The Tiger and the Cauldron[44]

Chapter 44

‘She is gone,’ said Sabbah. He rubbed his tears away and bent forward to kiss the dead woman on her bloodless lips.

Doquz touched his arm and turned away, moved by his grief but feeling none of her own. She had seen too many of her friends die to mourn a mother she had scarcely known.

‘What promise did she mean, Sabbah?’ she asked quietly. ‘And what did you mean earlier … that she was a woman who could love once?’

Sabbah seemed to awaken to the fact of his own wound. Without replying, he took off his corslet and pulled up his silk shirt to reveal the flesh beneath it. The hair on his belly was matted red.

‘Let me see, Ahmed,’ said Doquz, beckoning him away from the divan and over to the window. ‘Let me help you.’

She reached for a bundle of linen, cut a small piece from it, damped it with water and wiped away the excess blood. There was a broad gash on his right side at the level of his lowest rib.

‘It’s not too deep,’ she concluded, and traced a finger over the scar on his chest, ‘at least no worse than the cut I once gave you in a game. I will bandage it for you, while you tell me about my mother, and the promises you made to her!’ She picked up a dry bandage and began winding it round his body.

 ‘Where is Hassan?’ Sabbah asked her.

 ‘I sent him away. To Kerman. I sent him to his grandfather to learn the truth.’

‘And if the truth is what you both feared?’

‘‘Twill be Qisma, Ahmed. I will gain a brother, even if I lose a consort.’ She felt a surge of annoyance, paused in her task and pouted at him fiercely. ‘Is that not what you hoped? Because we displeased you by lying together?’

Sabbah shook his head. ‘Did I condemn you?’ he asked quietly. ‘Would even the All-wise condemn a union that was true?’

‘You knew all along?’

‘What Baidu could see in a moment … how could I, who know you so well, fail to notice? From the day you fought together on Sahand I observed a change in you, and rejoiced. Before then, you were bitter, hating all of mankind. Disavowing your womanhood and caring nothing for the temple that is your body! Hassan hurt you, Doquz, but you cherished that hurt because it was he who inflicted it.’

Doquz had finished with the bandage. She tied the ends and looked up to see that he was inspecting not her work but the scar above it. ‘Yes,’ she said simply.

‘Pain becomes pride,’ Sabbah added pensively. ‘So it is when you love!’

‘Ahmed!’ Finding hidden meaning in his words, she drew away from him. ‘You always denied it … when I tormented you mercilessly. An oath, you said …’

‘But not what you think, Doquz. I took an oath … made a promise, that is true, and it was that very promise that took me to Khoy, when I learned your mother had been sent there.’ He was not looking at her but at the woman on the divan. ‘It served its purpose well, to protect you as Nadia had protected Hassan. To preserve a deadly secret. That is what Tolaghan would have told you. May she be in peace!’ He sat down on a chair, took his two daggers from his sword belt and weighed them in his hands. ‘Why do you think I came for you – to the betrothal feast in Tabriz?’

‘You had been my father’s friend, you said.’

‘That was true, though there was a stronger motive.’ He tossed both daggers, once, caught them and, rather than look her in the eye, stared at the blades. ‘Even now that I’m released from my promise, I do not find it easy to speak of it. Your mother wrote me a letter! I destroyed it, because discovery would have meant death or greater enslavement for you both, but I can well remember the message. They are giving her to Baghdad. God forgive me, I can do nothing. Help if you can, but do not forget your promise.’

‘I do not understand, Sabbah.’

‘After buying my freedom from the Mamluks, I passed through Tabriz on my way to search for my brother. I saw Tolaghan briefly, and spoke to her. There was little she did not know – of your swordsmanship, of your months at Maragha, even of your attachment to Ibrahim – but she hid her knowledge from Gaikatu. And from you. Perhaps in her heart she hoped the sword-master would carry you off. And before you ask, no, she could not have prevented his fate!

‘But within a month, she sent after me to Baghcha, risking all. Baidu had demanded you as the price of peace. So I came for you. You know the rest.’

‘But why, Ahmed? I still do not understand!’

‘Do you not?’ he said. ‘It was in Khorasan I saw her first – Tolaghan, your mother. Abaqa appointed me as her escort. I thought her beautiful, but she was destined to be wedded to a man whom I had sworn to serve. But passion is sometimes stronger than duty, or than faith. I loved her!’

Loved her … my mother?’ Doquz exclaimed. ‘You cannot mean …?’

‘A love I never regretted for a moment! And I could never tell you, though your bitterness and obstinacy sometimes tore me apart … though your coquetry sometimes drove me to the limits of my endurance.’

The veil of bewilderment was lifted from Doquz’s eyes and she was dazzled by a truth so obvious that she wondered why it had never occurred to her before. There had been so many unanswered questions, so many silences she could not explain.

Sabbah replaced his daggers in his belt and, for the first time in many minutes, looked up at her. She noticed that his face was creased with new lines of care.

‘I could never tell you, Doquz,’ he said again, more gently. ‘My oath forbade me, so I invented another – to take no woman until my quest was over. And I speak now only to prevent a greater wrong.

‘Hassan may or may not be Arghun’s son, but he cannot be your brother!’

Doquz felt a thrill pass through her limbs. She knelt at his side, laid her head against him and waited numbly for him to utter words that were no longer needed.

****

Summer was waning in Tabriz. The evenings had mellowed and the days were already noticeably shorter, yet there was no sign of other changes that would presage the arrival of autumn. The mornings were warm with scarcely a breeze, the noontide still oppressive. A week had passed since Tolaghan was laid to rest. Hassan had been gone for two.

From the garden of the villa, Doquz looked up at the barred room that was Baidu’s prison. She could not see him, but she imagined him moving about, restless and apprehensive, wondering with each new dawn if the footsteps in the corridor meant a reprieve, or if they brought an order for his death.

For more than a year, she had looked forward to the day when she would stand face to face with her enemy and see fear in his eyes as she pronounced sentence on him. That day had arrived and she had seen him defiant and spiteful to the end. But she had also seen the gibbering wreck of a man that he was and, though she retained her loathing and contempt of him, she realised that her anger had dissipated. His attempt at revenge had failed and now she no longer cared what happened to him. Whatever Ghazan decided should be his fate, she would have no hand in it.

She gave the barred window a final glance, wrinkled her nose and turned to Sabbah, who stood solemnly at her side. They had not spoken since leaving the castle.

‘You know I cannot stay in Tabriz, Ahmed,’ she said.

It had not taken her long to come to a decision. She had breathed the free air of mountain and desert for too long to exchange it meekly for the kind of life that awaited her in the new empire. However grateful Ghazan was for her part in his victory, even he would be chained by custom and culture to deny her any role but that for which most women were destined – serfdom as wife and mother. Her quest as Shir-Farzin had been the pursuit of revenge for her humiliation, but she had also wanted to change the world – to make women men’s equal – and she acknowledged now that such a task was beyond her.

She had come to terms easily with the truth about her parentage. Almost from the moment Hassan came back into her life, she had realised that her love for Sabbah was akin to that of a daughter, and it was a small step to acknowledge him as the father he truly was. She was born late in her mother’s pregnancy, he had told her, and Arghun never questioned paternity.

Her feelings on learning the secret had been irritation at herself for having sent Hassan away needlessly, mingled with relief that she might follow her heart. But for her to do that, the Tiger Princess had to disappear. Were she to continue her lifelong pretence as Doquz, sister of the Il-khan, she and Hassan could never be together as man and woman: as Arghun’s son, he would be her half-brother in the eyes of the world; as the son of another, he would be unacceptable as consort for a pure-bred Mongol princess.

‘Come with me, Ahmed,’ she said. ‘Life without you will not be the same.’

‘I must stay here for now. You know that,’ Sabbah replied, breaking his long silence. ‘It’s not just for Ghazan’s sake, but I owe it to my brother to hold the city and its prisoner until I am relieved. When the time is ripe, Princess, we will meet again.’

‘The Princess is dead,’ said Doquz wistfully. She patted her pony’s neck. ‘And now the Shir-Farzin must die too. She was always a myth, I fear, and when Master Rashid writes his history, he will treat her as such, or not at all.’

‘Are you sure that is what you want?’ asked Sabbah gruffly.

‘No, Ahmed. But as Doquz I may never see him again. As Sabbah’s daughter, at least I have a chance.’

Sabbah gestured towards the gate of the villa where the remnant of the Tiger band waited, ready mounted and equipped for a long journey. Only Khumar would be staying behind. ‘Have you told them?’

‘Not yet. They know where we go but not why. As we ride, I will think of a way to break it to them.’

‘He’s still a boy!’

‘I know, Ahmed,’ said Doquz. ‘And I’m prepared. But I have a feeling within me that all will be well.’

‘And if not, did I not find you once before?’ said Sabbah wryly. He kissed her on the brow. ‘Take care, my Princess. Befarma-ri!’

‘Farewell, Ahmed,’ said Doquz. She touched him lightly on the hand, dug her heels into her pony’s side and urged it towards the villa gate. When she reached it, her followers fell in behind her without a word.

Doquz looked back only once.

‘Your God be with you too, Father,’ she whispered to herself, and turned her eyes towards the road to Kerman.

***

[to be concluded tomorrow!]

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