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Chapter no 32

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

ALIZEH DROPPED HER CARPET BAG to the ground outside the servants’ entrance to Follad Place, all too eager to relinquish the luggage for a moment. The large box that held her gown, however, she only readjusted in her tired arms, unwilling to set it down unless absolutely necessary.

The long day was far from over, but even in the face of its many difficulties, Alizeh was hopeful. After a thorough scrub at the hamam she felt quite new, and was buoyed by the realization that her body would not be battered again so quickly by interminable hours of hard labor. Still, it was hard to be truly enthusiastic about the reprieve, for Alizeh knew that if things went poorly this evening, she’d be hard-pressed to find such a position again.

She shifted her weight; tried to calm her nerves.

Just last evening Follad Place had seemed to her terribly imposing, but in the dying light of day it was even more striking. Alizeh hadn’t noticed before just how robust the surrounding gardens were, nor how beautifully tended, and she wished she hadn’t cause at all to notice such details now.

Alizeh did not want to be here.

She’d been avoiding as long as possible this last, inevitable task for the day, having arrived at Follad Place only to return Miss Huda’s unfinished gown, and to accept with grace the lambasting and condemnation she’d no doubt receive in exchange. It was perhaps a minimization of the truth to say that she was not looking forward to the experience.

Already Alizeh had knocked at the door, after which she’d been greeted by Mrs. Sana, who, miraculously, had not dismissed outright the brazen snoda requesting an audience with a young lady of the house. She had, however, demanded to know the nature of the visit, to which Alizeh demurred, saying only that she needed to speak with Miss Huda directly. The housekeeper stared a beat too long at the beautiful garment box in Alizeh’s arms and doubtless drew her own more satisfactory explanation for the girl’s visit, one that Alizeh made no effort to deny.

Now Alizeh waited anxiously for Miss Huda, who was due to receive her at any possible moment. Despite the blistering cold, Alizeh had been prepared to wait for some time in the case that the young miss had been out for the day, but here, too, Alizeh had encountered a stroke of unexpected luck. In fact, despite the recent challenges she’d lately faced—nearly being murdered, losing her position, and becoming suddenly homeless among them—she felt herself to be the unlikely recipient of a great deal of good

fortune, too. Alizeh had uncovered in the process a fairly solid case for optimism, her two most compelling reasons thus:

First, her neck and hands were healed, which was in and of itself a cause for celebration, for not only was it a relief to be rid of the collar around her throat and to have full use of her fingers once more, but the linen bandages had grown itchy and were made easily dirty, which had bothered her more than was reasonable. Second, Hazan had left her a breathtaking gown to wear to the ball tonight, which would not only spare her the time and possible cost of fashioning such a complicated article in a short time, but it spared her the need to find a safe space to work. This was not even mentioning the fact that the gown was somehow imbued with magic—magic that claimed it would conceal her identity from any who wished her ill.

This was perhaps the greatest good fortune of all.

Alizeh, who knew she could not wear her snoda to the royal ball, had decided simply to keep her eyes lowered for the length of the evening, looking up only when essential. This alternate solution was eminently preferable.

Still, she was wary, for Alizeh knew the gown to be of a shockingly rare stock. Even the royals of Ardunia did not wear magical garments, not unless they were on the battlefield—and even then there were limits to the protections such clothing might provide, for there existed no magic strong enough to repel Death. What’s more, only an exceedingly complicated technique could provide such personalized protection to a wearer of a garment, and this complexity could be conducted only by an experienced Diviner—of which there were few.

Magic, Alizeh had long known, was mined much like any mineral: directly from the earth. She was not entirely certain wherefrom the empire excavated their precious commodities, for not only was it done in relative secrecy, but theirs was different from the magic Alizeh required from the Arya mountains. That which belonged to her ancestors was of a rarer strain, and though many Clay efforts had been made over millennia, the arcane material had proven impossible to quarry.

Still, all genus of Ardunian magic existed only in small, exhaustible quantities, and were not meant to be manipulated by the uninitiated, for they killed easily any who mishandled the volatile substances. The Diviner population was as a result quite small; Ardunian children were taught little

about magic unless they showed a sincere interest in divining, and only a select few were chosen each year to study the subject.

Alizeh could not, as a result, imagine how Hazan was able to procure such rare items on her behalf. First the nosta, and now the dress?

She took another deep breath, exhaling into the cold. The sun was shattering across the horizon, fragmenting color across the hills, taking with it what little warmth was left in the sky.

Alizeh had been waiting at least thirty minutes now, standing outside in a thin jacket and damp hair. With no hat or scarf to cover her frozen curls, she stamped her feet, frowning at the fracturing sun, worrying over the minutes that remained of daylight.

The ground underfoot was thick with decaying purple leaves, all of which had fallen—recently, it seemed—from the small forest of trees surrounding the magnificent home. The newly bare, ghostly branches arced tremulously toward one another, curling inward not unlike the crooked legs of a many-legged spider, intent on devouring its prey.

It was just then, as Alizeh had conjured this disturbing image in her mind, that the heavy wooden door was wrenched open with a groan, revealing the harried face and hassled form of Miss Huda herself.

Alizeh bobbed a curtsy. “Good aftern—”

Not a sound,” the young woman said harshly, grabbing Alizeh by the arm and yanking her inside.

Alizeh had only just managed to swipe her carpet bag up and into her arms before they were off, barreling wildly through the kitchen and down the halls, Alizeh’s cumbersome baggage knocking against the walls and floors as she struggled to keep up with Miss Huda’s sudden, jerky movements.

When they finally stopped moving, Alizeh stumbled forward from the force of residual motion, staggering a bit as she heard the sound of a door slam shut.

Her box and bag hit the floor with consecutive thuds, after which Alizeh steadied herself, turning in time to see Miss Huda struggling to catch her breath, eyes closed as she slumped back against the closed door.

“Never,” Miss Huda said, still trying to breathe. “Never, ever show up unannounced. Never. Do you understand?”

“I’m terribly sorry, miss. I didn’t realize—”

“I was only able to arrange our last meeting because I pretended to have a megrim on an evening I knew the family had been invited to dinner, but everyone is home now, preparing for the ball, which is why my maid was supposed to come to you to collect the gown and oh, if Mother discovers I’ve hired you to make me a dress I’ll be reduced to little more than a writhing, bloody sack on the street, for she will literally tear all my limbs from my body.”

Alizeh blinked. The nosta glowed neither hot nor cold against her skin in response, and Alizeh didn’t understand its lack of reaction. “Surely you do not— You could not mean she would literally—”

“I meant exactly what I said,” Miss Huda snapped. “Mother is the devil incarnate.”

Alizeh, who knew the devil personally, frowned at that. “Forgive me, miss, but that’s not—”

“Lord, but how am I going to get you back out of the house?” Miss Huda dragged her hands down her face. “Father has guests due any minute now, and if a single one of them sees you—if even a servant sees you— Oh, heavens, Mother will surely murder me in my sleep.”

Again, the nosta did not react, and for a single, terrifying moment Alizeh thought the object might be broken.

“Oh, this is bad,” said Miss Huda. “This is very, very bad . . .” The nosta glowed suddenly warm.

Not broken, then.

Alizeh experienced a wave of relief supplanted quickly by consternation. If the little glass orb was not broken, then it was perhaps Miss Huda who was uncertain of the veracity of her statements. Maybe, Alizeh considered with some alarm, the young woman wasn’t entirely sure whether her mother might one day murder her.

Alizeh studied the panicked, overwrought figure of the girl before her and wondered whether Miss Huda wasn’t in more trouble at home than she let on. She knew the girl’s mother had proven overtly cruel, but Miss Huda had never before characterized the woman as a physical threat.

Quietly, Alizeh said, “Is your mother truly so violent?” “What?” Miss Huda looked up.

“Are you— Are you genuinely worried your mother might kill you?

Because if you believe her a serious threat to your li—”

“I beg your pardon?” Miss Huda boggled. “Have you no sense at all of hyperbole? Of course I’m not genuinely worried my mother might kill me. I am in a panic. Am I not allowed to embroider the truth a bit when I am in a panic?”

“I— Yes,” Alizeh said, quietly clearing her throat. “I only meant— That is, I wanted only to ascertain whether you truly feared for your safety. I am relieved to discover you did not.”

At that, Miss Huda went unexpectedly silent.

She stared for what felt like a long time at Alizeh, stared at her as if she were not a person, but an enigma. It was an ungenerous stare, one that made Alizeh decidedly uncomfortable.

“And what, pray,” Miss Huda said finally, “did you mean to do about

it?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If I had told you,” Miss Huda said with a sigh, “that my mother did

indeed intend to murder me, what would you have done about it? I ask because you appeared, for a moment, quite determined. As if you had a plan.”

Alizeh felt herself flush. “No, miss,” she said quietly. “Not at all.”

“You did too have a plan,” Miss Huda insisted, her earlier panic dissipating now. “There’s no point in denying it, so go on. Let’s hear it. Let’s hear your plan to save me.”

“It was not a plan, miss. I merely— I only had a thought.”

“So you admit it, then? You had a thought about saving me from the clutches of my murderous mother?”

Alizeh lowered her eyes at that, saying nothing. She thought Miss Huda was being intolerably cruel.

“Oh, very well,” the young woman said, collapsing into a chair with a touch of theater. “You need not speak it aloud if you find the confession so torturous. I was merely curious. After all, you hardly know me; I was only wondering why you cared.”

The nosta glowed warm.

Stunned, Alizeh said, “You wondered why I would care if your mother might actually murder you?”

“Is that not what I just said?”

“Are you— Are you quite serious, miss?” Alizeh knew Miss Huda was serious, but somehow she couldn’t help asking the question.

“Of course I am.” Miss Huda sat up straighter. “Have I ever seemed to you interested in subtlety? I’m in fact quite known for my candor, and I daresay Mother hates my lack of refinement even more than she hates my figure. She says my mouth and hips are a product of that woman, that other woman—which is how she refers, of course, to my biological mother.”

When Alizeh said nothing in response to Miss Huda’s obvious effort to shock her, the young woman raised her eyebrows. “Is it possible you didn’t know? That would make you the only person in Setar ignorant of my origins, for mine is an infamous tale, as my father refused to hide his sins from society. Still, I am quite illegitimate, the bastard child of a nobleman and a courtesan. It’s no secret that neither of my mothers have ever wanted me.”

Alizeh continued to say nothing. She didn’t dare.

Miss Huda’s performance of indifference was so obvious as to be painful to witness; Alizeh didn’t know whether to shake the girl or hug her.

“Yes,” Alizeh said finally. “I knew.”

She saw a flicker of emotion in Miss Huda’s eyes then, something like relief, there and gone again. And just like that, Alizeh’s heart softened toward the girl.

Miss Huda had been worried.

She’d been worried that Alizeh, a lowly servant, had not known of her parentage; she worried a lowly servant would find out and judge her harshly. Miss Huda’s attempt to scandalize had in fact been an effort to out herself preemptively, to spare herself a painful retraction of kindness, or friendship, upon discovery.

This was a fear Alizeh understood well.

But that Miss Huda would lower herself to be bothered by the worthless opinion of a snoda taught Alizeh a great deal about the depth of the young woman’s insecurities; it was information she would file away in her mind, and not soon forget.

Quietly, Alizeh said, “I would’ve found a way to protect you.” “Pardon?”

“If you’d told me,” Alizeh clarified, “that your mother had been trying in earnest to murder you. I would’ve found a way to protect you.”

“You?” Miss Huda laughed. “You would’ve protected me?”

Alizeh bowed her head, fought back a renewed wave of irritation. “You asked for my confession—for the thought that crossed my mind. That was

it.”

There was a brief silence.

“You really mean that,” the young woman said finally.

Alizeh looked up at the gentle sound of the girl’s voice. She was

surprised to discover the sneer gone from Miss Huda’s face; her brown eyes wide with unvarnished feeling. She looked, suddenly, quite young.

“Yes, miss,” Alizeh said. “I really mean it.” “Goodness. You are a very strange girl.”

Alizeh drew a deep breath. That was the second time today someone had accused her of being strange, and she wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it.

She decided to change the subject.

“More to the point,” she said, “I’ve come to you today to talk about your gown.”

“Oh, yes,” Miss Huda said, eagerly getting to her feet and moving toward the large case. “Is this it, then? Can I open—”

Alizeh darted for the box and claimed it, bracing it against her chest. She stepped several steps back as her heart beat hard against her sternum. “No,” she said quickly. “No, this—this is something else. For someone else. I actually came here to tell you that I haven’t finished making your gown. That, in fact, I won’t be able to finish making it.”

Miss Huda’s eyes widened in outrage. “You— But how could you—”

“I was dismissed from my position at Baz House,” Alizeh said quickly, grabbing blindly for her carpet bag, which she hauled into her arms. “I desperately wanted to finish the commission, miss, but I’ve no place to live, and no place to work, and the streets are so cold I can hardly hold a needle without my fingers going numb—”

“You promised me— You said—you said it would be done in time for the ball—”

“I’m so sorry,” Alizeh said, now inching slowly toward the door. “Truly, I am, and I can well imagine your disappointment. I see now that I should go, for I fear I’ve disturbed your day quite enough—though of course I’ll just leave the gown”—she released the latch on her bag, reached inside for the garment—“and leave you to your evening—”

Don’t you dare.” Alizeh froze.

“You said you needed a place to work? Well, here.” Miss Huda gestured to the room at large. “You might as well stay and finish the work. You can manage a discreet exit once everyone leaves for the ball.”

The carpet bag slipped from Alizeh’s frozen fingers, fell with a dull thump to the ground.

The suggestion was outrageous.

“You want me to finish it now?” Alizeh said. “Here? In your room? But what if a maid comes in? What if your mother needs you? What if—”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Miss Huda said irritably. “But I see no possibility of your leaving now anyway because Father’s guests have certainly”—she glanced at the wall clock, its golden pendulum swinging—“yes, they’ve certainly arrived by now, which means the house is sure to be flush with all the ambassadors ahead of the ball, as their lot is terribly prompt—”

“But—perhaps I could climb out the window?”

Miss Huda glared. “You will do no such thing. Not only is the idea preposterous, but I want my gown. I have nothing else to wear, and you, by your own admission, have nothing else to do. Is that not what you said? That you were discharged from your position?”

Alizeh squeezed her eyes shut. “Yes.”

“So you’ve no one waiting for you, and no warm place to go on this winter evening?”

Alizeh opened her eyes. “No.”

“Then I do not understand your reticence. Now remove that godforsaken monstrosity from your face at once,” Miss Huda said, lifting her chin an inch. “You’re not a snoda anymore; you’re a seamstress.”

Alizeh looked up at that, felt the pilot light in her heart flicker. She appreciated the young woman’s attempt to raise her spirits, but Miss Huda did not understand. If Alizeh had to wait until the whole of Follad Place departed for the ball, she herself would be terribly late. She’d no choice but to arrive to the event on foot, and had planned, as a result, to leave a good deal early. Even with preternatural speed she couldn’t move quite as fast as a carriage, and would certainly not dare move too quickly in such a delicate gown.

Omid would wonder whether she’d abandoned him. Hazan would wonder whether she’d been able to secure safe passage to the ball.

She couldn’t be late. She simply couldn’t. There was too much at stake.

“Please, miss. I really must go. I am— I am in fact a Jinn,” Alizeh said nervously, employing now the only tactic she had left. “You need not worry that I will be seen, as I can make myself invisible upon my exi—”

Miss Huda eyes widened in astonishment. “Your audacity shocks me. Do you even know to whom you are speaking? Yes, I am a bastard child, but I am the bastard child of an Ardunian ambassador,” she said, growing visibly angry. “Or did you forget that you stand now in the home of an official hand selected by the crown? How you gather the nerve to even dare suggest—in my presence—doing something so patently illegal, I cannot fathom—”

“Forgive me,” Alizeh said, panicked. Only now that she was being condemned for it did she realize the weight of her error; a different person might’ve already called for the magistrates. “I merely— I wasn’t thinking clearly— I only hoped to provide a solution to the obvious problem and I

—”

“The most obvious problem, I think, is that you made me a promise you’ve now unceremoniously broken.” Miss Huda narrowed her eyes. “You’ve no good excuse for not finishing the work, and I demand you do it now.”

Alizeh tried to breathe. Her heart was racing at a dangerous speed in her chest.

“Well? Go on, then,” said Miss Huda, her anger slowly abating. She gestured limply at the girl’s mask. “Consider this the dawn of a new age. A new beginning.”

Alizeh closed her eyes.

She wondered whether the snoda even mattered now. One way or another, she’d be gone from Setar at the end of the night. She’d never see Miss Huda again, and Alizeh doubted the girl would go gossiping about the strange color of her eyes—something she more than likely would not understand, as most Clay were uneducated in Jinn history and would not know the weight of what they saw.

It had never been for fear of the masses that Alizeh hid her face; it was for fear of a single, careful eye. Exposure to the wrong stranger and she knew her life was forfeit; indeed, her precarious position in that very moment was proof. Somehow, impossibly, Kamran had seen through her guile, had seen through even her snoda.

In all these years, he’d been the only one.

She took a deep breath and cleared her head of him, spared her heart of him. She thought instead, without warning, of her parents, who’d always worried about her eyes, always worried for her life. They’d never given up hope of her taking back the land—and the crown—they believed to be rightfully hers.

Alizeh had been raised from infancy to reclaim it.

What would they think if they saw her now? Jobless, homeless, at the mercy of some miss. Alizeh felt quietly ashamed of herself, of her impotence in that moment.

Without a word, she untied the snoda from around her eyes, and, reluctantly, let the scrap of silk slip through her fingers. When Alizeh finally looked up to meet the young woman’s gaze, Miss Huda went rigid with fear.

“Heavens,” she gasped. “It’s you.”

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