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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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And Laleh—how long had it been since she'd spoken to Laleh?
Was it three years or four? They had tried to keep in touch even after losing Sorush, but while two children could find time and space to play games or share candied almonds, it was much harder for two young women—especially when one of them was swiftly entering the world of the court that the other was forever barred from. Every year, they grew more distant, their time together shorter—and more awkward, both of them old enough now to understand how different their lives were and would always be. The spring Soraya turned fifteen was the first year she didn't see Laleh at all, and she hadn't been surprised. Laleh belonged to the same world as Sorush—a world of light, not shadow. Of open air, not narrow, hidden passageways.

Soraya bent down, digging with her hands into the soil to create a home for her new rose. From the corner of her eye, she saw the beetle still making its laborious way across the garden. Soraya watched it, this intruder to her sanctuary. And then she reached out and brushed one fingertip along its smooth back.

The beetle stopped moving, and Soraya went back to her work.

 

2

Five days after her family's return, Soraya was on the roof again. It was the night of Suri, the last night of winter, and Soraya was staring deeply into the heart of the bonfire, trying to feel some kind of connection with her ancestors. It was difficult in her case, though, because her ancestor was a bird.

That was the story, anyway. The first shah in her family's dynastic line, the shah who overthrew the wicked Shahmar and ascended to the throne more than two hundred years ago, had been a foundling child. His parents had cast him out, leaving him at the base of a mountain for the divs to take. But instead of divs, the simorgh—the legendary bird who served as the symbol and protector of Atashar—had found him and taken him in, adopting him as her son. Years later, after the Shahmar's defeat, the simorgh gave her newly coronated son one of her own feathers, which would keep him—and every reigning shah or shahbanu descended
from him—safe from the Destroyer's forces. Though the simorgh's protection had no power over natural deaths, like that of Soraya's father, it protected the current shah from divs and the human sorcerers known as yatu.

The simorgh's protection had to be freely given by the simorgh herself, not won or taken by conquest, and so it was a great point of pride for her family, even though the simorgh had gone missing during the reign of Soraya's great-grandfather. Her family's supporters claimed the simorgh left because she wasn't needed anymore, while detractors argued that the simorgh abandoned the royal family in disapproval after Soraya's great-grandfather had entered a truce to end years of war with Hellea. Others believed the Shahmar still lived and had hunted and killed the simorgh out of revenge for his defeat. Whatever had happened to her, fewer and fewer people had lived long enough to remember ever seeing her.

And that was the ancestral origin Soraya was supposed to be honoring tonight. Tomorrow, on Nog Roz, the entire palace would celebrate life, but Suri was a night dedicated to the spirits of the dead. The bonfire blazing on the roof in front of her burned to welcome her ancestors, the guardian spirits who protected her family.

Every year, Soraya tried to feel her ancestors returning—some sense of continuity between this long line of shahs and her, the cursed shahzadeh standing alone in the dark. Or between her and the people of Atashar, who were all currently burning bonfires on their own roofs, welcoming their own ancestors. Her ancestors, her people, her country—these were a person's roots, the forces that bound someone to a time and a place, a feeling of belonging. Soraya felt none of it. Sometimes she thought she could easily float away from this life, like a tendril of smoke, and begin again, far away, without any regret.

Soraya turned away from the fire and wandered to the edge of the roof. Below, scattered throughout the garden, were several smaller
fires in coal pits. Members of the court gathered around them, trying to seem solemn and respectful but probably gossiping over wine. If any of them looked in her direction, she would only appear as a dark, sulking outline against the fire.

Yes, she was sulking. After her mother's announcement, she had promised herself she wouldn't sulk—it would be too easy to sink into envy, to let that kind of poison into her heart as well as her veins. And yet here she was, alone on the roof once more, sulking.

Soraya sighed and leaned forward, her arms folded on the edge of the parapet. Whenever she was on the roof, she liked seeing the way her long dark brown hair spilled down against the wall, because it reminded her of one of her favorite stories. A princess had a secret lover who came to her window to see her. She let down her hair for him to climb and reach her, but he refused. He wouldn't harm a hair on her head, he told her, and he sent for a rope instead. Soraya had revisited that story over and over again through the years, wondering if she would ever look out her window and see someone waiting for her, someone like that young man, who would care more about her safety than his own.

A foolish thought. A pointless wish. Soraya should have known better by now than to indulge in such fantasies. She had read enough stories to know that the princess and the monster were never the same. She had been alone long enough to know which one she was.

Soraya started to turn away, but then something else caught her eye. A group of young soldiers in red were standing together, gathered around one man in particular. On a second look, she confirmed her initial suspicion—that the young man in the center was the same man who had noticed her during the procession a few days ago. He was now dressed in the red tunic of the azatan, a privilege most were born into. Elevation of a commoner to the azatan was customarily the shah's reward for those who performed
great feats of courage in service to the crown. If this young man had joined the azatan, he must have performed such a feat.

Curious, Soraya took the opportunity to study him more closely. At first glance, he might have blended in with the other soldiers perfectly in their matching red tunics, but he wasn't built like them. The others were broad-shouldered, arms roped with muscle, while this young man was tall and lean.
Sinuous,
Soraya thought. There was a grace to him—in the tilt of his head, in his stance, in the way he held his goblet of wine—that the others lacked, like they were all as solid as heavy wood while he was shifting liquid.

“Soraya?”

Soraya straightened at once, turning toward the hesitant voice. She felt strangely guilty, as if she had been caught eavesdropping—but then she saw who had addressed her, and all thought of the young man left her mind.

“Laleh,” Soraya said.

With the fire behind her accentuating the golden tones in her brown hair, Laleh appeared luminous, a dark red-orange sash the color of saffron draping down from her shoulder over the lighter hues of her gown. Of course Laleh was marrying Sorush—she already had the appearance and manner of a queen.

“I saw someone on the roof, and I thought it might be you,” Laleh said. She spoke with the polish of someone who was used to making conversation, but there was a note of uncertainty in her voice as well.

“My mother told me the news,” Soraya said. “I'm glad I have the chance to congratulate you in person.”

Soraya didn't think she sounded particularly convincing, but Laleh smiled, her shoulders relaxing. She came to stand beside Soraya at the ledge, and Soraya felt a pang in her chest, because Laleh had made no effort to count the steps between them or to look down at where Soraya's hands were. Laleh had always been
the only person to make Soraya forget she was cursed at all. Soraya turned her face so that Laleh wouldn't see her eyes.

“I was thinking the other day of how we met,” Laleh said. “Do you remember?”

Soraya tried to smile. “Do I remember tumbling into your room by accident? How could I forget?” When she was a child, Soraya wasn't as adept at navigating Golvahar's secret passageways as she was now. She had miscounted a door once and ended up emerging from a secret door in the wall to Laleh's bedchamber, tripping over her feet in the process. Soraya still remembered the baffled faces of both Laleh and Ramin, the two of them bent over some game when a strange, gloved girl fell into their room out of nowhere.

“I didn't see you come in through the wall,” Laleh said, “so I thought I was dreaming until Ramin went over to you.” She shook her head in irritation. “And of course his immediate reaction was to try to confront you—as if an assassin would have sent a seven-year-old girl to attack us.”

Soraya smiled thinly, but as much as she loathed to admit Ramin was right about anything, he wasn't entirely wrong to sense danger from her. While she had fumbled to open the wall panel again, Ramin had started coming closer and closer to her, asking her who she was. He had reached out a hand to her, and in her panic, she had told him not to touch her—that he would die if he did because she was poisonous. She wasn't supposed to tell anyone, but the words had rushed out of her before she could stop them.

“I was so scared he wouldn't believe me,” Soraya said softly, looking down at her hands on the ledge. “I thought he might want me to prove it, and that I would have to kill something before he would leave me alone. But then you pulled him away, and you asked me if I wanted to join your game.” Soraya looked up, determined to meet Laleh's eyes. “You were the only person who ever made me feel like I was the one worth protecting.”

Laleh was silent, and Soraya traced in the slope of her mouth
and the droop of her eyelids the way her thoughts went from pride to pity to guilt as she realized what Soraya had said—
you were,
not
you are
. Soraya hadn't realized it at first either, and she frantically thought of some way to lift the shadow that she had created. “You'll be a wonderful queen,” she said. “Sorush is lucky.”

That helped a little. Laleh's eyes were bright again as she thanked Soraya, and a mischievous smile crept over her face as she said, “You know, I used to wish that you and Ramin would marry.”

Soraya blinked in astonishment. “Why would you ever wish such a thing on me?” she asked in mock seriousness.

Laleh burst into laughter at Soraya's offended look, one hand covering her mouth. “It was when we were all children and I still hoped you two might get along one day. I wanted us to be sisters.”

Yes, Soraya remembered now. One morning, they had been lying under the trees in the orchard after stealing figs. They were side by side, their shoulders not close enough to touch, but not so distant that it seemed like they were not touching on purpose. Laleh had said that she wished they were sisters, and Soraya had considered the idea and said that she wished they could be married when they were older. Laleh had laughed, as if it were a joke, and Soraya had laughed too, even though it wasn't.

She wondered now if Laleh remembered that part—if she ever thought of it and still believed it had been a joke. But Soraya didn't want to see the shadow fall on her again, so she said, “I suppose your wish is coming true, then.”

And there he is, the reason all of Laleh's wishes are coming true,
Soraya thought as she found Sorush in the crowd below. From what she remembered of their father, the shah didn't often mingle with the crowd, except on Nog Roz, but Sorush was too young and lively to sequester himself away.
Don't sulk,
Soraya reminded herself.

But then she noticed the young man he was speaking with, and a small gasp escaped her lips. Laleh turned to her questioningly, then followed Soraya's gaze. “Ah, so you've noticed Azad.”

Something about the sly tone in her voice and the knowing smile on her face made Soraya bristle with annoyance. Even if Soraya did harbor any feeling other than curiosity for this young man, did Laleh think anything could ever come of it? Or did she want to alleviate her guilt by believing that Soraya had someone else now to fill the void of their friendship?

“I noticed him the other day during the procession,” Soraya said, trying to keep down her bitter thoughts. “I was wondering why he's in the uniform of the azatan now when he wasn't before.”

“A few days before we started for Golvahar, we heard reports of a div raid in a nearby village,” Laleh explained. “Sorush went himself, and one div tried to strike him from behind. But he has the simorgh's protection, of course, so before the div could strike, a young man from the village knocked the div unconscious. For his bravery, Sorush made him one of the azatan. The induction ceremony was yesterday, and Sorush asked him to remain at Golvahar until after the wedding.”

Soraya processed Laleh's words, but more than that, she noticed the pride in Laleh's voice as she spoke of Sorush, the gratitude she felt for this young hero who had saved the man she loved. Though considering that Sorush had the protection of the simorgh and could not come to harm at the hands of any div, her gratitude did seem excessive to Soraya.

“Actually…,” Laleh began. She continued to stare down at the garden, but then she looked up at Soraya with determined focus, the firelight dancing in her eyes. “That was what I came here to talk to you about,” she continued in a hushed voice. “The div that tried to attack Sorush was captured alive and is being kept in the dungeon. No one is supposed to know, but I overheard Ramin and my father talking about it.”

Soraya shook her head, not understanding why Laleh was telling her this with such intensity, but then she heard the unspoken question behind Laleh's words, and the force of it made her knees buckle, her hand gripping the roof ledge for balance.

What if this div knows how to break your curse?

She almost let out a sob—not of sadness, but of relief. Of
hope
. Soraya had never seen a div in the flesh before, but her own flesh was itself a constant reminder of their existence, their power, their menace. It was a div that had condemned her and determined the entire course of her life.

Wasn't it possible, then, that a div might save her, as well?

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