The Tiger and the Cauldron(41)

Chapter 41

Sabbah slammed the door shut and turned the key savagely in the lock. He inspected his thumb on which the blood had begun to congeal.

‘You heard?’ he demanded of Sayyid and Mujir, neither of whom had moved from his position as guard.

‘We heard.’

‘You will forget!’ Sabbah growled. ‘Swear it.’

‘I swear,’ said Mujir hastily. ‘No one will learn anything from my lips, not even Ali.’

‘And I, Commander,’ said Sayyid. ‘I owe the Captain my life and, lies or truth, I will say nothing as long as that life lasts. Nor will any word of mine harm Hassan, though our friendship did not have the most promising start.’

Sabbah put an arm on each of their shoulders.

‘You and I have been through too much for me to doubt you,’ he said. ‘Now go and join your other comrades. I wish to speak with the Princess and Hassan alone.’

He ushered them out of the corridor, then led Hassan and Doquz into the garden.

‘None of it is true,’ said Hassan.

‘None of it?’ said Sabbah. ‘What is the least credible – that you are brother and sister, or that you have been lovers behind my back?’

When they were both silent, he went on, ‘I told you once, Hassan, what I would do if the Princess was harmed at your hand. Do not think even after what we have been and done together that I have changed my mind. That you have been bedfellows I know, for I am no fool to miss what is so obvious. But that is by far the lesser sin in the eyes of man or God. You will give me your word now that you had no inkling of this alleged kinship, for if I believed for one second that you even suspected what Baidu claims, be it false or otherwise, I will certainly forget our recent friendship.’

‘You have my word. I swear it on the lives of Nico and Yasmina, my true brother and sister.’

‘I believe you, Hassan. And will you both give me your word on something else. While you may deny my beliefs, I know you respect them. Keep yourselves apart except in friendship until you see me again. For friendship’s sake! I am going on an errand … one that has already waited too long.’

‘An errand?’ said Doquz. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘For the new empire, Princess, and my own conscience! Do not ask more of me yet. In a week I shall be back in Tabriz, Allah willing. You promise to do what I ask?’

‘You know you are dear to me, Ahmed,’ said Doquz. ‘What I will do for your sake I would do for no other. I promise to remain chaste until you return.’

‘And I,’ agreed Hassan, ‘for there is no other I desire to bed.’

***

‘Can it be true, Hassan?’ asked Doquz.

They had returned to the castle and for the first time since Shir Kuh were alone together. Sabbah had gone on his mysterious errand without another word of explanation.

Every sinew in Hassan’s body, every single one of his senses told him that Baidu’s tale was a fabrication. Djamila’s hints of a mystery attending his birth had done much to prepare him for a revelation that his true father might be other than he had always supposed. However, nothing could have prepared him for such absurdity, for such malicious slander and insinuation.

For as long as he could remember, until past his eleventh birthday, Arghun had been his father, in fact as well as in law, and until Giovanni had come along that had always satisfied him. But for him to accept that he was also Arghun’s natural son was a step too far. What possible motive could Nadia have for keeping such a secret from him?

‘No, it’s a lie,’ he repeated for what he knew was the third or fourth time. ‘My mother would have told me.’

‘Yet to have it thus would not be so bad,’ mused Doquz. ‘We were brother and sister once. To be so again would be no shame.’

‘We were more, Doquz.’

‘More, Hassan? Truly? Yes, I shared my body with you, and it was a delight. But passions fade. Baidu is right in one respect. Flesh will in time repel flesh. We both know it. Is there not more to being sister and brother than all that; is the tie of kinship not the stronger?’

‘Was our pleasure nothing that you would throw it away for a lie?’

‘Not for a lie, nor for a promise of eternal paradise, nor for any false morality. Oh, Hassan, can you not see? I have loved you all my life, as a brother and playmate. I love you still and will always do so – as friend, comrade and more. I long to draw you into me again, to feel you move inside me – to give pleasure and to take it. And if I am to bear a child, I would have it yours and no other’s.’

‘Then, truth or falsehood, it makes no difference,’ said Hassan. He reached out to hold her but she avoided his arms.

‘No, Hassan,’ she said. ‘‘Tis all the difference in the world. Because, whatever is in our hearts, it is the world that will judge us. True or false, there is reason and logic behind Baidu’s hate and malice. He saw how I embraced you, that day, when you returned with him to Tabriz … and how you look so lovingly at me today.’ She pouted mischievously. ‘Oh, yes, I saw you! And Baidu …and he made use of what he saw!

‘But all could not have been invention on the spur of a moment. His stroke against you was long planned. You know that from the tale Djamila told.’

She paused and, when he did not contradict her, went on earnestly. ‘What if you represented something that Oljeitu did not? Loved by Arghun – for I know you were, Hassan – yet of the old order, the Kings and Sultans, as well as the new? As a man you might bring the people together – Mongol and Persian, Muslim and Buddhist. Is that not something Baidu would fear, even if half were myth, and wish to prevent – others of my race too, if they knew? How could a boy not boast of such a parentage if he knew? Could it be that it was against such pride that Nadia desired to protect you?

‘You were safe in your ignorance and I was content in mine. But how can we go on without knowing what is true and what is not? Where can we go to be sure the truth will not catch up with us?’

‘We can find the Indian and kill him!’

‘Think, Hassan!’ she chided him. ‘Have you any idea how many Indians there are in Persia? And can you always tell an Indian from a Turk except by his habitual dress? Is Sabbah Persian or Mongol? Am I?’

‘We can go to Venice,’ Hassan said stubbornly.

‘And if Nadia confirms what you fear … that Arghun was your father too … what then? Our union would be proscribed in the Christian lands just as it is in the Muslim. No, Hassan, we must know if it true or not, and there is only one way! You must return to Venice and you must do so alone. ‘Tis for your mother to confirm or deny. Then you must choose.’

‘Choose, how?’

‘If the rumour is false, and you are not Arghun’s natural son, you may come back to me. I will wait, for I will have no other man touch me. If it is true, you may still return, for then we can be reunited as brother and sister. Or if your love for me is false, you may remain in Venice. Court your Luciana, now that you know how …’ She pouted again, but there was no sign of bitterness or anger in her voice. ‘Marry her if you wish and give her the sons and daughters you would deny me. I shall remain the Tiger Princess and die thinking of what might have been.’

Hassan did not respond. She was right, he acknowledged reluctantly; they could not hide from the truth. Yet for him to return to Venice now – to be separated from Doquz for a half year or longer when they had only just found one another – was a punishment too great to bear. He had to find another way to disprove Baidu’s story.

‘There is one other possibility!’ It came to him in a flash of inspiration.

‘Another?’ Doquz’s face brightened. ‘Tell me.’

‘My grandfather. Surely he will know. And Kerman is much closer than Venice. It’s less than three hundred parasangs by way of the Zagros foothills, just over two hundred and fifty by way of Rayy and Yazd. So says the map. I had a mind to visit and consulted it. With good horses, I can cover eighteen or nineteen parasangs in one day and, even if I cannot use the stations, I’m wealthy enough to purchase a dozen animals. That is less than a month for the double journey.’

‘You cannot continue at such a pace, Hassan. You must allow for proper rest, mishap and your grandfather’s hospitality … for he will wish to detain you.’

‘Let us say two months, then,’ said Hassan.

‘And if Kartir cannot help, what then?’

‘It will be enough if he can deny the possibility, for the words the Indian heard, if indeed he heard them at all, could have a different meaning. He is your son, My Lord. In truth I was, as you yourself said once, though not in blood. If Arghun could not have sired me, my grandfather will know. And if neither Arghun nor Mahmoud Hassan, then it would be Teguder, for he married her about this time. Then we are no more than cousins once removed.’

‘Go to Kerman then, Hassan, but do not go alone. Name your companions.’

‘I will have Sayyid and Ali, if they will come.’

‘Then find them. Go today! Do not waste a moment.’

‘What of Baidu?’

‘Remember what he himself said.’ Her mouth tightened and a harshness crept into her voice. She became the Tiger Princess again. ‘Can Ghazan ever feel secure as long as such a brother is free? It applies equally to a cousin! Baidu has condemned himself out of his own mouth. Only the time and the means are undecided.’

‘Then your hurt will be avenged. I shall be content with that.’

Doquz’s face relaxed and she smiled sadly. Her eyes lit in a way Hassan found beautiful. She clasped her hands round his head and he felt the warmth of her breath on his cheek. ‘I almost wish it all true, and that I were someone other than Doquz,’ she said. ‘You are the real prince, Hassan. Would it break our promise to Ahmed if you kissed me on the lips one more time. For so I think both siblings and lovers would part?’

*****

[The rest of the story will follow in a day or two]

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