The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 7: The Lion and the Lizard

“Ha! Such commotion, dear friend! I should be annoyed at this interruption to my story, but thy laughter at the turmoil caused by the escape of thy great-grandson’s pet cheers my heart, so I set all rebukes aside and forgive them both. And though the boy’s lizard is no great adornment to thy room nor like to take much profit from my tale, it displays none of the malice and corruption of the human lizard who once visited Paridiz. But let me tell the tale of that malign creature, and of Shir Shaheen, the lion who stood against him.”

The last departing caravan was now far beyond the city’s gates and the nearest group of men still some leagues away. So when Shir Shaheen left his tower – where long had he studied the approaching men with the keen vision of an eagle’s form – he took a lion’s shape and raced and roared through the streets of Paridiz, scattering the snakes and lizards that lay basking in the sun.

Rare now were these hours when the city belonged to him and his friends alone, for the success of their caravanserai was beyond all expectation, beyond even the ever-buoyant hopes of Roshan. Adil, the caravan master, had told his fellows of the venture and nothing loath were they to see it for themselves, especially if it might disoblige the vizier of Gorj. Curiosity there was, for who could fail to wonder at the tales of the lost city and what had now been wrought there; interest, too, in seeing the widow and grandson of the great Lord Roshan. Yet when curiosity and interest were satisfied, still the merchants came for the sake of profit and the shorter journey through Paridiz.

And not only merchants, for pilgrims there were in plenty, and adventurers and dreamers, charlatans and thieves, seekers of fortunes and escape. Thus each day brought strangers to Paridiz, and for Shir Shaheen a constant need for wariness, to hide the resentment he yet felt at ignorant humans disporting themselves in his brother’s city. His true self he kept hidden behind a mask of infirmity and age, for the Lady Farzaneh had counselled that only as an old, enfeebled man could Shaheen be assured of courtesy and respect.

So now as a lion Shaheen gloried in both his strength and his freedom as he ran to meet Roshan. Yet before he could give news of the caravans and the other men approaching, Roshan burst into speech.

“Friend Shaheen, great is my need for counsel. Thou hast surely noticed how Adil looks upon Grandmother. Today when he left, he gave her a poem he had writ. Assuredly, he desires to marry her. What shall I do?”

“Do? What concern is it of thine, save in the getting of a grandfather whose versifying is an abomination?”

“Soon shall I be fourteen and of full age, when the guardianship of Grandmother shall pass to me from my great-uncle. I fear Adil shall then ask me for her hand. I know not how to answer him.”

“Tell him it is thy grandmother’s decision, not thine. Shameful is a law that says a woman of such intelligence and wisdom should defer to any man’s judgement, much less that of a boy not yet full grown. But thy great-uncle, who is guardian of her now, he is no friend of hers or thine?”

“No friend of any, save the vizier of Gorj. Lord Lizard, so my father called him, for though seeming lazy, quick is he to seize his prey, and his bite is poisonous.”

“The armbands of his men, they show green and yellow, like to the scales of a snake?”

“As thou hast seen. But why ask of him?”

“Men of his approach from Gorj. I think he is with them.”

And so it proved.

Calm was the Lady Farzaneh as she waited for Lord Lizard to arrive. “This I feared. Too successful have we been. The vizier thinks the profits of our caravanserai should be his and has sent my husband’s brother to take back the city. Grieved am I, friend Shir Shaheen, that we must part and leave you to their mercy.”

Far from calm was Roshan, pacing to and fro. “Friend Shaheen, use thy magic to undo all thou hast wrought here in the city. If all is ruined once again, my uncle and the vizier will not wish to take the caravanserai. When I am of age, we may rebuild.”

“That will avail us nothing,” said Shaheen. “None would come to Paridiz before my capture, for why risk my desert storms when the water here was bitter salt? But now all know fresh water may here be found. Destroying the caravanserai would only delay their plans.”

“Then shall I remain here with thee. Thy magic can conjure visions of lions and demons to frighten all who come, and I will treat their food to make them ill.”

“Thy place is with thy grandmother, dear friend.”

Though steady was Shaheen’s voice, in truth great was his dismay. To lose friends and fellowship, to be trapped with no respite among humans who cared nothing for his brother’s city, polluting it beyond all measure – how could he bear it?

Serene and gracious was the Lady Farzaneh when her husband’s brother arrived with his men, two black-turbanned lawyers also at his side.

Not so Lord Lizard.

“How hast thou done all this?” he demanded. “Has a sorcerer helped thee? Whence came the money to fund the works? Whence the men? Did a sorcerer create thy garden and rebuild the ruins? Who paid for the furnishings? What wealth hast thou hidden from me?”

Many were the questions, and insolent the questioner, yet the Lady remained composed. Long before the caravanserai was rebuilt had she prepared replies for such enquiries, and so she talked of patience and persistence achieving much, of happy accidents, and perhaps magic within the city, helping those who otherwise were helpless. So, too, answered Roshan and Sima when questioned by the lawyers, the younger of whom prepared inventories of all within the house and caravanserai. And so would Shaheen have spoken in his guise of the ancient, witless man, deaf and lame and half-blind, who tended the garden, had the lawyers only patience enough to bear the ramblings of age he inflicted on them.

So deaf and so witless did Shaheen appear the lawyers were unconcerned at his presence in the garden early the next morning when the younger took the older one aside and whispered low.

“Master, in speaking further with the boy, I discovered his birthday is less than four months away, not the nearly seven months I was told.”

“The difference is no concern of thine,” said the elder man.

“Yet it surely changes all. The second adjunct to verse 37, as interpreted—”

“The deed will record the boy’s affirmation that he is not yet fourteen. That is all that is required.”

“Yet if anyone should scrutinize the dates …”

“They will find the deed was executed three months ago, and not today.”

The young man paled and started to protest, but chastened and downcast and sworn to silence, he was dismissed to the caravanserai and his inventories. Shaheen also left, making his way to the hut which housed his gardening tools, pondering the while on all he had overheard. Clear it was that significance lay in exactly when Roshan became fourteen. Clear, also, the young lawyer’s alarm at the false date to be given to the deed. Most clear of all, such falsity must benefit Lord Lizard and the vizier, and not Roshan.

A mystery then, which, if solved, perchance might aid the boy. Clues to solve the mystery had the younger lawyer given, so Shaheen made himself invisible and went to the room where had slept the lawyers amid their legal tomes.

Not easy was Shaheen’s search among the books, where every rule appeared to have exceptions and each exception had exceptions of its own, all hedged about with opinions and interpretations. Yet finally he found the verse the man had spoken of, together with its adjuncts, or exceptions, and also the legal judgements involving the heirs to powerful men which had given rise to such exceptions. And with them, the answer to the mystery.

Sweet was his success, but sweeter still could it be made by trickery. So returned he to the garden where he filled a bag with pebbles, and in his old man’s guise he lay in wait for the older lawyer. When the man appeared, Shaheen stepped forward, colliding with him as if by accident, and dropped the bag at the lawyer’s feet.

“Apologies, master,” wheezed Shaheen, casting small magics upon the bag which fell open, spilling out some stones. “Too intent I was on these pretties I’ve just found. How well they’ll look set within the fountains.”

With the aching care of the very old, he bent to retrieve the bag. The lawyer stared only at the ground, for what he saw lying there were spinels and garnets and two large sapphires.

“Let me help thee,” said the lawyer, stooping quickly to gather up the gems. Peering inside the bag, he saw more sapphires, and rubies and emeralds. “Pretties indeed,” he said, and clogged with lust was his voice. “Well would they look in my own garden. I’ll give thee a silver drahm for them.”

Shaheen plucked the bag from the man’s grasp. “Nay, master. Here they belong, in the djinn’s city.” And he set off hobbling towards his hut. The lawyer went with him and closely watched where Shaheen placed the bag, and only with reluctance left.

Several times the man returned in the hours that followed, but always Shaheen was there, working on his tools or pretending to doze then waking as the lawyer came too close. Desperate was the man, for the inventories were nearly finished and Lord Lizard would leave immediately the deed was signed.

Finally, Shaheen left the hut, and the lawyer, who lurked nearby watching him, scurried inside. Then Shaheen drew upon the magic of the silken panel and he trapped the lawyer within the hut, and no sight or sound of him could escape.

Then with the panel’s magic Shaheen took on the form of the lawyer. And if he hoped that taking the guise of a specific mortal man was something no other djinn had done which might therefore set him free, then was he disappointed. Yet had he no time to dwell upon it.

“Master,” cried the younger lawyer, spying him. “His Excellency has been calling for thee. All is ready.”

Within the house all was indeed ready, for Lord Lizard waited with the Lady Farzaneh and Roshan, and on a table was set the deed and pens and ink. Knowing not how matters should at first proceed, Shaheen went to peruse the document as though to ensure the inventories were thereto properly affixed.

“Hurry thyself,” snarled the Lizard, but Shaheen could neither speak nor move. Though the deed had been among the papers in the lawyer’s room, he had not read it. Now he saw his mistake. And now he understood why Sima, when preparing food for Lord Lizard the day before, had muttered curses beneath her breath, but this morning was singing happily. For like the deed which had stolen the Lady Farzaneh’s lands from her, this document set out a transfer of two estates. In exchange for Paridiz, the Lady would regain her former lands. She and Roshan and Sima would be returning home.

“Shall I read, master?” asked the young lawyer in anxious tones. Not trusting to his voice, Shaheen nodded, and as the man read the deed aloud, Shaheen brooded on what he now should do. When the lawyer finished, silence fell.

“What ails thee?” demanded Lord Lizard.

When Shaheen made no reply, the lawyer turned to Roshan. “The deed requires thee to sign, young sir, confirming thou hast heard its terms and thou art not yet fourteen.”

“So I understand,” said Roshan. “And so I am.” He took up the pen.

“Not so,” said Shaheen, though his heart misgave him, for he was forcing a decision most painful upon the boy. “Though thou art not yet fourteen by the calculation of the solar year, under the second adjunct of Verse 37 of the Collected Laws, as interpreted and implemented in the inheritances of Khalifa Bahram, for male orphans of the higher nobility, the age of majority is determined after the fashion of the old imperial court, by the lunar calendar.”

The lawyer shrank away, as though to hide from his involvement in the attempt to rob Roshan of his legal rights, but great was Lord Lizard’s fury at this exposure of his deceit.

“Under the lunar calendar,” said Shaheen to Roshan, heeding not the Lizard’s clamour, “thou art already of full age and guardian of thy grandmother. The choice is therefore thine whether to sign the deed and thereby return to her the property at Gorj.” And if Shaheen desired to add, “Or to remain here in Paridiz with thy friend,” none there knew it.

Long did the boy stare at the deed, twisting the pen in his fingers. Then, newly resolute, turned he to his grandmother. “Shameful is the law that gives me, a child, dominion over thee, who art so much the wiser. This choice is not mine to make, but thine. Whatever is thy will, I shall obey.”

Proud was the Lady as she looked first upon Roshan and then Shaheen. “Here have we lived in poverty and distress,” she said, “not in the comfort and happiness of our home in Gorj. Here have we met with poison and brigands intent on murder. But here have we found new purpose. And here have we met one whose friendship is beyond all price. The house and lands which once were mine are mine no longer. Here have we made a new home. Here shall we stay. Roshan, rip up the deed.”

Had Shaheen trembled as he waited for her decision? Did unaccustomed tears now threaten to bedew his cheeks? So it might be, but none saw, nor did they notice as he stole from the room, for all eyes were upon Roshan as he tore the deed asunder.

Invisible once again, Shaheen ran to the hut where the old lawyer yet hammered upon the door, though no sight or sound escaped. As Shaheen removed the spell upon the hut, the man fell out onto the ground and the worthless stones fell with him, but the magic of the silken panel still held the lawyer, and unseen and unheard he remained until he reached the room where the deed now lay in pieces and Lord Lizard was loudly cursing him.

Did any believe the lawyer when he claimed to have been imprisoned in the hut, though none had heard his cries? The Lady Farzaneh, perhaps, but she spake not. Certain it is Lord Lizard ridiculed all talk of a sorcerer having taken the lawyer’s place, for what sorcerer would have such legal knowledge, or having it, would pretend to be the lawyer?

Certain it is, too, that the vizier of Gorj cared little for the truth of what had happened but cared greatly that he had lost the prize of Paridiz. With that loss, Lord Lizard’s usefulness was seeming ended, for shortly thereafter was he and the old lawyer attainted for malfeasance, their wealth forfeit to the vizier, and both were dispatched by the executioner of Gorj long before the celebration of Roshan’s fourteenth birthday in Paridiz.

So was Roshan revenged against his lizard-like great-uncle, but never was the boy aware that his vengeance came about solely by the guile and intelligence of the lion of the desert, Shir Shaheen.

“Though the antics of the little lizard, now safe in his master’s pocket, cheered thee, dearest friend, methinks the tale of how Shir Shaheen brought about the end of the great lizard, and gave the boy Roshan his revenge, has invigorated thee yet more. So thy recovery continues, as will the tale of Shir Shaheen.”

© Damaris Browne

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