Chapter no 6

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

ALIZEH’S MORNING HAD BEEN, AMONG other things, disappointing. She’d sacrificed an hour of sleep, braved the winter dawn, narrowly escaped an attempt on her life, and eventually returned to Baz House with only regret to report, wishing her pockets weighed as heavy as her mind.

She’d carried the unwieldy parcel through several snowdrifts before arriving at the servants’ entrance of the Lojjan ambassador’s estate, and, after forcing her frozen lips to stammer out an explanation for her appearance at the threshold, the bespectacled housekeeper had handed Alizeh a purse with her pay. Alizeh, shivering and fatigued, had made the mistake of counting the coin only after relinquishing her commission, and then, forgetting herself entirely, dared to say aloud that she thought there’d been some kind of mistake.

“Forgive me, ma’am—but this is only h-half of what we agreed upon.” “Mm.” The housekeeper sniffed. “You’ll get the rest once my mistress

decides she likes the dress.” Alizeh’s eyes went round.

Perhaps if her skirts hadn’t been stiff with frost, or if her chest had not felt as if it might fissure from cold—perhaps if her lips had not been so very numb, or if her feet had not lost all sensation—perhaps then she might’ve remembered to bite her tongue. Instead, Alizeh managed only to contain the worst of her outrage. A miracle, really, that she spoke with some measure of equanimity when she said, “But Miss Huda might decide she doesn’t like the dress simply to avoid payment.”

The housekeeper recoiled, as if she’d been struck. “Careful what you say, girl. I won’t hear anyone call my mistress dishonest.”

“But surely you can see that this is indeed dishon—” Alizeh said, slipping on a spot of ice. She caught herself against the doorframe, and the housekeeper shrank back farther, this time with an undisguised revulsion.

Off,” the woman snapped. “Get your filthy hands off my door—”

Startled, Alizeh jumped back, miraculously avoiding another patch of ice just two inches to her left. “Miss Huda won’t even allow me in the h- house,” she stammered, her body now trembling violently with cold. “She wouldn’t allow me to do a single fitting—she could decide for any number of reasons that she doesn’t like my w-work—”

The door slammed shut in her face.

Alizeh had experienced a sharp pinch in her chest then, a pain that made it hard to breathe. The feeling had remained with her all day.

She felt for the little purse now, its weight in her apron pocket, resting against her thigh. She’d been delayed getting back to Baz House, which meant she’d had no time to deposit her earnings somewhere safer. The world had begun to come alive on her journey back, fresh snowfall dotting every effort to awaken the city of Setar. Preparations for the Wintrose Festival had overtaken the streets, and though Alizeh appreciated the heady scent of rosewater in the air, she would’ve preferred a moment of quiet before the bell tolled for work. She could not have known then that the quiet she sought might not come at all.

Alizeh was in the kitchen when the clock struck six, broomstick in hand, standing silently in the shadows and as near to the fire as she could manage. The other servants had gathered an hour earlier around the kitchen’s long wooden table for their morning meal, and Alizeh watched, rapt, as they finished the last of their breakfast: bowls of haleem, a kind of sweet porridge blended with shredded beef.

As a trial employee Alizeh was not yet allowed to join them—nor did she have any interest in their meal, the mere description of which made her stomach turn—but she enjoyed listening to their easy banter, witnessing the familiarity with which they spoke to one another. They engaged like friends. Or family.

It was a kind of ordinariness with which Alizeh was little acquainted. Her parents’ love for her had filled her whole life; Alizeh had wanted for little, and was denied in her childhood nothing but the company of other children, for her mother and father were adamant that, until the moment Alizeh was ready, her existence remain otherwise undiscovered. Alizeh

could recollect only one little boy—whose mother was a dear friend of her parents—with whom she was allowed on occasion to play. His name she could not now recall; she remembered only that his pockets were always full of hazelnuts, with which he taught her to play a game of jacks.

Only a select few other trustworthy souls—mostly the masters and tutors with whom she spent a great deal of her time—had been allowed in her life. She had been as a result sheltered to an uncommon degree, and, having spent little time in Clay company, was now spellbound by a great many of their customs. Alizeh had been punished in her previous positions for lingering too long in a breakfast room, for example, hoping for a glimpse of a gentleman eating an egg or buttering a slice of toast. She was endlessly fascinated by their forks and spoons, and this morning was no different.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” Mrs. Amina barked at her, startling Alizeh nearly to death. The housekeeper grabbed Alizeh by the scruff of her neck and shoved her into the adjoining hall. “You forget yourself, girl. You don’t eat with the other servants.”

“I was— I was only waiting,” Alizeh said, wincing as her fingers fluttered around her neck, gently pulling her collar back into place. The cut at her throat was still tender, and Alizeh had not wanted to draw attention to herself by wrapping it. She felt the telltale moisture of what could only be fresh blood, and clenched her fists to keep from touching the wound. “Forgive me, ma’am. I never meant to be impertinent. I was only awaiting your instruction.”

It happened so fast Alizeh didn’t even realize Mrs. Amina had slapped her until she felt the pain in her teeth, saw the flash of light behind her eyes. Too late Alizeh flinched and shrank back, her ears ringing, hands grasping for purchase against the stone wall. She’d made too many mistakes today.

“What did I tell you about that mouth of yours?” Mrs. Amina was saying. “You want this position, you will learn your place.” She made a sound of disgust. “I told you to rid yourself of that absurd accent. Impertinent,” she scoffed. “Where you even learned to talk like that—”

Alizeh felt the change when Mrs. Amina cut herself off, watched her eyes darken with suspicion.

Alizeh swallowed.

“Where did you learn to talk like that?” Mrs. Amina asked quietly. “Knowing your letters is one thing, but you begin to strike me as a bit too

high in the instep for a scullery girl.”

“Not at all, ma’am,” Alizeh said, lowering her eyes. She tasted blood in her mouth. Already her face was tender; she resisted the impulse to touch what was no doubt a purpling bruise. “I beg your pardon.”

“Who taught you to read, then?” Mrs. Amina rounded on her. “Who taught you to put on airs?”

“Forgive me, ma’am.” Alizeh flinched, forced herself to talk slowly. “I don’t mean to put on airs, ma’am, it’s only that I don’t know how else to spe—”

Mrs. Amina looked up then, distracted by the sight of the clock, and the fight went out of her eyes. They’d lost precious minutes of the workday already, and Alizeh knew they could not afford to lose more to this conversation.

Still, Mrs. Amina stepped closer.

“Speak to me like you’re some fancy toff one more time and not only will you see the back of my hand, girl, you’ll be back on the street.”

Alizeh felt suddenly ill.

If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the rough stone of the cold, vermin-infested alley pressed against her cheek; she could still hear the sounds of the sewer lulling her into unconsciousness for minutes at a time

—the longest she’d ever dared to keep her eyes closed on the street. Alizeh sometimes thought she’d rather run in front of a carriage than return to such darkness.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said softly, her pulse racing. “Forgive me, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Enough of your pompous apologies,” Mrs. Amina snapped. “Her ladyship is in a frightful state today, and wants every room scrubbed and polished as if the king himself were coming to visit.”

Alizeh dared to look up.

Baz House had seven floors, and 116 individual rooms. Alizeh wanted more than anything to ask: Why? Why every room? Instead, she held her tongue, grieving quietly. Scrubbing all 116 in one day, she knew, would leave her body in ribbons.

“Yes, ma’am,” she whispered. Mrs. Amina hesitated.

Alizeh could see then that Mrs. Amina was not such a monster that she wouldn’t acknowledge the near impossibility of this demand. The

housekeeper’s tone softened a bit when she said: “The others will help, of course—but they have their regular duties to attend to as well, you understand? The bulk of the work will be yours.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do this well, girl, and I will see about hiring you on permanently. But I make no promises”—Mrs. Amina lifted a finger, then pointed it at Alizeh

—“if you don’t learn to keep that mouth shut.” Alizeh took a sharp breath. And nodded.

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