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Chapter no 29

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

CYRUS STARED AT HER, HIS confusion transforming into something like fear. “Remember any of what?”

His stricken expression inspired a pang in her heart, for the insensible organ had no brain and could not be reasoned with. Alizeh was angry with him, and still she softened.

“You don’t remember,” she said, “what happened in the flower field?”

There was a long beat during which Cyrus averted his eyes, his throat working. “I do remember,” he said finally.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” “What do you mean?” He did not look up. “Well, do you remember talking to me?” “Yes,” he whispered.

“And then?”

“And then,” he said, and sighed, looking suddenly, intensely uncomfortable. “Then, I experienced some pain.”

She hated the way he said it, hated the way his voice hollowed out. As if his suffering were something inconsequential and fleeting, as if it weren’t actual torture, as if she hadn’t sat there and watched as blood dripped down his closed eyes and into his open, screaming mouth.

“I think it was a fair amount worse than that,” said Alizeh. “I don’t know what you saw.”

“A great deal,” she said quietly. “I saw a great deal.”

He nodded, a muscle jumping in his jaw. He still wouldn’t look at her. “Interesting,” he said flatly. “I didn’t realize you’d seen anything at all.”

Alizeh hesitated at his tone, not knowing how to interpret his words. “I’m sure,” she ventured, “that I couldn’t even begin to imagine the depth

of what you suffered. But I was there, I saw everything—”

“You,” he said, attempting a wry smile, “were not there.” Alizeh actually flinched, she was so surprised.

She didn’t know whether to react to the fact of his statement being patently false—or whether to wonder at the undertone of an accusation in his voice. That he thought she’d abandoned him was strange enough—but that he was upset about it?

Had she somehow managed to hurt Cyrus’s feelings? This, she struggled to fathom.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” he went on, studying the middle distance. “I don’t blame you for leaving—in fact, it’s quite understandable, considering the circumstances, for it must’ve been not only an unpleasant viewing, but an excellent opportunity to be rid of me—”

“You have it entirely wrong,” she said with some heat. “I was there the whole time.”

Finally, he looked up, perplexed even as he shook his head. “Why would you challenge this? Alizeh, when I came to, you were gone. I brought myself back to the palace alone—”

“How would I have left?” she asked, cutting him off. “We were in the middle of nowhere.”

“I don’t know,” he said dismissively, as if this were a trivial point. “You are not without your own resources. You have supernatural speed—clearing a couple of miles wouldn’t take you very long, and if you walk far enough through the field, there’s access to the main road. The castle is quite visible in the distance. I assumed you snuck back in here only to retrieve your book before running away.”

Alizeh drew a deep, steadying breath.

She knew now that she’d have to prod his memory, and while she suspected that the truth would hurt him, this—him thinking she’d abandoned him in that state—struck her as far worse. If nothing else, her pride couldn’t handle it.

“I never left you,” she said, steeling herself. “I sat there for two hours while you suffered, and I used my own dress to wipe the blood from your face. I begged you to wake up. I begged you to bring us back to the palace

—”

“No,” he said, “no, you . . .”

His voice trailed off as he looked at her—really looked at her—his eyes fixing upon the knotted red stain on her gown. Alizeh saw him visibly stiffen, the blood draining from his face.

“Cyrus,” she said. “I didn’t leave you there.”

He was breathing hard now, his body turning to stone before her. He seemed paralyzed by this revelation, astonished into speechlessness. Finally, he said, “That wasn’t a dream?”

“No,” she whispered.

Fucking hell.” He pushed a hand through his hair and looked away, his body so tight with tension she worried he might break.

“What— What did you think happened?”

“I thought I was in bed,” he choked out. “I thought I was sleeping—” “But how did you think you got back to bed?” she pressed. “Who did

you think took off your boots, or your bloody coat?”

He shook his head. “In the aftermath of these—experiencesI always”—he hesitated—“I often sleep for a time, because it takes me a while to recover. Still I somehow get myself into bed. No matter the circumstances, I manage, in the end, to take care of myself, even if I can’t always remember doing so. It didn’t seem important how I got myself in bed—only that I did get myself in bed. I didn’t question it.”

“I see,” she whispered.

“You were in my room,” he said thickly, “because I brought you there.” “Yes.”

“And you—” He looked up, distraught. “You took care of me. You washed the blood from my face.”

This was the second time he’d fixated upon this latter point; once while delirious, and now again, fully alert. Alizeh wasn’t sure why. “Yes,” she said. “I used my skirt to mop up the—”

“No,” he said, and shook his head, as if he was remembering something. He lifted a hand to his cheek, his confusion growing only more apparent. “No, you washed my face.”

Alizeh frowned. “You seem preoccupied with this detail.”

“It’s impossible not to notice the difference,” he said, dropping his hand. “Even when I manage to wipe away the worst of it, I wake up from these incidents with my eyes all but sealed together by the dregs of dried blood.”

Alizeh absorbed this admission like a punch to the gut.

It was the casual way he said it, the nonchalance with which he described something so gruesome, that revealed so much about him. It was confounding to her, how he didn’t seem to care about the blows he took, that he could speak so easily about his own torture.

“I just don’t understand,” he was saying. “How did you wash my face when we had no water?”

At that, Alizeh felt the prickle of something like embarrassment. How could she put into words an explanation that, when spoken aloud, sounded melodramatic to the extreme? At the time she’d seen only a person in need; she’d not questioned the impulse to assist; she’d not thought she might be overreacting. Now she wasn’t so sure.

Nervously, she clasped her hands.

“I did use my skirt to mop up most of the blood,” she said, fixing her eyes firmly on the floor. “But then— Then I used the moisture of my tears to scrub away the sticky residue.”

Cyrus was silent for a frighteningly long beat.

When he finally spoke, his voice was soft, his astonishment palpable. “You cried for me?”

“It has been noted,” she whispered, “that I perhaps cry too much.”

“You used your own tears,” he said, all but broken, “to wash the blood from my face?”

To this, Alizeh had no glib response.

The earlier prickle of embarrassment had become a full-body mortification as she stood there, her head heating as she listened to him take inventory of her earlier actions.

She couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. “Alizeh. Please look at me.”

She shook her head at the floor. “This is quite humiliating for me, Cyrus. I won’t look at you.”

“Why is it humiliating?”

“Because I was stupid,” she said in a sudden burst. “I was kind to you only to discover that you’d been lying to me all this time—that you’d stolen my book and refuse to give it . . .”

The words died in her throat.

Alizeh had lifted her head as she spoke, anger burning away the worst of her unease, but she was stopped short by the look on Cyrus’s face. The anguish in his eyes struck a bolt through her chest.

“Why did you do it?” he said, his voice strained. “Why were you so kind to me? I’d heard someone crying, but I thought the sounds were part of a dream, or a hallucination. God, the way you touched me—” He cut himself off, his expression tortured. He shook his head, dragged a hand across his mouth. “Alizeh, my own mother has never touched me with such tenderness. I didn’t think there was any chance you could be real.”

She didn’t know what to say.

Her heart was beating so hard she could hardly hear her own thoughts. Cyrus had looked at her many times since she’d met him, and always with varying levels of intensity, but never quite like this. Never like he wanted to fall to his knees before her.

She heard her voice shake a little when she said, softly, “I believe the words you used to describe me were quite charmingly pathetic.”

Cyrus exhaled so hard she watched his chest cave a bit. He looked devastated. “I deserve to be shot for saying that to you.”

She managed to smile, but there was no life in it.

“Will you tell me what was happening?” she said instead, hoping to somehow dull the fire in his eyes. “You told me that this always happens to you, that it was part of a cycle.”

“Yes,” he said, but the word was raw, worn out. “It’s a medicinal sleep. It always puts me into a strange fog. Afterward, it’s the only way to keep me alive.”

Alizeh paled. “You mean Iblees tortures you nearly to death and then brings you back from the brink—just to do it again?”

“Yes.”

She thought she might be sick. “Does he do this often?” “Yes,” he said softly.

“How often?”

“It depends.” He swallowed. “Sometimes twice a week.”

She clapped a hand over her mouth and made a sound, something like a sob.

Cyrus only looked at her, looked at her with the same, unremitting heat in his eyes and said nothing. A heavy silence descended between them, the quiet thick with things unspoken. Something had changed in the wake of these revelations, and Alizeh wasn’t sure she could define it. She knew then only what she saw, and what she saw was a version of Cyrus she’d never seen before.

He seemed shaken.

What’s more, he had touched her—drawn his hands down her body, pressed his lips to her skin—and now they both knew it. Alizeh hadn’t really allowed herself to think about what’d transpired between them, for she’d filed away his delirious words as inadmissible testimony; she’d not thought it fair to consider his drugged actions as evidence of overarching feelings toward her. But the longer he stood there without speaking aloud a retraction—without issuing an apology or denial—the more she wondered whether he stared at her now not with fear, but with longing.

He moved slowly then, shattering the silence with his quiet movements, closing the inches between them until the memories of him came back to life with a fever that seared her. She could still hear the crickets, could still see the moonlight on his face. She doubted she’d ever forget the desperate way he’d asked if he could taste her, the sound he’d made when he pressed his face to her breasts.

Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe.

He was close now, his eyes bright, burning. She’d never seen such tightly restrained emotion in his face or in the lines of his body. His desire was so potent it was intoxicating; she felt herself tremble under the weight of it. He wanted to touch her—she knew this, she saw it in the rigid control he maintained over his hands, in the stiffness of his stance, in the way he moved incrementally closer until she saw nothing but him. His eyes dropped to her lips and his own lips parted, drew breath. He exhaled shakily.

She worried that if she said a word, she might combust. “I touched you,” he said softly. “Do you remember?”

Alizeh’s heart was pounding so hard now she actually felt a bit faint. What could she say to his question? The truth was a single word easily delivered and yet this answer seemed desperately, desperately fraught. She felt it, felt it even as she said, YesI remember, against his throat. Even then she knew she was pitching forward into madness.

He whispered, “And do you condemn me for it?”

He tilted his head, his lips almost grazing her cheek, and the harsh sounds of her own shallow breaths grew only more desperate. She didn’t know when he’d gotten so close, but he now occupied her senses entirely: the heady scent of his skin; the sight of his naked chest; the sound of his beating heart. She lacked only touch, only taste, and she ached for it. Her

mind was gone; she couldn’t even remember her own name standing this close to him. She knew, dimly, that this was a bad idea, that she was playing with fire, but Alizeh had survived an inferno once, and she thought she might survive such a blaze again.

“No,” she breathed.

She saw a shudder move through him, a heavy exhalation that rocked his frame. He made a desperate, broken sound as he closed his eyes, but still, he didn’t touch her. He wouldn’t put his hands on her, wouldn’t put an end to her torment, and she was far too conflicted, even then, to claim him for herself.

“Alizeh,” he whispered. “Let me make you my queen.” It was a cold, sharp snap of reality.

Alizeh stiffened and drew back, her head cleared in an instant, alarm roaring through her body.

“Did you—” she said, panicking. “Are you trying to seduce me? To get me to marry you?”

Cyrus looked like he’d been struck.

He stared at her, his chest heaving, his eyes so plainly devastated she was overcome at once with regret.

“No,” he said, exhaling the word. The nosta warmed.

“I’m sorry,” she cried, shaking her head, “I’m sorry, I know it’s a terrible accusation, but why did you— Why would you—”

“Why are you acting like this is a surprise?” He was recovering slowly, his pain calcifying, heating before her eyes. “I made my intentions clear from the beginning, Alizeh, I want to marry you—”

“The devil wants you to marry me,” she exploded. “That’s not at all the same thing! How can you not see—”

“Marry me,” he countered, “and you get your crown, the devil is briefly sated, and I’m discharged, in great part, of my debt. We all get something we want. Why is that so wrong?”

“It’s one thing,” she said angrily, “to enter into a false arrangement in the pursuit of our own interests. But this— Cyrus, this wouldn’t be false, and it would complicate everything. What were you going to do? If I kissed you? What would come next?”

“I would marry you,” he said, stepping closer again, coming dangerously within reach. “I’d marry you tomorrow. And then I’d take you

to bed. For weeks.”

She felt her face heat, her heart pounding recklessly. It was a shocking thing to say, but more shocking was the way her body reacted to his pronouncement, with a flare of desire she struggled to extinguish.

“And then?” she said, failing to steady her voice. “You expect me to kill you?”

He hesitated. “That choice is yours to make.”

“You’re unbelievable,” she breathed. “How can you be so cavalier? This is a deathly serious situation—”

“And what was your plan?” he said, his eyes flashing. “How did you think this would end?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and shook her head. “I wasn’t— I wasn’t thinking—”

“And now you’re thinking too much.” “You’re being cruel—”

“And you are needlessly shocked. You’ve known from the first that I am yoked to a ruthless master, that in fact I sought you out under his orders, that I disrupted my life and disordered my home and tore myself open at his behest, all for you.” He swallowed. “All for you. Do you really not see what you’ve done to me? In a matter of days you’ve stripped me down and upended my world. My hours are in disarray, my future is in chaos, and my head—my head—”

He turned away and grimaced, his fists clenching, and Alizeh thought her heart might stop.

“And instead of being angry,” he went on, “instead of driving you away

—instead of wishing we’d never met—I keep staring at that fucking cut on your neck, Alizeh, and I want to die.”

“Cyrus—”

“It’s my own fault,” he said, and dragged both hands down his face. “I have only myself to blame. I knew better; I knew you were dangerous. You’ve had the upper hand from the moment I laid eyes on you. I saw you and saw right away that I was in hell, and I hated you for it, because I realized even then that you would be the end of me.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, alarmed. “You speak as if I harmed you—”

He laughed then, laughed like he might be coming unhinged. “Of course you don’t know. Why would you? How could you possibly know the truth?

That you’ve been haunting me for so long—tormenting me every night—” “Cyrus, stop it,” she said. “You’re not being fair— I never even knew

you—”

“You don’t understand,” he said, tortured. “I’ve been dreaming about you for months.”

The nosta flashed hot against her skin, and Alizeh went still. “What?”

“I didn’t know who you were,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t know your name. I thought you were only an achievement of my imagination. Some kind of conjured fantasy.”

Alizeh felt stricken. Disoriented. Her pounding heart was a disaster. “What— What did you dream about me?”

He only looked away, said nothing. “Are you not allowed to tell me?”

Cyrus laughed a bleak laugh. “Oh, no, this story I’m free to share. I just don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Alizeh,” he whispered, still refusing to meet her gaze. “Spare me a bit of mercy. Don’t make me say these things out loud.”

“Please,” she said urgently. “I don’t mean to make you suffer. But I need to understand— If the devil has been planting my likeness in your mind, I must know how he’s using me. What did I do to you? Did I hurt you in your imaginings?”

It was a moment before Cyrus said, now staring at the wall, “Far from it. I always thought you were some kind of an angel.”

She drew a sharp breath.

That word, again. He’d called her angel in his delirium, and now she thought she was beginning to understand.

“It was a long time before I suspected Iblees had anything to do with my dreams,” Cyrus was saying. “I see now, of course, that I should’ve doubted sooner, but you always struck me as far too lovely to be associated with him. So generous, so sweet. So beautiful I could hardly look at you, even in my dreams. I thought my mind had magicked you to life as an antidote to my nightmares. I never dared to believe you might exist in real life.”

The nosta continued to substantiate his words, and Alizeh grew only more unsteady as she listened; she worried she wouldn’t survive this speech.

“When I saw you for the first time before the ball,” he went on, “I finally understood. You have no idea how you unbalanced me then. How could you know how it terrified me to look at you when I realized the devil had done this to me on purpose? That he’d taken a reverie I’d come to cherish and twisted it, tainted it with his darkness?”

“I don’t understand,” she said desperately. “Why does Iblees torture you so much? Why would he do such a thing?”

Cyrus finally looked up, meeting her eyes with a force of emotion so intense Alizeh felt the nosta burn against her skin, verifying something he hadn’t even spoken aloud.

It shocked her.

“I made the devil the only oath he would accept,” Cyrus said softly. “The terms of which are damning, indeed. If I renege on our agreement at any point, in any way, my life will be his to control forevermore. Often I think he made me this bargain because he felt certain I would break under the weight of it. Iblees would much prefer the convenience of an utterly loyal subject—for either way, he’d get what he wanted from me. I think it’s why he so often torments me, pushing me too far. He’d planted you in my mind with the express purpose of destroying me emotionally, undercutting me, stripping me of my defenses so that I’d be unprepared when we met.” He laughed, and the sound was bitter. “No doubt he hoped that, upon discovering your identity, I’d release you at once, and in the process, lose everything.”

Alizeh’s eyes burned with tears as he spoke. There was no other way to describe it: her heart was breaking.

“I didn’t trust you,” Cyrus said quietly. “How could I trust you? You were a vision conjured by the devil, designed to ruin me. I hated you for being real, for coming to life only to personify torture, to be another trial to endure. In fact I wanted to hate you. I wanted to discover your faults, your flaws. I thought you’d never match up to the figment of my dreams, and I was wrong. You are far more enchanting in real life. Far more exquisite.” His voice shook just a little when he said, softly, “It is excruciating to be in your presence.”

Again, the nosta seared her skin.

Alizeh wanted to sit down; she wanted a glass of water; she wanted to submerge herself in a cold bath.

She could only bring herself to say his name.

“I knew, somehow, that it would come to this,” he said, looking away. “I just thought I was stronger. I thought it would take longer. Instead, you’ve managed to sever me in half with astonishing speed.”

“You’re being unfair,” she said, forcing herself to speak, her heart beating painfully in her chest. “You act as if I’m intentionally cruel. As if I’m indifferent to you.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “Of course not.”

Cyrus stared at her from where he stood, his chest heaving with barely leashed intensity. He devastated her with that look, even as he seemed planted in the ground, immovable. “Then be with me,” he said softly. “Let me worship you.”

“Oh, don’t do this,” she said, wiping angrily at her eyes. “This path is too perilous already, and we both know it. Don’t speak of things you cannot give me.”

“You have no idea what I could give you,” he said, his own eyes blazing. “You have no idea what I want. I have been in agony for eight months, Alizeh. Do you know how hard it’s been to pretend I don’t know you? To pretend I don’t want you? To act as if I haven’t known every inch of your body in my dreams? To learn that your heart has been entangled elsewhere? I look at you and I can’t breathe. In my mind, you are already mine.”

“Stop,” she said, struggling now to catch her breath. “Don’t talk to me like this— This is dangerous, Cyrus—”

“Then why tell me you care?” he countered. “Why tell me you feel something only to dismiss me? Do you think it’s easy for me to stand here before you and speak so candidly? Do you think me a masochist? Do you think I enjoy this pain?”

“How can you be so self-pitying?” she said miserably. “How can you blame me for the movements of your own heart? How can you hold me accountable for your misfortunes even as you hold hostage my belongings, as you plot and murder under the orders of a despicable beast?

“I understand your turmoil, Cyrus, really, I do. I am not without compassion. I saw enough of your suffering tonight to imagine how wretched you must be. But how can you ask me to trust you with my heart when you still keep secrets from me? When you are beholden to the darkest creature alive, forsaking all others for him, placing his wishes, his demands,

above all else?” She shook her head. “No, I could never be with you,” she said. “Not because I am indifferent, but because you could never be faithful to me—you could never choose me first—and you should not blame me for my fears.”

He went quite still then, doing nothing to mask the agony printed upon his face. “I might, one day, be free.”

“Maybe,” she allowed. “Until then, you could not know what he might ask of you. You might break me just to please him.”

When he did not deny this—when he only looked at her, looked at her like he wanted to drive a dagger through his chest—she had her answer.

“Where does this leave us, then?” she whispered. “Will you rescind your offer of marriage?”

He laughed, and it was tragic. “How I wish I could.”

“Then I need you to know,” she said, summoning her courage, “that despite everything, I might still accept. In the interest of my own future.”

Her words nearly broke him.

She saw it in his eyes, in the sudden fall of his shoulders, in the way his arms fell heavily at his sides. “After all this—after everything I’ve shared with you tonight—you would become my wife,” he said, his voice ragged, “in title only?”

“Yes,” she said quietly.

“You wouldn’t touch me. Or laugh with me. You wouldn’t share my bed.”

Her heart was beating in her throat. “No.”

“Alizeh, you would make me the most wretched man alive.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head as she spoke. “I’m desperately sorry.” Her feeble heart was splintering in her chest and she fought frantically against the ache of it, struggling to hold her ground. She, too, had a path she was meant to follow.

“It’s just that your arguments,” she said haltingly, “your reasoning— The picture you drew— It was undeniably compelling. I’ve been turning over the possibility in my mind all day, and while I haven’t made my decision yet, I know that if I ever hope to have a chance of leading my people, of fulfilling my destiny, I will require an empire—”

“And then?” he said softly. “Will you kill me then? Is this the order in which you intend to annihilate me? Will you tear out my heart first, rip off

my crown next, and end my life only when I’m on my knees, begging you to end my misery?”

Cyrus,” she said desperately. “Please.” She was losing the battle with her tears and struggled to fight back the flood. “I never asked for any of this

—all I ever wanted from the world was to disappear. You brought me here. You made me this offer. You gave me the opportunity to see what I might be, and I can’t willfully blind myself to the possibility now, not now that I know there are people out there waiting for me—not when I, too, have a duty—”

“I am well aware,” he said, lowering his eyes, “of how I did this to myself. You need not bury the blade any deeper.” His voice quieted then to something less than a whisper. “But will you promise me something, angel? When you do decide to kill me, will you tell me how you intend to do it?”

“Cyrus—”

Enough, I beg you.” He shook his head. “I am only a man, Alizeh, I can only withstand so much torture in one day. Please,” he said, his voice breaking on the word. “Leave me. Leave me to what’s left of my godforsaken life.”

She stood there a moment, frozen.

“And tomorrow?” she said quietly. “Who will we become then? Are we to be enemies once more?”

He said nothing, his body trembling almost imperceptibly as he stared at the ground, and when he finally parted his lips to answer, there came a sudden, urgent pounding at the door.

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