Equal of the Sun, p.5Anita Amirrezvani
Haydar handed the sword to Saleem Khan. From deep in his robe, he produced a rolled document and held it high for all to see.
“By my father’s will,” he said.
There was a low, powerful roar of disbelief.
Haydar unrolled the document and read it aloud. It named him as the only lawful successor to Tahmasb Shah and urged the courtiers to show loyalty to him as his father’s choice.
“I know the Shah’s writing better than my own,” challenged Mirza Shokhrollah, the treasury chief, whose long gray beard wagged when he spoke. “Let me see that document.”
“Here it is,” replied Haydar, waving the paper but refusing to relinquish it, so Shokhrollah had to approach the platform. After a few moments, he said in a surprised tone, “I would swear the writing was the Shah’s.”
Pari’s uncle, Shamkhal Cherkes, arose to have his say. “Everyone knows there is a lady in the royal palace whose handwriting resembles his,” he said, his index finger pointing heavenward for emphasis. “How can we be certain that this isn’t her handiwork?”
“Whether you doubt the writing or not, everyone knows my father’s seal,” Haydar said, pointing to the will. “Surely you don’t deny that this is it?”
“Any seal can be copied,” Shamkhal replied.
“This one is authentic, I swear,” said Haydar.
“In that case, let the Shah’s seal be brought forth for comparison,” insisted Shamkhal.
On occasion I had seen the Shah use the seal on his most important correspondence; he had worn it on a chain around his neck. Mirza Salman Jaberi, the head of the royal guilds, including the seal makers, was deputized by the treasury chief to visit the death room and make an impression of the Shah’s seal on a blank page.
Meanwhile, Saleem Khan announced that refreshments would be served. An army of servants rushed in with trays of hot cardamom tea, while others carried plates of nuts, dates, and sweetmeats. In the midst of the distraction, Sultanam’s chief eunuch, a broad-shouldered man with a thick neck, slipped out of the hall.
“What do you think?” I asked Balamani.
“I think Haydar is lying. If the Shah wanted him as heir, why didn’t he announce his choice before he died?”
“But that would have put Haydar at risk of assassination.”
Balamani snorted. “And he isn’t at risk now? He is like a lamb waiting to be skinned!”
While we were drinking our tea, Mirza Salman rushed back into the room with the seal soft on a fresh sheet of paper. He presented the paper to Saleem Khan, who unrolled it.
“I believe it is one and the same as the seal on the will,” he announced, and passed it around the room for all the men to see.
As the nobles were peering at the seal, Sultanam’s eunuch returned to the hall, panting lightly, and whispered some information into the ear of her brother, Amir Khan Mowsellu. His eyes widened, and before the eunuch had finished, he arose to speak.
“One of the exalted mothers of the palace visited the Shah early this morning after his death,” he announced. “As she was wailing over his body, she chanced to feel the seal at his throat and was surprised to feel the residue of soft wax in it. This suggests that the seal had been used recently, or possibly removed and returned.”
The room erupted into shouts once again. Saleem Khan demanded quiet and ordered that the guards of the Shah’s body be summoned. The first guard, who was almost as wide as he was tall, swore that the seal had not been removed during the night, and so did the others. But everyone knew that the guards could have been bribed, and the heat in the room began to intensify when there was no definitive answer about the validity of the will.
As squabbling broke out, Balamani looked on with disgust. “This is just what I feared. Each group lobbies for the man who will benefit his own people, not the man who will make the best shah.”
“And who would that be?”
“The great vizier Nizam al-Mulk wrote that after death, all rulers will be led before God with their hands tied. Only those who were just will be unshackled and delivered to heaven. The rest will be pitched straight into hell, their hands lashed eternally.”
I thought Mahmood would be a far better ruler than Haydar, although he was still too inexperienced to govern on his own. But I kept my opinions to myself; as Pari’s servant I must support her choice.
It took some time before Saleem was able to restore order by yelling in a voice so fierce it must have been heard outside the palace’s thick walls. He glared at the courtiers who would not be still, his face red with exertion and annoyance.
After everyone was quiet, Haydar spoke again. “I promise you all that my rule will shine with fairness to every tribe and to every man,” he proclaimed.
As evidence, he called on his servants to assist him, and they wheeled in carts filled with treasures. He reached into a cart and began passing out gifts. Amir Khan Mowsellu received a solid silver samovar, so finely engraved it was impossible to imagine using it for something as ordinary as tea. Mirza Salman took possession of two large blue and white porcelain vases from China. Other members of the court received silk robes of honor, so valuable they would be worn only on the most formal of occasions. Gifts piled up beside each nobleman until the room resembled a bazaar.
“He is robbing the treasury before it is his!” Shamkhal Cherkes charged in a loud whisper.
But as the gifts were distributed, the mood in the room softened while each nobleman contemplated his good fortune.
“Good courtiers, I ask you again: May I have your support?” Haydar sounded more confident than before.
How dismaying that even rich men can be swayed by trinkets!
“You have mine,” said Hossein Beyg, the leader of the Ostajlu. He was joined by a chorus of voices, although most of the men did not identify themselves. Everyone knew the risks of supporting the wrong side.
A messenger entered the room and spoke in secret to Saleem, who interrupted the proceedings to make an announcement: “My good men, because of the events of this day, I have been informed by the chief of the royal bodyguard that the guards stationed outside the palace gates have refused to disperse until the succession has been resolved. No one will be permitted to enter or to exit the grounds.”
Haydar stepped back onto the platform and glanced around him like an onager facing a circle of hunters. His left eye began blinking so uncontrollably I had to look away. After listening to more high-pitched murmuring, he demanded, “Open the gates!”
“I don’t have the authority to tell the military men what to do,” Saleem replied. “It is the privilege of the Shah.”
He looked surprised by the words that had just issued from his mouth. Hadn’t Haydar declared himself our leader?
Balamani leaned close. “It is Thursday, which means it is the Takkalu tribe’s turn to guard the Ali Qapu gate. Is Haydar’s head stuffed with rice instead of brains?”
The Takkalu had had a rivalry with the Ostajlu for decades.
Haydar looked pained and said quietly, “I am the rightful shah, and in this time of darkness, I call on God’s protection as his shadow on earth. This meeting is dismissed.”
He stepped off the platform and left the room, escorted by guards and eunuchs. Saleem Khan called an end to the assembly, and then the nobles began clustering together to rally for or against Haydar’s candidacy.
“Do you think he can succeed?” I whispered to Balamani.
He opened his palms and shrugged. “Whatever happens, they might as well lay out the skewers!” he said, looking at the angry noblemen who surrounded us. “Some of these men will choose the wrong candidate and get turned into kabob.”
I grimaced at his awful prediction. Our eyes met, then flicked away. Neither of us had seen such peril in all our years of service.
I rushed back to Pari’s quarters, eager to discover whether she would support Haydar’s bold move. Pari entered some time later, her cheeks as flushed as a dancer
“Haydar and his mother summoned me and demanded my support. When I demurred, Haydar threatened to imprison me. I bent low, kissed his feet, and pretended to recognize him as the rightful shah. Only then did he let me go.”
Her eyes widened and she took a deep breath, as if she had just understood the extent of the peril she had escaped.
“Lord of orders, who will receive your support?”
“I don’t know yet.”
I paused to strategize. “If Haydar has many armed followers outside the palace, he may prevail.”
“Go to town and bring me news.”
“How will I get out with all the palace gates blocked by the Takkalu?”
“Majeed will give the head guards some money. They know I am not Haydar’s ally.”
I exited through one of the palace’s side gates—the guard waved me through—and walked toward the main bazaar. On such a warm, sunny day, mothers should have been bargaining for goods and children chirping with pleasure about being outside. But the streets were deserted. When I arrived at the main entrance of the bazaar, its huge wooden doors were bolted shut. By God above! Never in my lifetime had the bazaar been closed on a Thursday.
I rushed to an old, abandoned minaret and climbed its slippery stairs. From the opening once used for the call to prayer, the whole city glittered in the sunlight, its mud brick homes interspersed with mosques, bazaars, and parks. The walled palace grounds dominated the city, resembling a huge garden carpet divided into orchards whose trees and flowers competed for beauty. The northern palace gate was heavily guarded. My eye was drawn to the Ali Qapu’s yellow and white tiled walls at the southern entrance, where hundreds of Takkalu soldiers of the royal bodyguard, along with their allies, stood in formation, their swords, daggers, and bows and arrows at the ready.
Where were Haydar’s supporters? Why had they not come out for their new shah? I went to the home of his uncle, Khakaberi Khan, but saw no activity there, then knocked on the doors of a few other supporters to no avail until I arrived at the home of Hossein Beyg Ostajlu. A large group of men armed with swords and bows were assembling in his courtyard. I saluted a fellow with a scar across his cheek that flamed red, matching the thick red baton held erect in his turban that proclaimed him as a qizilbash loyal to the Safavis.
“What is the delay?”
He scowled. “Who are you?”
“I serve in the harem.”
He adjusted his parts to reassure himself that they were still there. Grabbing his sword, he rejoined his fellow soldiers as if I might contaminate him with my condition. I would have liked to see him facing a castrator’s long, sharp knife; then we would know who was more brave.
A soldier on the street told me of a rumor that Isma‘il had arrived in the city with thousands of men. Haydar’s supporters had delayed storming the palace, fearing a massacre.
“But how could Isma‘il get here so fast?”
He shrugged and gestured toward Hossein Beyg, who was mounting his horse. “He has decided it is a lie.”
Hossein Beyg called for the Ostajlu to assemble, and they began marching toward the northern gate of the palace. Soldiers from other tribes streamed out from nearby houses until thousands claimed the street. They raised so much dust that people who had come out to look began clearing their throats and coughing. It was only a matter of time before fighting would begin between Haydar’s and Isma‘il’s supporters, and the thought of those tough qizilbash soldiers meeting in combat made my blood turn to vinegar.
I found Pari being comforted by Maryam. Her hair had been brushed until it shone straight and black under her white silk kerchief, and she had changed into a black silk mourning robe embroidered with gold squares that made her look long and tall. The turquoise and gold earrings shaped like half-moons that gleamed around her face had been a gift from her father. She had written a few letters since I had left, which were on a silver tray awaiting delivery to the courier. Her eyes looked even more troubled than when I had left.
“At last!” she said when I was shown in. “What is the news?”
“Princess,” I panted, “thousands of Haydar’s soldiers are marching to the palace under the leadership of Hossein Beyg.”
“May God protect us all!” said Maryam, looking frightened.
“Are there enough of them to overpower the Takkalu?” asked Pari.
“I think so.”
Pari jumped up. “I must tell my uncle to stop them.”
I wondered why she seemed so certain all of a sudden about what to do. “Princess, what has happened?”
“Not long before you arrived, my father’s chief chemist reported that the orpiment was strong enough to strip the hair off a hide. It may have been an accident. Still, how could I ever live under Haydar’s reign?”
“May God exact vengeance on evildoers!”
Pari handed me a cloth purse. “This is the key to the door from the Promenade of the Royal Stallions into the women’s quarters,” she said. “Tell my uncle that I grant him permission to enter and remove Haydar, so long as he is spared from harm. Return here as quickly as you can.”
I stared at the purse. “But men are never permitted to enter the women’s part of the palace,” I protested.
“I am authorizing it.”
Astonished, I put the bundle under my turban and took my leave. When I arrived at Shamkhal’s home, I told his servants I had an urgent message and was shown in right away.
Shamkhal opened the purse and peered at the key. His eyes began to glitter like those of a raven who has just found a bag of treasure.
“This is our best hope,” he said with glee.
“Pari wished me to tell you that Haydar should be delivered safe from harm. The esteemed princess asked for a token indicating your agreement.”
I wanted proof that I had delivered this most important part of the message. Shamkhal stood up.
“Tell her this:
The man we oppose will suffer a great fall,
Yet shall remain unscathed in the care of Shamkhal.
In exchange, I insist that my niece Pari
Remain distant from the soldiers and their fury.”
“Chashm,” I replied. As I took my leave, I heard Shamkhal shouting for his servants and directing them to go to the homes of his supporters to raise men for Isma‘il.
I started back toward the palace. Outside the Ali Qapu the Takkalu and their allies were still on guard, unopposed. I knew one of the captains, and when I told him I had been out on errands all day, I received permission to enter after being checked for weapons. When I finally arrived at Pari’s house, she was waiting for me.
“May you not be tired!” she said.
I wiped the sweat off my forearms.
“What did my uncle say?”
“He promised to do your bidding,” I said, reciting the lines of poetry he had improvised.
She smiled. “Good work.”
“Princess,” I said with agitation, “the soldiers have probably started fighting. Anything could happen.”
“Make haste. Go to the birooni and find out what you can.”
First, I decided to go to the harem kitchens because the cooks always knew the latest news. The large building, which usually bustled with ladies, maids, and slaves, was deserted. Flour and water had been mixed and left in large bowls. Mint had been washed but not hung to dry, and onions and garlic had been chopped and abandoned. Their sharpness stung my eyes.
I walked through the building, feeling something strange I could not name. As I passed an oven for bread, my tread made a deeper sound than elsewhere. I turned back and opened the oven. It was full of charcoal and ash, but in the far corner I spotted a patch of bright blue silk. I thought about the robes of everyone I knew until finally I remembered: It belonged to one of the Shah’s physicians, who must have been shown into the ha
“Physician Amin Khan Halaki, your robe is showing!” I hissed. The cloth disappeared as quickly as a mouse pulls its tail into a hole.
“Who are you?”
“Javaher Agha, servant of Pari Khan Khanoom.”
“Can I leave?”
“Not if you wish to remain alive.”
“Then throw me some food, at least.”
Grabbing some cucumbers and grapes, I thrust them in the oven and wished him luck. I proceeded to the checkpoint to the birooni and saluted Zav Agha, whose brow looked permanently creased with worry.
“Is there any news?” I asked.
“Not yet-t-t,” he said, his few remaining teeth knocking together in fear. He opened the door and allowed me to pass through.
I walked swiftly to Forty Columns Hall and glanced around, but it was empty. I kept walking until I approached the northern wall of the palace, where I was alarmed by the sound of deep, dull thuds. I suspected that a group of soldiers had grabbed a cannon and were smashing it against the wooden gate, which groaned as if being tortured.
“Haydar Shah, open up and let us in!” a man yelled from outside. “We are your friends.”
Ignoring the usual palace decorum, I ran through the courtyard and all the checkpoints until I was back in the harem. Just as I reached a large plane tree, the ground trembled so sharply I suspected an earthquake, but then I realized it was the pounding of horse’s hooves. I halted abruptly, feeling like an ant caught between a man’s thumb and forefinger.
My heart beat faster as the tall wooden door that led from the harem to the Promenade of the Royal Stallions creaked open. Soldiers streamed into the gardens, brandishing their swords while shouting Isma‘il’s name and trampling the red rosebushes near the walkways. The unprecedented sight of men in the women’s space, which had never been violated by outsiders, shook me to my core.
Shamkhal rode toward me on a black Arabian steed and pulled on the reins.
“Where is Haydar?” he shouted.
“Probably in his mother’s quarters. It is the building with the two cypress trees in front.”
Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes