The Tiger and the Cauldron(23)

Chapter 23

Sabbah took the second villa with scarcely a fight. Two officers and two common soldiers were brought down by Ali’s arrows and the rest of the garrison, eight in all, capitulated and were sworn in as members of the rebel band. Maragha was theirs. Five other young men, citizens of the town, learning of a probable expedition against Baidu, volunteered to join them, increasing the size of the company to forty-one.

Hassan, his decision made, left Doquz to discuss tactics with the Commander and paid a last visit to his uncle. Their expedition would travel light and he needed somewhere to leave his possessions. It was important too, in case he should never return from Alamut, that one person at least know his fate. Shirazi would find a way of sending a message to Venice.

News of the rebels’ victory and of the Governor’s execution had already reached the Observatory and had caused a great deal of excitement. Hassan was besieged with questions and extricated himself only with difficulty from a group of enthusiastic scholars.

Shirazi was in a sombre mood. ‘The sooner you are gone, the better,’ he said. ‘Only then will the chatter stop. Tabriz has left the Observatory alone only because the generals think our work unimportant. I cannot help you any more, Hassan. If they suspect me of aiding rebels …’

‘I ask nothing more of you, Uncle,’ said Hassan. ‘You have given more help already than we had the right to expect. Still, I would value your advice.’

‘I hate war, Hassan,’ Shirazi said grimly. ‘My advice is: go back to your mother and the safety of Venice!’

‘It’s advice you know I cannot take,’ said Hassan. ‘My reason tells me you are right, but my heart does not listen.’

The Master nodded. ‘Young men’s hearts are too easily turned from reason and wisdom by young women’s words. By their faces and forms too! And Mistress Doquz has many qualities a man might find appealing.’

‘You think so?’ Hassan felt his cheeks flush. He swallowed hard. ‘It is about her I would consult you … or, rather, not about Doquz only, but womankind in general.’

Shirazi did not answer immediately but merely tapped his nose with his forefinger.

‘You know,’ he said after what seemed a long, embarrassing silence. ‘I have lost count of the students who have passed through this school. Most were of average ability. You were a good pupil, Hassan; I will spare you vanity by saying no more. Of the others, few showed greater promise than the girl you call a sister. Were women to be prized for their intellect rather than coveted for their beauty she might have been the greatest of them all. Yet, had I known her to be a girl when she came to me, I would … could not have taught her.

‘Such are the conventions we men are brought up to observe: it is men who are the stronger … the more courageous; it is they who must wield the swords, who must manage the finances and administer the laws; women are the consorts only; it is their task to bring grace, comfort and pleasure to men’s lives.’

‘Is that not true … as a general rule?’

‘Yes, Hassan. Yet is it not a matter that our reason or our hearts decide, but something instilled in us from the moment of birth. Apply reason and logic and you see a different picture of the world. Does not the bearing of children demand from a woman the strength of body and mind as great as that of any warrior? For nine months to have her body carry the foetus, to have it struggle forth into the light, straining flesh and bone, tearing vessel and sinew, bringing her pain the equal of the deepest sword cut – does that not demand courage and endurance the equal of any prince or general?

‘And there is another pain a woman must suffer – an agony of the heart, greater than that of any father: to watch her son die in a futile war for some misguided cause!’

As the truth of these words impressed itself upon him, Hassan thought suddenly of his mother. He had been aware of her pain at their parting. How much greater would that pain be were he never to return?

‘You understand me only too well, Hassan,’ Shirazi went on. ‘I can see it in your face. So I repeat my advice, even though I know you will ignore it. Go back to Venice!’

‘I am driven in another direction.’

‘I know.’ Again Shirazi tapped his nose. He looked more solemn than ever. ‘The heart! Oh Hassan, … Hassan … a man would be a poor philosopher indeed if he lived his life by logic alone. In your years at Maragha I taught you all I could of mathematics and history … of physic and geometry. Listen, and I will give you a lesson in the science of womankind, a science in which, despite my fifty winters, I am only a novice.

‘This much I have learnt, Hassan. Men love in a woman the virtues they can see. They are driven to passion by the flashing of her eye, by the fullness of her breasts, the gentle curve of her hips, the smoothness of her thighs and the intriguing mystery of her sex. Woman are moved by what they hear and feel. They respond to the soft voice and the gentle touch. The man who thinks only of his own pleasure may enjoy many women but will never truly love or be loved by any. He may beget sons and daughters but will never know the joys of fatherhood.

‘Be guided by those principles, Hassan, and whether your destiny is scholar, warrior or prince, you will be a better man.’ He gave a rare smile. ‘Now, if you will not take my advice, the least you can do is tell me of your plans.’

‘I am going to Alamut! Doquz plans to unite with the emirs in Ghazan’s cause. Our objective will be to cut Baidu’s supply lines and reach Qazvin.’

‘May Allah and good fortune go with you,’ said Shirazi. ‘As to Ghazan’s cause, there are other rumours that he has surrounded himself with Islamic advisers and that his commander-in-chief is of the true faith.’

‘Ghazan has embraced Islam himself, we are told.’

‘Such a thing happened once before, with Teguder,’ said Shirazi, ‘and look what came of it. Still, with you and Captain Dokhan on the side of order perhaps there is hope for Persia after all.’

*

Doquz sat on the villa roof watching the sun sink over the city. It had been a long day.

There could be no doubt now, if there ever had been since her raid on the treasury, that the Il-khan knew the identity of the Tiger captain. Kamal had only confirmed what she knew in her heart to be true. And it thrilled her to think that she had kept one step ahead of him and his anger. But it would be foolish to remain at Maragha. Knowing what she had done, Baidu’s lieutenants would pursue her with greater intensity than ever.

Yet in following the road to Alamut she would face challenges of a different kind. Ghazan had played the religious card and, for the first time, she would be playing it too. It was a dangerous course to follow. Doquz knew enough of the Muslims’ creed to make her fearful of where Ghazan’s conversion, genuine or pragmatic, might lead. The Islamic movement had been denied expression for two generations as successive Il-khan’s had, either through their own tolerance or indifference, or as a matter of deliberate policy, allowed Jews, Christians and Buddhists to fill posts in the civil service out of proportion with their numbers. The accession of a Muslim Il-khan could lead to stability or it could lead to chaos.

Two sentries passed her and laid the flat of their scimitars across their chests in a salute. Doquz rubbed her left arm. It throbbed but much less painfully than before and she marvelled at the miracle that enabled her to move it freely for the first time in days. Since noon she had bathed it once as Shirazi had instructed, had applied the poultice of crushed leaves, and had swallowed another of the pain deadening draughts made to the Master’s prescription.

Had she made the right decision, she wondered? By joining with the rebel emirs, she would not be pursuing her personal quarrel with lesser force. However, it meant abandoning the newly-captured villa to possible reoccupation by the Tabriz militia without enhancing Ghazan’s chance of victory. Sabbah and the others had supported her but she had seen disappointment in Hassan’s face despite his agreement to come with them. She needed to know that his skills were offered willingly and without reservation. His spontaneous agreement in the aftermath of an exciting victory was not enough.

Doquz ran her finger lightly along her bandage. She realised it would soon be dark and that the parapet of the roof would make an uncomfortable bed. She realised too that she was in need of other company. As the sentries passed again, she rose, went indoors and descended the inner stairs to the room where she and Hassan had taken breakfast.

*

Hassan felt suddenly cool and pulled the single blanket over his chest. He had drawn a pitcher of water from the well in the atrium, had washed himself all over and to add to his comfort had shed his clothing. On his return from the Observatory, Doquz had assembled the whole band in front of the portico where she had announced her plans for the journey. He had not seen her since.

As darkness fell he had lit a lamp and set it on top of the tallboy. It still burned cheerfully, throwing out its light with a minimum of shadow, but it was neither strong nor bright enough to reach the door, nor to penetrate to the further corners of the chamber. He lay still and listened to the sounds of the night, to animal calls from the woods, chirping insects and the occasional tread of footsteps on the stairs or shuffling of feet across the atrium. He was tired, but the constant whirring of excitement in his brain denied him the absolute rest his limbs needed.

He lay on his right side, then on his left, but finding neither position conducive to sleep, he propped his pillow against the wall, sat up with his knees raised and pulled the blanket up under his chin. The ceiling creaked and there were muffled sounds of movement in the room above. The lamp burned less brightly. Hassan closed his eyes and tried to imagine the vine-covered hills of the Po Valley and the tiny figures of Nico and Yasmina playing in the garden.

He could see the children but much as he tried he found he was unable to hold their images in his mind. He formed instead a picture of Djamila as she had been that day on the mountain, her eyes moist and her arm scarred beyond the skills of any physician to heal.

It is better the past is buried, he thought he heard her say. Why, he wondered, and what was so important about that past that Baidu’s knowledge of it put him in danger?

Your mother is a high-born lady. He was no longer a prince of the new dynasty, and truly never had been. Was it possible that he could be one of the old?

Baidu knows. The words repeated over and over in his head and he could feel himself drifting into slumber. His eyes became heavy.

Your mother is a high-born lady. Baidu knows

The door latch clicked in the darkness and the new sound startled him.

‘‘Tis Doquz, Hassan. May I enter?’

She spoke so quietly that Hassan thought for an instant he was in another dream. Then he opened his eyes, remembering where he was.

‘If it pleases you.’ His heart began beating faster.

Doquz was carrying the full pitcher in her right hand. The muscles of her sinewy arm were taught and her shoulder was bent forward by the weight. She laid her burden on a section of bare flooring at the foot of the second bed.

‘Your hospitality is too generous,’ she said with a nervous laugh. ‘All the beds are occupied and I will not bathe in the atrium in full view of passing company. You and I are used to one another, I think.’

She took off her outer jerkin, leggings and inner garments and laid them on the bed, then plunged her whole head into the pitcher. She came up dripping, allowed the water to run over her body and massaged her wet skin with her hands. The lamp was low, but Hassan could see her clearly enough. Though he had seen her naked before, this was a wholly different ritual, one more private and intimate it seemed than he had ever observed in another human being. His sense of decorum should have demanded that he avert his eyes but he could not bring himself to do so. He watched her.  As he had observed already, her hips were not wide, but at the base of her spine, where her buttocks curved outwards was a small depression he had not previously noticed. As she half turned, the water still glistening on her breasts, he felt his belly tightening under her gaze. The bandage on her left arm, though now soaked, was still in place and he imagined the scar beneath, something that belonged to him like a trophy he had won and would preserve as long as life remained in him.

Doquz appeared unconcerned by his attention. She finished washing, wrung out her hair and, having pulled off her boots, bathed her feet one at a time in the pitcher. Finally, she sat on the divan and wrapped the blanket round her wet person.

‘Forgive me,’ she said, catching his eye and holding his gaze.

‘What am I to forgive?’ he asked.

‘Sometimes I play the role of Tiger Princess too well,’ she said. ‘I command when I should entreat, and presume when I should defer. I need you with me at Alamut, Hassan.’

‘And I have told you I’ll come.’

‘But willingly?’ she persisted. ‘Maragha was your goal, and now you are there.’

‘It’s true I came to Persia with thoughts of learning,’ said Hassan, ‘and that this house reminds me of things that once were, and other things that might have been. But I had other thoughts too. I had not forgotten my grandfather, or Ghazan …’ His cheeks burned and he swallowed to relieve his dry throat, ‘ … or you. Perhaps one day there will be time for scholarship and travel, but that day has not come. I’ll go with you to Zanjan, and to Alamut, because it is my wish. And were our destination to be China or the deserts of Arabia, I would follow you just as willingly, not because you command it but because you are my …’

Still clutching the blanket with her right hand, Doquz withdrew her left and extended it towards him. Hassan took the hand and held it.

‘ … sister?’ she finished for him in a voice that was scarcely audible.

‘And friend. Yes.’

They were silent for a while, warmed by each other’s touch. Outside, the occasional chirp of insects had become a chorus. The creaking of the ceiling and the muffled sounds from above were repeated.

‘Do you remember that time at Urmia?’ Doquz asked at length.

‘Urmia?’

‘You’ve forgotten. I was afraid of that. We went there with Arghun and his retinue, and we played together. We hid from your mother among the shrubbery, and you held my hand tightly as you are doing now.’

‘I haven’t forgotten.’

‘And we lay together in the grass while the cicadas were calling all around us. And Nadia called to us and said we could not stay there forever. Do you remember what I said to you then?’

‘That you wished we could.’ Hassan’s words came only with difficulty. ‘And when the time came …  when it was time for us to die, they would find us there together  …’

‘ … with our bodies stiff and cold,’ whispered Doquz, ‘so that they would not be able to separate them! I was ten and did not properly understand what I felt.’

Hassan was trembling all over. The blanket slipped from his chin and he tried to retrieve it but his fumbling only caused it to slip further.

‘We were children,’ he stammered.

‘But we are no longer,’ said Doquz, rising from her divan and sitting on the edge of his. Her blanket was damp. She let go his hand and touched him lightly on the shoulder then ran her fingers down the scar left by the wound she had made in his chest. He felt a thrill of delight pass through him. ‘Nor are we true brother and sister. And I think now my words were truly meant.’

‘Doquz …’ Hassan heard himself speak her name, but could think of no way to express his confused feelings.

‘I’ve done terrible things, Hassan,’ continued Doquz, ‘I’ve been sickened by blood and by my own anger and hate. But through all that, you have never been far away from my thoughts. You were always more than just a brother to me and, yes, I think my words then were truly meant. Would you lie with me again, Hassan? Just as we did all those years ago?’

Hassan’s tongue had frozen and he imagined his throat was closing up. He wanted to reach out and hold her but he was afraid she would laugh at his clumsiness. He cursed his hesitation and his inexperience. None of Shirazi’s advice was of any help to him. Doquz would find that he was only a boy. If he responded to her he would be made to look a fool; if he did not she would be angered.

Doquz had taken his silence for refusal. She pouted and tossed her wet hair.

‘Go back to Venice then, if that’s what you want,’ she cried petulantly. ‘Marry your Italian merchant’s granddaughter, your Mistress Luciana, if that is your fancy. You do not realise what you are throwing away!’

She pulled away from him abruptly but in the act of rising removed his covering from him completely.

‘No, wait! Please!’ Before she had gone two paces, he leapt from the bed. He had recovered his speech but in his continuing confusion seized the edge of the blanket she gripped in her right hand.

Doquz allowed the blanket to fall to the floor. She turned back to face him. Hassan’s face burned more fiercely than ever.

‘I don’t want to marry Lucy,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want you to go. It is only …’

Doquz’s expression softened in a flash of understanding. ‘Sshhh, my poor Hassan,’ she breathed. ‘So, you are not the practised lover. That does not matter – none of it! You were ever gentle with me when I was small, and now I see in front of me only great beauty.’ She touched him again on the chest then very gently slid her hand towards his groin. ‘What you do not know I will teach.’

Hassan drew her clumsily towards him and pressed his lips to hers. He could feel her nipples hard against his chest and her hand between his legs, coaxing him. His whole body was on fire. Doquz drew her mouth away and he thought she was resisting but immediately she raised both her arms and threw them around his neck. Her damp hair cooled his fiery cheeks.

She led him back to the divan, caressing him fiercely. Her lips and tongue fondled his eyes and his ears. Her hands slid over his back to the base of his spine, manipulating the skin and bone and sending shivers of pleasure through him. Her long fingers dug deeply into the muscles of his legs.

Hassan felt the desire surge within him. He pulled her down on the bed, responding to her caresses with his own. The lamp went out.

Doquz was trembling. She was nuzzling his neck and Hassan could hear her quickened breathing. Her unseen hands fumbled for his and for a few moments she seemed to be holding him at bay. Then, with a sigh of contentment, she drew him towards her again and enfolded him in her warmth until their two bodies became one in the darkness.

[to be continued]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s