And what shoulder, and what art could twist the sinews of thy heart? (William Blake)
The clash of swords disturbed the tranquillity of the valley. On an open stretch of ground amid sprouting vines, and overlooking a lazy bend in the River Po, two men were exercising vigorously.
One was tall, powerfully built and in the prime of life. His face was rugged rather than handsome, and his complexion betrayed him as a man used to long hours out of doors. His dark hair showed no sign of thinning, however flecks of grey were evident at his temples and in his neat black beard. He handled his weapon with the ease of an expert but sweat poured down his face as he ducked and weaved to avoid the equally intelligent strokes of his opponent, a slim youth of about fifteen. Both wore thick padding on their chests, and the swords they wielded with such brilliance were curved in the eastern style, though the blades had been blunted to avoid serious injury.
The strenuous game began to tell on the older man. Hampered by his surplus clothing and by the growing warmth of the morning, his movements gradually became slower and less well timed. Suddenly, he retreated a few steps and held up his hand as a signal that hostilities should cease.
‘I’m no match for you today, Hassan,’ he said grudgingly, plunging his sword into a mound of soft earth and flopping down beside it. ‘In fact, I think the pupil already outshines the master. My forty years are beginning to tell.’
The youth laughed. He cut a few strokes in the empty air, sheathed his weapon and stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at his former adversary. ‘Yet I would never underestimate you, Giovanni,’ he said. ‘I have still to learn to read your eyes as well as anticipate your arm.’
‘And you would do well to attend to that before you are much older,’ said Giovanni di Montecervino sternly. ‘For all your skill, I fancy I could twice have taken your legs if we had been playing with keen steel instead of these toys.’
The boy stopped laughing and acknowledged this criticism with a grave nod. ‘Then we should practise some more.’
‘Tomorrow perhaps,’ replied Giovanni. He studied the serious young face of his opponent, still fresh despite the exercise. In the years he had known him, he had grown to love Hassan as much as any natural son. But he was no longer a child. His jet black curls had straightened and though he had not yet grown a beard, the fine down on his chin had begun to coarsen. For all that, the deep brown oval eyes had not lost all their innocence.
Hassan squatted in the grass. For a few moments he stared silently down at the river, which glistened in the April sun as it twisted its way east towards the Adriatic. Giovanni continued watching him. Though the face had filled out, the nose was still aquiline in profile. His colouring, deeper than that of the Venetians, betrayed his Persian origins.
‘Are you happy, Giovanni?’
‘Happy? How could I be miserable? Your mother grows more beautiful every day. Instead of one son I have two – and a daughter. I’m master of the finest vineyards in the Po valley. We grow the tastiest grapes in the whole of Italy, and you ask me if I’m happy.’
Hassan smiled. There was wistfulness in his smile, as if it belonged to someone much older, a man with a profound understanding of the world.
‘And when in Persia, did you never long for your homeland?’
‘I longed for it often, Hassan. You know that. At times, I felt there was a war inside me, tearing me apart – the reality of the love and companionship I had found against my duty as an envoy. Against the memory of those I had left behind.’
Had it been four years, Giovanni asked himself? Had it really been so long since his mission to the Persian court to secure a treaty on behalf of the monarchs of Europe? And the mission would have succeeded, he reflected, had it not been for Arghun’s death. Persia’s ruler, descendant of Genghis Khan, had been struck down by a poisoner’s hand and Giovanni had been forced to flee for his life. But he had returned to Italy with a bride, Hassan’s mother Nadia – Arghun’s widow – whom he had rescued from the clutches of Gaikatu, the new Il-khan.
‘You know I must go back, Giovanni?’
‘I think I’ve always known that,’ said the Italian. ‘It was never a question of if, but of when.’
‘And now is the time, Giovanni.’
‘Have you received news from the Venetian jeweller then? I know you have twice been to see him. Or was it the bright eyes and ripe breasts of Mistress Luciana Polo that took you there?’
‘Lucy is pretty certainly, and we’re friends, I think, but …’
‘Then you have not …?’
‘No, Giovanni.’ Hassan laughed. ‘Lucy is as pure as the winter snow that covers the peaks of the Kuh-e-Sahand.’
‘Your use of simile is commendable, Hassan. Perhaps she’ll thaw.’
‘Oh, I don’t think she is frigid,’ said Hassan, apparently understanding the double meaning in his original remark. He went on hastily. ‘No, I went to Venice only to gather information. It’s a year since our friend Umid Malikshah was there, but merchants of his fraternity are constantly passing through the Arsenal.’
‘There’s little to add to what we already knew. Gaikatu is mad but still commands a majority. Ghazan has been unable to settle the war in Khorasan and is powerless to oppose him. And Master Polo’s latest news of his grandson, Marco, is more than two years out of date. All he can say is that Marco, with his father and uncle, left China on a mission for Kublai Khan. The one piece of fresh news is that Gaikatu and Baidu have apparently quarrelled again. There are rumours of a rebellion.’
‘That would greatly aid Ghazan’s cause.’
‘That was my thought exactly,’ said Hassan, ‘and is perhaps one reason why it’s time for me to return to Persia. I may be able to help him.’
‘Have you spoken to your mother?’
‘Yes. She tried to dissuade me. A few nights ago she had one of her visions. She begged me to wait. But much as I love her, I cannot bow to her wishes.’
‘Have you mentioned to her the news of Marco Polo?’
‘Is it of importance?’
‘I don’t know. She met Marco as a child. In Kerman. And I remember she said something to me once about a letter Arghun received from Kublai Khan. Perhaps it’s significant, perhaps not.’
‘A letter from the Great Khan? I did not know that, Giovanni – that she had known Marco Polo, that is. It seems my mother has secrets she has shared with you and not with me.’
‘That is the way between husband and wife,’ said Giovanni with a smile. ‘But we were discussing your desire to return to Persia. What will you do there?’
‘I have made no plans. None that are firm anyhow. It’s just that Persia draws me back. It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I may go to Tabriz, then to your house at Maragha – my grandfather’s gift on your betrothal. I don’t think I’ll be recognised. A trader in gems will fit the bill, don’t you think – Master Assano di Montecervino!’
‘As my adopted son, you’ve a right to the name, but what then?’
‘I don’t know, Giovanni. It depends on what I discover. One day I must visit Kerman. And I’ve promised Maffeo Polo to seek news of his kinsfolk.’
‘I understand,’ said Giovanni. ‘But you’re being over-hasty. Wait a while. Your mother needs time to adjust to your plans.’
‘But that’s just it,’ Hassan said. He bowed his head in embarrassment. ‘There is no time. The Venetian Trader leaves for Constantinople at the month end, and I have booked passage on it.’
The steps were high and narrow and Grazia di Montecervino leant on her daughter-in-law’s arm to descend to the garden. Her winter illness had left her feeling weak, fragile and weighed down by her sixty-three years. For nearly six months she had rarely left her room, and even Nadia’s gentle arguments, that she would benefit from the air and sunlight, had not persuaded her to set foot out of doors. But now the signs of spring were all around the estate. The trees were in blossom and their scent wafted along the pathways and through the vine-covered arches.
For four generations, the Montecervino vineyards had lain on the border between the Lombard Kingdom and the Papal States. The land had been a gift of Emperor Friedrich II, a reward for the family’s support of his Sicilian kingdom against Rome. However, as a forgotten outpost, owing allegiance to a fading dynasty, it had come to be at the mercy of two powerful neighbours. The second Signor, Giovanni’s grandfather Francesco, had sought to make an alliance with Venice, seeing that the Duchy’s growing economic strength would give him an excellent trading opportunity, and that the fiercely independent Venetians, though nominally part of the Lombard League, would soon outgrow it and become powerful in their own right.
He reasoned too that, as the Montecervino estate was only a few hours journey from the Serene City whilst several days ride from the Eternal, his proposed alliance would allow him to give temporal allegiance to the former without risk to his spiritual well-being. Moreover, if he gave his second son Jacopo to the priesthood, old quarrels with Rome might be patched up. And so it had been arranged. Giovanni’s uncle had taken holy orders while his father Marino had been found a Venetian bride.
Grazia came from the influential family of the Gradenigos and her marriage to Marino had indeed cemented relations with the dukedom. But the patched up relations with the Vatican were endangered when Giovanni, to his father’s horror, took up the sword on the Sicilian side against the House of Anjou, Pope Gregory’s trusted ally. Only by his agreeing later to undertake his dangerous mission on behalf of Pope Nicholas, despite its failure, were good relations restored. Uncle Jacopo was awarded a bishopric.
Grazia counted ten steps and stopped to recover her breath. The playful screeches of her grandchildren, a girl and boy neither yet four years old, reached her from the lower terrace and lifted her spirits. Still holding her daughter-in-law’s arm, Grazia looked up at the house, a stately villa built in the Roman style, then turned to gaze across the garden towards the rolling hills that bordered the river and the neat rows of vines that covered them. In the forty-two years she had been mistress here she had learned to read the seasons.
‘It will be another good year for the grape, Nadia,’ she said. The short rest had given her new wind.
‘It is so beautiful and green, Mama,’ Nadia replied.
Never having had a daughter of her own, Grazia always experienced a thrill when addressed in this way. Nadia had a special way of saying the word, as if it came from the soul. It was not just a word for mother, but the representation of a whole new kind of relationship. Of love, gratitude and contentment. It was an expression to be found in the voice of someone who has searched many gardens and has at last found her Eden – her Nirvana.
Today, however, Grazia thought there was a faraway look in Nadia’s eyes.
‘You are pensive, child,’ she said. ‘Are you thinking of Persia?’
‘Not that, Mama. I rarely think of Persia as a separate country now. The small part that is my father still exists in my heart, but otherwise it is a distant past, dreamlike and gone forever. But to Hassan it is an idea, a lost world. I try to understand him, though it grieves me that he wishes to go back there. Still, I must accept the judgement of Fate, whether for my son or for myself.’ She recited softly. ‘Neither knoweth any soul in which land it shall die.’
‘It is a melancholy line, Nadia,’ said Grazia, ‘… from some great Persian poet?’
‘No, it is from the Holy Qu’ran. A savage writing, I have always thought, one that fills me with dark forebodings.’
‘Sons are born to leave their mothers,’ said Grazia. ‘But they usually return when they have found a bride.’
She had tried to sound positive and cheerful but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Nadia looked more miserable than ever. Grazia guessed at the trouble.
‘You have been having your nightmares again, Nadia.’
‘You may call them that, Mama, but they are not. Nightmares are nothing but a piece of cheese ill-digested or a cut of meat swallowed too hastily. They end in the morning light. My visions are of a different nature. They pursue me through the days that follow. Sometimes they come to pass.’
They were interrupted in their conversation by shrieks of delight from the infants on the lower terrace.
‘Papa! Papa coming!’ chanted the boy. They were among the few words he had learned. He waved in the direction of the orchard from which a steep slope led down to a grassy meadow. Two figures could be seen striding over the brow of a second hill beyond.
‘And ‘Sano too. ‘Sano too!’ the girl chimed in.
Nadia’s face lightened.
‘Go then,’ she said, ‘but take care.’
The children ran off through the orchard, the girl leading and almost dragging her brother by the hand to the edge of the slope. However, it was the boy who reached the pasture first. Still unsure of his legs, he slid down on his rump and was caught up in the arms of Hassan who waited already at the bottom. The girl, older and ladylike, picked her way down by a twisting stone path. Giovanni seized her by the waist, hoisted her in the air and dropped her on his shoulders. Then the two men began to chase one another round the pasture to the accompaniment of delighted screams from their charges.
‘Now, Nadia,’ said Grazia firmly when she saw her grandchildren in safe custody. ‘Take me back to the house. I think it’s time you told me about your visions.’
Nadia supposed at first it was a simple dream, that she was a small child again and lay on a silk-draped suffah in a beautiful garden. Roses grew all round her. The perfume of their newly-opened buds wafted through the arbours and over the walls and terraces. There were arboreta of cherry and citrus, and shrubberies of oleander, myrtle and tamarisk. The scattered miniature pavilions were covered in cascading jasmine.
She seemed to recognise the place, not as any real garden she had ever visited, but as a scene from a story she had once heard, or as a picture from a book. At her head, a tiny fountain spurted into a pool filled with golden carp; at her feet, a pair of peacocks strutted in all their finery on a lawn of chamomile.
As she searched her memory for the name and location of this paradise, she found herself looking down at the scene from afar, as if the wish, that she recapture its joys, had lifted her out of her body and transported her to some ethereal plane.
The girl on the suffah rose and, passing along an avenue of cedars, came to another spot where two fast-running streams from unseen parts of the garden met and flowed together over a rocky ledge into a cleft. At its foot, the waters poured then into a black cauldron in which they bubbled and frothed as if heated by an invisible fire.
When she reached the water’s edge, the girl turned round and Nadia saw to her horror that she had been transformed. Instead of the appealing features of a child, she had the wide snout, fierce eyes and snarling jaws of a wild beast. The rest of her too began to change and in the space of two heartbeats Nadia saw only a feline creature with a lithe, muscular body, glossy coat striped in black and gold, and massive, flesh-tearing paws.
It leapt over the ledge. The garden vanished. Now Nadia was looking down on a wasteland of sand, rock and decaying vegetation. The black cauldron was still there, pouring forth its contents into a wide river that wended its way through grey gorges and over the featureless landscape. On the far side was a human figure shrouded in grey. Though Nadia could not see its face, her heart gave a leap of anguish for she knew without doubt that it was Hassan. He approached the cauldron. Drank from it. On the near bank crouched the tiger, watching him. Its gold and black haunches were drawn up, its huge ringed tail swung lazily back and forth and its ferocious teeth were bared in a snarl. Something lay between its paws, something that had human shape even if it was no living creature. It’s features and robes were black and on its head it wore a black crown.
Nadia gasped even as the vision ended. Her heart was beating very fast. She knew only too clearly the meaning of what she had seen. The object caught between the tiger’s claws had been a piece from a game of chess. It was the shah mata – the toppled black king.
‘A tiger and a cauldron?’ said Grazia. ‘Like all dreams, it is fantasy.’
‘Yet it has meaning,’ said Nadia. ‘The Persian storytellers are fond of symbols, of allegory. It is what you call …’ She closed her eyes, searching for a word. ‘… metaphor, I think. People are likened to objects or animals they resemble … in stature, appearance, or trait of character.’
‘It’s a common element too in our poetry.’
‘The cauldron and the toppled chess piece mean danger for Hassan. That I know.’
‘I know it, Mama. The word for cauldron in the Turkish language is ghazan – the name of Arghun’s eldest son.’
‘And the tiger, Nadia? What danger do you speak of?’
‘I do not yet know, but in my heart …’ She seemed distracted and broke off in mid sentence. When she spoke again her voice was almost inaudible. ‘… farzin-band.’
Grazia caught the word but did not understand its meaning. ‘What is farzin-band?’
At the sound of the question, Nadia snapped out of her daydream. ‘You are familiar with the game of chess, Mama,’ she said. ‘I will show you.’
In the room in which they sat was a small table, its surface inlaid with red and white sandalwood, the colours alternating in a pattern of sixty-four squares. Nadia went to a closet and returned with a box containing a set of chess pieces. She selected a few and placed them on the board.
‘Now, Mama, you will play black and I shall be white.’
Grazia studied the disposition of the pieces. Her king lay two squares from the left corner, protected only by a castle and a stray pawn. At the opposite end of the board, the white king and queen sat together, as if presiding over the game.
‘But you have placed me in check, Nadia,’ she cried.
‘It is as you say, Mama. You cannot capture the asb – the horseman – for he is three squares away. And the rukh cannot help you – nor the foot-soldier. There is but one move open to you.’
Tentatively, Grazia slid her king one square to the left. She knew it was hopeless, that it was only a matter of time, but she wished to see the game played out to the end.
Nadia moved and it was over.
‘Now you see the power of the queen,’ she said. ‘How subtly she weaves her magic; how skilfully she commands the battlefield. Farzin-band! She protects or she deals the death blow!’
‘We women are stronger than men think,’ said Grazia. ‘Nevertheless I still do not grasp the metaphor.’
‘My son wishes to go to Ghazan,’ said Nadia, ‘… to the cauldron. Perhaps he believes he can help him gain a throne that is rightfully his.’
‘Then Gaikatu Khan is the tiger?’
‘No, Mama!’ She flicked the black king with a forefinger and it toppled on the board. ‘Gaikatu is already dead!’
‘Dead! How can you know that?’
‘I know it, Mama. Be it God’s breath in my ear, or the whisperings of a sinister daeva, I know it.’ Nadia reached forward and placed her hand on top of Grazia’s and the two women sat in silence for several moments.
‘Then the tiger is Baidu?’ Grazia said at length.
Nadia shook her head and pressed the other’s hand.
‘I do not know who the tiger is,’ she said, ‘but I know for certain that therein lies the danger. My son is still a child.’
‘He’s fifteen. Already a warrior, I hear.’
‘A warrior in a man’s world,’ said Nadia. ‘In the ways of women, he is an innocent!’
She paused and pressed Grazia’s hand even more tightly.
‘I may not fully understand the meaning of the tiger,’ she said solemnly, ‘but this I know. The tiger is king among beasts, but it is also queen! It is the farzin! You see, Mama, the creature in my vision was a she-tiger. It was a female!’
‘So soon, Hassan?’
Hassan faced his mother across the room. Her eyes were pleading. He felt his small sister tugging at his tunic, trying to lead him off for yet another game in the garden. Her brother too had transferred his allegiance and was being dandled on Giovanni’s knee.
He was torn in two. Here in Italy were all the people he truly loved in the world, and he meant to leave them to risk his life on an adventure among people he scarcely knew. And he did not even understand why. He might never return to Venice, might never see little Yasmina or Nico again, might never again feel the warmth of his mother’s smile or the sensitive touch of her hand on his cheek. As for Giovanni, who for four years had been his protector, his mentor and friend, and the father he had always wanted, Hassan could scarcely bear to contemplate a life from which he was absent. Yet he seemed to be drawn by invisible chains more powerful than the combined power of the love he was leaving behind. Destiny called to him and he must heed its call.
‘If I do not go now, I may have to wait four months for another ship,’ he said. The tugging of his tunic became more insistent and he looked down. The child’s eyes were deep brown and they fastened on him, wide and innocent.
‘Are you going ‘way, ‘Sano?’
‘Only for a little while, Yasmina cara,’ Hassan replied. He did not know when, or if, he would return to Venice, but he knew no words to express such an uncertainty to an adoring sister. ‘And when I come back I shall bring you a grand present – perhaps some sweetmeats, or a yashmak of the finest silk so you can become a Persian princess.’
The boy took this as a signal to slide from Giovanni’s lap. He began bouncing up and down in excitement.
‘Me, ‘Sano. Me too!’
‘Of course, Nico. You shall have a little wooden sword, and become conqueror of the world.’ Hassan picked the infant up, held him close and nuzzled his hair. He could feel the rapid, steady beat of his brother’s heart against his chest. For a moment his own seemed to have stopped. His eyes were still on his mother’s face.
‘What is four months?’ Nadia was saying. ‘What are twelve? You are young, just fifteen. Wait at least until Umid returns to Venice.’
‘He promised to bring us news within two years,’ added Giovanni. ‘There is bound to be a Turkish merchantman docking at the Arsenal before summer is in.’
‘My mind is made up,’ Hassan said. ‘I pray you do not make the parting more difficult.’
‘What else is a mother to do?’ said Nadia. She was fighting back her tears. ‘But if you will not listen to me, or to Giovanni, think of the little ones. See how little Nico clings to your neck and Yasmina clutches your tunic. Are you to deny them the love and companionship of an elder brother?’
‘To leave them will be an agony, because I love them. But you will not dissuade me, Mother. And have I not promised to come back to them?’ Hassan tried to remain light-hearted and convincing but there was a lump in his throat.
‘Then, Hassan …’
‘Take a mother’s love with you and …’ She was stumbling over the words, trying to stifle her anguish, to hide her misgivings. ‘Promise … promise me … you will take great care.’
‘And will you also promise me something, Assano di Montecervino?’ said Giovanni. ‘I’m proud to give you my name, and I beg you be proud to bear it. But once in Persia beware how you use it. There may be some who remember!’
Nadia sat alone on the terrace. Grey clouds had settled over the distant hills, obscuring the setting sun. Their undersides were tinged with red. For the time of year it was unusually cool, and Nadia had wrapped a heavy shawl round her brocaded gown. Since Hassan’s departure for Venice, she had been haunted by the memory of her vision and, indeed, scenes from the banks of the wide river had twice flashed before her eyes. In the first, the tiger had leapt across the current and stood between the cauldron and the shadowy figure in grey. In the second, tiger and human figure were fused together in a chimera that was at once both and neither.
As she sat watching evening fall over the estate, other memories from long ago crowded into Nadia’s mind. She turned away from the setting sun and lifted her eyes instead towards the darkening skies of the Orient.
Too late, Nadia knew the identity of the tiger. The wheel of destiny had already been spun and she was helpless to check it.
‘He has gone!’ She spoke aloud into the dusk. ‘He has gone, and I have not told him.’
[to be continued]