Authors: Tahereh Mafi
In any case, Kamran was good at waiting.
He could stand in one position for hours without tiring, had been trained to practically disappear at will. It was no trouble at all to him to waste an hour standing in an alley to capture a criminal, not when his aim was to protect his empire, to spare his people the machinations of this faceless girlâ
True, that he found her actions suspect; true, too, that she might be a Tulanian spy. But there was also a possibility that he was wrong about the girl, and his unwillingness to accept this fact should've concerned him. No, the unadulterated truth, which he was only now willing to admit, was that there was a grain more to his motivations: something about this girl had burrowed under his skin.
He couldn't shake it.
Sheâa supposed poor, lowly servantâhad acted this morning with a mercy he could not understand, with a compassion that enraged him all the more for its inconstancy. The young woman had entered his empire, ostensibly, to do harm. Why should she have been the more benevolent actor this morning? Why should she have inspired in him a feeling of unworthiness?
No, no, it made no sense.
Years of training had taught the prince to recognize even the slightest inconsistencies in his opponents; weaknesses that could be mined and promptly manipulated. Kamran knew his own strengths, and his instincts in this instance could not be denied. He'd seen her contradictions from the moment he laid eyes on her.
She was without question hiding something.
He'd wanted to out her as the liar he knew her to be; to uncover what seemed to him one of only two possibilities: a treasonous spy, or a frivolous society girl playing pretend.
He had, instead, ended up here.
Here, standing in the dark so long the mobs had begun to disperse, the streets littered now with the drunk, sleeping bodies that dared not drag themselves home. Kamran had let the cold brace him until his bones shook, until he felt nothing but a large emptiness yawn open inside him.
He did not want to be king.
He did not want his grandfather to die, did not want to marry a stranger, did not want to father a child, did not want to lead an empire. This was the secret he seldom shared even with himselfâthat he did not want this life. It was hard
enough when his father had died, but Kamran couldn't even begin to imagine a world without his grandfather. He did not think he was good enough to lead an empire alone, and he did not know who he might rely upon instead. Sometimes he wasn't even sure he could trust Hazan.
Instead, Kamran had distracted himself with his anger, had allowed his mind to focus on the irritations of the Fesht boy, the false face of a servant girl. The truth was that he'd been forced to return home against his will and was now running from himself, from the counterintuitive burden of privilege, from the responsibilities laid upon his shoulders. In moments like these he'd always consoled himself with the reassurance that he was at least a capable soldier, a competent leaderâbut today had disproven even that. For what good was a leader who could not even trust his own instincts?
Kamran had been bested by this servant girl.
Not only had she proven him wrong on all counts, she'd proven him worse. When she'd finally appeared in the alley behind Baz House, he'd recognized her at onceâbut had the privilege now of inspecting her more closely. Right away he noticed the angry cut at her throat, and from there he followed the elegant lines of her neck, the delicate slope of her shoulders. For the second time that day he noticed the way she carried herself; how different she seemed from other servants. There was a gracefulness even in the way she held her head, the way she drew her shoulders back, the way she'd tilted her face up at the sun.
Kamran did not understand.
If not a spy or society girl, she might perhaps be the fallen
daughter of a gentleman, or even the bastard child of one; such circumstances might explain her elegant carriage and knowledge of Feshtoon. But for a well-educated child of a noble to have fallen this low? He thought it unlikely. The scandals in high society were most everyone's business, and such a person in his aunt's employ would doubtless have been known to him.
Then again, it was hard to be certain of anything.
In vain he'd fought for a better look at her face and was given instead only a mouth to study. He'd stared at her lips for longer than he cared to admit, for reasons that were not lost on him. Kamran had arrived at the frightening realization that this girl might be beautifulâa thought so unexpected it nearly distracted him from his purpose. When she suddenly bit her lip, he drew a breath, startling himself.
She seemed worried.
He watched as she searched the alley, all the while clutching a small parcel to her chest. Kamran remembered what Omid had said about her hands, peered closer, and was dealt at once a powerful blow to his pride, to his fragile conscience. The girl's hands were so damaged he could see the injuries even from his distant vantage point. Her skin was painful to look at. Red. Blistered. Raw.
Without a doubt the hands of a servant.
Kamran rocked back on his heels as this truth washed over him. He'd been so determined the girl was a liar, had so eagerly anticipated the moment her ugliness would be uncovered. Instead, he'd made a discovery about himself.
He was the villain in this story, not she.
Not only had the girl kept her promise to Omid, but she'd made preparations; it grew increasingly obvious that what she sought in that alley had been the street child himself.
Twice in one day this faceless girl had inspired in Kamran a shame so vast he could hardly breathe around it. She'd reached into his chest and broken something essential inside of him, managed it all without even acknowledging his existence. Was Kamran so weak as to be dismantled thus by a stranger? Was he so unworthy?
Worse: how would he explain this embarrassment to his grandfather? So enthusiastically had Kamran added to the king's worries with his poorly supported suspicions, and now the prince's arrogance would prove only his own idiocy; an instability of mind that would further substantiate the king's fears for his grandson. In a single day Kamran had made himself into a joke, and he wanted to sink into the earth.
It was his single thought, repeating like a drumbeat in his head, when Hazan finally found him.
The apothecarist cleared his throat again, and Alizeh startled. When she looked up, she saw the shopkeeper staring at her hands, which she snatched out of sight.
“I can see that you're in pain, miss. A good deal, too, it seems.”
Slowly, Alizeh met his eyes.
“You need not fear me,” he said quietly. “If I'm to do my job, I must see the damage.”
Alizeh thought again of her work, how her safety and security depended on her waking up tomorrow and scrubbing yet more floors, stitching more gowns. But if this man saw her clear blood and realized she was Jinn, he might refuse to serve her; and if he turned her out of his store she'd have to walk to the apothecary on the other side of the cityâwhich, though not impossible to manage, would be both difficult and exhausting, and would take another day to arrange.
Alizeh sighed. She was left with little choice.
With painful effort, she unwrapped the damp, makeshift bandages and rested her bare hands atop the counter, palms up, for the apothecarist to examine.
He sucked in his breath at the sight.
Alizeh tried to see her injuries through his eyes: the raw,
shredded skin, the blistered fingers, the blood most people mistook for water. The normally pale skin of her palms was now a garish red, throbbing with pain. She wanted desperately to wrap them anew, to clench her fists against the searing burn.
“I see,” said the man, which Alizeh took as her cue to withdraw. She waited, body tensed for a hostile attack, but the apothecarist did not insult her, nor did he ask her to leave his store.
By degrees, Alizeh relaxed.
In fact, he said nothing more as he collected items from around his shop, measuring into burlap pouches various herbs, snipping strips of linen for her wounds. She felt immeasurable gratitude as she stood there defrosting in her boots, snowmelt puddling in shallow pools around her feet. She could not see the eyes watching her from the window, but she soon felt them, felt the disturbing, specific fear of one who knows she's being watched but cannot prove it.
When the apothecarist finally returned to his post, he was carrying a small basket of remedies, which he proceeded to crush into a thick paste with mortar and pestle. He then procured from under the counter what looked like a paintbrush.
“Please have a seat”âhe gestured to one of the tall stools at the counterâ“and pay attention to what I do, miss. You'll need to repeat these next steps at home.”
Alizeh nodded, grateful as her tired body sank into the upholstered seat. She feared she might never stand up again.
“Please hold out your hands.”
Alizeh complied. She watched closely as he painted a bright blue salve onto her palms in a single stroke, the calming effect so immediate she nearly cried out from relief.
“You must keep everything clean,” he was saying, “and change the bandages every other day. I'll show you how to wrap them properly.”
“Yes, sir,” she breathed. She squeezed her eyes shut as he wound fresh strips of linen around her hands, between her split fingers. It was a bliss unlike any she'd experienced in recent memory.
Quietly, he said: “It isn't right.”
“The bandages?” Alizeh looked up. “Oh, no, sir, I thinkâ”
,” he said, lifting her hands closer to the lamplight. Even half-wrapped and covered in salve, the picture was tragic. “They work you too hard, miss. It isn't right.”
“Oh.” Alizeh returned her eyes to the counter. “It's no trouble.”
She heard the ire in his voice when he said, “They work you like this because of what you are. Because of what you can bear. A human body could not withstand so much, and they take advantage of you because they can. You must realize that.”
“Indeed, I do,” Alizeh said with some dignity. “Though you must also realize that I'm grateful to have the work, sir.”
“You may call me Deen.” He retrieved another brush, which he used to paint a different salve onto the cut at her neck. Alizeh sighed as the medicine spread, closing her eyes when the pain dulled, then faded altogether.
It was a moment before Deen cleared his throat and said,
“You know, I don't think I've ever seen a servant wear a snoda at night.”
Alizeh froze, and the apothecarist felt it. When she made no reply, he said quietly, “You are perhaps, as a result, unaware of the large bruise spanning your cheek.”
.” Alizeh lifted one newly bandaged hand to her face. “IÂ .Â .Â .”
She'd not realized her bruise had bled beyond the lines of her snoda. It was illegal for housekeepers to beat their servants, but Alizeh had never met a housekeeper who'd observed this law, and she knew bringing attention to it now would only cost her her job.
She said nothing.
Deen sighed. “If you would only remove your snoda, miss, I might inspect the damage for you.”
“No,” Alizeh said too quickly. “That isâ I thank you for your concern, but I'm quite all right.”
It was a long while before Deen said quietly, “Very well. But when I am done, I ask that you come back in one week so that I might check for signs of improvement or infection.”
“Yes, sir.” She hesitated. “I mean, Deen, sir.”
He smiled. “If, however, you develop a fever in the interim, you must send for a surgeon at once.”
To this, Alizeh merely nodded. Even with five dresses worth of income she knew she'd not be able to afford a surgeon, but did not see the point in expressing so.
Deen was winding a narrow bandage around her neckâprecisely the sort of spectacle she'd been trying to avoidâwhen he made one last attempt at conversation. “This
is an interesting wound, miss,” he said. “More interesting for all the conflicting stories we've been hearing in town today.”
She knew, objectively, that she'd done nothing wrong, but Alizeh lived in this city only because she'd had to escape her own attempted execution. It was seldom, if ever, that she stopped worrying. “Which conflicting stories, sir?”
“Stories of the prince, of course.”
Almost at once, Alizeh relaxed. “Oh,” she said. “I don't believe I've heard any.”
Deen was pinning her bandage in place when he laughed. “With all due respect, miss, you'd have to be deaf not to have heard. The whole of the empire is discussing the prince's return to Setar.”
“He's come back?” Beneath her snoda, Alizeh's eyes widened. She, who was new to the city, had heard only rumors about the empire's elusive heir. Those who lived in Setar lived in the royal heart of Ardunia; its lifelong residents had seen the prince in his infancy, had watched him grow. Alizeh would be lying if she said she wasn't curious about the royals, but she was far from obsessed, the way some were.
Just thenâin a flash of understandingâthe day's events made sense.
The festivities Mrs. Sana had mentionedâthe impending ball. It was no wonder Miss Huda needed five new gowns. Of course Duchess Jamilah had demanded every one of her rooms be cleaned. She was a distant cousin of the king, and it was rumored she had a close relationship with the prince.
Perhaps she was expecting a visit.
“Indeed, he is come home,” Deen was saying. “And no small thing either, is it? Already they're planning a ball, and no fewer than a dozen festivities. Of course”âhe grinnedâ“not that the likes of us should care. I don't expect we'll be seeing the inside of a palace ballroom anytime soon.”
Alizeh matched Deen's smile with one of her own. She'd often longed for moments like theseâopportunities to speak with people in her own city, as if she were one of them. She'd never felt free to do so, not even as a child.
“No, I expect not,” she said softly, still smiling as she sat back in her seat, absently touching the fresh bandage at her neck. She felt so much better already, and the flood of relief and gratitude was loosening her tongue to an unfamiliar degree. “Though I'm not sure I understand all the excitement, if I'm being honest.”
“Oh?” Deen's smile grew broader. “And why's that?”
There was always so much she wanted to say, but she'd been forbiddenâover and overâfrom speaking her mind, and she struggled now to overcome that impulse.
“I supposeâ I suppose I would ask why the prince should be so lavishly celebrated merely for arriving home. Why is it that we never ask who pays for these festivities?”
“Begging your pardon, miss.” Deen laughed. “I'm not sure I understand your meaning.”
Alizeh thawed a bit at the sound of his laughter, and her own smile grew wider. “Well. Do not the taxes paid by common folk fund the royal parties they're not even allowed to attend?”
Deen, who was rewinding a roll of linen, went suddenly still. He looked up at Alizeh, his expression inscrutable.
“The prince never even shows his face,” she went on. “What kind of prince does not mix with his own society? He is praisedâand well liked, yesâbut only on account of his noble birth, his inheritance, his circumstances, his inevitable ascent to king.”
Deen frowned a bit. “I supposeâperhaps.”
“On what merit, then, is he celebrated? Why should he be entitled to the love and devotion of a public that does not even know him? Does not his distaste of the common people reek of arrogance? Does not this arrogance offend?”
“I do not know, miss.” Deen faltered. “Though I daresay our prince is not arrogant.”
“Pretentious, then? Misanthropic?”
Alizeh couldn't seem to stop talking now that she'd started. It should've worried her that she was having so much fun; it should've reminded her to bite her tongue. But it had been so long since she'd had a single conversation with someone, and Alizeh, who was demanded always to deny her own intelligence, had grown tired of keeping her mouth shut. The thing was, she was
at talking, and she dearly missed that exchange of wits that exercised the mind.
“And does not misanthropy indicate a miserliness of spirit, of the human heart?” she was saying. “Loyalty and duty and a general sense ofâof awe, perhapsâmight induce his royal subjects to overlook such shortcomings, but this generosity serves only to recommend the proletarian, not the prince. It remains rather cowardly then, does it not, to preside over us
all as only a mythical figure, never a man?”
The dregs of Deen's smile evaporated entirely at that, his eyes going cold. It was with a horrible, sinking feeling that Alizeh realized the depth of her mistakeâbut too late.
“Goodness.” Deen cleared his throat. He no longer seemed able to look at her. “I've never heard such talk, least of all from one in a snoda.” He cleared his throat again. “I say. You speak mighty well.”
Alizeh felt herself stiffen.
She'd known better. She'd learned enough times by now not to speak so much, or with such candor. She'd known better, and yetâ Deen had shown her compassion, which she mistook for friendship. She swore to herself right then that she would never again make such a mistake, but for nowâfor now, there was nothing to be done. She could not take back her words.