Chapter no 30

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

ALIZEH STOOD IN THE MIDDLE of the busy, bustling path, eyes closed, masked eyes turned up toward the sun.

It was a beautifully bright day, the air sharp with cold, not a cloud in the sky. The world around her was loud with the clop of hooves, the rattle of wheels, savory smoke from a nearby kabob shop coiling around her head. Midday in the royal city of Setar meant the gilded streets were alive with color and commotion, food carts busy with customers, shopkeepers shouting loudly about their wares.

Alizeh was equal parts hopeful and devastated as she stood there, both halves of her heart rife with excuses, all of them compelling. Very soon she’d be forced to examine closely her long list of troubles, but right then she wanted only a moment to breathe, to enjoy the scene.

Tiny finches hopped and tittered along the path while large, glittering crows cawed high in the sky, a few swooping low to perch on the heads and hats of passersby, the better to peck at their baubles. Angry shopkeepers chased after the winged beasts with their broomsticks, one unlucky proprietor accidentally knocking in the head a man who promptly fell over into the capable arms of a street child, who then pinched the man’s purse and darted into the crowd. The gentleman cried out, giving chase, but his pursuit of the small thief was thwarted by the commotion of a nearby pastry shop, which had flung open its doors without warning, unleashing a stream of servants into the madness.

Single file, no fewer than a dozen snodas cut a serpentine path through the crowd, each carrying a broad, circular tray high above their head, each heavy platter laden with baklava and pistachio brittle, soft nougat, syrupy donuts, and spirals of honey-soaked funnel cakes. The heady aroma of rosewater and sugar filled the air as the procession marched past, all maneuvering carefully so as not to disturb the many parked occupants of the path.

Alizeh turned.

Large, colorfully patterned rugs had been rolled out over the golden cobblestone, upon which women in bright, floral chadors sat cross-legged, laughing and sharing gossip as they sorted through bushels of purple saffron flowers. Their deft hands paused only occasionally, and only to sip tea from gilt-rimmed glasses; otherwise their nimble motions did not cease. Over and over they separated styles and stigmas from their lush flowers, adding the ruby-red saffron threads to the growing piles between them.

Alizeh could not move, she was so mesmerized.

The last time she’d dared stop for so long in the street she’d been assaulted by a child thief, and yet—how could she deny herself such an indulgence now, when she’d not been free to enjoy daylight in so long? This living, breathing world was hers to admire for this single moment in time, and she wanted to breathe it in; to luxuriate in the beating heart of civilization.

After tonight, she would never see it again.

If things went well, she’d be gone from here; if they went poorly, she’d have no choice but to flee.

Tears sprang to Alizeh’s eyes even as she smiled.

She managed to forge a path through the saffron spreads, stopping only when startled by a display of blooms arranged in the window of a nearby florist: winter roses, butter-colored camellias, and white snowdrops smiled up at her from their cut-crystal vase, and Alizeh was so enchanted by the sight she nearly collided with a farmer, who’d stopped without warning to feed alfalfa to his shaggy goat.

Unsettled, her nerves would not now quiet.

Hastily Alizeh moved aside, wedging herself against the window of a millinery shop. She tried to shutter her mind but it was no good; her subconscious would no longer submit. She was battered at once by a deluge of remembered sensations: the whisper of a voice against her ear, a smile against her cheek, the weight of arms around her body. She still tasted him on her lips, could still summon the silky texture of his hair, the hard line of his jaw under her hand. The memories alone were devastating.

Over and over Alizeh had tried to understand why the devil had warned her of the prince—and even now she was uncertain. Was this it, then?

Was it because of a kiss?

Alizeh tensed, took a breath. Even as her heart raced, her mind cooled. What had transpired between her and the prince was a moment of foolishness for a myriad of reasons—not the least of which was that he was heir to an empire whose sovereign sought to destroy her. She’d not yet even begun to unpack the ramifications of such a discovery, nor what explanations it might reveal for the beloved friends and family she’d lost to unexplained acts of violence. Did it mean the king had tried to kill her once before? Had it been he who’d issued the orders to murder her parents?

It troubled her that she could not know for certain.

Kamran might’ve circumvented the orders of his grandfather to help her today, but Alizeh was not a simple girl; she knew that relationships between kin were not so easily severed. The prince might have spared her a moment of kindness, but his allegiance, no doubt, was elsewhere.

Still, Alizeh could not condemn herself too harshly.

Not only had the dalliance been unplanned, it had been an unexpected reprieve—a rare moment of pleasure—from what seemed the interminable darkness of her days. For years she’d wondered whether anyone might ever again touch her with care, or look at her like she mattered.

She did not take lightly such an experience.

Indeed there had been a mercy in it, in its tenderness, which she would now gracefully accept, pocketing the memories before moving forward. Her thoughtless actions would never again be repeated.

Besides, she consoled herself, she and Kamran would never again cross paths, and all the better, though—

A flock of birds at her feet took flight without warning, disquieting Alizeh so thoroughly she gasped and stumbled backward, colliding with a young man who promptly caught sight of her snoda and sneered, elbowing her out of the way. A sharp knock to her ribs and again Alizeh doddered, though this time she caught herself, and hurried forward through the crowd.

She’d known, of course, even as she bade the prince farewell, that there was a chance she’d see him again at the ball that evening. She’d not felt it necessary to inform him of her attendance because she thought meeting him again a bad idea; and now that she knew the ball was in fact meant to facilitate his impending marriage—

No, she would not think of it.

It did not matter. It could not matter. In any case, their spheres had no hope of intersecting at such an event; she would not have cause to see him.

Alizeh did not know the full scope of Hazan’s plan for her escape, but she doubted it’d have much to do with the festivities themselves, and the prince—for whom the ball had been arranged—would no doubt be expected to engage fully in its activities.

No, they would certainly not see each other again.

Alizeh felt a pang at that conclusiveness, a sharp pain she could not decipher; it was either longing or grief, or perhaps the two feelings were identical, split ends of the same sword.

Oh, what did it matter?

She sighed, sidestepping to avoid a trio of girls chasing each other through the crowd, and peered, halfheartedly, through the window against which she was pressed.

A row of children were sitting at a high counter, each devouring sandwiches of pomegranate ice cream, the blush-colored treat pressed between crisp disks of freshly baked waffles. Their grown-ups stood by smiling and scolding, wiping the sticky mouths and tearstained cheeks of the children they could catch, the others tearing wildly about the shop, rummaging through crystal tubs brimming with fruit taffies and colorful marzipan, rock sugar and rose-petal nougat.

Alizeh heard their muted laughter through the glass.

She tightened her grip on her luggage then, tensing as her heart fractured in her chest. Alizeh, too, had once been a child, had once had parents who spoiled her thus. How good it was to be loved, she thought. How very important.

A curious little girl caught her eye then, and waved. Tentatively, Alizeh waved back.

She was homeless. Jobless. All she owned in the world she carried in a single, worn carpet bag, the sum total of her coin scarcely two coppers altogether. She had nothing and no one to claim but herself, and it would have to be enough.

It would always have to be enough.

Even in her most desperate moments, Alizeh had found the courage to move forward by searching the depths of herself; she’d found hope in the sharpness of her mind, in the capacity of her own capable hands, in the endurance of her unrelenting spirit.

She would be broken by nothing.

She refused.

It was time, then, for her to find escape from the travails of her life. Hazan would help—but she first had to forge a path through her current predicament.

She needed to form a plan.

How might she source the necessary material and notions needed to make herself a gown? She would’ve had more coin to her name except that Miss Huda had yet to pay her an advance against the five gowns she’d requested; instead, the young woman was waiting first to see how Alizeh

might transform the taffeta ahead of the ball tonight, which now lay crumpled inside her bag.

Alizeh sighed.

Two coppers were all she had, then, and they would afford her next to nothing from the cloth merchants.

She grimaced and pushed on, her mind working. An elderly man with a wispy beard and white turban shot past her on a bright-blue bicycle, coming to a terrifying halt not twenty feet away. She watched as he unfolded his narrow body from the seat, unpacked a sign from the basket of his transport, and hooked the wooden board onto the front of a nearby cart.

Teethmaker, it read.

When he saw her staring, he beckoned her close, offering her a discount on a pair of third molars.

Alizeh almost smiled as she shook her head, staring at the scenes around her now with a touch of sadness. For months she’d lived in this royal city, and never before had she been able to see it like this, at its most dynamic, enchanting hour. Troubadours were parked at intervals with santoor and setar, filling the streets with music, flooding her heart with emotion. She smiled in earnest as cheerful pedestrians spared what moments they had to dance, to clap hands as they passed.

Her whole life seemed suddenly surreal to her, surreal because the sounds and scenes that surrounded her were so incongruously life- affirming.

With some effort, Alizeh fought back the maelstrom of emotion threatening to upend her mind and focused her thoughts instead on the many tasks ahead. With purposeful strides she passed the confectionary shop and the noisy coppersmith next door; she shot past a dusty rug emporium, colorful rolls stacked to the ceiling and spilling out of doorways, then a bakery and its open windows, the heavenly aroma of what she knew to be fresh bread filling her nose.

Suddenly, she slowed—her gaze lingering a moment on the large flour sacks by the door.

Alizeh could fashion a garment out of near anything, but even if she were able to source enough of a substandard textile, arriving at the ball in a burlap dress would only make her a small spectacle. If she wanted to disappear, she’d need to look like the others in attendance, which meant wearing nothing at all unusual.

She hesitated, appraising herself a moment.

Alizeh had always taken meticulous care of the little she owned, but even so, her calico work dress was nearly worn through. The gray frock had always been dull, but it appeared even more lifeless at present, faded and limp with relentless wear. She had one other spare gown, and she did not have to see it to know it was in a similar state. Her stockings, however, were still serviceable; her boots, too, were sturdy despite needing a polish— though the tear in one toe had yet to be mended.

Alizeh bit her lip.

She was left with no option. Her vanity could not be spared; she’d simply have to disassemble one of her drab gowns and remake it, and hope she had enough workable material to get it right. She might even be able to repurpose the remainder of her torn apron to fashion a pair of simple gloves . . . if only she could find a safe space to work.

She sighed.

First, she decided, she would visit the local hamam. A scrub and soak she could afford, as the prices for a bath had always been reasonable for the poor, but—

Alizeh came to a sudden halt.

She’d spotted the apothecary; the familiar shape of the familiar shop arresting her in place. The sight of it made her wonder about her bandages.

Gingerly, she touched the linen at her neck.

She’d not felt pain in her hands or throat in at least a few hours; if it was too soon to remove the bandages entirely, it was perhaps not too soon to remove them for the length of an evening, was it? For she would certainly draw unwanted attention if she arrived looking so obviously injured.

Alizeh frowned and glanced again at the shop, wondering whether Deen was inside. She decided to go in, to ask his professional opinion, but then remembered with dawning horror what she’d said to him that awful night— how unfairly she’d criticized the prince, and how the shopkeeper had rebuked her for it.

No, never mind, then.

She hurried down the walk, narrowly avoiding impact with a woman sweeping rose petals off the street, and came to another sudden halt. Alizeh squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, hard.

She was being foolish.

It did her no good to avoid the apothecarist, not when she now needed his assistance. She would simply avoid saying anything stupid this time.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she marched back down the street and straight toward the apothecary, where she pushed open the door with a bit too much force.

A bell jangled as she entered.

“Be right with you,” Deen muttered, unseeing, from behind the counter. He was assisting an older woman with a large order of dried hibiscus flowers, which he was advising her to brew three times daily.

“Morning, noon, and night,” he said. “A cup in the evening will help a great deal with sl—”

Deen caught sight of Alizeh and promptly froze, his dark eyes widening by degrees. Alizeh lifted a limp hand in greeting, but the apothecarist looked away.

“That is—it will help with sleep,” he said, accepting his customer’s coin and counting it. “If you experience any digestive discomfort, reduce your intake to two cups, morning and night.”

The woman offered quiet thanks and took her leave. Alizeh watched her go, the shop bell chiming softly in her wake.

There was a brief moment of quiet.

“So,” Deen said, finally looking up. “You’ve come indeed. I confess I wasn’t entirely sure you would.”

Alizeh felt a flutter of nerves at that; no doubt he’d seen her deliberating outside. Privately she’d hoped Deen might’ve forgotten her altogether; the awkwardness of their last conversation included. No such luck, it seemed.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Though I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be coming, either, if I’m being honest.”

“Well it’s good you’re here now.” He smiled. “Shall I fetch you your parcel?”

“Oh, I—no—” Alizeh felt herself flush, the insubstantial weight of her two coppers suddenly heavy in her pocket. “I’m afraid I’m not in the market for—

“Actually,” she said in a rush, “I wondered whether you might inspect my injuries a bit earlier than we discussed.”

The wiry shopkeeper frowned. “That’s five days earlier than we discussed. I trust there’ve been no complications?”

“No, sir.” Alizeh stepped forward. “The salves have been a tremendous help. It’s only that the bandages are—they’re, well, they are a bit conspicuous, I think. They draw quite a lot of attention, and as I’d rather not be so easily remarked upon, I was hoping to remove them altogether.”

Deen stared at her a moment, studied what little of her face he could see. “You want to remove your bandages five days early?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is it your housekeeper giving you trouble?” “No, sir, it’s n—”

“You are well within your rights to treat injuries, you know. She is not allowed to prevent your recove—”

“No, sir,” Alizeh said again, a bit sharper this time. “It’s not that.”

When she said nothing else, Deen took a deep breath. He made no effort to hide his disbelief, and Alizeh was quietly surprised by his concern.

“Very well, then,” he said, exhaling. “Have a seat. Let’s take a look.”

Alizeh pulled herself up onto the high chair at the counter, the better to be examined. Very slowly, Deen began unraveling the bandage at her neck.

“You’ve wrapped this quite nicely,” he murmured, to which she only nodded her acknowledgment. There was something soothing about his gentle motions, and for a moment, Alizeh dared to close her eyes.

Never could she articulate precisely how exhausted she was. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d slept more than a couple of hours or felt safe enough to stand still for long. Seldom was she allowed to sit, almost never was she allowed to stop.

Oh, if only she could get herself to the ball tonight, anything might be possible. Relief. Safety. Peace. As for the actual shape of such dreams—

She had little in the way of expectations.

Alizeh was a failed queen without a kingdom, without even a small country to rule. Jinn were fractured across Ardunia, their known numbers too few, and the rest, too hard to find. Long ago there had been a plan for her ascent, the details of which Alizeh had not been made privy to at such a young age. Her parents always insisted she focus instead on her studies, on enjoying her youth a while longer.

Alizeh was twelve when her father died, and only afterward did Alizeh’s mother begin to worry that her daughter knew too little of her fate. It was then that she told Alizeh of the Arya mountains, of the magic therein that was essential to unlocking the powers she was rumored to one day

possess. When Alizeh had asked why she could not simply go and collect such a magic, her mother had laughed, and sadly.

“It is not so simple a task,” she’d explained. “The magic must be gathered by a quorum of loyal subjects, all of whom must be willing to die for you in the process. The earth has chosen you to rule, my dear, but you must first be found worthy of the role by your own people. Five must be willing to sacrifice their lives to give rise to your reign; only then will the mountains part with their power.”

It had always seemed to Alizeh an unnecessary, brutal requirement; she did not think herself capable of asking half a dozen people to die for her, not even in the interest of the common good. But as she could not now think of even a single person willing to forfeit their life in the pursuit of her interests—she felt it premature to rely upon even Hazan—it seemed a futile point to consider.

What’s more, Alizeh knew that even if, through some miracle, she managed to claim her rightful throne and earn the allegiance of tens of thousands, she’d have already failed them as their queen, for she’d be sentencing her own people to death.

It required little creativity to imagine that the king of Ardunia would crush a rival on his own lands; his recent pursuit of her was proof enough of his concerns. He would never willingly lose his seat nor his people, and Jinn were among his numbers now.

Alizeh opened her eyes just as Deen unfurled the last of the linen at her neck.

“If you would please hold out your hands, miss, I’ll unwrap the linen there, too,” he was saying. “Though the cut at your throat appears to be healing very well . . .”

Alizeh held out her hands but turned her head toward the window, distracted as she was just then by the sight of a small, ancient woman pushing past a heaving wheelbarrow. The woman had aged much like a tree might, her face so gracefully inscribed by the passage of time that Alizeh thought she might count each line to know her age. Her shock of white hair was made a brilliant orange by henna and tied back with a floral scarf that matched her vivid, floral skirt. Alizeh glimpsed the woman’s harvest: green almonds piled high in the cart, their soft fuzzy shells still intact, shimmering with frost.

The old woman nodded at her, and Alizeh smiled.

She had been surprised, upon arrival in Setar, to discover how much she loved the commotion of the royal city; the noise and madness were a comfort to her; a reminder that she was not alone in the world. To witness every day the collective effort of so many people striving and making and working and breathing—

It brought her unexpected calm.

Still, Alizeh was not like the others who lived here. Her differences were many, but perhaps her most problematic was that she did not accept, without question, the greatness of the Ardunian empire. She did not accept that the Fire Accords had been an unmitigated act of mercy. In some ways, yes, they had been a kindness, but only because most everyone had longed for an end to the millenia-long strife between the races.

It was precisely why her people had conceded.

Jinn had grown tired of living in fear, of having their homes set aflame, of watching their friends and families hunted and massacred. Mothers on both sides had grown tired of receiving the mutilated bodies of their children from the battlefield. The pain of the endless bloodshed had reached its pinnacle, and though both sides desired peace, their mutual hatred could not be unlearned overnight.

The Accords had been enacted under the banner of unity—a plea for cohesion, for harmony and understanding—but Alizeh knew them to be motivated entirely by military strategy. Enough Jinn had been slaughtered now that their remaining numbers were no longer considered a threat; by granting the survivors the veneer of safety and belonging, the king of Ardunia had effectively subdued, then absorbed into his empire, tens of thousands of the strongest and most powerful beings on earth, for whom a little known provision had been made: Ardunian Jinn were allowed to exercise their natural abilities only during wartime, and only on the battlefield. Four years all capable citizens were required to serve in the empire’s army, and newly absorbed Jinn were not exempt.

All of Ardunia thought King Zaal a generous, just ruler, but Alizeh could not put her faith in such a man. He had, with a single, cunning decree, not only absolved Clay of all atrocities against Jinn, but rendered himself magnanimous, added to his armies a flood of supernatural recruits, and stripped ice-blooded Jinn any right to their constituents.

“All right, then,” Deen said brightly. “All done, miss.”

His lively tone was so unexpected Alizeh turned at once to look at him, surprise coloring her voice. “Is it good news?” she asked.

“Yes, miss, your skin has restored itself exceptionally well. I must say— those salves were of my own making, so while I know their many strengths, I’m also aware of their limits, and I’ve never known them to be responsible for such rapid healing.”

Alizeh felt a bolt of fear move through her at that declaration, and she quickly withdrew her hands, studying them now in the sun-soaked room. She’d only changed her bandages once since she was last here, and only in the dead of night, overcome by exhaustion, her effort lit by the dim glow of a single candle. Now Alizeh studied her hands in amazement. They were soft and unblemished, no damage, not a scar to be found.

She dropped her hands in her lap, clenched them tight.

Alizeh had often wondered how she’d survived so many illnesses on the street, how she’d recovered over and over even when pushed to the brink of death. Fire, she knew she could withstand—it was the deep frost in her body that repelled it—but she’d never before had such irrefutable evidence of her body’s strength.

She looked up at the apothecarist then, her eyes wide with something like panic.

Deen’s smile had begun to fade. “Forgive me my ignorance, miss, but as I do not treat many Jinn, I’ve little basis for comparison. Is this—is this kind of healing uncommon among your kind?”

Alizeh wanted to lie, but worried the misinformation would adversely affect his treatment of what few Jinn did seek his aid. Softly, she said, “It is rare.”

“And I take it you were, until now, unaware you were capable of such swift healing?”

“I was.”

“I see,” he said. “Well, I suppose we should accept it, then, as an unexpected stroke of good luck, which is no doubt long overdue.” He attempted a smile. “I think you are more than ready to remove the bandages, miss. You need not worry on that account.”

“Yes, sir. I thank you,” Alizeh said, moving to stand. “How much do I owe you for the visit?”

Deen laughed. “I did nothing but remove your bandages and announce aloud what your own eyes might’ve easily witnessed. You owe me


“Oh, no, you’re too generous—I’ve taken up your time, certainly I sho


“Not at all.” He waved her away. “It was but five minutes at most.

Besides, I’ve been awaiting your arrival all this day, and have already been paid handsomely for the trouble.”

Alizeh froze. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your friend asked me to wait for you,” the shopkeeper said, frowning slightly. “Was he not the essential reason you came in today?”

“My friend?” Alizeh’s heart had begun to pound.

“Yes, miss.” Deen was looking at her strangely now. “He came in this morning—rather a tall fellow, wasn’t he? He wore an interesting hat and had quite the most vivid blue eyes. He was insistent that you would come, and asked me not to close my shop, not even to take lunch, as I often do. He asked that I please deliver you this”—Deen held up a finger, then disappeared below the counter to retrieve a large, unwieldy package

—“when you finally arrived.”

Carefully, the shopkeeper settled the heavy, pale yellow box onto the worn surface of the workbench, which he then slid across to her. “I thought for certain he’d informed you of his visit here,” Deen was saying, “for he seemed terribly confident you would come today.” A pause. “I do hope I’ve not startled you.”

Alizeh stared at the box, fear moving through her at an alarming speed.

She was afraid even to touch the parcel.

Gently, she swallowed. “Did my—my friend—did he give his name?” “No, miss,” said Deen, who appeared now to be realizing that

something was wrong. “Was not my description of the young man enough to engage your memory? He said the whole thing was meant to be a pleasant surprise for you. I confess I thought it seemed . . . great fun.”

“Yes. Of course.” Alizeh forced a laugh. “Yes, thank you. I was only— I’m only shocked, you see. I’m quite unaccustomed to receiving such extravagant gifts, and I fear I know not how to accept them graciously.”

Deen recovered at that, his eyes shining brighter this time. “Yes, of course, miss. I understand completely.”

There was a beat of silence, during which Alizeh pinned a smile onto her face. “When did you say my friend came to deliver the package?”

“Oh, I don’t know exactly,” Deen said, his brow furrowing. “It was sometime in the late morning, I think.”

Late morning.

As if Deen’s description of the stranger weren’t proof enough, Alizeh was now certain the delivery was not made by the prince, who had been at Baz House at exactly that hour. There was only one other person who might’ve done such a thing for her, but for a single complication—

Hazan did not have blue eyes.

It was possible, of course, that the shopkeeper had made a mistake. Perhaps Deen had misspoke, or even seen Hazan in the wrong light. Hazan was tall, after all, that much was accurate; though Alizeh realized she didn’t know enough about him to judge, with any real conviction, whether he was one to wear interesting hats.

Still, it was the answer that made the most sense.

Hazan said he would be looking out for her, did he not? Who else would be paying such close attention to her movements—who else would spare her such generosity?

Alizeh stared again at the beautiful package; at its immaculate presentation. Gingerly, she drew a finger along the scalloped edges of the outer box, the silky yellow ribbon cinching the case around the middle.

Alizeh knew exactly what this was; it was her job to know what it was.

Still, it seemed impossible.

“Don’t you want to open it, miss?” Deen was still staring at her. “I admit I’m terribly curious myself.”

“Oh,” she said softly. “Yes. Of course.”

A braided thrill of anticipation moved through her—fear and a flutter of excitement—disturbing any semblance of peace her body had recently collected.

With painstaking care, she tugged loose the ribbon, then lifted the heavy lid, releasing a hush of delicate, translucent paper in the process. Deen took the lid from her trembling hands, and Alizeh peered into the box with the wide eyes of a child, discovering, in its depths, an elegant wonder of a gown.

She heard Deen gasp.

At first, all she saw were layers of diaphanous silk chiffon in a shade of pale lavender. She pushed away the wrappings, carefully lifting the gauzy, gossamer article up against the light. The gown was gathered softly down

the bodice and cinched at the waist; a long, sheer cape was affixed at the shoulders in place of sleeves. The whisper of a skirt felt like wind in her hands, slipping through her fingers like a soft breeze. It was elegant without ostentation, the perfect balance of all that she required for the evening.

Alizeh thought she might cry.

She would freeze half to death in this gown and she’d not breathe a word of complaint.

“There is a card, miss,” Deen said quietly.

Alizeh looked up at him then, accepting the card from his outstretched hand, which she promptly tucked into her pocket. She’d decided to say her goodbyes to the shopkeeper, to read the note away from his curious eyes, but was stopped by the strange look on his face.

Deen seemed . . . pleased.

She saw there, in the softness of his expression, that he thought her the recipient of a romantic gesture. He had not seen her face in full, she realized, and as a result the apothecarist could only guess at her age. No doubt he assumed Alizeh was a bit older than was accurate, that she was perhaps the mistress of a married nobleman. It was under any other circumstance a deeply unflattering assumption, one that would’ve rendered her, in the eyes of society, a common harlot.

Somehow, Deen did not seem to mind.

“I am not so miserly as to begrudge you your happiness,” he said, reading the confusion in her eyes. “I can only imagine how difficult it must be to live your life.”

Alizeh drew back, she was so surprised.

He could not have been further from the truth and still his sincerity touched her, meant more to her than she could say. In fact, she felt suddenly at a loss for the right words.

“Thank you,” was all she managed.

“I realize we are strangers,” Deen said, gently clearing his throat, “and as a result you might think me odd for saying so—but I’ve felt, from the beginning, a quiet kinship with you, miss.”

“Kinship?” she said, stunned. “With me?”

“Indeed.” He laughed, briefly, but his eyes were dark with some abstruse emotion. “I, too, feel forced to hide who I am from the world. It is a difficult thing, is it not? To worry always how you will be perceived for

who you are; to wonder always whether you will be accepted if you are truly yourself?”

Alizeh felt a sudden heat behind her eyes, an unexpected prick of emotion. “Yes,” she said softly.

Deen smiled but still his effort was strained. “Perhaps here, between we two strangers, there might exist no such apprehension.”

“You may depend upon it,” Alizeh said without hesitation. “Let us hope for the day when we might all remove our masks, sir, and live in the light without fear.”

Deen reached out and clasped her hands at that, held her palms between his own in a gesture of friendship that flooded her heart with feeling. They remained like that for a long moment before slowly parting.

In silence Deen helped her gather her things, and with only a brief nod, they said their goodbyes.

The shop bell rang softly as she left.

It was not until she was halfway down the street, her heart and mind thoroughly preoccupied with thoughts of the unexpected apothecarist, the weight of her overstuffed carpet bag, and the large, unwieldy box that housed her gossamer gown, that she remembered the card.

With a violent start, Alizeh dropped her carpet bag to the ground. She tugged free the small envelope from her pocket and, heart now racing in her chest, she tore open the thick paper.

She could hardly breathe as she scanned the brief note, the sharp, confident strokes of the script.

Wear this tonight, and you will be seen only by those who wish you well.

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