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Authors: Tahereh Mafi

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BOOK: This Woven Kingdom
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Kamran stared perhaps too long at the discolored mark, the faint impression of a hand it formed. He wondered then that he hadn't recognized it right away, that he'd so easily dismissed it as an indiscriminate shadow. The longer he stared at it now the harder his heart moved in his chest, the faster heat flooded his veins. He experienced a sudden, alarming desire to commit murder.

To the girl he said only: “You are hurt.”

She made no response.

She was trembling. Drenched through. Kamran was suffering, too, but he had the benefit of a heavy wool cloak, a protective hood. The girl wore only a thin jacket, no hat, no scarf. Kamran knew he needed to convey her home, to make certain she did not catch her death in this weather, but just then he could not seem to move. He didn't even know this girl's name and somehow he'd been stricken by her, reduced to this, to stupidity. For the second time that night, she licked the rainwater from her lips, drawing his gaze to her mouth. Had any other young woman done such a thing in his presence, Kamran might've thought it a coquettish affectation. But this—

He'd read once that Jinn had a particular love of water. Perhaps she could not help licking the rain from her lips any more than he could help staring at her mouth.

“Who are you?” he whispered.

Her chin lifted at that, her lips parting in surprise. She studied him with wide, shining eyes, and appeared to be as confused by him as he was by her. Kamran took comfort in this, in the realization that they'd confounded each other equally.

“Will you not tell me your name?” he asked.

She shook her head, the movement slow, uncertain. Kamran felt paralyzed. He could not explain it; his body seemed anchored to hers. He drew closer by micrometers, propelled to do so by a force he could not hope to understand. What mere minutes ago might've struck him as lunacy now seemed
to him essential: to know what it might be like to hold her, to breathe in the scent of her skin, to press his lips to her neck. He was scarcely aware of himself when he touched her—light as air, faint as fading memory—a stroke of his fingers against her lips.

She vanished.

Kamran fell backward, landing hard in a puddle. His heart was racing. He tried and could not collect his thoughts—he scarcely knew where to begin—and he'd been rooted to the spot for at least a minute when Hazan came running forward, out of breath.

“I couldn't see where you'd gone,” he cried. “Were you set upon by thieves? Good God, are you hurt?”

Kamran sank fully into the street then, letting himself be absorbed by the wet, the cold, the night. His skin had cooled too quickly, and he felt suddenly feverish.

“Sire, I do not think it advisable to sit here, in th—”

“Hazan.”

“Yes, sire?”

“What were you going to tell me about the girl?” Kamran turned his gaze up to the sky, studying the stars through a web of branches. “You say she is not a spy. Not a mercenary. Not assassin nor turncoat. What, then?”

“Your Highness.” Hazan was squinting against the rain, clearly convinced the prince had lost his mind. “Perhaps we should head back to the palace, have this conversation over a warm cup of—”


Speak
,” Kamran said, his patience snapping. “Or I shall have you horsewhipped.”

“She— Well, the Diviners—they say—”

“Never mind, I shall horsewhip you myself.”

“Sire, they say her blood has ice in it.”

Kamran went deathly still. His chest constricted painfully and he stood up too fast, stared into the darkness. “Ice,” he said.

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“You are certain.”

“Quite.”

“Who else knows about this?”

“Only the king, sire.”

Kamran took a sharp breath. “The king.”

“He, too—as you know—had been convinced there was something unusual about the girl and bade me report to him my findings straightaway. I would have come to you sooner with the news, sire, but there were a great many arrangements to be made, as you can well imagine.” A pause. “I confess I've never seen the king quite so overwrought.”

“No,” Kamran heard himself say. “This is terrible news, indeed.”

“Her collection has been set for tomorrow evening, sire.” A pause. “Late night.”

“Tomorrow.” Kamran's eyes were on a single point of light in the distance; he hardly felt a part of his own body. “So soon?”

“The king's orders, Your Highness. We must move with all possible haste and pray no one else gets to her before we do.”

Kamran nodded.

“It feels almost divine, does it not, that you were so swiftly able to identify her?” Hazan managed a stiff smile. “A servant girl in a snoda? Lord knows we might never have found her out otherwise. You've most assuredly spared the empire the loss of countless lives, sire. King Zaal was deeply impressed with your instincts. I'm sure he will tell you as much when you see him.”

Kamran said nothing.

There was a tense stretch of silence, during which the prince closed his eyes, let the rain lash his face.

“Sire,” Hazan said tentatively. “Did you come upon cutthroats earlier? You look as if you came to blows.”

Kamran placed two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Within moments his horse came galloping toward him, the stunning beast rushing to a reckless halt at his master's feet. Kamran placed a foot in the stirrup and swung himself onto the slick seat.

“Sire?” Hazan shouted to be heard over the wind. “Did you meet with anyone out here?”

“No.” Kamran grabbed the reins, gave the horse a gentle nudge with his heels. “I saw no one.”

Thirteen

ALIZEH HAD BROKEN NO FEWER
than seven different laws since fleeing the scene with the prince. She was breaking one right then, daring to remain invisible as she entered Baz House. The consequences for such offenses were severe; if she were caught materializing she'd be hung at dawn.

Still, she felt she was left with little recourse.

Alizeh hurried to the hearth, stripping her coat, unlacing her boots. Public undressing of any kind was considered an act of stateliness, one deemed beneath those of her station. She might be forgiven for removing her snoda late at night, but a servant was forbidden from removing any essential article of clothing in common gathering areas.

Not a coat, not a scarf. Certainly not her shoes.

Alizeh took a deep breath, reminding herself that she was invisible to Clay eyes. She suspected there were a handful of Jinn employed at Baz House, but as she'd not been allowed to speak with any of the others—and none had dared compromise their positions by reaching out—she'd no way of knowing for certain. She hoped that any who might come upon her now might be willing to look the other way.

Alizeh drew nearer the fire, trying as best she could to roast her sopping jacket and boots. Alizeh had a spare dress, but only one jacket and one pair of boots, and there
was little chance the articles would dry out overnight in the musty closet that was her bedroom. Though perhaps if she remained indoors all day tomorrow she'd not have need of her jacket—at least not until her appointment with Miss Huda. The idea gave her some comfort.

When the jacket lost the worst of its wet, Alizeh slipped her arms back into the still-damp piece, her body tensing at the sensation. She wished she could lay the article out by the fire overnight, but she'd not risk leaving it here, where it might be noticed by anyone. She picked up her boots then, holding them as close to the flames as she dared.

Alizeh shivered without warning, nearly dropping the shoes in the fire. She calmed her shaking hands and chattering teeth by taking steady, even breaths, clenching her jaw against the chill. When she felt she could bear it, she put her mostly wet boots back on.

Only then did Alizeh finally sink down onto the stone hearth, her trembling legs giving out beneath her.

She removed her illusion of invisibility—fully dressed, she'd not be reprimanded for taking a moment by the fire—and sighed. She closed her eyes, leaned her head against the outer brick. Would she allow herself to think about what transpired tonight? She wasn't sure she could bear it, and yet—

So much had gone wrong.

Alizeh still worried over her treasonous comments to the apothecarist, and a bit about the man who'd tried to attack her—no doubt to steal her parcels—but most of all she worried about the prince, whose attentions toward her were so
baffling as to be absurd. Where had he come from? Why had he cared to help her? He'd touched her just as the devil had foretold, as she'd seen in her nightmares the very night before—

But why?

What had possessed him to touch her so? Worse: Was he not a murderer of children? Why, then, had he acted with such compassion toward a servant girl?

Alizeh dropped her head in her hands.

Her throbbing, bandaged hands. The medicine had been all but washed out of her wounds, and the ache had returned in full force. If she allowed herself to consider for even a moment the devastating loss of her packages, she thought she might faint from heartache.

Six coppers.

The medicine had cost her nearly all the coin she had, which meant she'd not be able to afford replacements without further work. And yet, without her medicine, Alizeh didn't know whether her hands would recover quickly enough; Miss Huda would no doubt require the five dresses in short order, as the royal festivities would be arranged without delay.

Hers was a simple tragedy: without work Alizeh would not be able to afford medicine; without medicine she might not be able to work. It tore her heart to pieces to think of it. No longer was she able to conquer her despair. She felt the familiar prick of tears, swallowed against the burn in her throat.

The cruelty of her life seemed suddenly unbearable.

She knew her thoughts to be infantile even as they arrived, but she lacked the strength to stop herself from wondering then, as she'd done on so many other nights, why it was that others had parents, a family, a safe home, and she did not. Why had she been born with this curse in her eyes? Why was she tortured and hated merely for the way her body had been forged? Why had her people been so tragically condemned alongside the devil?

For centuries before the bloodshed between Jinn and Clay had begun, Jinn had built their kingdoms in the most uninhabitable lands, in the most brutal climates—if only to be far from the reach of Clay civilization. They'd wanted to exist quietly, peacefully, in a state of near invisibility. But Clay, who had long considered it their divine right—no, duty—to slaughter the beings they saw only as scions of the devil, had mercilessly hunted Jinn for millennia, determined to expunge the earth of their existence.

Her people had paid a high price for this delusion.

In her weaker moments Alizeh longed to lash out, to allow her anger to shatter the cage of her self-control. She was stronger than any housekeeper who struck her; she was capable of greater force, greater strength and speed and resilience than any Clay body that oppressed her.

And yet.

Violence alone, she knew, would accomplish nothing. Anger without direction was only hot air, there and gone. She'd seen this happen over and over to her own people. Jinn had tried to flout the rules, to exercise their natural abilities despite the restrictions of Clay law, and they'd all
suffered. Daily, dozens of Jinn bodies had been strung up in the square like bunting, more charred at the stake, still others beheaded, disemboweled.

Their divided efforts were no good.

Only the unification of Jinn might hope to affect real change, but such a feat was hard to hope for in an age where Jinn had fled their ancestral homes, scattering across the globe in search of work and shelter and anonymity. Their numbers had always been small, and their physical advantages had offered them much protection, but they'd lost hundreds of thousands of people over the last centuries. What was left of them could hardly be cobbled together overnight.

The fire snapped in its brick cove, flames flickering urgently. Alizeh wiped her eyes.

It was rare that she allowed herself to think on these cruelties. It did not comfort her to speak aloud her agonies the way it did for some; she did not enjoy reanimating the string of corpses she dragged with her everywhere. No, Alizeh was the kind of person who could not dwell on her own sorrows for fear of drowning in their bottomless depths; it was her physical pain and exhaustion tonight that'd weakened her defenses against these darker meditations—which, once torn free from their graves, were not easily returned to the earth.

Her tears fell now with abandon.

Alizeh knew she could survive long hours of hard labor, knew she could persevere through any physical hardship. It was not the burden of her work or the pain in her hands that broke her—it was the loneliness. It was the friendlessness of her existence; the days on end she spent without the comfort
that might be derived from a single sympathetic heart.

It was grief.

The price she still paid with her soul for the loss of her parents' lives. It was the fear she was forced to live with every day, the torment that was born from an inability to trust even a friendly merchant to spare her the noose.

Alizeh had never felt more alone.

She scrubbed at her eyes again and then, for the umpteenth time that day, searched her pockets for her handkerchief. Its disappearance had not bothered her so much the first few times she searched for it, but the loss was beginning to worry her now that she considered it might not be misplaced—but well and truly lost.

The handkerchief had been her mother's.

It was the only personal possession Alizeh had salvaged intact from the ashes of her family home. Her memories of the dreadful night she lost her mother were strange and horrible. Strange that she remembered feeling warm—truly warm—for the first time in her life. Horrible that the roaring flames that engulfed her mother had only made Alizeh want to sleep. She still remembered her mother's screams that night, the wet handkerchief she'd used to cover her daughter's face.

There'd been so little time to flee.

They'd come in the night, when Alizeh and her sole surviving parent had been abed. The two tried, of course, to escape, but a wooden rafter had fallen from the ceiling, pinning them both to the ground. Had it not been for the blow she'd taken to the head, her mother might've been strong
enough to lift the beam from their bodies that night.

For hours, Alizeh screamed.

For what felt like an eternity, she screamed. And yet, their home had been so expertly hidden away that there was no one to hear the sound. Alizeh clung to her mother's body as it burned, taking the embroidered handkerchief from her parent's limp hand and gathering it up in her own fist.

Alizeh had remained with her dead mother until daylight. If not for the eventual disintegration of the beam that trapped her body, Alizeh would've stayed there forever, would've died of dehydration alongside her mother's charred flesh. Instead, she emerged from the inferno without a scratch, her skin pristine, her clothes in tatters, the handkerchief all she'd possessed intact.

It was the second time in her life she'd survived a fire unscathed, and Alizeh had wondered then, as she often did, whether the ice that ran through her veins would ever truly matter.

She startled, suddenly, at the rattle of the back door.

Alizeh dared not breathe as she got to her feet. She pressed herself against the wall, tried to calm her racing heart. Her mind knew she had little reason to be afraid here, within the protection of this grand home, but her frayed nerves could not comprehend such logic. Upon entering Baz House she'd been single-minded in her haste to reach the fire; in the process she'd forgotten to lock the kitchen door.

She wondered whether to risk doing so now.

In a split second, Alizeh made the decision. She flew to the door and threw the bolt just as the handle began to turn,
and when the mechanical movement came to a sudden halt, she sagged with relief. She fell back against the door, clasping both hands to her chest.

She could hardly catch her breath.

The knock that came next was so unexpected she jumped a foot in the air. She looked around for signs of servants lurking, but none appeared. One glance at the clock and she was reminded: anyone with sense was now abed. She alone was left to manage the destitute stragglers no doubt seeking shelter from the rain. It broke Alizeh's heart to deny them relief from the desperation she understood only too well, but she also knew she had no choice—not unless she wanted to be tossed into the street alongside them.

The knock came again, and this time she felt it, felt the door shake with it. She pressed her back harder against the wood, keeping it from moving in its frame. There was a brief reprieve.

BOOK: This Woven Kingdom
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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