  A smile of triumph illuminated her face and made her look almost beautiful again despite her ghastly injuries.

  “Fereshteh! I would rather have sacrificed myself for you instead.”

  “Never mind that now. Here is what I have learned,” she said excitedly. “When Mirza Salman was wooing Mohammad Shah and his wife, he was also working on a plot to elevate their eldest son, Hamza Mirza, to the throne instead. In short, he was betraying them.”

  I was seized with hope. “Is there proof that would allow me to get Mirza Salman dismissed?”

  “No one will come forth and admit it. The best thing you can do to get the mill is tell Mirza Salman you have proof without telling him from whom. I know enough details about the plot that he will realize your source is impeccable.”

  “How do you know it is impeccable?”

  “The nobleman I saw was in on the plot with him. He is angry at Mirza Salman because he relinquished the plan to elevate Hamza Mirza when the Shah and his wife offered to keep him as grand vizier. I shall not reveal the nobleman’s name for fear that he would kill me if it came out.”

  A shiver of fear went through her. She shook it away and began narrating the details of the plan, which I committed to memory. When the pain became too great for her to bear, she ate a few poppy seeds to relax and rubbed some liniment onto her poor bruised body.

  “Thank you, Fereshteh. Your sacrifice has been far greater than any I deserved. I will do everything in my power to live up to what I promised.”

  “A silken cord has bound us since we were little more than children,” she said gently.

  I gestured toward a glass vase shaped like a tear-catcher that adorned one of her shelves. “I don’t want you to collect any more tears for me, though.”

  She smiled. “So you know the story about the origin of the tear-catcher?”


  “Once there was a shah who was jealous of his queen and uncertain of her love. One morning he went off on a hunt and told his men to report to the queen that he had been torn apart by wild animals. The queen was sick with grief. She ordered her artisans to design a glass tear-catcher in which to collect all her tears. A few days later, the Shah’s spies reported that her room was filled with dozens of glass tear-catchers in shades of blue and violet, which glowed with her sorrow. Chagrined by the grief he had caused her, the Shah returned and promised to trust her and love her until the end of their days.”

  I paused. “I wish that every terrible story had such a happy ending.”

  “So do I.”

  When I returned to the palace, I sent Mirza Salman a message saying that I had urgent information that could threaten the very foundations of the court, thereby obligating him to see me. He had just claimed one of the best offices near Forty Columns Hall, one with high ceilings and windows made of rare multicolored glass. I sat in his waiting room filled with deadly calm, thinking how pleased Balamani would be to know how resolute I felt.

  When I was finally shown in, Mirza Salman frowned. I noticed that he had purchased a fancy silk carpet, which felt as soft as a baby’s skin, and he had positioned himself at the long end of it so that visitors would have to admire it while talking to him.

  I didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “I have heard you have been speaking out against me.”

  “So? I say what I think.”

  “So do I. I am here because I need that mill—the one that Khalil Khan claimed as his reward for murdering Pari.”

  Mirza Salman shuddered as if I had mentioned something indelicate. “Khalil Khan is one of the richest men in the country now. Why should I challenge him for your sake?”

  “Because the mill belongs to me.”

  He guffawed. “Can’t you think of a better reason?”

  “Do you really want to make an enemy of me?”

  “I am the grand vizier, remember? It is not even worth my time to smash your balls.”

  I did not raise an eyebrow. “You have to help me,” I demanded. “It is the law.”

  “I don’t have to do anything.”

  I gestured to his eunuchs, who looked ready to grab me and throw me out of the room. “I have something to tell you that you will prefer to keep private.”

  He sent them to the corners of the room so that they could not hear, but kept his hand on his dagger.

  “I know about your plot to bring Hamza Mirza to the throne,” I said quietly. “Don’t you think that news might upset the Shah?”

  Mirza Salman’s chin snapped into the air and his back stiffened as if he were riding a horse. “Nonsense.”

  “Your plan was to bribe the Ostajlu guard inside the palace at the same time that you sent an army of supporters to guard all of its entrances, having learned from the mistakes that Haydar made. Once you had the palace secured, you were going to declare Hamza Mirza the new shah, with yourself as grand vizier.”

  I began describing the minutiae of the plan, watching his face change from assured to ashen, until finally I had convinced him that I knew everything.

  “Enough! I am not to blame, but you are a good enough storyteller to make it sound like a competent rumor. So you want the mill? Very well, then. I will see that you get it, but only under one condition: You must leave the court.”

  It was exactly what I hoped he would say, but I pretended to equivocate. “You want me to relinquish my post at the palace? Why should I?”

  “That is the deal. Otherwise you can fend for yourself.”

  I pretended to look as if I felt cornered. “This is my home. Where else is a eunuch supposed to go?”

  “Out of my sight.”

  “I intend to stay.”

  “Then I won’t help you.”

  “Very well, then,” I said angrily. “When shall I expect to receive my orders to depart?”

  “Right away.” He dismissed me with a flick of his wrist, and as I reached the door, he hissed, “You are very lucky.” His gaze was as chilling as the highest peaks of Mount Damavand.

  “It is not luck.”

  A few days later, Mirza Salman contacted Pari’s vakil and asked to see her letter about the mill. When it arrived, he had an expert at court verify her handwriting and declared the letter sound. I didn’t know what form of persuasion he used to wrest the mill away from Khalil Khan, but I suspected he was compelled to demand it as a personal favor. It didn’t take long before Mirza Salman sent a messenger to me with the deed. Once I had it in hand, I immediately sent a message to Fereshteh telling her of our success.

  Kind lady, know that the tears shed by your loving eyes

  Have transformed into oceans that rival the skies.

  Because of your sacrifices and your pain

  Those oceans rematerialized as sweet summer rain.

  That rain fell upon my desert of woe

  Your waterfall of kindness made things grow.

  Allow me to thank you for the gift of your tears

  With a shower of good news: Our liberation nears!

  That afternoon, Balamani informe
d me that Mohammad Shah had commanded me to present myself before him the next day. I was surprised, having thought Mirza Salman would arrange my dismissal and save the Shah the trouble of seeing me. Now I would have to prepare for any eventuality. Would the Shah chastise me for being Pari’s servant? Worse yet, would he accuse me of disloyalty or of murder? I hastily penned a letter to Pari’s vakil instructing him that my sister, Jalileh, was to inherit the mill in the event of my death. Then I gave a copy of the letter to Balamani for safekeeping. After reading it, he tucked it into his robe.

  “May God protect you from harm,” he said, and insisted on spending every moment of that evening in my company, as if afraid it would be my last.

  The morning of my meeting, I dressed in the dark blue head-to-toe that Pari had given me, hoping that some of her royal farr would protect me, and into my sash I tucked one of her handkerchiefs embroidered with the lady reading her book. Mohammad Shah was too blind to be able to see my attire, of course, but I imagined it would impress his wife. I arrived and waited in the guest room where I had gone with Pari so many times to petition Isma‘il. Nothing had changed; the paintings and furniture were the same, only the occupants were new.

  When I was shown in, I was surprised to see no sign of Mohammad Shah. Khayr al-Nisa Beygom sat on a gold-embroidered cushion, where the Shah would normally sit, and was surrounded by her ladies and her eunuchs. She was wearing such a bright red robe that it made her skin look as white as a ghost’s; her lips were red like a gash.

  Now that she was queen, I greeted her as Mahd-e-Olya, the Cradle of the Greats, which was fitting since she had given birth to four royal sons.

  “Thank you for the opportunity to bask in the royal radiance,” I continued in Farsi, her native language, knowing my fluency would please her.

  “You are welcome,” she said regally. “It is time for me to decide what to do with you. Before I do, tell me why you are so valuable to the court.”

  I realized right away that she was making good on her promise to take control. The word around the palace was that her husband was shah in name only.

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