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Equal of the sun, p.41
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       Equal of the Sun, p.41

           Anita Amirrezvani

  “I can write a letter in three languages, procure sensitive information, and give sound advice on strategy. No wall stops me.”

  “I have heard much about your talents. The only question is where you should serve.”

  I was taken aback. I had expected her to question me and get rid of me.

  “Thank you. I thought you should know that Mirza Salman advised me that leaving palace service would be for the best,” I said euphemistically. “He said he would speak with you about it.”

  “He did, but my decision is the only one that matters.” She stared at me as if waiting to be challenged.

  “My eyes are yours to be stepped on.”

  “Good. Let us return to the problem of where you should serve.”

  Sensing a trap, I struggled to get what I wanted. “Kind lady, I apologize for burdening you with my problems. A grave concern demands my presence away from court, if you are kind enough to grant it.”

  “What problem?”

  “It is my sister, Jalileh. The family members who have been caring for her are old and ailing,” I improvised quickly. “I fear for her honor.”

  “Does she have any talents?”

  “She reads well and writes an excellent hand.”

  “In that case, there is no problem,” said Mahd-e-Olya. “Bring her here, and we will find a position for her in the harem.”

  I stared at her: Now she wanted my sister, too? Such an invitation was a sign of great privilege.

  “Is there a special service you wish me to perform?”

  “Yes. After we hired Looloo, he told me the details of your astrological chart, which surprised me so much I asked him to calculate it again. Your chart still says you will help usher in the greatest Safavi leader ever. How can I allow you to leave?”

  I forced my face into submission.

  “Obviously, that leader wasn’t Isma‘il,” added Mahd-e-Olya. “It would be foolish to release you when that leader might be right at hand.”

  I had the distinct impression that she meant herself, which filled me with scorn.

  “I was honored to assist the esteemed princess, Pari Khan Khanoom,” I said, hoping lavish praise of her would disqualify me. “She was a great thinker, poet, statesman, and flower of her age, perhaps of all time! She was unequaled.”

  “It is fitting that you admire the royal woman you served. Now, as to your employment: The court scribes can always use a master of languages such as you.”

  “The scribes?” I replied, the contempt in my voice obvious. It was like telling Kholafa he should be in charge of the royal zoo. Worst of all, I would not be free.

  Mahd-e-Olya did not flinch. “It should be an easy job for you. You deserve an excellent reward after your tribulations with Pari.”

  “It was an honor to serve her,” I insisted.

  “I appreciate your loyalty. I am very pleased to give you another opportunity to show your worth.”

  “What a great gift,” I replied, the words sticking in my mouth.

  She looked toward the door as if she were about to tell her servants that our meeting was finished. I was stuck like a donkey in mud.

  “There is just one thing. Is there a possibility I might live outside the palace, if it turned out to be best for my sister?”

  “No. When has an actively serving eunuch ever been allowed to live outside the palace? Your lack of other ties is what makes you and your brethren so valuable to the court.”

  I grasped at the last request I could muster. It was code for “I beg you to release me,” and it was almost never refused of good servants.

  “Cradle of the Greats, I swore that I would make a pilgrimage to Mecca if your husband was crowned shah. I would feel like a bad Muslim if I didn’t fulfill my vow. Would you give me leave to go?”

  The voyage could buy me a year or two.

  “My husband and I are deeply honored when our servants make promises to God on our behalf. But now is not the time.”

  I was stunned by her refusal; in my experience, it was unprecedented. But I refused to give up. “In that case, may I petition you again in the future about my sworn oath to make the pilgrimage, so that I don’t disappoint God?”

  “Of course. At this court, know that your good service will always be rewarded. God willing, one day you will get your wish.”

  I left the meeting so angry that my body gave off waves of heat. No matter how much I longed for my liberty, it seemed my fate was to remain a prisoner of the court, and I felt caged and thwarted by the desires of others.

  The one bright spot in my life was that I immediately began receiving money from the mill, including the earnings I was owed since Pari’s death. As soon as I had the money, I went to see Fereshteh and told her I would give her a regular allowance for her living expenses for as long as money was forthcoming. The joy in her eyes was beyond describing. She promised she would learn a craft, and then she immediately visited the shrine of a saint, repented her past, and swore to reform. Her servants were instructed to tell her clients that she had pledged herself to a new life. One of them, a comptroller at the palace, complained about the loss of tax revenue she provided to the treasury. Mirza Salman, rather than promising to marry her like an honest man, told her he would find a woman who would be more grateful.

  I wrote to my mother’s cousin that my sister had been ordered by the new queen to come to court, unmarried, in order to wait on the royal women, and I sent the necessary fare and a large reward for their services. As long as they had not already married Jalileh to the old man, I knew that they would never dare disobey such a command. I waited anxiously for their reply.

  If my sister served the royal ladies well, she would learn how to be a lady herself and would earn the opportunity to make a good marriage. The money from the mill would accumulate until it became a generous dowry for her. Slowly, I hoped, we would form a new bond, and when many years had passed, we would be able to forget all the long years during which we hardly knew each other.

  While I waited, Balamani’s official day of retirement arrived. We spent his last evening with a group of eunuchs at a picnic by the river. Together we ate lamb kabob and bread made in an oven dug deep into the earth. As the moon rose, we drank strong spirits made of raisins. My heart was very full because of what I was losing. Balamani had been everything to me: mentor, friend, and family. I recited a poem to him from the Shahnameh about a kind shah in order to reflect on Balamani’s generosity through all the years. When the men yelled “Bah! Bah!” I launched into some verses I had composed myself:

  “Many is the heartfelt poem written

  For mother, father, daughter or son.

  Those whose family includes such treasures,

  Have been graced with a lifetime of pleasures.

  But other gifts can be just as dear

  Like the friendship between you and Javaher

  Sometimes bonds that go beyond blood ties

  Become as precious as the light of our eyes.

  Tell me: ‘What is the source of your love?

  Is it learned, or is it a gift from above?’

  No angel was ever more kind or true

  No comrade more beloved than you.”

  Balamani paused for a moment before answering, looking as if he was lost in thought. Then his warm old eyes sought out mine, and I felt as if he was speaking to me alone.

  “Remember I told you about Vijayan, the boy on the boat that brought me here long ago? One day, when the sailors were fighting a storm and most of the other boys were recovering from their operation, Vijayan offered me a stolen fruit. For the first time, I tasted a mango’s sweet flesh. How delicious our secret was! Nothing was sweeter, though, than finding a friend when I was broken and alone. Because of Vijayan, I learned to outlive my sorrows.”

  Tears prickled my eyes. Now I must devote my life to helping those who needed me as much as I had needed Balamani. How joyful it had been to discover that money could save Fereshteh—and, I hoped, my sister—f
rom entanglements they loathed. With Anwar’s help, I had also just managed to get Massoud Ali assigned to me at the office of the scribes.

  The day after Balamani left for Hindustan, I took up my new duties with the scribes. The work was boring and beneath my abilities. Abteen Agha, the assistant to the chief, made sure to give me the pettiest jobs available, such as writing letters to provincial scribes about the latest methods for registering contributions to the royal treasury. I was able to pen the official edicts in an hour or two of the day, and the rest of the time I chafed at my new, unsatisfying role. It would have been more rewarding to be in charge of the royal zoo, where at least I could have run free with the animals.

  I was overqualified for my new job, and they all knew it. I had the brains and, dare I say, the balls to be one of the best political players at court. But I had been emasculated in every way, as had most of the men around me. They served at the pleasure of the rulers, and if the rulers chose to be murderers and liars, or lazy, drugged, or insanely pious, courtiers must make themselves fit their demands the way a cobbler fashions leather around a man’s malodorous foot, praising him all the while. Yet at least now I was safe, and I consoled myself that there was a certain relief in being ignored. The old Sufi proverb came to mind: When you are in a cage, fly anyway.

  Because it was the start of a new reign, the office of the scribes was very busy. Mohammad Shah’s wishes must be conveyed, monitored, and fulfilled, mostly through letters and other paperwork. In addition, his court historians were engaged in documenting the beginning of his rule, while others were being selected to write Isma‘il Shah’s short history. I decided to take the opportunity to correct the record about the tangled relationship between my father, Kamiyar Kofrani, and Isma‘il. I told Rasheed Khan what I had discovered, and after checking the story, he ordered that the relevant pages be rewritten. At least I could do that much for my father.

  At this time, the office of the scribes began receiving written reports about various pretenders in different parts of the country who claimed to be Isma‘il and who said he had never died. These fake Isma‘ils invented stories about how they had been deposed and deserved to be reinstated, and they began gathering disaffected people around them. One of the most powerful among them, I learned, was recruiting rebels among the Lur people in the southwest of the country, where Khalil Khan was governor. Accordingly, Khalil Khan was ordered back to the area to put the rebels down. I caught wind of this from someone whom I had paid very well to spy on him, and I immediately dispatched a loyal messenger to the Lur leaders informing them of the day that Khalil Khan departed from Qazveen and the number of soldiers and weapons he had with him. After that, I waited for news, knowing that if by some chance my plans were to be discovered, I would be accused of treason and executed. But it wasn’t long before the court learned that Khalil Khan and his men had been ambushed by the Lur leaders and that he had been killed when an arrow pierced his heart. It seemed fitting, since he had certainly punctured mine.

  Mirza Salman would be much trickier prey. I resolved to watch him and bide my time. As Balamani had advised, I would pretend to be a loyal servant in every possible manner. As the years went by, Mirza Salman would lower his guard, and then I would strike hard and deep. He would never even see the blow.

  In the meantime, I paid attention to the scribes’ gossip with the goal of learning everything I could about Mohammad Shah and his wife. It wasn’t long before the men began talking about how much the qizilbash disliked Mahd-e-Olya. She had a firm hand, like Pari, and wouldn’t allow them to do whatever they wanted. They had bargained on being able to manipulate her weak husband, but instead they had to submit to the demands of a powerful wife. Once again, the threat of civil war began to blow through the palace like a bad smell.

  Since Mahd-e-Olya seemed to have a very good opinion of herself, I thought I could convince her that she was indeed the chosen leader of the Safavis, so she would think my destiny was fulfilled and would be willing to release me. Or perhaps a leader would emerge whom I wished to serve, and hope would sing in my heart again. I knew I would have to be patient.

  After several weeks, I was overjoyed to receive a letter by express courier that Jalileh’s caravan had departed and would be expected in about ten days. I visited the guards at the Tehran Gate, through which she would enter the city, and told them I would pay well in the weeks following for news of any caravan from the southern coast.

  At the scribes’ office, I had lately been assigned to write admonitory letters to provincial governors who had failed to pay enough taxes to the treasury. I enjoyed writing such letters; they were one of the few assignments that allowed me to vent my aggression. I found myself achieving new levels of rhetorical effect, sprinkling the letters with metaphors and with exhortations from the Qur’an to make my point.

  One day, when I was finishing the last of this batch of letters, Massoud Ali came looking for me, his dark eyes shining, his turban as neatly wrapped as I had ever seen it.

  “A caravan has just arrived from the south!” he said. “The travelers have been taken to Caravanserai Kamal.”

  I put aside my pen and ink. On my way out, I tripped on the lap desk of a scribe who was laboring over a hard-earned page, sending the desk onto a nearby cushion. Massoud Ali stared at me, his round eyes wide. The scribe sputtered, “What is the rush? Has your mother come back from the grave?”

  “In a manner of speaking,” I replied.

  Outside, the day was sunny, the sky like a turquoise bowl. I hurried down the Promenade of the Royal Stallions toward the Friday mosque. The white swirls on the dome seemed to spin, as if it might lift off to partner with the swirls of cloud. I felt my heart surge at the sight. At long last, my sister might be here! Would she have a face like the moon? How would I even recognize her?

  As I passed the mosque and walked toward Caravanserai Kamal, I came upon the entrance to the cemetery where our father was buried. Someday, when Jalileh was established, I would bring her to see our father’s grave. We would sprinkle it with rose water together, and we would pray in the spiritual presence of our father, hoping he could see and hear us from the place where all souls await the Day of Judgment. Although Jalileh probably didn’t even remember him, I hoped she would be eager to come. I wanted to tell her the story of our father’s bravery and of the politics that cost him his life. I would make her understand that he had risked everything because he believed in the possibility of a perfect world. How satisfied I would feel when I told her that his soul had been avenged! Of course, I would not relate my part in it, to avoid putting her at risk.

  In the distance, I saw the narrow wooden gate that marked the entrance to the caravanserai, which had high walls so that travelers would feel embraced and safe at night. As I approached, a hot breeze surged off the street and lifted my robe all of a sudden, making me aware of the place where my parts used to swing. They had been gone now for almost half my life. I thought wryly of the nickname mothers used for their baby boys: “Ah, my little penis of gold!”

  How horrified my mother would have been to learn of my fate. Would Jalileh understand why I had acted as I had? As soon as she saw me enter the harem, she would know I had been unmanned. Would she love me anyway? Or would she merely pretend to care for me because she needed me so badly? Would our reunion be filled with disappointment, like Pari’s with Isma‘il? My stomach dropped away.

  Inside the caravanserai, the large open courtyard pulsed with activity. Men unloaded their animals, women helped their toddlers descend from camels, and older children fetched water for younger ones. As the loads were removed, the animals were led away and fed, while the caravanserai’s owner accompanied his guests to their rooms, followed by a porter who offered his strong back. I searched the crowd for a face that was like my mother’s, scrutinizing each person one by one as the crowd diminished.

  Too dark, that one. Hair too curly. Face too round. Too old. Wearing a Christian cross. That one lacked an arm, poor thing. Th
e crowd began to thin even further as the travelers were shown to their rooms. Had Jalileh joined a different caravan? I went in search of the caravan’s leader, an older fellow with a long drooping mustache.

  All of a sudden I heard my name in a voice that sounded ragged with relief. “Payam! Payam!” I turned around to find her, but before I could identify her, I felt two thin arms around me and a head buried in my bicep. Was it her? How had she recognized me? Her body was trembling as she murmured a prayer of thanksgiving. My heart quickened and I could not see anything for a moment, just the top of her faded blue headscarf and the wisps of black hair escaping the fabric at her temples. The noon call to prayer came from a nearby mosque, and as its sweetness filled the air, she continued reciting her thanks.

  Finally, the young woman drew away from me and lifted her face. I took a step back in surprise. How strange was my first glimpse of her! It was like seeing myself reflected in a mirror, except that she was a girl half my age. She had my mother’s rich, honey-colored eyes, fringed with dark black lashes and eyebrows, and from what I could see of it, my father’s looping black hair. She was small like my mother, yet the energy in her tiny frame seemed uncontainable, like a hummingbird’s. Was she pretty? All I know is that I was irresistibly drawn to her.

  “Sister of mine, may God be thanked!” I began, my voice tangled with emotion.

  An old woman whose eyes were buried in wise wrinkles had been observing us all this time. “Happiest of families, how long has it been?”

  I looked up. “Twelve years!”

  “Voy, she was just a baby. How did you recognize her?”

  “I recognized him,” said Jalileh proudly.

  “It is no surprise. You are like velvet cut from the same bolt,” the old woman observed.

  “In that case, I am glad my brother is comely,” Jalileh replied in a teasing voice, “by the blessings of God!”

  I laughed out loud at her boldness, then exhaled with relief at it. Though Jalileh wore a faded cotton robe and tunic, with not a single ornament in her ears or around her neck, and though she had not felt a parent’s love since she was seven, it seemed that her spirit had not been ground into powder.

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