The Crown and the Arrow(2)

By: Renee Ahdieh

He resumed his steps, his mind a tangle of knots. The questions continued bouncing back and forth in a ceaseless flurry. No matter how hard he tried, Khalid’s attempts to silence them were in vain.

No girl in her right mind would volunteer to die.

So it followed that this girl—this Shahrzad al-Khayzuran—must not be in her right mind. In Khalid’s experience, only two things prompted people to such drastic measures.

Love. And hate.

Which was it?

There was only one way to find out.

But that way was not an option. Not for his people. Not for Khalid.

In silence, he proceeded through the corridors, winding his way down the blue-veined agate toward the audience hall. As he turned the final corner, he caught sight of a handmaiden, studying the double doors ahead with unflinching intent.

Her blue eyes were bright, her arms folded across her chest. A slender finger tapped against the band of silver wrapped above her left elbow.

This handmaiden’s interest regarding the newest queen was clear. She could afford such a luxury, after all. A young girl who had volunteered to die was an unusual girl indeed.

The thought crossed Khalid’s mind: this particular handmaiden would be a good candidate for discovering Shahrzad al-Khayzuran’s reason for volunteering. Perhaps when she attended to the new queen tonight.

Despina would be an excellent resource. Khalid could see it—in the way the Theban girl’s curiosity was just as piqued as his own. A curiosity she did not need to conceal from prying eyes.

Unlike him.

Khalid’s curiosity was immaterial to the task at hand. Undeserved.

A monster did not deserve to consider the motivations of his prey.

Khalid strode past the parting double doors and across the diagonally patterned stones of black and white. His golden throne rested upon a raised dais in the cavernous chamber’s center.

He did not take his place on the low, silk-covered settee. For this was not an occasion of honor. Not an occasion for leisure. Instead he stood before the settee, trying for all the world to appear stronger than he felt.

Khalid shifted his gaze to his right to find his cousin standing at the base of the dais, a booted foot propped against its edge. Jalal al-Khoury’s watchful eyes were settled on Khalid. A mirthless smile crept up one side of the Captain of the Royal Guard’s face. A smile meant to brighten Khalid’s sour mood.

In response, Khalid returned his cousin’s scrutiny until the smile vanished.

He was good at that. Good at robbing the world of light, even in its barest measure.

For the briefest of instants, Khalid allowed his eyes to fall shut.

Where there is a setting sun, there is also a rising one.

Seventy-two days. This ordeal would soon be over. Soon, his people would be safe. Soon, he could welcome back the nightmares into his life.

He would gladly accept the consequences for that promise. That certainty.

The double doors before him swung open with a baleful moan.

Khalid opened his eyes.

A girl stood at the entrance. She progressed toward him without hesitation. Oddly, Khalid’s guards were not leading her to her fate. They were walking at a respectful distance. Almost as though they knew better than to lead this girl anywhere. Almost as though they knew their place remained at her heel.

Who is this girl?

She was small of stature. Not an immediate cause for concern. At least at a distance.

Her hair was long and dark. Unruly. The damask of her mantle gleamed in flashes of silver and gold. As she walked, the fabric unfurled around her like wings.

As she drew closer, Khalid realized he might have been mistaken.

For this girl was anything but delicate. Her fists were tight at her sides. Her head, high. Proud.

Her eyes did not waver. They pierced through him like arrows.

Arrows dipped in honey and poison.

As she moved closer, Khalid realized just how mistaken he had been.

She was indeed small of stature. But not a girl to be dismissed. Not at all.

A pert chin. A sneer held barely in check.

A face seething with emotion.

The girl stopped before the dais. She looked up, fearless, before stepping onto the raised platform, her expression unguarded. Unmoved.

Beyond his control, Khalid’s eyebrows curved high on his brow. He returned her hot gaze, trying to appear unaffected by her presence. By her bravery.

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