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Equal of the sun, p.8
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       Equal of the Sun, p.8

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  That afternoon, as Pari and I began working, the princess’s mother came to see her unannounced. She walked into the room so quietly that neither Pari nor I heard her until she greeted her daughter, and we looked up from a document to find her standing there.

  “Mother, be welcome,” said Pari. “How is your health?”

  “I endure.”

  Pari raised her eyebrows. “May I offer you some tea? Sweetmeats? A cushion for your hip?” Her tone was considerate, but I sensed her impatience.

  Her mother declined refreshments and sat down stiffly near Pari, a proximity that made it difficult to see any common traits. Daka Cherkes Khanoom was a woman of about fifty who didn’t appear to have had the strength to pass on anything of herself to her daughter. She was small-boned, with fair skin and pale brown eyes.

  “Daughter of mine, star of my universe, I think you know why I have come.”

  Pari’s smile was strained as if she were bracing for what was ahead. Daka stared into her daughter’s eyes, and to my surprise, the princess looked away. I had seen Pari tolerate much in the last few weeks, but never had I seen her look so uncomfortable.

  “You have refused me the pleasure for years, but the time has come for you to think about marriage.”

  I was alarmed by the thought. If the princess married, I would be under the command of her husband, not her. What if he were a boring old drudge? Pari made my mind feel as alive as a buzzing nest of bees.

  “Can’t you see that I must manage the affairs of the palace?”

  “My dear child, how long do you think that will last?”

  “Only God knows.”

  “You have always prided yourself on your reason. Isma‘il will arrive and take the throne, and then what will you do?”

  “I will advise him.”

  Her mother’s gaze was pitying. “You haven’t spent as much time with Sultanam as I have,” she said. “Lately, she has been in an uncommonly good mood. Once when she did not think I was near, I heard her singing, ‘farewell, ill-favored fairy!’ meaning you. If any woman will advise her son, it will be her.”

  Pari’s mouth turned down in displeasure. “She doesn’t know what I know, and neither does her son. If a man is to be appointed a subgovernor, which four officials must affix their seals to the document and in what order? All she can do is whisper her likes and dislikes in his ear. He will soon tire of that.”

  “It doesn’t matter. She will poison his mind against you.”

  “Mother, you overestimate her.”

  “She wishes to bury you. I beg you to let me find you a new protector in the person of a husband.”

  Her mother took Pari’s hand, her eyes shining with hope. “We will look for a handsome man whose face will be like the sun to you every morning. Someone as strong and as fierce as a lion to hold you in his arms.”

  Pari withdrew her hand abruptly as if the very idea made her wish never to be touched again.

  “Mother, who could that be? Who can match the purity of my blood but a son of my father?”

  “None, but what about a son of his brother?”

  “Ibrahim, Badi, Hossein—they all have first wives. I will not be married as a second wife.”

  Daka grabbed her cushion as if to brace herself against her daughter’s arguments. “Pari, you know that someone could be found if you wished it.”

  “What, some noble who is posted to the provinces? I would be bored.”

  “But, daughter of mine, don’t you wish for children?” Her mother looked desperate. “What about grandchildren for me? I grow old. I can’t wait forever.”

  “Suleyman and his wife will provide them for you, I am certain.”

  “Pari, where is your womanly feeling? I tell you, there is nothing more satisfying than holding your own child in your arms. You don’t know it yet, but I pray that you will soon.”

  “I have told you many times that I am content as I am. I take after my aunt Maheen Banu.”

  “Not exactly. You have not predeceased your protector, and therefore, you must be cautious.”

  Maheen Banu had served as one of Tahmasb Shah’s most sagacious advisors all her life. People at court couldn’t stop talking about how she had argued for providing military assistance to the Mughal emperor Homayoun when he needed it. In gratitude, he had ceded the entire province of Qandahar to Iran.

  Pari didn’t reply. Her mother adjusted the scarf over her hair, the lines at her lips deepening with determination.

  “I mean no disrespect, but your father was very selfish. He kept your aunt as a bride for the Mahdi, in case the Hidden Imam should return from occultation to bring justice back to Iran during her lifetime—”

  “—and he kept a horse saddled at all times, I know, Mother, I know, so that they could depart whenever they wished.”

  “But you he kept for himself,” her mother added in an accusatory tone. “I can’t forgive him for putting his love for you over what was best for you.”

  “Mother!” said Pari. “What he did was best for me, too.”

  “It is true that no woman had his ear like you did, but that is why so many are now eager to see your demise.”

  Pari’s generous lips curved into a frown. “People love to dwell on the pain of others; they love to stick their fingers in it and suck on it as if it were honey. But I won’t allow them to feed at my hive. I didn’t leave my father’s side, for the simple reason that I preferred his company to that of any other man.”

  “You can’t assume you will retain your old position.”

  “You must let me see what fate brings me,” said Pari, her voice rising in exasperation.

  Daka looked as if she would not give up. “Pari, I didn’t want to say this, but I am frightened. Let me keep you safe. You know I would sacrifice myself for you!”

  She tore the silk scarf off her head, revealing thin, graying hair. She bent her head forward, yanked out a few hairs from her mousy pink scalp, and laid them in front of her daughter.

  “As your mother, I demand that you heed my counsel!”

  She grabbed another few strands and prepared to yank them out. It was awful to witness.

  “Ah, ah, Mother, stop!” Pari cried, grabbing her hand and pulling it away from her head.

  Daka let her wrist go limp. “My child, this time I won’t be dissuaded. All I ask is that you consider a list of candidates. If none pleases, you may say so. But if you are in trouble, a rapid marriage could save you. I won’t leave this cushion until you give your assent.”

  From outside we heard the call to prayer. The day was passing.

  “Pari, you must not be so stubborn. Times have changed, and you must change, too.”

  “On the contrary, Mother. Other women are moonlike, waxing and waning. Not me.”

  “Please, my child. I beg you. As the woman who gave you your first milk, I have rights that transcend your own will.”

  Pari sighed heavily; her mother had made the one argument that no child could deny. “All right then, if you must, but do not make this quest public.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it is my last choice.”

  “My child, how strange you are!” her mother said in vexation. “What kind of woman wouldn’t wish to be married?”

  Pari looked away. “You would not understand—it is not in your blood.”

  “Voy, voy!” said her mother. “I have never pretended to royal blood like yours. But perhaps your blood is what makes you such an oddity compared to other women.”

  “Perhaps,” Pari replied, in a tone as final as a door being slammed. “Mother, I wish I could sit with you all day, but now you must give me leave to do my work.”

  “It is granted,” Daka replied, standing up stiffly. “But do not forget—protecting you is my right. You must keep that in your heart, even when you dislike how I choose to do it.”

  “I will, Mother.” Pari softened. “I remain your devoted daughter.”

  “I know.”

  Daka m
arched out of the room with the pride of a wounded old soldier who has finally won a long-running battle.

  Pari shook her head as if to clear it and sighed. “Hope flares in her heart again!”

  “Princess, will you never marry?” I asked, hoping she would say no.

  “Only God knows,” she replied vaguely. “The truth is that I don’t think about it much, but it gives my mother something to do. Now let’s attend to our planning before the hour grows too late.”

  That evening, I received a letter from my sister, Jalileh, who was now fourteen. I tore it open, eager to hear her news. Jalileh was living with my mother’s second cousin in a tiny town on the hot, humid coastline of southern Iran. She wrote to me every few months, which allowed me to monitor the progress of her life and her studies. Supervising her education from afar had been difficult, but I had insisted that my cousin find the best tutor available, and now, despite my cousin’s complaints, I sent money to the woman directly.

  Jalileh wrote that the weather on the Gulf had become hot and moist, making it difficult to keep her mind fresh, but all that had changed when she began studying the poetry of Gorgani.

  His words are so beautiful they make me want to jump up and dance. When he suggests that we seize our fondest desires before our clay crumbles, I wish to become his disciple! But then my tutor reminds me that I must learn to be as steadfast as the sun, and I quell my racing heart and obey.

  Dear brother, does my writing please you? Might some employment be found for me close to you? I am almost grown, as our mother’s cousin keeps reminding me, and I am impatient to be useful.

  If only I could do something! Jalileh now wrote a better hand than many of the ladies at court. I longed to ask Pari to employ her, but as she had just hired me, it was too early to request such a great boon. I would not break Jalileh’s heart—and my own—by promising her anything until I was sure. The memory of the last time I had seen her still lay heavily on me, her little body twisted around on the receding donkey, her arms stretched out to me, her face so streaked with tears it looked as if it had melted. Nor could I forget my mother’s parting words: “Restore our honor. Not for me, but for your sister.”

  I wrote Jalileh right away, praising the beauty of her handwriting, and I asked her to be patient.

  Before nightfall, I took a walk around the center of Qazveen. The pigeons in the square near the bazaar flapped their wings forlornly, hungry for their usual crumbs. The large wooden gates were still closed, and no peddlers lined the streets. I proceeded to a nearby tavern where I knew the bazaaris liked to go, and introduced myself to a few of the men as a merchant from Tabriz. The men’s faces were drawn with worry, and conversation was slow until I bought and shared a few jugs of wine, as well as tea for the strictly pious.

  “Let’s hope we don’t die of starvation,” I said, trying to open the floodgates of the conversation.

  “What is worse—starving to death or being assassinated in the streets?” asked an old fellow with shrewd eyes. Shouts of laughter filled the room as the men joked about the worst way to die.

  “You are right, brother,” I said, as if I knew what he was talking about. “Can I pour you a little more?”

  It didn’t take long for me to learn that the bazaar was still closed because of a string of murders. The rumor was that the Takkalu had been assassinating Ostajlu to get revenge for all the years they had been favored by Tahmasb Shah, and then others began taking the liberty to settle scores with people they envied or despised.

  “Someone needs to tell those donkeys at the palace to do something,” the old man grumbled.

  At the next day’s meeting, after being briefed by me, Majeed, and Pari, Anwar sounded alarms about the closed bazaar. The palace was not receiving its usual deliveries, the kitchens were merely limping along, produce was rotting in the fields, and soon trade would be affected. “The heartbeat of the country is slowing to a halt,” he concluded.

  The men listened carefully because Anwar, who prayed without fail three times per day, was known for both piety and honesty. The late Shah had honored him by putting him in charge of harem operations and of efforts to fund mosques, wells, and pilgrimage sites.

  “The merchants refuse to open because ordinary citizens are being slaughtered,” Pari added from behind the curtain. She could not challenge the Takkalu openly without inciting a civil war.

  Her uncle stood up. “I think we should send soldiers to arrest the evildoers and have them put to death. That will set an example that others will wish to avoid.”

  “Isn’t that an extreme measure?” Pari asked. I remembered what had happened to Haydar and worried about Shamkhal’s thirst for blood.

  “Not if we give the citizens fair warning first,” he replied.

  The chief of the late Shah’s private army, Khalil Khan Afshar, who had been named Pari’s guardian when she was a baby, interjected his opinion. “We should deputize a group of soldiers to ride through the city and announce that anyone found to be plotting or executing violence will be punished,” he said. “We will spread the word far and wide.”

  “Do that,” said Pari, “and remind them that judgment over another man is the province only of the shah and his Councils of Justice. My brother will prosecute the known murderers once he has been crowned.”

  “If he is crowned,” said Sadr al-din Khan Ostajlu from the back of the room. “He has to arrive first, doesn’t he?”

  “He is on his way,” insisted Pari.

  “Esteemed princess, we will deploy the soldiers tomorrow,” said Khalil Khan. “Is there anything else you wish us to do?”

  “There is,” she replied. “All the Takkalu should ride to my brother’s side and pay their respects as soon as possible.”

  I almost laughed out loud: Pari was learning quickly. If the Takkalu left, the Ostajlu would feel less besieged and would be less likely to revolt.

  “The other men should return to their posts and report to me on the progress they make every day.”

  “Chashm.”

  “I don’t see why we should follow these orders,” argued Mirza Shokhrollah. “You are not the shah.”

  “Do you doubt the purity of my blood?” Pari asked sharply.

  “Not your blood,” he replied. “We honor you for your ties to the Safavi dynasty.”

  “In the absence of a crowned shah, I will do my duty by ruling this palace and everyone in it, including you.”

  Mirza Shokhrollah did not reply, but made a face to indicate that he did not take her seriously, and he began reciting a poem.

  Since women don’t have any brains, sense, or faith

  Following them drags you down to a primitive state.

  Women are good for nothing but making sons

  Ignore them; seek truth from the light of brighter ones.

  Mirza Shokhrollah looked around as if expecting support, but there was an uncomfortable silence. No doubt some of the men in the room agreed with the sentiments, but it was insulting, possibly even treasonous, to degrade a royal princess of Pari’s stature. I would have liked to stuff his long gray beard into his mouth.

  “You had better watch your wayfaring tongue,” Shamkhal said, puffing himself up like a snake about to strike. Next to him, Majeed looked like a mouse in search of a hole. How intimidated he seemed by his elders! If I had his job, I would be moving from man to man to rally support for Pari.

  I went behind the curtain to check on the princess. “That poet was hardly the greatest thinker on the topic of women,” Pari retorted in a loud, strong voice. She paused for a minute, closing her eyes, and I felt as if I could actually see lines of poetry being composed on her pearly forehead. In the commanding voice that she used to recite, she countered with her own verse:

  A fine silk robe can do well to hide

  The pompous ass who is hidden inside

  To know the truth that only God knows

  Look beyond the fineness of clothes.

  Seek much further to what is belo
w the skin

  Shatter the barriers, discover what is within.

  By glitter and glamour don’t be deceived

  Truth lies beyond what the eyes have perceived.

  Ask “What is just? What is true? What is real?”

  Only pigs devour garbage without a squeal.

  Mirza Salman guffawed, and the rest of the men followed. Storm clouds gathered over Mirza Shokhrollah’s brow.

  Mirza Salman stood up to speak.

  “Princess, I will be glad to assist the chief of the treasury in producing the report. My men are available.”

  I dashed out in time to see Mirza Shokhrollah glaring at him. “That won’t be necessary.”

  “I am at your service,” said Mirza Salman with a mocking smile.

  “No, thanks,” the treasury chief said again. “I don’t need your help.”

  “In that case, how soon can we expect the report?” Pari said from behind the curtain, a note of triumph in her voice.

  Mirza Shokhrollah hesitated. “I don’t know.”

  “Really? Everyone knows how smoothly Mirza Salman’s guilds run and how thorough his reports are. Surely yours can be, too, now that you have his assistance.”

  Mirza Shokhrollah glared at Mirza Salman, who met his gaze without flinching. If anything, his slim body became even more erect.

  “I will see what I can do.” Mizra Shokhrollah scowled as if Pari were a night soil collector who had presumed to give him orders.

  Shamkhal stood up and said quickly, “You heard the favorite daughter of the late, lamented Shah. You are hereby dismissed.”

  The men filed out in separate groups of supporters of Isma‘il and Haydar, their disunity evident. I hoped Isma‘il would hurry. It was only a matter of time before the nobles decided to go their own way, as they had when Tahmasb was a child ruler. That was my worst fear: that the men would factionalize, give support to other candidates, and boost one of them to the throne. Then Pari’s power would dwindle, and all my hopes would turn to ash again.

  When I finally had a moment to myself, I went to the building that housed the royal scribes and asked to speak to Rasheed Khan.

 
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