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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (6 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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They had to duck their heads in the narrow stairway, and as they neared the bottom, Soraya saw the glow of a torch. Accessing the dungeon had been her main concern, but now that she was here, Soraya remembered that there was a monster in that cell, and she was heading straight toward it.

The stairs opened into a chamber hewn out of the rock. Halfway into the chamber, iron bars stretched from the top of the curved
roof to the ground, creating a cave-like dungeon cell. Hanging from a hook in the wall near the stairs was a brazier, where the thick scented smoke was emanating from, as well as a torch. The torch created a circle of light, but half of the cell was still in shadow, and from those shadows, Soraya felt something watching them.

Soraya took a breath of stale air before stepping forward. What would she find inside that cell? According to the priests, divs were pieces of the Destroyer sent out into the world, given monstrous form by the Creator so that people could recognize evil when they saw it. Soraya had seen illustrations of divs in the library, but they all took different shapes. Some were enormous, with horns and fangs and sharp claws; some were scaled and reptilian with skin like armor; some were deathly pale, while others had mottled fur.

Soraya peered into the cell, adjusting to the dim light until she saw the amber glow of the div's eyes. She watched as the figure slowly stood and stepped forward into the light. She braced herself for the monster's hideous appearance, and then she saw it—

It was a girl.

 

6

At first sight of the young woman, Soraya thought they had made a mistake, and this wasn't the div's cell at all. But then the young woman walked all the way up to the bars, her long black hair falling away from her face, and Soraya knew there was no mistake.

The div's skin had an odd pallor, with gray and brown patterns on her face like permanent shadows, and the amber glow of her eyes was unnaturally bright. At certain angles, they had a luminous sheen to them, like the eyes of nocturnal animals. Those eyes watched them now with a fierce stare that reminded Soraya of a hawk.

And now that Soraya was here, seeing a div for the first time, she didn't know what to say. “I'm—”

But she barely managed to make a sound before the div held up a hand, her fingers slightly longer than a human's. In a voice like nectar, a voice the color of her eyes, she said, “No need for intro
ductions, shahzadeh. I know who you are and why you're here. But I won't speak to you unless you come to me alone. No guards … and no soldiers.” At that last word, her eyes flitted to Azad, behind Soraya's shoulder. The div's eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of him, and Soraya remembered that he was the one who had stopped her from killing Sorush and allowed her to be captured.

Soraya turned to Azad, who was glowering back at the div. She brushed her gloved fingers against his arm, and he looked at her, his face softening. “Please,” she said.

He hesitated briefly, then gave a curt nod. “I'll wait at the top of the stairs and keep watch. If you need anything, shout for me.” He threw one last warning glare at the div, who waved good-bye to him with a smug grin, and retreated up the stairs.

Soraya waited until he was gone, and then, before she could change her mind, she slipped off her gloves and tucked them into her sash. If the div did know why she was here, she would understand the implied threat of that gesture.

The div's eyes darted from Soraya's bare hands up to her face, and she smiled, a flash of sharp white teeth. Her fingers curled slowly around the bars. “Isn't it better now that it's just the two of us? More personal. Now come, Soraya, and ask me your question.”

The sound of her name on the div's tongue startled Soraya. The div hadn't been lying when she said she knew her. It bothered Soraya, though, that they should be on such unequal terms from the start, and so instead of asking the question the div expected, Soraya said, “Tell me your name.”

Surprise flitted over the div's face, but then she answered, “Parvaneh.”

Soraya flinched, as if that one word were an accusation rather than a simple answer to her request.
Parvaneh
—the word for moth or butterfly. Soraya held Parvaneh's gaze, almost certain that the div truly knew everything about her—every short, fluttering life
that Soraya had stolen with a touch of her finger. The feel of air on the bare skin of her hands reminded her of death.

“How do you know who I am?” Soraya said, her voice wavering only slightly.

The div tilted her head, and the shadows shifted over her face, like something was moving under her skin. “All pariks know you, Soraya,” she almost purred. “The human as dangerous as a div.”

“What's a parik?” Soraya asked, ignoring that last remark.

“There are different kinds of divs,” Parvaneh answered, “based on different aspects of the Destroyer. The drujes, the kastars, and the pariks, all with different skills and talents. Pariks look the most human, so it's easier for us to hide among you and work as spies.”

At any other time, Soraya would have been interested to know more about the inner workings of the divs, but she didn't know how much longer Parvaneh would humor her questions. “If you know about my curse, then you must know how to end it.”

Parvaneh shook her head slowly, disappointment on her face. “Why would you want that? You could wield such power.”

Soraya laughed harshly. “You think I have power?” She stepped closer to the bars, and she felt the poison bubbling inside of her. Maybe it was because this dungeon, so far underground, felt a world apart from her well-ordered life above, or maybe it was because she was speaking to someone as deadly as she was, but for once, Soraya let her true feelings spill out.

“You think I'm here,” she said, “in a dungeon, asking you to rid me of this curse because I'm afraid of power?” Another step. “My family hides me away out of shame. I spend most of my days in total isolation. If that's power, then I don't want it.” She was standing only inches away from the bars now, close enough for the div to touch—and then a flicker of doubt made her almost back away again. Because part of her knew that the only reason she was standing so close, without fear, was her curse. The div was right—she did wield a kind of power. The power to make people afraid.
Hadn't she relished seeing that fear in Ramin's eyes today? Hadn't she briefly enjoyed it before shame coated her skin like cold sweat?

It was the shame she had to cling to, not the power. It was the shame that made her still feel human. She was a human as dangerous as a div, but unlike a div, she refused to enjoy being deadly or to revel in her monstrosity. That was the only thing that kept her on one side of the bars, while Parvaneh languished on the other.

She looked Parvaneh in the eye and said, “Now tell me: How do I remove this curse?”

Parvaneh studied her, not backing away from the bars. Her eyes began to move down Soraya's face to her throat, and Soraya knew that Parvaneh was watching the pattern of her veins as they changed color. And then, much to Soraya's surprise, Parvaneh reached a hand through the bars, her fingertips hovering a breath above the veins on Soraya's cheek and tracing them down Soraya's throat, all without ever touching her. “Such a shame. Such a
waste,
” she said, biting off that last word as her hand dropped away.

Soraya's breath had grown shallow when Parvaneh reached her hand out, so close to touching her, and only now did it come rushing out of her. “Were you the one who cursed me?”

Parvaneh shook her head. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“But you know who did? Did the pariks do this?”

Parvaneh's eyes gleamed with mischief and something else, something sharp. “They did and they did not. Isn't that the way all your stories start? I wonder what stories
you've
been told, Soraya. How did your curse happen? Tell me the truth, and I'll do the same—that sounds fair, doesn't it?”

Soraya hesitated, looking for the possible dangers in giving Parvaneh what she wanted. She felt like she was standing on the edge of a great cliff, and a div was telling her to jump—what kind of fool would she be if she listened?

A desperate one,
Soraya thought. She began telling the story her
mother had told her, of the div who had found her in the forestland south of Mount Arzur. She told it the same way Tahmineh always had—like it was just a legend, something that had happened to someone else, a long time ago. No names, no accusations. As a child, she had accepted the story without examining it too closely. She would demand it every time she saw her mother, always hoping for a different ending. But as she grew older, less able to distance herself from the words, she found the story too difficult to hear. It was even harder to finish the story now, but Soraya continued to the end, not letting herself look away from those staring eyes.

“Well?” she said when she was finished, her voice a little too loud. “That's all. Now tell me what you know.”

“I promised you one truth for another,” Parvaneh said. “What you just gave me was a story, not the truth.”

“It's what my mother told me.”

“Your mother lied.”

Soraya shook her head at once, not even able to entertain the idea. Her mother wasn't a liar. Soraya's
life
wasn't a lie. And yet she couldn't help remembering how adamant Tahmineh had been when she'd refused Soraya's request to see the div. Was it possible that she feared what the div would reveal? Or was Parvaneh trying to throw Soraya's life into chaos with a simple suggestion?
Divs can be manipulative. They can destroy you with a single word.

Soraya backed away from the bars. “You're toying with me. You would have said that no matter what I told you.”

Parvaneh put a hand to her chest in mock offense. “You don't believe me? Let me ask you this, then: Why did the curse not manifest until a few days after your birth?”

Soraya sighed in frustration. “I don't know. So my mother wouldn't die from labor, so she would live knowing that she could never hold her daughter.”

“And why the firstborn
daughter
? Why not simply the firstborn child?”

“Because divs are mysterious and unjust,” Soraya snapped, but the question struck deep. It was under the surface of her thoughts every time she saw Sorush.

“And why would a div curse a child to be poisonous even to divs?” Parvaneh continued. “Why create a weapon that can be used against you?”

This time, Soraya had no answer, and Parvaneh wore a condescending smile that made Soraya's face burn. “And besides,” Parvaneh said, “a curse like yours requires a more complicated process than simply saying a few words to scare a child.”

Soraya resisted the urge to pick at the loose thread of her sleeve. “You're trying to confuse me.”

“I'm trying to help you. You've been lied to, but not by me.”

“I don't care!” Soraya shouted, her voice growing louder. She had spent so many years controlling her emotions, forcing them to submit to her will, and yet now she felt them all on the surface of her skin because of one smirking demon. She took a breath and reminded herself of the Shahmar, of those scales growing over his skin, and tried to calm herself. “I don't care how I was cursed. Just tell me how to get rid of it,” she said more quietly.

Parvaneh's eyebrow arched. “If you don't believe me about something as simple as this, why would you believe me when I tell you how to lift your curse?”

Silence hung heavy between them, until Soraya trusted herself to say in a steady voice, “Then you
do
know.”

Parvaneh opened her mouth to answer, but then she paused and tilted her head, listening to something. “Don't you hear footsteps, Soraya?”

She did, now that Parvaneh had mentioned it, along with the sound of arguing voices. Soraya whirled around to the stairs behind her in time to see the first guard emerging into the cavern. Two others followed, each holding one of Azad's arms as they dragged him down the stairs with them.

“Don't move,” the first guard barked at Soraya, his sword already raised.

For one careless moment, Soraya thought to herself,
I could take them all
. From behind her, she heard Parvaneh snickering, as though she had heard Soraya's murderous thought.
Calm,
she reminded herself. It was dark enough that the guards might not be able to see her veins, but she couldn't take that chance.

“How did you get here without anyone stopping you?” the guard asked her.

Soraya's eyes flitted to Azad, and he gave a small shake of his head. He hadn't told them about the hidden passage, and neither would she. “I have a right to go anywhere I wish,” Soraya said, trying to sound imperious.

The guard raised an eyebrow, his sword still pointed at her. “Is that so? And what gives you that right?”

With a quick glance at her hands to make sure her veins had faded, she lifted her hand, palm facing inward, so that the seal ring on her finger would show clearly. “My brother, the shah.”

The guard inhaled sharply, and he came closer to peer at the ring, which bore the seal of the simorgh on it.

“Now please unhand my … my escort,” she said, “and let us continue our business.”

The guard frowned, probably unsure whether to believe that this strange girl in the dungeon was who she claimed to be. Still, his sword lowered slightly, and his tone was carefully respectful as he said, “Only a few people are permitted to see the div, and the shahzadeh is not one of them. I cannot let you stay.”

Her whole body tensed in frustration, but she willed herself to be calm once more. If she argued with him, she would become agitated, and her secrets would show on her face. “Then see us outside, and we'll be on our way.”

The guard shook his head. “I can't allow that, either. I'll need to take you somewhere until your identity can be confirmed. If you are indeed the shahzadeh, I'm sure you will understand.”

Soraya's first instinct was to argue again, but then she stopped herself. Seeing Sorush had been her original purpose today, hadn't it? “I understand,” she said. “Tell the shah I want to see him.”

The head guard gestured to the other guards, and they ushered Azad back up the stairs. He threw a glance at Soraya behind his shoulder, and she nodded at him in reassurance.

“Please come with me, banu,” the first guard said to her.

Soraya hastily put on her gloves, and from behind her, Parvaneh said, “Another time, then, Soraya.”

“Do you really know?” she muttered to Parvaneh as the guard came toward her. She let him lead her away without resistance, too afraid that he might come in contact with her skin if she didn't comply.

But at the foot of the stairs, she turned back one more time. “Were you telling me the truth?” she called to Parvaneh.

And before she retreated back into the darkness of her cell, Parvaneh responded:

“Go ask your mother if I lied to you, and then come back and tell me her answer. I'll be waiting.”

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