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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (5 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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“You're that villager we brought back,” Ramin said. He lifted his chin, his arms crossed, and nodded at Azad in approval. “You
proved yourself to us all that day, so let me give you some advice, from one soldier to another: stay away from this one.”

Azad tilted his head slightly, his long neck moving with slow, deliberate grace. “I don't think I need your advice,” he said.

“Ramin, this isn't necessary,” Soraya interrupted, trying to keep her voice calm.

Ramin looked directly at Soraya, disdain curling his lip, and said, “I don't need to hear from you, Soraya. You're not part of this conversation.”

There was a sudden cracking sound—the snake had struck at last. Soraya barely even saw Azad's fist move, but it must have, because now Ramin was sprawled on the grass, rubbing his jaw.

And for the first time since Ramin had approached them, Azad looked away from him and turned to Soraya. “I'm sorry,” he said at once, but his eyes were still burning with anger, his hand still closed into a fist.

Soraya felt that strange energy wrap around her now, the two of them practically trembling with it. And she realized that her hand was also a fist, like she had struck Ramin herself, like Azad had become an extension of her. He was the arm of her anger, lashing out when she could not. He was the force of her rage, unbound.

She looked Azad in the eye and shook her head. “Don't be,” she said, with a firmness that surprised her.

Ramin pushed himself up from the ground, a dark bruise already starting to appear on his jaw. “That was a mistake,” he said to Azad. Ramin started to charge toward him, but Soraya threw herself in between them, forcing Ramin to come to a sudden stop directly in front of her.

And now Soraya was the snake, her venom far deadlier than Azad's, and she wanted nothing more than to strike. She took a step toward Ramin, gratified when he took a hurried step back, a flash of fear in his eyes.

But the flash quickly transformed into a triumphant glint, and
Soraya knew what was about to happen even as she knew she couldn't stop it.

“Don't think me a coward,” he said to Azad over Soraya's shoulder. “I would fight you right here, but you have an unfair advantage. This girl is poisonous—cursed by a div. If you ever touch her, you'll die.”

All the blood drained out of her as Ramin spoke, and she felt like she was made of ice, cold enough to burn. Soraya was glad her back was to Azad, in case her veins were visible. Something familiar was bubbling inside her—the same cruel urge that had made her want to hurt Ramin the night before. And as she had done last night, she swallowed the urge down and tried not to choke.

Ramin smirked at her in satisfaction and walked away.
Laleh wasn't enough for him,
Soraya thought.
He won't be content until I'm completely alone.

Even when Ramin was gone, Soraya couldn't face Azad. “It's true,” she called back to him, the words scraping her throat. “That's the secret you've always wanted to know. The mysterious shahzadeh was cursed by a div when she was just an infant, and that's why she must be hidden away. If you touch me, you'll die.”

She turned to him, knowing from the feel of blood rushing through her that her veins were etched dark green in her face. Azad was watching her, his face solemn, his eyes sad.

“Well,” she said, holding her gloved hands out to him, “am I still your favorite story?”

 

5

In a way, Soraya was relieved that Ramin had told Azad her secret. She had liked Azad's version of her too much—it would have been hard to walk away from it. Let Azad be the one to walk away, then, and let him do it now, before she grew too attached.

But even as her half-taunting question still hung in the air, Azad didn't back away. He came closer to her, so close that she saw the stubble along his jaw. He tilted his head, brown curls falling over his forehead. “You're better than any story, shahzadeh banu …
Soraya,
” he murmured. She barely heard him, but she watched his lips form her name. He gave a slight, disbelieving shake of his head, as if surprised by the depth of his emotion. “In my mind, you were only a shadow. But now, I can see you and know you for what you are, beautiful yet deadly. I can speak to you. I can touch you.” Slowly, tentatively, he reached up to draw her hair away from her face, revealing more of the veins spreading out along her neck like
vines.
Beautiful yet deadly,
he had called her. Somehow, he made one sound as sweet as the other.

But as intoxicated as she was by his words and his nearness, Soraya remembered herself and drew back from him, her hair spilling out of his hand. “Now you understand why you should keep away from me,” she said, but she wasn't remotely convincing to herself, let alone to him.

She needed to put distance between them, so she turned and cut a path through the rest of the orchard, not looking behind to see if he would follow.

She hoped so much that he would follow.

“I'm not afraid to be near you,” he called. “I'm only afraid that you don't want me to be.” From behind, she heard his hurried footsteps catching up to her.

“It doesn't matter what I want,” she said without stopping. “This is the last time you'll ever see me. I'm kept hidden away, remember? I shouldn't even have left my room today.” She didn't voice her other thought, the one that was accompanied by what she had seen in the pavilion:
You'll leave me behind in the end, for one reason or another.

The orchard curved around to the side of the palace, and so when she emerged from its trees, she saw the walls of the golestan up ahead. She would keep walking until she was safely inside those walls, and she wouldn't stop for anything or anyone.

“Then why did you?” he said. His voice was directly behind her now. He could have easily overtaken her, but he still remained a step behind, and Soraya couldn't help believing that it was out of respect, not fear.

“That's none of your con—” Her own thoughts interrupted her, and she halted abruptly. From behind, she heard Azad inhale sharply. When she spun to face him, he was too close to her, and so both of them took a hasty step backward. She looked him up and down, taking in the red soldier's uniform, remembering what
Laleh had told her about how he had earned it.
That's none of your concern,
she had begun to say, except that it was, in a way—he was the reason there was a div in the dungeon at all, and so he was the reason she had left her room today.

“Do you have access to the palace dungeon?” she asked him.

Her unexpected question made him frown. “I don't know. The rules of the azatan are still new to me.”

Soraya tugged at her gloves as she thought. Even if he could access the dungeon, he might not be able to see the div. And even if he did—even if she sent him on her behalf—she would still feel cheated that she could not speak to the div herself. She shook her head. “No, it won't work,” she murmured to herself.

She began to turn away from him again. “Are you thinking about the div?” he said. And now it was her turn to be surprised. When she looked at him again, she noticed a sly gleam in his eyes, as if he had known all along what she had wanted. “Do you think the div knows how to lift your curse?”

“I don't know, but I can't be at peace until I ask. I've already tried to enter the dungeon, but Ramin wouldn't let me pass. And I can't use the passageways.”

“Passageways?”

It had been so long since she had spoken to anyone new that she had said it without thinking. “There are secret passages all throughout Golvahar. I use them to move through the palace without encountering anyone.” She felt strangely embarrassed to explain herself—she didn't want him to think of her scurrying inside the walls like she was some kind of rodent.
Have you spent so much time among the rats in the walls that you've forgotten how to sleep at night?
“But the passage to the dungeon is blocked off,” she continued.

He looked up at the palace, eyes narrowing in contemplation. “How is it blocked off?”

“A locked door,” she said.

“Maybe we can break it down.”

When he looked at her again, she felt a conspiratorial thrill pass between them. Her eyes swept down his arms, remembering the force of the blow he had landed on Ramin.

Soraya still hesitated, though. She had never brought anyone with her into the passageways. Even with torchlight, they were dark and narrow—close contact would be difficult to avoid. If her mother knew what they were planning, she would certainly disapprove. But then, she didn't want Soraya to speak to the div at all, and Soraya already knew that would be an impossible command to obey.

Music and cheerful voices carried from the garden in the front of the palace, filling the heavy silence between them. Soraya thought again of seeing her mother with Sorush and Laleh, of their uncomplicated happiness.
Don't I deserve to be happy too?
Didn't she deserve to take whatever chance of happiness was offered to her?

“Follow me,” she said to Azad, and she didn't need to look behind her to know that he would obey.

She led him down a hedged walkway toward the front end of the palace—away from the dungeon. A large set of stairs jutted out from the palace wall, their sides carved and painted in bright colors depicting a line of feathers pointing upward, a testament to the simorgh's gift. Soraya bypassed the stairs themselves and walked to the green feather that was closest to the wall. The paint was dark enough that you wouldn't see the thin groove that went all the way down the feather, but Soraya knew it was there, and so she dug her fingers into that nearly invisible space and pulled to the right. The panel in the rock slid open, and she slipped inside, gesturing for Azad to follow.

It was strange to hear someone else breathing in these narrow tunnels, and to know she wasn't alone. She'd grown so used to these passages that she didn't need light to know where she was going, and so she hadn't realized how dark they were until she slid the panel shut again. In the thin beam of light that seeped in through
the wall, Soraya examined her gloves to make sure there were no holes or tears before she tentatively held her hand out to Azad. She had planned to tell him he didn't have to take it if he didn't want to, but before she could even speak, he had taken hold of her hand.

She led him through the passageways, past stairways and doors that would open into different rooms in the palace, turning corners by instinct. When they reached the set of stairs that would take them down beneath Golvahar, she remembered to warn him to watch his step. Once they had descended, she let go of Azad's hand to find an unlit torch in its sconce, along with a piece of flint that she knew would be in a crack in the wall. She hadn't needed the torches in a long time, but she was grateful for them now as the fire illuminated their surroundings.

They were in a rounded chamber at the hidden heart of Golvahar, with three pathways leading onward—one straight ahead, one to the left, and one to the right, which was blocked by a door. Azad stood in the center of the chamber and looked around at the stone walls that encased them. Soraya flattened herself against the wall and tried not to look at the arch of his neck, the flicker of light and shadow caressing his throat.

“These tunnels run all through the palace?”

Her head snapped up to meet his waiting gaze. “Everywhere except for the newer wing on the other side. I've read that there used to be tunnels underneath the entire city, too—a way to smuggle in supplies in case of siege during the early Hellean wars—but they haven't been used in so long that I'm not sure they still exist.”

“Who built the passageways in the palace?”

“No one knows for certain. The common theory is that a paranoid shah wanted to ensure he always had an escape route.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “Paranoid or clever?”

“Perhaps a little of both. But either way, I suppose I owe him my thanks. I would be confined to my room otherwise.”

Azad gestured to the door. “Is that the way to the dungeon?”

Soraya nodded. “I asked my mother once why that door was locked, and she told me it was probably so no prisoners could escape.”

Azad went to examine the locked door. After an experimental try at the handle, he backed away and threw his shoulder against the door. The wood didn't even budge, and so he tried again, and again, but ended up unsuccessful and breathless—
and probably bruised,
Soraya thought. It had been foolish to think they could break through a door that was meant to deter prisoners.

But Azad was still standing in front of the door, head tilting to one side. “I wonder…” he murmured.

He fell silent until finally, Soraya couldn't help asking, “What are you thinking?”

“If I were a paranoid yet clever shah with a network of secret tunnels at my disposal,” he said, “I wouldn't keep a secret dungeon key on my person, where it could be stolen. I would hide it somewhere no one would think to look for it, but where I could easily find it.”

“You think the key might be somewhere here?”

Azad shrugged. “That doesn't help us much. It could be buried or inside the walls. It would take anyone ages to find it, if it's even here at all.”

But Soraya stopped listening when he said “inside the walls,” because at hearing those words, an image flashed in her mind. Azad was right—it would take anyone ages to find the hidden key. But Soraya had grown up in these tunnels. She knew all their secrets, all their hidden grooves and notches, which meant that if there were any mysteries here, she would remember them.

Without saying a word to Azad, she went back toward the opening of the chamber and knelt on the ground. The colder months had always been difficult for her. Her golestan would wither away, and she would grow bored of her books, and so she had little else to do but explore the passages that belonged to her. When she was a child, she had noticed that one of the bricks here had an
X
carved
into it. It would have been easily missed by anyone else, but at that age, the brick had been at her eye level. Now, on her knees, she found it again, running her fingers over the carved lines. A mystery she had never solved—until today.

The brick gave way under her hands, and she pulled it out. Inside the gap was a small silver key.

When she brought it back to Azad, he looked at her with something between awe and admiration. “How did you know it was there?”

She didn't answer, but only smiled and fit the key into the lock. Let him still have some sense of wonder about the mysterious shahzadeh.

Azad carried the torch behind her as Soraya led the way into the unfamiliar passage. There were no stairs or side passages here, which she hoped meant that this tunnel would lead them straight to the dungeon. She noticed, too, that the ground was inclined downward, taking them lower and lower beneath Golvahar.

Finally, they reached what appeared to be a dead end, but Soraya quickly found the edge of the stone slab in front of her and tried to push it to the side. It only budged a little, after years of disuse, and so Azad placed the torch in an empty sconce on the wall and came to help her. Soraya's breath caught in her throat as his arms reached around her, his hands on either side of hers against the stone. The slab moved more easily now, but Soraya was too worried about his proximity to her to feel any kind of excitement.

“That's enough,” she whispered, her voice a rasp, when they had created a gap large enough for them both to pass through. She waited until he had moved away from her before she let herself breathe freely again.

“Let me go first,” he whispered back to her, and she agreed, not for her own safety, but in case any passing guard collided with her as she emerged from the wall.

With fluid grace, Azad passed through the wall, and a few
moments later, he reached his hand through the gap for her. She took it and stepped out into a dimly lit corridor that smelled of sweat and stale air and something else that Soraya couldn't quite detect.

After replacing the stone slab in the wall behind them, Azad gestured to the left and said, “This way.”

Soraya looked from right to left, both paths indistinguishable to her. “How do you know?”

“The ground.”

Soraya looked down and saw that the ground continued to incline downward to their left, upward to their right. She nodded and they continued down the corridor.

The strange smell grew stronger as they walked, until Soraya finally recognized it. “Esfand,” she murmured to Azad. The pungent smoke of burning wild rue seeds weakened divs, sapping their unnatural strength and making them lethargic. In a confined space like a dungeon cell, the smoke would be strong enough to manage a div in captivity. “If we follow the smell, we'll find the div.”

The smell of the esfand acted as a beacon, and Soraya was thankful for it, because as they moved deeper into the dungeon, it became a labyrinth, full of twists and turns and dark hallways lined with doors that Soraya tried not to wonder about.

When the smell grew even stronger, and wisps of smoke became visible in the dim torchlight, Soraya knew they were close. “There,” Azad said, pointing ahead to a set of stairs heading downward. The smoke was clearly coming from below.

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