The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 6: This Batter’d Caravanserai

“As I foresaw, dearest and best of friends, my tale of Sima’s sweetmeats did restore thy appetite. So what prodigies of eating wilt thou in thy recovery achieve when now our story turns to the great festival of New Year? And since New Year brings always new hope and new beginnings, what shall I tell of the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen?”

Many long years had rolled beneath time’s wheel since last had Shir Shaheen celebrated New Year in Paridiz and walked in a garden there beside a human. Then had he roamed the palace grounds beside the prince, the mortal man he’d thought the bosom friend of his brother, Safar; the mortal man who, so soon after, would betray Safar. Now he strolled within a courtyard some twenty paces square with Roshan, his own friend, and memories sharp and bitter rose around him like stinging insects.

Well did Shaheen remember the prince’s words that day. “In gardens are we most near to God, and glad I was that I persuaded thy brother to create so many here in Paridiz. Yet even this great garden now reeks to me of the Accursed One. Evil grows within the city. Canst not feel it?” But Shaheen had not felt it, not known he walked beside it.

Well also did Shaheen remember his own words when he learned of his brother’s fate, for he had cursed the prince and his line, that henceforward their gardens should bring forth only bitter fruit and tamarisk. And as Safar’s magic decayed, and the city failed and the desert claimed it for its own, in those gardens of which the prince had been so proud, naught indeed thrived but saltbush and camel thorn and earth-poisoning tamarisk.

But now was a garden made again in Paridiz, and made by Shaheen, for New Year required atonement as well as celebration, gifts as well as feasting, and so in the court behind the humans’ abode, he had wrought a princely gift for them.

“Well did I know the power of thy magic, friend Shaheen,” said Roshan, “yet this is magnificence beyond my expectation. For this place was as barren as the desert waste, yet now no garden in all the land can rival it.”

Did the djinn preen himself at this accolade? So it might be. For with only a dribble of magic left to him, much had he accomplished by strength of will and limbs alone – moving and shaping stone, clearing rubble and mending fountains, and uprooting the stunted trees and plants and flower bulbs which yet battled the all-enveloping sand within the city, then planting them in the design he had conceived. Only when hard work could do no more had he called upon the magic newly gathered by the silken panel. And it seemed to him then that the courtyard was itself imbued with ancient earth-magic, deeper than any he could wield; that it longed to become a garden once again, and all he did was kindle a power of healing and renewal that long had lain dormant there.

Yet though the garden was more splendid than he had himself envisaged, Shaheen was content to let the mortals think his magic had wrought it all.

“Yet had I hoped,” said Roshan, “that the making of this garden would be the one thing no other djinn had done which would set thee free from thy imprisonment.”

Though Safar had created many gardens, all were shaped with magic, so had Shaheen also hoped that in working without his magic, he might indeed chance upon that very thing of which the sorcerer had spoken. Yet he would not confess his disappointment and said only, “Dost think thy grandmother shall like it?”

“Sure I am, for to my eye it is as like to our garden in Gorj, which the vizier and my uncle did steal from us, as one apple is like to another.”

So it proved, for on the morrow when the New Year dawned and the Lady Farzaneh saw the garden, her delight was unbounded, and she and Sima wandered long among the pomegranate and orange trees and the rills and channels, exclaiming aloud at hyacinths and jonquils, tree peonies and roses, and praising all.

When finally they quitted the garden and Shaheen was seated in chief place in the dining hall as the others finished the preparations for the First Day meal, well satisfied was the djinn. But then there burst upon him the sounds of men and camels, which had come to him only faintly before, so caught up in his pride in the garden had he been, and he learned he was not the only guest invited to the celebrations.

That the lady and her household should live in Paridiz, Shaheen now accepted. The caravans which provisioned them, and perforce stayed overnight, he thought an evil – the very breath of other humans tainted his brother’s city – yet a necessary one if Roshan and his grandmother were to live. But that other mortals should stay for the seven days of the festivities, to set their feet upon the stones where once his brother walked, to pollute the city with their coarseness, this angered him. Then he saw the guests and anger turned to fury.

Long before had he discovered that the master of the caravan which brought luxuries and better food for the lady was the self-same man as had helped the sorcerer in capturing Shaheen. Now this man and his hirelings were to join the djinn in the New Year feasting. Shaheen had renounced revenge – harming the man had been impossible; disrupting his caravan unsuccessful – but this was an insult, a betrayal, that burned his soul, for Roshan knew the story of his imprisonment and the man’s involvement in it.

Fain would Shaheen have left at once, spitting anathema as he went, but the law of hospitality cuts both ways, and though he seethed and burned, he kept silent as the men washed and sat and Sima set bowl after bowl of food upon the dinner cloth. Then the Lady Farzaneh, still standing, spake.

“First Day is a time for gifts,” she said, “and great is the gift of your company. Yet the greatest gift we may give another is forgiveness. Though tomorrow shall we bethink ourselves of the year just gone, and on Third Day unite in repentance and atonement, seeking such forgiveness, my family’s custom is to give that gift before the first meal of New Year, whether or no those whom we forgive are present to receive it.

“So I, Farzaneh, once of Gorj, now of Paridiz, forgive him who tormented me and sought to drive me from my home, and as I have forgiven so do I seek forgiveness for my trespasses.”

She sat and Roshan stood and mirrored her words, then Sima did the same, yet still Shaheen did not understand until the master of the caravan stood.

“I, Adil of Tirazis, forgive him who caused disruption and disorder to my caravan, and as I have forgiven so do I ask forgiveness for my trespasses and in especial for being party to the taking and imprisonment of one who did me and mine no harm.”

Scarcely did Shaheen hear the hirelings as each in his turn then stood and spake, for he was mired in thought, and though he told himself the man’s plea was mere words without true substance, in his heart he knew it to be genuine. Grace and mercy and compassion, freely given, humbly sought, had a power he could not resist, and when the men had done, he stood.

“I am Shir Shaheen of this land, and I forgive all trespasses against me where forgiveness is truly sought and due repentance shown.” With these words, some large darkness was lifted from his soul, and if he sat without saying more – for what djinn would ever seek forgiveness from a human? – none there made mention of it.

The meal began and the men of the caravan ate and talked. News they brought and Shaheen listened keenly to their tidings, most particularly to all that touched on Gorj and the vizier who had robbed him of his liberty and power.

“And though I use it not,” said Adil, “I hear from my fellows how greatly thrives the caravanserai the vizier has made at Gorj.”

“So it should,” said Sima with some heat, “for my lady’s estate which he stole to make his inn was the finest in the land, and best placed in Gorj for such a business, and with Gorj itself being at the narrowest part of the desert.”

“Not so,” said Shaheen, for the desert was his and well did he know each part of it. “Here is narrower.”

“That it is,” said Adil, and his men agreed. “Near four leagues shorter overall, and easier travel, too. Let me show thee,” he added as Sima shook her head. With wine he drew upon his plate the outline of the Great Desert, like to a sandglass save the upper bulb was deformed, as though a finger had thrust down into it. “Here is Gorj on this tongue of high land cleaving the desert waste. One long day’s journey over the sands from each side, and hard work, too, scaling the heights there. Here is Paridiz.” He touched the neck of the sandglass. “A day’s easy journey from each side.”

“This is so, friend Shaheen?” asked Roshan, and though the map was badly drawn and defective, Shaheen nodded. Many were the questions Roshan then asked of Adil, looking often to Shaheen for confirmation, before the lady turned the conversation.

The days passed, with prayer and meditation, contrition and repentance, then with poetry, storytelling, music, and most of all, with food, as Sima brought out ever more exquisite dishes. And though Shaheen still harboured great resentment at the presence of Adil and his men, he acknowledged they behaved with respect and never trespassed further into Paridiz.

Then came the last day of New Year, ever by custom to be spent outside, and serenaded by the songbirds in the trees and the cooling sound of water from the rills and fountains, they sat amid the beauty and colour and scent of the garden Shaheen had wrought.

“Rightly is it said that we are close to the heart and mind of God when in a garden,” said the Lady Farzaneh, “for were not our first parents brought forth in the garden which God made for them? And also it is promised that our portion in the life to come shall be a garden where cool waters flow, and at God’s victory over the Accursed One, the desert itself shall rejoice and blossom like the rose. So, friend Shir Shaheen, we cannot thank thee sufficiently for this beauteous garden, for such is needed in this battered caravanserai in which we live.”

“This house was surely not a caravanserai, mistress,” said Sima. “It has not the many rooms for travellers and the great yard for their animals.”

The lady laughed. “I spoke in the language of the poets, dear Sima. The world is our caravanserai, where we lodge but a short while before journeying onward to our true home. A caravanserai here in romantic imagery, not in reality.”

“Why not in reality?” said Roshan of a sudden, and all turned to him. “These past days much hast thou spoken of renewal, Grandmother, of building for the future. For that future, let us return to the city’s past. Paridiz once had a caravanserai. We could build upon its ruins, creating it anew. For funds we have the treasure of the brigands who tried to kill us, and friend Adil can purchase what we need, and I can do the stable work and more, and Sima can cook and—”

And what else he had to say was lost to Shaheen, who stood and left the garden, anger again burning in his heart. Betrayal, gross betrayal this was, and by Roshan, whom he had called his friend. The city to be infested with yet more humans, his brother’s creation despoiled yet further? To his tower he strode and there sat, grieving.

The next day the caravan left the city, and the camels could still be heard pacing through the desert when Roshan once more made the perilous climb of the tower.

“Friend Shaheen,” said the boy, sitting beside the djinn and placing there some sweetmeats, “greatly do I regret that my talk of a caravanserai has offended thee. Once again I beg thy forgiveness.”

Shaheen would not speak.

“Rightly has Grandmother rebuked me, for the city is thine in justice, for thy brother did create it and thou hast ruled here years beyond all counting, and we are but sharing it under thy generous sufferance. And though it is clear to see that the idea of establishing a caravanserai has given new heart to her and Sima, she will take no step in such a venture unless thou art in agreement.”

Still Shaheen would not speak, though appeased by the recognition of his right.

“And to speak truth, friend Shaheen, nothing could we do without thee. For how could I bring the ruined caravanserai to life? Thy mighty strength and magic alone could do this, for even in thy present state, to which thou hast been brought by the malice of the vizier of Gorj, thou art a djinn of great power.”

Shaheen nodded, and it may be by way of reconciliation he took a sweetmeat.

“But O, dear friend, when I think on how well placed the city is, how astute thy brother in building here. For many towns lie around thy desert like a string of pearls about a lovely woman’s neck, and the three great cities of the land are like three jewels hanging therefrom, for though to both north and south of thy desert are they set, all three lie eastward, far closer to Paridiz than Gorj. A caravanserai here must have brought much wealth, as merchants crossing the sands between the cities would have come to Paradiz, never to Gorj.”

Again Shaheen nodded, for great and many had been the caravans which took their rest at Paridiz in the days when his brother lived.

“Such no doubt would once again occur were a caravanserai to be established here, but for sure the vizier believes we have neither will nor means to bring such a thing about. Yet what revenge that would be, to steal the merchants’ trade and wealth from his hands, as he stole our land from us. What man or djinn has ever taken such revenge in such a way?”

No djinn. Never.

“But I have bedevilled thee too long, friend Shaheen, and I merely beg thou shalt forgive my offence and impertinence.”

The boy left and Shaheen was once again alone. And though he could not tell if Roshan’s words came from simplicity or cunning, yet still he now thought less of the defilement which many merchant caravans in Paridiz would bring, and more of revenge against the vizier, and also of finding liberty, perhaps, if the caravanserai might lead to the one thing which would free him.

Long he pondered and argued with himself, but at last he left the tower and found Roshan. “A New Year has dawned,” he said, “and with it comes new life. We shall build a caravanserai.”

“Ah, dear friend, new hope and new beginnings come ever in the New Year as they came so long ago for the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen. And they will come again for us as New Year once more approaches, for thy health and strength thou shalt regain, and the tale of Shir Shaheen shall continue.”

© Damaris Browne

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