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Chapter no 19

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

ALIZEH STARED, WONDERINGLY, AT THE piece of bread she was holding, turning it over in her hands. Cyrus had earlier ripped in half a larger round, and the share she held was, as a result, an unconventional shape, something like a crescent moon.

It was still warm, too.

They’d been walking past a bakery when Alizeh had smelled the familiar scent, and after she’d commented aloud that in her life she’d only ever walked past bakeries, never stepping inside of one, Cyrus had expressed surprise. He’d asked her why she’d never been inside of a bakery, for “surely Ardunia was not so pathetic an empire as to lack such establishments,” to which she’d responded that Ardunia was “quite thick with bakeries, thank you very much,” it was only that she’d never had the time to visit one, for she’d always worked, at minimum, twelve-hour shifts, though even if she’d had the time, she’d reasoned, she’d “invariably lacked the money to purchase anything from such a place,” and as a result hadn’t seen the point in torturing herself with even the possibility of such decadence—

Cyrus had abruptly taken her by the arm then, given her a strange look, and guided her toward the shop in question, into which they disappeared for a wondrous few moments, and emerged, shortly thereafter, with bread.

Bread that Cyrus had purchased for her.

She’d not thought they’d actually buy anything, not only because Alizeh had no money but because in all her life no one but her parents had ever bought her anything. The entire experience of being out with Cyrus, from the moment they’d said goodbye to a smug Sarra—who’d seen their clasped hands and given Alizeh a sly, encouraging nod—to the current moment they

occupied now, had been so unfamiliar and strange that Alizeh hardly knew what to do with herself. If she tried to think about it all in full, she thought her head might fall off.

For now, she focused on the bread.

With a bit of guidance from her unlikely—and surprisingly patient— companion, Alizeh had chosen a small, humble disk of the baked good. It was fairly thin, visibly hand-kneaded, and had been sprinkled generously with sesame seeds. It was brown and crispy on the outside, but—she poked its insides now with one finger—light and springy within. This accomplishment struck her as functionally impossible.

“Did they make this with magic?” she asked Cyrus, still poking the soft interior. There were many little holes inside and she couldn’t imagine how someone might’ve scooped out bits of dough from the middle without disturbing the perfect, crunchy shell.

Cyrus, who was actually eating his piece of bread, was still chewing when he looked over at her, staring at her now like she might be touched in the head.

He swallowed. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“Well, if you’re going to be rude about it,” she said. “I’ll just keep my questions to myself.”

“Alizeh.”

She pretended not to hear him.

Instead, she picked cautiously at the crust, attempting to break the shell away to fully expose the soft, spongey inside. She crunched on a piece of the crust first, her voracious senses savoring the mild taste and crisp texture, and then bit into the pillowy middle, which was—she raised her eyebrows

—surprisingly chewy.

Alizeh decided she liked bread very much.

They were wandering down a bright, delightful avenue finished with gleaming ivory pavers, the street hemmed in on either side by colorful shops of all kinds. Alizeh had already looked around a great deal, but just then she was looking up as they strolled, mesmerized by the majesty of the stratospheric ceiling above them, and which was not a ceiling at all, but an unfathomable number of wisteria vines stretched across the width of the road, crisscrossing from the top of one building to another. The purple flowers, Cyrus had explained, had been bewitched to bloom in perpetuity. They hung in astonishing masses from on high like ripe, decadent grapes,

their otherworldly, honeyed scent infusing the air around them while loose, fallen petals decorated all in a surreal confetti. Occasionally a strong gust of wind blew through and shook the vines, resulting in a soft shower of wisteria petals, the sight and smell of which were so heavenly—so overwhelmingly beautiful—that Alizeh thought she might lie down in the middle of the road and happily die of delight.

“Alizeh,” Cyrus said again.

“Hmm?” She was still staring at the flowers, picking apart her bread methodically.

“What are you doing?” he said, audibly frustrated. “The crust is not a skin. You don’t have to peel it off to eat the insides.”

“I wasn’t peeling it,” she scoffed, finally turning to look at him. “I was studying it. I was wondering, though— Could you tell me how the bakers poked all these little holes in the middle without breaking the shell? It seems terribly clever.”

Cyrus came to a sudden stop. “My word,” he breathed. “Have you never eaten bread before?”

She frowned. “Of course I have.”

“You haven’t, have you? You’ve never eaten bread before.”

“Not true,” she said, pointing a finger. “Once, in one of my previous positions working in a big house, I was clearing away the dishes in the breakfast room, and there was still so much food untouched—an entire tray of perfectly good toast, can you imagine?—and I was so curious I actually took a small bite.”

Cyrus only stared at her. “When was this?” “A couple of years ago.”

He searched the skies then as if for strength, and turned back to her with a sigh. “Once, a couple of years ago, you had a single bite of toast? That’s it?”

“Well, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again,” she said, worrying her lip. “One of the other servants saw me do the shameful deed and snitched straightaway to the housekeeper, who promptly dismissed me from my position. I tried to point out that I’d not been stealing, as she’d so unfairly described it, for we’d been ordered to toss all the bread straight into the trash, which seemed to me a shocking waste—”

“Heavens, Alizeh.” Cyrus had gone completely slack. “You might be the strangest girl I’ve ever met in all my life.”

“Are you insulting me?” “Without question.”

She shot him a dirty look, but Cyrus only laughed.

Just then came a series of shouts; a team of men were unrolling a massive rug from a high balcony, the intricate piece unfurling in the sun like a newborn leaf. Suspended only by their efforts, it hung in the wind like a magnificent flag, its silk threads shimmering as one of them shouted rather aggressively from the balustrade about good prices and discounted delivery.

Despite her irritation, Alizeh smiled.

There were aspects of Tulan’s royal city—Mesti, Cyrus had called it— that reminded her very much of Setar, but there were rather glaring differences between them, too.

First, they spoke a duo of languages in equal measure here. Tulan was positioned just beyond Fesht province, the southernmost territory of Ardunia, and as a result there’d been quite a bit of blending along borders; the Tulanian people spoke Feshtoon and Ardanz—though Alizeh occasionally thought she heard people speaking a third, unofficial dialect that sounded like a slapdash mix of both.

Second, and most obvious: while both royal cities were stunning feats of color and architecture, only one had been built with an abundance of magic. Tulan being but a fraction the size of Ardunia, its royal city was a great deal smaller, giving it a cozier quality where every inch felt cleaner, more closely cared for, and delicately enchanted. Alizeh had been taking it all in with the enthusiasm of an ingenue, absorbing the life and bustle of the atmosphere not unlike a child discovering wind for the first time.

“What other essential things must I know about you?” Cyrus was saying. “Have you never had a glass of milk, for example? Have you never eaten a piece of cake? Do you need me to teach you how to use a knife and fork?”

Alizeh felt her face heat at that last question, for she’d almost certainly require such lessons. She’d only ever fumbled poorly with utensils, because she’d never had any use for them. As a servant she’d tried, on many occasions, to familiarize herself with their many uses, but whenever she lingered too long watching people eat, she was either punished or sacked.

“You,” she said finally, turning away to hide her embarrassment, “are being intentionally mean. You know full well that I’m not like you, that I

don’t need to eat food to survive—”

“Oh, don’t you dare blame your strangeness on your own people,” he said, cutting her off. They’d started walking again. “There are many thousands of Jinn in Tulan who don’t need to eat, and yet they patronize the local grocers and bakeries with gusto.”

At the mention of Jinn, Alizeh faltered a moment.

She’d be surprised indeed if Cyrus hadn’t noticed the many strange looks she’d been getting—he was too discerning to miss such a thing—but he hadn’t said a word about it, which led her to worry she might be imagining things. Still, she struggled to deny outright what seemed increasingly obvious.

Jinn here seemed preternaturally attuned to her.

Their heads lifted as she passed, looks of confusion crossing their faces. They frowned at her as if they were supposed to know her, as if her face belonged to an acquaintance whose name they struggled to recall. More than once someone did a double take as she went by, only to turn and whisper urgently to their companion, saying something she couldn’t hear.

It was the fireflies that gave them away.

Were it not for the cheerful insects bobbing alongside their owners, Alizeh might not have been able to discern the difference between Clay and Jinn residents, who swarmed about town with an ordinariness unseen even in Ardunia. Back home, Jinn were legally free to go about their days as they wished, but they lived always with a caution that defined all aspects of their existence. They kept their heads down, spoke little, didn’t mix much with Clay, and retreated to their own circles whenever possible.

For reasons unknown, Jinn seemed happier here.

Nevertheless, Alizeh felt the rise of a familiar apprehension in her chest

—something she’d felt many times in her life, and that suggested she was being followed. She and Cyrus had only resumed walking for a minute now, and already she was noticing more and more eyes in her direction. She glanced around nervously, likely giving herself away in the process, but it couldn’t be helped. Someone was there.

“Cyrus,” she said quietly.

“No—I don’t want to argue about it,” he said, gesticulating with his unfinished bread. “It’s my business to know the consumption habits of my own citizens, and I swear to you, Jinn eat all the time—”

Cyrus,” she hissed, tugging on his arm.

“What?” He turned to look at her, and in an instant his frustration gave way to concern. This reaction was in and of itself something to wonder about, though perhaps some other time.

“What is it?” he said, stopping abruptly. “What’s wrong?”

She ducked her head and whispered, “Is it too late to put an illusion on me?”

Cyrus’s concern morphed into alarm. Immediately he looked up and down the street, then searched higher, scanning the sky. She realized he was looking for assailants.

“I don’t think anyone is trying to kill me,” she said lightly, trying for a bit of levity. “But I do think someone is following us.”

He swore under his breath.

Earlier, Cyrus had used magic to render an illusion around himself; as a result, people who saw him registered only a forgettable face, one they instantly put out of their minds. He’d explained that it was the only way he could walk freely about Tulan, for he’d once caused a riot even heavily obscured in a mask and hooded cloak. “It’s my bloody hair,” he’d muttered with no small amount of bitterness. “This color is a curse.”

He’d insisted upon drawing an illusion about her face as well, but Alizeh had adamantly refused. She didn’t trust Cyrus enough to allow him to use magic on her, and for obvious reasons: the last time she’d trusted one of his enchantments to protect her, she’d been unceremoniously dragged up into the air, dropped onto the back of a dragon, and delivered directly into the devil’s trap.

No magic, she’d maintained.

While all of Ardunia’s nobles had seen something of her face—and her undergarments, apparently—she’d since fled, and entered a completely different empire. It’d seemed unlikely that anyone in Tulan would know who she was. Cyrus had relented begrudgingly, though only because she’d agreed to wear a rather large hat, which she’d pulled low over her eyes.

A useless hat, apparently.

“If someone is already watching,” Cyrus said, still furtively scanning the street, “they’ll see the illusion take effect, which means they might yet be able to track you. First, we need to go somewhere relatively deserted. Did you see where this person went?”

Alizeh shook her head and then, as surreptitiously as was physically possible, glanced over her shoulder.

There was a young woman there.

She was wearing a bright red dress, standing stock-still in the middle of the avenue, staring at Alizeh with wide, unblinking eyes.

“She’s just there,” Alizeh whispered. “Right behind us.”

Cyrus echoed her earlier movement, glancing cautiously over his shoulder, but then he turned all the way around, making no secret of his search.

He frowned.

“What lady?” he said, not bothering to lower his voice. “There’s no one here.”

“You don’t see her?”

“I don’t see anyone,” he said. “Maybe it only seemed like she was following us.”

Feeling a sense of relief, Alizeh sighed. “Yes,” she said, pivoting to survey the street. “Maybe she—”

Alizeh had lifted the brim of her hat as she turned, hoping for a better look, when the young woman fell, without warning, to her knees. She pointed a shaking finger at Alizeh and screamed. She screamed, crying out so violently Alizeh was excoriated by the sound, by the weight of it, the wildness. She couldn’t move even as she trembled, as her face paled.

She felt bolted to the ground.

“Alizeh?” said Cyrus urgently. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”

“You can’t hear that,” she managed to whisper, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. “Can you?”

“Hear what?”

The woman in the street was still screaming, sobbing hysterically and shrieking.

“Alizeh?”

Cyrus.” She was breathing hard, and reached for his arm without looking, clenching a fistful of his shirtsleeve. “Why didn’t you tell me that Jinn in Tulan were allowed to use their strengths openly?”

“You”—he looked down, confused, at her death grip—“you never asked. And we’ve had a number of other things to . . .”

Cyrus inhaled sharply.

His eyes went wide as—Alizeh could only imagine—the screaming girl came suddenly into view. The young woman had likely lost control of her invisibility in the furor, and her screams echoed through the avenue now, as

people of all kinds came running from every direction. They tried to help the girl up, but she wouldn’t be moved. She shook off their assistance, alternately pointing at Alizeh and dragging her hands down her face.

Alizeh could feel Cyrus panic. “Let’s go,” he said, “right now—”

“No— I can’t— I can’t just leave her—”

A crowd was gathering now, eyes following the direction of the young woman’s outstretched finger, and as the shouts and whispers reached a stunning crescendo, the screaming woman broke somehow further, a tortured expression overtaking her face—a mix of something like joy and grief—tears still streaking down her cheeks. She finally managed intelligible speech.

“It’s true,” she cried. “They said you were here— I didn’t believe— But it’s true—”

“Who?” someone else called out. “Who is she?”

“The servant boy from the palace,” a man shouted, “he said—” “No— It can’t be—”

“Alizeh,” Cyrus said urgently, “I know you asked me not to use magic on you, but please, let me get you out of here—”

“In the Ardunian newspaper, from last night—”

“No, long before that, we’ve been hearing whispers for days—”

“I can’t leave,” Alizeh said desperately, her pulse skyrocketing. “Can I?

These people, they’re—they’re my responsibility—”

Cyrus tugged her sharply back as the crowd surged forward, and her hat fell to the ground with a dull thud. There was no time to retrieve it. The mass wasted no time swarming her as one, trying to get a better look.

“Her eyes!”

“And her hair! She wears a crown!” “It’s just as they said—”

“My wife’s cousin in Setar sent her a letter, swore it was her, said it had to be—”

“Heard she was in hiding all this time—”

“I remember those rumors—nearly twenty years ago—” “Angels above, I heard it, too, but I didn’t believe—”

“Our prayers have been answered!” cried an older woman, who was weeping into her hands. “It’s finally happened, and in my lifetime—I never

dared to hope, even as my brother has been jailed in Forina for seventeen years—”

“And my mother, in Stol province, they cut off her feet—”

Justice!” someone screamed. “Justice will come to this rotting earth!”

Alizeh lost her footing then, nearly falling over until Cyrus caught her and turned her firmly in his arms, hiding her face in his chest.

“Please,” he whispered against her hair. “Please let me get you out of here— You’re not ready for this, and they’re not ready for you—”

“You must start with the prisons, Your Majesty!” another woman cried. “Our brothers and sisters are treated worse than animals in the Soroot empire—”

“And in Zeldan—”

“They still bury the children in Sheffat—”

Alizeh absorbed each blow, each statement gutting her, every sentence cutting deeper, these reminders of her purpose, her duty, snatching the breath from her lungs.

“Does she not speak? I don’t understand—”

“The snoda from the castle, he said she’d spoken to him—smiled at him

—”

“I thought he said she was here to marry the king—” Alizeh gasped, her chest heaving.

“Our king? King Cyrus?”

“For months he’s been preparing rooms for a bride—he’s made no

secret of it—”

“But you’re sure it’s her?”

“Servants said she arrived this morning! That she moved into the palace

—”

“Who’s she with, then? I can’t see his face—” “Is that the king, you think?”

“The king? In the middle of broad daylight?” Someone laughed. “I

think not—”

“Hear he killed Zaal? In his own home?”

“Yes, and I heard the depraved monster deserved it—”

“Long live King Cyrus!” a voice rang out. “Long live our queen!”

Alizeh’s heart was beating too hard in her chest. She felt dangerously light-headed. She was dizzy with emotion, with panic, and plagued by a disorienting suspicion that she might be dreaming.

“Alizeh, please, stand up— Alizeh—”

“Why do they like you?” she whispered, her lips moving against his throat, even as her head filled with static. “I thought they would hate you

—”

“Please, Your Highness,” a man shouted. “Say something—we beg you to speak—”

“Forgive me,” Cyrus whispered, holding her tighter. “I know you didn’t want me to, but I won’t wait any longer—”

“Cyrus,” she breathed, closing her eyes against the spinning world. “I think I’m going to faint.”

“My queen!” screamed the first woman, whose voice Alizeh suspected she’d remember for the rest of her life. “My queen, you’ve finally”—she gasped, still sobbing hysterically—“you’ve finally come for us, after all this time—”

Quite suddenly, they disappeared.

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