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Equal of the sun, p.9
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       Equal of the Sun, p.9

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “He is away today,” said his assistant. Abteen Agha was a eunuch with chubby cheeks and a high, womanly voice.

  “I need to have a look at the History of Tahmasb Shah’s Glorious Reign,” I replied. “The princess has asked me to do some research for her.”

  It was a fib, but a harmless one.

  “Where is your authorization letter?”

  “She sent it a few days ago.”

  Abteen Agha went off to check the status of the letter.

  When I had asked Pari for the letter, I had wanted to confide in her about my father, but hadn’t dared. I feared that revealing my quest would make her suspect that my loyalties were divided. Instead I told her that her letter would make it easier for me to unearth information for her.

  Abteen returned soon with a sour look.

  “What exactly do you want to examine? The manuscript is thousands of pages long, reflecting the Shah’s nearly eternal reign. I am not going to bring out all the pages for you.”

  I would have to sweeten him up with a gift. For now, I simply said, “I need to read about the principal officers who served Tahmasb Shah.”

  “All right then. Come back another day, and I will have the pages for you.”

  “Tomorrow?” I must have sounded overly eager.

  “Do you have worms?”

  Abteen was one of those functionaries who like to make everyone wait so that they understand how important they are. But as discretion was more important to me than hurry, I told him I would be back the next day.

  The following afternoon, I returned with a fine brass bowl engraved with silver flowers and felicitous inscriptions. Abteen accepted the gift without fanfare and went to get the pages. He placed them in front of me on a low table inlaid with bits of mother-of-pearl and ebony.

  “Mind you don’t bend or soil the pages,” he said.

  “I have been around good paper before.”

  “All right, then.”

  The paper had been dyed with something like onionskin so that it was a pleasing ivory color and easy to read. All the pages consisted of short biographies. First there was a long list of the men of God who had served the Shah as religious leaders, followed by nobles descended from the Prophet. Then came lists of governors, viziers, and men of the pen, eunuchs in charge of the royal household, astrologers, doctors, calligraphers, artists, poets, and musicians.

  Some of the men had found great fortune and been rewarded with land or governorships, but others had taken a fall. One man had been accused of being part of a blasphemous religious sect and executed. Another had fallen in love with a manservant that the Shah was quite fond of and so was killed. Still another had stolen money and had been sent away in disgrace. As I read through the story of the men’s afflictions, my heart began to bleed with sympathy. So many had gone the way of my father!

  Eventually, I came upon the long list of accountants, scribes, and historians. My hands grew warm as I perused the list. I didn’t know if my father would merit an entry. Often, the historians ended their lists by writing, “None of the others are important enough to mention,” or words to that effect.

  But then my heart seemed to stop in my chest:

  Mohammad Amir Shirazi: Born in Qazveen, he served the Shah for twenty years, becoming one of his chief accountants. Many colleagues praised the accuracy of his accounts and his swift dispatch of court business. He seemed destined to rise up through the ranks of the men of the pen, until one day he was accused of crimes against the Shah and executed. Later, doubts were raised about the truth of the accusations. In his world-illumining mercy, the Shah did not execute his accuser, but it is also possible that his decision was influenced by the fact that the man had powerful allies whom the Shah didn’t wish to offend. Only God knows all things with certainty.

  Why, oh why, had the historian not mentioned the courtier’s name? What rank was he that the Shah hadn’t punished him?

  I decided to take a risk and ask Abteen. After I beckoned to him, he approached with an exasperated sigh.

  “See this entry?”

  He peered at it and then looked up. I have never seen a man read so fast. “What about it?”

  “What is the name of the courtier?”

  “How should I know?”

  “Aren’t you a historian, for God’s sake?”

  “If it is not written down, it means we don’t know. Who has time to run around verifying details about minor officials? Nobody is going to give a damn about this Mohammad Amir in the future.”

  I stood up abruptly, bumping into the table and upsetting the manuscript page, which floated to the floor.

  “I give a damn!”

  The historian stooped to pick up the page, then tripped on his long robe as he stood up. “You have bent it, you donkey! I told you to be careful.”

  “As careful as you are with your facts?”

  He cursed me and I walked out, surprised to see that my fingers were lightly stained, as if I had dipped them in my father’s blood.

  Isma‘il wrote to Pari that he had received her letter and would depart from Qahqaheh shortly to resume his rightful role in the capital. When he had first heard of his father’s and Haydar’s deaths, he had barred the gates to the prison, certain that it was a trick, and waited until a crowd of trusted noblemen had appeared outside the gates. After they had confirmed the news, he allowed them to be opened again. He wrote that he looked forward to seeing his sister after an absence of so many years, and he thanked Pari for her service on his behalf. He signed the letter, “your loving brother.”

  Pari was elated by his kind salutation. “He sounds just like the lion-man I remember!” she said, her eyes moistening with relief.

  But that was all we heard from Isma‘il for days, until Sultanam told us that he had decided to stay on at Qahqaheh to allow nobles to visit him. When still he failed to arrive, we discovered that he had voyaged to Ardabil, the home of his ancestors, to visit the shrine there, and lingered for longer than expected, sending no word as to when he would appear.

  Pari had no choice but to take full charge of administering the palace. Because of her orders, the kitchens were reopened and the denizens of the palace filled their bellies gratefully. The hospital on the palace grounds resumed operation, the sick received consolation from men of religion, and the dead were properly buried. The Takkalu left town to visit Isma‘il, and the murders in the city ceased.

  Even though the palace began to function again, we were not calm, because the palace was teeming with rumors. Haydar’s mother, Sultan-Zadeh, infuriated by the murder of her only child, had been making efforts through her allies to find a worthy opponent to Isma‘il, if for no other reason than to thwart Sultanam’s ambitions. And a group of nobles was weighing the possibility of rallying behind Mustafa Mirza, the late shah’s fifth son, in a bid for the throne.

  When I passed people in the gardens they averted their eyes, not knowing who would be their next master or whether any confidence would result in future betrayal. One morning, I surprised Anwar at the baths before it was light. He leapt out of the water, ebony knees bent and muscular arms raised to fend off an attack, and uttered a battle cry so fierce it curdled my blood. When he realized it was only me, he dropped back into the water, displacing a good deal of it.

  “Only an idiot would sneak up on me like that,” he growled.

  When I reported the rumors to Pari, her face darkened with distress. “Why doesn’t Isma‘il hurry! I have written to him again about the need to claim his place, yet still he gallivants around the country. What makes him so restive?”

  “Lieutenant of my life, you must vanquish the rumors,” I said. “Once they gather, men will suspect that no one is in charge and throw their support behind another.”

  Pari sighed. “It would be unthinkable to lose the throne now, just when it is within our grasp.”

  “Then we must convince the nobles that they have no choice.”

  At the next meeting, Pari swore to the men
that her brother was on his way to Qazveen with an army of twenty thousand soldiers. “‘Sister of my heart,’” she read out loud from a letter we had composed together the day before, “‘I grant you my authority to govern as you see fit until I return to take the throne. Do not brook any opposition from those who would try to derail my ascension, which has been ordained by God.’”

  She paused a moment for effect. “If you don’t wish to believe me, you can explain yourself to our new shah and see what he makes of your disobedience.”

  Her voice vibrated with authority, just as a great orator’s stirs his listeners to accept the justice of his arguments. I could feel its power surge through my heart, making me eager to fight for whatever she demanded. And it was not just me. I heard Ibrahim Mirza say to Mirza Shokhrollah in a low voice, “She has it—the royal farr. Do not cross her.”

  Shamkhal and Majeed exchanged a glance of excitement and Majeed leapt up, his face glowing with triumph, to repeat what Ibrahim had said to another noble, and then he sped to the other side of the room to make sure the words traveled from man to man. I could not contain myself: I repeated Ibrahim’s words to the amirs nearest me. Their faces softened as they stared at the curtain and imagined the glory behind it.

  “Mirza Shokhrollah, I need to hear from you.”

  “It is understood,” Mirza Shokhrollah replied in a subdued tone.

  “Good. I expect the full report on the treasury tomorrow even if it takes you all night to prepare it. As for the rest of you, soon you will see with your own eyes that Isma‘il’s candidacy is assured. So now I ask you, do you promise to make this country whole again by supporting Isma‘il? I want to hear an answer from every man.”

  Isma‘il’s supporters responded right away: “Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!” they chanted, sounding like loyal soldiers marching in step. Even the Ostajlu added their voices to our forceful affirmations.

  By then, I had gone behind the curtain where Pari sat, and when she heard the men shout out, she jumped to her feet triumphantly as if she had just mobilized an army. Shamkhal arose and declared an end to the meeting. Mirza Salman and Majeed began conferring together, looking as surprised as if an untested polo player had scored a decisive goal. I, too, was awestruck: Pari had the royal farr, a radiance so irresistible that the men responded like sunflowers following the sun.

  A few days later, Pari received a letter from Isma‘il giving her authority to govern the palace as she saw fit in his absence. He thanked her for her efforts and told her he could not wait to see her with his own eyes, “a woman of true Safavi blood, a sister-in-arms, and a fierce protector of our family and our crown.” A reward awaited her upon his return, which he was eager to bestow.

  Pari read me the letter, her eyes bright with hope.

  CHAPTER 3

  MAN OF JUSTICE

  After Zahhak became king, the devil installed himself as his cook and proceeded to teach him a taste for blood. On the first day he made roasted partridges, on the next lamb kabob, and on the third he stewed veal with wine. Zahhak was astonished and pleased, for man had never eaten meat before, and he plunged his tongue gladly into blood and bone. When Zahhak asked what he desired as a reward for his excellent cooking, the devil replied, “Just one favor, oh lord of the universe—I wish to kiss the royal shoulders.”

  Zahhak thought it was a small boon, given all the devil had done. He offered his shoulders gladly and allowed the devil to plant his black lips on each one.

  The next morning, Zahhak awoke to the sound of slithering near his head. He pulled the bedcover away from his body and gasped out loud at the sight of a serpent growing out of each shoulder. In horror, Zahhak grabbed a knife and slashed through one, then the other, but as soon as the decapitated snakes had wriggled in their death agony, new snakes grew out of his shoulders. They hissed and attacked each other in front of his face, sparring until he felt he might go mad.

  When the devil sauntered in that afternoon, Zahhak begged for a cure. “My friend, the only way to get any peace,” the devil told him, “is to pacify them with food. The diet is simple: men’s brains.”

  Zahhak ordered his nobles to deliver two young men the next morning. The men were murdered, their skulls cracked open, and their brains scooped out to feed the snakes. Then their mutilated bodies were returned to their families for burial. The next morning the same calamity occurred, and the next. Every day, the brightest and most promising young men were torn away from their families and sacrificed to the throne. Little by little, the best minds in the country were destroyed, and evil gave birth to more evil.

  Early that summer, Isma‘il finally arrived on the outskirts of Qazveen. After setting up camp in fine embroidered tents softened with silk carpets, he and his men waited for his astrologers to inform him of the most auspicious moment to enter the capital. He had spent years studying astrology while in confinement and wouldn’t even leave his tent unless the readings were favorable. Pari was pleased that he showed such prudence, but secretly I hoped the stars would hurry.

  By then, Pari had accomplished much. The killings had stopped in the city, and merchants reopened the bazaar. The palace had been repaired enough so that evidence of the invasion was faint. The noblemen were hard at work at their posts. Pari continued holding morning meetings with them, and now they submitted to her authority with no question. Mirza Shokhrollah had produced the treasury report and released the necessary funds so that business could proceed in earnest. Much remained to be done, but Pari had made sure that Isma‘il wouldn’t inherit chaos.

  The princess sent me to her brother’s camp with a letter of welcome and the gift of a fine astrolabe engraved with silver. I rode to the camp on one of the royal horses on a hot morning, hoping for a glimpse of the shah-to-be so that I could report on how he looked and perhaps take a kind word back to Pari. The camp was huge, and there were so many men delivering gifts that it was late by the time the astrolabe was recorded, and I had to ride back empty-handed.

  Fifteen days later, the astrologers finally determined that the stars were auspicious and Isma‘il set his arrival into Qazveen for the following morning. We had a lot to do. I reported to Pari’s house after the midday meal to help plan for his arrival and was surprised to be escorted to one of the private rooms near her bedchamber.

  I expected something resembling Pari’s austere public meeting chambers, but this one had peach-colored carpets, thick velvet cushions, and an entire wall painted with a mural of the legendary Shireen bathing in a river, her high breasts like pomegranates. Shireen lounged in the water so voluptuously that I felt as if she were offering her white-skinned thighs to me, and I turned away in confusion.

  I heard Pari’s loud, frank laughter, a sound so rare that it seemed unfamiliar. She cried out, “Come in, Javaher! I need your help on a vital matter of statecraft.”

  She and Maryam sat together on one cushion, while Pari’s industrious lady, Azar Khatoon, was rummaging in a trunk.

  Azar drew a bright red robe out of the trunk and held it up for us to see, her pretty face transfixed by pleasure.

  “That is one of my favorites,” Pari said, taking the thick silk into her hands.

  Woven into the fabric was a portrait of a young nobleman in a blossoming garden, a falcon perched on his fist. The feathers in the falcon’s wing mimicked the folds in the young man’s turban, conveying the profound oneness of the man and bird. Any human would be lucky to be loved as much.

  “It is fit for a shah!” Maryam said.

  “Yes, but too bright for the first meeting with my brother,” Pari replied. “I am still in mourning.”

  Azar pulled out another garment, this one with a repeated pattern of bright orange poppies and a delicate young doe. Gold-wrapped thread made the garment glow as if infused with sunlight.

  “Bah, bah, that one is lovely,” Maryam said, her honey-colored eyes sparkling. Maryam was one of dozens of pretty village girls who had been brought to court to serve Tahmasb Shah, but who ended up becomi
ng companions to the royal women if he showed no interest in bedding them. Her family had probably gotten a little money or a goat in exchange.

  Pari took the robe from Azar and laid it against Maryam’s body, spreading out the wide sleeves so that they covered her arms. Her golden hair flowed over the robe as if there were no separation between the two.

  “The little doe with the pretty face reminds me of you,” Pari said teasingly. “You may take that one.”

  Maryam’s eyes widened with disbelief. Her everyday attire was lovely, but nothing could match the fineness of the robes made for the princess. She wrapped her arms protectively around the robe and stroked one of its sleeves with the tip of her fingers. “It is softer than skin!” she said, and Pari smiled.

  “I need a robe in a much darker color,” Pari told Azar, who plunged her hands obediently into the trunk, though her mouth looked bitter. After some time, she pulled out a brown silk taffeta robe, whose surface seemed to shimmer. Pari caressed the robe with satisfaction.

  “Touch this one,” she said to Maryam, who leaned forward to feel it.

  “Who wove it?” she asked.

  “The head of the taffeta weavers’ guild, the master Borzoo.”

  Even the Venetians declared his silks to be finer than any produced in their own city. I held the robe gently. It was light enough to fold up into a package the size of my hands, yet as sumptuous to behold as velvet. A delicate pattern of gold brocade peonies seemed to tremble on its surface as if in a light breeze. White roses paraded on its pale orange borders, which were edged with stripes of brown, orange, and blue.

  Maryam urged her to try it on, and Azar slipped the robe over Pari’s outstretched arms. It fit tightly at her bodice and tapered to meet her narrow waist, then flared out pleasingly over her legs. The delicate brown made her black hair look darker than usual, while her cheeks blazed with color.

  “You are magisterial,” said Maryam.

  I stared at Pari and had the strange feeling that I was looking at the late Shah. “You are the very image of your father,” I blurted out. To some women, that would not have been a compliment, but Pari’s smile was immediate.

 
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