Authors: Tahereh Mafi
In response to Kamran's many concerns, the prince had been instructed to return to Setar. For a respite, his grandfather had said. An innocuous enough request, one Kamran knew to be quite irregular.
The prince had been restored to the palace for a week now, and every day he grew only more unsettled. Even after seven days home the king had yet to respond directly to his note,
and Kamran had grown restless without a mission, without his soldiers. He was just then listening to Hazan articulate these same thoughts, allowing that this very restlessness wasâ
“âperhaps the only plausible explanation for your actions this morning.”
Yes. Kamran could at least agree that he was eager to return to work. He would need to leave again, he realized.
“I grow tired of this conversation,” the prince said curtly. “Do assist me in welcoming its swift conclusion and tell me what it is you require. I must be on my way.”
Hazan hesitated. “Yes, sire, of course, butâ Do you not wish to know what has become of the child?”
“The boy, of course. The one whose blood stains your hands even now.”
Kamran stiffened, his anger sparking suddenly back to life. It took little, he realized, to rekindle a fire that only dulled, but never died. “I would not.”
“But it might comfort you to know that he is not yet dead.”
“You seem distressed, Your Highness, and Iâ”
Kamran took a step forward, his eyes flashing. He studied Hazan closely: the broken slope of his nose, his cropped ash-blond hair. Hazan's skin was so densely freckled one could scarcely see his eyebrows; he'd been bullied mercilessly as a child for what seemed a myriad of reasons, tragic in all ways save one: it was Hazan's suffering that had conjured their
first introduction. The day Kamran defended the illegitimate child of a courtier was the same day that nobby-kneed child pledged fealty to the young prince.
Even then, Kamran had tried to look away. He'd tried valiantly to ignore the affairs deemed beneath him, but he could not manage it.
He could not manage it still.
“You forget yourself, minister,” Kamran said softly. “I would encourage you now to get to your point.”
Hazan bowed his head. “Your grandfather is waiting to see you. You are expected in his rooms at once.”
Kamran briefly froze, his eyes closing. “I see. You were not exaggerating your frustration, then.”
Kamran opened his eyes. In the distance, a kaleidoscope of colors bedimmed, then brightened. Soft murmurs of conversation carried over to him, the gentle footfalls of scurrying servants, a blur of snodas. He'd never paid much attention to it; the centuries-old uniform. Now every time he saw one he would think of that accursed servant girl.
He nearly snapped his neck just to clear the thought. “What, pray, does the king want from me?”
Hazan prevaricated. “Now that your people know you are home, I expect he will ask you to do your duty.”
“To host a ball.”
“Indeed.” Kamran's jaw clenched. “I'm certain I would rather set myself on fire. If that is all?”
“He's quite serious, Your Highness. I've heard rumors that
the announcement for a ball has already beenâ”
“Good. You will take this”âKamran retrieved the handkerchief from his jacket, pinching it between thumb and forefingerâ“and have it examined.”
Hazan quickly pocketed the white handkerchief. “Shall I have it examined for anything in particular, Your Highness?”
At Hazan's blank look, the prince went on: “It belonged to the servant girl whose neck was nearly slit by the Fesht boy. I think she might be Jinn.”
Now Hazan frowned. “I see.”
“I fear you do not.”
“Forgive me, Your Highness, but in what way does her blood concern us? As you know, the Fire Accords give Jinn the right to wâ”
“I am well acquainted with our laws, Hazan. My concern is not merely with her blood, but with her character.”
Hazan raised his eyebrows.
“I don't trust her,” Kamran said sharply.
“Need you trust her, sire?”
“There's something false about the girl. She was too refined in her manners.”
“Ah.” Hazan's eyebrows lifted higher, comprehension dawning. “And in light of all our recent friendliness from Tulanâ”
“I want to know who she is.”
“You think her a spy.”
It was the way he said it, as if he thought Kamran delusional, that soured the prince's expression. “You did not see
her the way I did, Hazan. She disarmed the boy in a single motion. Dislocated his shoulder. You know as well as I do how the Tulanians covet the Jinn for their strength and fleet-footedness.”
“Indeed,” Hazan said carefully. “Though I should remind you, sire, that the child she disarmed was weak from hunger to the point of death. His bones might've been unhinged by a strong gust of wind. An ailing rat might've bested him.”
“Just the same. You will have her found out.”
“The servant girl.”
“Yes, the servant girl,” Kamran said irritably. “She fled the scene when she saw me. She looked at me as if she knew me.”
“Forgive me, sireâbut I thought you could not see her face?”
Kamran took a sharp breath. “Perhaps you will thank me, minister, for employing you with such a task? Unless, of course, you would rather I seek your replacement.”
Hazan's lips twitched; he bowed. “It is a pleasure, as always, to be at your service.”
“You will tell the king I must bathe before our meeting.”
Kamran strode away, his retreating footfalls ringing out once more through the cavernous hall. His anger had again begun to percolate, bringing with it a humidity that seemed to fog his vision, dim the sounds around him.
It was a shame, then, that Kamran did not dissect himself. He did not stare out of windows wondering what other emotions might be lurking beneath the veneer of his ever-present anger. It did not occur to him that he might be experiencing
a muddied sort of grief, so it did not strike him as unusual that he was fantasizing, just then, about driving a sword through a man's heart. In fact, he was so consumed by his imaginings that he did not hear his mother calling his name, her bejeweled robes dragging, sapphires scoring the marble floors as she went.
No, Kamran seldom heard his mother's voice until it was too late.
ALIZEH'S MORNING HAD BEEN, AMONG
other things, disappointing. She'd sacrificed an hour of sleep, braved the winter dawn, narrowly escaped an attempt on her life, and eventually returned to Baz House with only regret to report, wishing her pockets weighed as heavy as her mind.
She'd carried the unwieldy parcel through several snowdrifts before arriving at the servants' entrance of the Lojjan ambassador's estate, and, after forcing her frozen lips to stammer out an explanation for her appearance at the threshold, the bespectacled housekeeper had handed Alizeh a purse with her pay. Alizeh, shivering and fatigued, had made the mistake of counting the coin only after relinquishing her commission, and then, forgetting herself entirely, dared to say aloud that she thought there'd been some kind of mistake.
“Forgive me, ma'amâbut this is only h-half of what we agreed upon.”
“Mm.” The housekeeper sniffed. “You'll get the rest once my mistress decides she likes the dress.”
Alizeh's eyes went round.
Perhaps if her skirts hadn't been stiff with frost, or if her chest had not felt as if it might fissure from coldâperhaps if her lips had not been so very numb, or if her feet had not
lost all sensationâperhaps then she might've remembered to bite her tongue. Instead, Alizeh managed only to contain the worst of her outrage. A miracle, really, that she spoke with some measure of equanimity when she said, “But Miss Huda might decide she doesn't like the dress simply to avoid payment.”
The housekeeper recoiled, as if she'd been struck. “Careful what you say, girl. I won't hear anyone call my mistress dishonest.”
“But surely you can see that this is indeed dishonâ” Alizeh said, slipping on a spot of ice. She caught herself against the doorframe, and the housekeeper shrank back farther, this time with an undisguised revulsion.
,” the woman snapped. “Get your filthy hands off my doorâ”
Startled, Alizeh jumped back, miraculously avoiding another patch of ice just two inches to her left. “Miss Huda won't even allow me in the h-house,” she stammered, her body now trembling violently with cold. “She wouldn't allow me to do a single fittingâshe could decide for any number of reasons that she doesn't like my w-workâ”
The door slammed shut in her face.
Alizeh had experienced a sharp pinch in her chest then, a pain that made it hard to breathe. The feeling had remained with her all day.
She felt for the little purse now, its weight in her apron pocket, resting against her thigh. She'd been delayed getting back to Baz House, which meant she'd had no time to deposit her earnings somewhere safer. The world had begun to come
alive on her journey back, fresh snowfall dotting every effort to awaken the city of Setar. Preparations for the Wintrose Festival had overtaken the streets, and though Alizeh appreciated the heady scent of rosewater in the air, she would've preferred a moment of quiet before the bell tolled for work. She could not have known then that the quiet she sought might not come at all.
Alizeh was in the kitchen when the clock struck six, broomstick in hand, standing silently in the shadows and as near to the fire as she could manage. The other servants had gathered an hour earlier around the kitchen's long wooden table for their morning meal, and Alizeh watched, rapt, as they finished the last of their breakfast: bowls of haleem, a kind of sweet porridge blended with shredded beef.
As a trial employee Alizeh was not yet allowed to join themânor did she have any interest in their meal, the mere description of which made her stomach turnâbut she enjoyed listening to their easy banter, witnessing the familiarity with which they spoke to one another. They engaged like friends. Or family.
It was a kind of ordinariness with which Alizeh was little acquainted. Her parents' love for her had filled her whole life; Alizeh had wanted for little, and was denied in her childhood nothing but the company of other children, for her mother and father were adamant that, until the moment Alizeh was ready, her existence remain otherwise undiscovered. Alizeh could recollect only one little boyâwhose mother was a dear friend of her parentsâwith whom she was allowed on occasion to play. His name she could not now
recall; she remembered only that his pockets were always full of hazelnuts, with which he taught her to play a game of jacks.
Only a select few other trustworthy soulsâmostly the masters and tutors with whom she spent a great deal of her timeâhad been allowed in her life. She had been as a result sheltered to an uncommon degree, and, having spent little time in Clay company, was now spellbound by a great many of their customs. Alizeh had been punished in her previous positions for lingering too long in a breakfast room, for example, hoping for a glimpse of a gentleman eating an egg or buttering a slice of toast. She was endlessly fascinated by their forks and spoons, and this morning was no different.
“What do you think you're doing here?” Mrs. Amina barked at her, startling Alizeh nearly to death. The housekeeper grabbed Alizeh by the scruff of her neck and shoved her into the adjoining hall. “You forget yourself, girl. You don't eat with the other servants.”
“I wasâ I was only waiting,” Alizeh said, wincing as her fingers fluttered around her neck, gently pulling her collar back into place. The cut at her throat was still tender, and Alizeh had not wanted to draw attention to herself by wrapping it. She felt the telltale moisture of what could only be fresh blood, and clenched her fists to keep from touching the wound. “Forgive me, ma'am. I never meant to be impertinent. I was only awaiting your instruction.”
It happened so fast Alizeh didn't even realize Mrs. Amina had slapped her until she felt the pain in her teeth, saw the flash of light behind her eyes. Too late Alizeh flinched and
shrank back, her ears ringing, hands grasping for purchase against the stone wall. She'd made too many mistakes today.
“What did I tell you about that mouth of yours?” Mrs. Amina was saying. “You want this position, you will learn your place.” She made a sound of disgust. “I told you to rid yourself of that absurd accent.
,” she scoffed. “Where you even learned to talk like thatâ”
Alizeh felt the change when Mrs. Amina cut herself off, watched her eyes darken with suspicion.
you learn to talk like that?” Mrs. Amina asked quietly. “Knowing your letters is one thing, but you begin to strike me as a bit too high in the instep for a scullery girl.”
“Not at all, ma'am,” Alizeh said, lowering her eyes. She tasted blood in her mouth. Already her face was tender; she resisted the impulse to touch what was no doubt a purpling bruise. “I beg your pardon.”
“Who taught you to read, then?” Mrs. Amina rounded on her. “Who taught you to put on airs?”
“Forgive me, ma'am.” Alizeh flinched, forced herself to talk slowly. “I don't mean to put on airs, ma'am, it's only that I don't know how else to speâ”
Mrs. Amina looked up then, distracted by the sight of the clock, and the fight went out of her eyes. They'd lost precious minutes of the workday already, and Alizeh knew they could not afford to lose more to this conversation.
Still, Mrs. Amina stepped closer.
“Speak to me like you're some fancy toff one more time
and not only will you see the back of my hand, girl, you'll be back on the street.”
Alizeh felt suddenly ill.
If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the rough stone of the cold, vermin-infested alley pressed against her cheek; she could still hear the sounds of the sewer lulling her into unconsciousness for minutes at a timeâthe longest she'd ever dared to keep her eyes closed on the street. Alizeh sometimes thought she'd rather run in front of a carriage than return to such darkness.
“Yes, ma'am,” she said softly, her pulse racing. “Forgive me, ma'am. It won't happen again.”
“Enough of your pompous apologies,” Mrs. Amina snapped. “Her ladyship is in a frightful state today, and wants every room scrubbed and polished as if the king himself were coming to visit.”
Alizeh dared to look up.
Baz House had seven floors, and 116 individual rooms. Alizeh wanted more than anything to ask:
Why? Why every room?
Instead, she held her tongue, grieving quietly. Scrubbing all 116 in one day, she knew, would leave her body in ribbons.
“Yes, ma'am,” she whispered.
Mrs. Amina hesitated.
Alizeh could see then that Mrs. Amina was not such a monster that she wouldn't acknowledge the near impossibility of this demand. The housekeeper's tone softened a bit when she said: “The others will help, of courseâbut they
have their regular duties to attend to as well, you understand? The bulk of the work will be yours.”
“Do this well, girl, and I will see about hiring you on permanently. But I make no promises”âMrs. Amina lifted a finger, then pointed it at Alizehâ“if you don't learn to keep that mouth shut.”
Alizeh took a sharp breath. And nodded.