In a city in the heart of the world, in a palace in its very center, was a slave—a girl. Once upon a time the girl had borne ancestral markings on her face and danced happily among family and friends. She’d been kidnapped, as all girls in stories were, and brought against her will to the royal palace to serve as body double to a princess. Once upon a time, the girl—I—had been a rebel, and forced to make a choice between the rebellion and a princess who had undergone a spell of transformation herself. I’d chosen the princess and saved her life. The price had been high—my family was beaten, and I was threatened with their lives.
On ancient maps of Andala, Walili was the center of the world—all the world on the map was oriented to it, and all roads led to it. The palace had once been its exact center. The “center” was, of course, relative. The world was a globe, and unless Walili had once lived in its core, it was no more central than Shafaqaat or Al Hoceima. And yet it had become the center of my world, cut off as I was from the rest of it. Six weeks had passed in the center of the world. Six weeks of being cut off from the rest of it, being cut off from news, from everyone and everything, save Tala. Tala, my first friend, who even now in the shadow of my greatest mistake, remained with me. Remained kind.
A near impossible feat in a place like the Ziyaana.
In my isolation I’d requested a loom and wool to weave. I’d missed the old comforts of my village, and though as a child I’d resented turning wool to yarn, and yarn into tapestry, my days in the Ziyaana were empty unless I was called upon to serve. Tala obliged me and sometimes joined me when I offered to teach her.
In Tanajir, the village of my childhood, I would have made the loom myself, would have heckled my brothers Husnain and Aziz as they attempted to shear sheep the next village over, would have helped in spinning and dying it. Here, all those steps were taken care of by someone else, so I could begin designing the tapestry almost immediately. In the last six weeks I’d managed to produce a tapestry of Massinia, the prophet of Dihya, with her tesleet companion behind her. It was a poor replica of the mural on Ouzdad, but I’d done the best rendering I could.
If I could, I would have worked on the tapestry all day. But the third bell of the morning roused me from my reverie, and despite the enclosure of this wing, the desert chill still managed to seep in early in the morning and late at night. The autumn months were finally here. On Cadiz the first frost would be appearing, coating windows and whatever was left in the orchards and rose fields. I would be darning my winter cloaks, and likely arguing with Husnain over whether we wanted to risk poaching the small foxes that lived at the foot of the mountains. A small crime that I would have gladly gone along with in the past, but with the burning of the orchards before my abduction, would have seemed foolhardy—tempting the Vath soldiers for more trouble.
A small smile stole across my features, then faded. I was lucky he yet lived—Aziz had likely had to tie him up to keep him from reaching out to the rebels the Vath suspected of hiding on our small moon.
I was still thinking of him and the rest of my family when Tala came to collect me.
“The high stewardess has commanded your presence,” she said softly. I set the loom down, throat dry.
“Now?” I asked. She nodded.
“Come. Let’s get you dressed quickly.”
I dressed, and once done, Tala draped a hooded mantle over my shoulders and drew the hood over my hair. Our walk was short and quiet, and at last we returned to the aviary where I’d held my first audience with Nadine. The high stewardess sat on a chair as she had on our first meeting, flanked by four droids and with Maram to her right. Maram didn’t acknowledge our entrance, but the droids came to attention and Nadine smiled.
All these weeks I’d dreaded my next meeting with Nadine. She was the shadow cast over my internment, my jailer and kidnapper, determined to break me by any means. I expected to feel small and afraid as I sank to my knees before her.
A hot anger sat in the pit of my belly, churning. Anger at the stewardess and everything she represented, and anger at myself for my ignorance. She was an adversary I’d never accounted for, the hand on Maram’s cradle, the snake in the grass, the whisper in her ear. If not for Nadine, perhaps, I might have convinced Maram of the truth: that I was her friend, her sister. Nadine’s arrogance and hatred had stolen my home, hurt my family, and finally turned my friend away from me.
“How penitent you seem,” she drawled, coming to stand over me.
“My lady,” I murmured, then raised my head a little. “Your Highness.”
Maram did not meet my gaze. There was a dazed look to her, as if she had slipped somewhere deep inside herself. She had no desire to be here, I realized with a start. Did she not want to see me? What had transpired in the six weeks since we’d seen each other last? I knew her, though Nadine, I was sure, wished I didn’t. I knew greatness and kindness lay in her. I knew that if given the chance, she would be a great queen. That if given the strength, she would stand up for what was right. Maram understood the weight of her mother’s legacy, as much as she had shied from it in the end. If she were out of Nadine’s shadow, I knew—
“Do you know why you are alive?” Nadine said.
“I am Maram’s only twin,” I said, rather than hold my tongue.
“The penitence was a ruse, then?” Nadine said. The droids raised their arms as one. “Some contrition would be worth your while, girl.”
“I have done my duty,” I replied, still looking at Maram. “She is alive.”
Maram stared at me, her eyes blank, her chin propped up on the heel of her hand. She looked as a traumatized child might—she had endured this particular horror before, and today she had shut down and refused to engage.
“She’s right,” she said dully and made a gesture with her hand. The droids retracted their weapons and returned to standing attention. “Get on with it, Nadine.”
I frowned in confusion. It?
“In a week,” Nadine said—was that glee?—and returned to her seat, “Her Highness will be getting married. The wedding is a public affair. You will take her place.”
My eyes widened in horror. Never would I have imagined that I would have to go through her marriage on her behalf.
I had given Idris up after seeing what Nadine would do to my family. Like my connection to the rebels, the cost of our relationship was too high. I loved him—Dihya knew how much I loved him—but there was no world in which we could be together.
“It’s a sacred rite,” I gasped out. “For the Vath and the Kushaila. You cannot mean to have me proxy for you?”
Proxy marriages were an old and antiquated tradition. In the past they were the product of distance and necessity. In some places, parents proxied for their children. But we all of us understood that regardless of who went through the ritual, it was the people on whose behalf we enacted those rituals that were married. And so, though it would be me standing there, Maram and Idris would be the ones who were wed.
She raised an eyebrow, and the Maram I’d known at the beginning of my sojourn in the Ziyaana appeared.
“Yes,” she drawled. “It is entirely reasonable that I should allow Idris, my political shield among your people, to marry my shield, a farmer’s daughter.”
I struggled to not lower my gaze, even as I flushed hot with embarrassment. “Then why?” I whispered.
“Sending a proxy in place is perfectly legal. It will not take away from its sanctity and legitimacy. He will still be married to me.” Her face was now entirely blank, her voice flat. I was in the grip of a panic, my chest tight with anxiety. I did not want to see him again, to watch those feelings rise up, to have a hand in giving him to someone else.
“But—” I started.
“It is public,” Nadine repeated. “And this is why you yet live. If you will shirk your duty, then I will march you to the executioner.”
I almost reached for Maram, almost begged. The intervening weeks had healed the wound of letting him go, of tearing him out of my heart. This—going through the motions of a marriage to him for someone else—would undo it all.
Maram stood from her chair as silent as a ghost and walked to me. The hems of her skirts brushed over my knees.
“Is there a problem?” she asked softly. “Or are all your words hollow?”
I drew in a shuddering breath and closed my eyes.
“No, Your Highness,” I said. “I am capable of fulfilling my duty.”
Her hand came beneath my chin, the hold gentle, as if she were cradling a child. As if the look in her eye—that she might take my head at any moment—was not there.
“Understand, Amani,” she said softly, “I would do anything just to spite you.”
And then her hand was gone, and she swept out of the room, an orchestra of fluttering skirts and the chime of jewelry following in her wake.
The weeks passed in a blur of fittings and preparation. I had taken in some crucial part of Maram in our time of knowing each other, so falling back into her mannerisms and speech felt like slipping into an old gown. The day of the wedding dawned like any other—I was in the center of the world, but I was not its center. No one cared that my world was about to collapse. No one cared that I was about to go through an unimaginably cruel thing in the name of a sovereign nation that had colonized mine.
I sat in a stone tub, its surface covered in flowers. Tala stood in the entryway, hands folded in front of her, an eyebrow raised. Serving girls waited quietly in the dressing chamber just beyond the entryway.
“Daydreaming?” she asked, voice mild.
“No,” I said softly. “Just … preparing for the inevitable.”
“Come, Your Highness,” she said. “We have much to do today, and not very much time to do it.”
I climbed out of the bath and into the towel waiting for me and dried off efficiently.
The room was quiet as I dressed, with Tala taking lead on guiding the other serving girls. The qaftan was tea and dark gold in color, made of a luxurious velvet, its skirts slashed with silk panels. The bodice was embroidered in ivory thread, a spill of feathers from my shoulders and over my chest, and there was a slender gold belt that went around the waist. The back along my shoulders and down to my hips was made of delicate lace, dyed a pale, tea-like gold, and so too were the insides of the qaftan’s sleeves. My hair was smoothed back, the ends braided and threaded with strands of pearls then wound into a bun. From my throat hung several silver strands studded with gleaming red stones, and around my forehead was a silver coronet, with the same stone at its center. I hadn’t missed wearing Maram’s elegant finery during my time of seclusion. Plain and comfortable qaftans suited me, and I’d liked the way I’d slowly returned to myself in the last month and a half. I was not Maram, and a part of me resented that I would have to be her again, and under such circumstances.
Copyright © 2020 by Sumayyah Daud and Alloy Entertainment