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Chapter no 37

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

KAMRAN SCHOOLED HIS EXPRESSION AS he waited, masking the pain that seized him now. Twin agonies assaulted his heart, his skin. The clothes he wore this evening had grown only more painful by the minute, and now this

this spasm—that threatened to fissure his chest. He could hardly look at Alizeh as he waited for her to speak. Had he misjudged her altogether? Had he become every inch the fool his grandfather and minister had accused him of becoming? At every turn she was a surprise, her intentions impossible to grasp, her actions confounding.

Why would she be so friendly with the sovereign of an enemy empire?

How—when—did their friendship begin?

Kamran had hoped Alizeh might absolve herself of any objectionable suspicions by admitting she’d come tonight for him, to be with him; that she’d so easily dismissed this possibility had been both a blow and a confirmation—an endorsement of his silent fears.

For why, then, had she come at all?

Why would she sneak into a royal ball held inside his home, her injuries miraculously healed, her servants’ clothing miraculously gone? Why, after so many desperate efforts to cling to her snoda—to hide her identity— would she discard the mask now, revealing herself in the middle of a ball where any stranger might see her for who she was?

Kamran could practically hear the king accuse her of duplicity, of manipulating his mind and emotions like some impossible siren. The prince heard every word of the imagined argument, saw every piece of plausible evidence that might condemn her, and still, he could not denounce the girl

—for reasons so flimsy as to be laughable: He had a feeling she was in danger.

It was his instincts that insisted, despite all damning evidence, that she was not herself a threat. On the contrary, he worried whether she might not be in trouble.

Even to himself he sounded a fool.

He recognized the glaring errors in his own judgment, the many missing explanations. He could not comprehend, for example, how she might’ve afforded such a stunning gown when just days ago she’d barely enough coppers to purchase medicine for her wounds. Or how, when just this morning she’d been scrubbing the floor of Baz House, she looked now every inch a breathtaking queen, laughing easily with the king of another empire.

King Zaal, the prince knew, would say she’d come to lead a coup, to claim her throne. The ball was, after all, the perfect venue to declare aloud

—where all the nobility of Ardunia might hear—that she had a right to rule.

Perhaps Kamran had gone mad.

It seemed the only feasible explanation for his inaction, for the fear that gripped him even now. Why else did he worry for her, when he should turn her over to the king? She would be arrested, no doubt sentenced to death. It was the correct course of action, and yet—he made no move.

His paralysis was an enigma even to himself.

The prince had ordered Hazan to deliver him King Cyrus, but Kamran had changed his mind when he saw the young man’s exchange with Alizeh. Cyrus had said something to her and left; not long after which Alizeh ran madly through the crowd, looking nothing short of terrified.

Kamran had followed her without thinking, hardly recognizing himself when he moved. He only knew he had to find her, to make certain she was okay, but now—

Now, Kamran could not fathom her reaction. Alizeh seemed perplexed by his question.

Her lips parted, her head canted to one side. “Of all the things you might wonder,” she said. “What a strange question you would choose to ask. Of course I do not know the Tulanian ki—”

“Your Highness,” came the sound of his minister’s breathless voice. “I’ve been searching for you everywhere . . .”

Hazan trailed off, coming to an abrupt halt at the prince’s side. The minister’s body was rigid with shock as he stared, not at the prince, but at Alizeh, whose silver eyes were no doubt all he needed to verify her identity.

Kamran sighed. “What is it, Minister?” “Minister?

The prince turned at the surprised sound of Alizeh’s voice. She stared at Hazan curiously, as if he were a puzzle to be solved, instead of an official to be greeted.

Not for the first time, Kamran thought he might be willing to part with his soul simply to know the contents of her mind.

“Your Highness,” said Hazan, bowing his head, his eyes cast down. “You must go. It’s not safe for you here.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Kamran frowned. “This is my home, of course it’s safe for me here.”

“There are complications, Your Highness. You must go. Surely you received my message.”

Now Kamran grew irritated. “Hazan, have you lost your mind?”

“Please trust me, Your Highness. Please return to your quarters and await further direction. I worry greatly for your safety so long as you remain here. Things are not going according to plan—did you not receive my message?”

“That is quite enough, Minister. Not only do you exaggerate, but you bore the young lady with talk of politics. If that is all—”

“No— No, sire,” he said, lifting his head sharply. “The king has requested your presence at once. I’m to deliver you back to the throne with all possible haste.”

Kamran’s jaw tensed. “I see.”

He watched as Hazan glanced from Alizeh to the prince, looking suddenly frantic—and Kamran couldn’t be entirely certain, but for a moment he thought he saw Hazan shake his head at her.

Or did he nod?

Alizeh surprised them both by dropping into an elegant curtsy. “Good evening, sir,” she said.

“Yes—yes, good evening.” Awkwardly, Hazan bowed. To the prince, he said quietly, “Sire, the king awaits.”

“You may tell the king that I’ll b—” “Alizeh!

Kamran went immobile at the sound of the unexpected voice.

Of all people, Omid Shekarzadeh moved fast toward them now, ignoring both the prince and his minister in his pursuit of Alizeh, who

beamed at the boy.

“Omid,” she called back, rushing forward to meet him.

And then, to Kamran’s utter astonishment, she drew the child into her arms. She hugged the street urchin who’d nearly murdered her.

Kamran and Hazan exchanged glances.

When the unlikely pair drew apart, Omid’s face had gone bright red. In Feshtoon, the boy said nervously, “I wasn’t even sure it was you at first, miss, because I’ve never seen you without your mask, but I’ve been searching for you all night, and I asked near everyone I could find if they seen a girl in a snoda—in case you were still wearing yours—but they only kept pointing at the servants, and I said no, no, she’s a guest at the ball, and everyone laughed at me like I was crazy except one lady, of course, one lady, I forget her name, Miss something, she told me she knew just who I was talking about, and that you were here wearing a purple dress, and that you weren’t a snoda, but a queen, and I laughed so hard, miss, I said—”

“I beg your pardon?” Hazan interjected. “Who is this person? Why would she say such things to you? How does she know anyth—”

“While we’re asking questions, how on earth do you know this young woman’s name?” Kamran interjected. “How are the two of you even on speaking terms?”

“Begging your pardon, Your Highness,” Omid said, “but I could ask you the same question.”

“You little blighter—”

“Actually, Omid is the reason I’m here tonight,” Alizeh interjected quietly, and Kamran went taut with surprise.

Always, she astonished him.

He watched as she smiled fondly at the child. “He invited me to the ball as an apology for trying to kill me.”

Impossibly, Omid went even redder. “Oh, but I was never gonna kill you, miss.”

“You used your credit with the crown to invite a girl to a ball?” Kamran stared at the boy, agog. “You conniving rascal. Do you imagine yourself to be some kind of young libertine?”

Omid scowled. “I was only trying to make amends, sire. I didn’t mean nothing inappropriate by it.”

“But who was the woman?” Hazan demanded. “The one who told you that”—nervously, he glanced at Alizeh—“that this young lady was a

queen?”

Kamran shot his minster a warning look. “Surely it was a lark, Minister.

A silly jest to startle the child.”

“Oh, no, sire.” Omid shook his head emphatically. “She weren’t joking. She seemed pretty serious, and scared, actually. She said she was hiding from someone, from a man who’d done some awful magic on her, and that if I found Alizeh I should tell her to run away.” He frowned. “The lady was mighty strange.”

A shock of fear moved through the prince then, apprehension he could no longer push aside. A man who’d done magic? Surely there could be little doubt as to the identity of the culprit?

All of Setar’s Diviners were dead.

None but King Cyrus was suspected of using magic this night. What other havoc might the monstrous king have wrought?

The prince locked eyes with Hazan, who looked similarly panicked.

“Omid,” Alizeh said quietly. “Will you show me where this lady was hiding?”

“Your Highness,” Hazan said abruptly, turning his eyes to the floor once more. “You must go. Go now. With all possible haste you must lea—”

“Yes, very well,” Kamran said coldly. “You need not have a fit, Minister. If you would please excuse me—”

He was interrupted by a sharp, bloodcurdling scream.

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