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Chapter no 27

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

THE CURIOUS SERVANTS WERE STALKING his every move.

Kamran made noise as he roamed the halls of Baz House, opening doors and wandering corridors gracelessly, leaving evidence of his interests everywhere. He stood dramatically in doorways, dragged his fingers along the intricate wall moldings; he stared moodily out of windows and picked books off their shelves, holding the leather-bound pages to his chest.

Perhaps Hazan had been right. The prince was quite good at giving performances when he felt them necessary.

He maintained the show for as long as he felt was needed to evince his wistful intentions; only then, when he was certain any suspicions of the staff had been thoroughly defused, did he reduce himself to shadow.

Silent as light, he crept up the stairs.

Kamran’s heart had begun to beat a bit too fast, a traitor in his chest. Despite the hateful circumstances, some part of him still sparked at the prospect of discovering more about the girl.

He’d already learned from his grandfather that she was orphaned, that she’d been in Setar but a few months, and that she lived in Baz House as only a trial servant. She did not, as a result, have rooms in the servants’ wing, nor was she allowed to interact or communicate with the other servants. Instead, she’d been offered lodgings in an old storage closet at the vertex of the main house.

An old storage closet.

This discovery had shocked him, but his grandfather had quickly assured the prince that the isolated position of her room would only make his task easier.

The king had misunderstood Kamran’s astonishment.

Even as he climbed yet another flight of stairs, the prince struggled to imagine what such a closet might look like. He knew servants occupied the most humble housing, but he’d not anticipated the girl might live among rotting vegetables. Did she share a room with sacks of potatoes and pickled garlic, then? Was the poor girl left no recourse but to sleep on dank, moldy floorboards with only rats and cockroaches as her companions? She was worked so hard she nearly wore the skin off her own hands—and yet she was not recompensed with the most basic offering of a clean bed?

Kamran’s gut twisted at the thought.

He did not like to think how poorly these revelations reflected on his aunt, but worse: he did not know whether he would’ve done any better. The

prince knew not how every snoda in the palace was treated—and it had never once occurred to him to ask. Though he considered it was perhaps not too late to find out.

Kamran had by now lost count of the flights of stairs he’d climbed. Six? Seven? It was uncanny to experience the arduous commute she made day and night—and it was yet another astonishment to discover how far removed she lived from the breathing bodies of others.

For a moment it made him wonder whether the girl preferred being so far from everything. Certainly no one would make such a journey up into the attic without cause. It was perhaps a comfort to feel so sheltered.

Though it was perhaps desperately lonely, too.

When Kamran finally stood in front of the girl’s door, he hesitated; felt a disconcerting flutter in his chest.

The prince did not know what he might discover herein, but he tried to prepare himself, at least, for a vision of abject poverty. He did not look forward to rummaging through the girl’s private life, and he closed his eyes as he pulled open the closet door, whispering a quiet apology to her ghost.

Kamran promptly froze at the threshold.

He was met with a soft glow of light, and overwhelmed at once by the intoxicating scent of Gol Mohammadi roses, the source of which he pinpointed to a small, crocheted basket in a corner of the room. The makeshift bowl was stacked high with corollas of slowly desiccating pink petals, a kind of homemade potpourri.

Kamran was stunned.

The small quarters—so small that he might’ve lain down and spanned the length of it—were warm and cozy, flooded with perfume, rich with color. No cockroach in sight.

Like a madman, he wanted to laugh.

How? How did she always manage to reduce him to this, to this shameful state? Once more he’d been convinced he understood her—had pitied her, even—and instead he was humbled by his own arrogance.

A vision of abject poverty, indeed. The room was spotless.

Its walls and floors and ceiling had been scrubbed so clean the boards did not match the black, molding exterior door—which she’d left untouched. There was a small, beautifully patterned rug arranged on the ground next to a modest cot, which was neatly dressed in a silky quilt and

pillow. Her few articles of clothing hung from colorful hooks—no, they were nails, he realized, nails that had been wrapped in thread—and a collection of miscellaneous items were placed with care in a clean apple crate. They appeared to be sewing supplies, mostly. But there was a single book, too, the title of which he could not discern, and which he peered at now, taking an unconscious step into the room. The entire space came at once into view—and too late, Kamran saw the candle burning in an unseen corner.

He went suddenly solid.

There was the familiar press of a cold blade at his throat, the feel of her small hand at his back. He heard her soft breathing and could tell merely by the unmuffled sound that she did not wear her snoda.

He must’ve surprised her.

His flutter of anticipation suddenly magnified. It was a bizarre sensation, for what he felt even as she held a knife to his neck was not fear, but elation. She was not supposed to be here, and he’d not dared to hope he might find himself alone with her again.

A miracle, then: her hand still pressed against his back, her racing pulse nearly audible in the silence.

“Speak,” she said. “Tell me what you seek here. Answer honestly, and I give you my word I will leave you unharmed.”

Was it terrible that his heart pounded in his chest at the soft sound of her voice? Was it worrisome that he felt nothing but pleasure to be held at her mercy?

What a fascinating creature she was, to be so bold as to offer him his life in exchange for information. What worlds he might be inspired to give up, he wondered, in the pursuit of knowing more of her mind.

She pressed the knife harder. “Speak the truth now,” she said. “Or I will slit your throat.”

Not for a moment did he doubt her.

“I have been sent here as a spy,” he said. “I come here now to rummage through your room in the hopes of gathering intelligence.”

The blade fell away.

Kamran heard the familiar slicing sound of metal coming together and realized that what he thought was a blade was, in fact, a pair of scissors. He almost laughed.

But then the girl stepped in front of him, and all thought of laughter died in his throat.

She was not dressed.

Her hair was loose; long, obsidian curls fell into her silver eyes, and she batted them away impatiently. Kamran watched, transfixed, as the silky locks grazed her naked shoulders, the delicate column of her neck, the smooth expanse of her chest. The dangerously low cut of her chemise was held up only by a corset, and Kamran discovered, to his dismay, that he could not breathe.

The girl was not dressed.

She was not undressed, not at all, but she wore only her underskirts and corset, and was covering herself poorly with one hand, clutching her sopping dress against her exposed bodice, her right fist still clenched around a pair of scissors.

He’d forgotten how beautiful she was.

This revelation was astonishing to him, for he’d spent more time than he cared to admit thinking about the girl, conjuring her face when he closed his eyes at night. He did not think himself capable of forgetting anything about her, and yet he must have, for he was struck stupid anew, drawing near her now like a hungry flame to tinder.

Kamran did not enjoy the feeling that overcame him then. He took little pleasure in this kind of desperation, in a desire so potent it inhaled him. He’d never felt this, not like this, for this was a uniquely powerful force, one that left him disoriented in its wake.

Weak.

“Turn around,” she said. “I must finish dressing.”

It took him a moment to process the request. Not only had his mind been upended, but Kamran had never been ordered around by anyone but the king. He felt as if someone had shoved him bodily into a tragic inverse of his real life—and what surprised him most was that he did not dislike it.

He obeyed her order without a word, silently castigating himself for his own incomprehensible reaction to the girl. Women wore all manner of scandalous garments in his presence; some wore gowns so dramatically low-cut that corsets were done away with altogether. What’s more: the prince was not a green child. He was not unaccustomed to the presence of beautiful women. How, then, to explain what overcame him now?

“So,” the girl said quietly. “You have come to spy on me.”

Kamran heard the distinct rustling of fabric, and he closed his eyes. He was a gentleman of honor. He would not imagine her undressing.

He would not. “Yes,” he said.

More fabric swishing; something hitting the ground with a dull thud. “If that is indeed true,” she said, “I wonder why you would dare admit it.”

“And I wonder why you would doubt me,” he said with impressive calm. “You told me you would slit my throat if I failed to give you an honest answer.”

“Then you, of all people, should understand my suspicion. Certainly it will not surprise you to hear that none before you have ever accepted my terms.”

“None before me?” He smiled to himself. “Do you often find yourself in a position of negotiation with spies and cutthroats?”

“A great deal too often, in fact. Why—did you think yourself the first to find me a subject of interest?” A pause. “You may turn around now.”

He did.

She’d pinned her hair back, buttoned a clean dress up to her throat. It had not helped. The modest frock had done nothing to diminish her beauty. He felt bewitched as he drank her in, lingering too long on her arresting eyes, the delicate curve of her lips.

“No,” he said softly. “I daresay I’m not the first.”

She stared at him then, surprise rendering her, for a moment, inhumanly still. Kamran watched with some amazement as a faint blush burned across her cheeks. She turned away, clasped her hands together.

Had he made her nervous?

“I gave you my word,” she said quietly, “that I would leave you unharmed in exchange for your honesty. I meant what I said, and I will not now go against myself. But you must leave at once.”

“Forgive me, but I will not.”

She looked up sharply. “I beg your pardon?”

“You asked for a confession in exchange for my life, which I readily offered. But I never once promised to forfeit my task. I will understand, of course, if you’d rather not stay while I rifle through your things—and I suspect you are anxious to return to work. Shall I wait to begin until you are gone?”

The girl’s lips parted in shock, her eyes widening with disbelief. “Are you as mad as you sound, sir?”

“That is twice now that you have called me sir,” he said, a slight smile on his lips. “I can’t say I care for it.”

“Pray, what is it you would prefer I call you? Do tell me now and I’ll make a note to forget in future, as there is little chance our paths will cross again.”

“I should be very sorry if that were the case.”

“You say this even as you kick me out of my own room so that you might surveil it? Do you jest, sire?”

Kamran nearly laughed. “I see now that you do know who I am.”

“Yes, we are both well informed. I know your legacy as surely as you know mine.”

Kamran’s smile faded altogether.

“Did you think me a simpleton?” she asked angrily. “Why else would the prince of Ardunia be sent to spy on me? It was you who sent those men to kill me last night, was it not?” She turned away. “More fool me. I should have listened to the devil.”

“You are mistaken,” Kamran said with some heat.

“On what point? Do you mean to say you are not responsible for the attempt on my life?”

“I am not.”

“And yet you were aware of it. Does it matter whose lips issued the order? Did not the directive come from your own crown?”

Kamran took a breath, said nothing. There was little else he could say without making himself a traitor to his empire. His grandfather had more than proven how readily he would decree the prince’s head be separated from his body, and despite Kamran’s many protests to the contrary, he rather liked being alive.

“Do you deny these allegations, sire?” the girl said, rounding on him. “How long have your men been watching me? How long have I been a subject of interest to the crown?”

“You know I cannot answer such questions.”

“Did you know who I was that night? The night you came to Baz House to return my parcels? Were you watching me even then?”

Kamran looked away. Faltered. “I— It was complicated— I did not know, not at first—”

“Goodness. And I thought you were merely being kind.” She laughed a sad laugh. “I suppose I should’ve known better than to think such a kindness might be granted without a hefty price.”

“My actions that night had no ulterior motive,” Kamran said sharply. “That much is true.”

“Is it really?”

Kamran struggled to maintain his composure. “Yes.” “You do not wish me dead?”

“No.”

“The king, then. He wishes to kill me. Does he think me a threat to his throne?”

“You already know I cannot answer these questions.”

“You cannot answer the most pertinent questions, the ones most relevant to my life, to my welfare? And yet you smile and tease me, talk with me as if you are a friend and not a ruthless enemy. Where is your sense of honor, sire? I see you have misplaced it.”

Kamran swallowed. It was a moment before he spoke.

“I do not blame you for hating me,” he said quietly. “And I will not attempt to convince you otherwise. There are aspects of my role—of my position—that bind me, and which I can only detest in the privacy of my own mind.

“I would ask that you allow me only this in my own defense: Do not misunderstand me,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I wish you no harm.”

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