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Chapter no 17

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

THEY WERE NOT ALONE.

Cook had frozen in place, her cleaver aloft, staring agog at the two unlikely allies sitting nervously at the kitchen table. A cluster of servants peered around the corner, three heads stacked like tomatoes on a skewer. More peered out of doorways, others slowing down as they walked past. Everyone was waiting for a single word to be spoken.

Alizeh could not blame them for their interest.

She, too, was stunned by this turn of events. Neither she nor the Fesht boy had said much yet, for as soon as they’d made their initial, exuberant greetings, they’d realized half the staff had crowded around to gawk. Even so, Alizeh felt an uncommon happiness as he and she stared at each other from across the table, smiling awkwardly.

“Et mist ajeeb, nek? Hef nemek vot tan sora.” It is very strange, no?

That I can’t see your eyes.

Alizeh smiled. “Han. Bek nemekketosh et snoda minseg cravito.” Yes.

But I can’t take off the snoda when I’m working.

At that indecipherable exchange, most of the servants made audible sighs of frustration and returned to work. Alizeh glanced at the few who remained, then at the fifteen- minute sand timer sitting atop the table. The grains slid steadily from one glass bulb to the other, each loss filling her with dread. She doubted there were many—if any—servants in Setar who spoke Feshtoon, but Alizeh could not rely upon such an uncertainty.

They would simply have to be careful.

She returned her gaze to the Fesht boy, who’d benefited greatly from the attentions of the Diviners. Regular baths and meals had left him remarkably transformed; he was, underneath all that dirt, a rosy-cheeked stalk of a child, and when he smiled at her now, she knew he meant it.

Her heart warmed at the thought.

In Feshtoon, she said, “There’s so much I’d like to ask you, but I fear we have very little time. Are you well, my young friend? You look quite well.”

“I am, miss, thank you. I wish I could say the same for you, but I can’t see your face.”

Alizeh fought back a laugh.

“I’m glad you got some bandages for your hands, though.” He made as if to look closer, then jerked back, paling. “And I did damage to your neck, miss, I see that now. I’m ever so sorry.”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “It’s just a scratch.”

“’Tis more than a scratch, miss.” The boy sat up straighter. “And I’ve come to you today to make amends for what I done.”

She smiled then, feeling a complicated fondness for the boy. “Forgive me,” she said. “But my curiosity has overcome my manners, and I must know: how on earth did you convince them to admit you through the front door?”

The boy beamed at that, displaying a set of teeth still a touch too big for his face. “You mean why was a slippery, no good, thieving street urchin allowed through the front door?”

Alizeh matched his smile. “Yes. Precisely that.”

For some reason, the boy seemed pleased by her response, or perhaps he was relieved that she would not pretend the ugliness between them had never happened.

“Well,” he said, “because I’m an important person now, aren’t I? The prince saved my life, didn’t he? And the king himself said he was very glad I didn’t die. Very glad. And I’ve got the papers to prove it.”

“Is that so?” Alizeh blinked at him. She believed little of what the boy was saying but found his enthusiasm charming. “How wonderful that must be for you.”

He nodded. “They’ve been feeding me eggs most mornings, miss, and honestly, I can’t complain. But today,” he said, “today I’ve come to see you, miss, to make amends for what I done.”

Alizeh nodded. “As you said.”

“That’s right,” he said, just a little too loudly. “I’ve come to invite you to a party!”

“I see,” said Alizeh, glancing nervously around the near-empty kitchen. Mercifully, most onlookers had dispersed, having given up hope of hearing the two of them speak Ardanz. Alizeh and the boy were now alone but for the occasional servant passing through the kitchens; Mrs. Amina was doubtless far too busy with her own tasks to waste time hovering over a pair of nobodies.

“Goodness, a party. That’s very kind of you . . .” Alizeh hesitated, then frowned. “Do you know, I don’t believe I know your name.”

The boy leaned forward at that, arms folded on the table. “I’m Omid, miss. Omid Shekarzadeh. I come from Yent, of Fesht province, and I’m not ashamed to say it.”

“Nor should you be,” Alizeh said, surprised. “I’ve heard so much about Yent. Is it really as beautiful as they say?”

Omid blinked, regarding her for a moment as if she might be mad. “Begging your pardon, miss, but these days all I ever hear about any place in Fesht is probably not fit to be repeated in present company.”

Alizeh grinned. “Oh, but that’s only because a great many people are stupid, aren’t they? And what’s left of them have never actually been to Fesht.”

Omid’s eyes widened at that, and he sputtered a laugh.

“I was quite young the last time I went south,” Alizeh was saying, “so my memories of the region are dim. But my mother told me the air in Yent always smells of saffron—and that its trees grow so tall they fall over and stay that way, with their branches growing along the ground. She said the rose fields are so near the rivers that when heavy summer winds tear the flowers from their stems, the petals fall in the streams and steep, perfuming the water. She said there was never a more heavenly drink than river rosewater in the heat of summer.”

Very slowly, Omid nodded.

Han,” he said. “Your mother is right.” He sank back in his seat, drawing his hands into his lap. It was a moment before he looked up again, and when he did his eyes were bright with an emotion he’d not been able to fight.

Softly, Alizeh said, “I’m so very sorry you had to leave.”

“Yes, miss.” Omid took a deep breath. “But it’s real nice to hear you talk about it. Everyone hates us, so they think Fesht is all donkeys and idiots. Sometimes I start to think my life there was all a dream.” A pause. “You’re not from Setar, either, are you?”

Alizeh’s smile was strained. “I am not.”

“And is your mother still with you, miss? Or did you have to leave her behind?”

“Ah.” Alizeh turned her gaze to the unfinished wood of the weathered table. “Yes,” she said softly. “My mother is still with me. Though only in my soul.”

Mizon,” Omid said, slapping the table with feeling. Alizeh looked up.

Mizon was a Fesht word that did not translate easily, but was used to describe the inexpressible emotion of an unexpected moment when two

people understood each other.

“Mizon,” Omid said again, this time gravely. “As my mother is in mine.”

“And my father,” Alizeh said, smiling softly as she touched two fingers to her forehead, then to the air.

“And mine.” The boy echoed the gesture—two fingers to his forehead, then to the air—even as his eyes glistened. “Inta sana zorgana le pav wi saam.” May their souls be elevated to the highest peace.

“Inta ghama spekana le luc nipaam,” she returned. May their sorrows be sent to an unknown place.

This was a call-and-response familiar to most Ardunians, a prayer offered up always when remembering the dead.

Alizeh looked away then, focused her eyes on the timer. She would not cry here. They had only several minutes left, and she did not want to spend them feeling sad.

She sniffed, then said brightly: “So. You’ve come to invite me to a party. When shall we celebrate? I wish I could join you for an afternoon outing, but sadly I’m not allowed to leave Baz House during the day. Perhaps we might find a clear patch of forest in the evening? Enjoy a moonlit picnic?”

To her great surprise, Omid laughed.

“No,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “Miss, I mean to ask you to a real party.” He laughed again. “I’ve been invited to the ball tomorrow night as a special guest of the king.” He retrieved a heavy, gilded scroll from his inside pocket, unfurling it on the table before her.

“See? It says just there”—he pointed several times—“just there it says I can bring one guest to the royal ball.” Omid unearthed two other scrolls, flattening them both before her. They were numbered, hand-lettered invitations rendered in heavy calligraphy, and stamped with the royal seal. Each admitted one guest.

Omid pushed the spare invitation across the table.

Carefully, Alizeh gathered up the heavy sheaf. She studied it for a long time, and then looked up at the boy.

She was dumbfounded.

“Is that not what it says, miss?” Omid asked after a moment. He peered again at the scroll. “I know little Ardanz, but I think they’re correct. Aren’t they?”

Alizeh could hardly speak for the shock she felt.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I don’t— I’m afraid I still don’t— Oh.” She gasped, covering her mouth with one bandaged hand. “Is this the reason you were admitted through the front door? Is this why you were allowed an audience with me? You— Oh my goodness. So these are real, then?”

“Are you very pleased, miss?” Omid beamed at her, puffing out his chest a bit. “At first I weren’t allowed to bring a guest, see, but I’ve been thinking hard for a while now how to make amends, and then”—he snapped his fingers—“it just struck me, miss, just like that!

“So the next time they came to see me I said to them that I’m ever so grateful for the invitation, but I’m only twelve, understand, still but a child, and a child can’t attend a ball without a chaperone, so may I please have another, else I won’t be able to go at all! And can you believe it, miss, they didn’t question me, not one bit. I fear the king’s ministers might be stupid.”

Alizeh picked up the scroll, examined the wax seal. “So this . . . but it must be real. I never dreamed . . .”

There were all manner of astonishments to contend with in that moment, but perhaps the most shocking was Alizeh’s realization that—even with all her duties at Baz House—she might actually be able to go. Royal balls didn’t even begin until at least nine or ten o’clock in the evening, which meant Alizeh could leave Baz House at her leisure. It would not be the first time she’d forfeited an entire night of sleep—and it was a price she would happily pay.

Even better: she’d need not tell anyone where she was going, for it was not as if she had any friends who might notice her prolonged absence. In fact, had she a proper room in the servants’ wing, she might’ve had more trouble getting away, for most servants shared rooms and were able to keep few secrets as a result.

Not that it needed, strictly, to be kept a secret.

Alizeh’s attendance at such a ball would not technically be unlawful— though she doubted there was much precedence for a snoda attending any royal function—but it seemed unlikely that others would take kindly to the idea of the lowest, most disposable servant of Baz House being invited to a royal event. She would be surprised, indeed, if they did not hate her for it merely out of spite, but then—

Alizeh frowned.

If Omid had been admitted entry to Baz House on the basis of these papers, did not Mrs. Amina already know about the invitations? Had she not already been informed on the matter, and made her decision? The housekeeper could’ve easily barred the boy from entering, could’ve denied Alizeh even a moment to speak with him. Could it be, then, that her fifteen minutes with the child were tacit approval of precisely such an outing? Had Mrs. Amina done her a kindness?

Alizeh bit her lip; it was hard to know.

Still, this uncertainty did not keep her from dreaming. Such an evening would be a rare treat for anyone, though perhaps especially so for the likes of Alizeh, who’d not been invited anywhere in years.

In fact, she’d not done anything purely recreational in what felt like a painfully long time. This would be a singular experience, then, for not only was it an evening of excitement by any metric, but it would be embarked upon with a friend, a friend with whom she might conspire and share stories. Alizeh thought she’d be content merely to stand at the back of the ballroom and stare, to admire the gowns and glittering details of a living, breathing world so different from the drudgery of her own waking hours. It sounded decadent.

It sounded fun.

“And we can eat fancy food the whole night long!” Omid was saying. “There should be all kinds of fruits and cakes and nuts and oh, I bet there will be sweet rice and beef skewers, and all sorts of stews and pickled vegetables. The palace chef is said to be a legend, miss. It’s bound to be a real feast, with music and dancing and—”

The boy hesitated then, the words dying in his mouth.

“I do hope,” he said, faltering a bit, “I do hope you see, miss, that this is my way of apologizing for my wrongdoing. My ma wouldn’t have been proud of me that morning, and I been thinking about it every day since. You can’t know how ashamed I am for trying to steal from you.”

Alizeh conjured a faint smile. “And for trying to murder me?”

At that Omid turned bright red; even the tips of his ears went scarlet. “Oh, miss, I weren’t going to murder you, I swear, I never would’ve done it. I was only”—he swallowed—“I only— I was so hungry, see, and I couldn’t think straight— It was like a demon had possessed me—”

Alizeh covered his freckled hand with her own bandaged one and squeezed gently. “It’s quite all right,” she said. “The demon is gone now.

And I accept your apology.” Omid looked up. “You do?” “I do.”

“Just like that? No groveling or nothing?”

“No, no groveling necessary.” She laughed. “Though—may I ask you a rather impertinent question?”

“Anything, miss.”

“Well. Forgive me for how this sounds, for I mean no disrespect—but it strikes me as odd that the king’s men agreed to your request so readily. All of high society must be devouring itself for a chance at one of these invitations. I can’t imagine it was a small thing to offer you two.”

“Oh that’s true, miss, no doubt about it, but as I said, I’m pretty important now. They need me.”

“Oh?”

He nodded. “Pretty sure I’m meant to be there as a trophy,” he said. “Living proof, miss.”

Alizeh was surprised to discover that Omid’s tone did not project arrogance, but a quiet wisdom rare for his age.

“A trophy?” she said, realization dawning. “A trophy for the prince, you mean?”

“Yes, miss, exactly that.”

“But why would the prince require such a trophy? Is he not enough on his own?”

“I can’t say, miss. I only think I’m supposed to remind the people, you understand, of the merciful empire. To tell the tale of the heroic prince and the southern street rat.”

“I see.” Alizeh’s enthusiasm dimmed. “And was he?” she asked after a moment. “Heroic?”

“I can’t honestly say, miss.” Omid shrugged. “I was near-dead for the part where he saved my life.”

Alizeh went quiet then, laid low by the reminder that this vibrant, eager child had tried to take his own life. She was trying to think of what to say next, and faltered.

“Miss?”

She looked up. “Yes?”

“It’s only—I just realized you never told me your name.” “Oh.” She startled. “Yes. Of course.”

Alizeh had managed to live a long time without needing to supply her name to anyone. Even Mrs. Amina had never demanded to know— preferring instead to call her you and girl. But oh, what harm would it do if she told Omid her name now? Who was listening, anyway?

Quietly, she said, “I am Alizeh.”

“Alizeh,” said the boy, testing the shape of it in his mouth. “I th—” “Enough.” Mrs. Amina snatched the sand timer from the table. “That is

quite enough. Your fifteen minutes are up. Back to work, girl.”

Alizeh swiped the scroll with lightning speed, slipping it up her sleeve with the artistry of an experienced thief. She jumped to her feet and curtsied.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said.

She chanced a glance in Omid’s direction, offered him a barely perceptible nod, and was already darting into the hall when he shouted—

“Minda! Setunt tesh.” Tomorrow! Nine o’clock. “Manotan ani!” I’ll meet you there!

Mrs. Amina straightened, her arms pinned angrily to her sides. “Someone please escort this child outside. Now.

Two footmen appeared in an instant, arms outstretched as if to manhandle the boy, but Omid was undaunted. He was smiling, clutching his scrolls to his chest and slipping out of reach when he said—

“Bep shayn aneti, eh? Wi nek snoda.” Wear something nice, okay? And no snoda.

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