The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 10: A Snare of Perfume

“Hark, dear friend. The daughters of thy grandchildren whisper amongst themselves, for they feel too long have I talked of battles and bloodshed and they wish to hear of gardens and nightingales and pretty things. So of gardens and nightingales and pretty things shall I speak. Yet must I talk of shadows, too, and a time when Roshan was ensnared and Shir Shaheen was called upon to free him.”

The chariot of time rolled ever on in Paridiz. More people came to live in the city – not only from the impoverished townships at the desert’s edge, but from Gorj itself. More buildings were rebuilt, more noise echoed from the houses, more stench rose from the streets; laws were made, taxes introduced, officials employed.

Roshan grew taller and broader, his chin boasting the beginnings of a dark beard. His grandmother grew a little frail, with more grey in her hair, more lines upon her face. Shir Shaheen alone seemed unchanged, yet in him was the greatest alteration – no longer did he hide away upon his tower or conceal his true self in an old man’s guise; no longer did resentment of the humans gnaw at his heart.

Yet ease was not his, for though he had cleansed the city, the blood-magic remained, and with more humans to prey upon, its resurgence was quickening. Already bloodshed and aggression, even murder, had shown its ugly face in Paridiz, and whether some humans were brought to violence by the whispered promises of power which they heard without awareness, or the brutality of some humans fed the blood-magic, the result was the same.

The earth-magic power that opposed it flowed through the seven wells beneath Safar’s gates, all of which Shaheen had revealed and opened to the humans. His days were now spent among the qanats below Paridiz, bringing fresh water to the other, previously brackish, wells, or in creating and tending gardens in the city, each of which contained a fountain or a rill where the water freely ran.

Many gardens had he now created, yet the Lady Farzaneh’s remained the most lovely, the most serene, where at dusk nightingales sang amid the pomegranate trees, and despite the urgency of the message summoning him, he stood for a moment delighting in its beauty. The lady herself sat within a bower of crimson roses while her new maidservant read from a book of poetry. Shaheen had thought pity her motive in employing the young woman, whose face was disfigured, but from the intelligence of the maid’s reading, it was clear he had misjudged them both.

Though the vizier of Gorj received the profits from the caravanserai, rents and tariffs had brought riches to the Lady Farzaneh. Yet, save for the half-dozen servants she now employed, few concessions had she made to wealth – her only jewellery comprised earrings and a vial of intricately pierced silver holding solid perfume, which she wore on a chain at her neck. But strewn at her feet were many precious objects – gilded lamps, golden salvers, boxes of silver filigree, ornate game boards inlaid with lapis – and to each was affixed a note detailing names and values.

The maidservant stopped reading as Shaheen approached. The lady looked up.

“My thanks for coming so quickly, dear friend, for a favour I have to ask of thee.”

“Speak and it is done,” said Shaheen, sitting beside her.

She turned to her maidservant. “The book I shall keep, Setareh. For the rest, all to be sold, with the usual letter of thanks and prayers that God reward the giver, and naming the charity which receives the value of the gift.”

Setareh handed her the book of poetry, then gathered all else into a basket which she carried away. Not until she was inside the house did the lady speak again.

“As thou didst see, still do we receive costly gifts from those wishing to make Roshan a prince and themselves his courtiers, with all the wealth they think will flow from such.”

Shaheen nodded, for this was well known to him.

“But now there is a problem. Roshan is in love.”

“Ah,” said Shaheen. This explained much – distracted and forgetful had Roshan sometimes seemed in the past month, his moods strangely volatile.

“Long have I suspected, then three weeks ago I found these.” From a bag the lady drew several papers and passed them to Shaheen.

Poems. Love poems. All in Roshan’s hand and undoubtedly from his heart and soul. Roses and nightingales appeared – for what lover would fail to emulate the greatest of poets? – yet less conventional was that he wrote of starlight having captured him, the beloved ever represented as a daylight star.

The papers showed signs of having been crushed and discarded. Yet they were not drafts – the poems were excellent, the calligraphy perfect – so why throw them away? And who was this daytime star? The city’s matrons continually paraded their daughters before the Lady Farzaneh, but Roshan had prized none.

“How is this a problem, dear friend?” asked Shaheen. “Roshan is surely not too young to wed?”

“No. And I approved of the girl I believed he had set his heart upon. But some three days ago, everything changed. Since then, he has spent his time with a man I thought he despised – the most importunate of those seeking power and advancement within the city, whose wife has ever been assiduous in trying to cultivate my friendship and their daughter, Soudeh, determined in her attentions to Roshan.

“Sycophants, hangers-on – always have I been confident of Roshan’s ability to recognise and reject them. But a young man in love sees not clearly, and one blinded by his beloved may wish to raise her family high. Worse, I fear Roshan may corrupt himself to serve her.”

“No,” said Shaheen. “I cannot, will not, believe this of him.”

The lady took back the poems and returned them to her bag. “Roshan today attends the trial of Arman Seyyedpur, accused of murdering a serving girl. From all I hear, there is no doubt as to his guilt. Though this is the first offence brought to our attention here, I understand many were the girls he abused in Gorj and this poor child not the first to die at his hands. Soudeh is his sister.”

“Thou canst not think Roshan will interfere with the trial.”

“No. But the murdered girl was a foreigner, without kin, so Roshan stands in my place as her guardian and protector, and therefore has the duty to determine any punishment. This morning I tried to speak with him about it, though I knew he would not agree to execution, which to me would be justice, so foul a man as Seyyedpur is.”

“Blood calls out for blood,” said Shaheen, seized with foreboding.

“Indeed. But nor would Roshan talk of financial compensation.”

Blood money. A chill ran through Shaheen.

“I believe he means to pardon Seyyedpur, so not a drahm would the man and his family pay.”

“Thy fear is that Roshan is not in his right mind.”

“No young man in love is in his right mind. But these past few days almost it seems he was not Roshan, and this morning was worse. Vague and inattentive, talking only of Soudeh, repeatedly rubbing at some scratches on his neck, his eyes glassy and unfocussed. One might have thought him intoxicated.”

“Or ensorcelled.”

“Exactly so, dear Shir Shaheen.”

“I shall repair to the court and see what may be done.”

“Take Setareh with thee. I wish her to know thee better.”

Despite his grave concern for Roshan, Shaheen mused upon this as he hastened to the court with Setareh at his side. Nothing the Lady Farzaneh did was without reason, yet why should it matter that a maidservant know him? Unless …

Roshan in love for weeks, long predating his sudden change of manner. The lady’s approval of the girl she then believed had won his heart. Poems which spoke of a daylight star, poems crushed and thrown away – but not, perhaps, by Roshan.

“In the old tongue,” he said to Setareh, “thy name means star.”

Coolly she regarded him. “So have I been told.”

No more was said, but Shaheen had no doubt Setareh was Roshan’s original beloved. And if Roshan now favoured Soudeh? Surely not inconstancy, but sorcery.

They halted briefly in the antechamber to the court. A fountain had Shaheen set there when the building was restored, but its freshness could not hide the scent of blood-magic. Yet when he touched the chamber walls, he felt no fever in the stones.

The courtroom was crowded, and though the magistrate was questioning a witness, many people turned to look as they entered – not a few staring at Setareh’s disfigurement – but Roshan was not one. He sat beside the magistrate, his glazed eyes fixed upon a beautiful young woman adorned in silks and jewellery. Soudeh, no doubt. No doubt, either, but that magic held Roshan. Blood-magic. Yet how?

“Three of them she now has,” muttered Setareh. “Three perfume vials,” she added, seeing Shaheen’s bemusement. “Like to the Lady Farzaneh’s, only bigger and more costly, of course. Everything Soudeh possesses must be the best and most expensive.” Indeed, Soudeh wore three large ornate silver vials – one at her neck and two hanging from her belt.

“Just one she had three days ago,” said Setareh. “Though how she thought to snare him with it I know not. Jasmine, she said, but it stank like a slaughterhouse.”

Scent from a bronze incense burner competed with other costly unguents in trying to mask the stench of crowded humanity, but Shaheen used his magic to catch the perfumed air about the vials. Jasmine, indeed. Beneath it, blood.

“Those scratches on Roshan’s neck,” he said.

“She did it,” said Setareh. “Five or six days ago. She was fawning over him, as ever, but as she fondled his beard, her nails caught his skin.”

Blood for the blood-magic.

Its subtle whispers promising power and wealth, inciting violence, that had Shaheen expected. This conspiracy with Seyyedpur’s family and possession of the blocks of perfume – that went beyond his fears.

Yet he had not time to dwell upon it. The magistrate had begun to question Seyyedpur himself. If justice were to triumph, Shaheen must act.

Destroying the vials while Soudeh wore them would endanger her, so he sent magic to the chains which held them, to prise the links apart and let them fall. To no avail. He tried again, a third time, then belatedly sensed the binding imposed by the sorcerer who had captured him, preventing him from harming mortals. Blood-magic evidently suffused the chains, and his magic confronting it would risk injuring the girl and those around her.

He cast about for another way. Tearing the vials from her might also cause her harm and so was impossible for him. But not for another human. Not for Setareh.

He turned to her, shielding his words so only she could hear. “The vials Soudeh wears must be destroyed. We need water from the fountain. Fill as large a vessel as thou canst quickly find, then make thy way to stand by her, and be ready.”

She asked no questions but ran from the court. Casting small magics so that none would mark him or impede his progress, Shaheen made his way to Roshan – to support him if the blood-magic failed or, if the scheme miscarried, to prevent him from pardoning Seyyedpur.

Setareh speedily returned with a ewer brimming with water, and Shaheen cast the same magics to cloak her. When she reached Soudeh, he struck.

An illusion of fire he created, scarlet and vermilion flames seeming to leap from the vials, engulfing Soudeh’s dress. She screamed, beat in vain upon her clothing, then scrabbled to unlock the chain at her neck, while all around her, save Setareh alone, shrieked and sought escape.

Roshan leapt up, but Shaheen held him fast as Setareh threw water over Soudeh, then tore the vials from her and thrust them in the water remaining in the ewer.

“Set it down!” Shaheen commanded, letting the imaginary flames die. Setareh obeyed and stepped back.

An impenetrable cage Shaheen created about the ewer, then he burst the vials asunder and ignited the perfume. A blinding incandescence flared, and all – silver, perfume, the ewer itself – was consumed, and the foulness of the blood-magic utterly destroyed.

Roshan collapsed against Shaheen.

“Magic has been used against thee, dear friend,” said Shaheen, setting him gently down. “But thou art free of it now.”

Great was the tumult in the room and long was it before calm could be restored. Roshan once again fixed his gaze upon Soudeh but now with cold severity. She shivered and wept while her brother and father blustered and bellowed, affecting outrage but showing fear. At the back of the court, Setareh stood apart, smiling a little to herself.

With order finally regained, the magistrate’s questioning of Seyyedpur continued. When all was done, his guilt pronounced and his plea for leniency made, Roshan was called upon to pass sentence.

“I wish no more blood to be spilt,” said Roshan, “so retaliation and thy execution I shall not seek, but nor shall I grant pardon for such shameful offence as this. Payment shall be made for the murder and given to charity, and I set the amercement at seventy thousand silver drahms.”

Seyyedpur and his father stumbled back, for the sum had to bankrupt them, but Roshan had not finished.

“Murderers and wielders of corrupt magic may not live in Paridiz. Thou and thy family have until sunset tomorrow to leave the city.”

Loud were their complaints, piteous Soudeh’s cries, but Roshan would not be moved. Guards were called to take them away and seize their possessions to pay the compensation, and many were the folk, enthralled and excited by all they had witnessed, who went to watch the further spectacle.

“Shaheen, dear friend,” said Roshan when all was quiet, “once again hast thou saved me. How can I thank thee?”

“It is thy grandmother thou shouldst thank, for she it is who saw thy peril.”

“I must go to her at once, to reassure her.” Roshan looked shyly at Setareh, who had joined them. “Perhaps I could escort thee home?”

“I need not thy help.”

Like a whipped cur did Roshan appear, but he nodded and set off alone.

Greatly was Shaheen dismayed. “That was not well done,” he said softly to Setareh when Roshan had left.

She turned upon him. “Dost think I required this trial to learn of the vile games played by the youths of noble families? Those charming, respectful-seeming youths who speak tenderly of love to their mothers’ serving girls, offering honour but seeking only to lead them into sin? Few go on to kill as Seyyedpur did, once they have slaked their lusts, but dost think I am ignorant of the girls they cast aside, soiled and broken and disgraced?” She pointed to her disfigurement. “What man of wealth would truly wish to marry me?”

But though she spoke in heat, clear was it to Shaheen that her passion came not from loathing but from despairing, fearful hope. She had only to be assured of Roshan’s true nature to return his love, and time would accomplish that.

Yet what if her fear made her leave before Roshan could prove himself? For sure, Roshan would not wish Shaheen to interfere, but if Setareh could be persuaded never to reveal whence came her change of heart …

Much work faced Shaheen, for the blood-magic threatened greater evil than the perfume which had snared Roshan, but he could spare an hour to promote his friend’s happiness.

“Come,” he said. “A tea house is nearby. There shall we sit, and I shall tell thee a tale of wonder. A tale of Shir Shaheen the fierce and terrible, lord of the waste, strong lion of the desert, swift falcon of the air – the greatest djinn that ever was or is or will be – and of the human greater even than Shaheen. His friend of friends, Roshan.”

“How thy womenfolk hail my story, my sweet friend, and with good reason, for is not proud and courageous Setareh the exemplar against whom they should measure themselves? The tale has given thee much pleasure, too, I think, and stronger than ever art thou, as our story of Roshan and Shir Shaheen continues.”

© Damaris Browne

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