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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (8 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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Parvaneh paused, one eyebrow raised as she looked at Soraya. “Would you grant me my freedom?”

“I could speak to my brother on your behalf,” Soraya said quickly. “I could ask him—”

Parvaneh waved the offer away. “You and I both know that means nothing. You could free me right now if you wanted.”

Soraya shook her head. “I don't have that power.”

“No?” Parvaneh stretched one arm through the bars, her finger pointing at the lit brazier, still emitting its constant smoke. “All you would have to do is put out that brazier. I could do the rest myself.”

Soraya looked from the brazier to Parvaneh and back again. Would she let the div go free in exchange for her knowledge? Would she be willing to endanger Golvahar—endanger her
family
—for the chance to save herself? She remembered again that Parvaneh had attacked Sorush. And how did she know that Parvaneh would tell her the truth? The risk was too great, the reward too uncertain. “No,” she said at last, without any doubt in her voice. “I won't do it.”

Parvaneh shrugged and resumed pacing. “I didn't think so, but I had to ask. But don't worry, I'm willing to negotiate.” She stopped in front of Soraya again and said, “I want you to bring me the simorgh's feather.”

She said the words as if they were simple, but Soraya felt hollow, like Parvaneh had reached inside and torn whatever remaining hope she had out of her body. It was unthinkable, the most disloyal act she could imagine—against both her brother and her people. She would still be a curse on her family if she did such a thing, only in a different way.

And besides that, no one but the shah and the high priest knew where the feather was.

“I can't do that,” she said, her voice hoarse.

Parvaneh shook her head. “That's my only offer. Bring me the feather, and I'll tell you how to lift your curse.”

Soraya's skin prickled. She was suddenly too aware of everything around her. The smell of esfand in the stale cavern became overwhelming, and the smoke blurred her vision. In the dim light, the div's eyes were too bright, too piercing.
I should never have come here,
Soraya thought.
I should never have trusted a div to tell me anything true
. Because this was a trap—she saw it now. Parvaneh would try to buy her trust by making her think her mother had lied, and then she would lure Soraya into betraying her family. Why else would a div ever agree to help her?

And the worst part was that she was still tempted to accept.

But she had to be wary. She couldn't let the force of her wanting overcome all reason. “How do I know you'll keep your end of the bargain? Or that you even have the answer at all?” She had meant to sound determined and authoritative, but she only sounded defeated.

Parvaneh hesitated, and then the lines of her face sharpened so that she looked like she was made of the same stone as the walls that imprisoned her. The cold blaze of her eyes shone as brightly as the torch, and in that moment, there was no mistaking her for human. “I swear on the lives of the pariks, my sisters, that if you bring me the feather, you will have the answer you seek.”

There was nothing mocking or sneering in her voice as she spoke, and Soraya found to her surprise that she believed her—which made this impossible bargain even more frustrating. “Why do you even want the feather?” she demanded. “Are you planning to destroy it?”

“No, I have a use for it. Don't bother asking—I won't tell you.”

“Would you be able to return it to me, when you were finished with it?”

“If I'm successful, then yes, I believe so.”

Soraya shook her head. She shouldn't even have asked. She shouldn't be considering this trade at all or trusting anything Parvaneh told her. “It doesn't make sense. Why wouldn't you destroy it? You tried to kill my brother. Any div would want to destroy it.”

“I'm not any div,” Parvaneh snapped. “I'm a parik, and my purposes are my own.”

The answer took Soraya by surprise, and she wondered if she could still emerge from this conversation with something useful. She tried to keep her voice light as she said, “And yet I heard the divs were more united than ever. Or is there discord among you?”

A slow, knowing smile spread over Parvaneh's face. “You heard that, did you? And I'm sure whoever told you that is currently waiting to see what answer you bring back. Is that why you were allowed to come back here?”

Soraya answered with silence, and Parvaneh nodded. “Well, I can't send you back empty-handed, can I? You're my favorite visitor. Here's something for you to take back with you—you're right that the divs are more united now than they have been. The question you should be asking is
who
united them.”

“Who—”

“That's all I can tell you. But I want to make something clear. Whatever you choose to report back, you will not speak a word of our arrangement. If you tell
anyone
I asked for the simorgh's feather—your brother, for example, or certain handsome soldiers I've seen in your company—then the deal is off. And I promise you that I will know if you've told anyone, and I will never speak to you again. Understood?”

“Understood.”

Parvaneh reached her arm out through the bars. “Shall we shake hands? Isn't that what humans do to seal a promise?”

She didn't mean it, of course—Soraya knew she was only teasing her. But still, the sly look in Parvaneh's eyes made her want to play along, to show Parvaneh that she wouldn't be rattled so easily. And so, holding her gaze, Soraya stepped forward and extended her gloved hand, close enough for Parvaneh to reach.

In a single movement too fast for Soraya to predict, Parvaneh's hand shot through the bars and grasped Soraya's, pulling her forward until she felt the metal of the bars against her shoulder. They stood face-to-face, both of them daring the other to be the first to back away. Her grip on Soraya's hand was relentless.

This close, Soraya more clearly saw the patterns on Parvaneh's face—the scalloped waves along her chin and jaw, the whorls on her cheeks, the stripes along her forehead, like a moth's wings were laid out over her skin. Soraya had the strangest urge to trace those lines with one fingertip, to see if her skin would be as soft as a moth's wing too. But then she flinched at the thought, remembering the last time she had touched a butterfly's wing.

Parvaneh noticed the way Soraya had recoiled, and she responded with a slight shake of her head. “Don't be afraid,” she said. She wasn't looking Soraya in the eye, and Soraya realized that while she had been studying the patterns on Parvaneh's face, Parvaneh had been studying the green lines on her own face.

“I'm not afraid of you,” Soraya whispered.

Parvaneh's eyes sparkled, not with their usual mockery, but with something like hunger. “Of course not,” Parvaneh said. “You could kill me with a single touch. Why should you ever be afraid of anyone?” She peered closer, tilting her head. “No, it's only yourself that you fear.” Parvaneh's hand slid out of hers—taking Soraya's glove with it. The unexpected feel of air on her bare skin always made Soraya's heart race, but her panic quickly subsided into irritation
when she saw the victorious smile on Parvaneh's face as she dangled the glove out of Soraya's reach.

“Give that back to me,” Soraya said.

Parvaneh shook her head. “You'll have to return for it.”

And before Soraya could protest, Parvaneh had disappeared into the shadows again, taking a piece of Soraya with her.

 

8

A week after Nog Roz, Soraya met Sorush in the fire temple, as planned. The fire temple was not within the palace itself, but on a low hill behind the palace, so Soraya couldn't take any tunnel or hidden passageway to reach it. Instead, she woke early, well before dawn, and made her way in the darkness before anyone else had risen.

She hadn't returned to Parvaneh since receiving her impossible bargain. It was pointless—a dead end when the path had barely begun. She didn't know where the simorgh's feather was, and even if she did, she could never hand it over to a div.

She tried to put it out of her head, but every time she pulled on the new, unfamiliar pair of gloves that was slightly too large for her hands, she would remember the glow of Parvaneh's eyes, and the price she had demanded. And she knew that even though she couldn't move forward, she could no longer go back, either.
She could never return to a time before she'd spoken to the div, a time before knowing that there
was
a way to remove her curse.

I could ask Sorush,
she thought for the hundredth time as she climbed the hill to the fire temple. Sorush knew where the feather was, and so did the high priest, who even now was probably in the fire temple. It made her want to scream a little, knowing she was about to be alone with the only two people who could tell her what she needed to know, and yet she couldn't ask either one of them without explaining why.

The sun was just rising as she reached the fire temple. Compared to the grandeur of the palace, the temple seemed misplaced in its simplicity: a round, domed roof over four stone columns forming a square, with an arch on each side. Soraya rarely came here, not only because of the location, but because of what had happened the last time she had come to the fire temple.

Shortly after the butterfly incident, Soraya had come by herself to the temple to pray—to apologize to the Creator for harming one of his creatures. The high priest at that time overheard her talking about her curse, and he told her that the Creator would not hear her prayers, because she did not belong to him—that anything venomous or deadly belonged to the Destroyer. His logic was too sound for her to disagree, and so she had never returned. It gave her some comfort to know that the priest had later been found guilty of some treasonous act and had been scheduled for execution, though he had escaped in the end, never to be heard from again.
Even
he
knows where the feather is,
Soraya thought bitterly.

The current high priest did not know about her curse, and so when she stepped into the temple, he simply smiled at her and bowed his head, his hair as white as his long robes. He and another, younger priest stood beside the Royal Fire, which burned in an urn on top of a stone pedestal in the center of the temple. There were many other sacred fires in many other temples throughout
Atashar, all honoring the Creator, but only the Royal Fire had been ritually created from several sources, including lightning sent from the Creator himself. An iron grate enclosed the pedestal, and only a priest was allowed to open the grate and tend to the Fire, which never went out. The younger priest poured some esfand onto the flames now, and the smell of it filled the air.

Soraya stood uncomfortably near the temple entrance, still hearing the former high priest's gravelly voice confirming all her worst fears.
You don't belong here in this temple,
he had told her.
You belong somewhere like the pit of Duzakh, where the Destroyer dwells among wicked spirits. Or even better—the dakhmeh, where the yatu seek refuge, where the vultures fly overhead, hungry for human flesh, where the div Nasu spreads death and corruption. Because isn't that what you do, shahzadeh? Aren't you made for death?

The words kept playing over and over again in Soraya's head, and she was thankful when she heard Sorush's steps behind her.

Sorush approached the high priest and spoke to him in a low voice. The priest looked from Sorush to Soraya, then nodded, and he and the other priest stepped outside the temple, leaving the two of them alone.

With the priests gone, Soraya was better able to relax, and she came to join Sorush in front of the iron grate, the fire crackling inside it.

“Did you learn anything new?” Sorush asked her quietly, his eyes locked on the fire.

Soraya had already decided what she would tell him—and what she would omit. “I think there may be some kind of animosity between the pariks and the other divs—or at least between this parik and the others,” she reported.

Sorush nodded. “That could be useful. I thought it was strange that I've never seen a div like her before on the battlefield. But if they're not all aligned with one another, that would make sense.”

“There's something else,” Soraya said. “She said it's true that the
divs are more united now than they have been, but that the question we should be asking is
who
united them. She might be lying, though. She guessed that I was digging for information.”

Sorush frowned in thought as he stared deep into the fire. “Did you learn anything else?”

“I tried asking what she meant by that, but she wouldn't tell me anything more.”

“No,” Sorush said, turning to look at her. “I meant about your curse.”

She had hoped he wouldn't ask, so she wouldn't have to lie directly. But she couldn't tell him what Parvaneh had asked for, because then he would always wonder if she would accept those terms and betray him for her own sake. “No,” she said, looking away from him. “I don't know if there's any point in going back.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw him nod. “I understand if you don't. But if you do, and she tells you anything else, please send word to me.”

“Of course,” Soraya said, and to her surprise, she found herself disappointed that her mission would be over so soon. She would miss feeling useful.

Sorush began to walk away, their exchange having ended, and Soraya felt strangely cold, as if he had taken the fire's warmth with him. “Sorush?” she called to him. He turned, and before she could stop herself, she asked, “Do you remember the man who was high priest when we were children—the one who escaped execution? Do you know what ever happened to him? Why was he arrested?”

“He was caught trying to put out the Royal Fire,” Sorush answered. “It turned out he was secretly a yatu posing as a priest. Why? Do you think he might be the one the parik was talking about?”

“No,” Soraya said. “Being here again reminded me of him, and I was curious.”

She remained in the fire temple until after Sorush left, even after the priests returned, staring into the fire until her eyes burned.
The former high priest had been a sorcerer, then. He had told her she belonged to the Destroyer, and she supposed he would know, being aligned with the Destroyer himself. But she couldn't afford to hold a grudge against him now, because he knew where to find the feather—and Soraya was fairly certain she knew where to find him.

From different parts of the roof, Soraya could look down at the entire city surrounding Golvahar like it was a map. Her eyes swept over the flat roofs of houses and shops, at the orderly streets that separated the city into its different districts. For years, that was how shahs had maintained a stable rule, with everything and everyone in its proper place. No wonder, then, that Soraya had to be hidden away like a stain on a tapestry or a weed in a garden. There was no place for her within these walls—just as there was no place inside the city for the dakhmeh.

Even without the memory of the false priest's words in her mind, Soraya would have avoided looking directly at the roofless, cylindrical shape of the dakhmeh where it loomed on a hill outside the city walls. It wasn't a choice so much as an instinct born out of fear and revulsion, the same way she would try not to look at a decaying animal. It was the same instinct, she imagined, that made her family avert their eyes from her. No one wanted to look at the face of death.

But Soraya had been caught unawares once. She had been on the roof, a few hours before sunset, and seen a funeral procession. She had watched as a family followed their dead to the dakhmeh, a priest leading the way with a brazier of esfand for protection against Nasu and other demons. The corpse-bearers took the body inside the dakhmeh—they alone were permitted to go inside, and they had to perform a rigorous cleansing ritual afterward. That day, Soraya had watched until she saw the first sign of vultures
overhead, and then she turned away, wondering if the corpse-bearers would return later for the bones.

The dakhmeh—where the vultures fly overhead, hungry for human flesh, where the div Nasu spreads death and corruption.

Where the yatu seek refuge.

Every day since speaking to Sorush in the temple, she had come here to the roof to look out at the dakhmeh, searching for some hint that her suspicion was correct. Had the false priest run to the dakhmeh for refuge? It was the one place where the living dared not enter, the one place no one wanted to even think about, let alone disturb. Soraya had read that yatu used human remains, like hair or nail clippings, for their spells, and what better place to find such things than the dakhmeh? If she were a yatu, that was where she would hide.

But it had been years since the yatu had escaped. Even if he had gone to the dakhmeh at first, he might have moved on since then. He might even be dead. And even if he were there, and Soraya managed to travel through the city and cross the barren landscape beyond to walk into such a polluted place—would she ask him for the location of the simorgh's feather? She had told herself she would never accept Parvaneh's bargain. But then why did she still come to the roof, day after day, to look out at the dakhmeh and wonder?

Or maybe she didn't need Parvaneh or the feather after all. Wasn't it possible that the yatu knew the secret to lifting Soraya's curse? Perhaps he had known all along but didn't want to reveal his knowledge of such forbidden magic.

“I have to do this,” she muttered to herself, surprised at her resolve. Now she just had to figure out how.

“Soraya?”

She jumped at the voice, but saw with relief that it was Azad emerging from the stairway. How long had it been since Nog Roz? Three weeks at least. She had been so occupied with demons and
feathers and sorcerers that she had barely spared a thought for the young man who had helped her so much that day. He was tanner than when she had last seen him, his arms more defined—he had probably been spending time out on the training grounds, sparring with his fellow soldiers. She wondered if they had fully accepted him, or if they thought of him as a villager who had risen above his station. Perhaps he didn't fit neatly into Golvahar's structured world, either.

“You always know where to find me,” she said as he came toward her.

“Because I always look,” he answered with a grin. “Whenever I come or go from the training grounds, I look up and see you here, staring out into the distance. I came to see what you've been looking at.” He looked over her shoulder, and Soraya felt a flare of panic, as if he would somehow know it was the dakhmeh that occupied her.

“How has my brother been treating you?” she blurted to distract him. “Well, I hope? I asked him not to blame you for what happened on Nog Roz.”

“I haven't seen much of him,” Azad answered. “I imagine he's busy preparing for the wedding tomorrow.”

The wedding—Soraya had nearly forgotten about the wedding, let alone realized it was tomorrow. She had forgotten about everything other than her hopeless quest. But even now, the grounds below were bustling with people preparing for the wedding, setting out long trestle tables and rugs and tying crystal birds to the tree branches.

“Besides,” Azad continued, his eyes locking on hers, “I think I prefer the company of his sister. I've thought of you often since Nog Roz.”

A shiver went down her spine, not only because of the way his voice lowered into a caress, but also from the spiteful pleasure of knowing that someone preferred being with her over Sorush.
Nothing
can come of this,
an insistent inner voice whispered. Even so, the novelty of Azad's attention was thrilling enough on its own. She still remembered the feeling of his arm around her from when he had helped her on Nog Roz.

The memory sparked an idea in her mind—if he had helped her navigate one crowd, couldn't he do so again? But could she ask this of him? He had already put his position at risk by helping her once.

“You're thinking about something else,” Azad said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“I was thinking about Nog Roz,” she said. “About what you did for me then.”

“The div? Did she tell you what you wanted to hear?”

She took a breath, wondering how much to tell him, how much he deserved to know. But she remembered Parvaneh's warning not to tell anyone—including a certain handsome soldier. “No,” she said. “I didn't like what she had to say. But I think there may be another way.”

“What is it?”

Soraya hesitated again, but the pull to the dakhmeh was as strong as the pull to the dungeon. She hadn't spared Azad then, and she knew she wouldn't now, either—especially not when it provided such a perfect excuse to keep him close to her. “I have to go to the dakhmeh,” she answered. “I'm hoping to find a yatu there who might have the answers I'm looking for.”

She expected him to argue or stare at her in disbelief, but in the silence that followed, he only frowned in thought. Finally, he said, “I don't want you to go alone. Would you let me come with you?”

She almost laughed in relief. “I do need help getting out of the palace and through the city. I wouldn't ask you to come inside the dakhmeh—”

“You don't have to ask,” he said. He took a step toward her, closing the already short distance between them, and clasped one of her gloved hands. “This is what I always wanted—to save you.”
Slowly, never taking his eyes off her, he brought her hand to his lips.

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