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Chapter no 10

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

“DARLING? DARLING, YOU MUST WAKE up.”

Alizeh felt the press of a delicate hand against her forehead, skin so soft the sensation was almost bizarre. Her nose filled with the scent of something decadent and floral; she heard the rush of silk, the soft clatter of jewels, bracelets stacking and retreating with each caress of her hair. For the length of the most divine moment, Alizeh thought she’d been reunited with her own mother.

She was delirious.

She seemed unable to move even a finger; her limbs were leaden, her body cemented to the rug. Alizeh had never made it to the bed; soon after registering the price she’d pay for leaving her carpet bag behind, any lingering adrenaline had drained from her body. Alizeh, who’d already been struggling with exhaustion, was reduced to a faint, trembling husk. Her knees gave out; she collapsed to the floor, her fatigue so acute she could no longer stave off the thirst for sleep; she faded in and out of consciousness, her mind braiding the sounds and scenes of reality with dreams until she could no longer tell the difference.

It was a delicious sleep.

She’d drifted off in a shaft of sunlight that baked her slowly as she slept; and though Alizeh had no idea how long she’d dozed, it felt as if she’d spent only a few minutes unconscious, and already someone was demanding she wake.

Just then, she could imagine nothing crueler.

“My dear, we haven’t much time, and I must speak with you.” Another stroke of a soft hand, this time against her cheek, and Alizeh nearly drifted off all over again. She was groggy and disoriented and desperately did not want to wake. She wanted to lie here forever, or at least until the sun had cooked her frozen flesh evenly.

“No,” she croaked.

There was the sound of a soft laugh. “I know you’re very tired, my dear, but so long as Cyrus thinks you’re sleeping, he’ll not suspect us of conspiring. You must wake, darling, for I must speak to you quickly.”

The nosta awoke, flaring against the delicate skin of her breasts, a reminder that it was still tucked away in her damaged corset, and a warning of the truth in Sarra’s words. Only fear was strong enough to compel Alizeh to consciousness, and even then the effort was agonizing. Her eyes were so dry that they burned as her lids peeled apart, her head pounding with

exhaustion and dehydration even as her slumbering heart rate began to spike.

“What’s happened?” Alizeh asked, blinking through a sting of tears, her gritty eyes attempting to lubricate. She tried to sit up and gasped instead, her muscles seizing as a searing pain awoke along the left side of her body.

“Oh dear,” said Sarra uneasily.

Alizeh tensed as the woman looked her over with what appeared to be sincere concern; she took Alizeh’s injured arm in her hand, gentle fingers probing the homemade bandages, then pressed lightly against a stretch of Alizeh’s leg, which triggered an unexpected wave of torment.

The girl bit back a cry.

“I see,” Sarra said softly. “These are teeth marks, aren’t they? Dragon bites.”

“To be fair,” Alizeh said, still wincing, “I don’t think the dragon meant to bite me.”

“No, it wouldn’t have.” Sarra frowned. “Don’t be deceived by their size; they’re quite dear creatures, actually.”

“Well.” Alizeh attempted to breathe through the agony, comforting herself with the reminder of a recent discovery: that her body had some ability to mend itself. “Little to do about it now. I’ve cleaned and wrapped the wounds. They’ll heal eventually.”

Sarra raised her eyebrows. “I take it you didn’t see the line of bites along your leg, then.”

“What?” With some difficulty, Alizeh heaved herself up into a seated position and studied the leg in question. She still wore only the remnants of her twice-destroyed gown, which meant Alizeh was fairly exposed, her bare thigh displaying a neat sequence of puncture wounds, which, she had to assume, were repeated somewhere along her abdomen as well. The visible lacerations had bled and messily clotted, her clear blood making it look as if her skin was slathered in a crusty, translucent jelly.

Alizeh’s stomach turned at the sight.

“He really is quite the monster, isn’t he?” said Sarra quietly. Startled, Alizeh looked up at the woman. “Who?”

“My son,” she said, her expression grim even as she smiled. “He’s an unforgivable brute.”

Even as the nosta warmed, it felt like a trap.

Alizeh said nothing; she only studied Sarra warily, wondering what to believe. From the first, Cyrus’s mother had been hard to understand, her actions always straying from the path of an obvious logic. Alizeh didn’t know what to do with the woman now. She certainly didn’t trust her.

“What was it you needed to speak with me about?” Alizeh said instead, careful to keep her face placid. “You made it sound as if something was wrong.”

“Oh, everything is wrong, my dear. Everything is wrong.” Again Sarra smiled; again the effect was tragic. “I had hoped, upon your arrival, that together we might change the course of things, and I’d come here to speak with you about just that, only I see now that you do not trust me, which means we cannot even think of forming an alliance until you do.”

“You and I form an alliance?” Alizeh nearly laughed. “You can’t be serious.”

Sarra shot her a hard look before rising to her feet, outstretching a hand.

Alizeh studied the woman with a guarded expression.

“Don’t be daft,” Sarra said with a slight shake of her head. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Then what will you do with me?”

“I’m going to help you up, and then draw you a bath.”

The nosta glowed warm at the statement, hope burgeoning in Alizeh’s chest. A bath sounded divine. “That’s all?”

Sarra gave her a dry smile. “That’s all.”

Alizeh accepted the woman’s hand and gingerly levered herself up; once she’d found a measure of balance she hobbled along behind Sarra, who led the way to the tub. The woman turned taps until the sound of rushing water filled the room; the sight and promise of it all was enough to calm Alizeh’s senses almost at once.

As the jet sloshed reassuringly against the porcelain, Sarra reached for a tray of small wooden bowls perched along a mounted ledge, and measured out precise scoops of what appeared to be multicolored herbs, which she then emptied into the water.

Steadily, the basin began to fill.

“These are medicinal,” Sarra explained, nodding to the tray she was now returning to its shelf. “When the water touches your wounds it’ll burn like hell itself, but if you can endure a bit of pain, there’s little better for helping calm and clean your injuries quickly.”

Alizeh bristled.

She didn’t know why, but the woman’s words felt almost like a challenge. “I assure you,” she said, limping toward the sink. “I can endure a bit of pain.”

Alizeh grabbed a length of toweling from a lower shelf and ran it under the faucet; she intended to clean the mess of her neglected injuries while the tub filled. Gritting her teeth, she gently patted at the congealed blood along her leg, careful lest she cause the lacerations to reopen.

All the while, Sarra watched her with an undisguised curiosity. “You know, I had no idea what to expect before you arrived,” she said, perching along the edge of the tub. “Despite everything Cyrus told me about you, I wasn’t sure what you’d be like.” She paused. “Then again, I wasn’t even sure you’d come.”

Alizeh froze at that, then straightened. She tossed the soiled towel in the sink. “When, exactly, did he start talking about me? And what did he say?”

Sarra waved a hand, dismissing her own words as she said, “Oh, it was a few months ago. He strode into the dining room unannounced one day, and, with no preamble, declared in front of all the servants his intention to marry. He told me to begin preparing your rooms; he said you wouldn’t have the right clothes—or even a trousseau—upon arrival, and that I was to begin assembling such items, and never mind that he never offered me a clue as to your measurements.

“Naturally, I had thousands of questions, but his answers were bloodless. He told me your age, that you resided up north. He said that you’d been orphaned but that you were descended from a forgotten royal line, insisting you had noble blood despite lacking a proper upbringing, and that you might present as a bit uncivilized as a result of your incomplete education—”

Alizeh’s eyes widened in outrage. “I beg your pardon—”

“Oh, I wouldn’t take it to heart, my dear,” Sarra said, a wry smile curving her lips. “It’s clear to me that you’re well in possession of your faculties. Then again”—her eyes glittered with mirth—“you did make a rather unorthodox first impression, and I found I was grateful for the warning. Had I not been prepared to meet with a rather wild young woman, I might’ve been too shocked to proceed.”

Chastened, Alizeh’s mouth snapped shut.

“Nevertheless,” Sarra went on with a sigh, “it was obvious even then that he had no idea who you really were, for his descriptions gave me no indication of your character or personality. In point of fact, whenever I forced him to discuss you he did so with palpable revulsion. Several times he spoke aloud his hope that you weren’t stupid, and never once did he spare me a detail about your physical attributes, despite the fact that”—she looked up, giving Alizeh an appraising glance—“well, even bedraggled as you are now, you’re quite astonishingly lovely, aren’t you? You’d think he’d have mentioned such an obvious detail. Instead, his most pressing concern was that you’d turn out to be an incurable idiot.”

Alizeh blinked at the woman, stunned. Sarra had not lied once. “I take it he didn’t mention, then, that he was being ordered to marry me by decree of Iblees himself.”

“Of course he did,” said Sarra, cutting off the water.

Alizeh’s stupefaction at this answer would have to wait to unfold, for the tub had filled to its limit. The added herbs caused the water to bubble and froth, the fragrance of eucalyptus and jasmine scenting the humid air. Alizeh’s heart soared at the sight, the familiar smells.

Sarra stepped into the doorway, presenting Alizeh with the back of her red head in an offering of privacy.

Alizeh, for her part, did not delay; she stripped off the remains of her gown with pleasure, hesitating when she remembered the nosta, which had so far been hidden expertly away inside her corset. Thinking of no other alternatives, she first glanced at the back of Sarra’s head to make certain she was alone, then retrieved the little marble and popped it quickly into her mouth, where the orb fit easily inside her cheek. She piled her destroyed corset and her tattered undergarments in a neat little heap atop the dress, all of which she studied with a vivid feeling of disorientation.

It was still surreal to her that she was here.

She stood stark naked in the belly of a foreign empire, trapped in a bathing room with the mother of a ruthless king unapologetically tethered to the devil, and hadn’t the slightest clue what horrors awaited her here.

It was almost too much to hold in her mind at once.

Even as she carefully lowered herself into the foaming, frothing bath, Alizeh wondered whether she was mad for trusting Sarra not to have filled the tub with poison—but then the water touched her wounds and Alizeh’s

pain grew so loud she could think of nothing else. She didn’t know whether to moan in relief or cry out in anguish.

“Give it a few minutes,” Sarra said from the doorway. “The pain will ebb, I promise. And then it will feel much better.”

Alizeh squeezed her eyes shut, muscles tensing as the medicine seeped into her flesh. “I don’t understand,” she said, speaking slowly so as not to dislodge the nosta from her cheek. “You mean to tell me you know about Cyrus’s alliance with the devil? That he’s told you everything?”

Sarra laughed. “I never know everything.”

“But you know the details of your son’s treachery—that he’s determined to marry me against both his will and mine, all in the interest of fulfilling some terrible debt owed to Iblees? You know this and yet—you do not seem to care.”

Sarra’s voice took on an eerie stillness when she said, quietly, “It’s not that I do not care. It’s that I no longer believe him. For the last several months, my son has blamed all his bad decisions on the devil. Never does he take accountability for his actions. He’s always begging me to understand that he has no choice—even as he makes demands of me, of his own people—he insists he does so only because he’s shackled against his will.”

“But”—Alizeh frowned, her eyes still closed—“he confides in you, then? He comes to you with the truth? I’d not expected so tyrannical a young man to seek out his mother’s counsel.”

Again, Sarra laughed darkly. “He does not seek out my counsel. He only unburdens himself in what I have discovered to be the deluded pursuit of my absolution. He is still young and foolish enough to think that confiding in me will earn him my compassion, but I’ve become inured to his self-pity. Of course I tried,” she said with a sigh. “I tried, initially, to guide him, but I learned quickly enough that he only talks—and never listens. I’ve had to accept that I no longer have any influence over him; that in fact no one does. He might blame Iblees, but in the end Cyrus acts as he wishes; it is clear enough that we are all but pawns in his schemes.”

Alizeh opened her eyes.

It was a strange sensation, to feel the nosta flash its heat inside her mouth. Stranger still that Sarra’s confounding revelations were true, for Alizeh had not imagined Cyrus to be so forthcoming with his mother. And while she had no interest in defending the loathsome king, Alizeh was

herself too well-acquainted with Iblees to deny the pressures of his influence. It seemed unreasonable to deny that Cyrus might be acting under extreme duress.

“To be fair,” Alizeh said quietly, “the devil has ways of tricking even the smartest among us. And I’m sure you know that the only way to withdraw from a deal with Iblees is, at minimum, to forfeit your life in exchange. Cyrus would have to willingly die should he wish to walk away.” “One might counter,” Sarra said sharply, “that the best course of action

would’ve been to never make a deal with the devil in the first place. Iblees approaches every newly crowned sovereign with the bait of a disadvantageous bargain; Cyrus has known this his whole life, and he was forearmed to face it—to walk away from such temptations as all others did before him.” She shook her head. “His excuses have grown tedious in the retelling, my dear, and my patience has worn thin.”

The woman’s anger surprised her.

Alizeh studied the lady framed in the doorway: her flashing eyes, her pursed lips, the tension she carried in her shoulders.

Rather than being comforted by the woman’s fury, Alizeh found the conversation alarming. Sarra railed against her son, condemning him for his actions and demands—even as she fulfilled them. Alizeh had sympathy enough to imagine why Sarra might stay in the palace; perhaps she remained on principle, not wanting to be forced out of her own home—or maybe Cyrus had taken control of her assets, leaving her with nowhere to run. Having experienced it herself, Alizeh could not recommend destitution as a worthy alternative to a warm bed.

No, it was not that Alizeh lacked insight to understand the difficulty of the woman’s situation; it was the matter of Sarra’s inconstancy that scared her—that insisted something was amiss. These rooms, after all, were by Sarra’s own admission a result of her efforts; the wardrobes stocked with gorgeous garments were evidence of orders executed.

How could she rage against her son while doing his bidding? How could she not see that by building Alizeh this beautiful prison, she was complicit in her son’s crimes?

Still, there was some comfort to be derived from the woman’s company, for Sarra had proven that she was not a liar. As promised, the pain in Alizeh’s wounds had begun to subside and, finally, she unclenched; she allowed her body to float a moment in the warm water, her hair surging

against her face, dark tendrils like tentacles streaking across the foamy surface.

Carefully, Alizeh reached for a bar of soap set neatly in a cove above her eye line and began lathering her aching limbs. Her head soon filled with the decadent scent of star jasmine. “Why did you come to me?” she asked, glancing at Sarra. “Why did you think we could form an alliance?”

Sarra studied her, saying nothing for a long moment. “You’re certain you don’t want to marry my son?”

Alizeh returned her assessing gaze. “You doubt me?”

“I am not blind to the beauty of my own child,” she said, arching a brow. “There are thousands of young women across Tulan who would marry him in a trice. It might shock you to hear it, but he has quite a dedicated army of admirers. They don’t yet know about you, of course—but they’ll be very sorry, indeed, when your betrothal is announced.”

“There will be no such announcement,” Alizeh said angrily, “as I will not be marrying him. Why are you even telling me this? You think my opinion of your son might be swayed by the passing fancies of a deluded mob?”

“Not at all,” Sarra said, rewarding her with a blinding smile. “You were tricked, as you said, into coming here. You told me yourself that you loathe him. You’ve already tried to kill him. And you proved in the first minutes of your arrival that you are both brave enough to stand up to him—and strong enough to challenge him. I have no expectation of you marrying my son.”

Alizeh went uncommonly still.

Sarra was closing in on her, taking careful, measured steps into the room, and Alizeh couldn’t shake a fear that she was being slowly outwitted

—swindled, somehow, by the character she’d least suspected.

The problem was, she didn’t know why. Or how.

“What do you want from me?” Alizeh said, reaching for a nearby towel. She snapped open the cotton as she stood, somehow managing to protect her privacy while bandaging herself in its warmth, clinging to the cloth as if it were a suit of armor. “You vilify your son at great length, and yet I haven’t heard you offer me an avenue of escape. If you hate him so, why will you not help me break free of him?”

“Because I need you,” she said, retrieving a robe from a hidden cabinet, which she then offered to Alizeh. “Because we need each other.”

“I need nothing from you,” said Alizeh, even as she snatched the robe from Sarra’s hands. She stepped out of the tub, her heavy curls dripping water everywhere. “But I see now that you, as with everyone else, seem to want something from me.”

“I only want justice.”

Alizeh scoffed at that, discreetly swapping her towel for the soft robe, which she tied, with angry motions, at her waist. “You remain complicit in my capture—and yet you expect me to trust that you have any idea of justice?”

“You and I are both captive here,” Sarra said softly. “I only play my role differently than you.”

“How can that be true?”

“You seem to forget, darling, that Cyrus killed my husband.” At that, Alizeh went still.

Very slowly she looked up, studying the woman before her as if for the first time.

Indeed, Alizeh had forgotten.

She’d heard the rumors of course; there’d been all kinds of stories about Cyrus the Ruthless, the child who’d murdered his own father for control of the crown. This news was as recent as several months ago; Alizeh had not yet arrived in Setar then, where the conversations surrounding the bloody exchange had no doubt been louder—but it had not mattered. The massive headlines had been plastered across the front page of every local paper for weeks on end, for the savage transfer of power had seemed ominous to all the world. If the young king was willing to murder his own father in the pursuit of glory, whose throne might he try to overturn next?

Well. They knew the answer to that now.

“It’s not fashionable for a mother to hate her own son,” Sarra said quietly. “No matter their ills and evils we are expected to go on loving them, forgiving them even when they mutate before our eyes into murderers.”

“I’m so very sorry,” Alizeh whispered.

Sarra canted her head. “When Cyrus killed my husband, I didn’t believe it. Not at first, of course. I gave my child a chance to deny these horrors, to confess it had all been a terrible accident—or even to tell me he’d been framed. He did none of those things. Instead, Cyrus looked me in the eye and told me he’d murdered his father—a man who’d loved him more than

life—because he was unfit to be king. He showed no remorse. He did not regret his actions.”

Horrified, Alizeh clapped a hand over her mouth.

“One day,” the woman said softly, “Cyrus was my son. The next day he was not.”

“Why do you stay?” Alizeh asked, her hand falling away from her face, disbelief coloring her voice. “Does he threaten your life? Do you have nowhere else to go?”

“Motherhood is complicated,” said Sarra, turning away. “In nearly every way, I have disowned him in my heart. I will never forgive him. I cannot love him. But I’ve learned that there are some things I can’t bring myself to accomplish. In vain I’ve tried to do the deed myself, but I’ve found that this is the line I’m unable to cross.” She met Alizeh’s eyes then. “I need you to stay because I cannot do this on my own.”

“I don’t understand,” Alizeh said, even as her heart pounded in her chest, her instincts screaming at her to keep quiet, to ask no further questions. “What can’t you do on your own?”

“Kill him, darling. I need your help to kill him.”

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