Authors: Tahereh Mafi
“I find it difficult to believe you imagined me at all.”
Alizeh hesitated, blinking up at him. “I beg your pardon? What reason would you have to wonder about my temperament?”
“You need only one? I have many.”
Alizeh's lips parted in surprise. “Are you making fun of me?”
He smiled at that, smiled so wide she saw the white flash of his teeth. It changed him, somehow. Softened him.
He said nothing.
“You are right, in any case,” Alizeh said. “I am not usually so quick to anger.” She bit her lip. “I fear there is something about you that makes me angrier than most.”
He laughed again. “I suppose I should not mind then, so long as I am memorable.”
Alizeh sighed. She shoved her small pillow into her bag, snapped the overstuffed bag closed. “All right, I wâ”
There was a sound.
A distant creak of stairs, the sound of wood expanding and contracting. No one ever came up this far, not unless it was absolutely necessaryâand if someone was here now, it was without a doubt to make certain she was gone.
Alizeh did not think before she reacted, instinct alone activating her movements. Indeed it all happened so quickly she'd not even realized what she'd done until her mind was returned to her body, sensation returned to her skin.
She felt him everywhere, all at once.
She'd knocked them both back into a far corner of the room, where they now crouched, and where Alizeh had cloaked their bodies and her bag with invisibility.
She also all but sat in his lap.
Ferocious heat spread through her body, something like mortification. She could not move now for fear of exposing them, but neither did she know how she would survive this:
his body pressed against hers, his warm breath at her neck. She inhaled the scent of him without meaning toâorange blossoms and leatherâand the heady combination filled her head, startled her nerves.
“Is it possible you're trying to kill me?” he whispered. “Your methods are highly unusual.”
She didn't dare answer.
If she and the prince were caught alone in her room together, she could only imagine the fallout for both of them. A plausible explanation seemed impossible.
When the doorknob turned a second later, she felt the prince stiffen with awareness. His hand tightened around her waist, and Alizeh's heart pounded only harder.
She'd forgotten to blow out the candle.
Alizeh tensed as the door creaked open. She had no way of knowing who would be sent to check on her; if it was one of the rarer Jinn servants, her illusion of invisibility would not hold, as it was effective only on Clay. She also knew not whether her attempt to extend this protection to the prince would be successful, as she'd never before attempted such a feat.
A figure entered the roomânot Mrs. Amina, Alizeh noted with reliefâbut a footman. His eyes roved the room, and Alizeh tried to see the space as he did: stripped of all personal effects, save the small basket of dried flowers.
And the candle, the blasted candle.
The footman scooped up the flowers and headed straight for the flame, shaking his head with obvious irritation before
blowing it out. Doubtless he wondered whether the girl had planned to set fire to the house upon her exit.
He was gone a moment later, slamming the door shut behind him.
That was it.
The ordeal was done.
Alizeh should have rejoiced in her success, but the small, windowless attic room had gone suddenly, suffocatingly dark, and a familiar panic began to claw its way up her throat, constricting her chest. She felt as if she'd been left at the bottom of the sea, consumed whole by infinite night.
Worse, she found that she could not move.
Alizeh blinked desperately against the jet black, willing her eyes to adjust to the impenetrable darkness, to widen their aperture enough to find a single spark of light, all to no avail. The more desperate she grew, the harder it became to remain calm; she felt her heart beat faster in her chest, her pulse fluttering in her throat.
The prince moved, suddenly, touching her as he shifted, his hands circling her waist. He lifted her, just slightly, to adjust himself, but he made no effort to put space between their bodies.
In fact, he drew her closer.
“I beg your pardon,” he whispered in her ear. “But do you intend to sit on me in perpetuity?”
Alizeh felt a bit faint, and she did not know then whether to blame the dark or the nearness of the prince, whose ever-increasing proximity had begun to brew a
counterintuitive cure for her panic. His closeness somehow dulled the sharpest edge of her fear, imbuing in her now an unexpected calm.
She unclenched by degrees, sinking slowly against him with unconscious effort; every inch she conceded he easily claimed, drawing her deeper into his warmth, more fully into his embrace. His body heat soon enveloped her so completely that she imagined, for the length of the most sublime moment, that the ice in her veins had begun to thaw, that she might presently puddle at his feet. Without a sound she sighed, sighed as relief coursed through her frozen blood. Even her racing pulse began to steady.
She could not name this remedy.
She only knew he was strongâshe could feel it even nowâhis limbs heavy and solid, his broad chest the ideal place to rest her head. Alizeh had been desperately fatigued for years; she was overwhelmed then by an illogical desire to wrap the comforting weight of his arms around her body and sleep. She wanted to close her eyes, wanted to drift off at long last without fear, without worry.
She'd not felt safe in so long.
The prince sat forward an inch and his jaw skimmed her cheek, hard and soft planes touching, retreating.
She heard him exhale.
“I haven't the slightest idea what we're doing,” he said softly. “Though if you mean to take me captive, you need only ask. I would come willingly.”
Alizeh almost laughed, grateful for the reprieve. She focused her fractured consciousness on the prince, allowing
his voice, his weight, to orient her. He seemed to her so wonderfully concrete, so certain not only of himself, but of the world he occupied. Alizeh, by contrast, often felt like a ship lost at sea, tossed about in every storm, narrowly avoiding disaster at every turn. She was struck, then, by a strange thought: that she might never be shipwrecked if she had such an anchor to steady her.
“If I tell you something,” Alizeh whispered, her hand curling unconsciously around his forearm. “Will you promise not to tease me?”
She made a sound in her throat, something mournful.
“Very well.” He sighed. “Go on.”
“I'm a bit afraid of the dark.”
It was a moment before he said, “I beg your pardon?”
“Petrified, actually. I'm petrified of the dark. I feel very nearly paralyzed right now.”
“You're not serious.”
“I am, quite.”
“You killed five men last nightâin the darkâand you expect me to believe this blather?”
“It's true,” she insisted.
“I see. If you've constructed this falsehood merely to safeguard your modesty, you should know that it only undermines your intelligence, for the lie is too weak to be believed. You would be better off simply admitting that you find me attractive and wish to be near mâ”
Alizeh made a sound of protest, so horrified she shot straight up and stumbled, her injured knee having been
locked in one position for too long. She caught herself against her old cot and stifled a cry, clinging to the thin mattress with both hands.
Her heart beat harder in her chest.
She shivered violently as her body filled again with frost; her terror, too, had returned, this time with a force that shook her knees. In the absence of the princeâthe absence of his heat, his reliable formâAlizeh felt cold and exposed. The darkness had grown somehow more vicious without him near; more likely to devour her whole. She stretched trembling hands out before her, reaching blindly for an exit that refused to illuminate.
She knew, intellectually, that hers was an irrational fearâknew the illusion was only in her headâ
Still, it claimed her.
It gripped her mind with two fists and spun her into a vortex of senselessness. It was all she could think, suddenly, that she did not want to die here, compressed by the darkness of the earth. She did not want to be abandoned by the sun, the moon, the stars; did not want to be inhaled whole by the force of the expanding universe.
Suddenly, she could hardly breathe.
She felt his arms come around her then, strong hands steadying her, searching for purchase. He drew a map of her with his fingers until he found her face, which he took into his hands, and upon which he made a discovery that bade him be still. Alizeh felt it when he changed, when his fingers met with the tears falling slowly down her cheeks.
“By the angels,” he whispered. “You really are afraid of the
dark. You strange girl.”
She pulled away and wiped at her face, squeezed her eyes shut. “I only need to orient myself. Myâmy bed is here, which means the door is justâjust across there. I'll be fine, you'll see.”
“I don't understand. Of all the things in your life to fearâ I've seen you in the dark before, and you never reacted like this.”
“It was not”âshe swallowed, steadied herselfâ“it was not entirely dark then. There are gas lamps lining the streets. And the moonâthe moon is a great comfort to me.”
“The moon is a great comfort to you,” he repeated tonelessly. “What an odd thing to say.”
“Please don't tease me. You said you wouldn't.”
“I'm not teasing you. I'm stating a fact. You are very strange.”
“And you, sire, are unkind.”
“You're crying in a dark room the size of my thumb; the door is but paces away. Surely you see that you are being nonsensical.”
“Oh, now you're just being cruel.”
“I'm being honest.”
“You are being needlessly mean.”
“Mean? You say this to the man who just saved your life?”
“Saved my life?” Alizeh said, angrily wiping away the last of her tears. “How easily you praise yourself. You hardly saved my life.”
“Didn't I? Was not your life in danger? Is that not why you were crying?”
“Of course not, that's nâ”
“Then you accept my point,” he said. “That you were in no real danger. That you were being nonsensical.”
“Iâ” She faltered. Her mouth fell open. “Oh, you are a horrible person. You are a mean, horribleâ”
“I am an extremely generous person. Have you already forgotten how long I allowed you to sit on me?”
Alizeh gasped. “How dare yâ”
She stopped herself, the words dying in her throat at the muffled sound of his laughter, the palpable tremble of his body as he struggled to contain it.
“Why do you rile so easily?” he said, still fighting a laugh. “Do you not see that your effortless outrage only makes me want to provoke you more?”
Alizeh stiffened at that; felt suddenly stupid. “You mean you
teasing me? Even after I asked you not to?”
“Forgive me,” he said, the smile lingering in his voice. “I was teasing you, yes, but only because I'd hoped it would distract you from your fear. I see now that you do not laugh easily at yourself. Or others.”
“Oh,” she said, feeling small. “I see.”
He touched her then, a brush of his fingers down her arm, leaving a fiery path in its wake.
Alizeh dared not breathe.
She didn't know when they'd arrived here, or how, but in such a brief time she felt closer to this peculiar prince than she had with most anyone. Even the way he touched her was familiarâhis nearness was familiar. She could not explain why, but she felt safe by his side.
No doubt it was the work of the nosta, without which she might've questioned his every word and action. Indeed, knowing unequivocally that all he'd said to her today was trueâthat he'd sought her out in the interest of her protection, ostensibly against the wishes of the kingâhad deeply affected her. It was not even that he was handsome or noble, or that he acted the part of a chivalrous princeâ
No, her pleasure was far simpler than that.
Alizeh had long ago been forced into a life of obscurity and insignificance. She was accosted and spat upon, beaten and disrespected. She'd been reduced to nothing in the eyes of society, was hardly recognized as a living being, and was promptly forgotten by most everyone she met.
It was a miracle, then, that he'd noticed her at all.
, she wondered, had this prince been the only one to see something notable in her, something worth remembering? She'd never have said the words aloud, but his discoveryâhowever dangerousâmeant more to her than he would ever know.
She heard him draw breath.
“I want very much,” he said softly, “to tell you what I am thinking now, but you will no doubt think I exaggerate, even if I swear it to be true.”
Alizeh wanted to laugh. “Do you not think it a kind of cheat, sire, to make such a declaration when you know full well I will insist upon your confession? Does it not seem unfair to you to place the burden of interest entirely on my shoulders?”
There was a beat of silence then, during which Alizeh
imagined she could feel his surprise.
“I fear you've mistaken me for a different sort of person,” he said quietly. “I displaced no burden. I do not fear the repercussions of honesty.”
“No?” Now she was nervous.
“Oh,” she said, the word a breath.
The prince closed the narrow gap between them until they were dangerously closeâso close she suspected she'd need only to tilt up her chin and their lips would touch.
She could not calm her heart.
“You have consumed my thoughts since the moment I met you,” he said to her. “I feel now, in your presence, entirely strange. I think I might fetch you the moon if only to spare your tears again.”