Authors: Melissa Bashardoust
Soraya opened the hidden panel into her mother's antechamber, and she instinctively held her breath as she stepped inside the empty room. Even as a child, she had always felt ill at ease in her mother's lushly furnished rooms. Everything here was impeccableâthe gold embellishments on the furniture, the crystal and silver bowls of dates and nuts laid out on an ivory table in front of the low sofa, the rugs under her feet. Soraya held her hands stiffly at her sides, sure that if she touched anything, she would shatter this beautiful, pristine space that suited her mother so perfectly.
After thanking Laleh for telling her about the div, Soraya had come straight here to wait for her mother. She would need permission to visit the dungeon, but more than that, she wanted to see her mother's face alight with the same hope she was feeling now. Tahmineh tried not to show the strain Soraya's curse placed on her, but a thin line would form in the center of her forehead, grow
ing deeper and deeper the more time she spent with her daughter. Soraya wanted to see that line smooth away.
Soraya tried to sit, but she felt too exposed, so she paced the edges of the room while waiting. When the door to the suite finally opened, she froze, wishing now that she had waited inside the walls instead. Her mother, wearing rich violet, stood at the threshold with her attendantsâand they were all staring at her.
Tahmineh took control at once. She gave a small nod to Soraya, then turned to her attending ladies and dismissed them for the night. When they were gone, and the door was shut, she came toward Soraya with worried eyes, the line on her forehead beginning to appear. “Is something wrong?”
Soraya shook her head. “I have something to tell youâsomething that will make you happy.” She should have begun by asking her mother how she was, or some other pleasantry, but she couldn't wait any longer. Without mentioning Laleh, she told her about the captured div, and that she wished to ask the div about her curse.
A moment passed in silence, and then another, and Soraya waited to see excitement replace the worry in her mother's face. But instead, Tahmineh's lips formed a thin line. Without saying a word, she turned and went to sit on the sofa, gesturing to the chair across from her. “Come sit, Soraya.”
Soraya obeyed, feeling suddenly cold. Sitting across the table from her mother, she felt like she was going to be interrogated.
And she was rightâthe first thing her mother said was, “How did you find out about the div?”
She began to lie and say that she had overheard it when the full implication of her mother's question struck her. “You knew?” Soraya said, unable to keep the accusation out of her voice. “You knew and you didn't tell me?” She hadn't been surprised that Sorush hadn't told her himselfâthey rarely saw each other, and he had all of Atashar on his shoulders, so she was probably his last concern.
But her motherÂ â¦ Soraya would have expected to hear this news from Tahmineh before Laleh.
“I knew, but I didn't think it concerned you,” Tahmineh answered.
“But the curseâ”
“Divs are liars, Soraya. And they are dangerous. I'm not going to expose you to one of them.”
“A div can't hurt meâespecially in a dungeon.”
Tahmineh's hands twisted the fabric of her skirt. “The danger is not always obvious. Divs can be manipulative. They can destroy you with a single word.”
“Maman, pleaseâI'll be so careful. Just let me talk toâ”
“Soraya, this is not a discussion,” Tahmineh said, her voice growing louder. “It's too dangerous, and you can't trust anything the div says. I won't allow it.”
Soraya's cheeks went hot at her mother's sharp tone. She knew her veins were mapping out her frustration on her face, and she couldn't believe that her mother could sit and watch the poison spreading through her daughter and not allow her this slim chance to be free of it. Soraya shook her head, aware of the poison running through her veins, seeping from her skin, coating her tongue. “How can you say that to me when youâ”
She stopped before she reached the one topic that always remained unspoken between them, but it was too late. Tahmineh's hand stilled in her lap, and her face went ashen, as if she had truly been poisoned.
Soraya had never accused her mother of anything. She had never before said,
This is my life because of you, because of a choice you made.
After all, her mother had been barely more than a child herself when the div cursed her future child. Soraya had never demanded an apology for what had happened, and Tahmineh had never offered one, either. Instead there was the line on her forehead, the weight of words unspoken.
Soraya bowed her head, her anger cooling into guilt. She would have bitten out her tongue if she thought it could undo what she had almost said. Her fingers sought out the loose thread on her sleeve. There was still a part of her that wanted to tell her mother that she couldn't accept her refusal, and that she had to speak to the div. There was a part of her that just wanted to scream.
But instead, she took a breath, like she was preparing to submerge underwater, and said, “I understand.”
Soraya woke with a ragged gasp in the middle of the night. She'd had another dream about the Shahmar.
The dreams were different each time, but they always ended the same. The Shahmar would appear to her and raise one gnarled, scaled finger to point at her hands. Soraya would look down and see the veins on her hands turn dark green, but this time she couldn't stop them as they spread over her whole body in a final, irreversible transformation. A terrible pressure built inside of her, like something was about to burst out of her skin, but just when she couldn't bear it anymore, she would wake, the Shahmar's laughter still echoing in her ears.
The first story Soraya had ever heard was her ownâthe story of the div who had cursed her mother's future child. The first story Soraya had read for herself in a book stolen from the palace library was the story of the Shahmar: the prince who had become so twisted by his crimes that he had transformed into a serpentine div.
Soraya had looked in horror at the illustration of green scales growing along the young man's arms, and then her eyes had shifted to the green lines running down her wrist. She had slammed the book closed, promising herself that if she was very good and kept bad thoughts away, her curse would never warp her mind or transform her body any more than it already had.
There were other divs that may have been more frightening to
a childâwrathful Aeshma with his bloody club, or corpse-like Nasu, who spread corruption wherever she wentâbut the Shahmar was the one she had revisited over and over again, horrified and yet unable to keep away. But soon she didn't need to seek out the Shahmar, because he began to visit her dreams, standing over her and laughing as his past became her future.
Soraya sat up, trying to erase the images from her dream and that feeling of pressure building under her skin. She had never told anyone about her fear of transformation, not even her mother. And maybe that was why Tahmineh couldn't understand Soraya's urgent need to find a way to lift this curse, or why it seemed so pointless to be afraid of a div. Soraya was far more afraid of herself and of what she might become.
In one hasty motion, Soraya rose from the bed and opened the doors to the golestan. The moon was a sliver tonight, but the embers of the fire on the roof still burned, giving the normally vivid and varied colors of her garden the same orange hue. The grass was cold, wet, and prickly against her bare feet as she padded across the garden to the door in the wall. She felt like a sleepwalker, taking one step and then the next as if compelled by something outside herself. She didn't care that it was the middle of the night. She didn't care that she was in her nightdress, her feet bare. All she cared about was the monster waiting for her in the dungeon beneath the palace.
There was no passageway that would take her down into the dungeonâthat path had been blocked off before Soraya was born. Instead, she had to walk along the edge of the palace wall, moving down toward the far corner, where she knew she would find a small, unassuming doorway that opened onto a set of stairs leading down.
She was being completely careless, and not just because her hands and feet were bare, or her clothing inappropriate. She had no idea what she would do once she reached the dungeon. There would be guards, wouldn't there? How would she sneak past them?
And yet, she couldn't keep herself away from that shadowed doorway yawning before her. And as she reached it, as she stood at the head of the steps and stared down into the void below, she knew she would find a wayâshe
to find a way. Nothing else mattered to her, nothing else existed, nothing could stop herâ
A harsh ringing sound to her right interrupted her thoughts, and she felt the bite of metal along the base of her throat.
“I wouldn't take another step,” a familiar voice growled in the darkness.
She was lucky he hadn't killed her on the spot, but upon hearing Ramin's voice, Soraya felt truly cursed. Of all the people to catch her, why did it have to be him?
“It's me, Ramin,” she said. The darkness swallowed up her voice, so she said again, louder, “It's Soraya.”
Anyone else would have backed down at onceâwhether because she was the shahzadeh or because of her curseâbut Ramin's sword lingered at her throat a breath too long, as if he were battling some inner temptation. Finally, he sheathed the sword, his hands going to rest on his hips. “Soraya. I wasn't expecting you.” He took a step closer to her, forcing Soraya to take a step back.
“I was justâI wanted to seeâ”
Her voice was still too quiet, and so he started to approach her again, leaning in to hear her. She backed away, but he only followed, never letting her stay more than one step away from him. “You're too close,” she whispered hoarsely.
He let out a derisive snort. “I'm not afraid of you, Soraya.”
Her hands balled into fists at her side.
You should be afraid,
she thought. But Ramin knew from experience that she would rather fold herself into nothing than risk hurting him. As the son of the spahbed, it must have galled him to know that a timid, shrinking girl his younger sister's age was more dangerous and fearsome than he could ever be. And so he had always looked for ways to provoke her, as if in challenge. He would step in too close and gesture too widely near her, or speak to her in the most insulting
and condescending tones. And every time, Soraya would tuck her hands away, lower her head, and try to ignore him, like a flower trying to force itself back into a bud.
you doing wandering around near the dungeon at this hour?” Ramin continued. “Have you spent so much time among the rats in the walls that you've forgotten how to sleep at night?”
Irritation made her blurt out, “We both know what's in that dungeon and why I'm here.”
He frowned. “So you do know. Did Sorush tell you?” He paused in thought, and even in the darkness, she saw him bristle. “It was Laleh, wasn't it?” he said, his voice hardening. “You were always following after her. That will be over soon, though. Once Laleh marries Sorush and becomes the shahbanu, she won't have time for you anymore.” He crossed his arms and aimed a pointed look at her. “Maybe then you'll learn to leave her alone, for the sake of your family's reputation if not for hers. I always knew you would try to hold her backâthat's why I kept her away from you.”
Those words nearly knocked the breath out of her as years of loneliness and disappointment came together to form a knot in her stomach. “
kept her away?”
“It wasn't difficult. Someone like Laleh doesn't belong hidden away. All I had to do was distract her with new friends at court until she finally forgot about you.”
Soraya went stillâexcept for the blood rushing through her veins like liquid fire. She had always found Ramin irritating, but she could ignore and push down irritation until it dissolved. The fire going through her now would not dissolve or fade away. It would eat them both alive.
You should be afraid,
she thought again. But this time it was not a hopeless wish, the complaint of a girl who always gave in, but a realization, a truth she finally believed. It was also a threat. If he thought he could hurt her and boast about it to her face, if he
wanted to test her limits, then he would have to face the consequences. In a way, she was relieved that all her formless frustration now had a name. A face. Something she could touch.
“But no matter how you found out,” Ramin continued, “you're the last person I would allow to see the div, given what you are.”
Soraya lifted her head, baring the deadly skin of her throat. “And what am I, Ramin?” She stepped toward him, the space between them so small now that one of them would have to retreat.
But Ramin didn't back away or even flinch, still unwilling to admit that she was more dangerous than he was. Soraya wondered what would happen if she reached up now and let her bare hand hover over his faceâwould he finally drop his stoic pose and surrender to her?
Her hand started to lift of its own accord, and a thought came unbidden to her mind:
If Ramin dies, Sorush and Laleh would have to delay the wedding
As quickly as the thought had come, another soon followedâa memory of Laleh's face, an expression burned into Soraya's mind since childhood. That same year she had first met Laleh, Soraya had convinced herself that the div had lied about her, or that the curse had worn off. She wanted to test her theory, and so one spring morning, she and Laleh had waited by the window until a butterfly landed on the sill, orange wings opening and closing. Soraya had reached out and gently brushed one fingertip along its black-edged wing. It was the first living creature she remembered touching. It was also the first living creature she remembered killing, its wings twitching once, twice, before stopping entirely.