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Equal of the sun, p.7
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       Equal of the Sun, p.7

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “Princess, I remember that in the middle of the poem, Ferdowsi laments the death of his only son. Do you recall how he interjects himself into the story to announce his grief?”

  “I do. That is the keenest statement of mourning that a man of such personal restraint could make—yet no consolation is offered.”

  “Perhaps none is possible.”

  She sighed. “None is possible.”

  “I am hopeful that this will be your final sorrow.”

  She looked so youthful and vulnerable that I was reminded of her brother Mahmood when he was small, and I felt a pang. I missed him.

  Her smile was pained. “I would be grateful if that were true. God willing, Isma‘il will take the throne, but at what cost? Never would my father have approved of one of his sons being hunted down and murdered like a rabbit. Even Isma‘il, who our father felt betrayed him, was not dispatched like a piece of meat. It is a disgraceful insult, one that makes my shattered heart feel more shattered still.”

  “Princess, you did everything you could. It was God’s will.”

  She paused for a moment. “Your service to me has been a consolation. I wish to thank you for all you did yesterday.”

  She handed me a cloth bag, which I opened to discover a stack of finely embroidered blue silk handkerchiefs. They showed a noblewoman reclining on a carpet under a walnut tree, her attention focused on a book. My heart soared: For the first time, Pari had entrusted me with one of her personal possessions. From now on, I would carry one of her handkerchiefs inside my robe in case she needed it.

  “Thank you, Princess. Your confidence in me fills me with joy.”

  “I heard you avoided an attempt on your life by one of Haydar’s men. I didn’t expect you to be so brave.”

  I bowed my head, thinking about how ruthlessly the eunuch Bagoas led the ancient empire of Iran, crushing even mighty Egypt.

  “I am going to need someone of your mettle in the days ahead. Until Isma‘il arrives, nothing is certain. I have written to him this morning and advised him to come quickly so that the nobles whose aims have been disappointed don’t rebel. Take this letter to my chief courier and tell him to deliver it at once.”

  In her public reception rooms, Pari positioned herself behind the lattice. The hall was crowded with people, from lowly errand boys with messages from their masters to noblemen like her vizier Majeed, who was the first admitted. He spoke in a breathless, high-pitched voice, as if he had not been able to calm himself since the events of the day before.

  “Esteemed princess, the court is in chaos. Many nobles who supported Haydar have fled in fear of their lives. The ones who have remained don’t know to whom to report. The cooks have abandoned their kitchens.”

  Pari’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Go to Anwar and tell him to meet with the head cook. Their first responsibility is to restore the service of the kitchens immediately.”

  “Yes, esteemed princess,” Majeed replied, “but Anwar won’t know from whom to take his orders, now that the Shah is dead.”

  “Tell him his future depends on taking them from me.”

  Majeed’s brow furrowed and his lips contorted before he blurted out, “And where is he to get the money?”

  “From the royal treasury, of course.”

  “The chief treasurer is nowhere to be found, and the officials whose seals are needed are gone.”

  “I will find those people and demand their help,” Pari said. “In the meantime, tell Anwar I will pay for it out of my own purse.”

  “But much silver will be necessary!”

  “My good vizier, perhaps you don’t realize that I have inherited my legal share of my father’s fortune.”

  Majeed looked as perplexed as a man whose horse has just bolted away from him, never to return. “But only your exalted father was allowed to—”

  “Don’t delay. You will need to be persuasive.”

  “What am I to say?”

  “It is an order from Safavi royalty. Now go.”

  Pari’s voice was so crisp that Majeed’s entire body stiffened in response, like that of a captain receiving his orders to lead a charge. Then he bowed his head in submission. Pari looked as implacable as a general, and I stared at her, astounded. May God be praised! She had just seized the reins of state!

  I returned to fetch the next man in her waiting room and noticed that the crowd was growing. The questions and demands were relentless. Would she say the funeral prayers for her father herself? Where should Haydar’s body be interred? How would she protect the noblemen who had not taken sides in the dispute? What about the wives of the men who had died in the skirmish, what would become of them and their children? Would she advocate for the son of a close friend of her father for a high government posting under the new shah? One after the other, men begged for favors.

  By the late afternoon, Pari’s eyes were weary. “Who is next?” she asked me with a sigh.

  “Mirza Salman Jaberi, head of the royal guilds.” He had just arrived, but as he was one of the fourteen officials closest to the late Shah, I escorted him immediately to the visitors’ side of the lattice, and then I returned to Pari’s side. He was a short, thin man who made the very air around him feel crisp with purpose.

  “And what do you want?” Pari snapped. “Surely the business of the guilds can wait.”

  He didn’t seem perturbed. “Indeed it can. The guilds are fine.”

  “Well, then, what is it?”

  “Nothing, esteemed princess. As a devoted servant of your late father, I came to ask if I might offer assistance to you.”

  Pari raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “You have no requests?”

  “None. I merely wish to serve you.”

  Pari whispered, “He is the only one who is man enough to offer some help!” When she noticed my affronted expression, she apologized.

  “Where do I start?” she said to Mirza Salman. “Everything is in disarray. Where is everyone?”

  “Hiding. Waiting. Worrying.”

  “The nobles must return to their posts to keep the government functioning until Isma‘il arrives. I wish to call a meeting to give them their orders.”

  “But only the shah or the grand vizier can call a meeting. No one else outranks them.”

  “There is no such man. What do you suggest?”

  Tahmasb Shah had gotten so tired of grand viziers that he hadn’t bothered to appoint a new one.

  “I will say that a high-ranking member of the Safavi house has ordered the meeting, but not who. The nobles will think it is a prince. Have your uncle preside for you so that everything is proper.”

  The fact that the same Farsi word was used for “he” and “she” would help our cause.

  “It is good advice.”

  “By the way, I have a tip for your ears only.”

  “Yes?”

  “Whatever you plan to achieve at the meeting, don’t rely on the chief of the treasury. I know him well. He will bow only to the authority of the new shah.”

  “What makes him so confident that my brother will retain his services?”

  Mirza Salman chuckled. “True. Some people see their wishes as their destiny.”

  “Do you?”

  He hesitated for the first time. “No. I see my actions as my destiny, in accordance with the will of God.”

  “Well said. We will need men like you. Call the meeting then for tomorrow morning at my house.”

  “Chashm.”

  After Mirza Salman was escorted out, Pari said, “What a surprise! How well do you know him?”

  “Not well,” I replied. He had been part of the second innermost ring of men who served the Shah. Those people kept a tight lip and rarely socialized with their inferiors.

  “I remember Mirza Salman carried out an unpleasant task for your late father by disciplining a cabal of gold sellers who tried to cheat the court. His guilds have been as clean as a bathhouse since. He would be an excellent ally, I think, and an equally fierce ene
my.”

  “We will watch him then and discover how true he is.”

  “What is our chief goal at tomorrow’s meeting?”

  Pari’s hand trembled a little as she smoothed a lock of hair away from her face. “Preventing a coup.”

  Deh! I had not heard any rumors.

  “Whom do you suspect?”

  “The Georgians and the Ostajlu might decide they are better off supporting another prince.”

  “I will redouble my efforts at gathering intelligence.”

  But first, Pari asked me to take a message to her uncle Shamkhal requesting that he preside over the meeting the next day.

  “Princess, I thought you were angry at him about the death of Haydar.”

  She sighed. “I am, but I need him.”

  In the history of the Safavis, no woman had ever taken charge of the men so directly. We left nothing to chance. I helped the princess select the cloth that would separate her from the nobles, since such an exalted woman would never show herself to a group of men to whom she was not related. We settled on a bolt of thick blue velvet patterned with scenes from the hunt, most notably a repeating motif of a mounted prince thrusting his sword through the belly of a lion.

  Pari concealed herself behind the draped cloth while I stood in different corners of the room to listen for how well she could be heard. Her voice was melodious: very low for a woman, but with an agreeable timbre, and it didn’t take much practice before she could easily be heard at the far corners of the room.

  “One thing, princess. Your father spoke slowly. If you do the same, you will make the men pause and listen just as he did.”

  “Very well. Have I forgotten anything?”

  “Since you won’t be able to see the expressions on the men’s faces, I will report anything notable to you.”

  “You will be my eyes, as you are around the palace.” She smiled, and I felt as if the sun were warming my skin.

  The next morning after dawn prayers, I went to my post at Pari’s house. As soon as it became light, I was gratified to see both men of the sword and men of the pen arriving. They filed into her public rooms and arranged themselves on cushions according to rank, forming a semicircle around the curtained area. The air seemed heavy and portentous, as before a storm.

  Shamkhal Cherkes’s wide shoulders and enormous white turban made him look like a giant when he mounted the platform. He welcomed the men and bade them listen well to the words of his niece, favorite daughter of the late Shah. Majeed stood near Pari’s curtain, ready to convey any private messages she might wish to send. I chose a position on the side of the room where I could see everyone. As I stared at the battle-hardened men, the enormity of our task seized me. The late Shah had barely managed to keep them under control. The Ostajlu and the Takkalu had fought a bitter civil war, and there were countless feuds and grudges between other groups that had to be navigated. We must find a way to tame the men at all costs.

  Pari’s voice was clear and strong. “Nobles, you honor the memory of my blessed father—may God’s judgment upon him be light—by your presence here. You are the shining stars of our age, recognized by my father as such during his lifetime. But don’t forget that a heinous act has recently occurred: a near takeover of the palace by those who wished to install their candidate on the throne.”

  Several men looked as if they wished to flee. Others, like Mirza Shokhrollah, the chief of the treasury, smirked.

  “Despite these horrors, our responsibility at this moment is to ensure the security of the state. Every man must perform his job, but not every man has stayed at his post. Where has everyone been?” Her voice was loud and strong as she issued the challenge.

  No one replied.

  “The palace can’t run itself. All of you are needed until a new shah is in place. I want to hear from you now,” she continued. “Despite what happened a few days ago, I am going to ask you—all of you—to support Isma‘il as shah. Well?”

  Amir Khan Mowsellu stood up to speak first. “You have our full support,” he replied in a booming voice.

  Since his sister Sultanam was Isma‘il’s mother, it was no surprise that Amir and his allies heeded her call. But some of the other men did not join in, and they began whispering and conveying their disapproval with a flick of their hands, precisely the kind of discord we had feared.

  Mirza Salman arose to speak. “You have my pledge of loyalty as well,” he replied, “and perhaps I can help others by posing a question. Noble daughter of the Safavis, sometimes men are misguided in their choices. How can you expect them to support Isma‘il if they fear for their lives because they threw themselves behind the wrong man?”

  “That is right!” came a chorus of voices.

  “It is true that men are sometimes ill-advised,” Pari replied. “Since the situation was confusing, I don’t wish to punish those who made the wrong decision if their intentions were to act for the good of the state. Therefore, if you are all willing to pledge your loyalty to Isma‘il, I will promise to advocate on behalf of those who supported Haydar and to help break the rod of royal displeasure.”

  “What guarantee do we have that he will listen to you?” asked Sadr al-din Khan, an Ostajlu leader who had dared to show his face.

  “I have been in communication with him.”

  “But did he offer amnesty? Show us the letter!”

  “I don’t have an offer of amnesty. I will ask for one.”

  Some of the men paused to think about that, knowing how powerful Pari’s advocacy could be. But Sadr al-din Khan was not satisfied.

  “That is not good enough,” he replied.

  Pari was silent behind the curtain. I suspected she didn’t know what more to promise to assuage him and avoid a revolt. Both Majeed and Shamkhal looked at a loss. My heart seemed to flip-flop like a fish on dry land. I had never had an official role in a meeting of such importance, and I did not know what to do.

  Pari’s cousin Ibrahim Mirza stood up to speak. He had been Tahmasb Shah’s favorite nephew and had even been permitted to run his own bookmaking workshop long after Tahmasb had lost interest. He had the ancient Iranian mien—thick black curls, smooth wheat-colored skin, rosy cheeks, and shapely lips, but his good looks could not hide that he had supported Haydar.

  “Now wait a minute,” Ibrahim said in a loud voice. “Amnesty is only the concern of people who were on the wrong side. But it is hardly the most pressing issue, is it? Almost no one has laid eyes on the prince for twenty years. How do we know he is not blind, sick, or a crazed fool?”

  “That is heresy. He was a hero to all of Iran when he was young!” shouted Amir Khan Mowsellu.

  “Maybe so, but what about now? A just leader is the only thing we should care about when the future of our country is at stake!” Ibrahim replied.

  From the conflicted looks on the men’s faces, I understood that not everyone agreed. Most nobles wished to advance the interests of their own people. As a “double-veined” child, with intertwined Tajik and Turkic strands, I wanted a shah who wouldn’t be swayed by petty jockeying for power.

  “Isma‘il will be such a leader!” declared Amir Khan Mowsellu, but his words met deadly quiet.

  “Who knows?” asked Sadr al-din Khan. “The prince isn’t even here. Why doesn’t he arrive and claim his throne?”

  “He will enter the city any moment now,” argued Kholafa Rumlu.

  “It is easy for you to say—you who can expect a fat reward!” complained Sadr al-din Khan.

  Kholafa had been the mastermind who spread rumors that Isma‘il and his troops had arrived, thereby dooming the Ostajlu. He smiled at Sadr al-din Khan. “That is because I used my head.”

  “Some would argue that you were merely blessed with luck.”

  The two men jumped to their feet and began hurling insults at one another. Some of the Takkalu began poking fun at Sadr al-din Khan, delighted by the disgrace of their longtime Ostajlu rivals.

  “Choke yourselves!” commanded Shamkhal, but
no one was listening.

  I slipped behind the curtain to check on Pari. Her face was shiny, and her cheeks looked hot.

  “Change strategy,” I advised. “Tell them you need help getting the palace in order. That is something they can all agree with.”

  In the hall, Shamkhal had to threaten to call for the guards before the nobles quieted down again.

  “My good men, I require your assistance,” Pari told them. “We have urgent problems—broken gates and poisoned arrows on the palace grounds, instability in Qazveen, and a closed bazaar. Won’t you help a royal woman when she needs you?”

  “All of that will require funds,” said Mirza Shokhrollah.

  “You may proceed with a report from the treasury.”

  His large, soft jowls wobbled as he claimed that he could not provide what she needed. The princess pressed him for reasons. He launched into a list of obfuscations until she lost patience.

  “Do not forget who I am,” she commanded in a cold voice. “Until just a few days ago, I had my father’s ear. Do not think for a moment that I won’t protect the interests of the dynasty as fiercely as he did—with or without your help. All of you must return to your posts. Tomorrow morning, we will begin with reports from each department, including the treasury. It is your job to ensure that the next shah doesn’t meet chaos and confusion upon his arrival. I should not wish to report that you were absent when you were needed most.”

  Shamkhal cut off further discussion. “Heed the words of the foremost daughter of the Safavis! You are dismissed.”

  Shamkhal showed the men out, including Majeed, so that Pari could emerge. I lifted the curtain, and she came out wiping her face with a cloth. She looked as wilted as day-old basil.

  “I didn’t accomplish what I had hoped. How unruly they are! I will send an urgent message to Isma‘il and tell him how delicate the situation is.”

  “God willing, he will come soon,” I replied, hearing the alarm in my own voice.

  “I hope so. I feel as if I am holding on to his throne with a thin silk thread.”

  Shamkhal returned and approached his niece. “You did well, my child,” he said, but his hooded eyes did not look happy.

 
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