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Authors: Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn (9 page)

BOOK: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
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His courtly action should have moved or thrilled her, but the dulled feeling of his lips on her gloved hand only sharpened the reality of their situation.
He still thinks this is a story, and I'm letting him do so for my own sake
. He was saying all the right words, making all the right gestures, almost as if he had practiced them in his head a hundred times—which he probably had. And even though Soraya knew better, she hadn't stopped him, letting him play the hero despite the risk to his safety and position in court.

“This was a mistake,” she said, as much to herself as to him. She pulled her hand away.

He shook his head, a flicker of worry in his eye. “What do you mean? Have I offended you?”

“Not at all,” she said. “But you can't save me, Azad. And I shouldn't ask it of you, either. I think we both see each other as something a little less than real.” She looked down at her gloved hands, at the loose threads of her sleeves, picked apart during moments of thwarted anger. “I can't promise that I'll be what you want me to be at the end of this,” she said quietly.

He started to disagree, but then he stopped and looked at her, and he sighed. “You may be right,” he said. “I suppose I wanted to remember what it was like—to live in a palace, to be a part of a court, to feel like a hero again.”

“Again?”

He ran a hand through his curls, his shoulders tensing, and Soraya felt like she was seeing him for the first time—not as a brave hero or her dashing rescuer, but as a young man with burdens of his own.

“This isn't the first time I've moved up or down in society,” he said, bitterness lacing his words. “I told you, I think, that my father was a merchant. He was a very successful one, and he was often a guest in the palaces of satraps and the estates of the bozorgan.
Sometimes he would take me with him, and I suppose I began to feel like I was one of them, like I
belonged
there. But then my father made some bad investments and fell out of favor. We were cast out. I lost everything I had, everything I believed I was.”

“Your father,” she said, “is he…”

“Dead?” He looked her in the eye, not flinching from the word. “Yes. He died shortly after our disgrace. I lived on my own in the village we ran to until the divs came and slaughtered half the villagers.” He paused, his eyes flickering to the ground. “It seems wrong, but sometimes I still feel such anger toward him, for all the things he couldn't be. For the ways he failed me.”

His fists clenched at his sides, and Soraya saw the veins on his knuckles stand out as he fought down his anger. She wanted to trace them with her fingers, to feel the shape of someone else's anger, someone else's pain. She thought of the look they had shared after he had struck Ramin, the sense of connection between them. It was when they let each other see their harsh edges that they both felt real.

Azad shook his head, breaking himself out of his reverie. “That first time I saw you on the roof, I felt like that young man again. I suppose I wanted to regain what I had lost through you. I'm sorry for that.” He reached forward, slowly enough not to startle her, and carefully—so carefully—brushed his knuckles against Soraya's hair. “But I'd still like to help you, if you'd let me,” he said. “I like the person I am when I'm with you. And I'd like to help you be whoever you want to be.”

He had touched her hair before, but this time felt different. She had hardly breathed last time, certain that he'd fade away or disappear under the weight of a single breath. But now, after what he had told her, after seeing the veins in his hands and hearing the harsh edge in his voice, Azad seemed … touchable. A bolt of heat went through her at the thought, like a spark suddenly ignited. That was how she felt—like she was transforming from smoke to
flame under his gaze, his touch. She could have echoed his words and meant it:
I like the person I am when I'm with you
.

She leaned away, letting her hair slowly unwind from his finger. “Tonight, then?”

His lips curved into a smile that was both fond and a little sly. “Tonight,” he agreed.

 

9

For what must have been the fifteenth time, Soraya drew her shawl more tightly around her face, hoping that the shawl and the steadily dimming light would make her appear little more than a shadow. She could have been any young woman sneaking off with a handsome soldier—or so she hoped.

Her own personal handsome soldier was waiting for her outside the walls of the golestan, as they had arranged. As soon as she left behind those familiar walls, he was at her side, taking her arm.

“Are you ready?” Azad whispered to her.

She pretended not to hear. It wasn't even the thought of the dakhmeh that scared her most—simply leaving the palace where she had spent her entire life was enough to send her heart racing. She was about to step off the edge of the world she had always known. Could anyone ever be ready for that?

Their timing was convenient, she supposed. The garden was alive
with music and celebration tonight, the night before the shah's wedding. The crowd wasn't as large as the one on Nog Roz, since only members of court were attending, but it was large enough to let Soraya and Azad blend in as they made their escape.

Soraya gripped his arm tightly as they walked through the garden, trying not to flinch every time someone passed by them. She kept looking around her, sure that her mother would appear, or that someone would collide with her and accidentally touch her skin. She almost felt like she was walking through a painting or a tableau on a tapestry—like she was intruding in a world where she didn't belong and didn't quite fit, and it was only a matter of time before someone noticed her. But Azad confidently steered her around the celebrants as they danced or laughed or ate together, and no one paid the two of them much notice.

Finally, they neared the palace gates, and Azad told her to wait as he approached the guards standing watch there. She knew why he didn't want her to hear him—she could tell what Azad must be saying from the knowing smirks on the guards' faces. But whatever Azad had said evidently worked, because soon he was waving her forward, and she was hurrying past the guards to join him.

And then they were through, looking down the steps cut into the small hill that would take them into the center of the city. It really did feel like stepping off the edge of the world. Or was it the other way around? Was she finally stepping
into
the world? Soraya turned her eyes above, to the stars that were beginning faintly to appear. Looking out at the city made her feel disoriented and exposed, but when she looked up, she could imagine herself swimming in the stars, sinking beneath the surface of the sky to some hidden depth. Maybe in a world turned upside down, she wouldn't be poisonous anymore.

Azad was standing motionless a few steps ahead of her, and she tore her eyes away from the sky to see what was occupying his attention. But it was
her
—he was watching her, his eyes brighter
than the stars. She returned his gaze, and her fingertips tingled through her gloves.

“Are you ready?” he asked for the second time, and reached slowly for her hand.

She closed the gap, letting her gloved fingers entwine with his. “I am now.”

Azad led her into the emptying streets. The city was beginning to quiet down for the night, but there were still enough people out to make Soraya cautious—though not so many to overwhelm her, as on Nog Roz. And as they neared the city square, the streets widened, and she began to breathe more freely.

It was when they reached the square that it struck her how strange it was to be inside this space that she had only seen from above and afar for so long. Here were the block-shaped homes and buildings whose roofs had lit up for Suri, and there were the archways that led into and out of the square. Everything was both familiar and foreign, both known and unknown.

Azad must have noticed the way she was looking up and around, and he paused to point out a tall, imposing building. “That's the courthouse,” he whispered to her. “We're about to go through the bazaar now.”

Soraya peered down the long avenue at the people closing down their stalls and shops, imagining how it must look and sound during the day with bustling crowds and merchants calling out to potential customers. Only the scents of the bazaar lingered; she thought she caught a hint of rose water in the air, and a little while later, the coppery tang of blood mixed with leather.

“Is this where the tanning bazaar is?” she asked Azad, and he looked at her in surprise.

“The butchers and the tanners are down there,” he said, pointing to a set of steps that led to a narrower alley. “This is where the rug bazaar would be.”

These stalls were all empty now, but she imagined this street
lined with rugs and tapestries—the bright colors of the dyes, the sound of looms clacking as they turned bolts of raw silk imported from the east into the beautiful patterns of the rugs Atashar was famous for.

“I wish I could see it,” she whispered into the night.

The night didn't respond, but Azad did. “You will. I'll show it to you when your curse is gone.”

He led her down another set of streets, past flat-topped houses with walled orchards. She heard the sound of children laughing from behind one of them.

“We're almost at the city walls,” Azad said. His grip on Soraya's hand was tight, his gaze focused ahead, his gait steady and quick. Soraya's heart lurched. It had been easy to forget their real destination—that they were leaving this hub of life and light for a place of death and shadows.

But Soraya wasn't capable of fear right now. She had been afraid to come into the city at all, but this outing had quickened her blood and quieted her fears. She was here, outside the palace, in the world, and she had harmed no one. She could
live
without someone or something dying for it.

“You're not tired, are you?” Azad asked her, his pace slowing slightly.

“No,” she said. “I've never felt less tired in my life.”

She thought she saw a flash of a smile, and they continued on.

They moved toward the setting sun, and by the time they reached the large wooden door set into the eastern wall of the city, that sun had nearly dipped below the horizon. The night guard took a glance at Azad's red tunic and let them pass without question.

It would be another hour's walk to reach the dakhmeh, which stood alone on a low hill, a safe distance from the living. Azad had brought a lantern with them, and as the sun disappeared, he lit and raised it to light their way. The light didn't extend to the dakhmeh,
however, and so all it did was illuminate the dry, cracked ground around them.

Soraya had thought moving through the city would be the hardest part of this journey, but with each step that took her farther away from the city walls, her breathing became more and more labored, as if a weight were pressing down on her chest. She tried to look back to see how far they had come, but the city was lost to the night now. Outside the lantern's wavering ring of light, there was only darkness all around them, stretching on without end.

On the roof, the whole world had been laid out in front of her, and she had been able to map the distance from the city to the dakhmeh easily. But now that she was no longer watching from above, she felt like she had shrunk down to the size of one of the insects in her garden, walking an impossibly long trail in a world that was too big for her. Had she found the boundaries of her room and her garden suffocating before? Had she felt she couldn't breathe in the passages behind her walls? She could have laughed at herself—first it was not enough, and now it was too much.

Azad must have heard her increasingly ragged breathing, because his voice broke through the silence and the darkness, saying only, “Tell me a story.”

His words brought her out of her head, and she looked at his profile, lit softly by the lantern light. He was trying to distract her, to make the journey shorter, and she was grateful to him for it.

And so she told him the story of the princess who let down her hair for her lover to climb, and when it was over, Azad asked for another. This time she told the story of a brave hero stronger than ten men who bested dragons and rescued a foolish shah from the hands of divs.

She waited to hear him ask for yet another story, but this time he said, “Tell me your favorite story. The one you've read over and over again.”

Soraya wanted to protest that the first story she'd told
had
been
her favorite—but it wasn't the one she'd revisited the most over the years. It wasn't the one that haunted her dreams night after night. It wasn't the one that she felt was a part of her, so much so that she hesitated now, in case it would reveal too much of herself.

But as always, once the Shahmar entered her mind, she couldn't think of anything else.

“There was and there was not,” she began, in a voice that seemed both hers and not hers, “a prince who was what every young man should be. He was handsome and courteous and brave, but he was also proud and curious. One day, the prince captured a div, but he didn't vanquish it. Instead, he kept it locked up in a cave, and visited it every day, demanding the secrets of its knowledge.”

She paused, knowing both of them must be thinking of Soraya's visit to the div locked away in the dungeon.

“Before long, the div convinced the prince that he would make a better ruler than his father or his elder brothers. And the young man agreed—after all, didn't he know even the secrets of the divs? And so the prince slew his father and brothers, and took the crown for himself.

“The prince—now the shah—ruled for a time in peace, despite his bloody coronation. But he still visited the div, and over time, the prince noticed that he was changing. His bones shifted, his skin grew scaly and rough, and his heart grew violent. He hungered for war, for destruction, and he began to rule by terror and force, demanding the senseless sacrifice of two men every month to quench his desire for bloodshed. The act of murder that had made him king had now also twisted him into a div himself—”

Her voice broke, and she froze where she was, trying to collect herself, her throat burning as she tried to hold back angry tears. From beside her, she heard Azad say, “I've heard the rest. You don't have to go on.”

The rest of the story was about her ancestor, the adopted son of the simorgh, who had led a rebellion against the Shahmar and
chased him off into exile, where he was either killed by other divs or lived long enough to take his revenge against the simorgh, depending on which version you believed. And yet, even though that was her family's origin, that wasn't the part of the story Soraya felt most connected to.

“Why does that story affect you so?” Azad asked her, his voice gentle.

She didn't want to answer, but she wouldn't have begun the story at all if she hadn't been prepared to face this question.

She held her arms out to him, pulling back her sleeves so they both could see the dark green veins running down her wrists. “Do you have to ask?” she whispered. “Doesn't it sound familiar to you?” She pulled her sleeves back down. “Ever since I was a child, I've wondered if the same thing would happen to me—if the poison was only the beginning, if I was going to grow more and more dangerous until I wasn't human anymore.” She had thought she would have to fight to get the words out, but she found now that it was easy to say them. They were less frightening aloud than they were in her mind.

“And so I told myself,” she continued, “that as long as I was
good,
never angry or envious, I wouldn't become a monster like the Shahmar.”

Azad swallowed, his eyes moving over the veins on her face and neck. “And have you been successful?”

She lowered her head, looking for reassurance from the cracks in the earth. But the way they branched out reminded her too much of her veins and the poison inside them. “I don't know,” she said. She thought of all the dead insects in her garden, of the night she had been tempted to hurt Ramin, of amber eyes staring in the dark. “I try to hold myself back from doing any real harm, but sometimes I feel like my thoughts are steeped in poison, and that it's only a matter of time before I lose control over them … or over myself. I dream about it sometimes—I see myself transforming
into something else, and the Shahmar stands over me, laughing—” She shut her eyes, but in doing so, she only conjured up the image of the Shahmar.

She hadn't realized she'd been plucking at her gloves until Azad put his hand over hers, stilling her anxious movements. “Look at me, Soraya.”

Her eyes opened, and instead of the Shahmar's triumphant face, she saw only Azad. His gaze was focused on her with an intensity that made her breath catch, the flame from the lantern flickering in his eyes in a way that reminded her of Parvaneh. The furrow in his brow made him seem almost angry, and she tried to look away, but his hand tightened over hers and she held still. “Stories lie,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “You're not a monster.”

She shook her head. “You don't know me,” she said, even though he knew her better than most by now. “I must seem so small to you, so insignificant, hiding behind walls and layers of fabric, more a story than a person. But there are parts of me you don't know, parts you haven't seen.”

“I don't think you're small or insignificant,” he said. His gaze softened, solemn rather than fierce. “I think you have so much power within you that it scares you, and that you make yourself small on purpose because you don't know what you'll become if you ever stop.”

He let go of her hands, and neither of them spoke as they continued on toward the dakhmeh. Their trek was almost over, and before long, Soraya saw the shadowy cylinder on a hill up ahead. The sight of it should have filled her with dread or disgust, but she barely paid it notice. She was repeating Azad's words to herself over and over again until their cadence matched her heartbeat.

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