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Chapter no 34

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

ALIZEH STARED BLANKLY AT THE young woman.

“I really can’t believe it,” Miss Huda was saying, her eyes wide with astonishment. “It’s you. How on earth?”

“Forgive me, but I don’t understa—”

This,” Miss Huda said, rushing toward a chest of drawers. She tugged open one of the compartments and rifled through her things, and not a beat later held aloft a cream-colored envelope. “This. This.

Alizeh stared. “A letter?”

“I received it earlier today. Go on.” She pressed it into Alizeh’s hands. “Read it.”

Unbidden, Alizeh’s heart began its familiar pounding, nerves crawling slowly across her skin. With great trepidation she tugged free the note from its sleeve, unfolded the paper, and went still at the sight of the familiar script. It was written with the same firm hand as the note she’d received earlier today; the one currently tucked into her pocket.

You will meet today with a young woman with silver eyes. Kindly deliver the enclosed package into her hands.

As if she were an hourglass, Alizeh felt herself fill incrementally with grains of awareness; she grew suddenly heavy with unease, with a feeling of fear. Whosoever had delivered her the gown had also written this note— but if that were true, she should have no reason to worry.

Why, then, did she worry?

“This says there’s an enclosed package,” Alizeh said, looking up. “Is there a package?”

“Yes,” said Miss Huda, who made no effort to move. She only stared, as if Alizeh had grown a third leg.

“Will you not bring it to me?”

“Will you not first tell me who you are?”

“Me?” Alizeh recoiled. “I am no one of consequence.”

Miss Huda’s jaw clenched. “If you are no one of consequence then I am the queen of Ardunia. Whatever you think of me, I daresay I’ve never given the impression of being an idiot.”

“No.” Alizeh sighed. “That you have not.”

“Until just now, I’d thought the note was some kind of joke,” Miss Huda said, crossing her arms. “People have long loved to torture me with their insipid pranks. This one seemed more peculiar than the others, but still I ignored it, much as I do the frog legs I find in my bed on occasion.” She paused. “Do you take part now in some elaborate caper intended to make me appear foolish?”

“Of course not,” said Alizeh sharply. “I’d never participate in such a hateful act.”

Miss Huda frowned.

It was a moment before she said, “Do you know, I’ve thought from the first that you speak uncommonly well for a snoda. Still, I thought it snobbish to look down on you for your attempt to educate yourself. And yet

—all that time you were measuring me with your pins and needles, I never quite had the measure of you, did I?”

Alizeh exhaled, the action loosening something in her bones, some essential tension responsible for securing in place her deferential facade. She didn’t see the point in being compliant any longer.

Indeed, she was tired of it.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said to Miss Huda. “If you were unable to take the measure of me, it was because I’d not wanted you to.”

“And why, pray, is that?” “I cannot say.”

“You cannot?” Miss Huda narrowed her eyes. “Or you will not?” “I cannot.”

“Whyever not?” She laughed. “Why would you not want anyone to know who you are? Don’t say you’re on the run from assassins?”

When Alizeh said nothing, Miss Huda quickly sobered. “You can’t be serious,” she said. “Are you in fact acquainted with assassins?”

“In my experience, one does not make the acquaintance of assassins.” “But it’s true, then? Your life is in danger?”

Alizeh lowered her eyes. “Miss, will you not please bring me the package?”

“Oh,” she said, waving a hand. “There’s little point in the package. The parcel was empty.”

Alizeh’s eyes widened. “You opened it?”

“Of course I opened it. You think I believed a girl with silver eyes would come looking for a mysterious package? Naturally I assumed the box would contain bloody goat brains, or even a small family of dead birds. Instead, it was empty.”

“But that can’t be right.” Alizeh frowned. “Will you not bring it to me anyway, so that I might inspect it?”

Miss Huda didn’t appear to hear her.

“Tell me,” she was saying, “why would you bother taking work as a seamstress if your life is in danger? Would it not be difficult to meet the demands of your customers if you needed, for example, to flee with little notice?”

Suddenly, Miss Huda gasped.

“Is that why you weren’t able to finish my gown?” she asked. “Are you running for your life this very moment?”

“Yes.”

Miss Huda gasped again, this time lifting a hand to her cheek. “Oh, how terribly thrilling.”

“It’s nothing of the sort.”

“Perhaps not for you. I think I wouldn’t mind running for my life. Or running away, generally.”

Alizeh felt the nosta glow warm against her skin and stilled, surprised to discover the young woman did not exaggerate.

“I do nothing but avoid Mother most days,” Miss Huda was saying. “The rest of my time I spend hiding from the governess. Or a series of grotesque suitors interested only in my dowry.”

“Surely you have other interests,” said Alizeh, who was growing vaguely concerned for the girl. “You must have friends—social obligations

—”

Miss Huda dismissed this with a flick of her hand. “I often feel as if I live in a corridor; I’m neither genteel enough for nobility, nor common

enough to mix with the baseborn. I’m a well fed, poorly dressed leper. My own sisters resist being seen with me in public.”

“That’s awful,” Alizeh said with feeling. “I’m truly sorry to hear it.”

“Are you really?” Miss Huda looked up. She studied Alizeh’s face a moment before she smiled. It was a real smile, something earnest. “How strange you are. How very glad I am for your strangeness.”

Surprised, Alizeh ventured a tentative smile back.

The girls were briefly silent after that, both assessing the fragile shoots of an unexpected friendship.

“Miss?” Alizeh said finally. “Yes?”

“The package?”

“Right.” Miss Huda nodded and, without another word, retrieved from inside her wardrobe a pale yellow box. Alizeh recognized the details right away; it appeared to be a cousin of the box that housed her gown, a perfect match in color and ornamentation, but a quarter of the size.

“So—you’re not really a snoda, then?”

Alizeh looked up to meet the eyes of Miss Huda, who’d yet to relinquish the parcel.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re not really a servant,” she said. “You never were, I think. Your speech is too refined, you’re on the run for your life, and now you receive mysterious packages by way of strangers? You’re also rather beautiful, but in an old-fashioned way, as if from another time—”

“Old-fashioned?”

“—and your skin is too nice, yes, I see that now, and your hair too glossy. I’m quite certain you’ve never had scurvy, or even a touch of the plague, and by the looks of the rest of you I suspect you’ve never spent time in a poorhouse. And your eyes are so unusual—they keep changing color, you know—in fact, they’re so unusual it almost makes one think you might’ve worn the snoda on purpose, to hide your—

“Oh,” Miss Huda cried, her eyes shining now with excitement. “Oh, I’ve figured it out, I’ve figured it out. You only wore the snoda to protect your identity, didn’t you? Did you pretend to work at Baz House, too? Are you a spy? Are you employed by the crown?”

Alizeh opened her mouth to respond, and Miss Huda cut her off with a wave.

“Now, listen, I know you said you can’t say who you are. But if I guess correctly, will you tell me? You need only nod your head yes.”

“No.”

Miss Huda frowned. “That seems terribly unfair.”

Ignoring this, Alizeh snatched the parcel from Miss Huda’s hands and set the box on a nearby table. Without further delay, she lifted the lid.

Miss Huda gave a small cry of delight.

The box was neither empty nor teeming with goat brains; instead, nestled between delicate sheets of tissue-thin paper, were a pair of lavender boots the exact shade of the diaphanous gown. Elegantly crafted of silk jacquard, they had softly pointed toes and short, stacked heels, ribbon ties lacing all the way up the high vamp of the shoe. The boots were so beautiful Alizeh was afraid even to touch them.

Tucked beside one silk boot, was a card.

“Magic,” Miss Huda whispered. “That was magic, wasn’t it? Good heavens. Who the devil are you? And why did you let me order you around like you were a servant?” The young woman began pacing the room, flapping her hands as if they were on fire. “Oh, I’m experiencing quite the most painful wave of retroactive embarrassment; I hardly know what to do with myself.”

Alizeh paid this small drama no attention. Instead, she picked up the enclosed card, unfolding it with care. It was more of the same script.

When the path is unclear, these shoes will lead the way.

Alizeh was only just beginning to process the enormity of her own astonishment—the enormity of what it all might mean—when the words on the note suddenly disappeared.

She drew a sharp breath.

“What is it?” Miss Huda asked eagerly. “What does it say?”

Slowly, fresh words bloomed on the blank note before her: sharp, dark strokes as substantial as if they were written in real time, by an invisible hand.

Don’t be alarmed.

As if on cue, alarm shot through Alizeh with the force of an arrow, startling her backward, her mind reeling as she spun around, searching for

something—for someone— No, she went deathly still.

The words had disappeared once more without warning, displaced now by others, but more quickly now, as if the writer were in a rush—

I am not your enemy.

Miss Huda snatched the note from Alizeh’s limp hands and scanned it, then made a sound of frustration.

“Why do the words disappear the moment I try to read them? I take great offense to this. I want it known that I take great offense to this,” she said to the room at large.

Alizeh, meanwhile, could hardly breathe. “I must get dressed,” she said. “I must get ready.”

“What? Get dressed?” Miss Huda turned, blinked at her. “Have you gone quite out of your gourd? Of all the things to be thinking at this moment—”

“Forgive me, but I must,” Alizeh said, snatching the two yellow boxes up into her arms, then darting behind a dressing screen in a far corner of the room. “I hope you will understand now why I cannot stay to fix your gown.”

“Oh, dash the gown!” Miss Huda cried. “Where will you go?”

Alizeh didn’t respond right away, occupied as she was with disrobing at breakneck speed. The dressing screen being not at all as opaque as Alizeh would prefer, she went invisible as she changed, feeling quite exposed standing in her unmentionables so close to a stranger. This was not how she’d imagined preparing herself for the ball tonight, not in a mad rush behind a dressing screen; not within reach of Miss Huda and her unceasing questions.

“Will you not answer me?” It was the young miss yet again, only louder this time. “Why do you need to get dressed? Where do you intend to go? Those boots aren’t at all practical for running away. Why, if you look away from your feet for even a moment you’re likely to step in a fresh pile of horse manure—or even an old pile, you know, as they’re never able to clear the roads quickly enough—and the silk will never be the same, this you may rely upon, for I speak from personal experie—”

“I thank you for your wisdom,” Alizeh said sharply, cutting her off. “Though I don’t know where I’m going just yet, only that I—”

Like a half-mute bird, Miss Huda screamed.

It was a tortured sound, a strangled cry of surprise. Alizeh would’ve darted out from behind the screen if not for her nakedness—a problem she rushed now to address—and would’ve called out a question of concern if her voice had not been unceremoniously drowned out by another.

“Your Majesty,” she heard someone say. Alizeh suddenly froze.

It was the voice of a young man. “Forgive me,” he said. “I meant not to frighten you. I take it you received my packages?”

Alizeh’s heart raced wildly in her chest. She knew the sound of Hazan’s voice—the evening they’d met had been emblazoned in her memory—and this was not he. This was the voice of no one she recognized.

Who, then?

Hazan hadn’t mentioned anyone else in his plans, but then, he’d mentioned little in an effort to spare her in case she should be discovered. Still, it was possible Hazan was working with someone else, was it not?

“I— Yes, I received a package,” she heard Miss Huda say. “But, who are you? Why are you here?”

Indeed, the more Alizeh thought about it, the more it seemed entirely probable that Hazan was working with someone else. In point of fact, he’d mentioned something about others searching for her, hadn’t he? It was more than just he who’d been looking for her all these years.

At that realization, a degree of tension left her body.

Alizeh adjusted the nosta, tucking it more firmly inside her corset before buttoning up her new gown like a madwoman. She was just stepping into her new boots when she heard the stranger’s voice once more.

“Forgive me,” he said again, though he didn’t sound at all sorry. “I see that I’ve frightened you. We were in fact never meant to meet like this, but I’ve received a warning, and I’m duty bound now to escort y—”

“Please, you misunderstand—” Miss Huda tried again. “I’m not— I’m not whoever you think I am.”

There was a brief, taut silence.

Alizeh could hardly concentrate for the nerves lancing through her. She’d only just managed to tie her boot laces, kicking hastily aside her old, reliable pair. Her torn boots and worn calico work dress lay there on the

lush carpet like an old skin, discarded; Alizeh felt a strange pang at the sight.

There was no going back to her old life now.

Then, the sound of the stranger’s emotionless voice— “Pray tell me, who do I think you are?”

“I don’t—” Miss Huda hesitated. “You know, I don’t actually know her name.”

Another tense silence.

“I see,” he said, sounding suddenly annoyed. “So you must be the other one.”

“The other one? Oh for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “Come out here right this second, Your Majesty, or I will come back there and murder you.”

Alizeh drew back her invisibility, took a deep breath, and stepped out from behind the screen with stunning equanimity, even as her heart beat wildly in her chest. She could not forget herself, especially not now, when fear blew through her with the force of a summer gale.

The stranger, she noted, was a surprise.

His age seemed nonspecific; she suspected he was still a young man, but he presented right away as an old soul wrapped in the cloak of youth. His skin was a burnished golden brown, his hair a sharp wave of red copper. He wore simple, unadorned black clothes—coat, jacket—and clutched in one hand both a tall black hat and a golden mace. He had bright, startlingly blue eyes, but there was something tragic about them, too, a heaviness there that made him hard to look at—and all the more so when he stared at her, his eyes widening a barely there micrometer as she moved into view.

“Oh,” he said.

Alizeh did not spare time for niceties. “How do you know me?” “I never said I did.”

“You don’t even know each other?” Miss Huda said, glancing wildly from one to the other. To Alizeh, she said, “You don’t know this person?”

Alizeh shook her head.

“Then get out of my room, you madman.” Miss Huda all but pushed the stranger toward the door. “Out with you— Out at once, you horrible cad, sneaking into young ladies’ bedrooms without permi—”

The young man stepped easily out of reach.

“I think you misunderstand,” he said flatly. “Her Highness and I are not entirely unacquainted. We have a friend in common.”

“Do we?”

“Her Highness?” Miss Huda spun around, staring now at Alizeh. “You really— Are you really—?”

The stranger said, “Yes,” and Alizeh said, “Not exactly,” and everyone, collectively, frowned.

“There is no time for this now,” the young man said, turning to face Alizeh. “Your plans for the evening may have been compromised. We must away at once.”

The nosta flashed warm against her skin, and Alizeh stiffened, her heart plummeting in her chest.

Then it was true: things had gone awry.

Alizeh’s disappointment was breathtaking, but she bade herself be calm. After all, it appeared Hazan had built contingencies into the plan. The nosta alone was a tremendous gift; the certainty it provided was a great balm even now, steadying her in these turbulent seas. What was it he’d said when he’d given it to her?

So that you never need wonder who your enemies might be.

“It was you,” Alizeh said, meeting the eyes of the stranger. “It was you who sent me this dress? And the shoes?”

He hesitated a beat before saying, “Yes.” “Why?”

“I was returning a favor.”

“A favor?” She frowned. “A favor to me?” “No.”

Alizeh drew back. “To whom, then?” “To our mutual friend.”

This was twice now he’d mentioned their mutual friend. Was he concealing Hazan’s identity in front of Miss Huda?

“So you do this for him,” Alizeh said softly. “Which means you’ve no vested interest in assisting me.”

“My interest is only in discharging myself of an old debt,” said the young man. “Our mutual friend has asked that I repay him thus, with these specific instructions, and so I have done. I was never meant to come here, not unless the circumstances demanded my intercession, as they do now.”

“I see,” she said. The nosta was burning hot against her sternum. This stranger was neither friend nor foe, she was realizing, which made the situation rather tricky.

“What is your name?” she asked. “My name is irrelevant.”

“Irrelevant?” she said, surprised. “What am I to call you then?” “Nothing.”

Alizeh could not hide the flash of irritation she felt at that. “Very well,” she said stiffly. “Where do we go from here?”

The stranger opened his mouth to speak and hesitated at the sight of Miss Huda’s eager face. Her curious eyes.

Gently, he cleared his throat.

“I would really rather not discuss any of this in front of”—he glanced again at Miss Huda—“a third party, though I recognize that, in this, the mistake is mine. Somehow I thought— That is, for a moment, there appeared to be only one person in the room. I thought the young lady of the house had joined her party downstairs.”

“I’m standing right here,” Miss Huda said sharply. “You need not discuss me as if I didn’t exist.”

“Ah,” he said, tilting his head. “But I would really rather you didn’t.” Miss Huda’s mouth dropped open.

Quickly, Alizeh turned to her. “Can I trust that you will keep the details of this day to yourself?”

“Of course,” said Miss Huda, drawing herself up to her full height. “I’ve never in my life betrayed a secret. You may depend upon me to be the soul of discretion.”

The nosta went ice cold at that, sending a shiver through Alizeh’s body. She grimaced.

As if he, too, had felt the lie, the stranger locked eyes with Alizeh.

“We have only two options,” he said. “Kill her or take her with us. The error was mine, so I will leave the decision up to you. It is my strong recommendation, however, that we kill her.”

“Kill me?” Miss Huda cried. “You cannot be serious—”

“No— No, we are not going to kill you,” Alizeh said, shooting an unkind look at Nothing. Then, trying for a smile, she turned to Miss Huda. “Though you did say you thought you might like to run away, didn’t you?”

Miss Huda looked suddenly as if she might faint.

“Here,” Alizeh said, opening Miss Huda’s wardrobe doors and drawers, plucking essential items from their depths. “I will help you pack.”

Miss Huda gaped at her. “But— I can’t—”

Alizeh located a medium-sized bag in the girl’s wardrobe and pressed the small luggage into Miss Huda’s frozen hands. “Bring only as much as you can carry.”

“But I don’t want to run away,” Miss Huda said in a whisper, her eyes bright with fear. “Where will we go? How would I live? How long will I be gone?”

“These are all excellent questions,” Alizeh said, patting the girl’s shoulder. “You pack, and I will ask.”

Mournfully, Miss Huda pulled a gown from a hanger, stuffing it halfheartedly into her bag.

To the stranger, Alizeh said, “There is no need now for subterfuge, is there? You may now inform me of your plan. Where do we go from here?”

Nothing stared at the scene unfolding before him, looking vaguely nauseated.

“The details are spare,” he said. “I will extend you a level of protection until we reach the ball, and shortly after our arrival I will escort you to a secure method of transport. This transport will deliver you to your destination.”

“But where is my destination?” Alizeh asked. “What happens when I arrive?”

“Oh—and will it rain where we are going?” Miss Huda asked. “Will I need an umbrella?”

The stranger closed his eyes. “I cannot now tell you where you are going, but I can assure you that your destination is safe. Already I’ve guaranteed you an extra measure of protection with the dress and shoes.”

Alizeh blinked at that; at the reminder. “Of course,” she said, glancing at her gown and boots. “I nearly forgot. How do the items work, exactly?”

“Did you not read the notes?” “I did, but—”

“If you don’t know where to go, your feet will assist, if you fear being seen, the gown will protect your identity from those who wish you harm, et cetera, et cetera. If you do not, however, follow my exact instructions at all times, I cannot ensure your safety. Heed your own whims and I will not be responsible for what happens to you, and I will not care.”

Slowly, Alizeh looked up to face the stranger. “Did you really feel it necessary to add that last part?”

“Which part?”

And I will not care,” she said, echoing his emotionless tone. “Do you enjoy being needlessly petty?”

“Yes,” he said. “I do.”

Alizeh opened her mouth to say something unkind, then bit her lip, drew back.

She didn’t know this stranger, and he knew little of her. Even if unwillingly given, his honest commitment to help her was nothing short of miraculous, for, whoever he was, he was doubtless risking a great deal. Perhaps he was unaware how much his help was worth to her, but if things went well tonight, Alizeh’s entire life might be spared; the trials of the last several years would come to an end.

Finally, she’d be free.

She decided then that she could not—would not—allow herself to be rude to this young man, not even if he deserved it, not when she might soon owe him her life.

She cleared her throat.

“Do you know,” she said, trying to smile, “in all the excitement I’ve forgotten to say something rather important.”

He cut her a dark look.

“Thank you,” she said. “I know the burden is cumbersome, but you render me a great kindness tonight, and I won’t soon forget it.”

The stranger flinched at that, stared at her a beat too long. “I don’t do it to be kind.”

“I know.”

“Then don’t,” he said, sounding, for the first time, like he owned a real emotion: anger. “Don’t thank me.”

Alizeh stiffened. “Very well, then. I retract my formal thanks. Still, I am grateful.”

“Don’t be.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do you intend to command me not to feel my own emotions?”

“Yes.”

“That’s absurd.”

“And yet, if you are truly grateful for my assistance, you might do me a favor and resist speaking to me altogether.”

Alizeh went slack. “Why are you trying to be cruel?”

“Oh, please don’t fight,” Miss Huda said. “This is bound to be awful enough already—”

“I am inclined to agree,” the young man said coldly. “Impossible as my dreams might be, I would much prefer that we persevere in silence, and part as strangers.”

“Fine,” Alizeh said quietly, her jaw clenching.

“Good.” He glanced at Miss Huda. “Now we must be off.”

“Wait,” said Miss Huda desperately. “Will you not reconsider? Please let me stay here. I promise I won’t say a word to anyone about what I’ve seen— I’ll be silent as death, you’ll see—”

For the second time, the nosta went cold against Alizeh’s skin. She flinched.

“I told you we should kill her,” said the stranger. Miss Huda whimpered.

“Ignore him,” Alizeh said. “Listen, it’s only for a short while. You can come back home as soon as we’re able to get somewhere safe—”

“You give the girl false hope,” said Nothing, cutting her off. “The only way she could reliably return home is if we manage to distort her memory, which requires walking her backward through time, which is exceedingly complicated, not to mention painful—”

Miss Huda began to cry.

“Will you not hush?” Alizeh snapped at the stranger, forgetting her promise to be nice. “How can you not see that your bullying only makes things worse? We will never manage to be inconspicuous if she won’t stop weeping.”

The stranger looked at her, then looked at Miss Huda. He touched his fingers together, and Miss Huda went suddenly silent.

The girl was still crying but made no sound.

When the young woman realized what happened she clutched at her throat, eyes widening in fear as she struggled to speak, no doubt to scream

—all in vain.

Alizeh rounded on Nothing. “What have you done?” she demanded. “I insist you change her back this instant.”

“I will not.”

“Are you some kind of Diviner?” “No.”

“A monster, then?”

He almost smiled. “Don’t say you’ve been speaking with my mother?”

“How do you have access to so much magic, then? The dress, the shoes

—now this—”

“And this,” he said, placing his hat atop his head.

Without warning, Alizeh was pitched forward into endless night.

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