Chapter no 21

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

THE ROARING FIRE CRACKLED MERRILY in its cove, so merrily, in fact, that Alizeh was struck by the oddest notion to envy the burning logs. Even after three hours—she glanced at the clock, it was just after midnight—of standing in a toasty room, she’d not been able to draw the frost from her body. She watched hungrily now as the flames licked the charred wood and, exhausted, closed her eyes.

The sound of burning kindling was comforting—and strange, too, for its pops and crackles were so similar to that of moving water. If she hadn’t known it was fire beside her, Alizeh thought she might be convinced she was listening instead to the pitter-patter of a gentle rain; a staccato beat against the roof of her attic room.

How bizarre, she found herself thinking, that elements so essentially different could ever sound the same.

Alizeh had been waiting several minutes while Miss Huda tried on yet another dress, but she did not entirely mind the wait, for the fire was good company, and the evening had been pleasant enough.

Miss Huda had certainly been a surprise.

Alizeh heard the groan of a door and her eyes flew open; she quickly straightened. The young woman in question now entered the room, wearing what Alizeh could only hope was the last gown of the evening. Miss Huda had insisted on trying on every article in her wardrobe, all in the pursuit of proving a point that had already been made hours ago.

Goodness, but this gown really was hideous.

“There,” Miss Huda said, pointing at Alizeh. “You see? I can tell merely from the set of your jaw that you hate it, and how right you are to disdain

such a monstrosity. Do you see what they do to me? How I am forced to suffer?”

Alizeh walked over to Miss Huda and did a slow revolution around her, carefully examining the gown from every possible angle.

It had not taken long for Alizeh to comprehend why Miss Huda had granted an unproven nobody such an opportunity with her attire. Within minutes of meeting the young woman, in fact, Alizeh had understood nearly all there was to understand.

Indeed, it had been a relief to understand.

“Am I not the very picture of a trussed walrus?” Miss Huda was saying. “I look a fool in every gown, you see? I’m either bulging out or pinched in; a powdered pig in silk slippers. I could run away to the circus and I daresay they’d have me.” She laughed. “I swear sometimes I think Mother does it on purpose, merely to vex me—”

“Forgive me,” Alizeh said sharply.

Miss Huda ceased speaking, though her mouth remained open in astonishment. Alizeh could not blame her. A snoda was a mere tier above the lowest scum of society; Alizeh could scarce believe her own audacity.

She felt her cheeks flush.

“Forgive me, truly,” Alizeh said again, this time quietly. “It is not my intention to be discourteous. It’s only that I’ve listened silently all evening while you’ve disparaged yourself and your looks, and I begin to worry that you will mistake my silence as an endorsement of your claims. Please allow me to make myself unambiguously plain: your criticisms strike me not only as unfair, but fabricated entirely from fantasy. I would implore you never again to make unflattering comparisons of yourself to circus animals.”

Miss Huda stared at her, unblinking, her astonishment building to its zenith. To Alizeh’s great consternation, the young woman said nothing.

Alizeh felt a flutter of nerves.

“I fear I have shocked you,” she said softly. “But as far as I can tell, your figure is divine. That you’ve been so thoroughly convinced otherwise says only to me that you’ve been injured by the work of indifferent dressmakers who’ve not taken the time to study your form before recommending its fit. And I daresay the solution to your troubles is quite simple.”

At that, the young woman finally released an exaggerated sigh, collapsed onto a chaise longue, and closed her eyes against the glittering

chandelier overhead. She threw an arm over her face as a single sob escaped her.

“If it is indeed as simple as you say then you must save me,” she cried. “Mother orders identical gowns for me and all my sisters—merely in different colors—even though she knows my figure is markedly different from the others. She puts me in these horrid colors and all these horrendous ruffles, and I can’t afford a traditional seamstress on my own, not with only my pin money to spend, and I’m afraid to breathe a word of it to Father, for if Mother finds out it’ll only make things worse for me at home.” She heaved another sob. “And now I’ve got nothing at all to wear to the ball tomorrow and I’ll be the laughingstock of Setar, as usual. Oh, you cannot imagine how they torment me.”

“Come now,” Alizeh said gently. “There’s no need to be overwrought when I am here to help. Come and I will show you how easily the situation can be mended.”

With dramatic reluctance, Miss Huda dragged herself over to the circular dais built into the dressing room, nearly tripping over her abundant skirts in the process.

Alizeh attempted a smile at Miss Huda—she suspected they were nearly the same age—as the young woman stepped onto the low platform. Miss Huda returned the smile with an anemic one of her own.

“I really don’t see how the situation can be salvaged,” she said. “I thought I’d have time to get a new gown made in time for the ball, for I assumed the event would be weeks away—but now that it’s nearly upon us Mother is insisting I wear this”—she faux-gagged, glancing down at the dress—“tomorrow night. She says she’s already paid for it, and that if I don’t wear it it’s only because I’m an ungrateful wretch, and she’s begun threatening to cut my pin money if I don’t stop whining.”

Alizeh studied her client a moment.

She’d been studying the young woman all night, really, but Alizeh had said very little in the three hours she’d been here.

As the night wore on it had become abundantly clear, however, through a series of offhand comments and anecdotes, that Miss Huda suffered a great deal of cruelty and unkindness throughout her life; not only due to her improper birth, but for all else about her that was judged uncommon or irregular. Her pain she unsuccessfully cloaked in a veneer of sarcasm and poorly feigned indifference.

Alizeh snapped open her carpet bag.

She carefully buttoned her pincushion around her wrist, buckled her embroidered toolbelt around her waist, and unspooled the measuring tape in her bandaged hands.

Miss Huda, Alizeh knew, was not only uncomfortable in her gowns, but in her own body—and Alizeh understood that she would accomplish nothing at all if she did not first manage to activate the girl’s confidence.

“Let us, for the moment, forget about your mother and your sisters, shall we?” Alizeh smiled wider at the young woman. “First, I’d like to point out that you have beautiful skin, whi—”

“I most certainly do not,” said Miss Huda automatically. “Mother tells me I’ve grown too brown and that I should wash my face more often. She also tells me my nose is too big for my face, and my eyes too small.”

It was some kind of miracle that Alizeh’s smile did not waver, not even as her body tensed with anger. “Goodness,” she said, struggling to keep the disdain from her voice. “What strange things your mother has said to you. I must say I think your features fine, and your complexion quite beautif—”

“Are you blind, then?” Miss Huda snapped, her scowl deepening. “I would ask you not to insult me by lying to my face. You need not feed me falsehoods to earn your coppers.”

Alizeh flinched at that.

The insinuation that she might be willing to swindle the girl for her coin cut a shade too close to Alizeh’s pride, but she knew better than to allow such blows to land. No, Alizeh understood well what it was like to feel scared—so scared you feared even to hope, feared the pitfall of disappointment. Pain made people prickly sometimes. It was par for the course; a symptom of the condition.

Alizeh knew this, and she would try again.

“I mentioned your glowing complexion,” she said carefully, “only because I wanted, first, to assure you that we are in possession of a bit of good luck tonight. The rich, jewel tones of this dress do you a great service.”

Miss Huda frowned; she studied the green gown.

The dress was a shot silk taffeta, which gave the fabric an iridescent sheen, and which in certain light made it look more emerald than forest green. It was not at all the textile Alizeh would’ve chosen for the girl—next time, she would choose something more fluid, maybe a heavy velvet—but

for the moment, she’d have to make do with the taffeta, which she believed could be repurposed beautifully. Miss Huda, on the other hand, remained visibly unconvinced, though not aggressively so.

It was a step forward.

“Now, then.” Gently, Alizeh turned the girl to face the mirror. “I would ask you, secondly, to stand up straight.”

Miss Huda stared at her. “I am standing up straight.” Alizeh forced a smile.

She stepped onto the dais, praying she’d come far enough into the girl’s confidence tonight to be able to take certain liberties. Then, with a bit of force, she pressed the flat of her hand against Miss Huda’s lower back.

The girl gasped.

Her shoulders drew back, her chest lifted, her spine straightened. Miss Huda raised her chin reflexively, staring at herself in the mirror with some surprise.

“Already,” Alizeh said to her, “you are transformed. But this dress, as you see, is overwrought. You are statuesque, miss. You have prominent shoulders, a full bust, a strong waist. Your natural beauty is suffocated by all the fuss and restriction of the modern fashion. All these embellishments and flounces”—Alizeh made a sweeping gesture at the gown—“are meant to enhance the assets of a woman with a more modest figure. As your figure is in no need of enhancement, the exaggerated shoulders and bustle only overwhelm you. I would recommend, going forward, that we not mind what’s currently en vogue; let us focus instead on what best complements your natural form.”

Without waiting to be countermanded, Alizeh tore open the high neck, sending buttons flying across the room, one pelting the mirror with a dull plink.

Alizeh had learned by now that words had done too much damage to Miss Huda to be of any use. Three hours she’d listened quietly as the girl vented her frustrations, and now it was time to offer a prescription.

Alizeh procured a pair of scissors from her toolbelt, and, after asking the startled girl to stand very, very still, she sliced open the inseams of the massive, puffed sleeves. She cut loose the remaining collar of the gown, splitting it open from shoulder to shoulder. She used a seam ripper to carefully strip the ruffles laid overtop the bodice, and opened the central darts compressing the girl’s chest. Another few snips and she wrenched

apart the pleated bustle, allowing the skirt to relax around the young woman’s hips. As carefully as she could with her bandaged fingers, Alizeh then proceeded to drape and fold and pin an entirely new silhouette for the girl.

Alizeh transformed the high, ruffled neckline into an unembellished boatneck. She refashioned the bodice, carefully refining the darts so they emphasized the narrowest point of the girl’s waist instead of restraining her bust, and reduced the monstrously puffed arms to simple, fitted bracelet sleeves. The skirt Alizeh draped more simply, adjusting the silk to flow around the young woman’s hips in a single clean wave instead of many tight flounces.

When she was finally done, she stood back.

Miss Huda clasped a hand over her mouth. “Oh,” she breathed. “Are you a witch?”

Alizeh smiled. “You need very little embellishment, miss. You can see here that I did nothing just now but remove the distractions from the gown.” Miss Huda went a bit slack when the fight finally left her body. She studied herself now with a cautious optimism, first drawing her fingers down the lines of the gown, then carefully touching those same fingers to

her face, to the slant of her cheekbone.

“I look so elegant,” Miss Huda said softly. “Nothing at all like a trussed walrus. What incomprehensible magic this is.”

“It’s not magic, I assure you,” Alizeh said to her. “You have always been elegant, miss. I’m only sorry you’ve been tortured into thinking otherwise for so long.”

Alizeh did not know what time it was when she finally left Follad Place, only that she was so exhausted she’d begun to feel dizzy. It had been at least an hour since the last time she’d checked the time, which meant that, if her calculations were correct, it was well past one o’clock in the morning. She would be spared only a handful of hours to sleep before the work bell tolled.

Her heart sank in her chest.

Alizeh forced her eyes open as she plodded along, even stopping to gently pinch her own cheeks when, in her fogginess, she thought she’d seen two moons in the sky.

She was carrying her carpet bag as carefully as possible in the bitter cold, for it now held Miss Huda’s green gown, which she’d promised to finish mending before tomorrow’s ball. Bahar, Miss Huda’s lady’s maid, would be arriving to retrieve the gown at eight o’clock, precisely one hour after Alizeh finished her shift.

She exhaled a sigh at that, staring for a moment at the icy plume her breath painted against the dark.

Alizeh had taken all of Miss Huda’s measurements; the five additional gowns were to be designed however Alizeh saw fit, as per the young woman’s instructions. This was both a boon and a burden, for while it gave Alizeh full artistic license, it also placed the whole of the sartorial responsibility on her shoulders.

Alizeh was at least grateful that the other gowns would not be due for another week. Already she couldn’t imagine how she’d manage all of tomorrow’s work in addition to finding something suitable for herself to wear to the ball, but she consoled herself with the reminder that what she wore would not matter, for no one would be looking at her anyway—and all the better.

It was just then that Alizeh heard an unusual sound.

It was unusual in that it was not a sound endemic to the night; it was more like the rasp of a kicked pebble, a skittering there and gone in a flash.

It was enough.

Sleep fled her brain as adrenaline moved through her body, heightening her senses. Alizeh dared not break her stride; dared not speed up or slow down. She acknowledged, quietly, that the sound could’ve been provoked by an animal. Or a large insect. She might’ve even blamed the wind except that there was no breeze.

There was in fact no evidence to support Alizeh’s sudden, chilling fear that she was being followed, none but a basic instinct that cost her nothing to take seriously. If she should appear foolish for overreacting, so be it.

Alizeh would take no chances at this hour.

As casually as she could manage, she hefted the carpet bag up, into her arms, and snapped it open. As she walked, she strapped her pincushion to her left wrist, pulling free handfuls of the sharp objects and tucking several needles between each of her knuckles. She retrieved her sewing scissors next, which she kept clenched in her right fist.

The footsteps—soft, nearly undetectable—she heard soon thereafter.

Alizeh dropped her carpet bag to the ground, felt her heartbeat rocket in her chest. She stood planted to the pavement, chest heaving as she bade herself be calm.

She then closed her eyes and listened.

There was more than one pair of footsteps. How many, then? Four. Five.


Who would send six men to chase down a defenseless servant girl? Her pulse raced, her thoughts spinning. Only someone who knew who she was, who knew what she might be worth. Six men sent to intercept her in the dead of night, and they’d found her here, halfway to Baz House, far from the safety of her own room.

How had they known where she was? How long had they been tracking her? And what else had they learned?

Alizeh’s eyes flew open.

She felt her body tense with awareness, go suddenly solid with calm. Six heavily shadowed figures—each clad in black—approached her slowly from all sides.

Alizeh sent up a silent prayer then, for she knew she would require forgiveness before the night was done.

The assailants had her completely surrounded when she finally broke the silence with a single word:


The six forms came to a surprised halt.

“You do not know me,” she said quietly. “You are no doubt indifferent to me and do not personally harbor me ill will. You are performing your duty tonight. I realize that.”

“What’s yer point?” one of them said gruffly. “Let’s get on wiff it then if yer so understandin’. Business to do an’ all ’at.”

“I am offering you amnesty,” Alizeh said. “I give you my word: walk away now and I will spare you. Leave in peace now and I will do you no harm.”

Her words were met with a roar of laughter, guffaws that filled the night.

“My, wot cheek,” a different man cried. “I think I will be sorry, miss, to kill ye tonight. I do promise to make it quick, though.”

Alizeh briefly closed her eyes, disappointment flooding her body. “Then you are formally declining my offer?”

“Yes, Yer Highness.” Another mocked her, feigning a bow with flourish. “We ’ave no need of yer mercy this night.”

“Very well, then,” she said softly.

Alizeh took a sharp breath, split the scissors open in her right hand, and lunged. She sent the blades flying, listening for contact—there, a cry—as a second assailant barreled toward her. She jumped, lifting her skirts as she spun and kicked him straight across the jaw, the force of her blow sending his head so far back she heard his neck snap just in time to face down her third opponent, at whom she threw an embroidery needle, aiming for his jugular.

She missed.

He roared, tearing the needle from his flesh as he unsheathed a dagger, charging toward her with an unrestrained fury. Alizeh wasted no time launching herself forward, landing an elbow in his spleen before punching him repeatedly in the throat, the carefully placed pins and needles in her fist puncturing his skin over and over in the process. When she was done with the man, she’d buried all her needles in his neck.

He collapsed to the ground with a thud.

The fourth and fifth came running at her together, each carrying a glinting scimitar. Alizeh didn’t flee; instead she bolted toward them and— within inches of contact—promptly disappeared, grabbing their sword arms, breaking their wrists, and flipping them onto their backs. She rematerialized then, confiscated their curved swords, and dropped to one knee, burying a blade in each of their chests simultaneously.

The sixth man was right behind her. She spun around in the time it took him to blink, catching him, without warning, by the throat.

She lifted the man in the air with a single hand, slowly squeezing the life from his body.

“Now,” she whispered, “you might consider telling me who sent you.” The man choked, his face purpling. With great effort, he shook his head. “You were the last of the six to approach me,” she said quietly. “Which

means you are either the smartest—or the weakest. Either way, you will serve a purpose. If the former, you will know better than to cross me. If the latter, your cowardice will render you pliable.”

“I don’”—he choked, with sputtering difficulty—“I don’ understand ye.”

“Return to your master,” she said. “Tell them I wish to be left alone. Tell them to consider this a warning.”

She then dropped the man to the ground, where he fell badly and twisted an ankle. He cried out, wheezing as he struggled upright.

“Get out of my sight,” said Alizeh softly. “Before I change my mind.”

“Yes, miss, r-right away, miss.” The brute hobbled away then, as quickly as his bad leg would allow.

Only when he’d disappeared from view did Alizeh finally exhale. She looked around her, at the bodies littering the street. She sighed.

Alizeh did not enjoy killing people.

She did not take lightly the death of any living being, for not only was it a difficult and exhausting business, but it left her tremendously sad. Alizeh had tried, over the years, only to injure, never to kill. She’d tried over and over to negotiate. She tried always to be merciful.

They laughed in her face every time.

Alizeh had learned the hard way that an unprotected woman of small stature and low station would never be treated with respect by her enemies. They thought her stupid and incapable; they saw only weakness in her for being kind.

It never occurred to most people that Alizeh’s compassionate spirit was wrought not from a frail naïveté, but from a ferocious pain. She did not seek to steep in her nightmares. She sought instead, every day, to outgrow them. And yet never once had her offers of mercy been accepted. Never once had others set aside their darkness long enough to allow Alizeh a reprieve from her own.

What choice was she left, then?

With a heavy heart, she pulled free her sewing scissors from the ruin of a man’s chest, wiping the blades clean on his coat before tucking them into her bag. She searched the cobblestone for her embroidery needle, then pulled each of her pins free from yet another dead man’s throat, taking care to clean each needle before putting it away.

Would she have to move again? she wondered. Would she have to rebuild again?

So soon?

She sighed once more, taking a moment to adjust her skirts before picking up her carpet bag, snapping it closed.

Alizeh was so tired she couldn’t imagine walking the short rest of the way home, and yet—

There lay the road, and below her, two feet.

She did not possess wings, nor did she own a carriage or a horse. She’d not enough money for a hackney, and no one would be along to carry her.

As always, the girl would have to carry herself.

One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. She would remain focused until she got back to Baz House. She still had to bank the kitchen fire, but she would manage it. She would manage it all, somehow. Perhaps only then would she finally be able t—

She gasped.

A single prick of light flashed before her eyes, there and gone again. Alizeh blinked, slowly. Her eyes were dry, in desperate need of rest.

Heavens, but she was too tired for this.

“I demand you show yourself,” she said, frustrated. “I’ve had quite enough of this game. Show yourself or let me get on. I beg you.”

At that, a figure suddenly materialized. It was a young man in silhouette

—Alizeh could not discern his face—and he fell suddenly on one knee before her.

“Your Majesty,” he said softly.

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