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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (10 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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It was only when they had come to a stop at the foot of the hill that Azad's words lost their enchantment. The dakhmeh loomed over
them, and Soraya's stomach lurched in revulsion. The
wrongness
of being here—of being here
alive
—settled over her, coating her skin like fine grains of sand. She was breathing shallowly, not wanting to inhale the contamination of death in the air.

As they neared the top of the hill, Soraya saw a pale orange light glowing from inside the dakhmeh.
I was right,
she thought. She supposed it could be a different yatu, someone other than the false priest, but she couldn't help feeling that whoever was inside had been waiting for her all along.

She kept expecting Azad to tell her she could turn back, that she didn't have to go through with this, but he didn't, and she wasn't sure she wanted him to. Instead, to her surprise, she was the one who offered a way out. “You should wait here.”

Azad shook his head. “I can't do that. We both go in or we both go back.”

There was the excuse she'd been waiting for to turn back, but Soraya knew she couldn't take it, not when they had come this far. “My curse will protect me,” she argued. “I
want
to go in alone.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was true. There was an intimacy to this unraveling of her life that she didn't want to share with anyone else.

He frowned at her, but he must have believed the resolve in her voice, because eventually he nodded. “I'll stay close. If you need me, call for me.”

Soraya agreed, and after taking one last breath of the cool night air, she continued onward. She had never seen the inside of a dakhmeh, of course—only the corpse-bearers came inside—and so she walked in expecting the worst. Would there be corpses laid out, decayed or half eaten by scavenger birds? Would a yatu be committing some unholy ritual with parts of the dead? Every story meant to scare children away from the dakhmeh swam through her mind.
If you step into the dakhmeh, or if you linger too long around a dead body, then the corpse div Nasu will find you and make you fall ill.

But as soon as Soraya stepped inside the dakhmeh, she no longer felt any terror or disgust—the only sensation was one of overwhelming emptiness.

The dakhmeh had two layers, she discovered, and she was standing on the top one, a jutting platform that formed a ring around the dakhmeh's perimeter. And all along the platform were rectangular indentations, the right size for a grave. To her intense relief, each of the shallow graves was empty. There was no roof, of course, in order to grant access to the birds, and so the air was not as stale and foul as she had expected, and the stars still shone overhead.

The platform gently inclined downward to a pit at the center of the dakhmeh. Soraya carefully made her way down the footpath between the graves. There were three rows of them, and when she passed the third row, with the smallest graves, she realized these must be for children.

At the end of the platform, she hesitated. She saw a fire burning in the pit below, the source of the light they had seen from outside. But otherwise, she saw nothing and no one, and she began to regret telling Azad to stay behind.

Why should you ever be afraid of anyone?
she heard Parvaneh's voice asking her. And she was right, wasn't she? Soraya was always the most dangerous person in any room. With this surge of confidence, Soraya sat on the edge of the platform and slid forward to land on the ground below.

A fine white powder rose up from the ground with the impact of her landing, and now Soraya knew what happened to the bones once the vultures finished their meal.

In the firelight, Soraya could make out the shapes of grates set into the wall—drains, she supposed, for rainwater. She went closer to the fire and found a waterskin and an empty bowl with the remains of some kind of stew. As Soraya began to wonder where the owner of these objects was, she heard a voice, like stone scraping against stone, from behind her.

“Who are you?” came the voice—a voice she recognized. “What are you doing here?”

Soraya turned at once to face it. In the shadow under the platform was a grizzled man, his gray hair and beard unkempt, his eyes red. He was not as tall as she remembered, but still, the sight of him made her want to shrink back, to escape the judgment of both him and the Creator.
Why should you ever be afraid of anyone?
she reminded herself again, and her fists clenched at her sides, grounding her.

“Do you remember me?” she asked him in a steady voice.

He stared at her blankly at first, but then he sucked in a breath and said, “Show me your face.” He came toward her. “Show me if you are who I think you are.”

Fear returned to her, but still she turned toward the firelight, removed her shawl with shaking hands, and pulled her hair away from her face to show the old man the rivers of poison under her skin, made visible by her rapidly beating heart.

His eyes shone when he saw her face, and he nodded slowly. “I remember you, shahzadeh,” he said. “I remember that night.” He snickered. “I frightened you, didn't I?”

Her face burned with anger.
I could reach out and touch him right now,
she thought,
and then see which one of us is more frightened
. But no, she couldn't harm him. She still needed him. “Have you been hiding away here all this time?” she said. “I thought yatu were more powerful than that. Can't you use your magic to help you escape?”

His smile turned sour. “Why do you think no one has ever found me here?” He spread his arms wide. “I lay a spell on the dakhmeh's boundaries, to keep away those who mean to do me harm.” His arms fell. “But without my books, I can do little else but cast petty curses on the villagers using the remains of their relatives.”

The word
curses
echoed in her mind like the hissing of a snake,
reminding her of her purpose. “I could find your books for you, if they haven't been burned,” she said.

He let out a skeptical snort. “I assume you want something in return,” he said.

“As high priest, you would have known the location of the simorgh's feather. Tell me where it is.”

If her request surprised him, he didn't show it. He only briefly considered her offer before nodding. “The simorgh's feather is the heart of the Royal Fire,” he said.

“It's inside the fire?” Soraya thought of the iron grate shielding the fire, of the priests who stood guard day and night to ensure no one extinguished it. If she could find a way to be in the fire temple alone, then perhaps Soraya could use some tool to take the feather from the fire. Parvaneh had said she would be able to return the feather once she was finished with it—Soraya could discreetly replace it once she knew the answer to lifting her curse. She could be free without betraying her family. Something like joy was beginning to ripple through her.

But as if he could hear the direction of her thoughts, the yatu was shaking his head. “You don't understand. The feather is not
inside
the fire. It's
part
of the fire. In any other fire, the feather would simply burn, but in the Royal Fire, it becomes part of the flames, giving the fire the power to protect the shah.”

Soraya frowned. “The
fire
protects the shah?”

The yatu nodded. “As long as the feather is part of it.”

Already her joy was fading away, replaced by a cold, creeping dread making its way through her limbs, her body understanding before her mind did. “And so the only way to take the feather…”

The yatu said what she could not: “… is to put out the fire.”

Those words extinguished Soraya's last hope. Even if she replaced the feather, it wouldn't matter. The feather alone couldn't protect her brother, and the fire, with its many ritual sources, couldn't
be rebuilt immediately, leaving her brother vulnerable to attack for a dangerously indefinite period of time. The only way she could learn how to lift her curse was by endangering her brother and committing a crime the yatu had been sentenced to death for attempting.

The yatu was watching her. “Ah,” he said with mocking pity. “I didn't tell you what you wanted to hear. Does that mean you won't search for my books after all, shahzadeh?”

“Maybe you can still earn them,” Soraya answered, her voice hard. She had almost forgotten her distant hope that the yatu would know a way to lift her curse. If he knew the answer, then she wouldn't need the feather after all. “Tell me how to lift the curse that makes me poisonous.”

This time, her request surprised him. He shook his head. “I thought you knew, shahzadeh. The feather
is
the way to lift your curse.”

Soraya thought she had misheard, her anxiety over the feather twisting the yatu's words. But then the yatu continued: “The simorgh's feather has restorative powers. In your case, you need the tip of the simorgh's feather to break your skin. A prick of the finger would do.”

Soraya shut her eyes, her blood churning. “Thank you,” she murmured tonelessly, turning her back on the yatu. Something had gone numb within her. She was barely aware of her surroundings, the world blurring around her as if it were all an indistinct dream.
No more thoughts tonight,
she decided.
No more hopes, either.

“Wait, shahzadeh,” the yatu's gravelly voice called out behind her. “I give nothing for free. You owe me for the information I've given you.”

She waved a hand listlessly in his direction, saying, “I'll search for your books and bring them to you if I find them, as promised.”

“I think you can offer me something better than that.”

She started to turn toward him to ask him what he meant, and then all she saw was something blurry from the corner of her eye—all she heard was the thud of an impact—

And as she tumbled to the dirty, bone-littered ground, all she felt was pain.

 

10

Her vision went briefly dark, but when she came to herself again, Soraya was still on the ground, one hand over her eye, where something blunt had struck her. And then her hand was wrenched away, and she looked up at the chiseled face of the yatu, who was quickly tying her wrists together with a thick cord around her gloves. Between his teeth was a long knife with an ivory handle—he must have used that handle to strike her.

“Stop! What are you doing?” Soraya cried out, trying to jerk her hands away from him. She didn't dare shout for Azad, not when that blade was so close to her face, but if she spoke loudly enough, maybe he would hear and know something was wrong. “What do you want with me?”

The yatu finished tying her hands and retrieved the knife from his mouth. “What do you think your family would give me in exchange for your life? Wealth? An official pardon, even? Far more
than just my books, surely. Or perhaps they're more likely to pay me for making you disappear.”

Soraya bit down on her tongue to keep herself from calling for Azad. The yatu was working on her ankles now, using the hem of her dress to guard his hands from her skin. Maybe if she screamed quickly enough, maybe if she lunged for him, maybe if she pretended to faint—

But before she could form a plan, something tackled the yatu, throwing him to the ground. The yatu hadn't finished with Soraya's ankles, and so she kicked the cord away, rolling to her side and pushing herself up onto her knees. And now she saw that it was Azad who had attacked the yatu—he had left behind his lantern, allowing him to sneak down the platform—and the two of them were both struggling for control of the knife in the yatu's hand.

Soraya looked in horror at Azad, pinned to the ground by the yatu's weight, the knife's edge dangerously close to his throat. “Go!” Azad called to her.

But of course she couldn't leave him here. Soraya tried not to lose her balance as she struggled to her feet, her bound hands shaking in her gloves … gloves that were slightly too large for her. Saying a silent thank-you to Parvaneh, Soraya bent down and stepped on the very edge of one glove, on the tiny pocket of air the glove left above her fingertips. And then she tore her hand from the glove with as much force as she could.

If she had been wearing her usual gloves, her plan might have failed, or she might have injured herself. But thanks to fate, or the Creator—or Parvaneh—the glove was just loose enough to let her pull her hand partly out of it. She pulled again—and again—until her right hand was free from both the glove and the bindings around her wrist. Quickly, she shook the cord off her other wrist.

While she had been working to free herself, Azad had continued struggling against the yatu. But once Soraya slipped free from her bindings, she looked up to see the yatu slam his knee into
Azad's stomach. Azad lost his grip on the yatu's wrist as he cried out in pain.

That cry sparked something in Soraya, a shame that flooded through her whole body. Azad was going to die because of her—because he had agreed to her dangerous plan, because he had come running when she had cried out—and Soraya was powerless to stop it.

And once more, Parvaneh's voice whispered in her mind:
You could wield such power.

Those words were no longer a taunt but a suggestion—a solution. The yatu had a knife, but Soraya had her own weapon. The firelight glinted on the yatu's raised knife, and Soraya's shame ignited into rage.

He plunged the knife downward—just as Soraya wrapped her bare fingers around his wrist, pressing into his skin with bruising force.

I'm touching his skin. My skin is touching his skin.
The yatu's skin was cold, but still it was warm in a way that she had never felt before. Even though the circumstances were unpleasant, the simple sensation of it was so unfamiliar to her that Soraya briefly forgot who and where she was. She forgot what would happen next.

The yatu seemed shocked, as well. He had frozen, his eyes locked on Soraya's hand, on the lines of poison under her skin. They both watched in surprise as the veins in the yatu's wrist became that venomous shade of green Soraya knew so well, the poison spreading down his arm. The knife fell from his hand and clattered to the ground harmlessly beside Azad.

“What have you done?” he rasped, his body slumping to the ground, his wrist sliding out of Soraya's grasp. The poison was now traveling up his neck, and when he tried to speak again, he started to gag.

I did this to him,
she thought.
I have the power to do this
. All the times she had felt small and meaningless, all the times her family
had lied to her or avoided her, all the times she had folded herself away, hiding like she was something shameful—all of that poison was in the yatu now, and she watched him choke on it, leaving her weightless. Bodiless.
Free
.

Soraya had never seen anything larger than a butterfly succumb to her poison. She didn't know how long it would take for him to die, and she watched it happen with a kind of numb curiosity. He was laid out on the ground, convulsing, the last sparks of life twitching out of him. And then he stilled, the veins fading away, and Soraya knew he was dead.

“Soraya.”

He was
dead,
and she had killed him, and he was so much bigger than a butterfly.

“Soraya, what have you done?”

She thought it was the yatu who had spoken, repeating his final words, but then she realized it had been Azad's voice. He pushed himself off the ground and went to examine the body, putting his fingers to the yatu's throat.

After a brief but painful silence, Azad said, “He's dead.” He looked at Soraya, mouth slightly parted, eyes wide and round with awe. “You killed him.”

I did it to save you,
she wanted to say.
I had no other choice.
But even as she scrambled for righteousness, she knew she was lying to herself. She might have found something heavy to knock the yatu unconscious. She might have only threatened him with death without actually touching him. She might have thought of
something
else, except she hadn't thought at all. She had killed the yatu because she was angry with him for what he had said to her all those years ago, because he hadn't given her the answers she wanted … and because it was easy. Because a little part of her had always wondered how easy it would be, and then she had had the perfect excuse to find out.

Soraya gagged, putting her hands—one gloved, one bare—over
her face, trying to block out the sight of the yatu's open, glassy eyes. But she couldn't block him out—he was part of her now. That corpse on the ground was hers. She was responsible for it. “I'm sorry,” she said, but the words changed nothing. When she lowered her hands, the body would still be there, and she would still be a murderer.

Azad took hold of her wrists over her sleeves, careful to avoid her skin, and pulled her hands away from her face. “Don't be,” he said firmly, letting the words echo through her mind, her memory—to the day they'd first met, when he had defended her against Ramin. “You saved us both.”

His gaze was as sure and unflinching as his words. Shadows swam over his face, his skin tinted orange in the dim light. Perhaps, if she let him, he could burn the guilt out of her with words, with a look, with a single touch. She started to lean toward him, not even realizing what she was doing until she stopped herself. But still, she felt an undeniable pull toward him, a thread that wound around them, tying them together. Whatever happened now, this moment belonged to the two of them alone, joining them together like a macabre wedding.

Azad's brow furrowed. “Are you hurt?” he asked her.

A laugh escaped her, the sound of it loud and hideously inappropriate in this place of death. “No one can hurt me,” she said, a frantic note in her voice. She continued in a calmer tone. “It's over now. The story ends here, Azad.”

“What do you mean?” he demanded, his hands tightening on her wrists. “What did the yatu tell you? You can't tell me it's over without any explanation.”

He was right. He had endangered himself for her, rushed to save her, comforted her when she was at her worst. It wasn't fair to shut him out now—not until he knew the truth and understood why it had all been for nothing.

“In order to lift my curse, I need the simorgh's feather. That was
why I came to the yatu. He used to be the high priest, until he was arrested for treason. I asked him how to find it.”

Azad watched her, rapt. “And did he tell you?”

Soraya told him what the yatu had told her about the feather and the fire, how together they gave the shah the simorgh's protection. “Do you understand now? I would have to betray my family.”

She waited to see some sign of resignation on his face, but instead he was shaking his head, a stubborn glint in his eye. “Soraya, no. You can't stop now. Maybe the yatu was lying. Maybe if we go to the fire temple, we'll find some way to borrow the feather without endangering anyone.”

“No,” she said at once. She pulled away from him and looked at the corpse, reminding herself how easy it was for her to lose her self-control. “I don't trust myself to do that.”

“I won't give up,” Azad said. “Together, we'll find a way.”

He reached for her again, but she backed away, looking at him in disbelief. “I don't understand you. I'm a murderer, Azad. You saw me
kill
someone. Why would you even want to help me anymore?”

Azad shook his head slowly as he came toward her. “You saved me, Soraya,” he said. “How is what you did any different from what soldiers do on the battlefield? No one would blame you for killing a yatu. You said yourself he was already wanted for treason.”

His words sounded reasonable enough, but Soraya knew that what was true for anyone else could never be true for her. If her family found out she had killed, they would see her differently—not as a sleeping serpent, its poison dormant, but as one that was awake and poised to strike. Soraya thought of the Shahmar with a shiver.

“It's different,” she said.

“How?”

“Because I touched him to see what would happen!” she cried out, her arms wrapping around her waist. “I wanted to see for
myself what I was capable of. It wasn't the duty of a warrior. It was…” She shook her head, a bitter taste in her mouth. “It was a show of power.”

She watched for Azad's reaction, waiting for his disgust for her to show on his face. She saw the movement of his throat as he swallowed, saw his fingers curl slightly at his side—but otherwise he was unreadable.

Her eyes kept flitting between Azad and the lifeless figure of the corpse, each painful in different ways, and so she turned her back on them both, arms tightening around her waist, her back hunching over. But it was too late to make herself small. The damage had already been done.

Gentle hands settled on her shoulders, and as if they had released her from some enchantment, Soraya's shoulders went slack, and her eyes fluttered closed. From behind her, Azad spoke, his voice so low and quiet that it might have been coming from her own mind. “Listen to me, Soraya,” the voice said, wrapping around her. “Whatever your reasons, and no matter what anyone else might say, I'm glad you did it. I think you're …
extraordinary.

The last word was an exhale, his breath warm on the curve of her neck. She wanted nothing more than to lean back against him, to let him hold her so close that she would forget everything outside the circle of his arms. She wanted his words to seep into her skin until she believed them. The longing was deeper than she'd ever felt before, a craving for something more than human touch. There was a dull ache in her heart as she opened her eyes.

“We'll leave the body here for the vultures,” Azad said. He removed his hands from her shoulders, going to retrieve her other glove.

“No,” Soraya said with surprising firmness. “We have to put it on the platform.” Dead flesh belonged to the Destroyer, and would pollute the Creator's soil until there was nothing left but bone. She had already broken too many rules tonight; it seemed vitally important to her to keep this one.

Azad looked like he wanted to argue, but he sighed and said, “Fine.” He threw the corpse over his shoulder and carried it to the platform, hoisting it up onto the rock. Soraya tried not to focus on the yatu's feet dangling over the edge.

“Now let's leave this place and put it out of our minds,” Azad said. He held Soraya's glove out to her. “But our story isn't over yet, Soraya. I promise you that.”

She was too exhausted to contradict him—especially when she wanted him to be right. “Take me home,” she said softly as she took back her glove. She slipped it on, put her gloved hand in his, and let him lead her out of the dakhmeh, back into the world of the living.

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