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Authors: Tahereh Mafi

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BOOK: This Woven Kingdom
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Kamran stepped forward, hardly parting his lips to speak, when his grandfather lifted a hand.

“Yes,” he said. “I know you've come to change my mind.”

Kamran stiffened.

For a moment, he wasn't sure to which problem the king was referring. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said carefully. “Indeed, I've come to try.”

“Then I will be sorry to disappoint you. My position on the matter is resolute. The girl is a threat; such a threat must be removed immediately.”

The impending ball was at once forgotten.

Kamran only stared, for a moment, at the face of his grandfather: his clear brown eyes, his rosy skin, his shock of white hair, white beard, white eyelashes. This was a man he loved; one he dearly respected. Kamran had admired King Zaal his entire life, had seen him always as a paragon of justice and greatness. He wanted, with his entire soul, to agree with the king—to stand always beside this extraordinary man—but for the first time, Kamran struggled.

For the first time, he doubted.

“Your Majesty,” Kamran said quietly. “The girl has committed no crime. She's done nothing to threaten the empire.”

King Zaal laughed, his eyes widening in amusement. “Done nothing to threaten the empire? She is the sole surviving heir to an ancient kingdom—on our own land—and not a threat to our empire? She is the very
definition
.”

Kamran froze. “She—what?”

“I see you've not figured it out, then.” Zaal lost his smile by inches. “She is not a mere servant girl.”

Kamran felt a bit like he'd been impaled on a dull blade. He'd known there was something unusual about the girl, but this—

“How can you know for certain who she is?”

“You forget, child, that I have been searching for precisely such a creature since the day I became king. In fact I'd thought for certain I'd found her once; I assumed her dead some years ago. That she was alive was a surprise to me, but if there is ice in her veins, there can be no doubt.”

The prince frowned. This was too much to process. “You say she is the sole surviving heir to an ancient kingdom. But wouldn't that make her—”

“Yes,” said his grandfather. “Yes. She is, among her people, considered a queen.”

Kamran took a sharp breath. “Why have you never told me about this? That there are other kingdoms in Ardunia?”

Zaal touched two fingers to his temple; he looked suddenly tired. “They died out thousands of years ago. They are not like us, Kamran; they do not pass down their line through their children. They claim their sovereigns are chosen by the earth, marked by the infinite cold they were once forced to endure. It is said that the ice chooses only the strongest among them, for there are very few who can survive the brutality of the frost inside the body.” A pause. “Surely you must see that she is not some ordinary girl.”

“And yet— Forgive me, but she seems wholly unaware of who she is. She lives a life of the lowest status, spends her days doing backbreaking labor. Do you not think—”

“That she might be ignorant of her own self? Of what she might be capable?”

“I do think it's possible, yes, that she doesn't know. She appears to have no family—perhaps no one has told her—”

King Zaal laughed again, though sadly this time. “Ice runs
through the girl's veins,” he said, shaking his head. “Ice so rare it is revered, even as it damages the body. That kind of power leaves its marks, child. The girl no doubt carries the proof of her identity on her own flesh—”

“Your Majesty—”

“But yes, yes, let us pretend. For your sake let us pretend and say you are right, that she does not know who she is. What then?” The king steepled his hands under his chin. “If you do not think there are others searching for her right now, you are not paying close enough attention. Pockets of unrest in the Jinn communities continue to disturb our empire. There are many among them deluded enough to think the resurrection of an old world is the only way to move forward.”

Kamran's jaw tensed. He did not appreciate the condescension in his grandfather's tone. “Indeed I am well aware,” he said flatly. “I would humbly remind my grandfather that I was away from home for over a year, overseeing our armies, witnessing such accounts firsthand. It is not the threat I misunderstand, Your Highness, but the tactic. To take a preemptive strike against an innocent young woman— Would it not be worse? What if our actions against her were discovered? Would that not result in greater chaos?”

For a moment, King Zaal was silent.

“It is indeed a risk,” he said finally. “But one that has been thoroughly considered. If the girl were to claim her place as the queen of her people, it is possible, even with the brace of the Fire Accords, that an entire race would pledge their allegiance to her on the basis of an ancient loyalty alone. The
Accords would be forgotten in the time it took to light a torch. The Jinn of Ardunia would form an army; the remaining civilians would riot. An uprising would wreak havoc across the land. Peace and security would be demolished for months—years, even—in the pursuit of an impossible dream.”

Kamran felt himself growing irritated and forced himself to remain calm. “With all due respect, Your Majesty, if we can imagine our Accords so easily broken, should we not be compelled to wonder what makes them brittle? If the Jinn among us would move so easily to revolt—to pledge allegiance to another—should we not first consider addressing the dissatisfaction that might move them to revolution? Perhaps if they felt more reason to be loyal to us, they would not—”

“Your idealism,” King Zaal said sharply, “is romantic. Diplomatic. And unrealistic. Can you not see my motivation for the establishment of the Accords? The entire reason I so desperately sought the unification of the races was to get ahead of the prophecy, to suture together the two groups so the Jinn could not be so easily claimed by a new sovereign—”

“My apologies,” Kamran bit out angrily. “I thought you established the Accords to bring peace to our empire, to finally end the unnecessary bloodshed—”

“And that is precisely what I did,” King Zaal thundered, more than matching his grandson's tone. “Your own eyes cannot deny it. You have seen since the day you were born that my every effort has been in the service of our people. With my very life I've tried always to prevent war. To circumvent
tragedy. To protect our legacy.

“One day, Kamran, I've no doubt you will be a great king. Until then there is much you do not see, and a great deal more you must try to anticipate. Tell me: can you imagine such a revolt finding success?”

“Does it matter?” the prince nearly shouted.

King Zaal raised his chin, drew a sharp breath.

“Forgive me.” Kamran lowered his eyes and collected himself. “But does it matter whether they are capable of success? Is there not a greater danger, Your Highness, in demanding obedience from unwilling subjects? And should any sovereign be satisfied with the tenuous allegiance of a people merely biding their time, waiting for the right moment to unleash their anger—to revolt? Would it not be wiser to allow such a people a voice now—to cool their anger now—in the interest of preventing an eruption later?”

“You are quite good,” his grandfather said coldly, “at taking clear and logical arguments and elevating them to a level so esoteric they are rendered ineffectual.

“Your reasoning, while admirably impassioned, will not weather the storms of the real world. This is not about
rights
, child, but reason. It is about preventing the kind of bloodshed so horrific it would keep a man from ever again closing his eyes. What astounds me most is that you, the impending heir to this throne, would even consider allowing the birth of another monarchy on your own land.” His grandfather hesitated a moment, studied Kamran's face. “You've met this girl, I take it? Spoken with her?”

Kamran tensed; a muscle jumped in his jaw.

“Yes,” said the king. “As I thought.”

“I do not know her, Your Majesty. Only of her, and from afar. My arguments are not influenced b—”

“You are young,” said his grandfather. “As such, you are well within your rights to be foolish. Indeed it is natural at your age to make mistakes, to fall for a pretty face and pay dearly for your folly. But this— Kamran, this would not be foolish. This would not be folly. This would be a
travesty
. No good can come of such an alliance. I gave you a direct command, bade you find a wife—”

A moment of madness prompted Kamran to say, “This girl has royal blood, does she not?”

King Zaal rose to his feet, abandoning his throne with an agility that belied his age. He carried a golden mace, which he slammed against the glittering floor. Kamran had never seen his grandfather angry like this—had never seen him unleash the weight of his temper—and the transformation was chilling. Kamran did not see a man in that moment, but a king; a king who'd ruled the world's largest empire for nigh on a century.

“You would dare make a tasteless joke,” he said, chest heaving as he stared down at his grandson, “about a creature predestined to orchestrate my demise.”

Kamran swallowed. The words felt like ash in his throat when he said, “I beg you will forgive me.”

King Zaal took a deep breath, his body trembling with the effort to remain calm. It felt like centuries before he finally resumed his throne.

“You will now answer me honestly,” said his grandfather
quietly. “Knowing the might of Ardunia—tell me sincerely whether you can imagine the eventual victory of such a revolt.”

Kamran lowered his eyes. “I cannot.”

“No,” said the king. “Nor I. How would they ever hope to win against us? Our empire is too old, our armies too strong, our bases scattered generously across the land. It would be a long and bloody war, and all for naught. How many lives would be lost in the pursuit of an impossible revolution?”

Kamran closed his eyes.

“You would consider risking the peace of millions,” his grandfather went on, “the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands—to spare the life of one girl? Why? Why spare her when we already know who she will become? What she will go on to do? My dear child, these are the kinds of decisions you will be forced to make, over and over, until death strips your soul from this world. I hope I never led you to believe your task here would be easy.”

A length of silence stretched between them.

“Your Majesty,” the prince said finally. “I do not dare deny your wisdom, and I do not mean to take lightly such a prophecy from our Diviners. I only argue that perhaps we wait to cut her down until she becomes the enemy once foretold.”

“Would you wait for poison to ravage your body, Kamran, before taking the antidote you hold all the while in your hand?”

Kamran studied the floor and said nothing.

There was so much the prince longed to say, but this conversation felt impossible. How might he hope to argue in
favor of leniency toward a person believed to be the provocation of his grandfather's demise?

Were the girl to make even the slightest move against King Zaal, Kamran's choice would be clear, his emotions undiluted. He would not scruple to defend his grandfather with his life.

The problem was that Kamran could not believe that the girl—as she existed now—had any interest in overthrowing the throne. Murdering her as an innocent seemed to him an action dark enough to dissolve the soul.

Still, he could not say any of this for fear of offending the king, in addition to losing what little respect his grandfather had left for him. They'd never fought like this, never been so far apart on such an important issue.

Even so, Kamran felt he had to try. Just once more.

“Could we not consider,” he said, “perhaps—keeping her somewhere? In hiding?”

King Zaal canted his head. “You mean to put her in prison?”

“Not— No, not prison, but— Perhaps we could encourage her to leave, live elsewhere—”

His grandfather's face shuttered closed. “How can you not see? The girl cannot be free. While she is free, she can be found, she can be rallied, she can become a symbol of revolution. So long as I am king, I cannot allow it.”

Kamran returned his gaze to the floor.

He felt a savage pain lance through him then, the blade of failure. Grief. The girl would be sentenced to death because of
him
, because he'd had the audacity to notice her, and the
self-importance to announce what he'd seen.

“Tonight,” said the king gravely, “the girl will be dealt with. Tomorrow night, you will choose a wife.”

Kamran looked up in an instant, his eyes wild. “Your Majesty—”

“And we will never discuss this again.”

Fifteen

IN THE SILKY GLIMMER OF
a sunlit window, she saw motion, then heard it: a flutter of wings, the sound like blades of grass in the wind, pushing together, then apart. Alizeh was washing the windows of Baz House on this beautiful morning, and when compared to her tasks the day before, the work seemed almost luxurious.

The sound of wings grew suddenly louder then, and a tiny body careened into the window with a soft
bop
.

Alizeh shooed it away.

The fluttering insect repeated this action twice more. Alizeh checked to make sure she was alone before she held up a single finger to her lips. “You must be quiet,” she whispered. “And remain close to me.”

The firefly did as it was bade, and landed gently on the nape of her neck, where it folded its wings, crawled downward, and ducked its head underneath her collar.

Alizeh dipped her sponge in its bucket, wrung the excess water, and continued scrubbing the smudged glass. She'd reapplied the salve to her hands and throat last night, which had made her pain quite manageable this morning. In fact, in the presence of the sun, all the terrors induced by the events of the evening prior had faded. It was easier for Alizeh to declare her fears dramatic when the skies were so clear,
when her hands no longer throbbed in agony.

Today, she swore, would be easier.

She would not fear the condemnations of the apothecarist; nor would she concern herself with the prince, who had only done her a kindness. She would not worry over her missing handkerchief, which would doubtless be found; she would not fear for her health, not now that she had her salves. And the devil, she reasoned, could go to hell.

Things were going to get better.

Tonight, she had an appointment
inside
the Lojjan ambassador's estate. She was engaged to design and execute the creation of five gowns, for which she might hope to collect a total of forty coppers, which was nearly half a stone.

Goodness, Alizeh had never even held a stone.

Her mind had already run wild with the possibilities such a sum of coin might provide. Her wildest hope was to secure enough customers to make a regular living, for only then might she be able to leave Baz House. If she was careful and kept to a tight budget, she prayed she'd be able to afford a small room of her own—maybe somewhere sparsely populated on the outskirts of town—somewhere she might never be bothered.

Her heart swelled at the thought.

Somehow, she would manage it. She'd keep her head down and work hard, and one day she'd be free of this place, these people.

She hesitated, her sponge pressed against the glass.

Alizeh could not help but think how strange it was that she worked in service. All her life she'd known she wanted
to spend her life in the service of others, though not at all like this.

Life, it seemed, possessed a sense of irony.

Alizeh had been brought up to lead, to unify, to free her people from the half-lives they'd been forced to live.

Once, she'd been meant to revive an entire civilization.

The painful frost growing inside her veins was a primitive phenomenon, one thought lost to her people a millennia ago. Alizeh knew only a little of the abilities she was rumored to possess, for though there was an inherent power in the ice that pulsed through her, it was a power that could not be tapped until she came of age, and even then would not mature without the assistance of an ancient magic buried deep in the Arya mountains, where her ancestors had built their first kingdom.

And then, of course, she would require a kingdom.

The idea struck her as so preposterous it nearly made her laugh, even as it broke her heart.

Still, it had been at least a thousand years since there'd been news of a Jinn born with ice in their blood, which made Alizeh's mere existence nothing short of miraculous. Nearly two decades ago whispers of Alizeh's strange, cold eyes had spread among the Jinn the way only a rumor might, expectations building every day upon the slopes of her young shoulders. Her parents, who knew she would not be safe until she came of age at eighteen, had removed their daughter from the noisy, needy world, secreting her away for so long that the whispers, without fuel, were soon reduced to ash.

Alizeh, too, was forgotten shortly thereafter.

All those who knew of her had been killed, and Alizeh, who had no ally, no kingdom, no magic, and no resources, knew her life was best spent simply trying to survive.

She no longer had any ambition beyond a desire to live a quiet, undetected existence. In her more hopeful moments Alizeh dreamed of living somewhere lost in the countryside, tending to a flock of sheep. She'd sheer them every spring, using their wool to weave a rug as long as the world was round. It was a dream at once simple and implausible, but it was an imagining that gave her comfort when her mind required an escape.

She promised herself things wouldn't always be this hard. She promised herself that the days would get better, bit by bit.

In fact, things were already better.

For the first time in years, Alizeh had company. And as if to remind her, the firefly nudged her neck.

Alizeh shook her head.

The firefly nudged her again.

“Yes, I know, you've made it very clear that you'd like me to come outside with you,” she said, scarcely breathing the words. “But as you can plainly see, I'm not allowed to leave this house at will.”

She could almost feel the firefly grieve. It wilted against her neck, rubbing one little arm over its eyes.

The creature had snuck into Baz House last night, during the brief window of time it took for the prince to open and close the back door. It had flown hard and fast in her
direction, pelting her in the cheek with its little body.

It'd been so long since Alizeh had seen a firefly that, at first, she hadn't recognized the creature. When she did, she smiled so wide she hardly knew herself.

Alizeh had been sent a firefly.

A communiqué.

From whom? She did not know. Though not for a lack of effort on the part of the insect. The poor thing had been trying to drag her outside since the moment it found her.

There was a special relationship between Jinn and fireflies, for though they could not communicate directly, they understood each other in ways unique only to the two species. Fireflies were to Jinn what some animals were to Clay. Beloved companions. Loyal friends. Comrades in arms.

Alizeh knew, for example, that this firefly was a friendly one, that it already knew who she was, and that it wanted now to guide her to a meeting with its owner. Though it appeared neither the firefly nor its owner understood the limits surrounding Alizeh's freedom.

She sighed.

She took as much time as she dared scrubbing each delicate windowpane, enjoying the expansive view to the outside. It was rare that she was afforded so much time to take in the beauty of Setar, and she relished it now: the shattering, snowcapped Istanez mountain range in the distance; the frosted green hills in between. Dozens of narrow rivers fractured the landscape, the valleys blue with turquoise and rainwater, bookended on either side by miles of saffron and rose fields.

Alizeh was from the very north of Ardunia—from Temzeel province—an icy, elevated region so close to the stars she'd often thought she could touch them. She missed her home desperately, but she could not deny the splendors of Setar.

Without warning, the bell tolled.

It was noon, the morning now officially at an end. The sun had slid discreetly into position at the apex of the horizon, and Alizeh marveled at it through the glass, at the jolly warmth it emanated across the land.

She really was in a fine mood.

She recognized that it had been good for her to cry last night, to release a bit of the pressure in her chest. She felt lighter this morning, better than she had in a long ti—

The sponge dropped from her fingers without warning, landing with a dull thud in its soapy bucket, spraying her fresh snoda with dirty water. Anxiously, she dried her wet hands on her apron and pressed closer to the window.

Alizeh could not believe her eyes.

She clapped a hand over her mouth, overcome by an irrational happiness to which she was almost certainly not entitled. That wretched Fesht boy had nearly slit her throat; what reason did she have to be delighted to see him now? Oh, she didn't know, and she didn't care.

She couldn't believe he'd come.

Alizeh watched him as he came up the walk, marveling anew at his shock of red hair and prematurely long frame. The boy was an entire head taller than her, and at least five years younger; it was a wonder to her how he grew at all for
a child who ate so little.

The boy arrived at the fork in the footpath then, making a sharp right where he should've gone left, his unsettling choice directing him straight to the main entrance. When Alizeh was certain his vivid figure had disappeared for good, her joy evaporated.

Why had he gone to the front door?

She'd instructed the boy to come to the kitchens, not the main house. If she hurried right this second she might, under the pretense of collecting more water, be able to rush down to meet him. But if he was discovered at the front door not only would he be whipped for the impudence—she'd be cast out for having promised him bread.

Alizeh sat back, her heart racing at the thought.

Was this her fault? Should she have explained things more thoroughly to the boy? But what street child was deluded enough to think he might be admitted through the front door of a grand estate?

She dropped her face in her hands.

The firefly fluttered its wings against her neck, asking the obvious question.

Alizeh shook her head. “Oh, nothing,” she said softly. “Just that I'm fairly certain I'll be thrown out onto the street . . . any minute now.”

At that, the firefly grew animated, taking flight and tossing its body once more at the window.

Bop. Bop.

Alizeh couldn't help her smile then, however reluctant. “Not in a good way, you silly creature.”

“Girl!” A familiar voice barked at her.

Alizeh froze.


Girl!

In a flash, the firefly flew up the cuff of Alizeh's sleeve, where it shuddered against her skin.

Alizeh turned slowly from her seat in the window bay to face Mrs. Amina, where the housekeeper somehow managed to tower over her even from below.

“Yes, ma'am?”

“Who were you talking to?”

“No one, ma'am.”

“I saw your lips moving.”

“I was humming a song, ma'am.” Alizeh bit her lip. She wanted to say more—to offer up a more robust lie—but she was warier than ever of saying too much.

“Your job is to disappear,” Mrs. Amina said sharply. “You're not allowed to hum, you're not allowed to speak, you're not allowed to look at anyone. You don't exist when you work here, especially when you're abovestairs. Do I make myself clear?”

Alizeh's heart was racing. “Yes, ma'am.”

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