Authors: Tahereh Mafi
Fear clenched a fist around her heart.
Would he report her to the magistrates? Accuse her of treason?
Deen inched away from the counter and quietly packaged up her things, but Alizeh could feel his suspicion; could feel it coming off him in waves.
“He's a decent young man, our prince,” said the shopkeeper curtly. “What's more: he's away from home on duty, miss, protecting our lands, not cavorting in the streets. He's neither a drunk nor a womanizer, which is more than we can say for some.
“Besides, it is not for us to decide whether he's deserving. We owe our gratitude to anyone who defends our lives with
his own. And yes, he keeps to himself, I suppose, but I don't think a person should be crucified for their silence. It's a rare thing, is it not? Lord only knows how many there are who would benefit”âDeen looked up at herâ“from biting their tongues.”
A shock of heat struck her through the heart then; a shame so potent it nearly cured her of that ever-present chill. Alizeh cast down her gaze, no longer able to meet the man's eyes.
“Of course,” she said quietly. “I spoke out of turn, sir.”
Deen did not acknowledge this. He was tallying up the total cost of her items with pencil and paper. “Just today,” he said, “just today our prince saved a young beggar's lifeâcarried the boy off in his armsâ”
“You must forgive me, sir. It was my mistake. I do not doubt his heroismâ”
“That'll be six coppers, two tonce, please.”
Alizeh took a deep breath and reached for her coin purse, carefully shaking out the amount owed.
coppers. Miss Huda had paid her only eight for the gown.
Deen was still talking.
“Some Fesht boy, tooâquite merciful to spare him, considering how much trouble we get from the southernersâshock of red hair so bright you could see it from the moon. Who knows why the child did it, but he tried to kill himself in the middle of the street, and our prince saved his life.”
Alizeh startled so badly she dropped half her pay on the floor. Her pulse raced as she scrambled to collect the coins, the thudding of her heart seeming to pound in her head.
When she finally placed her payment on the counter, she could scarcely breathe.
“The Fesht boy tried to kill himself?”
Deen nodded, counting out her coin.
“But why? What did the prince do to him?”
Deen looked up sharply. “
“That is, I meanâ What did he do to help the boy?”
“Yes, quite right,” Deen said, his expression relaxing. “Well, he picked the boy up in his own arms, didn't he? And called for help. The good people came running. If it weren't for the prince, the boy would surely be dead.”
Alizeh felt suddenly ill.
She stared at a glass jar in the corner of the shop, at the large chrysanthemum trapped within. Her hearing seemed to fade in and out.
“ânot entirely clear, but some people are saying he'd attacked a servant girl,” Deen was saying. “Put a knife to her neck and cut her throat, not unlike yâ”
“Where is he now?” she asked.
“Now?” Deen startled. “I wouldn't know, miss. I imagine he's at the palace.”
She frowned. “They took the Fesht boy to the palace?”
“Oh, no, the boy is at the Diviners' in the Royal Square. No doubt he'll be there a while.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said quickly. “I'm very grateful for your help.” She drew herself up, forced her mind firmly back into her body, and attempted to be calm. “I'm afraid I must now be on my way.”
Deen said nothing. His eyes went to her throat, to the
bandage he'd only just wrapped around her neck.
“Miss,” he said finally, “why is it you do not remove your snoda so late at night?”
Alizeh pretended to misunderstand. She forced out another goodbye and rushed for the exit so quickly she almost forgot her packages, and then ran out the door with such haste she hardly had time to register the change in weather.
She'd run straight into a winter storm, rain lashing the streets, her face, her uncovered head. It was but a moment before Alizeh was soaked through. She was trying, while balancing an armful of parcels, to pull the sopping wet snoda away from her eyes, when she suddenly collided with a stranger. She cried out, her heart racing wildly in her chest, and through miracle alone caught her packages before they hit the ground. Alizeh gave up on her snoda then, darting deeper into the night, moving almost as fast as her feet could carry her.
She was thinking of the devil.
There once was a man
who bore a snake on each shoulder.
If the snakes were well fed
their master ceased growing older.
What they ate no one knew,
even as the children were found
with brains shucked from their skulls,
bodies splayed on the ground.
The vision she'd seen, the nightmare delivered by Iblees in the nightâ
The signs seemed clear enough now: the hooded man in the square; the boy who'd never turned up at her kitchen door; the devil whispering riddles in her heart.
That face had belonged to the prince.
Who else could it be? It had to be the prince, the elusive princeâand he was murdering children. Or perhaps he was trying to murder children. Had he tried to murder the child and failed? When Alizeh had left the Fesht boy earlier today he'd not seemed in danger of killing himself.
What had the prince done to him?
Alizeh's feet pounded the slick cobblestone as she ran, desperately, back to Baz House. Alizeh had hardly enough time to breathe lately; she'd even less time to solve a riddle sent down from the devil. Her head was spinning, her boots slipping. The rain was falling so hard she hardly saw where she was going, much less the hand that darted out of the darkness, clamping down on her wrist.
KAMRAN DID NOT LOOK AT
Hazan as the latter approached through what was fast becoming a violent storm, choosing to stare instead at a stripe of wet cobblestone shimmering under orange gaslight. The rain had grown only more brutal, thrashing all and sundry while a vengeful wind rattled around their bodies, unseating ribbons of frost from a stand of trees.
It was unlike Hazan to overlook Kamran's cold reception, for though the minister knew his placeâand knew that he was owed little of Kamran's attentionsâhe relished any opportunity to provoke his old friend, as the prince was easily provoked.
Theirs was an unusual friendship, to be sure.
The solidarity between the two was realâif varnished over with a thin layer of acerbityâbut the foundations of their comradeship were so steeped in the separation of their classes that it seldom occurred to Kamran to ask Hazan a single question about his life. The prince assumed, because they'd been acquainted since childhood, that he knew all there was to know about his minister, and it had never once occurred to him that he might be wrong, that a subordinate might possess in his mind as many dimensions as his superior.
Still, the general effect of proximity over time meant that Kamran was at least well versed in the language of his minister's silence.
That Hazan said nothing as he stepped under the battered awning was Kamran's first indication that something was wrong. When Hazan shifted his weight, a moment later, Kamran had his second.
“Out with it,” he said, straining a bit to be heard over the rain. “What have you discovered?”
“Only that you were right,” said Hazan, his expression dour.
Kamran turned his gaze up at the gaslight, watched the flame batter the glass cage with its tongues. He felt suddenly uneasy. “I am often right, Minister. Why should this fact distress you tonight?”
Hazan did not respond, reaching instead into his coat pocket for the handkerchief, which he held out to the prince. This, Kamran accepted wordlessly.
Kamran studied the handkerchief with his fingers, running the pad of his thumb over its delicate lace edges. The textile was of a higher quality than he'd originally considered, with an embroidered detail in one corner that the prince only now noticed. He struggled to distinguish the details in the dim light, but it appeared to be a small, winged insectâjust above which hovered an ornamental crown.
The prince frowned.
The heavy fabric was neither damp nor dirty. Kamran turned it over in his hands, finding it hard to believe that such a thing was in fact stained with the girl's blood. More
curious, perhaps, was that as the day wore on, Kamran grew only more interested in its mysterious owner.
Kamran was again studying the embroidered fly, trying to name the uncommon insect, when he said: “Go on, then. I take it you've discovered something dreadful?”
Kamran finally looked up at Hazan, his heart constricting in his chest. The prince had only just reconciled himself to the idea of the girl's innocence; all this uncertainty was reeking havoc on his mind.
“What, then?” Kamran forced a laugh. “She is a Tulanian spy? A mercenary?”
Hazan grimaced. “The news is bleak indeed, sire.”
Kamran took a deep, bracing breath, felt the chill fill his lungs. He experienced, for an extraordinary moment, a pang of what could only be described as disappointmentâa feeling that left him both stunned and confused.
“You worry yourself overmuch,” the prince said, affecting indifference. “Certainly the situation is far from ideal, but we have the better of her now. We know who she is, how to track her. We may yet get ahead of any sinister plotting.”
“She is not a spy, sire. Nor is she a mercenary.” Hazan did not appear to rejoice in the statement.
“An assassin, then? A turncoat?”
“Enough of your filibustering. If she is neither spy nor assassin why are you so aggrieved? What could possiblyâ”
from his minister and Kamran took an elbow
to the gut, knocking, for a moment, the air from his lungs. He straightened in time to hear the sharp splash of a puddle, the retreating sound of footsteps on slick stone.
“What the devilâ?”
“Forgive me, Your Highness,” Hazan said breathlessly. “Some ruffian barreled into me, I didn't mean tâ”
Kamran was already stepping away from the protection of the awning. It was possible they'd been knocked into by a drunkard, but Kamran's senses felt unusually heightened, and intuition implored him now to explore.
Just an hour ago the prince had been convinced of his own ineptitude, and though he took some comfort in his recent vindication as pertained to the servant girl, he worried now that he'd been so willing to doubt his better judgment.
He had been right to mistrust her all along, had he not?
Why, then, was he disappointed to discover that she was somehow duplicitous, after all?
Kamran's mind had been thoroughly exhausted from the upheaval of the day's emotional journey, and he thought he'd rather drive his head into a wall than lose another moment to the dissection of his feelings. He decided right then that he'd never again deny his instinctsâinstincts that were now insisting that something was amiss.
Carefully, he moved deeper into the night, fresh rain pelting his face as he scanned for the culprit.
A silhouette struck gold in a flicker of gaslight, the figure illuminated in a flash.
She was there and gone again, but it was all he needed to be certain. He saw her snoda, the length of linen wrapped around her neckâ
No, he could not believe it. Had he conjured the girl to life with his own thoughts? He felt a moment of triumph, quickly chased by trepidation.
Something was wrong.
Her movements were frantic, unrehearsed. She ran through the rain as if she were afraid, as if she were being chased. Kamran followed swiftly, homing in on her before panning out again, surveying the area for her aggressor. He saw a fresh blur of movement, a form heavily obscured by the torrential downpour. The figure sharpened into focus by degrees; Kamran could only make out the true shape of him when he reached out, grabbing the girl by the arm.
Kamran did not think before he reacted. It was instinct that propelled him forward, instinct that bade him grab the man and throw him bodily against the pavement. Kamran drew his sword as he approached the fallen figure, but just as he lifted his blade, the cretin disappeared.
The unnatural act was enough to sentence the lout to deathâand yet, how could you kill a man you could not catch?
Kamran muttered an oath as he sheathed his sword.
When he spun around, he spotted the girl only paces away, her clothes sagging with rainwater. The skies had not
ceased their torment, and Kamran watched as she struggled to run; she appeared to be balancing packages in one arm, stopping at intervals to pull the wet snoda away from her face. Kamran could hardly see three feet in front of him; he could not imagine how she saw anything at all with a sheet of wet fabric obscuring her eyes.
“Miss, I mean you no harm,” he called out to her. “But you must remove your snoda. For your safety.”
She froze at that, at the sound of his voice.
Kamran was heartened by this and dared to approach her, overcome not only by concern for the girl, but by an impassioned curiosity that grew only stronger by the moment. It occurred to him, as he dared to close the gap between their bodies, that the wrong move might spook herâmight send her running blindly through the streetsâso he moved with painstaking carefulness.
It was no good.
He'd taken but two steps toward her and she went flying into the night; in her haste she slipped, landing hard on cobblestone, scattering her packages in the process.
Kamran ran to her.
Her snoda had slipped an inch, the wet netting sealing around her nose, suffocating her. In a single motion she tore the mask from her face, gasping for air. Kamran hooked his arms under hers and dragged her to her feet.
“Myâmy packages,” she gasped, raindrops pelting her closed eyes, her nose, her mouth. She licked the rainwater from her lips and caught her breath, keeping her eyes shut, refusing to meet his gaze. Her cheeks were flush with
colorâwith coldâher sooty lashes the same shade as her sable curls, wet tendrils spiraling away from her face, some plastered to her neck.
Kamran could hardly believe his fate.
Her reluctance to open her eyes provided him the rare opportunity to study her at length, without fear of self-consciousness. All this time he'd been wondering about the girl and now here she was, in his arms, her face mere inches from his own andâdevils above, he could not look away from her.
Her features were both precise and soft, balanced in every quadrant as if by a master. She was finely designed, loveliness rendered in its truest sense. This discovery was surreal to him to the point of distraction, all the more so because Kamran's calculations had been wrong. He'd suspected she might be beautiful, yesâbut this girl was not merely beautiful.
She was stunning.
“Hang the packages,” he said softly. “Are you hurt?”
“No, noâ” She pushed against him like she might be blind, still refusing to open her eyes. “Please, I need my packagesâ”
Try as he might, Kamran could not understand.
she was not blind, and yet she pretended at it now, for reasons he could not fathom. At every turn this girl had baffled him, and just as he was beginning to digest this, she threw herself to the ground, sparing Kamran only seconds to catch the girl before her knees connected with stone. She pulled away from him, paying him no mind even as her skirts sank into the old slush of the filthy street, her hands fumbling
in the wet for sign of her wares. She moved suddenly into a stroke of gaslight, the flame bracing her in its glow.
It was then that Kamran noticed the bandages.
Her hands were wrapped almost to the point of immobility; she could hardly bend a finger. It was no wonder she struggled to hold on to her things.
He quickly scooped up the scattered items, depositing them into his satchel. He didn't want to scare her by shouting over the rain, so he bent low and said close to her ear: “I've got your packages, miss. You may be easy now.”
It was the surprise that did it. It was the sound of his voice so near her face, his warm breath against her skin.
Her eyes flew open, and Kamran froze.
It was only seconds that they studied each other, but it seemed to Kamran a century. Her eyes were the silver-blue of a winter moon, framed by wet lashes the color of pitch. He'd never seen anyone like her before, and he had the presence of mind to realize he might never again. Sudden movement caught his attention: a raindrop, landing on her cheek, traveling fast toward her mouth. Only then, with a shock, did he notice the bruise blooming along her jaw.