(By Juan Cole)
The Fall of the New Year Throne
(To read this sword and sorcery novel as it has unfolded before this installment, click here)
Jamshid lounged on his luxurious pillows of rare silk and felt, dyed in royal purple, Yimak in his arms.
“Hyrba’s sheep were scrawny.”
She nibbled his ear. “The apaosha demon has sucked the green out of even sweet grass, brother.”
“You took care of the potter girl who dared embarrass you over that demon?”
“She is outlaw now. We shall not hear of her again. What of the blacksmith who was wooing her in the bazaar?”
“He was so popular with the accursed producers that I forebore to move too swiftly. Now, with the failure of the strike he called for, many voices have turned against him. I shall have him dispatched soon enough.”
“How boring, to spend our time with the mention of these ants. Here, let me show you something even you have not seen before.” She laughed, her voice like water cascading into crystal.
* * *
When Kaveh arrived, Daena was performing her devotions at the small altar on which she kept a brazier lighted next to her display. Kaveh seated himself on the reed mat behind her wares, and waited impatiently. He picked up a clay image of an unknown god and toyed with it.
“My eyes are illumined, Kaveh. What can I do for you?”
Kaveh looked up startled on hearing Daena’s husky voice. The figure of the anonymous deity fell from his hand, crashing onto an idol of Vouruna, which shattered, and knocking down figurines of Indra and Mithra.
“I am so sorry, Kavi Daena. I’ll replace it.”
Daena frowned, and stood staring at the damage. She seemed lost in thought.
“I did not mean to drop it.”
“What? Oh, that’s quite all right, it was an accident. I am afraid it may also have been an omen.”
“Look, Vouruna broke and Indra and Mithra are scattered, before this alien god whose name I do not even know. Vouruna is sovereign of the waters, who balances Mithra and Indra. For Indra is blood-frenzy and chaos, good in times of war but in need of restraint. Mithra is contract and order, but too much order is deadly. Vouruna, as god of ethics, keeps both in check, lets them work together. Without him, the Mithra beloved by the priests would bind society too tightly, and the Indra of the warriors would give himself over to mayhem.”
“I thought we worshiped all three.”
“We do. The three together. I am horrified at the idea that we should be left with only world-shattering Indra and ritualistic Mithra, with no moderate, ethical core. Well, enough of omens.”
Kaveh looked around. The bazaar was still nearly deserted, with most Persians still eating lunch, so no one was in hearing range of their conversation. “It is about the shah’s decree that we sacrifice to him without the zaotars. I need to know what to do.”
Daena froze. Then she sighed, and nodded. “Yes, you most certainly do. I do not want you endangering your farr by straying from the truth.”
“So? How shall we sacrifice?”
“The shah is not a god and it would be wrong to sacrifice to a human being. It is also wrong to sacrifice without speaking the sacred word.”
Kaveh sat stunned. “I’ve never known you to take the priests’ side so strongly before.”
Daena frowned. “We kavis are more seers than priests, and for us a ritual is merely a spiritual aid. But even we think it should be performed correctly. That does not mean the zaotars are right not to share their herds during the drought.”
“There are dangers in not going along with the shah.”
“Those are political dangers, mortal dangers. The threat from a people worshipping a man instead of the gods, and killing livestock indiscriminately with no proper ritual, is infinitely greater. It is a cosmic danger. It will strengthen the vessels of demon-mind everywhere.”
“Then we should wholly reject the new worship?”
“I am afraid so.”
Kaveh nodded thoughtfully. He thanked her for her advice and rose, then bent over to touch the hem of her light blue pantaloons. She bade him farewell and began sweeping up the bits of Vouruna, setting Mithra and Indra upright, and tidying her display.
Kaveh headed back home, where he found the mood grim. There had not been enough orders to keep the clan busy past mid-morning, so they faced an idle afternoon. Without the commissions of the royal crafthall, they had to compete with all the other blacksmiths at a time when warriors were, as they put it, embarrassed.
Later that afternoon, Kaveh joined his friends at the house of strength for wrestling. When the smithy had needed him full time, he had only gone once a week, but now he had begun practicing every day. He met up with his cousin Jamaspa and friend Artabanu, who had proved so brave at the quarter gate when the Nar had tried to break the strike. Artabanu, a Persian butcher’s son, already sported a potbelly like the udder of a cow, and seemed to have three chins, two of which quivered when he walked. Ironically, given that he spent his days chopping bleeding meat with a huge, razor-sharp knife, he was the kindest, most compassionate soul Kaveh had ever met. They headed together for the house of strength.
Kaveh squinted at the sun, alarmed at how low it was in the sky. “We’re late. Ustad Piltanu will let us have it.”
The house of strength’s arched gate, inlaid with flowery tiles, announced it from among the monotonous rows of two-story adobe dwellings. They came to the low archway, and ducked as they entered it. It had deliberately been constructed to force the wrestlers to bow as they approached the courtyard. In the center of the courtyard the mud bricks had been removed to create a sandy arena. Beyond it sat Piltanu, the master wrestler who maintained the house of strength.
“Hail Mithra!” the boys said in unison as they straightened up and called upon the god of righteousness to aid them in their attempt to achieve true chivalry. The other boys already limbering up in the courtyard answered with invocations of other gods. Kaveh tensed as he spotted Vivana, who was staring at them with a smirk on his narrow face.
“Hail Yima, Indra’s nephew, Jamshid Shah!” The goldsmith’s apprentice raised his hands to the heavens.
Kaveh stared back at him and refused to reply. As the three boys advanced toward him, Piltanu himself piously called on Mithra to make them into something other than miserable hooligans.
The master wrestler clapped his hands. “Time for push-ups, now that the tardy have finally shown up. Everybody does a hundred except these three. They do two hundred.”
As Kaveh, Artabanu and Jamaspa groaned, all the boys and young men picked up sticks three ells long, with one hand grasping each side, and, still holding them, put their knuckles and palms to the courtyard. Then they spread their legs, their buttocks sticking up in the air like the humps of camels, and began bending their elbows, letting foreheads down so they touched the ground then coming back up. “Aiva, dva, thri,” Piltanu counted fast, then slowed slightly as they neared fifty. Most of the boys collapsed on hearing the word “satem,” one hundred. A few could have gone on a bit longer, but most had been taxed. Kaveh and his two friends, their teeth clenched and temples bulging, struggled on, more and more slowly. Artabanu’s tummy began to rest frequently on the gound.
“No loafing in between. Come on, come on. One ninety-two, one ninety-three.”
“All right,” he said when the three had straggled to two hundred. “Now limber up. Let’s go. Whirl a bit.”
The three friends joined in the whirling with relief, bedraggled with sweat, their arms rubbery.
Piltanu seated himself at the head of the arena and clapped his hands once more. “Time for the first practice match. Any volunteers?”
Vivana raised his hand. “Ustad, I’ll take on Kaveh, if he dares.” The other boys laughed, some applauding, others jeering.
Kaveh rose and, his legs wobbly, stripped down to a g-string. He went over to a tall black vase in the corner of the courtyard, from which he ladled out sesame oil with which to cover his nearly naked body. He entered the arena and bowed to Piltanu. He knew Vivana was counting on his being exhausted by the extra push-ups.
They circled one another, shouting, and Vivana came in low and fast. Kaveh blocked him. Then he bent his knees and got his hip lower than his opponent’s. He stuck out his leg, pushed his thigh against Vivana’s, grabbed the other boy’s wiry arms, and took him down easily. Kaveh threw himself on Vivana and pinned him definitively. He whispered in his ear, as the other squirmed uselessly. “Roxanna’s heart is mine. You’ve lost there, too, cretin.”
Vivana, his face red, smirked. “You need to keep your ear to the ground now that you’re in the bazaar, boy. Roxanna’s been exiled for impudence by Princess Yimak. None of us can ever so much as speak to her again without sharing her fate.”
Kaveh’s head spun. Piltanu ordered them to rise and return to their places. When Kaveh did not hear him, he shook the smith’s bulging shoulder roughly.
“Now, we should see whether being late improved the skills of our other tardy friends. Artabanu, Jamaspa, get ready and into the sand with you.”
The lanky blacksmith, Jamaspa, squared off against Artabanu, the stocky butcher. They pranced from one foot to the other, slapping their inner thighs menacingly, and calling on Mithra. Jamaspa, who had the reach on his friend, managed to grasp him behind the neck, then tried to slip into a half-nelson. Artabanu, his skin slippery with oil, ducked and turned, getting loose. They circled again, shouting and dancing, and whacking their legs above the knees. Jamaspa tried coming in low, getting both hands behind Artabanu’s knees, and jerking hard. The butcher went down on his back, and Jamaspa threw himself down on his chest. Artabanu tried to bridge, but, the wind knocked out of him, could not summon the strength.
Piltanu looked searchingly at Artabanu. “You need to be more aggressive, son. Just because he had the reach on you was no reason to wait for him to make the move. Get in under his arms, or use them against him; if an arm is in a good hold, it doesn’t help it to be long. You can’t afford to show compassion all the time.”
Artabanu rubbed one of his three chins with his thumb and index finger. “But he’s my friend.”
“You are not doing your friend any favors by putting up a poor fight. When he goes in the ring against a truly tough opponent, he will be unprepared because you went easy on him.”
Artabanu blushed, and nodded a jiggling assent. Other boys fought several other matches, until the sun dropped low in the sky. Piltanu carefully observed their technique, and offered suggestions for improvement.
Finally, he rose. “Will anyone accept my challenge today?”
Some of the older boys sometimes tested their mettle against the master, but were usually pinned rather easily. A few of the adults in Aratta could give Piltanu a close match, but none had yet pinned him. Piltanu usually ended the lesson at this point. Today, he kept staring at the ironsmith’s son.
“Kaveh, front and center. I want to see if being late really did improve your skills.”
Kaveh got up reluctantly, then bowed and stepped into the arena. His heart was so heavy over Roxanna’s fate that he had no fight in him. It was all he could do to avoid weeping in front of the other boys.
The two huge opponents hopped ponderously from one foot to the other while circling, slapping their inner thighs and hooting. Kaveh kept his eyes on Piltanu’s enormous hips, as the master had himself instructed him. The greased, glistening titan moved in, as the long afternoon sunbeams danced irreverently on his shaven scalp. Piltanu grasped Kaveh’s bulging right biceps with his meaty hand and slipped his right arm behind the young ironsmith’s narrow lower back. He thrust his right hip into Kaveh’s lower abdomen and jerked the boy’s arm down while pushing his back forward. He easily flipped the heavy apprentice over on his back. Kaveh had felt the move coming, however, and, prepared, managed to hit the ground with a roll and regain his feet before Piltanu could pin him.
The young blacksmith circled again, chagrined. Piltanu let out a piercing yell and jumped forward. He grasped Kaveh’s left wrist and pulled it up behind him. The boy twisted, and reached behind him with his free right hand, but could not get hold of his master or break free. The bald champion slowly forced the apprentice down on his knees. Then he leaped up and put a scissors hold with his elephantine legs around the boy’s waist, and they both fell back. Kaveh struggled, but knew his master had pinned him.
“Look at it this way.” Artabanu clapped Kaveh’s shoulder as he returned to the side of the arena and sat cross-legged next to his friends. “None of us dare get in the ring with him.”
The bouts over, the boys bowed to their master and called down the blessings of the gods on him. Vivana stood forth, his long face still red from the ease with which he had been beaten.
“Ustad Piltanu, I have an important suggestion.”
“What is that, Vivana?”
“Now that the shah has instituted the new worship, I think we should all invoke Yima, the shah’s divine name, when we enter and leave. It would show our loyalty to the crown.”
Piltanu sat unperturbed at the head of the arena. “Vivana, I urge you all to salute the gods on beginning and ending our sessions. But I have never dictated which gods any individual should honor, and I know that each trade has its patrons, each person a favorite. I won’t impose a single worship, though all are, of course, welcome to call on the help of Yima Jamshid, when they like.”
“Ustad, would it not be blasphemy if any of us greeted another with the name of a god, and our fellow refused to reply in kind. Wouldn’t that imply a rejection of the god? Wouldn’t it be worthy of death?”
A murmur worked its way through the crowd of perspiring wrestlers. They scrutinized Piltanu for his response.
Vivana stared at Kaveh like a fox that had spied a limping bird.
Comments and suggestions on the installments are welcome, but they should please be constructive. Commenters relinquish the rights to any ideas they express in the comments section, which become the property of Juan Cole. Presumably they want them incorporated into the final work, and they might be. The novel is copyright by Juan Cole, 2014, and may not be mirrored or reproduced without express permission from the author.