Chapter no 3

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

THE FIRE HAD EXTINGUISHED UPON Cyrus’s exit, leaving in its wake a charred impression of a circle several feet in diameter, the stain of which no amount

of soap or toil would eliminate. Of a certainty, the floor itself would have to be demolished and replaced—but then, this work could not take precedence.

Prior to fixing the floor there were other, more pressing issues in the palace to contend with; there was, for example, a dead king sprawled at Kamran’s feet, a vermeil stain still spreading under his limp figure while, at his shoulders, the flaccid faces of twin snakes rested delicately upon their own unfurled tongues. The hulking crown of this once illustrious sovereign now glinted upside down in a plash of red, the glossy floor sticky with slipshod streaks of blood, evidence of regicide everywhere. Prominent gashes and abrasions could be cataloged around the perimeter of the imposing ballroom where the dragon’s studded tail had whipped through not merely the stonework but glittering sconces, heavy drapery, and priceless artwork—all of which would need to be discarded, their substitutes promptly sourced. Still, the physical destruction most distressing was perhaps also the most obvious.

There was a massive crater in the palace wall.

It was a cavity so large it brought to mind the perpetually shrieking mouth of a newborn babe; it gaped unabashedly open, an eclipse of moths fluttering in and out of its crumbling aperture not unlike a horde of dithering idiots.

The detritus of the evening’s chaos would be a task of its own to manage; debris littered all and sundry, heavy dust powdering the hair and shoulders of scandalized nobles, all of whom stood around now, shock briefly muzzling their aristocratic mouths, hands clasped to cheeks and hearts as their heads swiveled between horrors.

The dead king, the destroyed wall, the ossified heir—

Yes, there was a great deal of work to be done. The wreckage alone would take days to sweep up, and Kamran would have to charge Jamsheed, the palace butler, with the task of contracting stonemasons to repair all else with celerity. There was too much at stake; already there would be a week of mourning before Kamran could be crowned king in an elaborate ceremony, after which he would finally carry out his grandfather’s most impassioned command and choose a damn bride—any bride—and only then, only when that grim business was sorted could he move on to the most important task, which was to officially declare war against Tulan. He would

avenge both his father and his grandfather. He would have Cyrus’s head. He would bring Tulan to its knees. And Alizeh—

No. He would not think of her now; not when the very thought of her tore open fresh wounds inside him. He could not reconcile so many horrors at once.

First, he would have to cease being stone.

There were swarms of people drawing near him now, all of them staring, speaking about him like he might be dead—which struck Kamran as a terrible taunt, for death seemed a far more pleasurable fate than this:

“Is it the light, dear, or does he look disfigured to you?” “By the angels—what a terrifying sight—”

“First the king, now the prince—”

“Who was the girl? Does anyone know?” “Too soon to tell—”

“The fate of our empire—”

“Will someone touch him? To see if he moves?” “An ugly business, terribly ill-bred—”

“You cannot simply touch the prince of Ardunia!”

“Anyone understand what she was saying? I only—” “But—”

“Thought she was helping until she ran off with the dragon—” “Could be dead, really—”

“Why can’t we do something about the king? This is so distasteful—” “We could throw a sheet over him!”

“Or move him, you idiot—”

“Dark magic! Oh, dark magic to be sure—”

“He say something about a Jinn queen? To rule the world?” “I, too, struggled to hear the girl—”

“Are you suggesting I touch those snakes? Are you really suggesting I touch those snakes?”

Where are the servants?

“Complete nonsense—Jinn royalty died out ages ago—”

“But you were able to see her, then? Sometimes she really seemed to blur—”

“The servants? They appear to have run away—” “Look, he’s still bleeding!”

“Ha! It’s more likely you’ve had too much wine—”

“Am I meant to call for my own carriage, then?” “Appalling, really—simply appalling—”

“What on earth do you think is happening to his face?”

True, there existed no criterion for managing the present situation— Kamran had sympathy enough to understand that—but this stream of insipid, unproductive commentary was punctuated by random shrieks and shouts, all of which so aggressively thrashed his frayed nerves that he wished, with great passion, that the mass of imbeciles might drop dead.

It required every bit of his energy to keep his mind sharp as pain battered his body, electric spasms seizing his chest, his neck—even aspects of his face—so much so that Kamran didn’t know how much more he might withstand. He was well aware his body was bleeding out, his lungs compressing under the ever-increasing weight of this magic.

Still, he dared hope he might not die.

It was Cyrus’s parting words that kept him calm, kept his mind from unraveling; for it seemed clear that if the southern royal had meant to kill him, surely he would have.

But Cyrus had wanted him to live.

The demented king had claimed a desire to see Kamran survive if only to watch him suffer; indeed, Cyrus seemed to look forward to his survival, and to the inevitability of their next skirmish.

How, then, might Kamran be released from this prison?

Without a doubt there were living Diviners capable of undoing such magic, but they were scattered across Ardunia; it would take weeks to collect enough of them to form the necessary quorum at the Diviners Quarters—but with an urgent summons, it was possible to deliver to the palace whichever Diviner was nearest.

Even one might do just fine.

Perhaps if Hazan hadn’t proven an unfaithful bastard, he might’ve already issued such a summons; doubtless Hazan would’ve handled every detail of this horrific night with aplomb, stepping gingerly over pools of blood only to usher home the affronted nobles with a smile. Even Kamran, who intended to kill his former minister, could acknowledge this truth—and experienced at the thought a resulting pang in his chest. Nevertheless, Kamran would not allow himself to dwell on Hazan’s betrayal; there was no point, and there was no time.

If only he could speak, Kamran would direct the masses himself; he would right now be shouting commands into this sea of gaping halfwits, some too busy proving their delicate constitutions by repeatedly fainting into the arms of their escorts, others too accustomed to the softness of peacetime to remember how to react in a crisis.

Kamran would not refute it: he loathed his peers.

He hated their pretensions, their obsessions with frivolity, their quiet competitions to crush each other with displays of imagined superiority. He resented that he belonged to their circles at all, resented that his new role would force him to spend more time in their company, resented his birthright altogether.

It was then—in an extraordinary moment—that the impending king of Ardunia realized he wanted his mother.

She had been here.

He knew she’d been here, for much earlier in the evening he’d seen her sitting in a throne adjacent to his grandfather. Surely she’d not abandoned the party before witnessing the night’s devastations? Surely she still owned a fraction of a heart, a lingering ounce of maternal affection for her only child?

Why, then, had she not come to his aid? Had she not been bothered to watch him suffer?

Would that he might search the room for her, but Kamran could not shift even his eyes. His mother’s ominous last warnings began to pound in his head, reminding him that he’d treated her poorly, startling him to realize how she’d predicted his future just hours ago.

Soon, she’d said, I will be all you have left in this palace.

You will walk the hallsfriendless and alone, and you will search for me then. You will want your mother only when all else is lost, and I do not promise to be easily found.

She’d been wrong on one important count—Kamran could not at the moment walk the halls of this castle—but if he survived the night, there might be time yet for that, too.

How easily Kamran had dismissed her warning.

Now his mother was absent, his grandfather was dead, his minister was shackled in the dungeons. Even his aunt—with whom he’d been speaking just seconds before identifying Cyrus in the crush—was conspicuously

truant. The truth of his situation bore down on him with a chilling awareness:

He had no one.

There was a sudden moment of shoving before a familiar, greasy figure was revealed in his attempt to part the throng, his forceful actions rippling through the swarm of spectators, the lot of which went abruptly silent upon sighting him. The defense minister—whose name was Zahhak—was a slight, balding man of average height, whose face was more often than not a reflective surface, for it retained always a slick sheen. Tonight his skin seemed to glister more than usual as he pushed forward, the blue-green whirl of his robes representing the colors of the noble House of Ketab. He forged a path through the assemblage with an air of authority so desperately required of the situation that every head turned to track his movements, all awaiting with bated breath a pronouncement that might allow them to finally exit this tragic stage and retire to their beds.

Dread coiled in Kamran’s gut.

Zahhak was a character he heartily detested. Just yesterday, Kamran had unapologetically insulted the aristocrat in a room full of his peers. Hateful as the defense minister was, Kamran’s actions had been foolish—and it was only as the oily figure examined Kamran’s unflinching face now, his beady black eyes gleaming with something like triumph, that Kamran realized the depth of his error. Zahhak was a truculent man, and yet too craven to lift a sword in his own defense; instead he carried into every conversation the poison of passive aggression, the preferred weapon of cowards.

No doubt he would land a ruinous blow now.

“I’m afraid,” Zahhak said calmly, his voice ringing out in the silence, “that we’ve no choice but to declare the prince dead.”

The crowd gasped, then drew back in unison.

So shocking was this pronouncement that Kamran felt it as a physical electrification inside his heart—and then, just as swiftly, this feeling was displaced by shame, for the magnitude of his astonishment struck him only as a reflection of his own stupidity. His grandfather had tried to warn him of such machinations—and Kamran had given the words no weight.

As if conjured from the ether, he heard Zaal’s whisper:

My child, do you not understand how precarious your position is? Those who covet your position would invite any reason to deem you unworthy of the throne—

Kamran had never thought himself naive, and yet—he’d not endured much more than an hour in the absence of his grandfather’s protection and already he’d been filleted open, the infantile contents of his mind exposed, the truth of his sheltered life laid bare. Kamran was the very definition of a fool; he’d anticipated none of the betrayals he’d suffered tonight, so comfortable had he been in his role, so certain had he been of his authority in the world. Now he was a caged animal for the world to gawk at, stripped of all that ever defined him in but a matter of moments.

Never had he felt so powerless.

The murmurs of the crowd had grown only more frantic in the interlude, and Kamran raged within the prison of his body, his blood heating even as his lungs continued to compress.

Zahhak, meanwhile, preened as he faced the people, imitation grief coloring his voice as it carried across the room.

“My dear nobles, this has been a grave night indeed. To have lost both our emperor and our heir in the same hour, and under such ghastly circumstances”—someone sobbed, loudly—“but I stand before you tonight to offer this assurance: Ardunia is too great an empire to be felled even by these great tragedies.

“Even so,” he went on, “the unpalatable particulars that led to the murder of our beloved king will require immense scrutiny. A council of House leaders will be assembled on the morrow, during which time we will decide whether retribution is befitting of the situation—and begin a search to select a worthy inheritor of the throne. Until then, as dictated by Ardunian law, I shall assume temporary ownership of the crown, and forthwith sue for peace with Tulan so that we might, without delay, return our empire to the state of tranquility we’ve come to enjoy—”

A ferocious pain detonated without warning in Kamran’s shoulder, the unmistakable weight of a blade piercing his flesh in a moment that struck him only as surreal. The puncture awoke inside him an unnatural cold, a unique torment that flashed through his veins with such severity he cried out in anguish. He was unaware the sound had escaped his lips until he heard the shattering clang of his sword, steel striking the floor as it fell from his unfrozen hand, his knees knocking stone when his legs gave out, his thawed body trembling with abandon.

By agonizing degrees, Kamran lifted his head.

The din of the room had silenced in an instant, astonishment rendering all mouths immobile for the length of a miraculous moment. Kamran, in his bewilderment, did not hear the bumbling stupefaction of the defense minister, now desperately backpedaling; nor did he bother to parse the whispers of the crowd, now regenerating around him. No, Kamran was too preoccupied by the piece of evidence buried in his muscle:

He had been attacked.

He reached up with one shaking arm to pull free the ruby dagger planted in his left shoulder, the action so excruciating he nearly lost consciousness in the effort. He felt himself begin to convulse even as he examined the decadent weapon, the room appearing to swim before him.

This blade— He knew this blade—

Kamran turned his head with difficulty, his skull swinging with the grace of a pendulum as he searched the room for his assailant. At least the miracle of his release had a clear enough explanation: the glittering scarlet dagger had cut through his enchantment, which meant the weapon had once been fortified by the Diviners, the better to empower its owner against an enemy whose armor might be coated in magical protections.

In and of itself, this was not a notable discovery, for such fortifications were common in the reinforcement of royal weapons; Kamran’s own swords boasted the same benefits. Far more interesting was the near assassination itself; for in his mind there existed but one person alive who would risk killing Kamran in the pursuit of his survival.

The dagger had belonged to his mother.

Unsuccessfully, he scanned the room for her face, increasingly perplexed by her actions. His mother had saved him. Why, then, had she abandoned—

Kamran went deathly still.

It was not magic this time, but fear that paralyzed him anew, for he’d glimpsed his reflection in a bank of shattered mirrors gracing an adjacent wall. Dumbstruck, he lifted an unsteady hand to his chin, his cheek, the delicate lid of one eye.

Earlier, the decorative mirrors had adorned the ballroom at intervals to great effect, enhancing the flicker of crystal and fire and the fractured light of a hundred glimmering chandeliers—elevating, in the process, the ambience of a dignified evening to dizzying heights.

Now the broken glass cast back only monstrous scenes, chief among them a likeness of himself he was not yet ready to fathom into words. He lacked the privilege of time even to process the transformation, for it was but an instant later that Zahhak fell, theatrically, to his knees.

At once, the sheep encircling him followed suit.

“Your Highness,” Zahhak cried. “We’d not dared to hope for such a miracle! There can be no doubt but that our empire has been blessed by the heavens!”

Kamran studied the sea of nobles kneeling before him with a vague disgust. Even now their duplicity was on display; these sycophants bowed without a word, motionless as glass even as their uncrowned king failed to stand upright, his broken body bleeding. They did not rush to his side, call for a surgeon, order a litter to carry him to safety—

No, they did not seem to care that he was dying. And Kamran was indeed dying.

The restoration of his movements had returned him to himself, yes, but the rewiring of faculty and flesh had awakened, in the process, every brutal devastation his body had sustained this night; Kamran could feel that something was irrevocably wrong with him. It was more than the grisly transformation of his face—his lungs rattled when he inhaled; galvanic pain pulsed in his eyes; his vision faded in and out as bright, white light overexposed his sight with increasing frequency. His charred arms and legs still bled profusely, and worse—would no longer obey a command to desist shaking. There was something the matter with his chest, too; his heart felt both fast and sluggish, an ache like bones breaking where a soft organ was meant to beat.

He’d lost too much blood, perhaps—or sustained a blow to his lungs— or maybe he’d been frozen for too long, his many injuries growing only more gruesome in the interim. Whatever the reason, his death seemed now an inevitability. Without the immediate application of a powerful, restorative magic, Kamran knew he would soon lose the ability even to speak, for it was growing only more difficult to breathe. That he maintained his composure at all was a result only of violent determination, and it was a miracle that he managed to speak clearly when he said, breathing hard—

“Fetch me the nearest Diviner. With all possible haste.” “Yes, sire. Right away, sire.”

Compelled into motion, Zahhak barked at a footman to ready a team of horses, snapping orders at gaping servants who’d materialized from the shadows only in the wake of Kamran’s reanimation. If he survived this infernal night, the gossip alone would be hell to endure.

“The rest of you,” Kamran said, staring blearily into the genuflecting crowd, “go home.”

When the petrified mass made no move, Kamran grew light-headed with anger.

Now,” he bellowed, his lungs seizing in the effort.

The horde unfolded with a series of shrieks before bolting for the exits, silk and tulle shuddering as the ballroom was evacuated in a single exhalation.

Finally, he was alone. Or at least, appeared to be.

Kamran suspected there lingered wide-eyed servants in the wings, still watching him, but he could neither move nor risk raising his voice again, for his last attempt had so diminished his intake of air that every breath felt like pulling gasps through a pinhole. There was nothing for it; Kamran finally sagged to the floor, grimacing through the relentless pain still ravaging his body. The room tilted as he collapsed, supine in a sea of devastation, his only companion the body of a dead king, the cold blood of his beloved grandfather pooling ever closer to his own shaking limbs.

Were Kamran a different sort of man, he might’ve acquiesced then to a terrifying compulsion. He felt in that moment nothing greater than an ancient impulse to cry, valiantly resisting the instinct even as a flare of grief tore through him. He had never felt more desperately alone in the world than he did then, trapped in the set piece of a nightmare, in the failing flesh of his own body. His mother had done him a mercy, but she’d promptly vanished. There was no one left he might trust, no one upon whom he might rely. The thought threatened to break him, and he vehemently refused it residence in his mind.

He would not die.

Dying would mean he’d failed his king twice—and this, Kamran could not allow. He fought to stay conscious even as violent spasms wracked his bones; he had to live long enough to murder those who’d wronged him; to avenge his father, his grandfather. He would survive this barrage of murders upon his soul; if he had to, he would lift this broken empire upon his own shaking shoulders—


Kamran’s heart seized. His every instinct screamed at him to pull himself upright, but his limbs would not obey. He could only lay there, his chest cratering, until without warning his line of sight was crowded by a mop of red curls hanging over a cowed, freckled face. Omid Shekarzadeh, the street urchin whose attempted thievery had set in motion every recent, horrific turn of Kamran’s life, stared straight into his eyes.

You,” Kamran managed to gasp.

He noticed the tears staining the child’s cheeks, eyes bloodshot and swollen. The boy, Omid, studied him warily, fear and fascination warring in his expression. Neither said another word as Omid bent carefully beside the dying king, and with a trembling hand withdrew from his pocket a glittering blue sugar cube.

Kamran stiffened at the sight.

“I think they knew, sire,” Omid said in Feshtoon. “The Diviners. I think they knew what was going to happen. I think they knew they were going to be murdered.”

Kamran felt his heart pounding in his ears. The object Omid held in his hand was a magical ration called Sif; the legendary blue crystals were compressed into bite-sized cubes that had historically been provided to Ardunian royals on the battlefield. So valuable were the lives of emperors and their heirs that the Diviners had always sent them to war with these single-use reinforcements. The final blade of fatality, once delivered, none could overcome; but there was a great deal to be done for those even inches from death.

Just one Sif was enough to undo even the worst injuries. “Bengez,” the child whispered. Take it.

“No— I—I cannot—”

“They gave it to me after I began to recover,” the boy said quietly. “Told me to keep it with me always, that I’d know when to use it.” He swallowed. “I thought they gave it to me to save myself in the future, see. I didn’t realize until just now that maybe I wasn’t supposed to use it on myself.”

No,” Kamran said again, this time sharply. He was seeing stars, bright lights sparking and fading behind his eyes. “If the Diviners blessed you with such a gift”—he wheezed—“you should not— You cannot give it away—”

“I’ll do as I please,” said Omid, anger edging into his voice. “You saved my life, sire. Now it’s my turn to save yours.”

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