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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (4 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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But it wasn't the butterfly she remembered most vividly. It was the look of devastation on Laleh's face, her eyes watering, her lips pressed together as she tried not to cry. And Soraya understood that she had made Laleh sad by wanting something she couldn't have.

Soraya backed away from Ramin, realizing what she had almost
done—to him, to Laleh, to herself—and wrapped her arms tightly around her waist, a familiar gesture of surrender. Her hands were shaking—and she couldn't help thinking that they were disappointed, cheated of their prize. But no, she didn't want Ramin dead. She didn't want to kill him or anyone else. She took no pride or satisfaction in her curse—she hated being dangerous, and hated the div that had made her this way. That was the only way she could be sure she was different from the monster in her dreams.

“Soraya?” Ramin moved toward her.

“Leave me alone,” Soraya snapped, careful to keep her voice low.
You should be the one cowering away,
she wanted to say. But she couldn't speak in anger now. Anger needed a release. Soraya's arms tightened around her waist, her shoulders hunching over. Anger and shame fought for control within her, and so she forced her body into the position of shame, because it was safer. “Never mind,” she said. “I shouldn't have asked.”

With her head bowed, she couldn't see his face, but she heard him give an irritated sigh. “You're right about that. Besides, only the shah can decide who is permitted to see the div, so go back to your room and forget all about it.”

She ignored the flash of anger at his dismissal and turned away from him, hurrying back to the golestan, to the walls that stopped her from wanting what she could not have.

 

4

Soraya rose and dressed on the morning of Nog Roz, the first day of the new year, with a sense of purpose.

On a day like this, Soraya would normally take extra care not to leave her room. Today, the palace opened its gates to everyone, the palace gardens teeming with people from all parts of society—including the shah himself. Though he would spend a portion of the day in the audience hall accepting gifts and offerings, he was also free to celebrate among the crowd.

But all night long, Ramin's parting words kept returning to her:
Only the shah can decide who is permitted to see the div.

Catching the shah alone was difficult. He was often surrounded by guards, and more often accompanied by either the spahbed or Tahmineh. Even if Soraya tried to use the passageways to reach him, she would probably run into a guard first and have to explain why she was sneaking up on the most powerful and protected
person in Atashar. But today was different. Sorush would still be well protected, but he would be out in the open and easier to reach. Plus, he would be in a good mood, and Nog Roz was a day for gift-giving, after all. Perhaps he would be moved to grant Soraya the only gift she had ever asked him for. Her mother had refused her, but Sorush outranked her, and so if he allowed Soraya to see the div, Tahmineh would have to agree.

Dressed in a finely made gown of green and gold brocade that she never had reason to wear, Soraya left her room through the golestan and made her way to the celebration in the garden, which was already full of people. Under the cypresses, children gathered around an old storyteller acting out the stories of brave heroes. She heard snatches of song from musicians and bards, singing both triumphant tales of legendary kings and sad ballads of tragic lovers. Directly in front of the palace were the four mud-brick pillars that were raised every year, one for each season. On top of the pillars were sprouting lentil seeds, meant to bring abundance for the year to come. Low tables were set up throughout the garden, holding golden bowls of fruit, candied almonds, and pastries, along with beehive-shaped bundles of pashmak—meant for decoration, but children kept sneaking handfuls of the sugary strands. Hyacinth and rosewater mingled in the air, creating the scent of spring.

Soraya had only ever seen this celebration from above, or heard it from afar. Being in the midst of all this color and light made her believe for once that the year was changing for her, too, the promise of spring's renewal fulfilled at last. She would have liked to have taken some almonds, but there were too many people gathered around the tables. Instead, she found a safe place under the magenta-blossomed branches of an arghavan tree where she observed the festivities from a distance.

She had thought the crowds would be difficult—and true, she did have to be especially careful of every movement, every step—but now she realized that only in such a vast and varied crowd could
she hide without hiding. No one looked at her, no one glanced down at her gloves or asked her who she was, and yet she felt freer and more visible than she ever had before.

She might have forgotten her purpose entirely while standing under the trees, but an hour or so later, she heard a boisterous cheer roaring over the rest of the noise, and Soraya turned to its source. Sorush was passing through the crowd, a group of soldiers raising their goblets to toast him in his wake. He was dressed as one of them, in a red tunic that suited his black hair and bronze complexion, rather than in the more cumbersome robes of a shah. In the days before their father's death, they had celebrated Nog Roz together, along with Laleh. Sorush would steal pastries for them, and he and Laleh would bring them to Soraya's room to share.

Soraya peeled away from the shade of her tree and began to follow Sorush. She had to move slowly through the crowd, careful not to come too close to anyone, so she lost sight of Sorush in the line of cypresses that separated the four quarters of the garden. Still, Soraya kept winding her careful path forward, feeling a little like a serpent, unable to move in a straight line.

Once she'd passed through the cypresses, she caught sight of Sorush again, his red tunic easy to spot from a distance. Where was he going with such drive, such purpose? He barely looked around at anyone, moving through the crowd as though it didn't exist. Following more slowly, Soraya looked beyond him, to see where he was heading. Her eyes traced a clear path to one of the pavilions that offered shade and rest to the celebrants.

She stopped cold when she saw Laleh in the pavilion, waiting for her groom. Beside Laleh was Tahmineh, her forehead smooth now, her gaze fond.

Soraya ducked behind a flowering almond tree near the pavilion and watched Sorush join his bride and his mother. Together, the three of them were unmistakably a family. Laleh wore a brilliant smile, her eyes sparkling.
Someone like Laleh doesn't belong
hidden away
, Soraya remembered as she watched Sorush take Laleh's hands, his thumbs softly stroking her knuckles. And Tahmineh beamed over them both, a son and a new daughter she could take pride in. Soraya had never seen her look so untroubled.

Soraya's gloved hands clutched at the bark of the tree. In the space around her mother, her brother, and the only friend she had ever had, she saw her own absence. In their glowing smiles, she saw the truth: that she always would have lost them, because they were meant to know joy. And no matter how much she wanted to deny it, Soraya knew that a part of her would always resent them for that joy, for having even the possibility of it.

Soraya slunk away, like a shadow disappearing when the sun was at its highest. But the crowd had thickened behind her, creating what seemed to her like an impenetrable wall of people. She tried to breathe and slow her quickening heartbeat as she sought a path through the crowd. But after only a few steps, something collided with her legs, and she jerked away in response, looking down at a little girl who had crossed her path. With visions of butterflies fluttering behind her eyelids, Soraya went cold with fear, almost waiting to see the girl fall dead on the spot. But the girl had only touched the fabric of Soraya's dress, and she skipped away without even paying Soraya notice.

Still, Soraya couldn't slow her pulse, and as she tried to keep making her way through the crowd, she was light-headed from the mixture of panic and relief. She kept her head down, knowing from the familiar heat in her cheeks that her veins were visible on her face, but as a result, she kept accidentally brushing against more people. Each time it happened, her heart would give another involuntary lurch, until her body felt exhausted and overwhelmed from the constant bursts of fear.

She was curling in on herself now, her shoulders hunching protectively, her head hanging forward, her arms going around her waist. She didn't even think she was moving anymore, but it was
hard to tell when she was so disoriented. Her veins felt like they were straining against her skin.
Don't faint,
she told her swimming head, her pounding heart. If she fainted, then someone might touch her face or remove her gloves to find her pulse.
Don't faint, don't faint.

A firm arm came around her shoulders. A hand clamped around her upper arm. Someone was trying to help her. “No,” Soraya said weakly. “No, don't—” She lifted her head enough to see who had innocently come to her rescue without knowing that she was more dangerous than in danger. And through the curtain of hair spilling over her face, she saw a familiar young man dressed in red.

“Azad,” she breathed.

He blinked at her. “You know me,” he said, a note of surprised pleasure in his voice.

“You shouldn't come near me.” She tried to draw away from him. “You don't understand—”

But Azad didn't let go. “Don't worry,” he said. “I know you, too, shahzadeh banu.”

Soraya froze under the weight of the young man's arm, repeating his words to herself. He knew her, he said. But what did he know? He had addressed her by her title, and so he clearly knew she was the princess. But did he know why she was wearing gloves on this warm spring day? Did he know why she was trying to hide her face? Did he know that only a layer of fabric separated him from death?

“You don't look well,” Azad said. “How can I help you?”

Soraya pushed her questions aside. She was still in the middle of the garden, in the middle of a crowd, her head lightly spinning. “I need to get back to the palace,” she said, her voice hoarse. Once she was inside, she could escape back into the passageways, their cool darkness never so appealing as now.

“I'll take you,” Azad said. True to his word, he proceeded to lead her through the crowd, his arm around her shoulder both holding
her up and shielding her from stray touches. Soraya's heart slowed, and her head settled. She felt weightless, all responsibility removed from her, like she was simply a passenger in her body.

But as they neared the palace steps, Soraya found something else to worry about—Ramin was standing in the shade of the wide ayvan that marked the palace entrance. If they went in now, he would be sure to notice her, and she wasn't ready to face him again so soon after last night's encounter.

Soraya halted suddenly, and Azad's brow furrowed with concern. “Not this way,” she said to him. She veered to the right, and he followed her lead toward the trees of the orchard around the side of the palace. As soon as they were beyond the main garden's borders, the crowd began to diminish considerably, until they were finally alone. Even so, Soraya didn't move away from under Azad's arm. His nearness was no longer just a shield now, but a kind of luxury, a sip of heady wine that she would probably never taste again. Was it so wrong to linger?

It's wrong when he doesn't know what you are, or the danger he's in,
a voice in her mind answered. He said he knew her, but he couldn't possibly know the whole truth, not when he had put his arm around her so comfortably.

Soraya halted somewhat abruptly under the shade of a pomegranate tree, causing Azad's arm to slip away. “Thank you,” she said, “but I can go the rest of the way on my own.”

“Of course, shahzadeh banu,” he said with a small bow of his head. “You honored me by letting me assist you. Please tell me if I may help in any other way.” He lifted his head from its bow, his dark eyes looking to her in expectation and … was it hope?

She opened her mouth to tell him that she didn't need any further help, but what slipped out instead was, “How do you know who I am?”

He looked down with an embarrassed laugh, and she tried not to notice the graceful slope of his neck, the pronounced dimples
in his cheeks.
This is foolish,
she told herself. She should have dismissed him immediately.

“I knew who you were when I saw you on the roof a few days ago,” Azad said. “You were exactly as I had pictured you.” He was staring at her now as boldly as he had done when he had spotted her on the roof, and the longer he looked, the more real she felt, like she was taking shape under his gaze.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He spoke softly, his tone almost reverent. “My father was once a merchant. He traveled all throughout Atashar and beyond, and when he returned, he would bring me stories from wherever he'd been. When I was no more than ten years old, he told me the mystery of the shahzadeh. No one outside the walls of Golvahar had ever seen her or heard her voice, he said. She was a secret, hidden away in the palace like a carefully guarded treasure.”

Soraya couldn't help lifting an eyebrow at that. She wanted to remark that she was no treasure, but the way Azad was looking at her—that gentle, dreamy look, like he wasn't quite sure she was real—held her back.

“I was captivated,” he continued. “I would stay up long into the night, wondering what you looked like and why you were kept hidden, imagining that I would ride up to the palace in a majestic horse to free you. I used to think that we'd…” He looked away, his cheeks coloring slightly. When he faced her again, his eyes gleamed with something that Soraya couldn't recognize. “Do you see now why I recognized you? You're my favorite story. I feel like I've known you for a long time.”

Soraya drew in a breath, unable to speak. For the first time, she saw herself as Azad had imagined her—the heroine of a story, not the monster. It was only an illusion, of course, born from a young boy's uninformed romantic dreams, but for the space of a breath, she let herself enjoy it.

She didn't want to tell him the truth. She wanted his version of her to keep existing, if only in his mind. And so she knew what she had to do.

“Well, you did come to my rescue today, so now that you've lived out your dreams, I'll be on my way.”

His face fell at once, a wrinkle of dismay forming at the center of his forehead. “Is there anything I can say to persuade you to stay and talk with me for a little longer?”

Soraya smiled sadly and shook her head. “Trust me. It's better that we—”

But before she finished speaking, a loud voice startled them both: “I thought I saw you in the crowd.”

She and Azad both turned at once to see the approaching figure of Ramin. She took a hasty step away from Azad, but that only made her look guiltier.

“It's reckless of you to be out on such a crowded day.” He looked at her with a significant arch of his eyebrow. “You've even made a new friend. Are you sure that's wise?”

All of Soraya's muscles tightened at once. He wouldn't dare tell Azad about her curse—to do so was to risk angering the royal family. Soraya was torn between the competing urges to shrink away, or step forward and show him she was unafraid. But her guilt from almost losing control the night before still lingered, and so Soraya simply said, “That's none of your concern, Ramin.”

But Ramin wasn't even looking at her anymore—he was focused on Azad, who was standing stiffly, not moving or speaking. Ramin moved closer, coming to stand directly in front of him. Only then did Azad take a breath, his shoulders drawing back so that he was standing at his full height. There was a strange energy surrounding Azad, like clouds gathering before a storm, or the stillness of a snake about to strike. She couldn't take her eyes off him.

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