MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Once upon a time, there was a girl—a nestling—and she was a glorious creature. Born of sacred fire, cloaked in jeweled feathers, she could pass from one realm to another, could cross the space between stars as easy as breathing. She was raised in a crystalline palace wreathed in sacred flame.
When the nestling was a child, long before she’d ever been sent out into the world, her mother told her the story of her long-ago ancestor, Tayreet.
Fi youm minal ayaam …
Once upon a time …
Like the nestling, Tayreet had grown to strength in the heart of their sacred city, and like the nestling, she’d been sent down to their lost kin as a symbol of strength and war. High above a battlefield an arrow pierced Tayreet’s breast and knocked her from the sky. When the prince hunting her found her, her body had loosed its natural bird shape and taken on a human one.
The prince loved her from the first, and Tayreet him.
The nestling was always astonished that anyone might fall in love with their hunter, and her cousin had scoffed and tugged on a white braid.
“Not a real arrow, nestling,” her cousin said. “Love. Love knocked her from her lofty perch.”
How awful, the nestling remembered thinking.
* * *
In the center of the palace was a room with nothing but windows and mirrors. From there the nestling could see everything. They showed her life far away, across galaxies and in places hidden away by star dust. In the far corner of the room, wreathed in shadow, was a great mirror, many times as tall as she was. Consigned to shadows but for the great crack that ran through its center, she nonetheless sat in front of it for hours. Its gilt frame was carved with images of birds and lions and spears, and any time she stepped close she felt a pulse of life.
Until at last, one day, it woke and showed her the image of another girl. A princess.
She was young and stone-faced, cloaked in black. Around her forehead was a gold coronet, studded with a single green gem. Her small hand was engulfed by an elder woman’s larger one, and she didn’t move—she seemed to not breathe at all. A moment later, a procession passed in front of her bearing a coffin draped in green.
She didn’t see the princess again, not for many years, though she went to the mirror nearly every day. It showed her other things: the cost of war on the princess’s planet, loss of life, rebellion and the rebellion’s end. The nestling thought that, perhaps, the stone-faced girl had died. And then one day the nestling returned to the mirror, a woman grown, and found that the princess had grown too, and that she had a twin. Somehow, she knew which was the princess she’d seen all those years ago at the funeral and which was her double.
Please, the double said. Let me explain.
Nothing you say will fix this, the princess said, and though her expression was as stone-faced as it had been at the funeral, the nestling could hear a world of grief buried in that single sentence.
I was sincere, the double said.
A viper is never sincere.
Please, Maram. I took your place and risked my life for you.
Maram, the nestling repeated softly to herself, tasting the name for the first time.
And then a woman with silver hair entered.
She saved a rebel, the woman said, and laid her hand on the princess’s shoulder. A person hired to kill you.
Her heart skipped a beat, startled at the idea that the princess might have died, and she never would have known. Would the mirror have shown her? Would it have revealed a second funeral procession?
* * *
Fate intervened as it always did, and for the first time the nestling was commanded from her sacred city and into the war-ravaged world below. It should have surprised her that she was directed to the double she’d seen instead of Maram herself—it didn’t. Despite her fascination, there was something about the double—even as she’d begged she’d seemed regal.
The double had saved someone’s life. She’d taken the princess’s place in the line of fire.
Sacred fire only ever came to the brave and courageous. Hope was given to a person who might reshape the world. The nestling watched it take root in the double, watched the way light returned slowly and chased out the shadows that lived in her now. Saw the double draw in the heat that was a matter of course for someone like her, saw it give strength to her spine and speed to her will.
And from His first creatures He made stars, glowing hot with their fire and warmth.
All may see the stars, but few will see their forbears. And those whose eyes see golden fire We say heed Us and listen.
For We have sent unto you a Sign. See it and take heed.
The nestling’s wings unfurled and the double gasped as she cried out and launched herself up and into the sky.
She was meant to return to her sacred city.
She did not.
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.
Tala bade me stand and circled me for a moment before producing two hairpieces, a collection of a dozen thin pearl strands. She pinned one on the hair behind each ear. Then came the Vathek crown. Nestled in my curls was a gold wreath that wrapped around the crown of my head. Different flowers, all alien to Andalaan soil, all representative of the wishes of the Vath for their newly married brides. Health, longevity, endurance, fertility: not so foreign, and yet entirely foreign at the same time.
Maram’s wedding ceremony would likely be the first of its kind. When her parents, Najat, queen of Andala, and Mathis, her conqueror, married, Najat conceded to a wholly Vathek ceremony. I imagined in part because none of the Kushaila would be able to feign the joy inherent in our rites for such a marriage. But a marriage between Maram and Idris would be—or at least was meant to represent—a marriage between nations and cultures. The ceremony would have to reflect that. A part of me was glad. It would make it easier to live in the reality: this was not my wedding. I was not the one marrying Idris.
It was easy to forget when I was with Idris, but he—and all the children of makhzen families—were hostages. There was little they did—little that Idris did—that was not monitored. There were few choices available to him. And hanging over every choice he made, just as it hung over mine, was the safety of his family.
He had never been mine. We’d only been skilled in creating the illusion that we could belong to each other instead of the Vath.
If this were my wedding, if I were back in Cadiz, if I’d had the freedom to choose, to marry—all of this would be different. I would have worn henna for more than a day so that its stain was as close to black as I could get it, a complement to the sharp, geometric lines of daan that would still be on my face. My clothes would be heavier, brighter, in green or gold or blue. I would be surrounded by women: my mother, Khadija, all of the khaltous of my village.
I would not have been alone, reflecting on my impending marriage rites. My heart would not be filled with dread nor my fingers stiff with fear. If I’d been marrying Idris in truth—
Tala bade me stand and at last deemed my transformation complete. I stared in the mirror, my mind carefully blank lest I give myself away to the other serving girls. The woman who stared back was neither Amani nor Maram, but a princess who resembled neither. She was aloof and remote, without the great rage that characterized Maram or the innocence that had characterized me for a time. “Are you ready, Your Highness?” she asked.
I turned away from the mirror. “Yes.”
“You have done well,” Tala said. She lowered her voice and squeezed my hand, out of earshot of the others. “Your family remains safe.”
“For how long?” I said quietly, then shook my head. This was not the time or place. Whatever Dihya’s plans for me, they’d not yet revealed themselves. And in the meantime, I had to pacify both Nadine and Maram.
“I know this is difficult,” Tala began.
“It is inevitable,” I interrupted. “The dream is over, and the story finished, Tala.”
She looked, remarkably, as upset as I was. I covered her hand, which lay on my shoulder, with mine.
“There are worse endings,” I said, as much to myself as to her.
She smiled sadly. “There are better ones, too.”
There were many outside waiting to witness Maram’s purification, her ascent from adolescent girl into a woman willing to enter a savage’s home in the name of her empire. Nadine stood in the doorway, her silver hair gleaming in the bright sunlight. There were no embellishments on the dark gray gown she wore, and from her neck hung a pendant signifying her class: High Vathek, and stewardess to the king.
“The water is ready,” she said.
Beyond the preparation chamber was a flat open-air pavilion hung with lightweight scarves, all in white, and lined with creamy marble columns. Cut through the middle of the pavilion was a pool of still, crystalline water. And standing all around were women of the highest echelons of Vathek and Andalaan nobility. Beyond the pavilion, in the open air, were high-ranking city folk—merchants, magistrates, and so on. People high enough to warrant an invitation, but too low to merit a front-row seat.
I stepped into the water, no more than an inch deep. As I walked, Vathek and Andalaan alike flicked sanctified oil toward me.
Finally, I reached the end of the pool. I stepped out and knelt on the waiting cushion as Nadine and Maram’s elder half sister, Galene, came to stand over me.
“Be blessed,” they said, as Galene tipped a small vase of oil over my hair.
Be blessed echoed back from the crowd, reverberating and out of sync. I felt a chill rush up and down my spine. Sometimes it was easy to forget that the Vath were aliens to our world. And the soft, rising murmur, like wind ripping through grass, so different than any wedding celebration I’d ever attended, reminded me. No crying out, no expressions of joy, no singing. Only stately whispers.
I didn’t think, no matter how much all those attending believed in those words, that it was possible.
A pair of serving girls came forward with a great blue veil of sheer cloth, its edges stitched in the Kushaila style with gold thread. In the Vathek style it would have been white and not so sheer, and as a compromise it was as large as a Vathek veil. The two held it carefully over the gold wreath atop my head and draped it just so, as another serving girl came forward with a pair of gold slippers for me to put on.
I rose to my feet and caught a glimpse of my reflection—of a woman preparing to face a planet that hated her to marry a prince they loved. I loved—we all had loved—stories of clever girls of little means who’d risen high above their rank to marry a prince. Khadija and I had spent hours telling and retelling them to each other, imagining a world where it was possible. I’d imagined—
The dream was over, the story done.
I was grateful for the veil. For the first time in many months, I felt as I had during my first days in the Ziyaana. Not even Tala’s presence beside me carrying the trail of my gown could alleviate the loneliness. The crowd was silent and hushed, though I heard the whir of camera probes and the soft murmur of journalists narrating to their liaisons across the galaxy.
The first words of a Kushaila wedding song rang out over the crowd and at last my tears fell as the whole city seemed to echo in song.
* * *
I didn’t remember the ceremony. I was conscious of the fact that Idris never let go of my hand. That we knelt side by side as the ceremony progressed. That at some point the wreath was drawn from my head and set on a pyre. I knew that I looked up at him and recited Vathek and Kushaila vows and that he repeated them gravely. I knew that I saw the same pain at this final separation in his eyes that I felt in my heart. Neither Vathek nor Kushaila custom demanded a kiss, and for that I was grateful. I could not have endured it.
But at last the applause and cheer of Vathek and Andalaan nobility both pierced my mind, and I looked up as if waking from a dream.
The next I knew, the veil was lifted and at last I could breathe. I was alone with Tala as she touched up the kohl around my eyes and replaced the pins on my shoulders with Kushaila brooches, preparing me for the feast.
She was straightening the folds in my gown when the doors opened. Mathis, King Mathis, stood framed in the doorway, his tall and broad form blocking out the light of the other room. Tala dropped to her knees instantly, and I joined her a little more slowly, as Maram would.
“Your Eminence,” I murmured.
He flicked his hand at Tala, who shot me a quick glance before all but fleeing the room. I couldn’t blame her. There was a malignance to the Vathek king’s presence, as if terror spawned in his wake. I didn’t know if he’d been informed I would be taking Maram’s place, and I would not risk the discovery of a plot that would anger him. Instead, I remained perfectly still, waiting for his leave to rise.
Instead, he came in front of me and slid a gloved hand beneath my chin.
“You are the image of your mother,” he said, his voice low. “Without her softness or her doubt.”
Nothing he said was a threat, and yet I felt the threat of violence in the single movement, in his refusing to give me leave to stand, in the way he spoke of the late queen. And I feared, viscerally, what he would do if he realized that I was not his daughter.
“You will suffer a Kushaila spouse as I suffered a Kushaila spouse in order to do what is necessary,” he said quietly. I felt a spark of rage rise up in me on Maram and Najat’s behalf. If anyone had suffered it had been Najat, whose marriage had robbed her of her life. She’d survived the civil war that predated our conquest, and all the ills and difficulties that came with it. She’d survived the war of conquest, the occupation, the siege of Walili. Her marriage had sapped the life out of her, or so public opinion believed.
How would Maram have reacted to the maligning of her mother, who she—we—so closely resembled? In all likelihood as she had suffered everything from her father. In dignified silence.
“Come along,” he said. I moved as if I were a droid reduced to its base programming. My hand slipped into the crook of his elbow, and his large hand in turn first adjusted my veil so that it fell correctly. I could hear Tala falling in line behind us, straightening out the folds of my gown so that they trailed behind me just so.
The doors to the hall boomed open, and somewhere a herald announced our entrance.
The reception hall was a grand ballroom, with a high glass ceiling, and fortified glass walls all around. This, I knew, was the center of the center of the world. The light refracted off white clouds, so that everything had a pink, orange, and red cast to it. The sun would be entirely gone from this side of the planet soon, and in its place would be a hundred shining orbs of light, and many strung over the ceiling, to mimic the stars.
The king guided me to the center of the room, and I sat demurely on the divan. A moment later his fatherly hands lifted the veil from my face and crown and pinned it to my shoulder.
“Feast,” he said softly, “for tomorrow is a new world.”
Copyright © 2020 by Sumayyah Daud and Alloy Entertainment.