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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (21 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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She shook her head. “I don't understand.”

“The blood from a div's heart made me a div. I thought, then, that the opposite might be true as well.”

“The opposite—?” Soraya's eyes widened in understanding. “Blood from a human heart?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “And it did work, but as I said, only for a short time. Little more than a month before I would need to repeat the process.”

Soraya grimaced and covered her mouth with her hand, remembering one of the more gruesome parts of the Shahmar's story—that he would demand the sacrifice of two men every month, seemingly for no reason. And in a strange way, Soraya was grateful for the knowledge. The image of the ill-omened boy had become too strong and too familiar in her mind. She needed a reminder of his blood-soaked reign.

But then an even more unsavory truth occurred to her. “That means that before you returned to Golvahar, before I first saw you, you must have…”

He nodded. “I can still change form, but it will wear off soon.” He had been avoiding her eye, but now he looked at her, and he bristled at the revulsion on her face. “Besides, to live as a human would mean living as no one, as nothing, the way I once was. If that's a human life, then I prefer to live as I am. As the Shahmar, I have the power to command a shah to his knees.”

The image of Sorush kneeling before him sent a welcome burst of anger through her, and before she could stop herself, she said, “And as the Shahmar, you lost your throne.”

One of his hands clenched and unclenched at his side. In a cold voice, he said, “There's something you haven't asked me yet, Soraya.”

Soraya's pulse quickened. Had he seen through her line of questioning? Did he know she was going to ask about the feather next? “What question is that?”

“Ask me for the name of the div who turned me into the Shahmar.”

If Soraya felt a prickle of foreboding at his words, she ignored it in favor of relief that he didn't know her true purpose. “Fine, then. What's the name of the div who turned you into the Shahmar?”

His mouth twisted into a thin, cruel smile as he pronounced the name that Soraya should have expected, because it was the only name that would have meant anything to her, the name that would hurt her most:

“Parvaneh.”

 

21

In her room once more, Soraya tried to erase Azad's words from her mind.

Ask me for the name of the div who turned me into the Shahmar
.

She had wanted to deny it, but the more she considered it, the more it made sense. This was why Azad hunted down and captured pariks. This was why the other pariks shunned Parvaneh—and why she was so desperate to defeat the Shahmar. Parvaneh had done to Azad what Azad had done to Soraya. Soraya wasn't surprised, then, that he still hadn't forgiven her.

Azad had returned her to her room, promising to return again the next night. And now Soraya sat at her table, the candelabra on the end closest to her, waiting for Parvaneh to appear.

“Any luck?”

Soraya's head snapped up at the sound of Parvaneh's voice. She was no longer wearing the worn shift from her captivity, but a
shimmery gray tunic with a slit in the back for her wings. Had she been Azad's prisoner ever since he had been a young prince, still human? No wonder, then, that there was an effusive energy around her now that she was free, her eyes bright and smiling.

“No,” Soraya said. “Not yet. I think he's beginning to trust me, though. He told me a great deal about himself.”

The smile in Parvaneh's eyes wavered. “Did he? Anything useful?”

“In a way.”

Parvaneh turned away from her, arms crossing over her chest as she looked around the cavern. “Being here makes me feel like a prisoner again,” she said. “Is it safe for you to sneak out to the forest?”

She almost said no to be contrary—or to punish Parvaneh for her deception. But she knew staying here would be more of a punishment for herself. Unlike Parvaneh, Soraya couldn't come and go anytime she liked.

They left the mountain the same way as before, using the cloak and the secret escape tunnel. When they were outside, Parvaneh led her through the trees, back to the grove of hornbeams. There, a small fire was burning on the ground, and a number of dark moths fluttered around it, drawn to its light. Soraya hadn't known Parvaneh would bring her back to this spot, and her face warmed from the memory of last night. Was she destined always to grow close to people who would betray her? Or perhaps the problem was that she wasn't growing close to
people,
but to demons.

A mossy log lay beside the fire, and Soraya sat down at one end of it, watching the moths dance around the flames. Parvaneh sat beside her, close enough for their shoulders to touch and said, “I have something for you. A gift.”

Soraya was tempted to say that she didn't want anything Parvaneh offered—or to ask her whether she had thought she was giving Azad a gift, too, when she convinced him to murder his family. But before she could say anything, Parvaneh was holding out the gift: a sprig of white hyacinth.

“That's from Golvahar,” Soraya said, reaching to take it. She instinctively brushed it against her cheek, the familiar scent and feel making her eyes sting with tears. “You went back?”

Parvaneh nodded. “I wanted to know what the Shahmar was doing during the day—he's been holding audiences with the nobility, offering them gifts and land to solidify their loyalty. Some of them have refused, but the ones who agreed are granted more freedom of movement. Some have even been allowed to leave the palace with their families. He's also been sending divs out into the city to patrol the streets. Many of the buildings are damaged, but the people are safe for now. I think they're trying to go about their days without attracting any attention.” She paused, and glancing at the hyacinth in Soraya's hands, she said, “I checked to make sure your family was safe too. They're locked in a wing of the palace, but they seemed unharmed from what I could see. And then I couldn't resist bringing something back for you.”

Soraya looked at her in surprise, forgetting Azad's revelation and her feelings of betrayal. Parvaneh had risked returning to the place of her captivity, risked doing so when Azad was still there, even risked changing forms, to bring Soraya some peace of mind—and a reminder of home. She stared down at the hyacinth in her hands, unable to look at Parvaneh. “You endangered yourself, your freedom, for—”
For me
.

Parvaneh brushed some of Soraya's hair away, her fingertips lingering on Soraya's neck. “You have faith in me,” she said softly. “It's been a long time since anyone has. I wish I could give you more.”

Soraya lifted her head and froze as she found Parvaneh closer to her than she had expected, their faces mere breaths apart. Parvaneh's eyes were on Soraya's lips, and Soraya couldn't bring herself to move away as Parvaneh leaned closer—as their lips met.

Her kiss with Azad had been devouring, almost violent, but this was different, delicate—as delicate as a moth's wing. Soraya felt like a cat stretched out in a patch of sunlight, luxuriating in the
softness of Parvaneh's mouth, in the slow drag of Parvaneh's fingertips along the length of her neck. Parvaneh seemed to be trying to memorize the feel of Soraya's skin, and Soraya, remembering the sight of her tattered wings, wondered when Parvaneh had last experienced any kind of touch that was not in violence.

But that thought only made her remember the violence that Parvaneh herself had done.

Soraya broke off abruptly, standing and practically bolting to the other side of the fire, away from Parvaneh.

“Is something wrong?” Parvaneh asked with a tilt of her head. Her voice went cold as she asked, “Do you wish I were him instead?”

Soraya shot her an incredulous glare. “Of course not,” she said. “I only wish you were who I thought you were.”

“And who is that?”

“Someone without blood on her hands.”

Parvaneh hesitated before replying, “What is this about?”

Soraya shook her head. “You're only asking me that because you don't want to give away your secret unless you have to. But maybe if you had
told
me, if you hadn't let me hear it from
him
—”

“Hear
what
, Soraya? The Shahmar is a liar, in case you haven't noticed. He might have told you any number of terrible things about me. He and I have known each other a long time, and we've seen the worst in each other. I didn't know you expected me to give you a full account of so many years.”

“Not a full account,” Soraya said. “Only the beginning. You were the div who convinced him to murder his family. You were the div who turned him into a monster in every way.
All
of this is your fault!”

“I know it's my fault!” Parvaneh snapped, rising to her feet. “Why do you think I'm trying so hard to fix my mistake? I'm the reason my sisters have had to go into hiding. They won't even take me back until I've repaired the damage I've done. And this is the
first time I've even come close to stopping him, because I've been his prisoner for over a century!” Her anger dissipated, her face contorting in pain as her wings drooped behind her. When she was composed again, she said, “At first, I didn't tell you because you were my only chance at freedom, and at stopping the Shahmar. Then you defended me to Parisa and the others…” She looked away, avoiding Soraya's gaze. “I didn't want you to regret that decision, or to look at me the way they do. I wanted you to keep looking at me the way you did last night.”

Soraya wrapped her arms around her waist and looked down at the ground. She didn't know what Parvaneh would see on her face right now, and so she didn't want to look at her at all, not until she sorted through her feelings. “What made you do it?” she said to the ground, an echo of the question she had asked Azad. “Why did you tell him to kill his family?”

“I didn't tell him to kill anyone, not directly. He had captured me, bound my wings so I couldn't transform, and refused to release me until I told him something useful. So I did what any div would do—I tried to destroy him, however I could. I sought out his weaknesses, his insecurities, and I reminded him of them at every opportunity. I didn't know what he would choose to do.”

Soraya lifted her head to ask, “But did it matter to you? Once you knew what he'd done, did you feel any regret for all that bloodshed?”

Parvaneh held her gaze. “Do you want me to lie to you?”

“Never.”

“No, it didn't matter to me. And if you think it would, then you're right—I'm not who you think I am.” She turned away, running her hands through her hair in frustration. Her shoulders softened and she stepped around the fire, coming to stand in front of Soraya. “I may not care about him or his family,” she said, “but I do have my loyalties, and I am true to them. I care deeply about my sisters … and I care about you. Why do you think I tried to stop you from taking the simorgh's feather toward the end? It was because I
couldn't do the same thing to you that I did to him, even if it meant being his prisoner forever.”

A chilling thought occurred to Soraya then. “Were you the one who told him about me? About my curse?”

“No,” Parvaneh said at once. “I was still his prisoner when your mother took you to the pariks. But I was there when he interrogated the parik who told him. That was how I knew about you.”

Soraya's arms tightened around her waist. “But you
were
the one who told him to use the div's blood. You must have known what would happen to him.”

Parvaneh shook her head, mouth pursed in disgust. “I was angry. He had become shah and he still refused to let me go—and then had the gall to ask me for help. I knew about the properties of a div's heart's blood, but I had never seen a full transformation. I didn't realize how
complete
it would be, or what kind of div he would hunt down.

“After he was deposed, I managed to escape and return to the pariks for a time. But when he grew in power and began to hunt us down, I had to tell them what I did. They exiled me, and told me I could only return to them when I had undone my mistake. The Shahmar caught me soon after that, and I thought that he would kill me, but instead he took his anger out on me in other, smaller ways.” Her wings twitched. “I told myself then that I would stop at nothing to defeat him and undo my foolish, reckless mistake.”

The words resonated more deeply than Soraya wanted to admit, and she stared down, hunching over into herself as she had always done before to find comfort when there was no one to give it. Parvaneh's bare feet approached her, and then Parvaneh's hands gently unwrapped Soraya's arms from around her waist, and held Soraya's hands in her own.

Soraya lifted her head to meet Parvaneh's intense, amber stare. “Do I have your forgiveness?” Parvaneh said. “Are you still with me?”

It seemed a simple enough question, but Soraya found it to be
as tangled and impenetrable as a thicket. She and Parvaneh and Azad—their choices, their mistakes, their ambitions—were all entwined, inseparable from each other. How could she forgive Parvaneh without forgiving Azad? But how could she forgive Azad without forgiving herself? Maybe they all deserved nothing but one another, a constant cycle of betrayals.

“I don't know,” Soraya said hoarsely. It was the truest answer she could manage.

Parvaneh waited for her to continue, and when Soraya didn't, she nodded and looked away, letting Soraya's hands slip out of hers.

 

22

Soraya was beginning to become as nocturnal as the divs, sleeping through the day to make the time pass faster. She woke groggy and irritable after having another one of her usual nightmares. But this time, Soraya was the Shahmar, scales spreading down her arms instead of veins, and when she looked up, it was Parvaneh who was watching her transformation with a satisfied gleam in her eye. Parvaneh opened her mouth, and Soraya thought she would laugh, but instead she only said,
Are you still with me?
before dissolving into a flurry of moths that surrounded her and then fell one by one, dead to the ground, as soon as they touched her.

With a weary groan, Soraya rose from her makeshift bed and tried to run a hand through the tangled mess of her hair. She went to the table, toward the smell of food, but her eyes passed over the dishes laid out for her, distracted by the sight of something more familiar.

Draped over the table was one of her gowns from her wardrobe at Golvahar. It was one of the finest she had, delicate purple silk brocade etched with gold roses. She had never worn it, but she took it up in her hands and breathed in the slightly stuffy scent of her wardrobe as if it were the fragrance of roses from her garden.
Home.

On the floor was a pair of matching slippers. Beside the gown was an array of jewelry that also came from her collection, as well as a glass bottle of rose water and a folded note leaning against it.

There will be a banquet in your honor tonight. Ready yourself and I will send someone to accompany you.

She crumpled the note, the sound of it reminding her of crushed wings, and sat down to eat.
I won't dress for him,
she told herself as she folded a piece of lavash over quince jam.
But it would be nice to have a change of clothes, especially clothes from home,
she thought after one bite.
And until I find the feather, I still need to play along with his games.

By the time she finished eating, she decided to compromise. She would wear the dress as a welcome change, as well as the slippers since hers were nearly worn, but not the jewelry, which felt too ornamental. After another internal debate, she uncorked the bottle and scented her hair and wrists with rose water. She wore it not to please Azad or anyone else, but because when she closed her eyes and took a breath, she could almost fool herself that she was standing in the golestan. Since she had no sense of time, she kept a nervous eye on the door as she changed out of her old dress and into the gown.

After she finished dressing, she didn't have to wait long until the door to her room opened unceremoniously, without even the courtesy of a knock. Soraya stood tall, ready to reprimand Azad for being so uncivil, but it wasn't Azad who had opened her door.
It was a div with sharp quills all along his skin. In a flat voice, he said, “The Shahmar sent me to fetch you.”

Soraya followed the div out into the long pathway. Whenever other divs glanced at her with curiosity as they passed by, Soraya huddled closer to the div beside her.

“Here,” the div said at last. They emerged from the tunnels into another enormous cavern, much like Azad's makeshift throne room. Soraya braced herself, but this time, she didn't see anything like the div training grounds or the pit from Duzakh. What she saw felt like … home.

Long trestle tables holding plates of food were set out throughout the cavern, and Soraya inhaled the smell of lamb and buttered rice, along with mint and saffron and wine—the kind of meal she would expect at Golvahar. A bonfire burned at the center of the cavern, filling it with light, and rugs were scattered over the ground around it. Azad had promised her a banquet and he had given her one, exactly as she would have imagined it, except that every guest here was a div.

They were seated on the rugs, eating their food, or milling about the banquet tables with goblets of wine in their hands. Soraya recognized those goblets—as well as the tables and plates holding the food—from the palace, and the sight of them enraged her. As soon as she had found her clothes laid out for her, she had known that Azad was trying to give her pieces of home to make her more comfortable here, to confuse her into a sense of belonging. But that was only half of his plan. Because he had brought her a dress that she had never had occasion to wear before. He had issued her an invitation she would never have received. And now she was the guest of honor at a banquet that she would never have attended. This was a version of Golvahar that had never existed, because it was a version of Golvahar where she was allowed to exist. He was trying to tempt her with the promise of a life she had never had.

And Soraya was furious because it was working.

None of the divs reacted to her presence, but now the cavern began to grow quiet and the divs shuffled aside, parting to form an aisle that was heading straight toward her. Even before he appeared in the crowd, Soraya knew who was approaching.

She held his gaze as the Shahmar came toward her, striding down the aisle formed for him with singular purpose. When he was directly in front of her, he held out a hand as if he were still a heroic young prince. She wondered briefly if Sorush had ever greeted Laleh in this way, and she almost laughed, because if this entire banquet was a demonic version of the real thing, then it seemed right that she and Azad should echo Sorush and Laleh's tender courtship.
What a twisted version of them we would make,
she thought.

His eyes swept over her dress with a smile, and only then did she notice that the rich purple of her gown matched the color of his robes. She placed her hand in his, and he led her back down the aisle, the divs murmuring as they passed, until they reached a raised platform like a dais cut into the rock at the other end of the cavern.

He guided her up onto the dais and turned her to the crowd, lifting their joined hands. “Here is your champion, divs of Arzur,” he called out, his voice booming through the cavern. “It is because of Soraya that we have taken the palace and dethroned the shah.”

The truth of Azad's statement sent a chill through her, and she tried to wrench her hand away, but he held it fast. He turned his head toward her, watching her as he again addressed the divs. “Show her your thanks for our victory,” he said, “and let it be known that no div shall ever do her harm. From this moment on, she walks freely through the halls of Arzur, a friend to the divs.”

As one, the divs let out a mighty cheer and raised their goblets to Soraya.

The sounds of adulation were so unfamiliar to her that she wasn't sure if they were cheering or protesting Azad's decree. She tried to
retrieve her hand again, tried to step backward, away from all those eyes, but Azad kept her in place, and soon the panicked fluttering in her chest began to slow. Now she could acknowledge the meaning of Azad's decree and see the benefit in it—if she could wander Arzur freely, then she could more easily search the mountain for the feather during the day when Azad was gone. She wouldn't have to rely on a cloak to hide her—or on Parvaneh, for that matter.

She took a long breath, and as she exhaled, she felt a part of her flowing out into the crowd, and she was no longer afraid. She knew Azad was watching her, waiting for her to react or say something, and so she stubbornly kept her eyes straight ahead, looking at this cavern of monsters who had accepted her more easily than her own people ever had.

A rough, scaly finger pressed under her chin, moving her head to the side to face Azad. “It's rude to ignore your host,” he said, a touch of humor in his voice. “Especially after I went through so much trouble to make you feel at home.”

“Why are you doing this?” she asked him, her voice thick with emotion.

“You've been hidden away long enough,” he said with unexpected tenderness. “It's time for you to become who you were meant to be.”

She looked out at the divs and back at him, uncertainty furrowing her brow. “This isn't— I'm not—”

But before she could figure out what she was or wasn't, he began to lead her off the dais. “Come, meet your new people,” he said.

They walked out together into the crowd, dressed in the color of royalty, and the divs all stepped aside to make room for them. As she swept past, many of them kneeled down, placing their heads against the ground or reaching out to touch and kiss the hem of her dress, as she had seen people do for her brother, her mother, her father. And yet, Soraya did not feel moved by these gestures. She had seen the divs bow for Azad, and she had thought it was out of deference, but now there was something about these exaggerated
gestures that felt mocking or insincere to her. Azad was walking with his head held high, and so he didn't see the glimpses of amusement in the divs' eyes before their heads touched the ground, but Soraya did, and they made her uneasy.

Before Sorush, the shah was always set apart at Golvahar, and Soraya wondered if that distance was too cold or unnatural for the divs, who lived in such close proximity inside a mountain. She wondered what would happen if that distance were closed.

Her head was spinning from being so close to so many, and so she hardly thought as she slipped her hand out of Azad's and moved ahead of him, drawing closer to the crowd. A murmur of excitement went through them, the divs lifting their bowed heads to regard Soraya with new interest. She reached out one arm, letting the divs brush their scaled and furred and plated hands against hers, a new variety of sensation to experience. Some of them were bold enough to reach out and touch her hair or her dress, and they began to close in more tightly around her, but strangely enough, Soraya wasn't afraid. Div blood had once run through her veins—divs had shaped the course of her life—and so it seemed right to her that she should belong to them, and them to her.

There was a tearing sound, then a flash of pain, and she looked down to see a rip in her sleeve, a thin line of blood welling up. The divs were surrounding her so completely now that she could barely move, and she felt another bite of pain, this one on her scalp, as strands of her hair were pulled away. She felt something else tugging at the hem of her skirt, fingers around her ankle and curling in her hair, breath against the back of her neck, claws scraping her skin like the prick of thorns in her garden when she didn't wear her gloves. Tears were filling her eyes, but Soraya didn't resist. She simply offered herself up to them, wondering what would happen if she allowed the divs to claim her as their own. Would they rip her apart and rebuild her in their image? What would it mean to surrender? What would she become?

“Enough!”

At the sound of the Shahmar's voice, the divs fell away, leaving Soraya both relieved and bereft. Azad's arm came around her, and he guided her through the rest of the crowd, as he had done on Nog Roz.

At first, Soraya was afraid—more afraid than she wanted to admit—that Azad's stern command would make the divs reject her, but if anything, the contrast between Azad's almost paternalistic distance and Soraya's full surrender brought the divs closer to her. Many of them nodded to her as she passed with sly smiles or knowing looks, as if they were conspirators, as if they shared something that not even the Shahmar could understand.

Once they had crossed the cavern, Azad raised his arms to keep the divs' attention and announced, “It's time now to give Soraya the gift we have prepared for her.” He beckoned to two of the divs, who separated from the crowd and went toward the cavern entrance for their unknown task.

Even through her intoxicated haze, Soraya felt a chill run down her spine.
Parvaneh,
she thought, suddenly afraid that he had captured her again. “What gift?” she asked him.

“You'll see,” Azad said with a grin. “I promise you that you'll enjoy it.”

Soraya tried to take a breath, but the air seemed trapped in her chest, unable to find its way out. “Please, just tell me.”

But instead of answering, he held out his arms once more to silence the noise of the cavern. “Some entertainment,” he called, loud enough to echo. “Bring him out.”

Him?
Soraya looked to where he was gesturing, and saw the same two divs pushing their way forward, dragging something through the crowd. It was a man, his hands bound in front of him and a sack over his head. He was bare from the waist up, revealing a vicious wound cutting through his side, the skin caked with dried blood. He dragged his feet every step of the way, forcing the
divs to practically carry him down the aisle until they stopped in front of Azad and Soraya. Azad nodded his head, and one of the divs pushed the man to his knees, while the other lifted the sack from his head to reveal Ramin, furious and very much alive.

“Well?” Azad whispered to her. “Aren't you pleased?”

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