Chapter no 2

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

FOR A LONG TIME, ALIZEH did not move.

She felt paralyzed by fear and disbelief, her mind assaulted by a tumult of uncertainty. Slowly, sensation returned to her limbs, to the tips of her fingers. She soon felt the wind against her face, saw the night sky drape itself around her, a midnight sheet studded with stars.

By degrees, she began to relax.

The beast was heavy and solid, and seemed to know where it was going. She took deep lungfuls of air, trying to clear the dregs of her panic, to convince herself that she would be safe for at least as long as she clung to this wild creature. She shifted, suddenly, at the feel of soft fibers grazing her skin through what was left of her thin gown, and looked down to examine it. She hadn’t realized she was in fact sitting on a small carpet, which—

Alizeh nearly screamed again.

The dragon had disappeared. It was still here—she felt the beast beneath her, could still feel the leathery texture of its skin—but the creature had gone invisible in the sky, leaving her floating on a patterned rug.

It was deeply disorienting.

Still, she understood then why the creature had disappeared; without its bulk to blind her, she could see the world below, could see the world beyond.

Alizeh didn’t know where she was going, but for the moment, she forced herself not to panic. There was, after all, a strange peace in this, in the quiet that surrounded her.

As her nerves relaxed, her mind sharpened. Quickly, she yanked off her boots and chucked them into the night. It gave her great satisfaction to watch them disappear into the dark.


A sudden thud shifted the weight of the rug, startling her upright. Alizeh spun around, her heart racing once again in her chest; and when she saw the face of her unwelcome companion, she thought she might fling herself into the sky with the boots.

“No,” she whispered.

“This is my dragon,” said the Tulanian king. “You are not allowed to steal my dragon.”

“I didn’t steal it, the creature took— Wait, how did you get here? Can you fly?”

He laughed at that. “Is the mighty empire of Ardunia really so poor in magic that these small tricks impress you?”

“Yes,” she said, blinking. Then, “What is your name?”

“Of all the non sequiturs. Why do you need to know my name?” “So that I may hate you more informally.”

“Ah. Well, in that case, you may call me Cyrus.”

“Cyrus,” she said. “You insufferable monster. Where on earth are we going?”

Her insults seemed to have no effect on him, for he was still smiling when he said, “Have you really not figured it out?”

“I’m entirely too agitated for these games. Please just tell me what horrible fate awaits me now.”

“Oh, the very worst of fates, I’m sorry to say. We are currently en route to Tulan.”

The nosta burned hot against her skin, and Alizeh felt herself go rigid with fear. She was stunned, yes, and horrified, too, but to hear the king of an empire denigrate his own land thus—

“Is Tulan really so terrible a place?”

“Tulan?” His eyes widened with surprise. “Not at all. A single square inch of Tulan is more breathtaking than all of Ardunia, and I say that as a discernable fact, not as a subjective opinion.”

“But then”—she frowned—“why did you say that it would be the very worst of fates?”

“Ah. That.” Cyrus looked away, searched the night sky. “Well. You remember how I said I owed our mutual friend a very large debt?”


“And that helping you was the only repayment he would accept?” She swallowed. “Yes.”

“And do you remember how I told you that he wanted you to rule? To be a Jinn queen?”

Alizeh nodded.

“Well. You have no kingdom,” he said. “No land to lord over. No empire to lead.”

“No,” she said softly. “I don’t.”

“Well, then. You are coming to Tulan,” Cyrus said, taking a quick breath. “To marry me.”

Alizeh gave a sharp cry, and fell off the dragon.

She heard Cyrus unleash a torrent of foul language as she fell—the wind rushing up against her feet—and found, to her surprise, that though she actively pitched toward what could only be certain death, she could not summon the appropriate response.

Alizeh did not scream; neither did she experience fear.

This unusual reaction to a sudden plummet from the heavens was in part precipitated by an ambivalence toward the direction her life had recently taken—for Alizeh had thought, in absconding with the dragon, that she would at the very least be running away from the machinations of Iblees. She’d not realized that her actions, inadvertent or otherwise, had in fact delivered her directly into his diabolical plans. Alizeh did not think of herself as a particularly maudlin person, but just then she couldn’t bring herself to care whether she survived.

Then again, her uncommon calm was perhaps a result of a far simpler reasoning:

Alizeh knew she would be saved.

She’d hardly generated the thought when she heard the diminished roar of an inconvenienced dragon, the flap of its heavy wings funneling fierce gusts in her direction. This was twice in the same hour that Alizeh had fallen from a great height, and as the frigid wind tore at her body, chapping her skin, she realized with a detached sort of amusement that her yards of black curls had come loose of their pins entirely. The midnight locks lapped at the air around her like strange tongues, several restless tendrils curling around her eyes, her mouth, her throat, her shoulders. Alizeh was blinded by her own body, thoroughly windswept, downhearted, and quite possibly frozen solid.

True, Alizeh was always cold; the ice that marked her as heir to an ancient kingdom ensured that she rarely, if ever, enjoyed a bout of warmth. Couple this with the brutality of the winter night, the unrelenting winds that walloped her now, and the fact that she wore mere scraps in place of a gown

It was a surprise to Alizeh that she was not yet a corpse.

Still, she made no response at all when the dragon came up underneath her, registering only a muted shout before Cyrus’s warm hands circled her waist, plucking her from the air as if she were an itinerant flower. He drew her firmly onto the carpet beside him, where she landed with a teeth- chattering thud, and after which he drew away from her with unflattering

haste. She took note of it all as if watching through fog, for Alizeh seemed suddenly incapable of emotion. She felt not unlike a rag doll, unable to animate.

All seemed irretrievably lost.

Hazan would hang. King Zaal was dead. Kamran—

Kamran was in danger.

Ardunia’s royal Diviners had been murdered; the palace had been attacked. Kamran had been injured when she left—how would he receive swift treatment without the Diviners? How long would he be left vulnerable before they were able to gather a new quorum of priests and priestesses? Even Alizeh, who’d witnessed the devastation of her own life in the last hours, could see clearly that Kamran had suffered a series of similar travesties.

As if the death and disgrace of his grandfather had not been enough to endure, Alizeh could still picture the look on Kamran’s face when he realized Hazan had betrayed him, when he seemed to think that she, too, had been disloyal—

No—no, she could not bear it.

Every hope she had recently, privately clasped to her chest—every effort she had made these last several years to build herself a quiet, protected life—every backbreaking labor to which she had submitted herself in hopes of securing a quiet future—

She shuttered her mind against the thoughts.

There was an unconscious part of Alizeh that seemed to understand that if she unlocked the pain in her chest, she might not survive it. Much better, she thought, to keep it leashed.

In any case, it was the devil who’d done this to her—who’d designed grand plans of torture for her—and here, here was proof.

His disciple sat beside her.

“Will you not say something?” said Cyrus, his voice uncharacteristically subdued.

Alizeh felt as if her lips were numb. “I will not.” “You will not speak?”

“I will not marry you.” Cyrus sighed.

The two sat in a terrible silence, darkness inhaling them both. The magnificent skies were her only consolation then; for even as she clenched

her teeth ever more desperately against the glacial atmosphere, Alizeh refused to be immune to the midnight sea upon which they appeared to sail, nor to the resilience of stars burning holes in the heavens.

This was a habit Alizeh had mastered long ago.

Cataloging moments of grace even in the midst of disaster often helped steady her mind; indeed there had been days in her life so bleak that Alizeh had resorted to counting her teeth if only to prove she still owned something of value.

Just then she forced herself to listen to the susurrations of the wind, to appreciate that she’d never seen the moon so close, in all its unobstructed glory. She drew in a deep breath at the thought, tasting pure cold on her tongue, and lifted a searching hand to the night. The skies passed under her fingertips much like a cat, demanding to be pet.

“Abandon the idea,” Cyrus said sharply, wrenching open the silence. “Your efforts will be futile.”

Alizeh did not look up. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Fling yourself into the sky as many times as you like. There will be no escape. I will not allow you to die.”

“Do you speak to all young women with such ardent affection?” Alizeh asked steadily, even as her bones shook with cold. “If I swoon and fall off the dragon again, you will have only yourself to blame.”

Cyrus made a sound, something that was almost a laugh, and which quickly evaporated. “Your first attempt has already cost us precious minutes. Should you insist upon throwing yourself over and over you will only put us behind schedule and irritate my dragon, which she doesn’t deserve. It’s well past her bedtime; you need not torture her.”

“Careful now,” Alizeh said to him. “You’re in grave danger of suggesting you might care about this dragon.”

Cyrus sighed, looked away. “And you appear to be in grave danger of freezing to death.”

“I am not,” she lied.

Without a word he removed his heavy, unadorned black coat—but as he leaned forward to drape it over her shoulders, Alizeh stayed the gesture with a single hand.

“If you think,” she said carefully, “that I will ever accept an article of clothing from you again—then you, sir, are deluded.”

She saw the uncertain movement in his chest, the sudden tension in his jaw. “There is no danger to be derived from this garment. It was only the gesture of a gentleman.”

She felt a spark of heat near her sternum just as surprise widened her eyes. “A gentleman? Do you often confuse yourself for such a man?”

“With what ease you insult me,” he said, his eyes mocking. “Were you anyone else, I’d have you executed.”

“Goodness, more poetry. Are these tender declarations meant to endear you to me?”

He fought a smile at that, running a hand through his hair as he looked up at the stars. “Tell me—is it too much to hope for our future that you will not make it a habit of slapping me in the face?”


“I see. Then married life will be exactly as I imagined.”

“Let me be plain: I detest you. I would sooner ingest poison than marry you, and I am astonished to discover that you think I’d even consider submitting to such a horror when it is clear your every action is predicated upon the demands of the devil himself. You are an incorrigible reprobate; how you could ever hope to be a gentleman I will never understand.”

Cyrus was quiet for a beat too long.

He did not meet her eyes when he spoke, not even when he forced a smile. “Do let us cast aside decorum, then. I promise to never again endeavor to be a gentleman in your presence.”

“Is there any point, sir, in setting a goal for an accomplishment already achieved?”

Cyrus tensed before turning suddenly to face her, his eyes glinting in the moonlight with something like fury. He said nothing as he allowed his gaze to travel, too slowly, from her eyes to her lips, down the column of her neck, the curve of her breasts, the narrowing line of her barely there bodice, then lower—

“You really are a terrible scoundrel,” she whispered, hating the way she flushed under his attentions.

For all the darkness that enveloped them, there was a great deal of illumination, too. She could see Cyrus quite plainly in the glaze of starlight, the luster of the moon. It could not be denied: his was an objectively striking face, so much so that Alizeh could not decide whether it was the wicked copper of his hair or the piercing blue of his eyes that proved his

greatest asset. Then again, she did not care to decide, for not only was she unmoved by his beauty, she nursed a private hope that, given the right opportunity, she might be able to kill him.

“That dress was meant to protect you,” Cyrus said bitterly. “I wasn’t expecting you to set it on fire. Twice.”

The nosta warmed against her skin, and Alizeh drew a sharp breath. She’d never been more grateful for the nosta, the marble-sized magical orb that sorted truths from lies. She’d tucked it deep into her corset before Cyrus’s abrupt arrival in Miss Huda’s bedroom, but after her most recent spiral from the heavens, she’d nearly forgotten its existence. Remembering it was with her did a great deal to fortify her heart, for she’d now acquired enough key information to know, unequivocally, that Hazan and Cyrus had not worked in tandem to assist her—which meant that Cyrus need never know that she possessed the powerful object. No matter the horrors ahead, at least she would always know whether he lied.

Alizeh experienced a pang of heartache at that realization, for it was Hazan who’d gifted her the nosta, and it seemed a categorical fact that she would never see him again.

He would no doubt hang at dawn.

It was Hazan who’d brought hope back into her life, whose existence inspired her to imagine an end to the wretchedness of her days. Hazan was proof that there remained any Jinn who still searched for her, believed in her. Alizeh had not known his true identity—that he was in fact a minister to the crown, that he worked alongside the prince every day. He’d risked his life in the attempt to transport Alizeh to safety, and he would pay the price for it now. It was a sacrifice she would never forget.

“Had I known you’d incinerate the gown I might not have wasted so much magic in its making,” Cyrus was saying, shaking his head. “Much good it did you, in the end. That dress was meant to hide you from any who wished you harm; instead, you destroyed it, exposing in the process both your identity and your undergarments to all of Ardunian royalty. You must be well-pleased with yourself.”

“I beg your pardon?” Alizeh looked up at him in horror. “My


“Surely you possess a pair of eyes,” he said, staring intently at her face. “You are practically naked.”

“How dare you.”

In a fluid motion Cyrus draped his coat over her shoulders, surprising her so completely she’d no chance to protest before she was rendered powerless by relief. The lingering warmth of the wool garment was crossed with the heady, masculine scent of its owner, but Alizeh could ignore this; the heavy coat enveloped every inch of her folded, huddled body, its silk- lining caressing, then soothing, her wind-chapped skin. Alizeh tried to resist this luxury, but no matter her silent castigations toward herself, she could not animate her arms enough to shrug off the article. The satisfaction was in fact so painful that treacherous tears sprang to her eyes, and she had to bite her lip to keep from making a sound of pleasure.

When she finally looked up, she found Cyrus watching her, bewildered. “You’ve been truly suffering,” he said. “Why did you say nothing?”

She was unable to meet his eyes when she confessed quietly: “I am always suffering. The frost lives with me much like an unwanted limb; it does not diminish. I seldom dwell on it.”

“Then the frost is a real, lived experience?” Cyrus seemed to frown as he spoke. “I’ve heard mention of it, of course, but I’d assumed it was meant to be a poetic turn of phrase.”

She’d forgotten: Cyrus had known only a little of her heritage.

Alizeh squeezed her eyes shut and exhaled, grateful her body seemed to be losing the worst of its tremors.

“The ice marks me as heir to the lost Jinn empire. The brutal cold is meant to prove my mettle,” she explained. “Those who cannot survive the ravages of the frost in the body are not expected to survive the ravages of the throne.”

Softly Cyrus said, “You really do exist, then. You’re not merely a fairy tale.”

Alizeh’s eyes flew open. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not ignorant of Jinn folklore,” he said, turning away. “This world has many failed royals. I assumed you’d be some coddled, uncrowned queen from a collapsed empire too small to be remembered. But you’re the one they’ve been waiting for, aren’t you? The one, it seems, even the devil has been waiting for. It would patch the holes in the many riddles he’s fed me. And it would explain why he covets you so desperately.”

“Yes,” Alizeh whispered, feeling more like a fraud in every moment. She was meant to be the savior of her people? She, who’d spent the last few years of her life scrubbing floors and toilets? “I suppose I am.”

In response, Cyrus only sighed.

When Alizeh finally dared to look at him, she found him staring into his black hat, his fingers tracing the brim.

The sight of it made her wonder.

“Earlier tonight you used magic to transport us to the ball,” she said. “Why not do the same to deliver us to Tulan? The dragon seems a bit much.”

Cyrus’s hands stilled. He looked up slowly, his eyes glittering in the radiance of the firmament. There was no censure—only surprise—when he said: “You really know nothing about magic, do you?”

She shook her head. “Very little.”

“And yet”—he frowned—“I have been informed that you require it. That in fact you possess inside yourself its most essential elements, somehow. Are you truly ignorant of your fate?”

Alizeh felt a bolt of fear at that, a familiar thrum as her heart began to race in her chest. It was only now occurring to Alizeh just how much the devil might’ve divulged about her life to this veritable stranger. It put her at a terrible disadvantage.

“What else has he told you about me?” she asked. “Who? Iblees?”

Alizeh breaths were coming faster now, dread mounting. His was an inane question, one she would not answer—and Cyrus, who was not stupid, soon sighed.

“As I said, he intimated only that you were a queen from another empire. One who’d lost her throne and sought a kingdom elsewhere. He did not tell me you were a Jinn.” A beat, and then: “Or if he did, it was not clear.”

The nosta sparked warm.

“His asinine riddles make it damn near impossible to understand him sometimes,” Cyrus muttered, his expression souring. “Then again, it all seems to work out to his advantage. Such convoluted communications appear to be quite effective at fleecing susceptible humans.”

“Yes,” Alizeh said, surprised to experience an alignment of sympathies with the southern king. “I know the feeling well. He’s been haunting me since I was born.”

Cyrus met her eyes, studying her with something like caution. “I cannot magic myself—or others—across great distances. The half-life of the

mineral is too short.”

Alizeh did not understand this explanation, but just as she was deciding whether to expose her ignorance, a violent gust did its utmost to unseat her. She clutched desperately at her borrowed garment, pulling the lapels more tightly around her body—and her fingers met with something wet.

Alizeh drew her hand away sharply, inspecting the moisture under the moonlight before pinning Cyrus with a look of abject fear. “There’s blood on your coat,” she breathed.

Cyrus’s cool stare gave no indication of his feelings on the matter. He said only, “I’m certain you boast intellect enough to imagine how difficult it is to kill a man without soiling one’s clothes.”

Alizeh looked away and swallowed.

Only now did she realize that Cyrus and Kamran had been left alone for some time in the wake of her unceremonious departure—before which Cyrus had been poised to deliver Kamran a fatal blow. She knew better than to betray her emotions on the matter, but how would she ever be at ease if she did not ask? She had to know—she had to find a way to determine whether he’d finished the task—

“How had the crown prince come to know your name?”

Alizeh started, so unnerved she nearly dropped the coat. “What?” she said, turning slowly to face Cyrus.

Anger flared to life in his eyes. “Come now; we’ve been doing so well. Let’s not evolve backward, insulting each other with exhibitions of ignorance. You’ve proven far more clever than that.”

Alizeh felt her heart fail. “Cyrus—”

“How does he know your name?” he demanded. “It was my understanding that you lived in hiding as a laboring servant. What reason might have an empire’s heir to intimately acquaint himself with a maid?”

Alizeh touched trembling fingers to her lips. “You did kill him, didn’t you?”

“I see we’re both eager for explanations as concerns the nascent king of Ardunia.”

“You astonish me,” she whispered. “First you entrap me in this poisonous scheme, then you demand an admission of my private thoughts, as if you have any right to my honesty—”

“As your betrothed, I have a right to know of your history.” “We are not betrothed—”

“You misunderstand me,” he said, cutting her off, “if you think I arrived at this degrading juncture in my life on the basis of honor and goodwill. I bound my life to yours before I even knew your name—before I had any idea who you were or what you looked like. Why you seem to derive so much pleasure from thinking my interest in marrying you has some sordid, personal motivation, I cannot imagine.

“Tell me,” he said viciously. “Is it terribly thrilling to imagine yourself the sole object of my thoughts and desires? Do you purposely deny me ownership of basic dignities, excluding from your memories the essential fact that I was forced into this situation just as you were—all in the pursuit of feeling sorry for yourself?” He shook his head. “My, but it must be exhausting to be a narcissist.”

Alizeh laughed at that, the sound bordering on hysterical. “You accuse me of narcissism when your every action has been in the interest of your own protection—the lives of others be damned?”

“And you,” he said, tilting his head at her. “So preoccupied with your own personal dramas it never once occurred to you to ask why I might be yoked to such a despicable master—”

“Am I meant to feel sorry for you?” she snapped. “You, who no doubt suffer now the consequences of your own sins, lured a sacrificial lamb into this reprehensible arrangement like the most hateful charlatan. You sent me magical garments under the guise of friendship. You led me to believe that you were helping me—that you cared—”

“I did no such thing,” he said, looking away. “You drew the conclusions that best suited you, and these are the results. Your naïveté is no fault of mine.”

Alizeh was dumbfounded. “How? How can you feel no remorse for what you’ve done?”

He turned to face her. “Why do you continue to act as if I had a


Alizeh drew back, but Cyrus was undaunted.

He closed the inches between them, his glittering eyes assessing her face now with a renewed fervor. “Do I appear to you a free man boasting of free will? Or perhaps you thought that, after lowering myself to execute the obscene demands of the devil himself, I might take one look at your wide, doe-like eyes and experience a change of heart?”

“No,” she whispered. “That is not what I—”

“Yes,” he said softly, his gaze dropping, briefly, to her mouth. “You are well aware of your beauty, I think. Much as I am well aware of the maneuvers of the devil, and the weakness of human flesh. You think me so ignorant of his schemes? From the very moment I saw you I suspected his game—I knew he’d sent you to me, specifically, to torture me—as if I might be so tempted by the sight of you that I would bend in but a moment to your wishes, abandoning in the process an oath I signed with my soul, ensuring I am bound to him forevermore. No. I will not be moved by you— and you have underestimated me if you think I will succumb to your charms.”

“Sir, I fear you have lost your mind,” Alizeh said, her heart racing wildly in her chest. “You misjudge me terribly—”

And you take me for a fool,” he said angrily, the movement in his throat briefly distracting her. “This story is both odious and familiar, and I already know how it ends; indeed, I have already seen the consequences of your seductions. Just tonight you snapped in half the spine of one sovereign. I will not be the next.”

“What on earth can you mean?” she breathed, panic intensifying. “You sentence me for crimes I wouldn’t even know how to commit—”

He leaned in, so close she could feel his whisper against her lips as he spoke. “Try to weaponize those eyes against me again and I will have them permanently sewn shut.”

The nosta flashed hot against her skin, and Alizeh gasped, horror briefly paralyzing her in place.

Cyrus drew back.

“If you wish to ingest poison after we exchange our vows, I will not stand in your way. But I will marry you,” he said sharply, “for you do not know what I stand to lose if this arrangement goes awry. You cannot even begin to imagine. So spare me your tears. You have confused me for your melancholy king, and you will suffer for the delusion.”

As if in direct violation of his command, tears threatened her vision, blunting the stars beyond his head, blurring the sharp planes of his face. The magnitude of this impending horror was cementing more in every moment, and Alizeh was surprised to discover the depth of her fear. A single tear escaped her then, and she saw Cyrus track its progress down her cheek, toward her mouth, and she swiped at the moisture before the salt of it touched her lips. The abrupt action appeared to startle him.

“I truly hate you,” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. “With my whole heart, I hate you.”

Cyrus held her gaze for what seemed a brutally long time before he finally tore away. He said nothing.

That Alizeh heard the slight tremor in his breath when he finally exhaled, or that she noticed the unsteadiness with which he touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, did not rate mention.

She would not feel compassion for a fiend. Then—in the distance—

Alizeh gasped.

“Do prepare yourself,” said Cyrus, his tone softer than she expected. “It can be a little startling when you see it for the first time.”

She sat up straighter, wiping her eyes. “See what?” she asked. “What am I looking at?”


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