A full moon silvers the stalls of the Light Markets, the bazaar of the living and the dead. Here, where jinn mix with mortals and gods, where sorcery sits thick on the air, blue as incense, a crow presides over its wares. Silver rings set with opals like apricot pits nestled in obsidian silk; human teeth peer out of the smoky glass of a tall vase. Mother-of-pearl dice wink in candlelight, their pale faces carved with symbols even the jinn are too young to know.
A young man approaches the crow’s stall, gliding dark out of the shadows of the alley. His eyes and hair are jet moonless night, his shoulders bear the velvet raiment of eight heavens. A thousand turns of the stars have passed since the god called Parviz last met the crow’s eyes. These are not the eyes of a common crow, but raw rubies, their luster the gleam of new-spilled blood.
“You return at last, my prince, my lord! A thousand praises, a thousand thanks.” The crow bobs its head. Rubies wink in candlelight. “Tell me, my prince. What is it you seek from your humble servant?”
The god’s eyes graze the crow’s wares. Golden astrolabes inlaid with balkhash rubies gleam in the light of a dozen floating candles. Eight oracle bones, yellowed with age and use, arrayed in a sinister gap-toothed smile. They leer at a collar necklace, woven with leather and human hair, adorned with mismatched emeralds and a panther’s incisors. Valued patron—flickering candlelight reveals a note tucked beneath one fang—please do not touch. Object is cursed.
The god speaks in a voice smooth and inky as mid-dream darkness, cloaking the chatter and bustle of the ancient bazaar in dusk: “A sang-e sabur.” A patience stone. With a lazy hand, the god gestures to a smooth stone, no bigger than a girl’s clenched fist. Dull and unremarkable. “I will take that one. As a gift for the household of my betrothed.”
The crow’s head tilts to the side in a precise avian gesture. Its eyes stare past the god and at him in one gaze, reading every layer of immortal flesh and soul.
“A patience stone is no ordinary gift, my lord.”
The god’s world is at once still. He watches every bob of the crow’s silky ebony head as it speaks, every twinkle of its ruby eyes.
“A wise prince would listen to the worries poured into such a stone.”
The words fall from the crow’s beak and settle, heavy as the scent of ambergris, into the god’s marrow. They caress that unsettled feeling that has made its home in his bones since he awoke from a millennium of cursed sleep. A cool finger on a fevered brow.
The god shivers beneath his midnight raiment.
• • • •
A world away, when the moon is a crescent, a mortal girl dies. The walls of her hut collapse as avaricious desert sweeps in, alive, a div, swallowing all in its path. She—Soraya—cradles her knees, pressing them into her forehead. Even as her eyes clench shut, hungry sand bites their lids, bites her ears, bites her scalp, bites the raw skin inside her nose.
She clutches a stone in one fist.
Tell it your dreams, tell it your fears, tell it your wishes, her mother whispered into her hair. And all will be well.
But all will not be well. Sand has swallowed her mother, her home, and her heart throbs in her throat, screaming for release from its meaty cage.
Help me, she begs the patience stone, the wind, anyone. Help me.
The wind whips her long coarse hair, lashing her face and arms. A roar fills her skull and chest, as if the storm is no element but a beast—
Then, at once, it stills.
Soraya does not move as her hair settles on her back, as silence pours heavy over her shoulders. She pulls her knees tighter even as light seeps through her shut eyelids.
“Girl,” a voice rasps, dry as bone on bone.
She raises her head. Hut and storm are vanished and she sits on the side of a dune. The sand in which her bare feet sink is cool, the sky low and muddy. She releases her grip on her legs, but her stone . . . the patience stone has vanished.
“Look at me.”
She turns to the voice. To her right is the sun-bleached skull of a water buffalo, half-submerged in dun sand. A crow perches on one long curved horn, shifting its weight back and forth.
Its eyes are the gleam of blood on rock, the last lusty sliver of sunset. “You’ll do.” Crows cannot whisper. Or can they? The crow bobs its head once, twice. “Will you come into the desert? I know a place to shelter you from the storm.”
Soraya shakes like oracle bones tossed on the wind. The desert is dangerous, the desert means death . . .
Clack. The crow snaps its beak, impatient. “Are you not already dead?”
She does not know.
She looks past the crow. Where is she? Vast dunes roll sensuous and dizzying toward a gray horizon. Her dress, nothing more than rags, snaps against her body in a cool wind.
Are you not already dead? Perhaps she is. Perhaps there is no longer any reason to be afraid, no longer anything left to lose.
And yet she hesitates.
The tang on the heavy air presses more metallic, moist with each breath; a crack like one boulder against one another rumbles from a distant heaven. Alive or dead, she would be a fool not to accept the crow’s offer of shelter. She plants her palms in sand as an ache the size of a patience stone yawns in her chest. Did the wind snatch it from her fist?
With three beats of its sleek jet wings, the crow is before her, above her.
She pushes herself upright, and follows.
• • • •
Time slips effortless beneath her bare feet; sand vanishes for hard dirt, sharp rocks. Black mountains rise before her, arrogant fangs piercing heavy clouds.
A clap of thunder. Pellets of rain strike her once, twice, a torrent. She is trembling when she reaches the threshold of the mountains. Here an archway soars above her head, gaping graceful as a temple hewn by gods.
She follows the echo of the crow’s beating wings into the heart of the mountain. Cool stone walls weep around her; no light guides her feet down the rocky path, nothing but the breathy beat of wings.
Then stone above her sweeps heavenward, drawing her eyes up to bright light. The crown of the mountain is open to the gray sky; a step beyond where she stands in shadows, rain falls into the heart of the mountain, filling the cavern with moisture and the echo of raindrops on stone. Soraya lingers, her eyes fixed on the sky.
The crow glides over her shoulder into the rain, into the heart of the cavern—where a palace is hewn from the bones of the mountain itself, illuminated from above.
Her first step into the light is tentative. Rain slides down her face as she walks through gentle sheets of it. When she reaches the walls of the palace, her rags are drenched, but she does not tremble. The crow descends to her left, talons sharp on stone.
Before her is a stone door, high, arching, simple and solid. It has no handle, no lock, no hinge, a part of the wall itself but for the strange glyphs carved into its face and blackened with soot. A bud of realization blooms in her chest: Even if she knew how to read, these markings would not sing her their secrets. They were not carved by mortal hands.
Her left hand rises from her side, not at her bidding. The door’s bidding. Her fingertips brush the glyphs, as gently as if they were petals. A single note echoes through her ribcage:
She presses palm to stone, and the door vanishes.
Her breath catches in her throat. Before her is blue-black darkness, and that new voice, the echoing note of warm dusk:
“Here I leave you,” the crow says. A sharp cock of its head; ruby eyes regard her with a softness unlikely in stone. “Be kind before you are clever,” it says. “Eternity is not won with less.”
• • • •
The crow soars through the rain, through the open crown of the mountain, and she is alone.
A chill breeze snakes around her arms. She considers the doorway, wary.
Are you not already dead?
All she knows is that she is shivering, and beyond the door is shelter from the rain.
One tentative step. As if a tender hand has taken a loose thread from her dress and pulled, she is over the threshold, the dry darkness drinking her in. Tasting her wet hair, curling around her neck.
The shadows gray with each step. She turns a corner, and pauses. Windows open on either side of a corridor before her, pointed arches lifting toward white honeycombed ceilings. Light streams through stained glass panes, dyeing pale marble floors indigo as the heart of a lake. Three white peacocks stroll away from her, long feathered tails blue then not as they amble through patches of painted light. A breeze carries an echo of fountains burbling unseen, of raindrops striking broad leaves, of the rich smell of damp earth.
A tug at the thread.
Who beckons? Whose misty voice winds silk around her wrists to draw her down the corridor?
She must know, so she follows lazy peacocks to the head of a great sweeping staircase and descends.
The palace unfurls around her, pearly as the petals of a night-blooming orchid. It is abandoned. The cooing of doves echoes in empty halls, vines wind over and through the crumbling stone banister beneath her hand. Wilted petals crush cool beneath her bare feet as she steps down marble stairs.
Soraya allows herself to be led into a bright courtyard, lined with pillars graceful as cypresses. Within is a verdant garden—overgrown, an unruly nest of ferns and jasmine. Gray light illuminates a fountain at its heart, bubbling secrets softly to itself as if it has for centuries.
Dirt is damp and fresh beneath her feet as she steps into the garden. A raindrop. She looks up—the garden is open to the cavern beyond the palace, open to the crown of the mountain and the sky above.
She closes her eyes. Rain on her face, rain on her heaven-facing palms. For the first time in months, the whisper of a smile plays at her mouth.
Soraya opens her eyes and moves farther into the garden.
She freezes mid-step.
Before the fountain is an enormous panther, sprawled with its head on its great forepaws. Its body is skewered with hundreds of long needles, gleaming pale and sinister. Some are as long as her arm, some are mangled and bent, twisted like thorns into midnight velvet hide.
She recoils, stumbling back to the pillars, refusing to turn her back on the mass of needles and beast. Her mother once told her of a panther descending silent from the mountains and stalking a man from their village. The remains were found months later: the skull cracked, punctured by twin incisors as if it were no stronger than a pomegranate skin.
She darts behind a pillar; her breathing snags shallow. The crow said she would find shelter here, not safety . . .
But as moments pass, the doves coo on. Peacocks amble past her into the courtyard, their eyes cold sapphires, cut and polished to reflect light like mirrors.
Are they ignorant of the predator sprawled just feet from them? She watches them on legs coiled tight to spring, to flee—but the peacocks pass the sleeping panther, their milky feathers just inches from clawed paws, from gleaming needles.
Is it . . . dead?
The thump of her heart softens, fear curls into curiosity. She creeps, timid as a hunter, toward the beast and kneels at its side. Not dead—the inky hide rises and falls, rhythmic under the weight of hundreds of needles. Willing her breath to still, she reaches out and brushes a trembling fingertip along cold steel.
The beast’s hide twitches.
She freezes. Cool rain drips on her scalp, on the fountain, on the vines around her, but the doves are silent.
“Welcome to the House of Night.”
Soraya whirls to face the voice.
Before her stands a woman, clothed in yellow and scarlet silk. A breeze catches layered skirts and long loose sleeves; air-light fabric ripples like red sunlight on water, garish in the pale light. Black hair is swept tight away from the graceful planes of the woman’s face. Her brow is painted with shifting shadows, soft as smoke, dark as kohl. Try as she might, Soraya cannot force herself to meet her eyes . . .
“How did you get in here?” The jinni’s voice is soft, but as the underbelly of a serpent.
“I needed shelter from the rain.” Not a lie, for do not jinn know the smell of lies like vultures know carrion?
The jinni’s eyes graze over her dripping hair, her thin arms, her rags. Soraya drops her gaze to the hem of scarlet skirts. A small voice from her gut: Which is more dangerous, the beast at her back, or the beauty before her?
The downy hair on her arms and her cheeks stands on end.
She looks up, focusing her eyes on the jeweled neckline of the jinni’s dress.
“If it’s shelter you want, you may have it—on one condition. Remove every needle from this beast before the sun sets on the eighth night. Succeed, you will be richly rewarded,” the jinni says. “Fail, and I make you my servant.”
The skin of the jinni’s throat is both dark and translucent. If blood did not flow beneath it, what did? Smoke, shadowy eternity?
“Do we have a bargain?”
Soraya glances at the panther. She cannot read its dark face, and perhaps she imagines pain behind the creases of its velvet muzzle. She followed the crow for shelter, and if she agrees, shelter she will have. But she imagines herself alone in a garden, her own flesh impaled, thick with the weight of a thousand needles, and when she breathes her consent, she is only thinking of the panther.
A flicker like flame catches her eye—the jinni’s hands extend towards the palace beyond the garden. A lacquered box, summoned by the jinni, floats with a wraith’s grace towards them.
Soraya’s breath sticks in her throat:
The jinni has no fingers.
Her palms stretch into stubs, all ten different lengths, concealed before by the loose length of sleeves.
The box settles in the damp earth before Soraya’s knees.
“Place the needles in this box. The House of Night will care for you.”
She nods, and the jinni vanishes in a curl of smoke.
• • • •
Rain drips down her cheeks. She stares, transfixed, at the air where the jinni melted away. The cooing of doves reminds her of the garden, of the sleeping beast at her back. She turns.
The gleam of the needles summons bile to the back of her throat. Who would do such a thing to a living creature? She reaches out to brush a needle that pierces the panther’s shoulder. Tentative, testing, she wraps her right hand lightly around metal as thick around as two fingers.
She snatches her hand back at the bite. Thin lines, ruby as the crow’s eyes, well up along her fingers. She looks at the countless needles dug into the beast—all have sharp, uneven edges, like knives. A false move would slice foolish flesh to bone.
Her vision blurs with tears. One needle is all it would take to leave her with hands like the jinni’s. Perhaps the jinni herself tried and failed.
Perhaps the jinni knew this was an impossible task.
Soraya turns to the panther’s head, the only part of its body not bristling with lethal metal. Her left hand rises, reaches—her fingertips brush the crown of the panther’s head, stroking it gently. Its hide is softer than the brush of lips on an infant’s downy cheek, black as dreamless sleep.
One hot tear rolls free of her eye and joins the rain slipping down her face, but she sets her jaw. She reaches for the hem of her dress, muddied by the earth of the garden, and tears strips from it. Rough fabric bites as she wraps one strip around her tender sliced fingers and another around the first needle. She places rag to rags, holds her breath, and tugs.
Muscles twitch and spasm beneath the velvet pelt as the needle slides out, wet and slick as a knife through meat. A low sigh—and just as the wound left by the needle closes before Soraya’s eyes, the needle in her hand shrinks until it is nothing but a harmless pin.
The box. She reaches for the lacquered box, opens it with trembling fingers. It is lined with engraved silver. The ting of the bloodstained pin against silver melts into the rain.
One. Another. Hours pass. Many fellows find the first needle in the lacquered box, many more still rise and fall with each of the panther’s quiet sighs. The rain stops, she stops; the liquid pouring down her neck, soaking her dress, is now sweat.
Doves with eyes of emerald as bright as the ferns around her carry a basket full of bread and dates in their claws and sweet sherbet to drink. As she eats, another basket appears, laden with clean strips of cotton. She needs them later, when her hands slip and steel sings as it slides through her flesh.
But for the beat of doves’ wings and the burbling fountain, the garden is quiet. She begins to talk to fill silence and time, to distract herself from bleeding palms. She tells the panther stories her mother told her long ago that she then poured into her patience stone: stories of faraway lands and strange goddesses, of poisoned flowers and cursed princesses, of divs and wind-whipped seas, of the soft darkness where lovers reunite.
The shadows in the garden lengthen, the gray light fades. Exhaustion drapes over her like a leaden cloak. She lies on her side on the soft cool earth next to the panther, looking up through the crown of the mountain at the sky. Clouds clear, stars wink . . .
In sleep, she wakes on her feet, and breathes deep of bright cold night: The world is silky silver dunes drowning in starlight; her eyes widen as constellations and their coal-black raiment descend and surround her.
From nowhere, a voice: “Who are you?”
The note echoes in her ribcage; the memory of the door vanishing beneath her palm flashes in her mind’s eye.
That voice. In dreams, it is smoky in timbre. Sensuous.
Her lips are bare of words. Who is she? She is a girl without a mother, a girl with a home swallowed by desert, a girl who followed a crow. These are not answers.
“What is your name?”
No one has asked her in years. Surprise trips the answer to her lips:
“Soraya.” It feels foreign on her tongue, the wrong shape, as one’s own name always does.
“Soraya,” the voice says, a rumble softer than thunder. Her marrow sings at the note.
“Who are you?”
“I am the night.” The voice is in the stars, in her bones, echoing from every corner of the heavens beyond. “I am called Parviz, the victor, for like my mother, Time, I rise triumphant over every sunset, my stars the banner of my victory.”
“Why am I here?” She trembles like bare branches in a gentle wind, but she is not afraid. Perhaps a wiser girl might be, but the stars are as close to her face as low-hanging fruit, gleaming gems in plush velvet night. Wonder blooms wide in her chest. There is no room for fear.
“Your hands are bleeding.”
She glances down at haphazardly wrapped rags. Starlight illuminates crusted, blackening blood.
“It is a long story.”
“Like the ones you were telling earlier?”
Though she does not raise her eyes from her palms, she sees the garden in its wild overgrown splendor. There is no panther; instead her gaze falls on a young man, unconscious, lying on his back at the base of the fountain. His hair is the blue-black that cloaks constellations after moonset, his complexion pallid beneath dark skin. Thousands of long gleaming needles pierce his white shirt, pierce his cotton trousers, pierce his body.
The vision fades, and she whirls around, searching silver dunes for either panther or man, but she is alone in the dark. Alone with the voice of the night.
“No,” she breathes. “Not like those stories at all.”
“I don’t know how this one ends.”
A breeze slips beneath her hair and tickles her neck, light as a laugh.
“Hold out your hands, Soraya of a thousand stories.”
Heart pounding, she obeys, and before her eyes, the rags unfurl on their own. That breeze leaves cool kisses on her palms as crisscrossing red cuts knit into fine white lines.
“I will let you rest.”
• • • •
When Soraya wakes in the garden, stiff and covered with dew, she lifts one hand. Clean slender scars line her palm.
She looks beyond her hand at the sleeping panther. In her mind’s eye, she sees the young man, pinned to the earth by the weight of a thousand needles.
She takes new rags, wraps her hands, and reaches for the next needle.
• • • •
Some days are rainy, others are hot as she pulls the needles from panther’s body, smoothing silky hide with her bandaged hands. For seven days and nights, the House of Night cares for her: Doves bring her food, blankets for chilly nights, fresh cotton for her hands. When the afternoon sun beats hot on her black hair, she retreats into the blue shadows of the palace in the company of peacocks and creamy white gazelles with obsidian eyes. She follows the delicate click of hooves on marble to libraries filled with shelves heavy with manuscripts, elegant hammams, a throne room of obsidian studded with opals. But she is never long from the panther’s side—even in sleep, she curls into her nest of blankets within reaching distance of clawed paws and twitching whiskers.
In sleep, she spends each night in a silver desert drenched in starlight, dreaming of breezes that heal her sliced palms and the voice of the night begging stories of her. In return for her tales, the night sings its own: stories of the birth of the eight heavens, of winking candlelight and cursed necklaces in bazaars that are neither here nor there, of an arrogant young god stumbling into a foolish bargain and cursed to eternal sleep, of the profound loneliness of a thousand years of night.
On the morning of the eighth day, three needles remain in the panther’s hide. Soraya bandages her clammy palms and inhales deeply to soothe her thundering heart. One needle, dripping rubies, joins its fellows in the lacquered box. Her hands shake. Two needles.
The last needle. Her heart pounds so loudly she does not notice when the cooing of the doves stills. She wraps the sharp shaft of the needle in cotton, places rags on rags, and—
Stars fill her vision as her neck snaps back, scalp screaming as she is yanked away from the panther by her hair. Breath cracks out of her lungs as she hits hard earth.
Shadows snake past her. The panther—were the shadows pouncing on the beast? She coughs, gasping for breath:
A flash of yellow and red through the black veil of her hair, and she lifts her head.
The jinni is crouched near the beast’s sleeping body. Her eyes turn on Soraya, and shadows follow her gaze, slicing through the air and winding themselves around Soraya’s throat, her wrists.
“You will not speak to him,” the jinni says.
The jinni bears long fangs like a cat and lunges for the panther. She sinks teeth into the rags wrapped around the final needle and wrenches her head back.
The panther moans as the final needle is yanked from its hide.
Its eyes snap open: Deep obsidian pools fasten on Soraya as darkness blooms around it, filling the garden with shadow. Tendrils of smoke and ink bleed from every scar, every wound in the panther’s hide as it lurches to all fours, as it rears on hind legs . . .
And in a moment, in the passing breath between a shudder and stillness, it is no panther, but a man.
He stands before the jinni, a man with hair the inky silk of lonely nights, dressed in a simple white shirt and loose trousers. He stares at his palms, at his arms—and meets the jinni’s gaze, his fierce bright eyes brimming with questions.
“I am Soraya,” the jinni purrs, gesturing with one hand for the lacquered box. The air of the garden ripples with power as the box rises into the air and floats towards the man. It opens to bare its blood-encrusted contents. “I have cared for you, removed every needle. You slept for a thousand years, but I have woken you.”
From the air around the box, smoke-like tendrils of shadow reach for the man’s shoulders, embracing his chest. Slinking up to his head.
Soraya looks on in wordless horror. She rises to her knees, her hands clenched into fists.
The shadows melt into the man as he looks from the box of needles to the jinni’s face and back again. At last he speaks.
“A sweet voice broke into my long sleep. Gentle hands soothed my pain.”
Soraya’s heart leaps to her throat. That voice is soft thunder, that voice is moonset. One foot, then the other, and she is standing, her vision swimming.
“I fell in love with the stories that voice told me. I fell in love with the storyteller,” he says.
But he is looking at the jinni.
Soraya’s cheeks flush with anger. She opens her mouth to speak—
And he turns to her. Meets her eyes.
The axis of the world’s turn realigns to the earth beneath her bare feet. Her bones hum. She wonders if his do too, when the ghost of a memory flits across his sharp features.
“And this is?”
She gapes, she gasps—but no words come. Her heart hammers against her ribcage, begging, pleading, weeping.
You will not speak to him.
It was not an order, but a spell.
“This is my mortal servant,” the jinni coos. “Pay her no heed.”
He looks away, and Soraya drops her gaze to the earth. Dirt blurs before her eyes as her heart sinks like a stone. Such was the bargain: Succeed, and be rewarded. Fail, and . . .
She gazes in horror at the shadows that cuff her wrists, living writhing bonds.
Servitude begins that day.
• • • •
The palace is transformed, awakened with the god from a slumber of a thousand years. The animals multiply, people immortal and not fill the palace with music, laughter, and movement—for the House of Night prepares for its master to wed the jinni. Libraries are dusted, hammams scrubbed, windows thrown open. Once silent halls and corridors are awash in sunlight and bright colors.
Gone are Soraya’s ripped rags, the final relic of her life before the sandstorm, before the crow. She is dressed in silk blouses and billowing trousers white as jasmine blossoms, neckline and ankles beaded with emeralds. Fragrant night-blooming orchids that never wilt are woven into her long black hair.
But the shadows at her throat and wrists, the hollowness in her chest deafen her to the reborn bustle of the House of Night. Day and night melt together as she fulfills the tasks the jinni assigns her: Smoke cuffs bind her hands behind her back as she is ordered to collect every fallen petal from the bouquets and garlands that fill the jinni’s bridal chambers with her teeth, arrange every jewel in the growing trousseau in intricate patterns on the marble floor with knees and nose—only to begin anew when her work is ruined by a sulfurous breeze and the jinni’s dissonant laughter.
She is confined to a wing of the house far from the garden, far from cooing doves and sunlight. She sees no trace of the man who was a panther, the man with the voice of the night. Nor does she wish to. What would it change?
“Darling mortal,” the jinni purrs, saccharine voice dipped in venom. Soraya feels the burn of immortal eyes on her back, on her bound wrists, as she mops floors with filthy water and her knees. “As my servant, you will receive a wedding gift from my betrothed. What do you wish for?”
Soraya’s knees ache, bruised by hours spent inching down marble corridors.
What does she wish for? She wishes for respite from this world of trickery and humiliation, for an end to this story, to the lonely nights filled with wondering if she is dead or not, if this is a fever dream or an afterlife. She wishes for something, anything, that reminds her of home. A clever girl might ask for a tool, some way to help her escape the House of Night and never look back, but Soraya speaks without thinking:
“I want a patience stone.”
A sinew in her heart twists tight when she thinks of her mother, of warm calloused hands pressing a cool stone into hers. Of the comforting weight of a quiet companion held tight in one fist, of the relief of pouring her troubles into a stone.
“You ask the master of the House of Night for a common patience stone?” The jinni’s disbelief rings through the corridor. “How ruined are the minds of mortals—full of such fanciful stories, and the dullest wishes!”
Her laughter is like shattering glass. Shards slice into Soraya’s heart and bury themselves there.
• • • •
Her request is a jest to the jinni, and in the spirit of mockery, her wish is fulfilled: Soraya receives a patience stone.
It is the twin in shape and size to the one she lost the day of the storm, the day she followed the crow, but as she takes it in her hands she knows it has been remade, reborn. It is warm, it sings at her touch. She clutches it to her chest, tears of relief thickening her throat, blind to the jinni’s sneers.
After nightfall, she risks slinking away from the jinni’s dark wing of the House of Night. The moist earth of the garden sinks beneath her bare feet, the marble of the fountain cools her back as she sits and leans against it.
The moon is heavy and full above the crown of the mountain. She came to the House of Night in search of shelter and found servitude, but she has this: She cradles the patience stone before her, cups it in scarred palms. She whispers past the heavy grief in her throat, and pours into the stone a story she told a dozen times over the eight days and nights in the garden: a tale of a princess who wields a cursed flower to poison unwanted suitors, who runs away with a pirate maiden.
Around her, ferns rustle. Jasmine whispers. The air around her lightens, and begins to glow. She looks up. Words melt from her lips, drowned in wonder.
It is as if thousands of stars have dipped from the sky, through the crown of the mountain. Constellations fill the garden, bathing the ferns, the jasmine, the fountain in starlight.
A voice, reverent and sad:
“It was you.”
She leaps to her feet, clutching the stone to her breast. A form glides out of the shadows, into starlight: the man, the beast, the voice of the night.
She steps backward, into the fountain. Marble presses into the backs of her legs. Her chest has become too shallow for the heart thundering at the base of her throat.
He steps toward her. Darkness soft as dreams blooms around him as a shadow of apprehension flickers across his brow.
“Will you hold out your hands?”
She cannot say no, would not, even if no jinni’s spell knit her voice to her throat. Her right hand clutches the stone to her breast as she offers the trembling left.
He takes it in his own and traces white scars along her palms, along slender fingers, his touch like night breezes. There is no time, there is no garden, only the brush of his fingertips, the wonder in his eyes as he raises them to hers.
“For many nights I searched in vain for a patience stone in Light Markets, growing so frustrated I was prepared to give a fortune for one. In the end, it was given to me freely—by a crow. On one condition . . .”
Rubies glint in her mind’s eye, winking with every precise avian tilt of an ebony head.
“. . . that I listen to the worries poured into the stone.”
She draws her hand back and cups the stone before her. Between them.
Not to him—but to the patience stone.
The words come slowly at first, then quicken into a torrent as she tells the stone a story of a girl who followed a crow. A girl who pulled needles from a wounded beast until her palms bled, who was tricked by a jinni, whose voice was stolen away. A girl who wanted nothing but to sit by the beast’s side under the sky in the heart of the House of Night, telling it stories for eternity, sleeping in cool air and starlight . . .
She falters, voice wavering on the edge of tears. She does not know how to end the story with anything but silence.
She raises her eyes from the stone and meets his.
“You will have that,” he says.
Four words, and the deepest promise she has ever been given.
The stone cracks. She gasps, pieces crumbling through her fingers onto her bare feet, into the grass.
A shriek splits the night.
She whirls, clutching the remnants of the stone in a protective fist.
The jinni is lurid in the garden, a burning ember of rage, heat rippling out from the flames of her skirts.
Tendrils of night bloom as the man steps forward, between her and the jinni.
His voice is soft as a panther’s paws as it crouches to spring, but when he speaks again, he is the rumbling soul of a storm, the roar of a maelstrom:
“You lied to the god of night, the son of Time, and you will be punished.”
A thunderclap. The jinni’s burning skin hisses as heavens open and rain pours through the crown of the mountain.
“Begone, and take your spells with you.”
Steam billows from jinni as she shrieks with renewed rage. Soraya’s hands fly to her ears, clutching her skull as white-hot pain snakes like forks of lightning through bone. Stained glass windows shatter, glittering shards filling the garden where there had been nothing but stars.
A second thunderclap, a final hiss.
Glass falls to the soft earth. Steam, then the rings of shadows at Soraya’s wrists and throat, melt away in the wash of the rain.
The voice of the night turns to her. His jet hair is wet against his face; raindrops catch on his eyelashes, reflecting starlight like opals.
His voice cradles a question. It echoes in her bones, dusky as dreams:
He holds out a hand. Her heart skips like a stone on water.
“Soraya of a thousand stories. Will you tell me how does this one end?”
She takes one step towards him. Then another.
For eternity is not won with less.