The Tiger and the Cauldron(19)

Chapter 19


‘It’s intolerable, Master!’ Suleiman al-Urdi brought his fist down so hard that the topmost of a stack of books leapt from the table and landed on the floor.

Shirazi regarded him impassively. Even learned mathematicians sometimes lost their tempers.

‘What would you have me do, Suleiman?’ he asked gently.

Al-Urdi was determined to vent fully his feelings. ‘Not content with commandeering the best villas to house their rabble garrison, they insist on performing manoeuvres every three hours at our very gates. I cannot work; I cannot sleep; I cannot even think!’

‘So, what would you have me do?’ Shirazi repeated, but rather more loudly than before. He picked up the book and returned it to the stack. ‘Baidu is intent on increasing the military presence here and I cannot stop him. He will not risk another Zanjan, or Arbil.’

‘The Tigers will not attack Maragha,’ said al-Urdi forcefully. ‘Anyway, I hear they have gone east to Lake Van.’

‘Calm yourself, my friend. You may be right, but he is Il-khan’, not I.’

‘Can you not speak to the military governor? If these distractions continue I’ll lose my mind.’

Shirazi took a pen and some parchment and began copying a passage of writing from an already-open volume in front of him. From outside his window came the sound of men marching and the clank of weapons. He tried to ignore it.

‘What do we know of these rebels, Suleiman,’ he enquired, ‘… these Tigers and their leader? Fact and gossip.’

‘I know only the gossip, Master. They strike and disappear again like lightning. Small patrols, weapon stores, army billets.’ Al-Urdi’s temper was beginning to cool but he continued striking the table as he spoke, though less violently and only with his fingers. ‘A few of Baidu’s men die; others disappear. Even some caravans have been attacked, but only those carrying supplies to the Khan’s army. That much we know. The Tigers are brigands, but very selective brigands, it appears.’

‘A brigand is a brigand, my friend,’ said Shirazi, laying down his pen and looking up from his copying. ‘Could they be allied to Ghazan?’

‘It’s possible, Master. According to the rumours, they are shielded by the populace wherever they go. When they steal, they dispense their gains to the poorer folk. Whoever knew of a bandit who steals in order to give away again? And I heard the strong room in Tabriz Castle was plundered again.’

‘I heard that too. And these Tigers are blamed? Surely the treasury vaults are impregnable,’ said Shirazi dubiously. He paused, his curiosity aroused. ‘But you said again.’

‘The first was three years ago, the first spring after Gaikatu’s accession, again according to rumour. A month before the solstice. But it was kept secret.’

The date struck a chord in Shirazi’s mind, but he could not remember why. He listened. The noise outside his window had ceased a few minutes ago, but it began again.

‘Of course. These things are always denied. Anything more?’

Al-Urdi scratched his bald head.

‘I hesitate to mention it, Master, but one of the more outrageous rumours is that this band of brigands and rebels is led by a woman …  ‘

‘Aha,’ said Shirazi. He permitted himself the trace of a smile.

‘… yet not a woman,’ the mathematician finished.

‘A woman, yet not a woman,’ echoed the Master of Maragha. He had more copying to do and was growing tired of this conversation. ‘That is a riddle indeed.’

‘A chimera. A phantasm, if you like,’ went on al-Urdi, undaunted by the sarcasm, ‘… with the breasts of a woman and the genitals of a man.’

‘Aha,’ said Shirazi for the second time. He bent towards his copying. The courtyard outside was again quiet. ‘No, Suleiman, I do not think we have anything to worry about. But I shall speak to the Governor.’

When he was finally alone, Shirazi sighed and resumed his work. He had heard some of the rumours, but not the last one. It amused him and, as he thought of the opportunities it might present to someone of Baidu’s disposition, he laughed softly to himself. However, as this unnatural picture faded, he found that another was forming in his mind’s eye, that of a face, one he had thought a boy’s but which had been in reality a girl’s.

‘I wonder,’ said Shirazi aloud to the empty library. ‘I wonder what became of her.’

As his concentration was now gone, he rose from his chair. Through the window he saw that the courtyard and the road leading to the Observatory gates were empty. It was nearly noon. Shirazi left the library, turned into the corridor leading to his personal quarters and pushed open the second door he came to. The room was no more than a cell with shelves on either side, and a small window between, giving just enough light for reading. On the shelves were several scrolls of parchment, a few very dusty books and some other loose papers.

Shirazi counted from the right and took down the third scroll, a record of Maragha’s finances during the nineteenth year of his tenure. He opened it out and scanned it, stopping at an entry made just a week prior to midsummer’s day. Shirazi raised his eyebrows as he read the amount deposited – a large sum in gold and silver coin.

‘I wonder,’ he said again. ‘Indeed, I wonder.’

He was about to replace the scroll when he heard the sound of hurrying feet in the corridor. Another scholar about to complain about the military presence, he thought.

‘Master! Master Shirazi!’

Shirazi had already decided there was no point in speaking to the governor, a rather unpleasant individual by the name of al-Mulk. Baidu, he knew, cared nothing for the work of the Observatory, and even less for the comfort of its scholars.

‘Master Shirazi!’ The feet had reached the library.

Shirazi stepped out into the corridor to ascertain the cause of the commotion and collided with the stout figure of an elderly domestic. The man was panting from exertion.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Master, but there are two youths at the gate.’

‘Two youths?’ said Shirazi, relieved. For a single moment he had wondered if the improbable had occurred and the town was under attack by the mythical Tigers. ‘Is that all?’

‘They are very outspoken and insist on seeing you.’

‘Insist? Two students?’

‘No, Master Shirazi. Neither are scholars. They are strangers, and one wears the armour of an officer. The other is a civilian but very bloody and armed with a naked sword. I came to find you straight away, Master. He calls himself Mahmoud Hassan and claims to be your nephew!’


Shirazi recovered quickly from his surprise. There was no doubt that, beneath the blood and sweat, the face of one of the visitors was that of his niece’s son. After more than thirty years, he still remembered the youthful features of Kartir Ahmed, the man his sister had married, and the boy standing in front of him was his grandfather’s image.

His nose was rather too large, giving him a haughty expression, but otherwise it was a handsome face with a broad, high forehead and determined mouth. The hair covering his jaw and chin had just begun to thicken. Only the eyes belonged to Nadia, deep brown and compassionate and seemingly showing an understanding of the world far beyond his years. At their last meeting, Hassan had barely reached his shoulder, but now he was slightly taller and Shirazi did not doubt he was still growing.

The other youth too seemed familiar. Few senior officers of the Il-khan’s army entered the Observatory gate and Shirazi usually treated them with polite indifference. He rarely looked closely at their faces, partly because of his dislike of anything military, and partly because he feared they would take his curiosity for impertinence. However, this visitor’s ardent eyes and dark brows were distinctive.

Shirazi dismissed the domestic and took his unexpected guests to his own study. His alarm at the sight of the blood was quickly dispelled.

‘It is not mine, Uncle, I swear,’ Hassan assured him. ‘It is for my comrade that I beg assistance.’

‘If he is your comrade, I will help him if I can,’ said Shirazi, with a glance at the stranger’s bandaged arm and plumed helmet. He still could not quite place the face. But here was a situation that demanded tact as well as sympathy. ‘Yet it is a strange companionship – my nephew, a man of business it seems, and an officer in His Majesty’s militia. A battalion captain if I’m not mistaken, and a young one too. That at least is deserving of an explanation, as is your presence here in Persia, Master Hassan. When did you return, and how is your mother? It has been more than two years since I had news of her.’

‘I shall give you the news later,’ said Hassan, ‘but first I have need of your physic, and of your discretion.’

‘Of course,’ said Shirazi. Again he looked at the helmet and its wearer’s soft, feminine features. ‘May I know your name?’

The ardent Mongol eyes looked back at him defiantly, but there was amusement in the glare too. The captain’s helmet was raised and Shirazi found himself gazing in amazement at the face he had last seen almost three years ago.

The girl shook down her hair. ‘Dokhan will serve well enough as a name for curious ears,’ she said lightly, ‘though I think you know me well enough, Master Shirazi.’

‘Then I pray Allah you permit me to sit down, Captain Dokhan,’ said Shirazi. He laid great stress on the name. ‘It’s not every day I am confronted by two of my most excellent pupils. And yes, it is a strange companionship indeed,’ he went on, half to himself. ‘The more so, if I see before me the Shir-Farzin, the Tiger Princess I’ve heard so much about lately!’

[to be continued]

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