Chapter no 7

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

KAMRAN HAD ONLY JUST ENTERED the antechamber leading to his grandfather’s rooms when he felt it: a breath of movement. There was a glimmer of unnaturally refracted light along the walls, a hint of perfume in the air. Kamran purposely slowed his stride, for he knew his predator would not resist such an easy mark.


A flutter of skirts.

Not a moment too soon, Kamran had clamped a hand over his assailant’s fist, her fingers clenched around the hilt of a ruby dagger, which she held happily at his throat.

“I tire of this game, Mother.”

She twisted out of reach and laughed, her dark eyes gleaming. “Oh, darling, I never do.”

Kamran watched his mother with an impassive expression; she was so covered in jewels she glittered even standing still. “You find it diverting,” he said, “to play at murdering your own child?”

She laughed again and spun around him, velvet skirts shimmering. Her Royal Highness Firuzeh, the princess of Ardunia, was empyreal in her beauty—but then, this was not such an extraordinary accomplishment for a princess. Loveliness was to be expected of any royal who aspired to the throne, and it was no secret that Firuzeh resented the untimely death of her husband, who seven years ago had lost his head in a senseless battle and had left her forever a princess, never a queen.

“I am tragically bored,” she said. “And as my child pays so little attention to me, I am forced to be creative.”

Kamran was freshly bathed, his clothes pressed and scented, but he wanted desperately to be back in his military uniform. He’d always disliked his formal clothes for their impracticality, their frivolousness. He resisted the urge now to scratch his neck, where the stiff collar of his tunic scraped against his throat. “No doubt there are innumerable other ways,” he said to his mother, “to inspire my attention.”

“Tedious other ways,” she said tersely. “Besides, I should not have to inspire your interest. I did enough work growing you inside my own body. I am owed, at the very least, a modicum of devotion.”

Kamran bowed. “Indeed.” “You patronize me.”

“I do not.”

Firuzeh slapped Kamran’s hand away from his neck. “Do cease scratching yourself like a dog, my love.”

Kamran stiffened.

It did not matter how many men he’d killed, his mother would forever treat him like a child. “You would blame me for my discomfort when the collar of this ridiculous costume clearly seeks the decapitation of its wearer? Pray can we not, in all the empire, find someone to stitch together two pieces of reasonable clothing?”

Firuzeh ignored this.

She said, “It is a dangerous thing to keep an intelligent woman from performing a single practical task,” and slipped her arm through her son’s, forcing them to walk together toward the king’s main chamber. “I am not to blame for my fits of creativity.”

Kamran stopped, surprised, and turned to his mother. “Do you mean to say you have a desire to work?”

Firuzeh made a face. “Don’t be intentionally stupid. You know what I mean.”

Kamran had once thought there could never in all the world exist his mother’s equal, not in beauty or elegance, not in grace or intelligence. He’d not known then how critical it was to also possess a heart. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Firuzeh sighed theatrically, waving him away as they entered the king’s reception chamber. Kamran had not known his mother would be joining them for this meeting. He suspected that, more than anything else, she’d come along merely for another look at the king’s rooms, as his were her favorite in the palace, and seldom was anyone invited inside.

His grandfather’s rooms were designed entirely with mirrors; with what seemed an incalculable number of these small, reflective tiles. Every inch of the interior space, high and low, glittered with arrangements of star-like patterns, all interwoven into a series of larger geometric shapes. The soaring domed ceilings glimmered from high above, a mirage of infinity that seemed to reach the heavens. Two large windows were thrown open to grant entrée to the sun: sharp shafts of light penetrated the room, further illuminating constellation after constellation of shattered glow. Even the floors were covered in mirrored tiles, though the delicate work was protected by a series of rich, intricately woven rugs.

The overall effect was ethereal; Kamran imagined it was not unlike standing in the belly of a star. The room itself was sublime, but the effect it had on its occupants was perhaps the greater accomplishment. A visitor stepped into this room and felt at once exalted, transported to the heavens. Even Kamran was not immune to its effects.

His mother, however, grew mournful.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, spinning around the room, a hand clasped to her chest. “This should’ve all been mine one day.”

Kamran watched as his mother peered into the nearest wall, admiring herself; she fluttered her fingers, making her jewels sparkle and dance. Kamran always found it a bit disorienting, entering this space. It inspired a feeling of magnificence, yes, but he found the feeling chased always by a feeling of inadequacy. He felt his small footprint in the world never more acutely than when surrounded by true strength, and he never felt this feeling with more precision than when he drew nearer his grandfather.

The prince looked around then for a sign of the man.

Kamran peered through a crack in one of the adjoining doors, the one he knew led to the king’s bedchamber, and was weighing the impertinence of searching the bedroom when Firuzeh tugged on his arm.

Kamran looked back.

“Life is so unfair, is it not?” she said, her eyes shining with feeling. “Our dreams so easily shattered?”

A muscle jumped in Kamran’s jaw. “Indeed, Mother. Father’s death was a great tragedy.”

She made a noncommittal noise.

Often, Kamran thought he could not leave this palace quickly enough. He did not resent his inheritance to the throne, but neither did he relish it. No, Kamran knew too well the gore that accompanied glory.

He’d never once hoped to be king.

As a child, people spoke to Kamran of his position as if he were blessed, fortunate to be in line for a title that first demanded the deaths of the two people he cared for most in the world. It had always seemed to him a disturbing business, and never more so than the day his father’s head had been returned home without its body.

Kamran was eleven years old.

He was expected to show strength even then; only days later he was forced to attend a ceremony declaring him the direct heir to the throne. He

was but a child, commanded to stand beside the mutilated remains of his father and show no pain, no fear—only fury. It was the day his grandfather gave him his first sword, the day his life changed forever. It was the day a boy was forced to leap, unformed, into the body of a man.

Kamran closed his eyes, felt the press of a cold blade against his cheek. “Lost in your head, darling?”

He looked at his mother, irritated not merely with her, but with himself. Kamran did not know the precise shape of the discomfort that addled him; he could not fathom an explanation for his disordered thoughts. He only knew he felt every day a creeping dread, and worse: he feared such uncertainty of mind would only exacerbate matters, for these lost moments, Kamran knew, could cost him his life. His mother had proven that just now.

She seemed to read his mind.

“Don’t worry. It’s decorative, mostly.” Firuzeh stepped back, tapping the glimmering ruby blade with the tip of a perfectly rounded fingernail. She tucked the weapon into her robes. “But I am quite angry with you today, and we must speak about it quickly.”

“Why is that?”

“Because your grandfather has things he wishes to say to you, but I mean to say my things first.”

“No, Mother, I meant: why are you angry?”

“Well, certainly we must discuss this servant girl you have s—”

“There you are,” boomed a voice just behind them, and Kamran spun around to see the king approach, transcendent in vibrant shades of green.

Firuzeh fell into a deep curtsy; Kamran bowed.

“Come, come.” The king motioned with one hand. “Let me look at you.”

Kamran stood and stepped forward.

The king took Kamran’s hands and held them, his warm eyes appraising the prince with an undisguised curiosity. Kamran understood that he would be reprimanded for his actions today, but he also knew he would bear the repercussions with dignity. There was no one alive he respected more than his grandfather, and Kamran would honor the king’s wishes, whatever they were.

King Zaal was a living legend.

His grandfather—his father’s father—had overcome all manner of tribulations. When Zaal was born, his mother had thought she’d given birth

to an old man, for the baby’s hair was already white, his eyelashes white, his skin so pale it was nearly translucent. Despite the protests of the Diviners, the child had been declared cursed, and his horrified father refused to own him. The wretched king ripped the newborn child from his mother’s arms and carried him to the peak of the highest mountain, where the infant was left to die.

Zaal’s salvation came in the form of a majestic bird that discovered the crying infant and carried it away, raising it as one of its own. Zaal’s eventual return to claim his rightful place as heir and king was one of the greatest stories of their time, and his long reign over Ardunia had been just and merciful. Of his many achievements, Zaal was the only Ardunian king who’d seen fit to put an end to the violence between Jinn and Clay; it was by his order that the controversial Fire Accords had been established. Ardunia was, as a result, one of the only empires living in peace with Jinn, and for that alone Kamran knew his grandfather would not be forgotten.

Finally, the king drew away from his grandson.

“Your choices today were exceedingly curious,” Zaal said as he seated himself on his mirrored throne, the sole piece of furniture in the room. Kamran and his mother did what was expected and folded themselves onto the floor cushions before him. “Do you not agree?”

Kamran did not immediately respond.

“I think we can all agree that the prince’s behavior was both hasty and unbecoming,” his mother interjected. “He must make amends.”

“Indeed?” Zaal turned his clear brown eyes on his daughter-in-law. “What kind of amends do you recommend, my dear?”

Firuzeh faltered. “I cannot think of any at present, Your Majesty, but I am certain we shall think of something.”

Zaal steepled his hands under his chin, against the carefully trimmed cloud of his beard. To Kamran, he said, “You neither deny nor justify your actions today?”

“I do not.”

“And yet, I see that you are not remorseful.” “I am not.”

Zaal turned the full force of his gaze upon his grandson. “You will, of course, tell me why.”

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I do not think it unbecoming of a prince to care for the welfare of his people.”

The king laughed. “No, I daresay it is not. What is unbecoming is a fickleness of character and an unwillingness to speak the truth to those who know you best.”

Kamran stiffened, heat prickling along the nape of his neck. He knew a rebuke when he heard one, and he was not yet immune to the effects of an admonishment from his grandfather. “Your Highness—”

“You have walked among your people for some time now, Kamran. You’ve seen all manner of suffering. I might accept an explanation of idealism more readily were your actions symptomatic of a larger philosophical position, which we both know they are not, as you’ve never before taken an active interest in the lives of street children—or servants, for that matter. Certainly there is more to this story than the sudden expansion of your heart.” A pause. “Do you deny that you acted out of character? That you put yourself in danger?”

“I will not attempt to deny the first. As to the second—”

“You were alone. Unarmed. You are heir to an empire that spans a third of the known world. You solicited the help of passersby, put yourself at the mercy of strangers—”

“I had my swords.”

Zaal smiled. “You persist in insulting me with these ill-considered protests.”

“I mean no disrespect—”

“And yet you are aware, are you not, that a man in possession of a sword is not invincible? That he might be attacked from above? That he might be slain by arrow, that he might be mobbed or overrun, that he might be knocked on the head and dragged away for ransom?”

Kamran bowed his head. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Then you accept that you acted out of character. That you put yourself in danger.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Very good. I am asking now only for your explanation.”

Kamran took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly, through his nose. He considered telling the king what he’d told Hazan: that he’d involved himself in the situation because the girl had appeared to him conspicuous, untrustworthy. And yet, Hazan had all but laughed at his explanation, at his instinct that something was amiss. How might Kamran forge into words the influence of an intuition invisible to the eye?

Indeed the more he deliberated, the more the prince’s justifications, which had earlier struck him as cogent, seemed now, under the searing gaze of his grandfather, as scattered as sand.

Quietly, Kamran said, “I have no explanation, Your Majesty.”

The king hesitated at that, the smile evaporating from his eyes. “You cannot mean it.”

“I beg you will forgive me.”

“What of the girl? I would not judge you too harshly if you admitted to some weakness of the mind there. Perhaps you will tell me she was a disorienting beauty—that you interfered for some lesser, sordid reason. That you fancy yourself in love with her.”

“I did not.” Kamra’s jaw tensed. “I do not. I most certainly would not.” “Kamran.”

“Grandfather, I could not even see her face. You could not expect me to own such a lie.”

For the first time, the king grew visibly concerned. “My child, do you not understand how precarious your position is? How many would celebrate any excuse to have your faculties examined? Those who covet your position would invite any reason to deem you unworthy of the throne. It disturbs me more to know that your actions were born not of recklessness, but thoughtlessness. Stupidity is possibly your worst offense.”

Kamran flinched.

True, he deeply respected his grandfather, but so, too, did the prince respect himself, and his pride would no longer allow him to endure an onslaught of insults without protest.

He lifted his head, looking the king directly in the eye when he said, with some sharpness, “I believed the girl might be a spy.”

King Zaal visibly straightened, his countenance revealing nothing of the tension visible in his hands, clenched now around the arms of his throne. He was silent for so long that Kamran feared, in the interlude, he’d made a terrible mistake.

The king said only: “You thought the girl a spy.” “Yes.”

“It is the single true thing you have spoken.”

Instantly, Kamran was disarmed. He stared at the king then, bewildered. “I may now understand your motivations,” said his grandfather, “but I

am yet to comprehend your lack of discretion. You thought it wise to pursue

such a suspicion in the middle of the street? You thought the girl a spy, so you say—and what of the boy? Did you think him a saint? That you carried him through the square, allowing him to bleed all over your body?”

For the second time, Kamran experienced an unnerving heat inflame his skin. Again, he lowered his eyes. “No, Your Majesty. There, I had not been thinking clearly.”

“Kamran, you are to be king,” said his grandfather, who sounded suddenly close to anger. “You have no choice but to think clearly. The people may discuss all manner of gossip pertaining to their sovereign, but the soundness of his mind should never be a topic of discussion.”

Kamran kept his head bowed, his eyes trained on the intricate, repeating patterns of the rug underfoot. “Do we need worry what anyone thinks of my mind? Surely there’s no need to concern ourselves with such matters at this juncture. You are strong and healthy, Grandfather. You will rule Ardunia for many years yet—”

Zaal laughed out loud, and Kamran looked up. “Oh, your sincerity does move me. Truly. But my sojourn here is coming to an end,” he said, his eyes searching for the window. “I have felt it for some time now.”


King Zaal held up a hand. “I will not be distracted from our present discussion. Neither will I insult your intelligence by reminding you how profoundly your every action affects the empire. A simple announcement of your return home would’ve been enough to stir up all manner of theater and excitement, but your actions today—”

“Indeed,” said his mother, interjecting herself, reminding everyone she was still there. “Kamran, you should be ashamed of yourself. Acting the part of a commoner.”

“Ashamed?” Zaal looked at his daughter-in-law in surprise. To Kamran, he said, “Is that why you think I’ve summoned you?”

Kamran hesitated.

“I expected you might be angry with me, yes, Your Majesty. I was also told you might expect me to host a ball now that I’ve inadvertently announced my return.”

Zaal sighed, his white brows knitting together. “Hazan told you that, I imagine?” The king’s frown grew deeper. “A ball. Yes, a ball. Though that is the least of it.”

Kamran tensed. “Your Highness?”

“Oh, my child.” Zaal shook his head. “I see only now that you do not realize what you’ve done.”

Firuzeh looked from her son to the king and back again. “What has he done?”

“It was not your mere interference that caused such talk today,” Zaal said softly. He was staring out the window again. “Had you left the boy to die in his own blood, it would’ve been little remarked upon. These things occasionally happen. You could’ve quietly summoned the magistrates, and the boy would’ve been carted away. Instead, you held him in your arms. You let the blood of a street orphan touch your skin, sully your clothes. You showed care and compassion for one of their own.”

“And am I to be punished, Your Majesty? Am I to be cut down for a display of mercy?” Kamran said, even as he felt the ascent of an unsettling apprehension. “I thought it expected of a prince to be in service of his people.”

His grandfather almost smiled. “Do you mean to purposely misunderstand me? Your life is too valuable, Kamran. You, heir to the largest empire on earth, recklessly exposed yourself to danger. Your performance today might go unquestioned by the people, but it will be severely scrutinized by the nobles, who will wonder whether you’ve gone mad.”

Gone mad?” the prince said, struggling now to control his anger. “Is that not a gross overreaction? When there were no repercussions— When I did nothing but assist a dying boy—”

“You did nothing but cause a riot. They are only chanting your name in the streets.”

Firuzeh gasped and ran to the window, as if she might see or hear anything from within the palace walls, which were notoriously impenetrable. The prince, who knew better than to hope for a glimpse of a mob, sank back down.

He was stunned.

Zaal sat forward in his seat. “I know in your heart you would fight to the death for your empire, child, but this is not at all the same kind of sacrifice. A crown prince does not risk his life in the town square for a thieving street urchin. It is not done.”

“No,” said the prince, subdued. He felt suddenly leaden. “I expect it is not.”

“We must now temper your recklessness with displays of solemnity,” said his grandfather. “Such performances will be for the benefit, in particular, of the noble families of the Seven Houses, upon whose political influence we heavily rely. You will host a ball. You will be seen at court. You will pay your respects to the Seven Houses, House of Piir, in particular. You will relieve them of any fears they might have as concerns your character. I will have them question neither the soundness of your mind nor your ability to rule. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the prince, discomposed. Only now was he beginning to understand the weight of his error. “I will do as you bid me, and I will remain in Setar for as long as you think it necessary to repair this damage. Then, if you will allow it, I’d like to return to my troops.”

Briefly, Zaal smiled. “I’m afraid it is no longer a good idea for you to be far from home.”

Kamran did not pretend to misunderstand.

“You are healthy,” he said with more heat than he intended. “Fit and strong. Of sound mind. You could not be certain of such a thing—”

“When you get to be my age,” Zaal said gently, “you can indeed be certain of such things. I’ve grown weary of this world, Kamran. My soul is eager to depart. But I cannot leave without first ensuring that our line is protected—that our empire will be protected.”

Slowly, the prince looked up into his grandfather’s eyes.

“You must know.” Zaal smiled. “I did not ask you to come home merely to rest.”

At first, Kamran did not understand. When he did, a beat later, he felt the force of the realization like a blow to the head. He could scarcely form the words when he said:

“You need me to marry.”

“Ardunia requires an heir.”

am your heir, Your Majesty. I am your servant—” “Kamran, we are on the brink of war.”

The prince held steady even as his heart pounded. He stared at his grandfather in something akin to disbelief. This was the conversation he’d been waiting to have, the news he’d been waiting to discuss. Yet even now, King Zaal seemed disinclined to say much.

This, Kamran could not countenance.

His grandfather was threatening to die—threatening to leave him here alone to wage a war, to defend their empire—and instead of equipping him for such a fate, was tasking him with marriage? No, he could not believe it.

Through sheer force of will was Kamran able to keep his voice steady when he said, “If we are to go to war, Your Highness, surely you might assign me a more practical task? There’s no doubt a great deal more I could do to protect our empire at such a time than court some nobleman’s daughter.”

The king only stared at Kamran, his expression serene. “In my absence, the greatest gift you could give your empire is assurance. Certainty. War will come, and with it, your duty”—he held up a hand to prevent Kamran from speaking—“which I know you do not fear.

“But if something should happen to you on the battlefield, we will be in chaos. Worthless relations will claim the throne, and then lay waste to it. There are five hundred thousand soldiers under our command. Tens of millions who rely on us to manage their well-being, to ensure their safety, to procure the necessary water for their crops, to guarantee food for their children.” Zaal leaned forward. “You must secure the line, my child. Not just for me, but for your father. For your legacy. This, Kamran, is what you must do for your empire.”

The prince understood then that there was no choice to be made. King Zaal was not asking a question.

He was issuing a command.

Kamran rose on one knee, bowed his head before his king. “Upon my honor,” he said quietly. “You have my word.”

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