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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (7 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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7

Soraya had only been in the throne room once or twice before, and so she had forgotten how grand it was. The massive domed ceiling was enough to impress, and then there were the carved stone reliefs on the wall, images of victorious kings in battle, and the painted tiles on the floor that formed the shape of the simorgh.

At the end of the room was a magnificent golden throne atop the dais, with the image of a great flame—the Royal Fire, which burned always in Golvahar's fire temple—painted in vivid reds and oranges on the wall behind the throne. One of the handful of times Soraya had seen her father before his death, he had been sitting on that throne, as distant and regal as ever, an intricate, heavy crown perched on his head. Soraya had been spying from behind the walls, opening the secret panel a crack to see the ceremony when her brother was officially named heir, and she wondered how
her brother would ever be strong enough to wear that crown on his head.

But then she noticed something that was visible only from her close vantage point at the side of the dais. Hanging from the ceiling above the throne was a thin silver chain attached to the crown, holding it above the shah's head so that he only appeared to be bearing its weight. Soraya had told Sorush about it later, and he had laughed in relief.

He wasn't laughing now.

She'd tried to imagine what had been happening while she'd been waiting in an adjoining chamber. The dungeon guard had told one of the palace guards that a young woman claiming to be the shahzadeh wanted to speak to her brother. From there, the news must have gone up the chain of command, until one of the shah's personal attendants had found him in the garden and told him his sister had been caught talking to the div in the dungeon.

And Soraya might have felt sorry for causing him all this trouble on his one day of merriment away from royal duty, except that she was too irritated with him for bringing their mother, who was standing beside the throne with a severe expression on her face.

Soraya came forward, went down on her knees, and pressed her forehead against the cool tile, as was appropriate when addressing the shah.

“You may leave us,” Soraya heard him say, and she thought he was talking to her until she felt the reverberation of the guards' boots against the floor as they all left the chamber.

Even when they were gone, she kept her head down until she heard her brother say in a weary tone, “Soraya, please stand.”

She rose, and unsure how much formality he expected from her, she said, “I'm sorry if I've done something against your wishes, shahryar. I meant you no disrespect.” She wasn't sure if it was the
throne itself or the crown overhead that made the shah seem like he was an eternal fixture of the palace itself instead of her flesh-and-blood brother. Even in her mind, it seemed more appropriate to think of him as the shah than Sorush.

“There's no need to call me that,” Sorush said, referring to his royal title. “I know you meant no harm. I only wished you had asked me first—”

“She asked
me,
” Tahmineh said sharply. “And I forbade it. I'm surprised you would do something so dangerous, Soraya. I always thought you were more careful than that.”

Soraya bit the inside of her cheek, her eyes stinging. For anyone else, that might have been a mild reprimand, but for Soraya, being careful was a matter of life and death.

“What did the div tell you?” her mother asked.

Go ask your mother if I lied to you.

Soraya studied her mother's expression, looking for some hint of fear or guilt, but her perfect mask never fell. Still, Soraya couldn't bring herself to tell them what Parvaneh had told her. For one thing, to accuse her mother of lying to her would be unforgivably disrespectful. But also, even if Parvaneh were lying, it was exactly the kind of manipulation her mother had warned her about, and she would be even more insistent that Soraya never speak to the div again.

“I asked her if she knew of a way to lift my curse. She told me nothing useful,” Soraya answered, which she hoped was true enough not to count as a lie. “But I think it's possible that might change with time.”

“You mean you wish to return?” Sorush said, a note of interest in his voice.

“Yes,” Soraya said, “with your permission, of course.”

“Absolutely not,” Tahmineh said at once, turning to her son for confirmation. “It's too dangerous.”

Both Soraya and her mother watched Sorush, waiting for him
to make his decision. Soraya could imagine her mother's frustration at knowing that her son could go against her wishes if he chose—and she, too, felt a prickle of annoyance at waiting for her twin brother's blessing to do anything.

But during her brother's thoughtful silence, Soraya noticed something other than frustration on her mother's face. It happened so briefly: The stony look on Tahmineh's face flickered, revealing something closer to fear or despair. It was like looking at a fine tapestry, its uniformity presenting a single image, and then, between one blink and the next, seeing every thread that held it together, ready to unravel at the slightest touch. For an instant, Soraya saw the fragility of the threads holding her mother together, and that was how she knew that Parvaneh was telling the truth.

Soraya's mother was keeping something from her. And whatever the truth was, she was terrified for Soraya to discover it.

“I agree with our mother's judgment,” Sorush finally said. “I must ask that you not enter the dungeon or speak to the div again.”

Soraya didn't trust herself to speak. Her mother said, “It's the right choice, Soraya,” but Soraya kept her eyes down, unable to look at either of them.

“I'd like to speak to you alone, if I may, in a less formal setting,” Sorush said. Soraya hated the way he phrased commands as if they were requests—as if she had any choice in the matter. It was as false a pretense as the crown floating a hair's breadth above his head.

“Of course,” Soraya murmured.

“Please wait for me there,” he said, stretching his arm toward a door to the side of the chamber.

Soraya walked with heavy steps to the door, which opened onto what seemed to be a council room. A long table took up most of the unadorned chamber, and Soraya paced its length as she waited for her brother to join her.

At last he arrived, looking smaller now without his crown and his state robes, an apologetic smile on his face. Soraya turned away from him and continued to pace. She should have wished him a happy new year, or congratulated him on his engagement, but she was sure that anything she said to him now would be laced with poison.

“I know you're probably upset with me, so let me say this first: I didn't mean any of it.”

Soraya froze, turning her head toward him. “What?”

“I didn't want to worry our mother, but I think you
should
speak to the div.”

Soraya turned to him fully now, forehead wrinkling in disbelief. “I have your permission?”

“Not … officially,” he said. “You found a way into the dungeon without anyone stopping you—I'm guessing you could do so again?”

Soraya nodded, but offered no further explanation.

“Then I would only ask you to keep your visits discreet. I'll inform the guards that they shouldn't bother you, but no one else should know. And I'd like to ask you a favor in return.”

Soraya started to tilt her head, but stopped herself, the gesture reminding her too much of Parvaneh. “What favor?”

Sorush went to a cabinet in the corner of the room and brought out a long roll of paper. He spread the paper out on the table in front of them, revealing a map of Atashar with red marks in various places. “Those marks,” he said, “are where the divs have attacked in the last few years. The attacks have grown more prevalent recently, but my larger concern is that they've become more organized and united. Div raids are usually swift and brutal, with no end other than destruction, but these have seemed deliberate or planned, and they've been more interested in fighting our armies than in ransacking the villages. It's almost as if they're
practicing
for something.”

His voice had grown more frantic as he spoke, his dark hair falling over his forehead, and he clutched the edge of the map as though he wished he could shake answers out of it. Gone was the polished image of the shah on his throne, no crown or burden too heavy. Now, Soraya saw only a boy who had become a king too soon.

“I need answers,” he said more quietly. “I could do so much more for this country if I didn't have to keep worrying about the next battle.” He took a breath and held it a moment before continuing. “After he fell ill, our father told me of his plans, the reforms he hoped I could finish for him one day. He wanted to lessen some of the bozorgan's control, to include commoners in higher positions of power, but he hadn't been able to do so during his reign. That was his hope for me, but I've barely
begun
to broach the issue because with all these attacks, the nobility is starting to lose faith in me and I can't afford to anger them, especially with the simorgh missing. Ever since she disappeared, there have been rumblings among the nobility that our family should no longer rule. That's why—”

He stopped abruptly, and Soraya finished for him: “That's why I'm a secret.” A miserable silence stretched between them as Sorush kept his eyes on the table, so Soraya spared them both and continued. “But what makes you think I can bring you answers? Why would the div tell me their plans?”

He looked up at her, eyes bright with hope. “Because you won't be asking her for them. You have a completely different reason for being there, which means the div won't be as guarded as she is with the azatan. I don't want you to interrogate her, just to report back if she does reveal anything about the divs and their plans that we don't already know. Will you do it?”

Soraya nodded at once. She had been so angry with him, and now he was giving her this chance, this gift. She was torn between wanting to apologize and wanting to thank him—but her pride
would not allow her to do either, so instead she offered him a gift in return.

“She's not just a div,” Soraya said. “She called herself a ‘parik.'” She told Sorush what Parvaneh had told her about the different kinds of divs, and that pariks were more human in appearance in order to work as spies. It wasn't the answer Sorush was looking for, but he listened raptly, any knowledge better than none.

“In a week's time, come to the fire temple at dawn,” he told her. “We'll be alone, and you can tell me anything you've learned between now and then. And thank you, Soraya.”

Soraya wondered if she was supposed to return the thanks, or to somehow acknowledge the friendship they had shared in childhood. But her throat closed up whenever she prepared to speak, and so instead she said, “The soldier who accompanied me to the dungeon—you won't punish him, will you?”

Sorush smiled. “Of course not.” The smile grew strained as he added, “You will be careful, though, won't you?”

Soraya almost relished the question. It was easier to feel resentment than gratitude toward him. “I'm always careful,” she said.

They stared at each other, the sun and his jealous shadow returning to their natural trajectory before Sorush quickly looked away.

The cell appeared empty, but Soraya knew better. She searched the shadows, looking for those hawk's eyes, or a flash of a smile.

Instead, she heard a voice: “I thought you'd be back.”

Soraya had waited a few restless days before returning, enough time for Sorush to inform the guards to look the other way if they heard voices coming from the cavern. Now, Parvaneh stepped forward, her black hair and the patterns on her skin making her look like she'd been formed from the shadows themselves. “Do you still think I'm lying to you?”

The image of her mother's stricken face flashed through her mind, and Soraya said, “No, I believe you.”

“Go on, then,” Parvaneh said, her fingers wrapping around the bars. “Ask me.”

Soraya swallowed, her heartbeat echoing through her body. Somehow—from the intensity of Parvaneh's stare, or from the feel of blood and poison rushing through her veins—she knew that if she asked the question, she would get an answer this time.

“How do I lift my curse?”

Parvaneh stared at her for what seemed like an eternity before she said, “What did your mother say, when you asked her if she was lying? Did she admit it?”

Soraya tensed. She felt like she was about to come apart. “Will you tell me or won't you?”

“If you want me to be honest with you, then you need to be honest with me. Did your mother admit it, or didn't she?”


No,
” Soraya spat out.

“But you still knew she was lying. Interesting.” Parvaneh leaned closer. “And I have a feeling you didn't tell her about our little talk. I thought humans were supposed to be the honest ones.”


Please,
” Soraya choked out, the last remains of her composure falling away. “Please, tell me what you know.” She tried to breathe, to stop the spread of green she knew must be webbing across her skin, but she was so tired of secrets—tired of
being
one. If she had to hand over her dignity in exchange for the answers she wanted, then so be it.

Something hardened in Parvaneh's eyes, her voice grave as she said, “I'm trying to spare you. Once I tell you the answer, you won't know another moment's peace.”

“I've never known a moment's peace. Tell me.”

Parvaneh opened her mouth to speak, but then she turned away, walking the length of her cell along the bars. “What will you give me, if I tell you?”

Ah, there it was. Soraya should have expected this, but in her desperation she had forgotten that the div would likely want something in return. “What do you want?” she asked.

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