Authors: Tahereh Mafi
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I do not think it unbecoming of a prince to care for the welfare of his people.”
The king laughed. “No, I daresay it is not. What is unbecoming is a fickleness of character and an unwillingness to speak the truth to those who know you best.”
Kamran stiffened, heat prickling along the nape of his neck. He knew a rebuke when he heard one, and he was not yet immune to the effects of an admonishment from his grandfather. “Your Highnessâ”
“You have walked among your people for some time now, Kamran. You've seen all manner of suffering. I might accept an explanation of idealism more readily were your actions symptomatic of a larger philosophical position, which we both know they are not, as you've never before taken an active interest in the lives of street childrenâor servants, for that matter. Certainly there is more to this story than the sudden expansion of your heart.” A pause. “Do you deny that you acted out of character? That you put yourself in danger?”
“I will not attempt to deny the first. As to the secondâ”
“You were alone. Unarmed. You are heir to an empire that spans a third of the known world. You solicited the help of passersby, put yourself at the mercy of strangersâ”
“I had my swords.”
Zaal smiled. “You persist in insulting me with these ill-considered protests.”
“I mean no disrespectâ”
“And yet you are aware, are you not, that a man in possession of a sword is not invincible? That he might be attacked from above? That he might be slain by arrow, that he might be mobbed or overrun, that he might be knocked on the head and dragged away for ransom?”
Kamran bowed his head. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Then you accept that you acted out of character. That you put yourself in danger.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Very good. I am asking now only for your explanation.”
Kamran took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly, through
his nose. He considered telling the king what he'd told Hazan: that he'd involved himself in the situation because the girl had appeared to him conspicuous, untrustworthy. And yet, Hazan had all but laughed at his explanation, at his instinct that something was amiss. How might Kamran forge into words the influence of an intuition invisible to the eye?
Indeed the more he deliberated, the more the prince's justifications, which had earlier struck him as cogent, seemed now, under the searing gaze of his grandfather, as scattered as sand.
Quietly, Kamran said, “I have no explanation, Your Majesty.”
The king hesitated at that, the smile evaporating from his eyes. “You cannot mean it.”
“I beg you will forgive me.”
“What of the girl? I would not judge you too harshly if you admitted to some weakness of the mind there. Perhaps you will tell me she was a disorienting beautyâthat you interfered for some lesser, sordid reason. That you fancy yourself in love with her.”
“I did not.” Kamra's jaw tensed. “I do not. I most certainly would not.”
“Grandfather, I could not even see her face. You could not expect me to own such a lie.”
For the first time, the king grew visibly concerned. “My child, do you not understand how precarious your position is? How many would celebrate any excuse to have your faculties examined? Those who covet your position would
invite any reason to deem you unworthy of the throne. It disturbs me more to know that your actions were born not of recklessness, but thoughtlessness. Stupidity is possibly your worst offense.”
True, he deeply respected his grandfather, but so, too, did the prince respect himself, and his pride would no longer allow him to endure an onslaught of insults without protest.
He lifted his head, looking the king directly in the eye when he said, with some sharpness, “I believed the girl might be a spy.”
King Zaal visibly straightened, his countenance revealing nothing of the tension visible in his hands, clenched now around the arms of his throne. He was silent for so long that Kamran feared, in the interlude, he'd made a terrible mistake.
The king said only: “You thought the girl a spy.”
“It is the single true thing you have spoken.”
Instantly, Kamran was disarmed. He stared at the king then, bewildered.
“I may now understand your motivations,” said his grandfather, “but I am yet to comprehend your lack of discretion. You thought it wise to pursue such a suspicion in the middle of the street? You thought the girl a spy, so you sayâand what of the boy? Did you think him a saint? That you carried him through the square, allowing him to bleed all over your body?”
For the second time, Kamran experienced an unnerving heat inflame his skin. Again, he lowered his eyes. “No, Your Majesty. There, I had not been thinking clearly.”
“Kamran, you are to be king,” said his grandfather, who sounded suddenly close to anger. “You have no choice but to think clearly. The people may discuss all manner of gossip pertaining to their sovereign, but the soundness of his mind should never be a topic of discussion.”
Kamran kept his head bowed, his eyes trained on the intricate, repeating patterns of the rug underfoot. “Do we need worry what anyone thinks of my mind? Surely there's no need to concern ourselves with such matters at this juncture. You are strong and healthy, Grandfather. You will rule Ardunia for many years yetâ”
Zaal laughed out loud, and Kamran looked up. “Oh, your sincerity does move me. Truly. But my sojourn here is coming to an end,” he said, his eyes searching for the window. “I have felt it for some time now.”
King Zaal held up a hand. “I will not be distracted from our present discussion. Neither will I insult your intelligence by reminding you how profoundly your every action affects the empire. A simple announcement of your return home would've been enough to stir up all manner of theater and excitement, but your actions todayâ”
“Indeed,” said his mother, interjecting herself, reminding everyone she was still there. “Kamran, you should be ashamed of yourself. Acting the part of a commoner.”
“Ashamed?” Zaal looked at his daughter-in-law in surprise. To Kamran, he said, “Is that why you think I've summoned you?”
“I expected you might be angry with me, yes, Your Majesty. I was also told you might expect me to host a ball now that I've inadvertently announced my return.”
Zaal sighed, his white brows knitting together. “Hazan told you that, I imagine?” The king's frown grew deeper. “A ball. Yes, a ball. Though that is the least of it.”
Kamran tensed. “Your Highness?”
“Oh, my child.” Zaal shook his head. “I see only now that you do not realize what you've done.”
Firuzeh looked from her son to the king and back again. “What has he done?”
“It was not your mere interference that caused such talk today,” Zaal said softly. He was staring out the window again. “Had you left the boy to die in his own blood, it would've been little remarked upon. These things occasionally happen. You could've quietly summoned the magistrates, and the boy would've been carted away. Instead, you held him in your arms. You let the blood of a street orphan touch your skin, sully your clothes. You showed care and compassion for one of their own.”
“And am I to be punished, Your Majesty? Am I to be cut down for a display of mercy?” Kamran said, even as he felt the ascent of an unsettling apprehension. “I thought it expected of a prince to be in service of his people.”
His grandfather almost smiled. “Do you mean to
purposely misunderstand me? Your life is too valuable, Kamran. You, heir to the largest empire on earth, recklessly exposed yourself to danger. Your performance today might go unquestioned by the people, but it will be severely scrutinized by the nobles, who will wonder whether you've gone mad.”
” the prince said, struggling now to control his anger. “Is that not a gross overreaction? When there were no repercussionsâ When I did nothing but assist a dying boyâ”
“You did nothing but cause a riot. They are only chanting your name in the streets.”
Firuzeh gasped and ran to the window, as if she might see or hear anything from within the palace walls, which were notoriously impenetrable. The prince, who knew better than to hope for a glimpse of a mob, sank back down.
He was stunned.
Zaal sat forward in his seat. “I know in your heart you would fight to the death for your empire, child, but this is not at all the same kind of sacrifice. A crown prince does not risk his life in the town square for a thieving street urchin. It is not done.”
“No,” said the prince, subdued. He felt suddenly leaden. “I expect it is not.”
“We must now temper your recklessness with displays of solemnity,” said his grandfather. “Such performances will be for the benefit, in particular, of the noble families of the Seven Houses, upon whose political influence we heavily rely. You will host a ball. You will be seen at court. You
will pay your respects to the Seven Houses, House of Piir, in particular. You will relieve them of any fears they might have as concerns your character. I will have them question neither the soundness of your mind nor your ability to rule. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the prince, discomposed. Only now was he beginning to understand the weight of his error. “I will do as you bid me, and I will remain in Setar for as long as you think it necessary to repair this damage. Then, if you will allow it, I'd like to return to my troops.”
Briefly, Zaal smiled. “I'm afraid it is no longer a good idea for you to be far from home.”
Kamran did not pretend to misunderstand.
“You are healthy,” he said with more heat than he intended. “Fit and strong. Of sound mind. You could not be certain of such a thingâ”
“When you get to be my age,” Zaal said gently, “you can indeed be certain of such things. I've grown weary of this world, Kamran. My soul is eager to depart. But I cannot leave without first ensuring that our line is protectedâthat our empire will be protected.”
Slowly, the prince looked up into his grandfather's eyes.
“You must know.” Zaal smiled. “I did not ask you to come home merely to rest.”
At first, Kamran did not understand. When he did, a beat later, he felt the force of the realization like a blow to the head. He could scarcely form the words when he said:
“You need me to marry.”
“Ardunia requires an heir.”
am your heir, Your Majesty. I am your servantâ”
“Kamran, we are on the brink of war.”
The prince held steady even as his heart pounded. He stared at his grandfather in something akin to disbelief. This was the conversation he'd been waiting to have, the news he'd been waiting to discuss. Yet even now, King Zaal seemed disinclined to say much.
This, Kamran could not countenance.
His grandfather was threatening to dieâthreatening to leave him here alone to wage a war, to defend their empireâand instead of equipping him for such a fate, was tasking him with marriage? No, he could not believe it.
Through sheer force of will was Kamran able to keep his voice steady when he said, “If we are to go to war, Your Highness, surely you might assign me a more practical task? There's no doubt a great deal more I could do to protect our empire at such a time than court some nobleman's daughter.”
The king only stared at Kamran, his expression serene. “In my absence, the greatest gift you could give your empire is assurance.
War will come, and with it, your duty”âhe held up a hand to prevent Kamran from speakingâ“which I know you do not fear.
“But if something should happen to you on the battlefield, we will be in chaos. Worthless relations will claim the throne, and then lay waste to it. There are five hundred thousand soldiers under our command. Tens of millions who rely on us to manage their well-being, to ensure their safety, to procure the necessary water for their crops, to guarantee food for their children.” Zaal leaned forward. “You must secure the
line, my child. Not just for me, but for your father. For your legacy.
, Kamran, is what you must do for your empire.”
The prince understood then that there was no choice to be made. King Zaal was not asking a question.
He was issuing a command.
Kamran rose on one knee, bowed his head before his king. “Upon my honor,” he said quietly. “You have my word.”
THIS DAY HAD BEEN MORE
difficult than most.
Alizeh had boiled water until the steam seared her skin. She'd plunged her hands into soapy, scalding-hot liquid so many times that the grooves in her knuckles had split. Her fingers were blistered, warm to the touch. The sharp edges of her floor brush had dug into her palms, rubbing the skin raw until it bled. She'd bunched her apron in her fists as often as she dared, but every desperate search for her handkerchief turned up only disappointment.
Alizeh had little time to dwell on the many thoughts haunting her mind that day, though neither did she desire to think upon such disheartening matters. Between the devil's visit, the terrifying appearance of the hooded stranger, the cruelty of Miss Huda, and the boy she'd left broken in the snow, Alizeh did not lack for fuel to feed her fears.
She considered, as she scrubbed clean yet another latrine, that it was probably for the best that she ignore the lot. Better not to think on any of it, better to simply push every day through the pain and the fear until she, too, was finally consumed by eternal darkness. It was a bleak thought for a young woman of eighteen, but she thought it nonetheless: that perhaps only in death might she find the freedom she so desperately sought, for she had long ago given up hope of
finding solace in this world.
Indeed most hours of the day Alizeh could hardly believe who she'd become, how far she'd strayed from the plans once held for her future. Long ago there'd been a blueprint for her life, a quiet infrastructure designed to support who she might one day be. She'd been left little choice but to abandon that imagined future, not unlike a child shedding an imagined friend. All that remained of her old existence was the familiar whisper of the devil, his voice growing under her skin at intervals, snuffing her life of light.
Would that he, too, might vanish.
The clock had just struck two when, for the twelfth time that day, Alizeh placed her empty buckets on the kitchen floor.
She looked around for any sign of Cook or Mrs. Amina before stealing to the back of the room, and only when she was certain of her solitude did she do what she'd already done eleven times before, and wrench open the heavy wooden door.
Alizeh was struck straightaway by the intoxicating smell of rosewater.
The Wintrose Festival was one of the few things familiar to her in this foreign, royal city, for the Wintrose season was celebrated all throughout the empire of Ardunia. Alizeh had fond memories of harvesting the delicate pink blooms with her parents, straw baskets colliding as they walked, heads dense with perfume.
Nostalgia nudged her feet across the threshold, sense
memory encouraging her legs, articulating her limbs. A zephyr moved through the alley, tumbling rose petals toward her, and she drew the heady, floral fragrance deep into her lungs, experiencing a rare moment of unqualified joy as the breeze ruffled her hair, the hems of her skirts. The sun was but a nebulous glow through an exhalation of clouds, painting the moment in diffuse, golden light that made Alizeh feel as if she'd stepped into a dream. She could hardly help her need to draw nearer to such beauty.
One at a time, she began picking the wind-scattered roses out of the snow, gently tucking the wilting blossoms into the pockets of her apron. These Gol Mohammadi roses were so heavily scented, their perfume would last for months. Her mother had always used theirs to make a rose-petal jam, saving a few corollas to press between the pages of a book, which Alizeh liked tâ
Without warning, her heart began to race.
It was that familiar pinch in her chest, her pulse pounding in her bleeding palms. Her hands shook without warning, petals falling loose from her fists. Alizeh was struck with a frightening need to run from this place, to strip the apron from her body and tear across the city, lungs blazing. She wanted desperately to return home, to fall at her parents' feet and grow roots there, at the base of their bodies. She felt all this in the span of a second, the feeling flooding her with a riotous force and leaving her, in its wake, strangely numb. It was a humbling experience, for Alizeh was again reminded that she had no home, no parents to whom she might return.
It had been years since their deaths, and still it seemed to Alizeh an outrageous injustice that she could not see their faces.
Once, Alizeh's life had meant to be a source of strength for the people she loved; instead, she often felt her birth had exposed her parents to bloodshed, to the brutal murders that would take them bothâfirst her father, then her motherâin the same year.
Jinn had been viciously slaughtered for ages, it was true; their numbers had been decimated, their footprint reduced near to nothingâand with it, much of their legacy. The deaths of her parents, too, had seemed to the unsuspecting eye much like the deaths of countless other Jinn: random acts of hatred, or even unfortunate accidents.
Alizeh was plagued always by an unsettling suspicion that her parents' deaths had not been random. Despite their diligent efforts to keep Alizeh's existence concealed, she worried; for it was not only her parents, but all those whose lives had once touched hers who'd vanished in a series of similar tragedies. Alizeh could not help but wonder whether the true target of all this violence had been someone else entirelyâ
With no proof to corroborate such a theory, Alizeh's mind was unable to rest, devoured every day a bit more by the voracious appetite of her fears.
Heart still thudding in her chest, she retreated inside.
Alizeh had searched the back alley beyond the kitchen each of the twelve times she'd come downstairs, but the Fesht boy had never turned up, and she couldn't understand why. She'd scavenged from the remains of breakfast a few chunks of pumpkin bread, which she'd carefully wrapped in wax paper, and hid the rations under a loose floorboard in the pantry. The boy had seemed so hungry this morning that Alizeh could not imagine an explanation for his absence, not unlessâ
She added firewood to the stove, and hesitated. It was possible she'd hurt the boy too badly during their scuffle.
Sometimes Alizeh did not know her own strength.
She checked the kettles she'd set to boil, then glanced at the kitchen clock. There were still many hours left in the day, and she worried her hands wouldn't survive the onslaught. Sacrifices would have to be made.
Quickly, she tore two strips of fabric from the hem of her apron. Alizeh, who made all her own clothes, quietly mourned the ruin of the piece, and then bandaged her wounds as best she could with blistered fingers. She would need to find time to visit the apothecary tomorrow. She had some coin now; she could afford to purchase salve, and maybe even a poultice.
Her hands, she hoped, would recover.
Having wrapped her wounds, the sharp edge of her torment began slowly to abate, the modicum of relief unbolting the vise from around her chest. In the aftermath she took a
deep, bracing breath, experiencing a prickle of embarrassment at her own thoughts, at the dark turns they took with so little encouragement. Alizeh did not want to lose faith in this world; it was only that every pain she owned seemed to extract hope from her as payment.
Still, she considered, as she refilled her buckets with freshly boiled water, her parents would've wanted more for her. They would've wanted her to keep fighting.
, her father had said,
this world will bow to you
Just then came a sharp knock at the back door.
Alizeh straightened so quickly she nearly dropped the kettle. She tossed another glance around the unusually empty kitchenâthere was so much work to be done today that the servants were granted no breaksâand snatched the hidden parcel from the pantry.
Carefully, she opened the door.
Alizeh blinked, then stepped back. It was Mrs. Sana staring at her, the bespectacled housekeeper from the Lojjan ambassador's estate.
Stunned as she was, Alizeh nearly forgot to curtsy.
Housekeepers, who ruled their own little kingdoms, were not considered servants and did not wear snodas; as a result, they were due a level of respect that Alizeh was still learning. She bobbed a curtsy, then straightened.
“Good afternoon, ma'am. How may I help you?”
Mrs. Sana said nothing, only held out a small purse, which Alizeh accepted in her injured hand. She felt the weight of the coin at once.
,” she breathed.
“Miss Huda was very pleased with the dress and would like to engage your services again.”
Alizeh went suddenly solid.
She dared not speak, dared not move for fear of ruining the moment. She tried to remember if she'd fallen asleep, if perhaps she was dreaming.
Mrs. Sana rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. “You've gone deaf, girl?”
Alizeh took a sharp breath. “No, ma'am,” she said quickly. “That isâyes, ma'am. I wouldâ It would be my honor.”
Mrs. Sana sniffed at her, in a way that was becoming familiar. “Yes. I daresay it would be. And you'll remember it the next time you speak ill of my mistress. She meant to send her maid, but I insisted on delivering the message myself. You understand my meaning.”
Alizeh lowered her eyes. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Miss Huda will need at least four gowns for the upcoming festivities, and one showpiece for the ball.”
Alizeh's head snapped up. She did not know to which upcoming festivities Mrs. Sana was referring, and she did not care. “Miss Huda wants
“Will that be a problem?”
Alizeh heard a roar in her ears, experienced a terrifying disorientation. She worried she might cry, and she did not think she'd forgive herself if she did. “No, ma'am,” she managed to say. “No problem at all.”
“Good. You may come to the house tomorrow at nine in the evening.” A heavy pause. “After you finish your shift here.”
“Thank you, ma'am. Thank you. Thank you for undâ”
“Nine o'clock sharp, you understand?” And Mrs. Sana was gone, the door slamming shut behind her.
Alizeh could hold it in no longer. She slid to the floor and sobbed.