Chapter no 11

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)


The apothecarist cleared his throat again, and Alizeh startled. When she looked up, she saw the shopkeeper staring at her hands, which she snatched out of sight.

“I can see that you’re in pain, miss. A good deal, too, it seems.” Slowly, Alizeh met his eyes.

“You need not fear me,” he said quietly. “If I’m to do my job, I must see the damage.”

Alizeh thought again of her work, how her safety and security depended on her waking up tomorrow and scrubbing yet more floors, stitching more gowns. But if this man saw her clear blood and realized she was Jinn, he might refuse to serve her; and if he turned her out of his store she’d have to walk to the apothecary on the other side of the city—which, though not impossible to manage, would be both difficult and exhausting, and would take another day to arrange.

Alizeh sighed. She was left with little choice.

With painful effort, she unwrapped the damp, makeshift bandages and rested her bare hands atop the counter, palms up, for the apothecarist to examine.

He sucked in his breath at the sight.

Alizeh tried to see her injuries through his eyes: the raw, shredded skin, the blistered fingers, the blood most people mistook for water. The normally pale skin of her palms was now a garish red, throbbing with pain. She wanted desperately to wrap them anew, to clench her fists against the searing burn.

“I see,” said the man, which Alizeh took as her cue to withdraw. She waited, body tensed for a hostile attack, but the apothecarist did not insult her, nor did he ask her to leave his store.

By degrees, Alizeh relaxed.

In fact, he said nothing more as he collected items from around his shop, measuring into burlap pouches various herbs, snipping strips of linen for her wounds. She felt immeasurable gratitude as she stood there defrosting in her boots, snowmelt puddling in shallow pools around her feet. She could not see the eyes watching her from the window, but she soon felt them, felt the disturbing, specific fear of one who knows she’s being watched but cannot prove it.

Alizeh swallowed.

When the apothecarist finally returned to his post, he was carrying a small basket of remedies, which he proceeded to crush into a thick paste with mortar and pestle. He then procured from under the counter what looked like a paintbrush.

“Please have a seat”—he gestured to one of the tall stools at the counter

—“and pay attention to what I do, miss. You’ll need to repeat these next steps at home.”

Alizeh nodded, grateful as her tired body sank into the upholstered seat.

She feared she might never stand up again. “Please hold out your hands.”

Alizeh complied. She watched closely as he painted a bright blue salve onto her palms in a single stroke, the calming effect so immediate she nearly cried out from relief.

“You must keep everything clean,” he was saying, “and change the bandages every other day. I’ll show you how to wrap them properly.”

“Yes, sir,” she breathed. She squeezed her eyes shut as he wound fresh strips of linen around her hands, between her split fingers. It was a bliss unlike any she’d experienced in recent memory.

Quietly, he said: “It isn’t right.”

“The bandages?” Alizeh looked up. “Oh, no, sir, I think—”

This,” he said, lifting her hands closer to the lamplight. Even half- wrapped and covered in salve, the picture was tragic. “They work you too hard, miss. It isn’t right.”

“Oh.” Alizeh returned her eyes to the counter. “It’s no trouble.”

She heard the ire in his voice when he said, “They work you like this because of what you are. Because of what you can bear. A human body could not withstand so much, and they take advantage of you because they can. You must realize that.”

“Indeed, I do,” Alizeh said with some dignity. “Though you must also realize that I’m grateful to have the work, sir.”

“You may call me Deen.” He retrieved another brush, which he used to paint a different salve onto the cut at her neck. Alizeh sighed as the medicine spread, closing her eyes when the pain dulled, then faded altogether.

It was a moment before Deen cleared his throat and said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a servant wear a snoda at night.”

Alizeh froze, and the apothecarist felt it. When she made no reply, he said quietly, “You are perhaps, as a result, unaware of the large bruise spanning your cheek.”

Oh.” Alizeh lifted one newly bandaged hand to her face. “I . . .”

She’d not realized her bruise had bled beyond the lines of her snoda. It was illegal for housekeepers to beat their servants, but Alizeh had never met a housekeeper who’d observed this law, and she knew bringing attention to it now would only cost her her job.

She said nothing.

Deen sighed. “If you would only remove your snoda, miss, I might inspect the damage for you.”

“No,” Alizeh said too quickly. “That is— I thank you for your concern, but I’m quite all right.”

It was a long while before Deen said quietly, “Very well. But when I am done, I ask that you come back in one week so that I might check for signs of improvement or infection.”

“Yes, sir.” She hesitated. “I mean, Deen, sir.”

He smiled. “If, however, you develop a fever in the interim, you must send for a surgeon at once.”

To this, Alizeh merely nodded. Even with five dresses worth of income she knew she’d not be able to afford a surgeon, but did not see the point in expressing so.

Deen was winding a narrow bandage around her neck—precisely the sort of spectacle she’d been trying to avoid—when he made one last attempt at conversation. “This is an interesting wound, miss,” he said.

“More interesting for all the conflicting stories we’ve been hearing in town today.”

Alizeh stiffened.

She knew, objectively, that she’d done nothing wrong, but Alizeh lived in this city only because she’d had to escape her own attempted execution. It was seldom, if ever, that she stopped worrying. “Which conflicting stories, sir?”

“Stories of the prince, of course.”

Almost at once, Alizeh relaxed. “Oh,” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve heard any.”

Deen was pinning her bandage in place when he laughed. “With all due respect, miss, you’d have to be deaf not to have heard. The whole of the empire is discussing the prince’s return to Setar.”

“He’s come back?” Beneath her snoda, Alizeh’s eyes widened. She, who was new to the city, had heard only rumors about the empire’s elusive heir. Those who lived in Setar lived in the royal heart of Ardunia; its lifelong residents had seen the prince in his infancy, had watched him grow. Alizeh would be lying if she said she wasn’t curious about the royals, but she was far from obsessed, the way some were.

Just then—in a flash of understanding—the day’s events made sense.

The festivities Mrs. Sana had mentioned—the impending ball. It was no wonder Miss Huda needed five new gowns. Of course Duchess Jamilah had demanded every one of her rooms be cleaned. She was a distant cousin of the king, and it was rumored she had a close relationship with the prince.

Perhaps she was expecting a visit.

“Indeed, he is come home,” Deen was saying. “And no small thing either, is it? Already they’re planning a ball, and no fewer than a dozen festivities. Of course”—he grinned—“not that the likes of us should care. I don’t expect we’ll be seeing the inside of a palace ballroom anytime soon.”

Alizeh matched Deen’s smile with one of her own. She’d often longed for moments like these—opportunities to speak with people in her own city, as if she were one of them. She’d never felt free to do so, not even as a child.

“No, I expect not,” she said softly, still smiling as she sat back in her seat, absently touching the fresh bandage at her neck. She felt so much better already, and the flood of relief and gratitude was loosening her

tongue to an unfamiliar degree. “Though I’m not sure I understand all the excitement, if I’m being honest.”

“Oh?” Deen’s smile grew broader. “And why’s that?” Alizeh hesitated.

There was always so much she wanted to say, but she’d been forbidden

—over and over—from speaking her mind, and she struggled now to overcome that impulse.

“I suppose— I suppose I would ask why the prince should be so lavishly celebrated merely for arriving home. Why is it that we never ask who pays for these festivities?”

“Begging your pardon, miss.” Deen laughed. “I’m not sure I understand your meaning.”

Alizeh thawed a bit at the sound of his laughter, and her own smile grew wider. “Well. Do not the taxes paid by common folk fund the royal parties they’re not even allowed to attend?”

Deen, who was rewinding a roll of linen, went suddenly still. He looked up at Alizeh, his expression inscrutable.

“The prince never even shows his face,” she went on. “What kind of prince does not mix with his own society? He is praised—and well liked, yes—but only on account of his noble birth, his inheritance, his circumstances, his inevitable ascent to king.”

Deen frowned a bit. “I suppose—perhaps.”

“On what merit, then, is he celebrated? Why should he be entitled to the love and devotion of a public that does not even know him? Does not his distaste of the common people reek of arrogance? Does not this arrogance offend?”

“I do not know, miss.” Deen faltered. “Though I daresay our prince is not arrogant.”

“Pretentious, then? Misanthropic?”

Alizeh couldn’t seem to stop talking now that she’d started. It should’ve worried her that she was having so much fun; it should’ve reminded her to bite her tongue. But it had been so long since she’d had a single conversation with someone, and Alizeh, who was demanded always to deny her own intelligence, had grown tired of keeping her mouth shut. The thing was, she was good at talking, and she dearly missed that exchange of wits that exercised the mind.

“And does not misanthropy indicate a miserliness of spirit, of the human heart?” she was saying. “Loyalty and duty and a general sense of— of awe, perhaps—might induce his royal subjects to overlook such shortcomings, but this generosity serves only to recommend the proletarian, not the prince. It remains rather cowardly then, does it not, to preside over us all as only a mythical figure, never a man?”

The dregs of Deen’s smile evaporated entirely at that, his eyes going cold. It was with a horrible, sinking feeling that Alizeh realized the depth of her mistake—but too late.

“Goodness.” Deen cleared his throat. He no longer seemed able to look at her. “I’ve never heard such talk, least of all from one in a snoda.” He cleared his throat again. “I say. You speak mighty well.”

Alizeh felt herself stiffen.

She’d known better. She’d learned enough times by now not to speak so much, or with such candor. She’d known better, and yet— Deen had shown her compassion, which she mistook for friendship. She swore to herself right then that she would never again make such a mistake, but for now— for now, there was nothing to be done. She could not take back her words.

Fear clenched a fist around her heart.

Would he report her to the magistrates? Accuse her of treason?

Deen inched away from the counter and quietly packaged up her things, but Alizeh could feel his suspicion; could feel it coming off him in waves.

“He’s a decent young man, our prince,” said the shopkeeper curtly. “What’s more: he’s away from home on duty, miss, protecting our lands, not cavorting in the streets. He’s neither a drunk nor a womanizer, which is more than we can say for some.

“Besides, it is not for us to decide whether he’s deserving. We owe our gratitude to anyone who defends our lives with his own. And yes, he keeps to himself, I suppose, but I don’t think a person should be crucified for their silence. It’s a rare thing, is it not? Lord only knows how many there are who would benefit”—Deen looked up at her—“from biting their tongues.”

A shock of heat struck her through the heart then; a shame so potent it nearly cured her of that ever-present chill. Alizeh cast down her gaze, no longer able to meet the man’s eyes.

“Of course,” she said quietly. “I spoke out of turn, sir.”

Deen did not acknowledge this. He was tallying up the total cost of her items with pencil and paper. “Just today,” he said, “just today our prince

saved a young beggar’s life—carried the boy off in his arms—”

“You must forgive me, sir. It was my mistake. I do not doubt his heroism—”

“That’ll be six coppers, two tonce, please.”

Alizeh took a deep breath and reached for her coin purse, carefully shaking out the amount owed. Six coppers. Miss Huda had paid her only eight for the gown.

Deen was still talking.

“Some Fesht boy, too—quite merciful to spare him, considering how much trouble we get from the southerners—shock of red hair so bright you could see it from the moon. Who knows why the child did it, but he tried to kill himself in the middle of the street, and our prince saved his life.”

Alizeh startled so badly she dropped half her pay on the floor. Her pulse raced as she scrambled to collect the coins, the thudding of her heart seeming to pound in her head. When she finally placed her payment on the counter, she could scarcely breathe.

“The Fesht boy tried to kill himself?” Deen nodded, counting out her coin.

“But why? What did the prince do to him?” Deen looked up sharply. “Do to him?”

“That is, I mean— What did he do to help the boy?”

“Yes, quite right,” Deen said, his expression relaxing. “Well, he picked the boy up in his own arms, didn’t he? And called for help. The good people came running. If it weren’t for the prince, the boy would surely be dead.”

Alizeh felt suddenly ill.

She stared at a glass jar in the corner of the shop, at the large chrysanthemum trapped within. Her hearing seemed to fade in and out.

“—not entirely clear, but some people are saying he’d attacked a servant girl,” Deen was saying. “Put a knife to her neck and cut her throat, not unlike y—”

“Where is he now?” she asked.

“Now?” Deen startled. “I wouldn’t know, miss. I imagine he’s at the palace.”

She frowned. “They took the Fesht boy to the palace?”

“Oh, no, the boy is at the Diviners’ in the Royal Square. No doubt he’ll be there a while.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said quickly. “I’m very grateful for your help.” She drew herself up, forced her mind firmly back into her body, and attempted to be calm. “I’m afraid I must now be on my way.”

Deen said nothing. His eyes went to her throat, to the bandage he’d only just wrapped around her neck.

“Miss,” he said finally, “why is it you do not remove your snoda so late at night?”

Alizeh pretended to misunderstand. She forced out another goodbye and rushed for the exit so quickly she almost forgot her packages, and then ran out the door with such haste she hardly had time to register the change in weather.

She gasped.

She’d run straight into a winter storm, rain lashing the streets, her face, her uncovered head. It was but a moment before Alizeh was soaked through. She was trying, while balancing an armful of parcels, to pull the sopping wet snoda away from her eyes, when she suddenly collided with a stranger. She cried out, her heart racing wildly in her chest, and through miracle alone caught her packages before they hit the ground. Alizeh gave up on her snoda then, darting deeper into the night, moving almost as fast as her feet could carry her.

She was thinking of the devil.

There once was a man

who bore a snake on each shoulder.

If the snakes were well fed

their master ceased growing older.

What they ate no one knew, even as the children were found

with brains shucked from their skulls, bodies splayed on the ground.

The vision she’d seen, the nightmare delivered by Iblees in the night—

The signs seemed clear enough now: the hooded man in the square; the boy who’d never turned up at her kitchen door; the devil whispering riddles in her heart.

That face had belonged to the prince.

Who else could it be? It had to be the prince, the elusive prince—and he was murdering children. Or perhaps he was trying to murder children. Had he tried to murder the child and failed? When Alizeh had left the Fesht boy earlier today he’d not seemed in danger of killing himself.

What had the prince done to him?

Alizeh’s feet pounded the slick cobblestone as she ran, desperately, back to Baz House. Alizeh had hardly enough time to breathe lately; she’d even less time to solve a riddle sent down from the devil. Her head was spinning, her boots slipping. The rain was falling so hard she hardly saw where she was going, much less the hand that darted out of the darkness, clamping down on her wrist.

She screamed.

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