Chapter no 24

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

FOR STRETCHES AT A TIME, Kamran would forget that his appearance had altered. He’d forget that his face was disfigured, that his eyes were different colors. He’d never been so vain as to linger before a looking glass, or even to catch a glimpse of himself in a reflective window, for of all the things he admired most about himself, his physicality was low on the list. Then again, he’d never had to care. He’d taken for granted his good looks. He’d long witnessed the effect he had on others; the way dilated eyes betrayed baser thoughts in his presence; the way young women trembled when he stood close enough. Kamran, like many people, was not insensible to a certain energy; he could feel a person’s desire.

He could also feel their loathing.

Zahhak’s animosity seemed to heat the air around them even as the minister smiled, his black eyes batting like the wings of a beetle, opening to reveal repellant insides for all of a moment before shuttering closed. Zahhak made no secret of his interest in Kamran’s transformed face, tracking, with morbid fascination, the glimmering, fractured lines that disappeared into his collar.

“Are you quite well, sire?” he said, feigning concern. “You appear to be in a great deal of pain.”

Kamran was careful to keep his expression impassive, even as the statement surprised him.

He was not, in fact, in pain.

This registered as a shock, for aside from the occasional discomfort he now experienced at the sound of Alizeh’s name, and the odd hum he felt in the presence of the Diviners, the sharp, electric torment he’d more recently been suffering—the pain he’d, for days, ascribed to the discomfort of his clothing—had altogether subsided in the wake of his physical transformation. It was in fact the very lack of discomfort that kept him from remembering his new, grisly appearance.

He did not feel tremendously altered.

With a start, he remembered what Alizeh had said to him on the night of the ball—how she’d suspected, as his body had sustained wave after wave of torment, that he might’ve had an aversion to gold. She’d suggested, as a result, that he cease wearing clothing woven with the glittering thread. It had been an interesting observation, for the gilded stripe that once neatly bisected his chest and torso had all but shattered across his body in an almost reactive manner. But as he adjusted his sleeves then, stalling as he

turned Zahhak’s words over in his mind, he was reminded that even his mourning clothes glimmered in places with strands forged from the precious metal.

In that regard, nothing had changed.

His attire, designed and fashioned months prior, had not been relieved of its decorative goldwork; the glimmering raised embroidery iconic of his royal garb could be found along the ruffs, cuffs, and shoulders of nearly all he owned.

He struggled then to remember the first incident of this specific, physical discomfort, and the memory found him with the force of a shock: his mother slapping his hand away from his collar, telling him to cease scratching at his neck like a dog; him complaining that they couldn’t find a capable seamstress in all the empire. But then, that wasn’t entirely fair, for Kamran could not recall ever having such an issue with his garments prior to that morning—

The morning he’d met Alizeh for the first time.

All this he processed in but a matter of seconds, and as he lifted his eyes to meet Zahhak’s beady gaze, a strange hypothesis had begun forming in his mind.

“I’m quite well,” the prince said, finally answering the minister’s question. “Though I thank you for your concern.”

Zahhak hesitated, surprise widening his eyes before he clasped his hands, rearranging his expression. It occurred to Kamran only then that he’d likely never thanked Zahhak for anything.

“I’ve come to you now on a matter of great import,” Zahhak said briskly. “In the wake of all this terrible, terrible tragedy, the nobles and I had resolved, among other things, to restore the magical protections of the empire with all possible haste. We assembled early this morning to issue a series of urgent summons to Diviners across Ardunia, but found our actions were redundant, for the esteemed priests and priestesses had begun delivering themselves to the palace before our messengers had even mounted their horses. They’ve been appearing at intervals all day, you see, having already foreseen the darkness befalling Setar.”

“Minister,” Kamran said sharply, sparing a glance at his four, wide-eyed onlookers. “As you can plainly see, we have the distinct displeasure of an unexpected audience tonight. Perhaps this discussion should wait for another time.”

“I gave you multiple opportunities, sire, to have this conversation in private, but you ignored my every request. I’ve no choice now but to beseech you where we stand.”

Kamran went briefly light-headed with rage.

Get out,” he said, spinning around to face his unwanted crowd. “Go home. All of you. Now.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” said Deen, holding up one finger, “for I would love nothing more than to leave, but I should require a carriage, for our hackney is long gone, and it isn’t possible to hail a hansom cab from the palace—”

Out,” Kamran shouted, pointing at the door. “Get out and walk home, for all I care—”

Walk?” Miss Huda gasped. “But it’s at least half a mile just to cross the bridge, sire, and it’s terribly dark and cold outside—”

“And there was a mob!” Mrs. Amina cried. “We might be set upon by bandits!”

Kamran dragged a hand down his face and cursed himself, his life, and this godforsaken troop of halfwits he’d never have known were it not for Alizeh, who’d so thoroughly transfixed him, and so completely possessed him, that he’d failed to notice she counted among her allies a murderous street child, a priggish apothecarist, an illegitimate miss, the demented king of Tulan, and possibly the devil himself.

Oh, he felt he was living through a surrealist nightmare.

Zahhak cleared his throat. “Sire, I know you are benevolent enough to understand the urgency of the situation. Perhaps you will not object to accompanying me now to more private quarters, for the Diviners have requested to meet with you at once. We cannot delay any further.”

Kamran felt his blood pressure spike.

He wasn’t meant to deal with this right now; he was meant to have carried the crates of supplies down to the dock; he was meant to have packed a satchel of essential goods for his journey. He was meant to have finished preparing for a swift escape—not be curtailed by a team of imbeciles, cornered by Zahhak, or reduced to ash by the Diviners.

“I’ve no doubt,” Kamran said firmly, “that you can appreciate how much I’ve had to do—as you put it, in the wake of all this tragedy—and as I’m currently quite preoccupied, I’d prefer to meet with the Diviners

tomorrow”—he offered a terse nod to the trio of priests standing silently to the side—“when my mind is better rested.”

Zahhak’s expression darkened a shade. “I’m afraid I cannot put them off any longer, sire. We have a new quorum assembled now, and they’re ready to perform what they’ve deemed to be a critical ceremony—one that cannot, under any circumstances, wait another moment.”

Now Kamran glowered.

He’d known this betrayal was coming and still he struggled to restrain his anger. “A critical ceremony,” he repeated. “A critical ceremony for what purpose, pray?”

Once more, Zahhak’s eyes lingered on the glittering striations upon Kamran’s face. “Surely you will wish to do whatever is best for the empire,” he said, baring his teeth in a smile. “The Diviners only want to be certain. They bound this magic to your body at birth with a power that was designed never to be undone. There’s no precedent for such a marking to mutate in this way, or for a body to reject it. You cannot be surprised by their interest.”

Kamran became suddenly aware of a presence behind him, an impulse pricking, alerting him to danger.

He turned his head only halfway, spotting, out of the corner of his eye, the approach of the three Diviners—though how they managed to change positions so quickly, Kamran couldn’t imagine.

He turned his gaze to the ground, struggled to remain calm. “You intend to take me by force?”

“During these dark times,” Zahhak said silkily, “it is of the utmost importance that we pledge our allegiance only to the true sovereign of Ardunia. Else we cannot be certain to emerge victorious. Surely, you can understand this.”

Kamran heard someone gasp at that, and was reminded, as renewed anger tore through him, of his unwanted onlookers.

Very well.

If Zahhak was going to intentionally humiliate him in front of an audience, Kamran would return the favor in full.

“I understand,” the prince said darkly, “only that you’ve been eager to undermine me from the moment my father was murdered. You expected my grandfather to keel over shortly thereafter, didn’t you? He was over one hundred years old—his death must’ve seemed inevitable. But my

grandfather lived too long, didn’t he? Just long enough to give me time to ascend the throne at a suitable age.” Kamran watched the older man stiffen, and took a careful step forward.

“It must’ve been frustrating for you to see him live,” he went on. “For had both my father and my grandfather died in quick succession, I might’ve been crowned king as a mere child, which would’ve been a perfect storm of tragedies for a power-hungry man like yourself. I offer you my sympathies,” the prince said coldly. “It must’ve been a blow indeed, to have lost an opportunity to rule as regent.”

Zahhak’s nostrils flared, his anger surfacing only briefly before he regained control. Still, he spoke in an uncharacteristic rush when he said, “I’ve worked for this empire since before even your mother was born, sire, and to note the disparity between my sixty years and your eighteen would be to comment on the difference between a mountain and a grain of sand.”

He, too, took a step closer.

“That you lack the intelligence and experience necessary to rule Ardunia is a generous understatement. There is no sense in allowing a child to inherit the greatest empire in the world simply by order of birth, and I will not scruple to say that I resent the reward you were dealt for the mere effort of being born, a feat accomplished by millions of others who live and breathe today.

“Your grandfather, on the other hand, was a great man and a great king, and I was proud to serve under him. But he destroyed his entire legacy by appealing, in a moment of weakness, to the most detested creature alive. Nearly a century he ruled our land, and now he will be remembered with only hatred and disgust. Yes.” Zahhak’s eyes glittered with menace. “Your grandfather lived too long. And I can only hope he hasn’t instilled the same terrible values in his grandson.”

Kamran felt his chest heave with fury.

“Our king is dead less than a day,” he said, his voice rising an octave, “and you dare to speak of him with such vitriol?”

Zahhak narrowed his eyes. “That you still hold him in such high regard is damning indeed, sire.”

“It is a comfort to me,” Kamran said quietly, “to know that I was always right to loathe you.”

“As it is a comfort to me,” the minister countered, “to know that you will soon be returned to your truest form. Bereft of a crown, you are little

more than a spoiled child, unseasoned and ill-informed, and altogether undeserving of the throne.”

Unexpectedly, Kamran smiled.

“You take a great risk by voicing aloud your truths, Minister. With every word you put forth you walk yourself closer to your own funeral. Has it not occurred to you,” he said quietly, “to fear for the possibility that my crown remains firmly fixed upon my head?”

Zahhak swallowed, his jaw clenching. “Seize him,” he said.

Kamran had hardly opened his mouth to speak before his lips were sealed shut, his legs pinned together, and his arms bolted to his sides. His mind screamed in protest as he struggled uselessly against his magical binds, his eyes darting back and forth in a terrible panic. Alarm bloomed through his body, awakening inside him simultaneous fear and rage. For the second time in less than a day he was paralyzed—though this time at the hands of the Diviners, the priests and priestesses who’d always loved and protected him, and upon whom Kamran had relied all his life. This latest blow of another savage betrayal rattled him to his core.

He went suddenly weightless.

The prince felt, more than saw, that he hung in the air, experiencing a strange emotional and physical detachment as his body was shuttled through space. He thought he heard a familiar, insistent buzzing sound, but then came the clamor of voices—a thunder of shouts and cries—and the din faded into nothing as he was forced, floating and paralyzed, from the room.

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