Authors: Melissa Bashardoust
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TO ANYONE WHO HAS EVER FELT POISONOUS OR MONSTROUS OR BRISTLING WITH THORNS
I am both the Sleeping Beauty and the enchanted castle; the princess drowses in the castle of her flesh.
Stories always begin the same way:
There was and there was not.
There is possibility in those words, the chance for hope or despair. When the daughter sits at her mother's feet and asks her for the storyâalways the same storyâher favorite part is hearing those words, because it means anything is possible.
There was and there was not.
She is and she is not.
Her mother always tells the story the exact same way, with the exact same words, as if they were carefully rehearsed.
There was and there was not a girl of thirteen who lived in a city to the south of Mount Arzur. Everyone there knew never to go wandering too close to the mountain, because it was the home of divsâthe demonic servants of the Destroyer whose only purpose was to bring destruction and chaos to the Creator's world. Most people even avoided the sparse forestland that spread out from the southern face of the mountain. But
sometimes children who thought they were adults would go wandering there during the dayâonly during the dayâand come back to boast of it.
One day, the girl wanted to prove her bravery, and so she went into the forestland. She planned to go just far enough to break off a sprig of one of the cedar trees that grew there, to bring back as proof. What she found instead was a young woman, trapped and tangled in a net on the ground, begging for help. It was a div trap, she told the girl, and if the div returned, he would take her prisoner.
The girl took pity on the young woman and quickly found a sharp rock to saw through the ropes of the net. When the woman was free, she thanked the girl, then ran off. The girl should have done the same, but she hesitated too long, and soon a heavy hand clamped down on her shoulder.
The girl looked up at the div that was looming over her, too terrified by his monstrous form to run or even scream for help. She thought her heart would stop from fear and save the div the trouble of killing her himself.
The div took one look at the empty net, the pieces of rope, and the rock in the girl's hand, and knew what had happened. “You stole something of mine,” he said to the girl in a low growl. “And so now I will steal something of yours.”
The girl thought he would take her life, but instead, the div cursed her firstborn daughter, making her poisonous, so that anyone who touched her would die.
At this point, the daughter always interrupts her mother, askingâwhy the firstborn
? She doesn't need to mention that she is thinking of her twin brother with envy and perhaps a little resentment. It already shows on her face.
To which the mother always replies that the ways of divs are mysterious and unjust, unknown to anyone but themselves.
The div let the girl go after that, and she ran straight home, unwilling or unable to tell anyone of her encounter. She wanted to forget about the
div's curse, to pretend it never happened. And it would be several years yet before she would have any children to worry about. In time, she did manage to forget the div's curseâmostly.
Years passed, and when the girl was older, she was chosen by the shah of Atashar to be his bride and queen. She did not tell him about the div's curse. She barely thought of it herself.
It was only when her childrenâtwins; a boy and a girlâwere born that she remembered that day in the forest. But by then, of course, it was too late, and three days after the birth, she discovered that the div had spoken true. On the morning of that third day, the wet nurse bent to pick up the daughter to feed herâbut as soon as their skin touched, the nurse fell to the ground, dead.
And that is why her mother always agrees to tell her daughter this story, over and over again. She doesn't want her daughter to forget how important it is to be careful always to wear her gloves, to make sure never to touch anyone. She doesn't want her daughter to be reckless, as she once was, when she was only thirteen and wandered too far into the forestland.
At this point, the daughter always looks down at her gloved hands and tries to remember her nurse, who died because of her.
There was and there was not,
she reminds herself. It's just a story.
The daughter wants to crawl onto her mother's lap and lay her head against her mother's chest, but she doesn't. She never does.
It's not just a story.
From the roof of Golvahar, Soraya could almost believe that she existed.
The roof was a dangerous place, a painful luxury. Standing at the edge, she could see the garden spread out in front of the palace, lush and beautiful as always. But beyond that, beyond the gates of Golvahar, was the rest of the world, far larger than she could ever imagine. A city full of people encircled the palace. A road led south, down to the central desert, to other provinces and other cities, on and on, to the very edge of Atashar. Beyond that were more kingdoms, more land, more people.
From the other end of the roof, she could see the dry forestland and the dreaded Mount Arzur to the northeast. From every corner, there was always more and more, mountains and deserts and seas, hills and valleys and settlements, stretching on without end. It should have made Soraya feel small or inconsequentialâ
and sometimes it did, and she would have to retreat with teeth gritted or fists clenched. More often, though, standing alone under the open sky made her feel unbound and unburdened. From this height, everyone seemed small, not just her.
But today was different. Today, she was on the roof to watch the royal family's procession through the city. Today, she did not exist at all.
The royal family always arrived shortly before the first day of springâthe first day of a new year. They had a different palace in a different province for each season, the better to keep an eye on the satraps who ruled the provinces on the shah's behalf, but even though Soraya was the shah's sister, she never moved with them. She always remained in Golvahar, the oldest of the palaces, because it was the only palace with rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors. It was the perfect place to keep somethingâor someoneâhidden away. Soraya lived in the shadows of Golvahar so that her family would not live in hers.
From above, the procession resembled a sparkling thread of gold winding its way through the city streets. Golden litters carried the noblewomen, including Soraya's mother. Golden armor encased the dashing soldiers who rode on horseback, led by the spahbed, the shah's most trusted general, his lined face as stern as always. Golden camels followed at the rear, carrying the many belongings of the royal family and the bozorgan who traveled with the court.
And at the head of the procession, riding under the image of the majestic green-and-orange bird that had always served as their family's banner, was Sorush, the young shah of Atashar.
Light and shadow. Day and night. Sometimes even Soraya forgot that she and Sorush were twins. Then again, the Creator and the Destroyer were also twins, according to the priests. One born of hope, one of doubt. She wondered what doubts had gone through her mother's head as she gave birth to her daughter.
In the streets, people cheered as the shah and his courtiers threw gold coins out into the crowd. Soraya understood why the people loved him so much. Sorush glowed under the light of their praise, but the smile he wore was humble, his posture relaxed compared to the rigid, formal stance of the spahbed. Soraya had long stopped imagining what it would be like to ride with her family from place to place, but her body still betrayed her, her hands clutching the parapet so tightly that her knuckles hurt.
As the procession moved through the palace gates and into Golvahar's vast garden, Soraya could see faces more clearly. With a grimace, she noticed Ramin in the red uniform of the azatan. He wore it proudly, with his head held high, knowing that as the spahbed's only son and likely successor, he had been born to wear red.
Her eyes gladly shifted away from Ramin to a figure riding a few horses behind him. He was a young man near the same age, his features indistinct from so far away, dressed not like a soldier in red and gold, but like a commoner, in a brown tunic without adornment. Soraya might not have noticed him at all except for one thingâ
He was looking directly at her.
Despite the pomp of the procession, the lush beauty of the garden, and the grandeur of the palace ahead of him, the young man had looked up and noticed a single, shadowy figure watching from the roof.
Soraya was frozen, too surprised to duck away. That was what her instincts were telling her to doâ
hide, disappear, don't let anyone see you
âbut another instinct, one that she'd thought she'd buried long ago, kept her in place as she locked eyes with the young man, as she let herself see and be seen. And before she shrank away from the roof's edge and disappeared from sight, she silently issued two commands to this young man who saw what he wasn't supposed to see.
The first was a warning:
But the second was a challenge.
Come find me
A beetle was crawling on the grass near where Soraya was kneeling. The sight of it froze her in place, her bare hands hovering in the air until it crawled a safe distance away from her. She shuffled a little in the opposite direction and went back to her work.
After watching the procession, Soraya had come to the golestan, needing something to occupy her thoughts and her hands. The walled rose garden was her mother's gift to her, along with teaching her to read. After Soraya had discovered as a child that she could touch flowers and other plant life without spreading her poison to them, her mother began to bring her a potted rose, as well as a book, when she visited each spring. As the years passed, Soraya's collections grew, and her garden was now teeming with rosesâpink roses, red damask roses, white and yellow and purple roses, growing in bushes and climbing up the mud-brick walls, their scent as sweet as honey.
Like the much larger palace garden, the golestan was separated into quarters by tiled pathways that met in the center at an octagonal pool. Unlike the palace garden, there were only two entrances to the golestanâa door in the wall to which only Soraya had the key, and a set of latticed doors that opened from Soraya's room. The golestan belonged to her and her alone, and so it was the one place she didn't need to fear touching anyone or anythingâexcept for the unknowing insects that found their way inside.
Soraya was still eyeing the retreating beetle when she heard the sound of stately footsteps coming from her room. She quickly stood and brushed the dirt off her dress, then put on her gloves, which she had tucked into her sash.
“Hello, Soraya joon,” her mother said as she came to stand in
the open doorway. Tall and regal, draped in silks, her hair glittering with jewels, Soraya's mother always seemed more than human. When the late shah had died seven years ago from his illness, Sorush and Soraya had been only eleven, and so it was Tahmineh who had become the regent, ruling in her son's stead until he was old enough to rule. And yet, with all that responsibility, she had never forgotten to bring Soraya the treasured gifts that lightened her daughter's burden. Even now, Tahmineh was holding a book under one arm and a clay pot in her hands.
With her gloves safely on, Soraya came forward to accept her mother's gifts, stopping a few steps away from her. “Thank you, Maman,” she said, gently taking the potted rose. There was only a hint of green within the packed soil, just as Soraya preferred. She liked to see the roses bloom for the first time in her garden, by her hand. It was proof that she could nurture as well as destroy.
“I hope your journey wasn't too tiring,” Soraya called over her shoulder as she found a temporary home for the potted rose until she could plant it. She hadn't had a conversation with anyone in so long that words felt clumsy on her tongue. Their greetings were always stiff and formal, since neither of them could embrace the other, but Soraya had seen the warmth in her mother's eyes, in the crinkle of her smile, and she hoped her own face showed the same.
“Not at all,” Tahmineh answered. “Here,” she said, holding the book out. “Stories from Hellea,” she said, “since I think you already know every Atashari story that's ever been told by now.”
Soraya took the book and leafed through the illustrated pages as her mother started to walk along the edge of the golestan. “These are beautiful,” Tahmineh murmured to the climbing roses on the wall, and Soraya silently beamed with pride. She could never shine as brightly as her brother did, but she could still make her mother smile.
“There were more people in the procession today than usual,” Soraya said, her tongue starting to loosen. “Are they all coming for Nog Roz?”
Tahmineh froze, her back so straight and still that she resembled a statue. “Not only for Nog Roz,” she said at last. “Let's go inside, Soraya joonam. I have something to tell you.”
Soraya swallowed, her fingertips cold even inside her gloves. She moved aside from the doors for her mother to enter first and then followed, still clutching the book in her hands.
She had nothing to offer her mother, no wine or fruit or anything else. Servants brought food to Soraya's room three times a day, leaving a tray behind the door for her. People knew the shah had a reclusive sister, and perhaps they all had their own theories as to why she hid away, but none of them knew the truth, and it was Soraya's duty to keep it that way.
The room was certainly comfortable, however. There were cushions everywhereâon the bed, on the chair, on the window seat, some on the floorâall with different textures, made from different fabrics. Overlapping rugs spread out across the entire floor, their vibrant colors a little worn from time. Every surface was covered with something soft, as though she could somehow make up for the lack of touch by surrounding herself with these artificial substitutes. Throughout the room were glass vases holding wilting roses from her garden, filling the room with the earthy smell of dying flowers.
There was only one chair in the room, and so Tahmineh sat on one end of the window seat. Soraya placed herself carefully at the other end, her hands folded in her lap, her knees held together, taking up as little room as possible so that her mother would feel comfortable.
But her mother looked anything but comfortable. She was avoiding Soraya's eyes, her hands fidgeting in her lap. Finally, she took a breath, looked up, and said, “The reason we have so many visitors is that your brother is going to be married next month.”
“Oh,” Soraya said with some surprise. From her mother's demeanor, she had expected to hear about a funeral rather than a
wedding. She had known Sorush would likely marry sooner or later. Did her mother think she would be jealous?
“The bride is Laleh,” her mother added.
“Oh,” Soraya said again, her tone flat this time. It made sense, she told herself. Laleh was the spahbed's daughter, as kindhearted as she was beautiful. She deserved to become the most loved and influential woman in Atashar. Anyone wouldâ
âbe happy for her.
There was a loose thread on the edge of Soraya's sleeve. She took it between her finger and her thumb and pulled, watching the fabric slowly unravel. Her pulse was quickening with emotions she didn't want to have or name. Soraya took some slow breaths, the loose thread now wrapped several times around her gloved fingers. She wouldn't let bitterness or resentment overtake her. She wouldn't let them show on her face. Soraya took a breath, unwound the thread from her fingers, and looked up at her mother with a smile.
“They're a good match,” Soraya said.
Her mother's smile was warm and genuineâand relieved. “I think so too,” she said softly. Her smile faltered, her eyes flitting downward. “I may not have as much time to spend with you until after the wedding. It will be a busy time.”
Soraya swallowed down the lump in her throat. “I understand,” she said. The world would move on without her, as it always had.
“You know I love you.”
Soraya nodded. “I love you too, Maman.”
They continued to share pleasantries and bits of court gossip, but it was a mostly one-sided conversation. Soraya was too occupied with trying to control her emotions, sneaking glances down to make sure the light brown skin of her wrists was unmarred. By the time Tahmineh left, Soraya was exhausted from the effort.
Alone again, Soraya returned to the golestan to plant the rose her mother had given her. She ripped off her gloves, ignoring the
lines of green that were spreading down her arms, and tried to let the sight of her roses soothe her. She cupped one of them in her palms and brought her face close to it, inhaling the scent as she let the edge of the petals brush along her cheek. So soft, as soft as a kissâor so she imagined. She let her hands drift down to the stem, pressing the tip of her finger against one of the thorns, and that too was a comfortâknowing that something dangerous could also be beautiful and cherished.
But now she couldn't help looking down at her hands, at the insides of her wrists, where her veins had become a dark shade of green. She knew the veins running down her face and neck would be turning the same color, spreading out over her cheeks into a green web until she calmed and contained the tempest of her emotions.
They had all been inseparable once: Sorush and Laleh and Soraya, with Ramin often hovering over them. Laleh and Ramin were the only two outside of Soraya's family to know of her curseâan accident, but one that Soraya had been grateful for. She might never have had a friend otherwise. It had all seemed so easy when they were children. Tahmineh had been worried, but Soraya proved that she could be very careful not to touch anyone, and Laleh had always been well-behaved. Sorush had been there to make sure nothing went wrong. And for a time, nothing did.
But then the shah died, and even though his widow acted as regent, Sorush was suddenly under more scrutiny than before. Their mother kindly explained to her that he had less time for play, but over the years, Soraya figured out the real reason she never saw her brother anymore. Their family had a reputation to protect, and poisonous creatures belonged to the Destroyer. If Soraya's curse became public knowledge, the bozorgan might think the Destroyer had laid his hands on their family line. They would lose their confidence in the shah and his dynasty, and they would depose him.