The Stolen Kingdom – Bethany Atazadeh

MY HANDS SAT CLENCHED in my lap. I didn’t play with the gold and pearl fabric of my dress, or tap my fingers on my throne, or even twitch an eyebrow. But underneath my skirts, my toes tapped a steady rhythm, counting down the seconds until dinner. Normally, I adored holding court with my father. Learning to rule meant everything to me. But not today. Not for the last few months, actually. We’d listened to the nobles list their complaints for nearly four hours now. My head buzzed with voices, like a swarm of locusts. The more people in the room, the louder they pulsed until the pressure was unbearable. At least if I kept still and avoided drawing attention to myself, it was more manageable. I sat as quiet as the serving girl concealed in the corner. But she wasn’t wearing the gold circlet of a princess woven through delicately braided hair. She didn’t have long, black curls falling on expensive goldlace sleeves that overlay a white pearl dress, designed to remind eligible men of a wedding gown. Lucky girl.

A white-haired Shah, lord of a small province in our kingdom, stood in the open space before my father and I. “King Mahdi,” Shirvan-Shah railed, in the middle of an outburst. “I didn’t want to bring this to your attention if I didn’t have to, but this dispute is over far more than my son and Marzban-Shah’s daughter.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he paced the marble floor between us and his rapt audience, who waited their turn. “It pains me to speak of such things, but I’m afraid I must…” He dropped to his knees before my father’s throne and bowed his head. I wanted to roll my eyes at the unnecessary spectacle. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Marzban family has Jinni-blood running through their veins…” I leaned forward. Too late, I caught myself and sat back. No one noticed. All eyes were glued to Shirvan-Shah, who let the silence draw out, until it lay thick and expectant over the room.

He cleared his throat and stage whispered, “I believe she may have a Jinni’s Gift.” Horrified gasps and murmurs replaced the silence. The corners of his mouth twitched upward as he stood. I found myself hating him. “That’s a strong accusation to make without proof,” my voice rang out. I couldn’t help myself. “What if she’s innocent?” I clutched the arms of my throne, leaning forward. “Are you willing to risk ruining a young girl’s life simply because she didn’t find your son a good match?” Every onlooker shifted their gaze from Shirvan-Shah to me. The hum in the room grew louder. I regretted my words immediately.

“Arie,” my father scolded. It wasn’t my place to judge in these hearings. Not yet. My role was to learn and observe. M “Sorry, Baba.” I bowed my head, hating the disappointment in his tone. Whispers grew louder as I became the center of attention. My head throbbed. “Continue, Shah.” My father tipped his gold scepter toward Shirvan-Shah.

As the focus shifted back to the older man, I sighed softly, resisting the urge to sag back against my throne. Imitating the serving girl once more, I sat stiff and upright, barely breathing. The Shah eyed me before easing back into his speech. “The princess makes a fair point.” He dipped his head toward me, tenting his bony fingers. “However, I fear Marzban-Shah’s daughter’s Gift is evident. There’s rumor of her sheets turning to iron, as well as her bathtub, and other common household items.” This time I guarded against any reaction. When those around me gasped, I chastised myself, Don’t be too still either. “What kind of Gifting is this?” my father muttered.

“I’d never heard of its likeness, Your Highness,” Shirvan-Shah stepped closer, though he didn’t lower his voice in the slightest. “There are too many different Jinni’s Gifts to keep track of. I thought perhaps it was like Aaran-Shah’s Gift, where he knows what to plant and helps the seedlings grow. Or Yazdan-Shah’s son who can turn commonplace items into gold. But it seems that, as usual, this woman’s Gift is dangerous.” Why do they see danger in women while men are trusted? I pushed down the urge to question him, but it was difficult. Her Gift seems harmless. Especially when compared to other Jinni’s Gifts I’d heard of growing up—the ability to travel across kingdoms in a heartbeat, shape-shifting, swimming in the depths with the Mere-folk, soul-stealing… That last one may have been more of a child’s bedtime story than truth, but I’d never been entirely certain. How can we know anything about the Jinn when even the entrance to their land is a secret? “Thank you for bringing it to my attention,” my father said with a sigh. The laws regarding Gifted women had been passed before I was born.

While the stories differed on how the decision came to be, the verdict was clear: Gifted women were dangerous. They must go to trial and be closely examined. If they failed the trial, their Gift was to be severed. I’d been too young to witness the last Severance, but my blood ran cold as my father added, “She will be dealt with immediately.” Dealt with. I clenched my teeth to keep a flood of words from escaping. A neighboring prince’s Gift had surfaced just two months ago. Of course, his Gift had been deemed safe. But it’d been years since anyone had discovered a Gifted woman. My father turned to the cleric.

“Schedule a hearing. And arrange a search party to see if anyone can find a Jinni. We’ll likely need a Severance.” The cleric scratched notes on his parchment. I felt the blood drain from my face. The hum in the room grew louder. Another Shah stood to go next, but I stopped listening. My heart pounded as I waited for the worst of it to manifest. Bracing myself, I still felt completely unprepared when it happened. The princess looks like she’s about to faint.

It was someone else’s thought forming in my mind—the tone of it so much higher and more shrill than my own—and though I’d doubted the sensation when my abilities first began, it was most certainly a thought. When the episodes had first begun, I’d thought I was losing my sanity. Now, I could usually distinguish which thoughts belonged to me versus those around me. I tried to ignore the stranger in my head. But as one of my ladies-in-waiting, Havah, stepped forward to offer me a cup of cool water, her thoughts intruded as well. She looks horrible. It took everything in me not to wince as I accepted the cup. As I thought about the ruling, it was hard to swallow. I didn’t know the full details of a Severance. But the Gifted woman’s fate was certain: death.

Whether a day, a week, or even a month or two after the fact, she wouldn’t live long. They always said it was an accident. The women hung themselves, or slipped in the bath, or fell from their horse… But I knew better. Someone killed them. What a horrible punishment for an innocent girl who couldn’t help herself. I hated that I had to keep silent. But if I didn’t… If my kingdom—if my own father ever learned of my Jinni’s Gift, would he do that to me? WHEN THE BELL TOLLED in the keep across the castle, my father dismissed everyone to get ready for dinner. “We’ll resume with Yik-Shah in two day’s time.” I stood a split second after he did, rushing toward the back door to avoid the crowds as I all but fled the throne room, trailed by my ladies-in-waiting. I led the way up the curving staircase, down a long hallway, and entered my rooms.

My sitting room at the entrance held a dozen comfortable chairs and a table, meant for entertaining guests without allowing them the intimacy of my bedroom, though there was a small bed hidden along the wall where my ladies-in-waiting took turns staying the night in case I required anything. “I’ll call if I have need.” I dismissed them, entering my personal rooms. Locking the door, I crossed to my bathing room and stared into the floor length mirror. Havah was right. My normally warm, golden skin was ashen; a sharp contrast to the soft black hair that flowed loosely over my shoulders with braids woven throughout. I touched my lips, still a vivid red, and the paint came away, giving me the urge to wash my face. Dipping a clean towel in fresh water, I scrubbed until my face was clean. Water dripped on my elegant dress, but I didn’t care. As I set down the towel, my hand shook.

A knock sounded. With a sigh, I moved to open the door. “Time to get you ready for dinner, Ariezada,” Havah called me by my childhood nickname, a shortened version of my formal title, Shazada. She stepped through the door, to stand beside it. You go through so many dresses. I turned to hide my reaction as I waved her in, moving to the balcony for some fresh air. “Sirjan-Shah paid you so many compliments during the last courtship tour, I could hardly keep up,” Havah said. I stared at the sea, eyes searching for a glimpse of one of the Mere out of years of habit, though I’d yet to see one. Waves crashed against the cliffs below, and I struggled to tune out Havah’s thoughts as I replied, “They were shallow.” I knew, because his flattery was interlaced with thoughts of my treasure and how he could best get his hands on it.

Or maybe you’re shallow, Havah’s thoughts washed over me like a bitter rain. I winced. She ignores them all. I couldn’t tune her out, no matter how hard I tried. I’d give anything for attention like that. When I glanced back to where she sifted through my closet for a suitable evening style, she only smiled. If not for the way my Gift had manifested over the last six months, I’d never have guessed her thoughts. What did she have to be jealous of? Her bronze skin was smoother than mine, her lips fuller. Her brown eyes more slanted and her hand more talented at lining them with coal. Her hair shone just as dark and long as my own.

We could be sisters, but for my tiara and the quality of my clothes. “What about Tahran-Shah?” she asked, pulling out a red, sleeveless dress that would cling to me. She helped me remove the white pearl gown. “He’s very handsome and his—” “Is there anyone who interests you, Havah?” I interrupted, stepping into the red dress. “No one, Arie-zada.” She used the term of endearment almost like a weapon. Making me like her. Want her by my side. Except now that I knew the truth, I couldn’t hear it the same way. I allowed her to lace the dress tight, so it wouldn’t slip, though I secretly drew deep breaths until she finished.

No sense in being miserable during dinner. Havah held out the top piece to finish off my dress. I slipped my arms into the gold lace sleeves and extra fabric. It settled delicately over my collarbone and shoulders, making it appear modest while still allowing skin and the top of the red dress to peek through, ending just below my bust. Havah buttoned it in the back. How could any man want a mere servant when they’re in your presence? I swallowed a sigh. The constant invasion of thoughts was exhausting. Even if they weren’t thinking of me, there was always an ominous, low hum in my mind. The hum would swell into a buzz and threaten to form. It made me so tired, I could hardly think.

I swayed on my feet. She wants to be crowned heir apparent on her 18 th birthday, yet she can’t make it through a full day of court. “Just stop.” Havah froze. Hands outstretched, with a hair pin still in her mouth, she met my gaze, confusion written across her face. Not again. I cursed myself inwardly for yet another slip. I couldn’t seem to control my tongue. “Stop… worrying over the men in my life, my friend.” I smiled to take the edge off my words.

“I know you want the best for me.” “Ah…yes, Arie-zada. Of course. As you wish…” Only a tiny crease between Havah’s brows gave her feelings away as she pinned my thick curls and braids up to better offset the enormous gold earrings dangling from my ears. As I turned to stand before the mirror, they tickled my shoulders. Just as I’d begun to relax, Havah returned to her previous train of thought, How can she rule Hodafez, if she can’t even stomach a Severance? I ground my teeth. For the love of Jinn, can’t you think about anything else for two seconds? I wanted to scream the words, but I managed to stay silent for once, until she was done. So beautiful, she thought, stepping back, and this time the tone was a bit kinder. More admiration, less contempt. “Thank you,” I murmured.

She paused once more. My eyes widened. I forced myself to breathe, lifting my chin as I stared at myself in the mirror, patting my hair. “Ah… it looks lovely.” It was enough. “You always look lovely,” Havah replied, moving to store the leftover hair pins. I slowly let out my breath. Each time I slipped up, I feared the worst. I reached out to grasp Havah’s hands, searching her smooth face for a friend, wanting—needing— to know I wasn’t alone. “I’m sorry I snapped earlier.

It’s just… it’s impossible to know if a suitor is truly interested in me…” I stopped, unable to put into words the real problem: I knew exactly what they were interested in. My wealth. My throne. Even my people, occasionally. But never me. Havah’s face softened. Her hands squeezed mine back. “How could anyone not love you? You only need to let your guard down long enough for a nice young man to get to know you. Now come, it’s time for dinner.” I let her lead me through the front room where my other ladies stood waiting, out into the carpeted hallway that softened our footsteps, and downstairs toward the dining hall.

The hall that held an entire room filled with people eager to prove Havah false and bring my worst nightmares to life. She was wrong. No one could know me, or the truth. If they knew the truth, they wouldn’t love me. They’d want to kill me. Chapter 2 Arie FTER DINNER, I ENDURED a few more hours in the Great Hall, pretending to listen to the storyteller and musicians, before claiming a headache and retiring early. I paced across my bedroom, stopping at my balcony to gaze out at the black depths of the sea and the way the moonlight lit a path across the waves. It made me want to jump out onto the water, follow the path wherever it led, and never return. When it felt as if hours had passed, I picked up my candle and cracked open the door between my bedchamber and the outer room. Tonight, it was Farideh who slept there, ready to come to my aid.

Fortunately, she was a heavy sleeper. I tiptoed through the room into the dark, silent hallway on slippered feet. My candle flickered as I crept down the stairs and slipped inside the castle library. Passing dozens of bookshelves that stretched twice my height, I pushed through velvet curtains that led to a little room at the back. It was pitch-black without the moonlight coming through the windows. The smell of books and dust grew stronger, tickling my nose. But the room was empty besides the books and work tables, which was all that mattered. My reading material over the last few weeks had to be kept secret at all costs. Glass boxes guarded the ancient books. One thick volume rested against the back wall, old and worn, that no one was allowed to read, but was too full of information to burn.

I set my candle on the table. It lit up the small pocket of space surrounding myself and the book. The enormous volume was turned to the title page: The Land of Jinn Lifting the heavy glass lid, I set it aside before leafing through the pages, one at a time. I’d found the book only a few nights prior, after searching the library for a book from Jinn for months, with no success. Each night I could get away, I came here to read a bit more—always making sure to turn it back to the title page and replace the glass before slipping out. The pages in the first section, Laws and Lists, were dense: this land had been merged with that land, and this law passed underneath a similar law, and so forth. I’d gleaned very little from it beyond the first sentence, which declared, “Each individual Jinni must honor the code of Jinn or risk banishment.” I held back a sneeze as I flipped past that section. Next was Spells and Secrets, written in a language I didn’t recognize. The last few nights I’d studied them anyway.

The pictures on each page shimmered as if they might come to life at my signal, but what that signal might be, I couldn’t guess. On one page, a clock, on the next, a sundial. A tea kettle. A candle. Seemingly random objects. But tonight, I noticed a pattern in the spells that I hadn’t seen before: each object told time. Whether obvious, like the pocketwatch, or through items that didn’t seem designed to mark time at all: a tea kettle which would boil after a certain number of minutes passed. A candle that might last for hours, but would eventually burn out. Interesting, but meaningless, as far as I could tell. I didn’t know how I could use the spells if I A couldn’t even read them; I made note of it and moved on.

After the last page of spells, I discovered a third section: History and Households. I snatched my candle, bringing it closer and leaning in to read. My eyes caught on the page where my fingers fell. There was handwriting in the margins. I bit my lip. It looked like—could it be my mother’s? I recognized her handwriting. The style was utterly unique; the way her letters curved and her script flowed—if indeed it was hers—reminded me of a never-ending ribbon. I squinted at the words. The humans believe the race of Jinn to be nearly extinct. I followed the swirled script to the next line and stopped.

They fear us. Us? It couldn’t be. I stepped back, glancing over my shoulder as if someone else might see the offensive words. I’d assumed after my Gift formed that somewhere in my family’s lineage there was Jinni blood, but not… Was my mother… did she mean that she’d been Gifted like me? Or what if—no. It’s not possible , I repeated to myself, but it didn’t feel very convincing. Had my mother been a full-blooded Jinni? I flipped through the book, barely remembering to be gentle with the worn parchment, searching for another note in the margins. The pages upon pages of history ended and genealogies began. Households. They listed family trees in tiny print, starting with two names and expanding into hundreds, crammed onto the page like ants swarming a crumb. I almost missed it.

There, at the very bottom of one of the family trees, directly under two full-blooded Jinni’s names, another descendant’s name was scribbled in… My mother’s.

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