Chapter no 35

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

MUSIC SWELLED IN KAMRAN’S EARS, the screaming darkness of his mind punctured occasionally by the sound of laughter, the clink of glass and silver. His dark eyes were lined with kohl; his neck bound heavily in ropes of sapphire; a single, hammered gold circlet nestled in the midnight of his hair. He stood tall in weighty layers of dark green silk, an emerald- encrusted harness crisscrossing his chest and cinched at his waist, and from which hung, as always, his swords. He was both immaculate and uncomfortable as he nodded his head, greeting, unseeing, the nobles who bowed before him, the young women who curtsied low at his feet.

Occasionally Kamran glanced at the glittering throne beside him, which was occupied by his grandfather, and the one beyond that, in which sat his mother, drinking deeply from a goblet of wine. Both royals were smiling, but the king’s jolly countenance was a necessary facade, doing a great deal to belie what was no doubt an interior tempest straining at the capacity of his self-control.

This would describe how Kamran felt, too.

Just steps away, half obscured by a potted olive tree, was the Tulanian ambassador, who’d been ordered to stand by, ready at any time to identify the Tulanian king should the young man ever arrive. Farther in the shadows stood Hazan, awaiting orders.

Kamran had not yet decided what to feel about his minister, or how best to proceed; for though the prince’s instincts insisted something was amiss, Hazan’s actions had yet to draw an obvious line to deception. Kamran, however, was watching him closely, waiting for even a hint of unusual behavior.

The Fesht boy, at least, had not lied.

Omid had been living at the Diviners Quarters these last days, and, by his own account, had grown quite close to the priests and priestesses who’d saved his life. He’d gone to bid them goodnight for the evening when he discovered that all twenty-five Diviners had been slaughtered in their beds.

Kamran and the king had gone, of course, to bear witness.

There’d been no blood to mop up, no clear evidence of violence to investigate. Their faces had been peaceful, hands clasped across their chests. Only a thorough search had revealed proof of an attack: a subtle growth of frost between their cold, parted lips.

Dark magic, the king had whispered.

Nothing else could’ve so easily killed Diviners capable of wielding great power. As to the owner of the crime, there was little doubt there, too. The Tulanian king, who, earlier in the evening had been seen and spoken with at a gathering of Ardunian ambassadors, had deserted his party without notice, disappearing into the ether. Neither had he met with the king ahead of the ball, as was expected.

Kamran knew not whether the young King Cyrus would show his face at the fete tonight, but his absence would indicate its own answer, for such actions were without question a declaration of war—one of the more barbaric instigations the prince had ever witnessed.

Still, there was no proof.

Worse, it would take weeks to collect and deliver to the Royal Square the rare other Diviners scattered throughout the empire, and until then, all of Ardunia would be left vulnerable, lacking an essential layer of protection long provided by the quorum at the Diviners Quarters.

Even so, there were pretenses to be maintained.

The king did not want the horrible news spread throughout the empire, not just yet. He did not want people to panic before he was ready to formally address their fears, which would not be possible until tomorrow morning, for the brutal events of the evening had rendered the ball only that much more important. More acts of violence could arrive at anytime— could threaten the crown at anytime—

Which meant Ardunia needed to secure the royal line, and quickly, with another heir.

Kamran, whose mind was resigned even as his heart protested, stared indifferently at the faceless horde, at the individuals peeling off to pay respect to the Ardunian royals. The prince was meant to choose a bride

from among these strangers, and yet, the ladies all looked the same to him. They were all of them in nearly identical gowns, their hair styled in a similar fashion. He could not tell them apart save the occasional unflattering impressions they left behind: a barking laugh, a set of stained teeth; one girl in particular who could not stop biting her fingernails, not even when she spoke.

The vast majority could scarcely look Kamran in the eye, while a select few had leaned in dramatically, whispering in his ear illicit invitations for that very evening.

It all left him feeling exhausted.

Among the many travesties of the day, Kamran had not been able to relinquish the memories of one young woman in particular. He wondered, as he nodded his head at yet another girl curtsying low before him, whether Alizeh would remain with him always in his mind, in the occasional manifestation of sensation across his skin, in the sharp breath he might take at the reminder of her touch. It was a thought both strange and thrilling, and which imbued in him a striking fear.

Would he forever compare all others to her?

Would anyone else ever make him feel as much? And if not, would he be cursed forever to live only a half-life, a life of quiet acquiescence, of unfulfilled expectations? Was it worse, he wondered, to never know what you might have—or worse to have it snatched away before you might have it?

“You are making no effort,” the king whispered sharply, startling the prince out of his reverie.

Kamran dared not turn his head to look at the king. He’d not even realized the curtsying young woman had gone.

“You might ask the girls a single question,” King Zaal was muttering, “instead of standing there like a statue.”

“Does it truly matter, Your Highness, when I already know you will choose for me whomever you think is best?”

King Zaal went quiet at that, and Kamran’s heart wrenched at the confirmation of his fears.

“Even so,” the king said finally. “You might at least act as if you are at a ball and not a funeral, dire though the circumstances may be. I want your engagement announced before the week is out. I want you married before

the month is done. I want an heir before the year is finished. This night is not to be disturbed before its purpose is fulfilled. Are we clear?”

The prince tensed his jaw and studied the crowd, wondering how their numbers seemed to bloat before his eyes. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said quietly.

Kamran’s gaze landed unexpectedly on the Fesht boy, who stood idly by, wringing his hands. The child stared often at the entrance, and with obvious anticipation. His eyes were red from sobbing, but as he’d been expressly forbidden from crying at the ball—under threat of expulsion—he only bit his lip and flinched every time a name was announced.

Kamran frowned.

He could not understand what the child was searching for. Certainly Omid knew no one else here; he had no family to name. No friends.

Why then, did he seem so eager?

A finely dressed older woman came suddenly forward, and the prince, distracted, did not at first discern the familiar face of his aunt—and then, disarmed, could not hide his relief. Kamran was so pleased to see Duchess Jamilah that he took her outstretched hand and bowed before it, paying the woman an undue level of respect that attracted a number of unwelcome stares.

A beat too late, he realized his aunt was not alone.

“Your Highness,” said Duchess Jamilah, flushing slightly under his attentions. “It is my great thrill this evening to introduce to you the daughter of a dear friend of mine.”

Kamran felt—and heard—the king straighten in his seat. The prince steeled himself as he turned, studying now the young woman standing beside his aunt.

“Please allow me the pleasure of formally presenting Lady Golnaz, daughter of Marquess Saatchi.”

Kamran nodded, and the girl fell into a graceful curtsy, rising before him to reveal clear brown eyes and an uncomplicated smile. She possessed ordinary, familiar features neither remarkable nor plain. Her brown waves were pulled back from her face in a loose chignon; she wore a nondescript gown with little to recommend its color or shape. Intellectually, Kamran understood that the girl was an approximation of pretty, but he felt nothing when he looked at her, and would never have noticed her in a crowd.

Still, she seemed self-possessed in a way he appreciated. Of all things, Kamran thought he could never be married to someone he didn’t consider his emotional equal, and he struggled always to respect young ladies who only simpered, never holding up their heads with conviction. Dignity was, in his opinion, an essential quality in a queen, and he was at least relieved to discover that Lady Golnaz appeared the owner of a spine.

“The pleasure is mine,” he forced himself to say to the young woman. “I trust you are enjoying yourself this evening, Lady Golnaz.”

“I am, thank you,” she said in a bright voice, a smile touching her eyes. “Though I think the same cannot be said for you, Your Highness.”

The prince stilled at that, studying the young woman now with a renewed appreciation. “My pride would insist that I disagree, though I—” Kamran paused, blinking up at a blur of a girl in the distance, there and gone again.

“I . . .” he said, returning his eyes to Lady Golnaz, struggling now to remember the original purpose of his statement. “I cannot . . .”

Another flash of color and Kamran looked up again, wondering, even then, why he should be so distracted by a single movement when the entire room around him was a madness of motion and—


The prince was transfixed. Blood rushed from his head without warning, leaving him light-headed.

She was here.

She was here—just there—incandescent in shimmering waves of lavender, obsidian curls pinned away from her unmasked face, a few loose tendrils glancing off her cheeks, which had gone pink with exertion. If he’d thought her breathtaking in the drab garb of a servant’s dress, he could not think how to describe her now. He only knew that she seemed apart from this mundane world; above it.

The mere sight of her had paralyzed him.

There was no linen at her throat, no bandages wrapped around her hands. She seemed to glow as she moved, float as she searched the room. Kamran lost his breath as he watched her, felt his heart hammer in his chest with a violence that scared him.

How? How was she here? Had she come for him? Had she come to find him, to be with him—?

“Your Highness,” someone was saying.

“Sire, are you quite all right?” Another.

The prince watched, as if from outside himself, as a young man grabbed Alizeh’s hand. She spun around to face him, her eyes widening in surprise, then recognition.

He said something, and she laughed.

Kamran felt the sound spear him like a blade, his chest seizing with an unfamiliar pain. It was an ache unlike any he’d known; one he wished to tear out of his chest.

“That’s him,” Hazan whispered suddenly in his ear.

Kamran took a breath and drew back, the scene around him coming sharply into focus. Alizeh had gone; disappeared into the crowd. He saw instead the worried eyes of his aunt, the curious gaze of Lady Golnaz. The frenzy of the bloated crowd before him.

“It’s the gentleman with the copper hair, Your Highness. The one carrying the unusual hat. The Tulanian ambassador has confirmed it.”

It was a moment before the prince was able to say: “Is he quite certain?” “Yes, sire.”

“Bring him to me,” Kamran said softly.

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