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Equal of the sun, p.6
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       Equal of the Sun, p.6

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  I pointed the way.

  Shamkhal directed his men to ride toward the gate to the birooni and hold off Haydar’s supporters if they tried to enter the harem. Then he spurred his horse in the direction of Sultan-Zadeh’s home. One of his captains, Kholafa Rumlu, whose costly helmet inscribed with protective verses from the Qur’an gave away his high rank, spotted something in the distance and shouted, “Who are you?”

  I caught a glimpse of three women in chadors, their faces hidden by pichehs, concealed among tall flowering bushes. The tallest among them was wearing pink silk shoes.

  “Calm down; we’re just going to buy bread,” one of them called to him in a lilting voice. “The kitchens are empty, and our children have nothing to eat.”

  “Shamkhal Cherkes, come back!” Kholafa yelled. Shamkhal turned his horse around and rode with Kholafa and a few soldiers toward the women. The women clung to one another, looking like frightened gazelles trapped by a circle of hunters.

  “Remove your pichehs!” bellowed Shamkhal.

  A woman wrapped in a black chador protected the others by spreading out her arms and corralling them behind her, causing the one in pink shoes to stumble.

  “It is not your place to demand such a thing!” the woman in the black chador replied bravely.

  “If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear,” replied Kholafa. He tore off the woman’s chador, picheh, and the kerchief covering her head, and she screamed as her long, dark hair cascaded over her shoulders and onto her breast. It was Awva, one of the ladies in charge of the kitchens. I gasped, horrified to witness such a transgression.

  Another of the women came forward, volunteering herself, and the captain uncloaked her. She, too, cried out as the men stared at her naked face and unusual red hair, feasting on the spectacle of her. I didn’t recognize her.

  “Who are you?” demanded Shamkhal.

  “We serve the ladies of the royal court,” replied Awva haughtily, refusing to identify herself any further.

  She and her friend crushed the third woman between them while facing out toward the soldiers, locking their arms backward around each other’s midsections to protect her. I thought about standing up to defend her, but a suspicion had entered my mind, and I decided against taking action.

  “You will throw dishonor on the Safavi house if you insist on revealing her,” cried Awva. “The penalty will be your lives!”

  Kholafa waved his hand as if to give up. “Let them go,” he said scornfully. “They are only women.”

  “Let her prove it then!” shouted Shamkhal, his eyes fiery.

  “You have lost your senses. Do you want to get us killed?” Kholafa replied.

  I heard clubs striking wood and realized that Haydar’s men were challenging the barricades and the guards at the checkpoint from the birooni. By God above! We could all be killed in a matter of minutes.

  The women began trying to break their way out of the circle of horses by ducking in between the restive mounts. The men closed ranks to trap them, and then Shamkhal grabbed the woman’s chador and picheh and ripped them from her body.

  “Spare me!” she screamed in a strangled voice. When Kholafa tore off the kerchief covering her short hair, my suspicions were confirmed: It was Haydar. He put his hands out to protect himself, and his left eye twitched as if he were in his death throes.

  From behind the checkpoint, Haydar’s men shouted out a chorus of comfort. “Haydar, we’re here to protect you! Help is at hand!”

  Haydar turned toward their voices and shouted out, “Hurry!” as he flung himself toward an opening in the circle of horses. Shamkhal and Kholafa jumped off their mounts, pushed away the ladies, and lunged for him. Haydar lost his footing and dropped to the ground with a loud thump. The pink shoes flew off his feet, and his legs sprawled as the men struggled to pin down his arms.

  There was a roar in the distance as the first of Haydar’s supporters breached the gate into the harem. I recognized the soldier with the thick red scar. He uttered a battle cry so fierce it curdled my blood, and he thrust his sword at me as he thundered past. I avoided being skewered only by falling facedown in the dirt.

  “We have no choice. Finish him!” I heard Shamkhal say. When I looked up, he had succeeded in pinning Haydar’s arms behind his back. Kholafa drew his sword and thrust it twice into Haydar’s abdomen. A wet red stain sprang to life on his gray robe. As it spread across his belly, Haydar grimaced and clutched his middle. His groans were thick with blood.

  Awva and the other lady began screaming in horror, folding in half at the waist and hitting their knees and temples with their hands. Their cries were more awful than anything I had ever heard.

  Shamkhal’s soldiers hoisted Haydar’s body onto their shoulders and began marching toward the checkpoint leading to the birooni. By then more of Haydar’s supporters had breached the harem, including Hossein Beyg Ostajlu. He stared at the broken body in the bloodied gray robe.

  “Alas! Our shining hope has been cruelly destroyed! May you and your families be cursed until the end of their line!” he shouted, along with a string of profanities. He and his soldiers skirmished briefly with Shamkhal’s men, but what use is a group of supporters without their shah? Before long, the men behind Hossein Beyg spurred their horses toward the birooni, fearful of being killed. Hossein Beyg’s guard closed ranks around him, and he escaped in the confusion.

  Shamkhal directed his men to leave the palace grounds through the door that led to the Promenade of the Royal Stallions and to take up guard outside the Ali Qapu. As they marched out, he tossed me the large metal key. I followed, slammed the heavy door behind them, and locked it securely.

  The rosebushes nearby had been decapitated. A nightingale began to sing in one of the cedar trees, reminding me of a lament. My red roses threw open their skirts for you, but now their petals darken the ground like tears of blood. Dust coated my clothes, and my mouth tasted of bile.

  I stumbled to Pari’s house and told her and Maryam what had happened. Their faces turned pale when I described Haydar’s death. “It is as if the dirt of my grave is covering my head!” the princess said. “Why didn’t my uncle do my bidding?”

  “It was God’s will,” I replied, trying to offer comfort.

  Her thin body seemed as fragile as a long-necked rose-water sprinkler made of glass. Although I would have liked to comfort her, I knew Maryam would soothe away her woes better than anyone else could.

  I returned to the dormitory that housed the eunuchs who served the harem. Our building, which was notable only for its modesty, now struck me as a sanctuary. Collapsing onto a wool cushion in the guest room, I shed my soiled outer robe and told a servant to bring me tea with plenty of dates. My hand seemed palsied as I lifted the vessel to my mouth.

  Before long, Balamani joined me. His eyes were pink, the lids puffy.

  “Do you mourn for Haydar Mirza?” I asked.

  His eyes grew large with astonishment. “What do you mean?”

  I couldn’t help myself: I felt a surge of satisfaction that I knew the world-changing news before he did.

  That evening, I was weary and in need of comfort. Some men would have turned to opium or bang, a vision-inducing drink made with hemp, but I didn’t think either would help. I placated my stomach with bread, cheese, and fresh herbs, then went to my room and listened to Balamani’s sonorous snores. Lying on my bedroll, I watched the events of the day repeat themselves before my eyes, the red stain on Haydar’s gray robe growing in my vision until it filled the blackness of my room like a suppurating wound. When the moon appeared in a window in the roof, spots of blood blemished its smooth white surface. The spots grew until the moon became a bright red disk bleeding its course across the sky, and I awoke with tense limbs and ragged breath. I could not stay still. I arose, dressed, and walked on a path fringed by plane trees until I reached the entrance to the long, low building that housed Sultanam’s ladies. I whispered to the eunuch on duty that I had an urgent message for Khadijeh,
placing a coin in his hand as I spoke.

  Khadijeh was alone, having sent her bedmate elsewhere. Her eyes were bright in the moonlight, and the ends of her long, curly hair looked tipped in silver.

  “I couldn’t sleep,” she whispered. “I keep thinking about what happened today.”

  “That is why I came.”

  “Did you see it?”

  “Everything,” I replied, unable to keep the horror out of my voice. Men had been executed while I had served at court, but never with so little civility.

  “You are shivering!” Khadijeh pulled back the wool blanket. “Come get warm.”

  I removed my turban and outer robe, and slid in beside her with the rest of my clothing on. She laid the front of her body against my back and wrapped her arms around me. I felt the roundness of her breasts through her cotton nightclothes, and my skin warmed as if I were in front of a blazing fire.

  “Aw khesh!” I said gratefully, absorbing her heat. “You warm me outside and in.”

  In response, she kissed my neck. Her lips smelled of roses. How shocked the late Shah would have been to learn that one of his ladies held a eunuch in her arms!

  “Where were you today?” I asked.

  “Hiding with Sultanam, in case Haydar’s men took over the palace,” she said, her body stiffening.

  “I am glad you are safe.”

  Her dark eyes were serious. “Tell me what you saw.”

  “Are you sure? I don’t want to frighten you.”

  “You can’t,” Khadijeh replied sharply. “I stopped being afraid the day the slavers threw my mother’s corpse over the side of the boat.”

  Khadijeh had been so transformed by her days at court it was easy to imagine she had come from a noble family. In fact, she and her younger brother had been captured from the east coast of Africa as children and bought by an agent of the Safavis. As a young girl, Khadijeh had already been a beauty, with skin the rich color of copper, and blue-black hair so curly it reminded me of hyacinth flowers. At first she had been apprenticed to the mistress in charge of tea, learning how to blend teas so that they were fragrant and to brew them for deepest flavor. Then she had asked to be transferred to the head of cuisine, with whom she had served an apprenticeship of eight years. An ordinary walnut cookie with cinnamon, cumin, and a dash of something odd but savory that she would not reveal—fennel? fenugreek?—fired my mouth with surprise every time I tasted it. Once Khadijeh mixed some fierce pepper into a bowl of saffron pudding—she had a mischievous side—and giggled at the shock on my face when I tasted the first bite. I devoured the whole bowl, my tongue burning with gratitude.

  Both Khadijeh and her brother, Mohsen, had fared very well. Sultanam had taken notice of Khadijeh’s cooking and had welcomed her into her service, and Mohsen had become one of the royal groomsmen.

  I covered her hands with mine and told her what I had seen, sparing her the worst details.

  “Why did Pari take such a big risk? If Haydar had won the day, she and her uncle would no longer draw breath.”

  I felt a surge of pride. “She was very brave.”

  “Remember, you could have been killed, too.” Her eyes looked moist in the moonlight.

  “It was a gamble,” I admitted, “but Pari has changed the course of history. There will be no Haydar Shah.”

  She snorted. “Pari is like a wild horse. You had better make sure she doesn’t buck you off into the jaws of a lion.”

  I laughed off her comment, roared like a lion, and pulled her closer. She shushed me but failed to repress a giggle. No one paid much attention to how the ladies amused themselves in the harem, since no one except the shah could take a woman’s virginity or impregnate her. But Khadijeh and I were safe only as long as our alliance remained secret.

  “What is going to happen now?”

  “Isma‘il will be summoned and crowned.”

  “How soon will he arrive?”

  “No one knows.”

  She sighed. “All the sweet certainty we once had has vanished.”

  “Has it?” I teased. I tugged gently at the corner of her mouth with my teeth, feeling her lips bloom, soften, and part to allow my tongue in. My skin stirred as if all my pores were on alert, and I shrugged off my robe, then hers.

  Let it never be said that eunuchs have no feelings of desire! Because I had been cut late, I retained more feelings for women than eunuchs who had lost their parts as children. To be sure, it is not the same as when I was uncut, because it is not dictated by the mercurial rise and fall of an unpredictable instrument. Instead it is a feeling of exquisite attentiveness unclouded by personal urgency. I search for Khadijeh’s most sensitive parts, putting angles and corners to use that no man would think of employing, from elbows to toes. I squeeze my nose into dark, steamy places where she would never have expected such a visit. I nibble and slurp and suck. If a part of Khadijeh is in need of touch—the skin over her collarbones, or the bottoms of her feet—I find it, the way a master caresses the sensitive strings of a tar to engender the sweetest sounds. The one part I do not touch is Khadijeh’s virginity, but there is no need for a man of skill to do that.

  That night, I played Khadijeh with all the fingers of my hands. Holding her from behind, I roamed all over her body with my lips and breath, from sunny desert to wet oasis. I watched her cheeks bloom and heard her breaths come faster and faster until she could not control herself. For my labors, I was rewarded with small animal grunts, high-pitched groans, and then finally, wild, uncontrollable cries as her limbs stiffened and jerked in all five directions.

  After she had rested, she lifted her body on top of mine, and I felt her delicate ribs against my chest. Her skin glowed dark and rich, like tamarind in the moonlight. The earthy scent at her breasts was of ambergris, making me feel as inflamed as a tomcat stalking its mate. I put my hands at her waist, traveling to the parts that flared into globes, both high above and down below. She toyed with my lips, the gateway to paradise. Her tongue traveled down my neck and stopped where she pleased, flicking lightly, teasingly. Putting my hand to the back of her head, I bid her drink more fully, but she pinned my wrist to the floor: She would proceed at her own pace. Her tongue entered my ear, left its moistness, continued its journey. She traveled down to the flat place between my legs with her tongue and delicately teased the exposed edges of my tube. By God above! No uncut man can imagine what it feels like to have an internal organ stroked, to be caressed in a place never intended to see light. No such man will ever know the sensitivity of those tissues or how fiercely mine responded to her lips, like the leaves of a plant unfurling in response to heat. She lingered there until I came alive, but she would not stay. Her breath came to my lips again and she made her visit to each place that cried out for her. Yet now I could not stand her teasing. I rolled on top of her and opened my legs over her lips, astride her. Her tongue flicked out like an animal’s. She held on to the backs of my thighs while I twisted with pleasure. When I had experienced all I could stand, she stopped, and I sighed with the satisfaction of a man who has been cared for through and through.

  I grabbed a blanket and pulled it over me, not so much for warmth but because I didn’t want Khadijeh to see my groin exposed by the dawn. Sometimes when I was with her, I would dream that I still had all my parts, before waking up to the startling sight of my flattened pubis.

  On my cheek, I felt Khadijeh’s warm breath, and my bones became heavy with sleep. I allowed myself to doze for an hour in the comfort of her arms. How contented I would be if I could stay with her all night! I had been her secret companion for more than two years, but had never been able to wake beside her.

  While it was still dark, I awoke and dressed so that we would not be discovered. Khadijeh was sleeping soundly, her cheek resting in her hand. I pulled the bedcovers around her and whispered, “Good night, and may God bring us together again soon.” Then I tore myself away.

  The hammam for eunuchs was separate from that of men who might be disturbed by the
sight of our flush pubic areas and our exposed tubes. It had small brick alcoves for washing and a large central pool with turquoise tile for bathing. The pool was surmounted by a dome whose windows let in sunlight and starlight. The hammam was deserted at that early hour, and I suspected that my arrival might have displaced a few jinn. After what had happened the day before, they would be wise to be more afraid of humans than we of them.

  To make the necessary Grand Ablution after sexual contact, I said the name of God and then washed my hands, face, arms, ears, feet, legs, and private parts, gargled and cleaned my head. My chin and cheeks felt rough, so I asked the bath attendant to give me a shave. Because I had been cut so late in life, my facial hair still grew, although more slowly than before.

  As I soaked in the hottest tub, I felt as if I were trying to cleanse myself of the gruesome scene I had witnessed. The hot water normally leached away all my worries, but not today. I would not feel safe until a new shah was in place, and yet, only a prince among men would do. I longed for a visionary, like Akbar the Great of the Mughals, who reenergized his huge bureaucracy, or Suleyman the Lawgiver, the statesman, conqueror, poet, and patron of the arts who steered the Ottomans to world-dominating splendor. Hope stirred in my heart at the thought of such a boon, yet how rare it was!

  After dressing, I made haste to attend on Pari at her house. She had donned her darkest mourning robes and was in her writing room applying her seal to a letter. Beside her lay an open book penned in exquisite calligraphy with illustrated pages. It was the Shahnameh.

  “Good morning, lieutenant of my life,” I said. “How is your health?”

  “Surprising,” she replied. “I still walk and breathe on this earth, unlike my poor father and his ill-starred son. I can hardly grasp that there are now two royal corpses in the palace, one of a son who may have killed his father, and one of a father whose erstwhile allies have killed his son. I have turned to Ferdowsi for guidance, but nowhere in the Shahnameh do I recall a like situation that could advise or console me in my grief.”

 
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