[In instalments for the first time, to readers of my blog]
Maragha, Persia, 1292 CE
Qutb ad-Din Shirazi was master of many things. At once physician, astronomer and mathematician, his wider scholarship embraced history, language and philosophy. Moreover, he had held his post throughout three reigns and was more than three months into a fourth, and that made him master of tact and diplomacy. He understood when to listen rather than speak and had learned to be discreet when discretion was demanded. He could control his anger when provoked, and restrain his laughter in the face of the most risible folly.
And it was fortunate for Shirazi that he possessed these skills, as under the Mongol Khans appointments were quickly made and unmade. A hastily-uttered word or ill-chosen cast of feature could have fatal consequences.
Shirazi was indeed a man who could control his emotions. However, as he faced his most brilliant student in the library of Maragha Observatory, he could not refrain from uttering a gasp of astonishment.
‘You wish to discontinue your studies, Dokhan? May I ask why?’
The pupil, a boy of eleven or twelve years of age, met his gaze steadily. He was quite tall with thick black eyebrows and ardent eyes. Otherwise his features were soft, even feminine. He had raven black hair, cut very short, that grew in spikes on the crown of his head but was sleek at the back of his neck and round his well-formed ears. His white toga, the customary garb of the scholar, was spotlessly white.
‘I have my reasons, Master, but please forgive me if I do not give them.’ It was a genuine apology. There was no disrespect in his tone.
‘You tire already of scholarship perhaps?’ said Shirazi. ‘Or your expenses have become a burden? In that case, we have funds. You need not …’
The student interrupted him. ‘It’s not that, Master Shirazi. Please do not question me further.’
Shirazi shrugged. ‘It’s a pity, Dokhan. You are a most able pupil. In three months you have mastered what many take a year to assimilate. My treatise on trigonometry is not the easiest subject matter for a novice. And your grasp of Greek and Persian history is …’
‘Please, Master.’ Again the student interrupted him. ‘Tomorrow I will make the necessary arrangements.’
Sadly, Shirazi watched the boy turn to leave. He could tell further argument would be useless. Dokhan’s departure would be as sudden and mysterious as his arrival. Shirazi recalled clearly the day in late spring when the young horseman had appeared alone at his gates.
The Master of Maragha had been worrying over his finances. The considerable funds the Observatory had received thirty years ago as an endowment from Hulegu Khan were dwindling much faster than he would have wished.
The sciences of astronomy and mathematics, for whose benefit the Observatory had been built, still occupied the bulk of his time and that of the twenty or so polymaths, technicians and scribes under his direction. Shirazi had recently checked and double-checked the instruments and found their accuracy to be more than satisfactory. The armillaries and quadrants he had inherited were as good as new. However, there were other sciences, and he also needed to maintain the library and pay for the tuition of those who came to Maragha seeking knowledge.
Over the years, many students had passed through his corridors, not only the sons of Mongol princes, but young men from all over the civilised world, looking to share the Master’s wisdom, and hoping in the course of their studies to discover the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life. Shirazi doubted such things existed, however he always encouraged the young to hope. It was part of his job as a teacher.
But education cost money and, in addition, Gaikatu, the new il-khan, had demanded a forfeit of a hundred royals. Shirazi had not demurred. It was lighter punishment than he might have expected for assisting alleged enemies of the empire, his niece Nadia and her Christian lover, who had escaped to the West the previous year.
The courtyard outside still bore signs of that last confrontation. At the spot where Gaikatu himself had fallen with a shoulder wound, the weather had done its work, washing the blood from the paving stones into the earth. However, on another part of the terrace, in a direct line between the gate and the main entrance, Shirazi could see the stain where the bravest of his scholars had sacrificed his life for Nadia’s sake.
The Christian had been outnumbered three to one and at the mercy of a Mongol bowman when she had thrown herself in front of him. It was then that Jafar had rushed unarmed to her defence, slaying her attacker and receiving a mortal wound in the process. Even with two opponents the Christian would have been crushed, but Nadia’s son, the eleven-year-old Hassan, had intervened, stabbing Gaikatu’s remaining henchman in the groin. That blood too had disappeared, but at the place of Jafar’s sacrifice, though they had washed the paving, the evidence was still visible.
As a man of science, Shirazi reasoned that these stones were bedded on rock, or that they were better protected from the elements because of their relative proximity to the walls; and though the climate of Maragha was not severe, the passage of a second winter would surely remove all traces of blood. As a man of faith, the Master wondered if the mark would ever disappear, and whether Allah the All-wise had chosen it as a means to remind him of Jafar’s martyrdom.
Gaikatu had recovered quickly from his wound and had been less vindictive than Shirazi expected. Still, the hundred royals fine had been a blow the Observatory could ill afford. Shirazi would soon face a crisis. Then, at a stroke, his new pupil had solved the immediate problem for him.
For the most part, tuition at Maragha was given free. However, Dokhan had offered to pay and, as proof of his intent, had handed over sufficient gold and silver to meet Maragha’s expenses for the next three months.
‘You wish to study here?’ Shirazi had enquired rather lamely.
‘I seek enlightenment, Master.’ It was an odd phrase for a boy to use.
‘Your father?’ It was a question Shirazi always asked, but he did so hesitantly so as not to offend.
‘He is dead, Master,’ replied Dokhan, ‘and my mother has remarried. I wish to improve my mind as well as my skills in weaponry.’
‘Weaponry, mmm?’ Shirazi echoed. In his experience military objectives were at odds with scholarship.
‘Yes, Master,’ Dokhan volunteered. Clearly he was not aware of any contradiction. ‘For the past half year I have been taking lessons in swordplay and in the use of the bow.’
‘You are of the Islamic faith?’ Shirazi asked, trying another tack.
‘My mother is Christian, but I have no faith,’ said the boy. He smiled with what Shirazi thought was a slightly superior smile. ‘There may be gods in the sky, but I’m not persuaded of it.’
‘Mmm.’ The Master coughed nervously. ‘How old are you? Twelve? Eleven?’
Dokhan hesitated, then nodded.
‘It’s a good age to begin,’ said the Master of Maragha warmly. He was curious but had asked no further questions. The boy was undoubtedly of Temuchin’s line; his features were Mongol, though diluted in a manner Shirazi had observed was not uncommon in fourth or fifth generation descendants of the Conqueror. But he was too old to be Gaikatu’s son, and whether the legitimate child of an emir or a natural one of the late Arghun Khan was for Shirazi a matter of indifference. The Master judged his pupils on their work and not on accidents of birth.
In the weeks that followed, Shirazi had discovered the extraordinary quality of the boy’s mind. Dokhan had an astounding memory and a great hunger for learning. During his eighteen years as Master, Shirazi had known no more than a handful of such calibre. And now his prize pupil wished to quit his studies and leave the Observatory, probably to pursue some militaristic objective – to die needlessly in a pointless war. It was a great pity.
Dokhan went towards the door but when he reached it he stopped as if he had forgotten something. ‘May I remain in the library for the afternoon, Master?’
Through the window Shirazi saw that a detachment of soldiers wearing the colours of the il-khan’s personal guard was coming in through the gates. At their head was Gaikatu himself, wearing a toothy smile.
It was seventy years since the troops of Genghis Khan had thundered across the plains of Iran, sweeping everything before them. Many had forgotten, but Shirazi, with history to guide him, always experienced a cold tingle in his spine when one of the Conqueror’s descendants entered the walls of his domain. And the fourth and final instalment of the forfeit was now due. Though the Tabriz treasury was reputed to be bulging with gold and silver, the new khan’s personal finances had apparently suffered a severe blow after the failure of one of his many tax schemes.
Despite the mercy once shown to him, Shirazi always feared Gaikatu’s unpredictable temper, and today was no exception. However, he merely twitched his eyebrows and turned to answer Dokhan’s request. He thought the boy was paler than usual and that his eyes had become wary.
Dokhan smiled nervously. ‘I do not wish to meet him.’
Shirazi nodded. ‘It is enough reason,’ he said, ‘but not for me. Remain here while I greet him.’
He was not gone long. When he nervously handed over the remaining twenty-five royals, the il-khan scowled but then, to the Master’s relief, congratulated him on his prompt payment, remounted and rode off with his followers.
Shirazi returned to the library. Dokhan was seated on a stool and doubled over as if in pain. His face was ashen and there were drops of perspiration on his beardless chin. The wariness the Master had recently seen in his eyes was replaced by fear.
‘What’s the matter? Are you ill?’ He went over to offer assistance but the boy backed away from him. Then Shirazi noticed on the hem of his pupil’s plain toga what appeared to be a fleck or two of blood. ‘Have you cut yourself?’
Dokhan shook his head vigorously and backed further away. He was still bent double and clutching his abdomen.
‘Let me look,’ the Master said. He took his pupil by his trembling shoulders and kindly eased the hands away from the belly. The front of the toga was spotless but the seat was wet and stained bright red. And as Dokhan straightened, Shirazi noticed for the first time the two gentle swellings of the chest and saw that the nipples were unusually prominent. For the second time that day the impassive mask he chose to wear slipped. His eyes widened, his chin fell and his mouth gaped open.
Dokhan burst into tears and knelt at Shirazi’s feet clutching the edge of his robe. ‘Now you know why I must leave Maragha. Do not betray me to Gaikatu.’
The Master had already recovered his usual composure, but his inner soul was filled with compassion and wonder.
‘Now that I know, let me ask my wife to take care of you,’ he said. ‘But before I call her, pray tell me who you truly are. I’ll not betray you to Gaikatu, of that you can be assured. I was ever good at keeping maidens’ secrets.’
‘Dokhan served well enough as a name,’ said the girl, for there was no longer any doubt of her sex. ‘‘Tis close. I am Princess Doquz of Persia. My father was Arghun, the late il-khan.’
[to be continued]