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Chapter no 5

These Infinite Threads (This Woven Kingdom, 2)

KAMRAN STOOD BEFORE THE LOOKING glass with a grim expression.

He’d been in his dressing room long enough to witness the sun rise, and still his valet, Sina, had not finished with the details of his regalia. Early golden light poured through a bank of narrow windows along one wall, casting a gentle radiance upon the uncrowned king. From collar to boot, Kamran had been styled in accordance with Ardunian tradition; he wore varying shades of dark blue, a color only the heir to a newly vacated throne might wear in mourning, symbolizing to all the empire that though they grieved what was lost, they were not without hope.

A leader still lived.

Or at least clung to life, according to the morning’s headlines.

Kamran’s jaw clenched in sympathy with his fist, a copy of Setar’s morning journal, The Daftar, crushed in his right hand. The crumple of paper was the only sound to break the strained silence. Kamran was known by his valet to be taciturn, but the prince had been unusually quiet this morning, unable to speak aloud more than a few furious words in the wake of so many devastations.

He felt he could either say nothing, or scream. The choice seemed clear.

Painstakingly, Sina pinned the last few military insignias to Kamran’s breast pocket, then carefully tugged through the shoulder loop a satin sash so liquid it fell at once into elegant folds across his chest, the tails pinned neatly along the side seam of his field jacket with a series of silver-blue pearls. Sina then attached a collar chain at the base of Kamran’s throat; large, hexagonal amethysts were clipped on either side of the placket, the

gems anchoring between them three strings of glittering black diamonds, which hung in gentle arcs across his sternum.

There was a sharp snap of fabric.

His valet had conjured from nowhere a cape of midnight-blue velvet, which Kamran felt billowing at his back; Sina fastened the cloak to the prince’s shoulders before crowning the ensemble with a set of weighty, scale-mail epaulets that had been forged in an imitation of dragon hide.

That Kamran owned these articles at all pointed directly to his mother; she alone would’ve had the foresight to order such garments, the details of which would’ve been arranged months ago. Never would it have occurred to the prince to prepare his wardrobe in anticipation of the king’s demise— which reminded him not only of his mother’s conspicuous disappearance, but of how very alone he was in the world now.

His hand trembled without warning, and he flexed his fingers in response, closing a fist once more around the day’s news.

The paper had not been delivered to Kamran on a silver tray alongside the hot breakfast he’d left untouched—it had been hand delivered. It was a snoda who’d cowered before him, the man all but bent in half in obeisance as he’d held out a copy of The Daftar, its dusty green pages unmistakable.

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” he’d whispered. “We felt you should know.”

Kamran could hardly process his shock.

Never in his life had a palace snoda dared speak aloud in his presence, much less act as a mouthpiece on behalf of the others—whose opinions should not have mattered to him. Any other royal of Kamran’s caliber would’ve had the servant hung for his audacity alone, but the prince could not quell a certain measure of curiosity.

He’d had no intention of reading any articles this morning, for anything printed so early would almost certainly be old news; there’d not been enough time last night for any paper to have detailed the evening’s travesties. Even so, he’d felt compelled to study the servant for a full minute before finally accepting from his outstretched hand the proffered newspaper, after which the snoda fell to his knees with a muted gasp, hand clasped to his mouth as he crawled backward out the door.

Kamran had promptly cracked open the paper.

The headline was crammed above the fold, bold letters as black as death and just as damning:

LONG LIVE THE KING, AT WHAT COST

The pages had nearly fallen from his hands, his heart pounding viciously in his ears. The Ardunian empire was the largest on earth, spanning a third of the known world; that the news had been already released meant that it had by now spread like seed, no doubt disseminated via second- and thirdhand gossip that would inevitably invent details in the retelling—fomenting widespread hysteria in the process.

The people would riot.

The King Is Dead, the Diviners Are Dead, the Prince Is Unwell

SETAR—The Daftar declares with profound regret and confusion the brutal murder of King Zaal. It was announced from the royal ball last evening, at approximately 11:43, that the young sovereign of Tulan, King Cyrus of Nara, slaughtered His Royal Highness without contest. It has been widely reported by attendees that the king was crudely exposed in the moments before death, leaving unchallenged an accusation that he’d sacrificed the lives of countless orphans to feed a dark magic keeping him unnaturally alive.

The prince and heir was present upon the king’s death, though it has been confirmed by more than one bystander that Prince Kamran suffered severe injuries upon engaging the Tulanian king in single combat, in satisfaction of honor.

“There was a ring of fire,” a breathless partygoer, who wishes to remain anonymous, said of the bloody clash between royals. “The prince fought valiantly, but he was badly burned. We all thought he was dead until he screamed at us to go home.”

As yet, the state of Prince Kamran’s health is unknown.

Further reports indicate that due to the ghastly circumstances surrounding the king’s death, the noble houses of Ardunia will begin talks today to decide whether retribution against the southern empire is necessary. Should they decide in the affirmative, their decision would mark the end of an unprecedented seven years of peace time, launching what officials say could be the bloodiest war in recent history. . . .

There was more.

More about Alizeh, described as a mysterious blur of a young woman whose name he’d cried aloud—“The prince was rumored to be but days away from selecting a bride”—for all the world to memorize. There was more about historical precedents, stories of other failed kings who’d succumbed to the dark magic of the devil and paid dearly. Most horrifying, though, were the inches dedicated to Cyrus’s altercation with Miss Huda, the latter having apparently found time to give an interview to the press, describing in excruciating detail all that she knew of Alizeh, and taking care to add that she’d heard the southern king refer to Alizeh as “Your Majesty,” leading Miss Huda to speculate on record that perhaps the two had been betrothed for some time.

Kamran wanted to set it all on fire.

It was not among his responsibilities to know the names of every guest attending a ball—it was Hazan who would’ve possessed such a list—but there must’ve been at least one journalist in attendance, for how else would they have been able to write and print such defamations before dawn?

The timing of it all seemed calculated to throw his days into tumult; he’d hardly had a chance to catch his breath and already he’d need to manage a chaos that could’ve been easily avoided. Had he only been given an opportunity to address the people directly, he might’ve soothed their fears with a show of strength—instead, their minds had already been taught to panic, fertilized by a garbage article. No doubt they’d all cough up their coin for the next printing of horseshit that would profit from his pain.

Startled by a sudden motion, Kamran tore his eyes away from the mirror, where he’d been staring blankly at his own reflection.

Sina had bowed before him.

His heart still thudding painfully in his chest, Kamran compelled himself to be calm, staring just a beat too long at the top of the older man’s head, his graying brown curls. The valet had been with him for years now; always quiet, always thin, always in custody of impeccable manners. With great deference, he presented Kamran with a pair of dark blue kidskin gloves.

“If you wish, sire” was all he said.

As if in response Kamran flexed his left hand, staring down at the shimmering gold veins splitting open the skin along his fingers, then

snaking up his wrist, under his sleeve, where he knew they continued branching up his arm—

Briefly, he closed his eyes.

Never had the prince been particularly self-admiring, but neither had he been willfully blind. It was but a simple fact that he’d been a royal who boasted more than just a title; a single glance around any room was enough to confirm that Kamran possessed an uncommon beauty, that he was orders of magnitude more handsome than his peers and elders. Too, Kamran had been well-fed and well-formed; he’d been wielding swords, riding horses, and training in full battle armor since childhood. He was as a result honed to something resembling perfection—so much so that he’d in fact never been much impressed with his reflection, for he’d grown accustomed to the splendor of his face and body.

Now, he hardly recognized himself.

There still remained the template of a handsome young man: his powerful body still stood tall and strong, his olive skin still gleamed, his dark hair remained thick and lustrous. But upon the foundations of his exquisite beauty now lay a grisly veneer. Gone was the gloss of a charming, noble prince; Kamran looked more like someone who might roast children on a spit, set fire to a village in the dead of night, feast upon the entrails of his enemies.

Slowly, the prince lifted his ruined hand to his ruined face.

Just last evening he knew that most women would happily consent to be his wife; even had they disliked him, he did not think they’d be revolted by the prospect of sharing his bed.

Now, he wasn’t so sure.

His fine clothes hid a figure that looked as if it’d been struck by a strange lightning; the gold streak he’d been blessed with at birth—a mark placed upon him by the Diviners themselves—had once intersected his chest and torso in a tidy, elegant line. It was tradition for an heir of the Ardunian empire to be touched by magic, to own evidence of their birthright on their skin, announcing them forevermore as a true inheritor of the throne.

Never before had this magic been known to mutate.

Now the burnished gold stripe had all but shattered along his skin, glowing branches snaking tremulously up the left side of his body, the glimmering veins growing thinner as they braced the side of his neck, his

cheek, and finally pierced straight through his left eye, rendering his iris an inhuman color.

He now possessed one dark eye and one the exact color of gilt, the sight so disorienting it cast doubt upon the original magic itself, which appeared, by all accounts, to be rejecting him.

“Your Highness?”

The tentative sound of Sina’s voice shook the prince from his reverie; he met the valet’s eyes without hesitation, pretending not to notice when the older man flinched.

“No gloves,” Kamran said.

Sina bowed his head once more. “As you wish, sire.”

The valet fluttered around him minutes more, using a coarse brush to remove any lint from his ensemble. The steady hush hush of the bristles against fabric nearly lulled the uncrowned king back to sleep.

To note that Kamran had hardly slept the night before would be to remark upon the roundness of the earth; stating the obvious would not help the young man’s mind clear any more quickly. He was presented, in any case, with evidence of his own exhaustion by the sight of his haggard, disfigured reflection: crescents of darkness were smudged beneath his eyes; the cords of his neck were visibly tense; his jaw was set in a perpetual clench. Grief, exhaustion, betrayal—he couldn’t decide which was the worst aggressor.

Without warning Kamran felt his body flash hot and cold, nerves prickling not unlike a colony of ants stretching their legs under his skin. It was a discomfort that made him want to jerk out of his own body. Kamran’s impatience, then, was a symptom of inaction; his need for action a consequence of controlling his fear; his mounting fear a direct result of a conclusion his mind had recently drawn:

He was running out of time.

He could not explain why he was so sure of this fact; he could cobble together only feeling and memory as evidence: a sea of nobles speaking callously about his paralyzed body; Zahhak pronouncing his death without substantiation; the lack of action proceeding his reanimation.

Perhaps it was enough that, upon Zahhak’s eventual return to the castle with a Diviner in tow, the defense minister had been able to hide neither his astonishment nor his anger upon discovering the heir to Ardunia was still alive. Kamran had bid the man fetch help with all possible haste; instead,

hours and hours Zahhak had taken to return to the palace, during which time the hateful minister had no doubt convinced himself that Kamran would’ve succumbed to death.

Instead, he’d discovered, with an unmistakable shock, the prince reclining leisurely in a copper tub, rinsing the night’s travesties from his body.

Inexperienced Kamran might’ve been, but he was seasoned enough to know when enemies were conspiring. Too soon, he feared, the nobles would assemble an argument strong enough to steal his crown, his empire, his birthright

Unable to stand still any longer, Kamran cleared his throat, and Sina drew back at once.

“Your Highness,” said the valet, bowing his head. “Forgive me. I was forced to dispose of yesterday’s garments, though I’ve pressed and scented all else you wore earlier in the day. Should you require it, your cloak awaits you in your chamber.”

Kamran merely nodded, never looking away from his own reflection, not even when Sina moved soundlessly to the exit, the door snicking shut behind him.

Only when he was sure the valet had gone did Kamran close his eyes, allowing his shoulders to fall for the length of a single heartbeat as he drew a deep, bracing breath. There was a great deal to be done in the hours ahead, and every bit of it was urgent.

There was one week before he could be crowned king.

One week, during which he knew he’d be fighting the machinations of his own officials in addition to all else—and he intended to devote his days to righting the disasters that had befallen his home, his throne, his life itself. But first, there was a lingering matter to address.

He had to kill Hazan.

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