A gentle chiming that grew louder as it went on woke Firuzeh from a rather annoying dream. She had been dreaming of her gadfly brother Arash, of all people! Something about him being in trouble, which honestly was nothing new for him. He’d spent most of his life in some form of trouble. Yawning while she tried to banish thoughts of her good-for-nothing sibling from her mind –not conducive to waking up in a good mood- the young woman reached over and reset her hourglass alarm so it would stop insisting on her getting out of bed.
It was a rather simple invention, created by another student here at Gundishapur University: you set the counter for how many rotations of the hourglass you want to pass, then once that number is reached, the counter releases the weight that had been suspended above a bronze bell on a fulcrum. Supposedly, it would eventually come to rest on the bell if the alarm wasn’t reset after enough time had passed, but Firuzeh couldn’t imagine someone being able to sleep through that much racket! And if that person was able to, surely their roommate would kill them if they were subjected to it for too long.
Speaking of roommates, the young woman wasn’t surprised that hers wasn’t asleep in her bed. Laleh had found a new boyfriend (after her old one broke up with her six months ago), and most nights shared his bed instead of spending it in her own. Dara was on his last year here, and so didn’t have to share his room with another, much to Laleh’s delight, Firuzeh was sure. But, what two adults did behind closed doors was none of her business. Besides, Firuzeh thought with a wicked grin, at least she didn’t have to listen to Laleh snoring loud enough to wake the dead! That was Dara’s problem now.
Putting her roommate’s sex life aside, Firuzeh went over to the water basin and began her morning rituals. She brushed her teeth, washed her face and hands, and ran her horsehair brush through her raven-black hair until it was tangle free. Catching a glimpse in the mirror of the rose red streaks that she had put in her hair only three days ago, she couldn’t help but smile. Most days she barely had time to put on any makeup, but at least that color in her hair made her feel beautiful. That, and those gorgeous turquoise and copper earrings she had bought helped also.
Stepping back, she turned one way and then the other, examining herself. Firuzeh knew that like a lot of young women, she was probably more critical of her appearance than was necessary. She was in good shape, made sure she exercised every evening, and tried not to eat too badly. And, she had two things over her vain brother. One, she played as hard as she studied, and had spent more time outside than he, giving her skin a darker shade of tan that contrasted nicely with her midnight hair. And, she was 5’9” whereas her brother was only 5’7”! It was one of the reasons he always wore boots when she was around, she chuckled to herself.
After donning her olive green coat over her yellow dress and white trousers, the young student was ready to leave. Firuzeh grabbed her books, parchment and pencils off of her end table and headed out the door, barely remembering to lock the door behind her. A small part of her worried if Laleh had the foresight to bring her key with her when she spent the night with Dara; it was quickly drowned out by the rationalization that if she did, it was her problem and not Firuzeh’s. With a loud sniff, she headed out of the dorm.
Judging by the sun’s position overhead, there would be no time to head down to the nearest coffeehouse; instead, she would have to get in the cafeteria line and hope they hadn’t run out of coffee and her favorite breakfast. Nan-e-sangak, topped with sarshir mixed in with sweet asal and served with some delicious panir sounded so good right now! And maybe some pears as well, just so Firuzeh could be honest with her father when she said she was eating well in her next letter home.
She remembered the day that she had gotten the Naameh from the University that she had been accepted into their calculus program. Her father, Babak, had actually cried with her when she had opened the letter. He had graduated from there years ago, and was a renowned architect who was in demand all over Padeshahi. “This will open so many doors for you, my dear!” he had told her, pride shining through his voice. “I am so proud of you! Maybe you could become a physician, or a teacher, or maybe even an architect like me! The possibilities are endless!”
Of course, he hadn’t been privy to the conversation that took place that night between Firuzeh and Fereydun, her father’s brother. After everyone else was asleep, and she had been just about to lay down and turn off the lights herself, there had come a quiet knock at her door, so soft that she almost mistook it for the house just settling, as houses were wont to do. Instead, more curious than afraid, she had opened her door, only to spy her uncle looking up and down the hallway as if he didn’t want anyone to know he was there.
“Amu Fereydun!” she had said before he hushed her to keep her voice down. “What are you doing here?” she continued in a quieter tone.
“We need to talk, dear niece. May I come in?” If it had been anyone else but her uncle saying that, she would have slammed and bolted the door. But it was her uncle, the man she had known her whole life, and so with just a little trepidation she opened the door the rest of the way and he quickly slid inside. He gestured for her to take a seat at her desk, the one she did her homework on, and reluctantly she sat down. Before she could get out another word, he spoke up. “This is about your experiments - you know, the ones you’ve been conducting late at night when you think no one else is around?”
Growing pale, Firuzeh tried to deflect his questioning away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear Amu. Now, if you don’t mind…”
“Oh, but I do mind, dear Firuzeh. I do mind that you’ve been trying to hide this side of yourself away from your father, your mother, even your brother. While they probably wouldn’t understand what drives you, I do. You see,” here he leaned forward and looked into her eyes. “I’m an alchemist also.” He leaned back while she tried to process what she had just heard. By just admitting that to her, he was placing his life and reputation into her hands.
Over a century ago, when the first steam-powered device had been unveiled at Gundishapur University, the Shahan-shah at the time had declared that this was the wave of the future, and that alchemy was a dead end that should be abandoned. To be fair, none of the alchemists in centuries had been able to duplicate the feat that earned them a place at the prestigious university: turning lead into gold. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a shock when it was sacrificed for the growing field of technology. Within a year, the once-flourishing alchemy program at the University had been discontinued, and those Ostaads who taught it either moved to other fields or left Gundishapur.
Fereydun worked in the Bimaristan that was at the university as a pharmacist, helping the doctors and surgeons (along with the students and other trainees) prepare the medicines that the patients needed. So it was quite a shock to Firuzeh to hear that someone who she had looked up to as so practical and –if forced to admit it- boring was also engaged in something so clandestine and daring as alchemy. “But, Amu, your position at Gundishapur…” she started to say.
“…is the perfect cover for me, dear niece,” he finished for her. “Who would suspect that the head pharmacist was also a practicing alchemist? You know, if you think about it, the two sciences are really not that different.” Normally, listening to her uncle lecture would fascinate Firuzeh, but it was late and she was in no mood for it. Looking at the anger on her face, Fereydun sighed and sat down on the edge of her bed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disappoint you. But I wanted you to know all of this before you came down there.”
“Does the Raees know about this? It was his sign on the wax seal on the acceptance letter, after all.” She knew she was sounding like a petulant child, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Who do you think told me to make sure you were prepared for all the extra classes that you’d be taking, my dear girl?” Hearing this, Firuzeh couldn’t help but open her mouth in shock. “Close your mouth, baraadarzadeh, you’ll catch flies,” her Amu chastised her gently, chuckling.
“But, how? And more importantly, why?” she asked him.
Sighing once more, Fereydun rubbed his face with his right hand. “Let’s just say for now that not everyone agrees with the Shahan-shah’s decision, may his soul rest in peace. Some people, some very important people, know that what we do is important for not just Padeshahi but for the world. And that’s not an exaggeration.” Standing up, he began to pace back and forth in front of her desk, slowly at first but gaining momentum as he walked.
“Yes, technology such as these steam-powered devices,” he pointed towards her lamp, “are important in that they propel us towards the future, but alchemy can do things that technology cannot. It can do things that modern medicine can, but with a lot less stress and potential complications. By the Elemental Princes, I’ve even seen it bring someone back from the brink of death!” The passion in her Amu’s voice was inspiring to Firuzeh. Before tonight, she had always seen him as proper and bland, but now knowing that he had dreams and goals of his own that he had to keep hidden gave her faith that she could do the same.
“Amu, but how did you know that I was practicing alchemy? I thought that I’d kept my experiments well hidden from my family; in fact, I made sure that I only do the ones involving fire on the days we make shish kebabs, so that way any resultant smoke or ash can be easily explained.”
“Your father had noticed some strange burns and smells coming from your clothes, and had asked me if I knew what they were. Of course I knew, but all I said to him was, ‘I think she is studying my chosen field,’ and my brother took it to mean you were studying how to be a pharmacist. From there it was fairly easy to have him petition the Raees on your behalf –while I secretly did the same, but for truer reasons- and now, that and your excellent grades have ensured you a place at Gundishapur University.” Fereydun was beaming as he finished.
A moment of weakness overcame Firuzeh, and before she could stop herself she uttered, “But, what if I don’t want to be an alchemist? It seems like a lot of work and secrecy and misery, and for what? So most people don’t know how much I do?” After she had said it, she wished she could take the words back, but alas there was no djinn there to make her wish come true, and she had watched as her beloved Amu seemed to deflate and fall in on himself, slumping down onto the edge of the bed.
“I can’t answer that for you, my sweet baraadarzadeh; all I can ask of you is to be honest with yourself. Can you picture giving up the drive to know the answers, the burning curiosity to perform experiments, the desire to do something that is all your own? If you can, I can respect that, though I will be disappointed. However, it is your life, and I will respect your choice. Just remember this: E’laa’hi gives us the spark that makes us unique, it is up to us whether we light it or let it die out.” Getting up off the bed, Fereydun had kissed her softly on the forehead and let himself out after making sure no one else was up and wandering the hallways. Turning off the lamp and climbing into bed, sleep had been a long time coming that night for Firuzeh.
But, that was all in the past, and now the young student was where she belonged. She had decided that if E’laa’hi was going to give her this gift, it would be a waste to let it go, a decision that had made Fereydun very happy. And her Amu hadn’t been joking; her workload was almost twice what her fellow students did, which was why she didn’t even bother looking for someone to date. A partner would just be a waste of time, or worse, a major distraction that interfered with her learning.
It was the pursuit of knowledge that got her up every morning, the pursuit that kept her studying in the library long after the other students had gone to bed or off to engage in whatever recreational activities they desired, the pursuit that spurred her on when she felt weak. Fereydun had warned her that it could feel intoxicating, and Firuzeh had to admit that it was more addicting than any liquor or drug that she had tried. None of them compared to the high of finally mastering a difficult formula, learning a new way of doing things, or earning one of the rare “well done” nods from her Ostaad when she turned in a paper.
Her professor, Hushyar, was an older man, in his early 50’s, with a long salt-and-pepper beard and very thick glasses. His hair was almost all gone, and what was left was so wispy it barely covered his perpetually sunburnt head, since he always seemed to forget to wear a hat of some kind. One of his legs had been hurt in an accident (alchemical, though most of the students didn’t know that), and so he walked around with a cane, which he wasn’t above using to thwack a student who had fallen asleep or talked back to him in his calculus class.
While he may have difficulty walking around unaided, his hands were strong and steady, as Firuzeh could attest to from watching him teach the alchemy class that went on after dinner ended (when most students were out for the evening). Here was where his passion lay, and it was truly inspiring to the young student to listen to his lectures or to participate in one of his experiments. But, as much as she loved learning from him, Firuzeh knew that following in her mentor’s footsteps was not for her. Teaching held no passion for her; no, she felt her destiny called out to her in the wider world than the walls of the University.
Entering the classroom, she wasn’t surprised to find that she was the first one there. Ostaad Hushyar was behind his desk, taking notes and grading the previous day’s assignments. Not wanting to disturb him, since she had no wish to feel his cane on her knuckles, Firuzeh simply sat down on one of the cushions and took out her pencils and parchment. Leaning forward, she grabbed one of the spare lap desks that Hushyar kept in his classroom. Hers had burnt up the day before in alchemy class, and she hadn’t had time to write her father asking for a new one.
Slowly the rest of the class began to filter in, the last one being Laleh, who barely ran through the door before Hushyar closed it. His rule was, if you were so late that the door was closed, either you went away and took a penalty for missing class - or you came in, and as punishment for disturbing his class, took a whack from his cane across your backside. It was one of the reasons that Firuzeh never went out of the University to break her fast on days she had his class; one time getting that teak cane used on her tender rear was more than enough!
Laleh gave a sheepish grin of apology to Ostaad Hushyar, who simply glared at the breathless young woman before shuffling up to the front of the room. Taking her customary place next to Firuzeh, she leaned over and whispered, “Dara says that there is a bard performing tonight at the meykadeh which is so exciting! Do you want to go with us? He even says that he might be able to set you up on a date!”
Smiling to herself, Firuzeh shook her head no. “That’s OK,” she whispered back, “I have extra work I need to catch up on, you two go have fun and drink some sharaab for me.”
Rolling her eyes, Laleh scoffed as she finished pulling out her supplies. “I swear, Firuzeh, you don’t know how to have any fun at all! What could be more exciting than coming out, having some wine, maybe dancing for an hour or two? Who knows, you might actually kiss someone! How long has it been, dear friend?”
At this point, Ostaad Hushyar had made it to the front of the room and turned to face the students, and so Firuzeh was spared from having to answer her roommate’s question. After all, it wasn’t like Laleh would believe her if she said that practicing formulas was a much better use of her time than something as frivolous as wasting a night drinking and potentially kissing a stranger. Unlocking the secrets of the universe, now that got Firuzeh excited, and she was already eager for night to fall so she could perfect the formula of Unbreakable Bonds, an potion that when exposed to air grew into a massive and quickly hardening resin. Grinning to herself, the young alchemist shook her head no once more. Her roommate wouldn’t understand, but Firuzeh didn’t do this for her, or for her father, or for her Amu. She did it for herself.