Authors: Tahereh Mafi
There was no chance she'd go unseen. By the time the visit was over, she was certain every servant in the house would've fabricated a reason to pass through this room for a glimpse of their royal visitor.
Unfortunately for Alizeh, she could only see his boots.
“Yes, thank you,” he said in response to a query about tea.
The prince's response came during a chance moment of quiet, his words ringing out so clearly Alizeh thought she might reach out and touch them. His voice was just as rich and complex as she remembered, but he sounded different today. Not unkind, exactly, but neither did he sound pleased.
“I'm afraid I slept poorly last night,” he was explaining to
his aunt. “More tea is always good.”
“Oh, my dear,” Duchess Jamilah said breathlessly. “Why should you sleep poorly? Are you not comfortable at the palace? Would you not prefer staying awhile here, in your old room? I've got it all prepâ”
“My aunt is very kind,” he said quietly. “I thank you, but I'm quite comfortable in my own rooms. Forgive me for speaking thoughtlessly; I meant not to cause you worry.” A pause. “I'm certain I'll sleep better tonight.”
“Well if you're sureâ”
“You may go,” Duchess Jamilah said in a colder tone, ostensibly to the servants present.
Alizeh's pulse quickenedâthis was her chance. If she could only scramble upright in time, she might disappear with the others, decant herself into another room, busy herself with a task. It would be a mite tricky to manage with a soapy bucket and brush in hand, but she'd no choice. She'd have to make it work if she didn't want to arrive at the ball tonight with a swollen eye and a bruised cheek.
As quietlyâand quicklyâas she was able, Alizeh jumped to her feet. She all but ran to catch up with the others, but the hot water in her bucket sloshed as she moved, splashing her clothesâand, she feared, the floor.
For a mere half second Alizeh glanced back to scan the marble for a spill, when she suddenly slipped in the very puddle for which she was searching.
She gasped, reflexively throwing her arms out to recapture
her balance, and only made the situation worse. The jerky movement disturbed the bucket entirely, heaving a scalding wave of soapy water all over her skirtsâand onto the floor.
Alizeh dropped the bucket in horror.
In her desperation to flee the scene she moved without thinking, the toe of her boot promptly catching on the wet, dragging hem of her skirt. She fell forward with cruel force, catching herself with both hands only after slamming one knee into the marble.
Pain rocketed through her, branching up her leg; Alizeh dared not shout out, muting the cry in her lungs to a single, dull sound of discomfort.
In vain she implored herself to stand, but the pain was so paralyzing she could hardly think straight; indeed, she could hardly breathe. Tears pricked her eyes in shame, in anguish.
Alizeh had feared many times for the end of her tenure at Baz House, but she knew now without question that this was her finish. She'd be cast out on to the street for this, and today, of all daysâwhen she needed a safe place to ready herself for the ballâ
“You stupid, thoughtless girl,” Mrs. Amina cried, rushing toward her. “What have you done? Get up this instant!”
Mrs. Amina didn't wait for Alizeh to move; she grabbed the girl roughly by the arm and wrenched her upright, and Alizeh came as close to screaming as she dared, her breath releasing in a tortured gasp.
“Iâ I beg your pardon, ma'am. It was an acciâ”
Mrs. Amina shoved her, hard, in the direction of the kitchens, and Alizeh stumbled, agony shooting up her injured leg.
She caught herself against the wall, excuses dying in her throat. “I'm so desperately sorry.”
“You're going to clean this up, girl, and then you're going to clear out your things and get out of this house.” Mrs. Amina was livid, her chest heaving with an anger even Alizeh had never before witnessed. The housekeeper lifted her hand as if to slap the girl. “Of all the days to be clumsy and brainless. I should have you whipped foâ”
“Put down your hand.”
Mrs. Amina froze, blinking at the unexpected sound of his voice. The housekeeper's hand fell with theatrical slow motion as she turned, confusion sharpening in her eyes, in the language of her body.
“Iâ I beg your pardon, sireâ”
“Step away from the girl.” The prince's voice was low and murderous, his eyes flashing a shade of black so fathomless it terrified even Alizeh to look at him. “You forget yourself, ma'am. It is illegal under Ardunian law to beat servants.”
Mrs. Amina gasped, then fell into a deep curtsy. “Butâ Sireâ”
“I will not repeat myself again. Step away from the girl or I will have you arrested.”
Mrs. Amina released a sudden, fearful sob, scrambling inelegantly to put distance between herself and Alizeh, whose heart was beating so fast she felt both dizzy and faint with fear. Pain spasmed relentlessly in her knee, taking her breath away. She did not know what to do with herself. She hardly knew where to look.
There was a sudden rustling of skirts.
“Oh, my dear!” Duchess Jamilah rushed over, grabbing hold of the prince's arm. “I beg you don't trouble yourself. The fault is mine alone for exposing you to such ineptitude. I pray you will forgive me for subjecting you to this incivility, and for inspiring your discomfortâ”
“My dear aunt, you misunderstand me. My discomfort, if any, is inspired only by an overt disregard for the laws that govern our empire, and which we have a duty at all times to obey.”
Duchess Jamilah gave a nervous, breathy laugh. “Your strict adherence to our governance does you a great service, my dear, but surely you must see that the girl deserves to be punishedâthat Mrs. Amina was only doing as she saw fit tâ”
The prince turned sharply, disengaging himself from his aunt. “You surprise me,” he said. “Surely you don't mean you would condone such cruelty against your servants? The girl was carrying a bucket of water and slipped. There was no harm done to anyone but herself. You would toss her into the street over a mere accident?”
Duchess Jamilah directed a strained smile at the prince, then glared at the housekeeper. “Get out of my sight,” she said acidly. “And take the girl with you.”
Mrs. Amina paled.
She bobbed a curtsy, said, “Yes, Your Grace,” and grabbed Alizeh's arm, jerking her forward. Alizeh stumbled on her throbbing leg and nearly bit through her tongue to keep from crying out.
Under the pretense of offering assistance, Mrs. Amina
drew the girl closer. “If I could, I'd snap your neck right now,” she hissed. “And don't you dare forget it.”
Alizeh squeezed her eyes shut.
The housekeeper shoved Alizeh down the hall, the sound of Duchess Jamilah's voice fading with her every step.
“Your heart is one of legend,” the duchess was saying. “Of course, we all heard the story of your saving that filthy southern child, but now you come to the defense of a snoda? Kamran, my dear, you are too good for us. Come, let us take tea in my personal parlor, where we might have more quiet to reflectÂ .Â .Â .”
His name was Kamran.
Alizeh did not know why this revelation comforted her as she was dragged awayâor even why she cared.
Though maybe, she wondered, this was the reason why the devil had shown her his face. Maybe it was for this moment. Maybe because his was the last face she'd think of before her life was ripped apart.
KAMRAN STARED, UNBLINKING, AS THE
girl was half dragged, half shoved down the hall. As if the bandages around her hands and neck weren't evidence enough, he'd noted with a modicum of fear that he'd begun to recognize her now merely from her movements, from the lines of her figure, from her glossy black curls.
Kamran murmured a vacant thanks to his aunt, who'd said something he did not hear, and allowed her to lead him to another room, the details of which he did not notice. He could hardly focus on his aunt as she spoke, nodding only when it seemed appropriate, and offering brief, monosyllabic responses when prompted.
Inside, he was in turmoil.
Why do you not fight back?
he'd wanted to cry.
In the privacy of his own mind, Kamran would not cease shouting at the girl. She was capable of killing five men in cold blood but allowed this monstrous housekeeper to treat her thus? Why? Was she really left no recourse but to work here as the lowest servant, allowing her lessers to treat her like trash? To abuse her? Why did she not seek employment elsewhere?
With that, the fight left his body.
This was the true agony: that Kamran understood why she stayed. Not only had it recently occurred to him how difficult it might be for a Jinn to find employment in a noble house, but as the days wore on his imagination expanded even to understand precisely why she sought work in such a grand home. He'd begun to discern as much when she hesitated to remove her mask even in the midst of a rainstorm; he'd understood fully only when he realized how fraught her life was with danger. Kamran had known the girl but a matter of days, but in that short time he'd already been privy to three different attacks on her life.
It had been made clear to him, then, not only that she wished to live her life unseenâbut that she did not feel safe enough in the city to live alone.
These were two desires directly opposed.
Her work as a servant, Kamran had realized, provided her with more than the basic needs of coin and shelter. The snoda itself offered her a measure of anonymity, but there was safety, too, in the walls of a grand estate. Guaranteed protection. Guards stationed at all access points.
A faceless servant in a busy, heavily secured houseâ It was, for a young woman in her position, a brilliant cover. Doubtless she accepted as incidental the regular abuse she suffered in exchange for security.
It was a situation Kamran despised.
The tea he sipped turned to acid in his gut, the casual position of his limbs hiding an interior tension coiling him taut from the inside out. He felt as if his muscles were
atrophying slowly in the suit of his skin, a silent litany of epithets perched in his mouth even when he smiled.
He murmured, “Yes, thank you,” and accepted a second puffed pastry from his aunt's proffered dish. He tucked one pastry next to its sibling, then placed the dessert plate on a low table. He'd no appetite.
“.Â .Â .Â much excitement about the ball this evening,” his aunt was saying. “The daughter of a dear friend of mine shall be attending, and I was hoping to introduceÂ .Â .Â .”
Why Kamran felt this overwhelming need always to protect this nameless girl, he could not explain, for she was not at all helpless, and she was not his responsibility.
“Hmm?” his aunt prompted. “What do you say, dear? You would not mind terribly, would you?”
“Not at all,” the prince said, staring into his teacup. “I'd be happy to meet anyone you respect so highly.”
“Oh,” his aunt cried, clapping her hands together. “What a lovely young man you are, howÂ .Â .Â .”
Still, Kamran thought it must be exhausting to live such a life as hers; to know in your soul your own strength and intelligence and yet live each day insulted and berated. The girl went every minute overlooked unless she was being hunted. And devils above, he was tired of hunting her.
The prince had been sent to Baz House as a spy.
It was not the first time he'd done covert work for the empire, and he knew it would not be the last. What he detested now was not the work itself, but the nature of the directive he'd been given.
Though Kamran doubted the anger and animosity he now
felt toward his grandfather would abate, he also knew he was doomed to bury the feelings regardless, carrying on forever as if nothing untoward had transpired between them. Kamran could neither condemn the king nor disregard his duties; he'd no choice but to persist even in his current dilemma, loathsome though it was.
“.Â .Â .Â thinking of wearing my lavender silk,” his aunt was saying, “but there's a darling cream satin I've not yet worn, and I mightÂ .Â .Â .”
The king was beyond persuasion: the girl had been prophesied to have powerful allies, and as a result Zaal firmly believed she'd received assistance during the previous night's attack. He now wanted a lead on these unknown allies. If she was working with a team of spies or rebels, his grandfather argued, it was essential that they know immediately.
“We'd hoped to dispose of her with absolute discretion,” the king had said. “The events of last night have instead set us back quite a bit, for if she is indeed connected to a larger planâor a private armyâher allies are now aware that an organized attempt was made on her life.
“Should we succeed in our mission upon a second attempt, details of her death might then spread across the empire, inspiring vicious rumors that would cause strife between Jinn and Clay. We cannot afford civil war,” his grandfather had insisted. “We must wait to proceed, then, until we know exactly who she's working with, and what they're capable of. We cannot, however, wait too long.”
The prince did not know how to undo what he himself had first set in motion. This servant girl seemed fated to be
the death of him, and much as he longed to blame others for the position he was in, he could not.
He experienced only unceasing torment.
Kamran took an unsteady breath and startled, suddenly, at the unexpected figure of his aunt, who stood before him holding a teapot. Understanding dawned, but too slowly.
She gave him a strange look.
The prince murmured his thanks, held out his empty cup for a pour, and made himself conjure a smile.
“I'm certain you'll look beautiful no matter what you wear,” he said to her. “Everything suits you.”
His aunt beamed.
King Zaal's men, it turned out, had trailed the girl relentlessly for nearly two days, and in doing so had gleaned a great dealâbut had not found evidence of a more nefarious connection.
“We need access to the girl's quarters,” the king had explained. “Any sensitive information is doubtless hidden therein. But as she occupies her room at night, the best time to infiltrate is during the day, when she is working.”
“I see,” Kamran had said quietly. “And you cannot send mercenaries into Baz House in the light of day.”
“Then you understand. It is of the utmost importance to keep the crown's interestsâand concernsâas quiet as possible. Already we have risked a great deal by having her followed. If it gets out that the empire is worried about demon-like Jinn hiding in plain sight, the people will scare and turn on each other. But your visit to your aunt's house
will arouse no suspicion; in fact, she has long been expecting you.”
“Yes,” the prince had said. “I am in possession of my dear aunt's letters.”
“Very good. Your task is simple. Find an excuse to wander the house on your own and search the girl's quarters extensively. Should you discover anything that seems even remotely unusual, I want to know.”
It was a strange predicament.
If Kamran could manage to be both smart
lucky, he might be able to fulfill this service to the king while sparing the girl a second attack on her life. He only needed proof that she was working with a formidable ally. The problem was, the prince did not agree with his grandfather's conspiracy. Kamran did not think the girl had received help in dispatching the hired thugs, and as a result he did not know if he could help her. His only hope was to find somethingâno matter how tenuous the evidenceâthat might give the king pause.
Kamran heard the sharp trill of silver and china, a spoon stirring in a cup. He forced himself, once again, back to the present moment.
Duchess Jamilah was smiling.
She reached out without warning, placing her hand overtop Kamran's. It was no small miracle that he managed not to flinch.
“I see that there is a great deal on your mind,” his aunt said kindly. “I can't tell you how grateful I am that you would
visit even with so much to preoccupy your thoughts.”
“It's always a pleasure to see my dear aunt,” Kamran said automatically. “I only hope you will forgive me for not coming by sooner.”
“I will forgive you as long as you promise to visit more often from here on out,” she said triumphantly, sitting back in her seat. “I have dearly missed having you here.”
Kamran smiled at his aunt.
It was a rare, genuine smile, stirred up by ancient affection. His aunt Jamilah was his father's older cousin, and had been more of a mother figure to him than his own ever had. The prince had spent countless daysâmonths, evenâat Baz House during his life, and it was not a lie to say that he was happy to see his aunt now.
But then, it was not the same, either.
“As I have missed being here,” he said, staring, unseeing, at a glossy bowl of orange persimmons. He looked up. “How have you been? Are your knees still troubling you?”
“You remember your poor aunt's ailments, do you?” She very nearly glowed with happiness. “What a thoughtful prince you are.”
Kamran denied himself the laugh building in his chest; he'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy the effect he had on his auntâthough she required so little encouragement to praise him that it sometimes left him feeling ashamed.
“My knees are old,” she said simply. “Things begin to fall apart when they get old enough. Not much to be done about it. In any case, you need not worry about me when I'm so busy worrying about you.” A pause. “Are you merely
preoccupied with your regular comings and goings? Or is there something troubling you, my dear?”
Kamran did not answer at first, choosing instead to study the filigree of his teacup. “Are you quite certain,” he said finally, “that it is age alone that accounts for our steady decline? If so, I am forced to wonder. Perhaps you and I are the same age, aunt, for I fear I may be falling apart, too.”
His aunt's expression grew suddenly mournful; she squeezed his hand. “Oh, my dear. I do so wishâ”
“Forgive me. Would you be so kind as to indulge me a brief interlude? I'd love to wander the house a short while, and clear away my nostalgia with fresh memories of your beautiful home.”
“Of course, dear child!” Duchess Jamilah placed her teacup down with a bit too much force. “This is your home as much as it is mine. Though I hope you will forgive me, as I cannot join you on your tour. My knees, as you know, cannot bear all the stairs unless absolutely necessary.”