Authors: Renée Ahdieh
G. P. P
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Copyright Â© 2016 by RenÃ©e Ahdieh.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A WHISPER AND A CHALLENGE
MOUNTAIN OF JEWELED SILK LAY BEFORE DESPINA.
She studied her adversary, both hands propped on her hips. Then Despina sighed, long and loud.
“Anything with embroidery needs to be wrapped individually,” she directed to Ruha, the young servant girl at her shoulder. “If something snags, it won't be on my head.” Her voice dropped as an afterthought. “Or my purse.”
Without hesitation, Ruha followed Despina's command, reaching for the topmost garment with cautious hands. They worked alongside each other in silence, sorting the beautiful pieces of clothing, many of which had yet to be worn.
After a time, Ruha glanced at Despina from the corner of her eye. The younger girl seemed to hesitate, her mouth ajar as though caught mid-speech. Finally she faced Despina. “Have you seen the new queen yet?”
Despina considered her response before replying. Too much information would be foolish. Too little, unimpressive. She could
afford to be neither. “Only at a distance. The new calipha brought her own servants to the palace.”
“But I thought you were to be her handmaiden.” The servant girl's voice bordered on querulous.
Despina lifted a shoulder in dismissive fashion. “It appears I am to be the Guardian of the Garments, instead.”
“Once she meets you, the queen will undoubtedly change her mind. No one has your sense of style. Or your way with colors.”
“Or my care in storing garments, it would seem.” Though she was irritated, Despina sent a warm smile Ruha's way. The two young women resumed their work.
Resumed their many contemplations.
It would be a lie to say the unspoken dismissal of Despina's services didn't smart. She'd only recently been elevated to the vaunted post of handmaiden to the queen; it had taken her years to achieve such standing. Years to move beyond a troubling past.
But the new Calipha of Khorasan was purportedly the quiet sort. And when Despina had last seen herâthough it was but a brief instantâthe lovely girl seemedÂ .Â .Â . elsewhere. As though her mind lived amongst the clouds. As though the first hint of a storm would spin her into turmoil. Despina supposed it made sense the girl would not want a perfect stranger dressing her or attending to her needs. After all, the new queen had been raised in Rey; her servants were certainly close by.
Her name was Ava. That much they all knew and not much more. In their language, it meant “voice.” Strange that this slender sylph of a queen exhibited anything but. When she was
in need of something, she sent her most trusted servants. Hushed conversations transpired in shadowed hallways. And all was handled in an equally discreet manner.
Perhaps a somewhat taciturn queen would suit the young caliph. After all, Khalid Ibn al-Rashid had always been a boy of few words.
Soâdespite the slight to her new positionâDespina set about organizing the many garments strewn about the space. Even though it was clear she would not be in direct contact with the new calipha, Despina's pride would not allow her to do anything less than perfect work.
Despina adjusted the thick band of silver resting above her left elbow. Huffing audibly, she bent to collect more fabric. Thenâbefore she could thwart itâthe tassels snagged on something. The tiny mirrors on the skirt's embroidery caught on intricate blue fringe. An unmistakable rip echoed through the space.
Ruha whirled about, her eyes wide. Horrified.
Though her cheeks burned, Despina's smile was one of punishing precision.
She glared at the skirt in question. “With all the power of the gods, I smite you,” Despina said. Unfolding the torn garment, she turned to squint into the light of a nearby taper.
“Can it be mended?”
“The seam is still intact. But I'm not quite certain it's salvageable.” Her eyes flitted about the windowless space. The room was meant to keep away all signs of light. Faded colors were as problematic as rogue moths. Knowing the faint glow from the scented taper was not enough, Despina shouldered past the door,
down the marbled corridor to where the rays of the afternoon sun reached their highest.
Again she unfurled the fabric. The thin silver silk glimmered as though it were fashioned from stardust. A breeze riffled past as Despina carefully straightened a gathering in the cursed snag. The mirrors along the hem flashed, tinkling together like tiny coins.
“That's the loveliest sight I've seen all day.”
Behind her. A male voice with the warm resonance of laughter. Of unbridled merriment.
Or of blind privilege.
Despina glimpsed over a shoulder. And refrained from showing any reaction.
The voice belonged to the captain of the Royal Guard. The son of General Aref al-Khoury, the
Blind privilege, indeed.
Well, Despina supposed she was bound to encounter such an important young man in person. Especially now that she had been elevated in direct service to the queen.
This time, Despina turned toward him, her back straight and her stare unwavering.
As she'd always suspected even from a distance, he was in fact quite handsome.
Broad-shouldered, trim-waisted. His cloak emblazoned with the royal seal. A wavy mop of dark hair. The kind that begged to be touched.
A smirk that begged to be slapped.
Despina had heard tales of him. The palace was rife with salacious talk. And the captain of the Royal Guard had quite the reputation. A notorious rake. One who'd broken many hearts. He could supposedly charm the skirts off a girl with nothing but sly words and flippant promises.
At the memory of such tales, Despina stifled a laugh.
Impossibly ridiculous. Removing clothing involved a great deal more than words.
At the very least,
had to unravel something. A knot. A string.
The captain of the guard sauntered closer, a palm resting on the bejeweled hilt of his scimitar. His grin bordered on obscene. Too knowing. Too assured.
“You must be hungry,” Despina said.
He stopped mid-step. “Pardon?”
“You said I was the loveliest sight you'd seen all day.” Despina angled a hip forward, her most winning smile displayed to full advantage. “Therefore, you must be hungry.”
“Interesting.” He angled his body in the same direction, almost on instinct. “I'll play. Why do you suppose I'm hungry?”
“To me, the loveliest sight of all is food.”
A spark glinted in his eyes. “I suppose that would depend on what kind of food, would it not?” He walked closer, scrutinizing her features in the rays of shifting light. “For instance, when I look at you, I think perhaps a drizzle of honey”âhis gaze lingered on her lipsâ“over fresh berries might compare.”
It was too much. Too muchÂ .Â .Â . everything. Though she knew she could play this rake's game without balking, Despina burst into laughter, clutching her sides as the sound reverberated off the coffered ceilings. It was undoubtedly foolish to laugh at such an important young man. But
had not sought
And funny trumped foolish, at all turns.
The captain of the guard's eyes widened. His jaw dropped. But he recovered quickly. In no time at all, a redolent grin touched his mouth.
“I can't say I'm used to that response.”
His voice rolled through the space. The smallest of shivers danced across her skin.
It was an unforgivably nice voice.
Despina smiled back at him, all but baring her teeth. “Perhaps you need a better adversary.”
“You think yourself better?”
He nodded again, his grin arching up his face.
“In all ways,” Despina replied without pause.
Now it was his turn to laugh. The sound enveloped her, taking root in her stomach, its warmth curling beneath her skin.
He's trouble. Stay away.
Despina returned to her task, straightening the torn seam as best she could.
Behind her, his footsteps drew near, crisp against the polished stone.
A whisper at her ear. “I find myself unconvinced, lovely girl.”
“Thenâby all meansâscurry away, ridiculous boy,” she retorted in airy tones.
Another rumble of laughter.
“I don't run from challenges.”
A CLOAK OF JESSAMINE
T HAD ALL BEEN A TERRIBLE MISTAKE.
The Calipha of Khorasan was not supposed to be in her chamber. She was not supposed to be anywhere inside the palace on this lovely spring afternoon. So when Despina rounded the corner and saw the young queen sitting beneath the shade on her balcony, she stopped short.
The calipha was supposed to be on a stroll with the caliph through the royal gardens. Her chamber was supposed to be empty at this moment. Empty and ready for Despina to deliver the newest selections of cosmetics, in the quiet and discreet manner she'd espoused for the last three weeks. She'd even knocked on the double doors twice, just to be sure no one was there to question her. No one to notice her.
No one to draw attention to her superfluousness.
After all, as Despina had realized early on, the new calipha did not need a handmaiden. Not with all her servants from home recently taking up residence in the palace.
Well, there was nothing to be had for it. Despite all Despina's
attempts to remain beyond the calipha's notice, it had inevitably happened. The calipha would ask who she was. Despina would be turned away outright. Scolded. Or worse yet, dismissed.
And Despina was not one to stomach a dismissal of any sort. She'd never been the kind to suffer a slight in silence.
Worst of all, these possible scenarios had the problematic effect of wreaking havoc on her pride. After a childhood of being overlooked, Despina's pride was her one constant.
Hell and damnation.
Despina braced herself, intent on backtracking with the stealth of a shadow.
An exercise in futility.
As she started to turn, her slippers brushed across the marble floor with the softest
. Nevertheless, the whisper of leather against stone managed to cut through the quiet. The calipha turned and saw her. Caught in the act of escape, Despina clutched tight to the small silver tray in her hands while swiveling to meet the calipha's gaze. The tray's contents swayed about, jostling a tiny glass vial positioned at its edge. The vial nearly tipped over, several amber drops seeping down one side. The sweet scent of jessamine wafted through the air.
At the tinkling of glass, the queen stood. She did not appear angry. She appearedÂ .Â .Â . weary. Dressed in elegant cream linen, her willowy form braced on an idle breeze. Her skirts swayed about as though she were the most delicate of flowers, ready to wither in an instant.
Before Despina could string together a sentence of apology or explanation, the queen blinked at her and spoke.
“Yes?” The question was not harsh or demanding. Not even curious. At most, it was reflexiveâa nod to propriety.
Despina bowed, holding the silver tray steady. “I did not mean to disturb you, my lady.”
“You haven't disturbed me.” The young queen's head shook from side to side slowly, with the appearance of great effort. Her long plait fell behind a shoulder, its rich brown color catching bends of sunlight.
Despite her better instincts to depart with all haste, Despina attempted a warm smile. “Can I bring you anything, my lady?”
Another slow shake of a bejeweled head. The calipha shifted position, and Despina caught sight of a large roll of parchment spread across the lacquered table in the balcony's center.
On the parchment was a work of intricate calligraphy, halted mid-stroke. An ebony brush lay propped near an inkwell.
Without thought, Despina took a step forward, fascinated by the carefully rendered artwork. The young queen's eyes widened. She drew back as though she meant to conceal her efforts from prying gazes.
“Forgive me, my lady.” Despina smiled, hesitantly at first, then with true cordiality. “ As a lover of beautiful things, I could not resist.”
The compliment was not contrived. Not in the least. For the young queen's calligraphy truly was a beautiful working. The words were formed in distinct, swooping arcs, the script adorned by strokes of liquid gold. Soft colors along the border seemed to melt into one another before dipping and flowing
throughout the work. A tiny palette of bright paints awaited nearby, clearly meant for further embellishment.
The young queen drew her plait of dark hair back in front, smoothing its ends. Her brown eyes narrowed as she eased forward, ever so cautious.
“You find itÂ .Â .Â . beautiful?” the calipha finally said.
Despina nodded. “It's lovelyâunderstated and elegant.”
The young queen smoothed the ends of her braid once more.
“If you'd like,” Despina continued, “I can set about finding a place to hang it in the palace. Or make inquiries as to where such wonderful work could be shown at best light.”
The calipha tipped her head to the side in consideration. “I thoughtâI thought to give it to the caliph.” She hesitated, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. This young queen of small but significant gestures. “But he has so many beautiful pieces of calligraphy all throughout his palace. And this one is not nearlyâ”
“I have no doubt he will love it.” As soon as Despina spoke, she caught herself on the interruption. Caught herself and waited to be reprimandedâ
Yet she was not.
What could have moved Despina to interject at such a moment, much less on behalf of the caliph? She'd never known Khalid Ibn al-Rashid to be effusive in his passions or his pursuits.
Yet somehow, Despina knew the caliph would appreciate this particular gift. Far more than any tribute of gold or jewels or weaponry.
The young queen said nothing for a time, her mouth twisted in contemplation. “ItÂ .Â .Â . would be nice to know he loved something of mine.”
The sadness of her words caught in Despina's chest, the lure of something darker beneath them. The feeling brought to mind Despina's mother. Those many quiet moments reminiscing on days long past. On memories ever present.
“May I”âDespina took another step forwardâ“be so bold as to make another suggestion, my lady?”
The calipha smiled, the gesture as simple and unhurried as all her others. “You do not strike me as someone who asks before doing something.”
At that, Despina could not resist a laugh. The sound startled the young queen. It rounded her eyes, making them appear doe-likeâas though she were something fashioned from a forest at twilight.
Despina persisted in her course, the reminder of her mother's sadness spurring her to action. “May I suggest you mention your calligraphy to the caliph on your walk this afternoon, my lady?”
The young queen's shoulders dropped. Her sigh was so slight that Despina strained to hear it. A small sigh of great significance. A significance the young queen was not ready to put to words.
Even so, Despina pried further. “I was led to believe you would be in the royal gardens with the caliph today. It was why I intruded on your space with such heedlessness. Has your walk been postponed? Are you ill, my lady?”
The young queen's head tilted to the other side. She was difficult for Despina to understand, as she obviously preferred speaking in gestures rather than in words.
So Despina prompted her with another kind smile and an encouraging dip of her head.
“I am not ill,” the queen replied slowly. “I suppose âpostponed' would be an apt word.” She averted her gaze, her mouth curving upward with a trace of wryness. “Postponedâas many things in life so often are.”
“For later in the day, then?” Despina pressed.
The calipha's eyes flashed once, a spark of unnamed emotion flaring in their depths. “For later in the future, if at all.”
This time, Despina wisely chose not to speak.
“You needn't worry on my account,” the calipha continued. “The times I meet the king are often postponed. He has many pressing weights on his shoulders, and I am notâ”
She stopped as though she'd said too much.
It did not matter. The young queen need say no more.
A curl of sympathy rose in Despina's throat. “A king's queen should never be a pressing weight,” she said in a gentle voice. “Andâjust as I am one who does not ask before taking actionâyou appear to be anything but a source of worry, my lady.”
“It's kind of you to say so. Though I am not of the same mind.”
Another moment passed between them in thoughtful silence. “Tell him you are preparing a gift for him, my lady. That you'd like to share it sometime soon.”
“Is it truly that simple?” Dubiousness creased the whole of the calipha's brow.
“It is a beginning.” Despina's voice was bright. “And sharing such a beautiful gift with one you love is not a cause for concern, my lady. But rather a cause for celebration.”
“Perhaps you're right.” Emboldened, the young queen stood straight and met Despina's gaze. “Perhaps I
tell him about it.”
Despina placed the perfume on the low table along the far wall, then bowed to take her leave, a triumphant smile touching her lips.
Perhaps the young queen would ask her name tomorrow. Then perhaps she'd ask Despina's advice on which color suited her complexion best. Which scent would entice the caliph's notice.
The day following that?
The possibilities were endless.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Jalal al-Khoury was bored.
Such boredom did not behoove the beautiful day before him. Did not pay homage to its clear blue sky and the citrus-scented breeze weaving through the open screens of the palace.
He supposed he could seek out Sahar. Or perhaps Nasreen. Both girls were just the kind to take advantage of such a lovely day. Just the kind to put aside their work and get lost in the many shaded corners of the gardens beyond.
The kind to engage in Jalal's favorite pastime.
Women had always been a weakness for him, much to his father's chagrin. Aref al-Khouryâthe
of Reyâhad been faithful to one woman all his life. Sought comfort in the arms of one woman, and one woman alone. Whereas his son sought comfort in the arms of many women. Women of all sorts. Short, thin, tall, plumpâit mattered not to Jalal.
For Jalal al-Khoury loved women and never sought to hide the fact. He'd been called many things as a result. Scoundrel. Rake. Profligate. But he'd never been called boring. And Jalal refused to let such a travesty occur on such a lovely day.
After all, there were far too many fetching young women at the palace.
So Jalal walked through its warren of marbled corridors, on the search for any girl with a smiling face and a moment to flirt.
Butâwhen he turned the corner across from the queen's chambersâJalal did not come across a girl with a smiling face.
Instead he came across a girl with a decidedly pensive gaze. A girl with an empty silver tray dangling from one hand. When a ray of afternoon sun struck its surface, the flash of light drew him toward her, like a moth to a flame.
Jalal recognized her in an instant.
It was the same girl from three weeks past. The one with the sharp tongue and the sly expression. An expression rich with emotion. Rich with intelligence.
Rich with secrets.
As with the first time, Jalal was struck by her bearing. It was not the bearing of a servant. No. There was nothing meek or solicitous about her manner. The girl carried herself with calm pomposity. It reminded him greatly of himself.
He slowed his gait to a leisurely stroll and let his eyes run the length of her. Skin the color of cool sand. Eyes the blue of the Aegean. Long, rich curls of light walnut hair wrapped in intricate coils.
Just as lovely as Jalal remembered.
As he drew near, the girl was taken from her reverie.
Just as before, she did not fluster at his arrival. No sign of recognition rippled across her face. Not a trace of becoming blush rose in her cheeks. She did not avert her gaze or bite her lip.
She merely returned his stare. With such steadiness that Jalal instead grew flustered, one hand seeking purchase on the hilt of his scimitar.
“Are you lost, Captain al-Khoury?” the girl asked without pause.
Ordinarily such a question would be nothing short of an overture for Jalal. An overture demanding a flowery response. Or at the very least, a honeyed quip. Something about her eyesâwhich truly were strikingâor perhaps about the shining crown of curls about her head.
Something about how he'd like to unravel those curls and watch them fall apart in his fingers.
But his memory recalled more than her striking beauty. It also recalled a biting wit. One that lanced old wounds as it made new ones. Any felicitous overtures on his part would be lost on this girl. She would likely mock him for his efforts.
So instead Jalal cleared his throat and leaned back on his heels.
“Why do you suppose I'm lost?” he began in an airy tone.
“You're no longer walking with purpose.”
Jalal lifted his shoulders, glib to a fault. “Sometimes it's rather nice to take a stroll without a destination in mind. Have you never thought of such a thing? Getting lost for a moment and seeing where the day takes you?”