Authors: Tahereh Mafi
This man, she decided, would be mourned by a great many sycophants, his pockets deeper, no doubt, than Dariush himself. The stranger was tall, forbidding. He'd drawn the hood over his head, casting most of his face in shadow, but he was far from the anonymous creature he hoped to be. In the wind, Alizeh glimpsed the lining of his cloak:
the purest ink silk, aged in wine, cured with frost.
, it took, to create such a textile. Thousands of hours of labor. The young man likely had no idea what he wore, just as he seemed to have no idea that she could tell, even from here, that the clasp at his throat was pure gold, that the cost of his simple, unadorned boots would feed hundreds of families in the city. He was a fool to think he might disappear here, that he might have the advantage of her, that he mightâ
Alizeh went deathly still.
Understanding awoke slowly in her mind, and with it a thick, disorienting unease.
How long had he been standing there?
There once was a man
who bore a snake on each shoulder
In truth, Alizeh might not have noticed him at all were he not looking directly at her, pinning her in the air with his eyes. It hit her thenâshe gaspedâhit her with the force of a thunderclap: she saw him now only because he allowed it.
Who was the fool, then?
Panic set fire to her chest. Alizeh tore herself from the ground and fairly disappeared, tearing off through the streets with the preternatural swiftness she usually saved for her worst altercations.
Alizeh did not know what darkness this strange, Clay face would bring. She only knew she'd never be able to outrun it.
Still, she had to try.
THE MOON SAT SO LARGE
in the sky Kamran thought he might lift a finger to its skin, draw circles around its wounds. He stared at its veins and starbursts, white pockmarks like spider sacs. He studied it all as his mind worked, his eyes narrowing in the aftermath of an impossible illusion.
She'd fairly disappeared.
He'd not meant to stare, but how, also, was he meant to look away? He'd seen danger in the assailant's movements even before the man drew his knife; worse, no one paid the altercation any attention. The girl could've been maimed or abducted or murdered in the worst waysâand even though Kamran had been sworn to anonymity in daylight, his every instinct compelled him to issue a warning, to step in before it was too lateâ
He needn't have worried.
Still, there was much that troubled him, not the least of which was that there'd seemed something amiss about the girl. She'd worn a snodaâa sheath of semi-transparent silkâaround her eyes and nose, which did not obscure, exactly, but blur her features. The snoda itself was innocuous enough; it was required of all who worked in service. She was ostensibly a maid.
But servants were not required to wear the snoda outside
of work, and it was unusual that the girl had worn hers at this early hour, when the royals were still abed.
It seemed far more likely that she was not a maid at all.
Spies had been infiltrating the empire of Ardunia for years, but these numbers had been bloating dangerously in more recent months, feeding an unnerving concern that lately crowned Kamran's thoughts, and which he could not now shake.
He exhaled his frustration, shaping a cloud in the cold.
More in every moment, Kamran grew convinced the girl had stolen the servants' uniform, for her covert attempt had not only been poorly executed, but easily betrayed by an ignorance of the many rules and mannerisms that defined the lives of the lower classes. Her gait alone would've been warning enough; she'd walked too well for a servant, carrying herself with a kind of regal bearing established only in infancy.
No, Kamran felt certain now that the girl had been hiding something. It would not be the first time someone had used the snoda to mask themselves in public.
Kamran glanced at the clock in the square; he'd come into town this morning to speak with the Diviners, who'd sent a mysterious note requesting an audience with the young man despite his never having announced his return home. Today's meeting, it seemed, would have to wait; for much to his dismay, Kamran's always-reliable instincts would not quiet.
How, with only one free hand, had a maid so coolly disarmed a man holding a knife to her throat? When would a maid have had the time or coin to spare learning self-defense?
And what on earth had she said to the man to leave him weeping in the snow?
The suspect in question was only now stumbling to his feet. His shock of red curls screamed he was from Fesht, a region at least one month south of Setar, the capital city; not only was the assailant far from home, but he appeared to be in severe pain, one arm hanging lower than the other. Kamran watched as the redhead held his bad limbâdislocated, it seemedâwith the good, carefully steadying himself. Tears had tracked clean paths down his otherwise dirty cheeks, and for the first time, Kamran got a good look at the criminal. Had he more practice with outward displays of emotion, Kamran's features might've registered surprise.
The assailant was quite young.
Kamran moved swiftly toward him, sliding a mask of intricate chain mail over his face as he went. He walked into the wind, his cloak snapping against his boots, and only when he'd all but collided with the child did he stop. It was enough that the Fesht boy jumped back at his approach, wincing as the movement jostled his injury. The boy cradled his wounded arm and curled inward, head to his chest like a humbled millipede, and with an unintelligible murmur, tried to pass.
“Lotfi, hejj, bekhshtiâ”
Please, sir, excuse meâ
The gall of this child, Kamran could scarce believe it. Still, it was a comfort to know that he'd been correct: the boy spoke Feshtoon and was far from home.
Kamran had every intention of handing the child over
to the magistrates; it had been his sole purpose in seeking out the boy. But now, unable to pry loose his suspicions, he found himself hesitating.
Again, the child tried to pass, and again, Kamran blocked his path. “Kya tan goft et cheknez?”
What did the young woman say to you?
The boy startled. Stepped back. His skin was a shade or two lighter than his brown eyes, with a smattering of darker freckles across his nose. Heat blossomed across his face in unflattering splotches. “Bekhshti, hejj, nek mefemâ”
I'm sorry, sir, I don't understandâ
Kamran stepped closer; the boy nearly whimpered.
“Jev man,” he said. “Pres.”
Answer me. Now.
The boy's tongue came loose then, almost too quickly to be comprehensible. Kamran translated in his head as the child spoke:
“Nothing, sirâplease, sir, I didn't hurt her, it was only a misunderstandingâ”
Kamran clamped a gloved hand around the boy's dislocated shoulder and the Fesht boy cried out, gasping as his knees buckled.
You dare lie to my faceâ
“Sirâpleaseâ” The child was crying now. “She only gave me back my knife, sir, I swear it, andâand then she offered me bread, she saidâ”
Kamran rocked backward, dropping his hand. “You continue to lie.”
“On m-my mother's grave, I swear. On all that is holyâ”
“She returned your weapon and offered to feed you,” Kamran said sharply, “after you nearly killed her. After you tried to steal from her.”
The boy shook his head, tears welling again in his eyes. “She showed me mercy, sirâ Pleaseâ”
The boy's mouth snapped shut. Kamran's frustration was mounting; he wanted desperately to throttle someone. He searched the square once more, as if the girl might appear as easily as she'd evaporated. His gaze landed again on the boy.
It was like thunder, his voice.
“You pressed a blade to a woman's throat like the worst coward, the most detestable of men. That young woman might've shown you mercy but I see no reason to do the same. You expect to walk away from this without judgment? Without justice?”
The boy panicked. “Please, sirâI will go and die, sirâI will slit my own throat if you ask me to, only don't hand me over to the magistrates, I beg you.”
Kamran blinked. The situation grew more complicated by the second. “Why do you say such a thing?”
The boy shook his head then, growing only more hysterical. His eyes were wild, his fear too palpable for theater. Soon he began to wail, the sound ringing through the streets.
Kamran did not know how to calm the urchin; his own dying soldiers had never allowed themselves such weakness in his presence. Too late, Kamran considered letting the boy go, but he'd hardly begun to formulate the thought when, without warning, the child drove the length of the crude
blade into his own throat.
Kamran inhaled sharply.
The boyâwhose name he did not knowâchoked on his own blood, on the knife still buried in his neck. Kamran caught him when he fell, could feel the outline of the boy's ribs under his fingers. He was light as a bird, bones hollowed out, no doubt, by hunger.
Old impulses prevailed.
Kamran issued commands to passersby with the voice he used to lead a legion, and strangers appeared as if out of thin air, abandoning their own children to carry out his orders. His head was so dense with disbelief he hardly noticed when the boy was lifted from his arms and carried out of the square. The way he stared at the blood, the spotted snow, the red rivulets circling a manhole coverâit was as if Kamran had never seen death; hadn't seen it a thousand times over. He had, he had, he thought he'd seen all manner of darkness. But Kamran had never before witnessed a child commit suicide.
It was then that he saw the handkerchief.
He'd watched the young woman press it to her throat, to the wound inflicted by a boy who was now presumably dead. He'd watched this strange girl manage her own near-death with the forbearance of a soldier, meting out justice with the compassion of a saint. He held no doubt now that she was indeed a spy, one in possession of an astuteness of mind that surprised him.
She'd known in but a moment how to handle the child, had she not? She'd done far better than he, had judged
better; and now, as he processed her earlier escape, his fears only ratcheted higher. It was rare that Kamran experienced shame, but the sensation roared inside him now, refusing to be quieted. With a single finger, he lifted the embroidered square out of the snow. He'd expected the white textile to be stained with blood.
It was pristine.
KAMRAN'S HEELS KNOCKED AGAINST THE
marble floors with unusual force, the sounds echoing through the cavernous halls of his home. Upon his father's death Kamran had discovered that he could be propelled through life by a single emotion; carefully cultivated, it grew hot and vital inside his chest, like an experimental organ.
It kept him alive better than his heart ever had.
He felt anger always, but he felt it especially now, and Lord save the man who crossed him when he was at his worst.
After tucking the girl's handkerchief into his breast pocket, he'd pivoted sharply, single-minded as he strode toward his horse, the animal patiently awaiting his return. Kamran liked horses. They did not ask questions before doing as they were told; at least not with their tongues. The jet stallion had not minded his master's bloodied cloak nor his distracted temper.
Not the way Hazan did.
The minister trailed him now with impressive speed; his the second set of boots pounding the stone floors. Had they not grown up together, Kamran might've reacted to this insolence with an inelegant method of problem-solving: brute force. But then, it was his incapacity for awe that made
Hazan perfect for his role as minister. Kamran could not countenance sycophants.
“You are worse than an idiot, did you know?” Hazan said with great serenity. “You should be nailed to the oldest Benzess tree. I should let the scarabs strip the flesh from your bones.”
Kamran said nothing.
“It could take weeks.” Hazan had caught up, and now he kept pace easily. “I would watch, happily, as they devoured your eyes.”
“Surely, you exaggerate.”
“I assure you, I do not.”
Without warning, Kamran stopped walking; Hazan, to his credit, did not falter. The two young men turned sharply to face each other. Hazan had once been the kind of boy whose knees resembled arthritic knuckles; as a child, he could hardly stand up straight to save his life. Kamran could not help but marvel at the difference in him now, at the boy who'd grown into the kind of man who felt comfortable threatening to murder the crown prince with a smile.
It was with a begrudging respect that Kamran met his minister's eyes. They were nearly the same height, he and Hazan. Similar builds.
Wildly different features.
“No,” Kamran said, sounding tired even to himself. The sharp edge of his anger had begun to fade. “As to your enthusiasm for my brutal death, I have no doubt. I refer only to your assessment of the damage you claim I've done.”
Hazan's hazel eyes flashed at that, the only outward sign
of his frustration. Still, he spoke calmly when he said, “That there lingers any uncertainty in your mind that you've not committed a grievous error says only to me, sire, that you should have your neck checked by the palace butcher.”
Kamran almost smiled.
“You think this is funny?” Hazan took a measured step closer. “You've only alerted the kingdom to your presence, only shouted into a crowd every proof of your identity, only
marked yourself as a target while entirely unguarded
Kamran unlatched the clasp at his throat, stretched his neck, let the cloak drop. The article was caught by unseen hands, a specter-like servant scraping in, then out of sight with the bloodied garment. In the fraction of a second he saw the blur of the servant's snoda he was reminded, again, of the girl.
Kamran dragged a hand down his face, with grim results. He'd forgotten about the boy's dried blood on his hands and hoped he might forget again. In the interim, he only half listened to the minister's reprimands, with which he did not at all agree.
The prince neither saw his actions as foolish, nor did he think it beyond him to be interested in the affairs of the lower classes. Privately, Kamran might allow an argument defending the futility of such an interestâfor he knew if he were to concern himself with every violent attack on the city streets he'd scarcely find time to breatheâbut apart from the fact that an interest in the lives of the Ardunian people was entirely within the prince's purview, the morning's bloodletting had seemed to him more than a random
act of violence. Indeed the more he'd studied the situation the more nefarious it had presented, its actors more complex than first appeared. It had seemed wise, at the time, to insert himself in the situationâ
“A situation that concerned two worthless bodies better off extinguished by their own kind,” Hazan said with little emotion. “The girl had seen fit to let the boy go, as you claimâand yet, you found her judgment wanting? You felt it necessary to play God? No, don't answer that. I don't think I want to know.”
Kamran only glanced at his minister.
Hazan's lips pressed into a thin line. “I might've been motivated to consider the wisdom of your intervention had the boy actually killed the girl. Barring that,” he said flatly, “I can see no excuse for your reckless behavior, sire, no explanation for your thoughtlessness save a grotesque need to be a heroâ”
Kamran looked up at the ceiling. He'd loved little in his life, but he'd always appreciated the comfort of symmetry, of sequences that made sense. He stared now at the soaring, domed ceilings, the artistry of the alcoves carved into alcoves. Every expanse and cavity was adorned with star-bursts of rare metals, glazed tiles expertly arranged into geometric patterns that repeated ad infinitum.
He lifted a bloody hand, and Hazan fell silent.
“Enough,” Kamran said quietly. “I've indulged your censure long enough.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Hazan took a step back but stared curiously at the prince. “More than usual, I'd say.”
Kamran forced a sardonic smile. “I beg you to spare me your analysis.”
“I would dare to remind you, sire, that it is my imperial duty to provide you the very analysis you detest.”
“A regrettable fact.”
“And a loathsome occupation, is it not, when one's counsel is thusly received?”
“A bit of advice, minister: when offering counsel to a barbarian, you might consider first lowering your expectations.”
Hazan smiled. “You are not at all yourself today, sire.”
“Chipper than usual, am I?”
“Your mood is a great deal darker this morning than you would care to admit. Just now I might inquire as to why the death of a street child has you so overwrought.”
“You would be wasting your breath in the effort.”
“Ah.” Hazan still held his smile. “I see the day is not yet ripe enough for honesty.”
“If I am indeed overwrought,” said the prince, losing a modicum of composure, “it is no doubt a symptom of my enthusiasm to remind you that my father would've had you hung for your insolence.”
“Just so,” Hazan said softly. “Though it occurs to me now that you are not your father.”
Kamran's head snapped up. He drew his sword from its scabbard without thinking, and not until he saw the barely contained mirth in his minister's eyes did he stall, his hand frozen on the hilt.
Kamran was rattled.
He'd been gone from home for over a year; he'd forgotten
how to have normal conversations. Long months he'd spent in the service of the empire, securing borders, leading skirmishes, dreaming of death.
Ardunia's rivalry with the south was as old as time.
Ardunia was a formidable empireâthe largest in the known worldâand their greatest weakness was both a well-kept secret and a source of immense shame: they were running out of water.
Kamran was proud of Ardunia's existing qanat systems, intuitive networks that transported water from aquifers to aboveground reservoirs, and upon which people relied for their drinking water and irrigation. The problem was that qanats relied entirely upon the availability of groundwater, which meant large swaths of the Ardunian empire were for centuries rendered uninhabitableâa problem mitigated only by barging freshwater via marine vessel from the Mashti River.
The fastest path to this titanic waterway was located at the nadir of Tulan, a small, neighboring empire affixed to Ardunia's southernmost border. Tulan was much like a flea they could not shake free, a parasite that could neither be eliminated nor exhumed. Ardunia's greatest wish was to build an aqueduct straight through the heart of the southern nation, but decade after decade its kings would not bow. Tulan's only peaceful offering in exchange for such access was a punishing, ruinous tax, one too great even for Ardunia. Several times they'd tried simply to decimate Tulan, but the Ardunian military had suffered astonishing losses as a resultâKamran's own father had died in the effortâand
none in the north could understand why.
Hatred had grown between the two nations not unlike an impassable mountain range.
For nearly a century the Ardunian navy had been forced instead to take a far more dangerous route to water, traveling many months for access to the tempestuous river. It was lucky, then, that Ardunia had been blessed not only with a reliable rainy season, but with engineers who'd built impressive catchment areas to capture and store rainwater for years at a time. Even so, the clouds never seemed quite as full these days, and the empire's cisterns were running low.
Every day, Kamran prayed for rain.
The empire of Ardunia was not officially at warânot yetâbut peace, too, Kamran had learned, was maintained at a bloody price.
“Your Highness.” Hazan's tentative voice startled the prince, returning him to the present moment. “Forgive me. I spoke thoughtlessly.”
Kamran looked up.
The details of the hall in which he stood came suddenly into sharp focus: glossy marble floors, towering jade columns, soaring opalescent ceilings. He felt the worn, leather hilt of his sword against his palm, growing all the while incrementally aware of the musculature of his body, the dense weight he carried always and seldom considered: the heaviness in his arms, the heft of his legs. He forced himself to return the sword to its scabbard, briefly closing his eyes. He smelled rosewater and fresh rice; a servant bustled past carrying a copper tray laden with tea things.
How long had he been lost in his own thoughts?
Kamran had grown anxious and distracted of late. The recent swell of Tulanian spies discovered on Ardunian land had done little for his sleep; alone it would've been a disturbing enough discovery, but this intelligence was compounded by his own myriad worries, for not only did the prince fear for their reservoirs, but he'd seen things on his recent tour of duty that continued to unnerve him.
The future seemed dim, and his role in it, bleak.
As was expected, the prince sent his grandfather frequent updates while away. His most recent letter had been rife with news of Tulan, whose small empire became only bolder as the days went on. Rumors of discord and political maneuvering grew louder each day, and despite the tenuous peace between the two empires, Kamran suspected war might soon be inevitable.
His return to the capital the week prior was for two reasons only: first, after completing a perilous water journey, he'd had to replenish the central cisterns that fed the others throughout the empire, and then deliver his troops safely home. Second, and more simply: his grandfather had asked it of him.