The sky is narrow through your window frame, but he always manages to slip through it and into your room.
Quietly, like a thief in the night, the Magi of the Kou Empire arrives. Except for his red eyes and white mantle, he almost blends into the shadows, as though he is one himself. He comes with a wide grin on his face, and stretches like a cat, stepping from his floating carpet and into your prison.
Tonight is one of the coldest nights of the year, but as always, he is wearing indecent clothing and an easy smile, as though the cold cannot touch him.
"It's too late for you to be here," you tell him after a quick glance, your gaze sinking back down the scroll on the floor afterwards. It is pale against the rich carpets on your floor, a dry political piece against a red-and-gold background of mythical birds and men. Your eyes land on the bird of paradise, trace the detail woven into its ornate feathers, its bejewelled eyes, its widespread wings. Just as in the myth, its image is always flying in the carpet, never stopping, never touching the earth. It is curious that the artist chose to give the creature feet, you think, for it has no need of them.
Unlike the seventh princess of the Tamerlan Empire, it is never caged.
You look back at your reading, tilt your head. You are not expected to be trained in political matters. You will never rise as a ruler, only as some foreign dignitary's wife. Still, your eyes stubbornly keep to the page as you continue speaking. "The King and my eldest brother will become angry if they catch you here. You are a Magi, but you are still a man, and my purity is worth a kingdom or two."
And as always, he does not care. You yelp a little bit when the scroll is tugged out of your fingers and give him an exasperated look when you see him eyeing it dubiously.
"I can barely understand this. Why would you want to read something so dry instead of paying attention to me?" Carelessly, he rolls it up and throws it over his shoulder. You would be angry with him, but instead of hurtling to the floor, it floats down, feather-light, carried down by the boy's strange magic. You look up to meet Judar's red stare, catching him studying you. "I couldn't give less of a shit about Prince Isma'il, to be honest," he drawls, "And as for your old man, you know he won't say anything about me visiting you. He knows you're the only thing bringing me back to his kingdom of rocks, after all." At this, he grins, and you find that you have to look away when his face is this lit-up and when he is facing you so eagerly. "Speaking of which, have you finally decided to be my queen, yet?"
You are glad for the dimness when you feel your face growing warm. You turn away from the candle light, looking out the window instead. You wish that he'd be more careful about how he worded things, really...
"I've told you many times, Judar, that I'm hardly fit to be a Dungeon Conqueror, or a ruler in my own right." You play at the jewelry covering the flesh of your neck, each precious stone a reminder of your status. "As I said last week, my father intends for me to marry soon. I do not know who it will be, but I know it is being arranged... I speculate that it may be Prince Sabmahd of Balbadd, or perhaps a minor Partevian Prince. Perhaps he will be from Actia, south of us." Your voice softens, and you don't dare to meet his eyes. "It may even be a Prince of Kou. In any of these cases, it is not in my future to become a queen. But I am a crucial bargaining chip for my empire, and I will not fail my duty."
He is silent for a long time, before, finally, he kicks the scroll at his feet.
"Bargaining chips don't need to read so much," he says, his voice accusatory. He turns around, heading not for the door, but for the window. "I'll be back when you grow a spine and finally decide to conquer a dungeon with me."
He has made many such comments over the years, but something about it hurts every time, twists something in your chest. You smile at him anyway, docile. "I'm always flattered by your faith in me, Judar, but I'm not sure why you're so confident in my abilities. I've hardly ever been outside of these palace walls... how can you expect me to conquer a dungeon?"
He snorts. "That's why you gotta leave with me as soon as possible. We have a lot of work to do. Thank god your old man had you trained in swordplay, but there's still more to do. And we could do it, if only you'd stop being so stupid about it. I'm a Magi. If I chose you to be King, you'll become King." He nearly snaps the last few words, but you do not flinch. After all, all of this hurts, and Judar is nothing short of childish and spiteful and vindictive, but there can only be one reason that he is so adamant on having you leave with him.
You watch as his fingers curl around the scroll on the floor. He opens it up, skims it briefly, then hands it back to you.
"The Tenzan Plateau is a boring wasteland," he tells you, his voice laced with derision. "Only barbarians, politicians and generals are interested in it."
"Curious girls, too." Your smile never leaves. "I'm not like my brother. I've never been outside Asmarakand, or seen anything greater than this palace or the Registan. I've never seen anything like the great plains of northern Kou, or met the people of the legendary Kouga clan." Your eyes soften. "I've never even seen weather like anything there. I've never seen snow, Judar."
And you will never tell anyone else that, you think to yourself. Because it is enough for you to be accused of treason. It is enough for your eldest and only brother to orchestrate your death. And so, you have endured in silence for an impossibly long time, dreaming of snow and Magnostadt's magic, of fireworks and Sindrian dances. You dream of Judar's homeland. You dream of monsoons, of Actian ships. You dream, and you endure.
You know that it is all on your face, but he misses it. Like always, he keeps staring out the window, refusing to look at you. You know what he will see instead of your troubled expression. He will see the night sky and the crescent moon. He will see a city that is in the clutches of winter, the silhouettes of the stony structures that make up the bazaar, the Registan, the outskirts of the palace. It is almost the longest night of the year, but snow will not fall on the capital of Tamerlan, just as it will not on any other time.
Judar is quiet when he makes his exit. As he moves, shadows dance across his form, dark except for the weak moonlight and candlelight hitting him. His bare feet hit the carpet, and when he stops, they are covering the claws of the homa that you had been studying earlier. You stare at them, wondering how he is not cold.
"Think about it," is all he says, and then he is climbing to the ledge of the window, and then slipping away. You do not blink as he jumps, no longer afraid for him. Your room is at the top of a tower, several stories above ground. If his body hit the ground from here, he would die, but in all the years that you have known him, he has always managed to fly away, unharmed.
And in all the years that you have known him, he has always returned to you. Unworried, you pick up the scroll, and resume your reading.
He is not exactly kind to you, but he never has been.
You remember the first time you met him. You were scarcely ten-and-four years old. You had never been so dressed up in your life: your hair was pulled back, styled beautifully. Golden chains and emeralds lined your hair and your forehead, and a red veil had been thrown over your head. Bangles and necklaces adorned your body, and your skirts had never been so heavy.
You weren't told why you were dressed up so beautifully, just that you and all of the princesses barring the First were to be done up and sent to the throne room. Just as you had always been taught, you kept your back straight and your chin up, walking in line behind your sisters. You hardly knew them, just as they hardly knew you, but you knew that you were walking in order of rank, so you must be behind the Sixth Princess, Zummurud. Her long hair, like a river of fine oil, tumbled over her shoulders and bounced beneath the translucent silk on her head.
The throne room, when you entered it, was as grand as it always had been. Seated at the front, with soldiers on both sides, was the Mirza, the King, Ulugh Begh, the Patriarch Ruler. It was your father whom you had never met, but also the father of all of Asmarakand, of all of Tamerlan. He seemed as healthy and as fierce as you had always imagined him being, his back straight despite his heavy robes, his gaze sharp beneath the cloth of his turban. His eyes were set on the foreigners before him, and he hardly noticed the procession of his daughters entering the room.
He must be brokering some deal between great nations, you thought. He was speaking rapidly, and your brother, the Crown Prince Isma'il, dutifully stood beside him, his gaze hard. You paid no attention to him, gaze instead lingering on one of the foreigners: a small boy with a large, pitch black braid. His clothes were strange, an oddity: from the large sleeves and the characters he bore, you supposed that he was from Kou. Their Empire was a small one to the east, but rapidly expanding. You recalled from eavesdropping on snatches of conversation between Isma'il and the palace guards that surrounding countries were already beginning to fall to the might of their dungeon capturers.
You could not look away from the boy, nor his companion. Was Kou here to conquer Tamerlan? Were they here to see you all kneel before one of their princes?
You glanced at your sisters, the other princesses. Zummurud was looking straight ahead, her eyes glassy. She was beautiful and uninterested. But the Second Princess, Goharshad, was fidgeting. Her fingers were playing with one another, and she, too, was staring intently—not at the boy, but at his veiled companion. His face, you thought, was a monstrous thing, with a wicked grin and misshapen eyes that bore into every person in the room. He turned to glance at you, and you could not help but shudder at his smile.
"And who are these lovely flowers that you have sent to us, Mirza?" The foreign man stepped down from his place beside the throne and came toward you. He beckoned to the sullen-looking boy with the large braid and he, too, approached the fifteen of you. "You must be the daughters of the Patriarch Ruler. Could it be that the King wishes to establish a friendship through marriage still? Your daughters are lovely, sir, but Emperor Koutoku has no interest in marrying off any of his princes."
Your father gave a tired wave. "I know this already, Marrkio. Consider this a gift to the Magi of the Kou Empire. A political alliance will do well enough, and I only wish to extend my gratitude to the Magi for his willingness to aid my son in conquering a dungeon."
Isma'il, beside him, bowed deeply. You stared at the boy prince, unsure if you had ever seen him so respectful to anyone. "The Magi of the Kou Empire may have any one of the girls presented."
Marrkio and your father continued to chat, and you wanted to listen. You were not like your brother: you were never allowed to listen to deals being struck between great empires and nations, not taught the language spoken in the throne room, the cunning or the wit required to understand it. You would never again come across such an opportunity to see your father in action. But it was the boy you could not take your eyes off, the boy whom you wanted to study... the Magi with the black braid and bored, red gaze, who looked at you, one-by-one, disinterested.
Disinterested, until his eyes met yours.
He stopped in front of you, tilted his head. You had been taught what to do in a situation like this, albeit with a prince. You were supposed to drop to your knees, supposed to sweetly ask him whether you were to his liking. You were supposed to submit to him, to show him respect, the same kind that you showed to Isma'il each time he came to bully you. But this boy was no older than you, and the two of you were still children, and so, when you looked at one another, it was not with lust, but with curiosity, and you forgot yourself.
He, too, you would later learn, forgot himself.
Isma'il's voice rang out in the throne room. "Is that girl to your liking, Magi? She is the Seventh Princess of the Tamerlan Empire, around your age. We would gladly give her to you as a token of our appreciation."
At that, the Magi turned away from you, made a face. He looked nothing short of disgusted. "Her? No way. She's ugly."
Your eyes widened, just a little bit. You were glad for the paint on your face, for surely, you otherwise would have looked completely flushed and embarrassed. Your father seemed apathetic to the comment, but Isma'il laughed loudly, as if some great joke had just been told.
"Of course, Magi. I have often thought so myself. She is the plainest of all my sisters."
Marrkio interjected, and now you could see that he had been staring at the two of you, unrelentingly, curiously. You were much less comfortable with his gaze than the Magi's, and your eyes retreated, went to stare at your father instead.
"You may look at the girls later, Judar. For now, we must agree to the terms of this treaty. You shall choose Prince Isma'il as King, and raise a dungeon for him, and this will begin a long friendship between the Empires of Kou and Tamerlan. Emperor Koutoku—"
"I won't choose him."
The room went silent. Your father's gaze became dark. The sisters, even the bored ones, stopped breathing, their wide eyes stuck to the Magi. Marrkio paused, faltering even beneath his unshakeable, terrible smile. Isma'il, you could see out of the corner of your eye, was shocked.
And you were trapped in the red, petulant stare of the Magi.
The boy continued, his voice casual, his eyes belligerent. "It can't be him. He's no good. It can only be her. Why else do you think I was looking at her?" The boy looked at you again, nodded at you to make himself clear. There was no question, but there were also ten million. For some reason, the Magi of the Empire chose you, and not your brother, to become a King Candidate.
For some reason, Judar chose you.
At your own discretion, you always relieve your attendants of their duties when the days are the coldest, when yalda, the longest night of the year, approaches. They are warm people, with warm families and children. They have to prepare for the celebrations of yalda, and you would hate to rob them of that, especially when you are so rarely under the heat of your father's gaze.
It is for that reason, Judar knows, that at the crack of dawn, nobody is in your room. The sun is rising behind him when he steps off his carpet and onto your window ledge, grunting as he feels the cracks in his joints, the aching of his spine. His work last night has left him absolutely exhausted, and when he sees you, steadfastly asleep under your covers, he would like nothing more than to join you.
But he has no intention of letting you sleep.
He approaches you, and your Rukh, like all other Rukh, rush in to flutter about him, kiss him. He opens his palm, lets one rest in his hand. These birds are so stupid, he thinks. It is by his virtue of being a Magi that they flock to him so mindlessly even when it is so easy for him to corrupt them. It would be so simple to close his hand, to let Ill Illah brush a godless hand against the units of your fate and steal them away from you.
He never closes his fingers, though. Your Rukh flies away, brighter than the morning sun, and wanders back to your still form. Judar lets his gaze rest on your face for a moment—he doesn't know why—and considers it. Your lips have parted slightly, and he notes, with a snort, that you've been drooling. A glance at the half-melted candles at your bedside, at the heavy bags beneath your eyes, tells him that you stayed up late last night, no doubt reading about the Tenzan Plateau.
He rolls his eyes when he sees the scroll beside the pillow. Curious girl, indeed. There is only one reason why anyone would be curious about the Tenzan Plateau, and no matter how stupid you or anyone else thinks he is, you're not fooling him. Your fascination with the Tenzan Plateau can't have anything to do with the weather so much as its status as hotly contested territory close to the borders of the Tamerlan Empire. Nobody cares that much about whether or not they've seen snow. Surely, he thinks, the sad gleam of your eyes in the candlelight last evening had just been an act.
"Dumbass," he whispers as he brushes the hair away from your face. He's not sure whether he's talking about your or himself.
Oh, well. Time to find out. Shrugging, he straightens his back and rips the covers clean off your bed.
"Wake up, princess!" he bellows, and you shriek, sitting up immediately. Bleary-eyed, hair a mess, he has never seen you looking so genuinely horrible, and he can't help but double over in his laughter. "Oh, wow, I don't know why I've never done that before. You look fabulous."
"Judar," you whine, bringing your covers up to your chin. "Why are you here? I'm not decent yet. Please take your leave."
He shrugs. "Why worry about that? This only puts us on even ground. As you put it, I'm never decent." Grinning, he gestures to his bare torso, and he notes with some pride that your face turns rather red before you hide it beneath your blankets. "Fine, fine. If you're still so worked about that chastity stuff, then I'll leave the room so that you can change. But you better be quick. I have a lot to show you today."
You lower your blankets, letting him see your frown. "I'm busy today. I have swordplay lessons still, which I have to take courtesy of you. And you know that it would take a great effort for me to obtain permission to leave the palace grounds."
He's completely unable to keep the grin off his face. Coming closer, he tugs at your wrist, urging you to get out of bed. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Once you've seen what I wanna show you, you're not gonna bother with dumb shit like permission anyway."
"All right, all right. I'm coming." You yank your wrist away from his grasp, and he frowns, fingers tightening around cold air. He's not completely sure why you're so reluctant around him—reluctant to let him touch you in the most innocuous of ways, reluctant to talk to him, reluctant to become his King Candidate. Reluctant to be his Queen. Between you and Hakuryuu, Judar wonders if he's the most hopeless Magi to ever exist.
Another oh well, another shrug of the shoulders. He won't worry about any of that today, and he supposes that for now, he'll simply leave you to consider his offer. Again. With time, you'll learn and listen to him. With time, Hakuryuu will do the same. And when that time comes, he will have the King Candidates he should always have chosen—not Kouen, not Koumei, not Kouha. Not Al-Thamen's puppets. He'll have you. And Hakuryuu. And even the Old Hag, he thinks, but you are the one he wants to make Queen. The invisible grip around his heart loosens at the thought, and it becomes much easier to grin as he pushes you toward the window, much simpler to feign happiness.
When you gasp, when your hands race to cover your mouth, his smile becomes effortless. He is beaming, and he knows it, and it's strange that it comes so naturally, but he doesn't really care.
"Took me all night," he says, cavalier. "I'm tired as hell now, so yeah, you'd better leave the palace for this."
Your first meeting with Judar had been disastrous, in a sense. It left your father and his only son alone with you, pondering what to do with a minor princess and an uncooperative Magi. You were not a prospect for succession, your father said, but he was not exactly displeased, either. His thoughtful stare bore into you, and lingered in your bones after he left.
Isma'il was different. He scarcely waited half a minute after your father's departure before advancing on you.
"Insufferable, insolent bitch!"
His fist slammed your left cheekbone. You were blindsided, hit too quickly to even shriek, and as your head whipped to the side, as your feet stumbled, you tried not to let the black dots eat your vision. Breathe in, breathe out. You held the side of your face. Breathe in, breathe out. You've done this before, you thought, closing your eyes. He's done this before, you reminded yourself, trying to ignore the wetness on your fingers, trying to calm the erratic breath in your lungs. You will live.
Outside of your mind, you heard an endless tirade from your brother. You wished that he had hit you harder, wished that you would pass out from the blow so that you would not have to hear his screaming, but you knew that Isma'il was too clever to hit you hard enough to leave any bruises.
"What did you do to win his favour? Did you prostitute yourself to him? Did you go behind Father's back and strike a deal with Marrkio? Plotting against our Patriarch Ruler is an act of high treason, you know. I can have you killed," he snarled. You flinched as his spittle hit you, looking away. You were young, but you were old enough to know that the Crown Prince was terrible, was small, was nothing in comparison to the legend that his father was. Clever Goharshad, who had a keen eye for palace affairs and spent a great time explaining its politics to you, knew it. Apathetic Zummurud, who did little else other than practice her dancing and her small talk, knew it.
Ulugh Begh, your father and King, almost certainly knew it.
Prince Isma'il was terrible and small and pitiful in comparison to his father, but the knowledge did little to comfort the sting that his accusations brought. You shrank, hugging yourself as he kicked the wall beside you, as though your little arms could protect your body from the violence of this man.
"Please, Prince Isma'il. Please stop." You shut your eyes, readying yourself for the next, inevitable blow. "Today was my first time meeting the Magi of the Kou Empire. It was the first time any of the princesses ever laid eyes on him. I do not know why I was chosen. I did not desire any of this."
He spat. When you were not struck again, you opened your eyes, looked up. Isma'il had straightened his back, was running a hand through his hair now, as though composing himself.
"I suppose it matters not that you were chosen. For the sake of this treaty, the Patriarch Ruler has humoured the requests of the Magi. Certainly, you will be taught swordplay—God help us all when you attempt it—and certainly, you will be given basic tactical training. But it is laughable to think that you might ever succeed me in skill or thought. Do not think, for even a second, that it will not be me who conquers that dungeon. I am our Father's successor. I will be the ruler of Tamerlan. It is my fate, and not yours.”
You have always wanted to leave Asmarakand, to dwell in other cities and to practice their ways, but you have always been confined to the capital, to the palace, to your little room in the tower. Isma'il, you know, has always made sure of this, has always spoken against taking you elsewhere, has always forbidden his younger sisters to talk with foreigners except for their future husbands. Your room is a prison. The palace is a prison. The capital is a prison. But right now, it is a beautiful prison.
Asmarakand is a gorgeous city. This is something that you know. You do not have to see other cities, do not have to see villages, do not have to see the countryside, to know that the morning view from the vantage point of your tower, with the sunlight slowing flooding the horizon, the roof-tops, the roads, is a blessing. The entirety of the city is made of stone, with carefully grown and watered trees and lawns that line the buildings. The ornately decorated arches and towers of the Reigstan, painted blue-and-gold, are clearly visible from your room, as are the dome-shaped prayer houses, the quaint structures of the bazaar and residential areas. All of it is made from stone, from earth, and by all rights, the city should be largely the colour of sandstone and clear skies.
Except for today.
Today, it is white. It is not only beautiful, but also breathtaking. It feels colder than ever, and as you approach the open window, you don't miss the way that your white fog leaves your lips. It drifts before you, briefly covering up the image of your beloved city lined with ivory.
Your lungs still, move to grab one of the hands that are resting on your shoulders. "Is that snow?" You tilt your head back, look up and see Judar looking back down, cocking his head to the side.
"Huh, wow. You really haven't seen snow before. But yeah, there it is. Not so amazing if you ask me, but I guess it can be fun."
Prying yourself of his grasp, you move to the window, your knuckles turning white as you clutch the ledge. "How? Judar, this is—this is—you are—"
"Incredible? Handsome? The perfect Magi for a willing King Candidate? Why, yes, Princess, I am all of those things."
You laugh. "No, honestly! I suppose you are incredible if you really did this. My god, there's snow as far as I can see... in all of the city outskirts, and everything... I knew you were talented with ice magic, but this is unbelievable."
Judar beams at you, the way he always does when he's pleased with himself and pleased with what you're saying about him. It's selfish, but you've never been able to fault him for it, especially not now. "Not unbelievable for a Magi," he counters. "The formula for this spell was easy, and there's already plenty of water just past the mountains. Basic for any water magician, really. All you need after that is an endless supply of magoi, and, well..." You giggle when he trails off, and turn to him, beaming.
"Thank you, Judar. I mean it. I didn't think I'd ever see snow. Not before being married to a King or lord of some northern country, I mean. I... thank you."
"No need for thanks. I already know I'm great. Didn't know what else to do with all this extra power, anyway. I mean, it was either this or pick a fight with Prince Idiot, and it's not like I can kill him, so where's the fun in that anyway?"
"Judar, please." But you're still smiling, and you have to bite your lip to keep yourself from laughing.
"Well, if you're so pleased with this, are you going to stay in here, or are you going to go out and play with the stuff before it melts?"
"Play with it..?" You frown. "Judar, I don't want to kill or fight anyone with this. And besides, I still don't have permission to leave the palace."
He holds up his hands. "Hey! Give me some credit. I'm not always talking about war when I say 'playing'." He rolls his eyes. "Anyway, relax. Everyone in the palace will be distracted, and your attendants aren't coming by today. Nobody will even know we're gone."
You frown. "And how would we slip past the palace guards? I can't fly or disguise myself like you, Judar."
He snorts. "Really, you don't give me enough credit. Look down. Directly."
Your facial expression must be priceless, because he is laughing at you again. You're not sure, and you don't blame him, because you must look as shocked as you feel. A carpet is floating beneath your window's ledge, rippling with the gentle breeze, but never yielding to it completely. It is steady in the air, and it must be Judar's magic that is holding it up.
He slaps your back.
"Put on something warm, Princess, and quickly. I don't have all day, you know. And don't give me that bullshit about permission again, because if you leave me now, I'll be so bored that I really will pick a fight with your brother."
From the start, Judar had never liked your brother. He wasn't fond of the Patriarch Ruler, either. He couldn't help but think, wouldn't it be nice if either of them would actually let him fucking talk to you? Instead of being elated that their pathetic bloodline had actually conceived a true King Candidate, they simply kept you hidden like some great shame. What a bizarre fucking family.
The capital of the Tamerlan Empire was strange generally, he thought. Out of all of the places he had ever been, he had never seen an entire city made of stone. It was stupid that the Tamerlan Emperor wanted so badly to secure a bunch of rocks, but then again, he thought of most Kings and Emperors as being profoundly moronic. They squabbled about territories and succession and ideals, and pretended to be civil when really, it would make everything that much more convenient and entertaining if they simply admitted to the fact that they were only interested in wine and murder. He thought that most King Candidates whom he chose were stupid, too, but that wasn't any of his business, and Judar supposed that he didn't remotely care as long as they were decent at warmaking and could put on a good show for him. He simply raised dungeons for whomever Marrkio decided on, and the blame would fall on someone else if the purported vessel was too weak to live up to the challenge.
It had been like that until he saw you. Your Rukh had been strange, and he hadn't fully understood it, but from the way they looked, he knew that you had to be the one who conquered the dungeon here.
But before he could do or say anything else about it, before he could take a closer look at the strange birds fluttering about your shoulders, you had been whisked off by the Emperor of Rocks and his largely worthless son.
That left him searching for you, wandering the strange halls of this palace at his own discretion. Marrkio would have surely noticed his absence by now, but it hardly mattered. Judar was more focused on following a string of black Rukh through the bowels of the palace—black Rukh that were not his own. He grimaced and tugged at the collar of his layered robes, at how his undershirt clung to his moist skin. Even below ground, Judar could feel the sultry heat of Asmarakand in the creases of his robes, and try as he might, he could not remember the formulas required to send the red Rukh away from his clothing. They stayed, making him sweat as he trudged down the hallways, following the bread crumbs that led to the pitiful boy they had called a crown prince.
"Stupid country. Stupid, fucking prince. Stupid, ugly girl," he muttered, rubbing at his eyes. He wasn't even so sure what was compelling him to find you, but he supposed that it simply came with being a Magi. As different as you were from Hakuryuu, he had to admit that the Rukh had also become loud when he first met Hakuryuu, had buzzed excitedly in his ear, in his mind, in his body, and urged Judar to choose the Third Prince. Ithnan had told him not to bother, and the black-haired witch had urged him against it, but their warnings were mere background noise, drowned by the screams of the Rukh. The sooner he got the both of you to capture dungeons, the sooner the birds would shut the hell up, he reasoned.
If only he could find you first.
He rounded a final corner, noticing how many more dark birds were in this hallway. Their black feathers caressed him, kissed him, and he grimaced at how tired and spiritless they were in their flight. That crown prince had been nothing but weak, would not have been worth the magoi that went into raising a dungeon, would not have been worth the dirt on the soles of his feet. But at least the weak prince left his mark everywhere, leaving a clean trail to a single door.
He lifted a hand, put it against the wood, found that the door would not yield no matter how hard he pushed. Fine, Judar thought. Doesn't matter if it's locked. Tilting his head, he stared at the frame, considered ordering the Rukh to unlock the door gently, considered simply destroying the damn hinges with ice. And then, he realised that he didn't even need to open the door to know what was going on inside, and he simply told the green Rukh inside to travel a little further, to come whisper in his ears.
He heard them clearly. He heard their wings beating out the sound of blows and erratic breathing, of the pounding of a heart trapped in a shuddering, little body. He heard them whispering, please stop, please stop, today was my first time meeting the Magi. He heard them whispering, insufferable bitch, and, it is my fate, not yours, and Judar decided that he had heard enough to know why your Rukh danced the same way as his.
What this did not explain was why your Rukh was snow white, whereas his was the colour of dirt.
This is your first time on a magic carpet.
You cling to the front end of the rug, tentatively looking over its edge. You can feel the silk fluttering against your body, writhing against your belly, and it makes your stomach turn, especially when you can see, for yourself, how high up you are. Your view of the tower does not even compare to the view from this height, the view from which the Palace of Asmarakand seems like a toy castle for little girls, the view from which the roofs of the madrasahs can be hidden by your pinky finger. In the distance, snow is still falling, and it reminds you of a trinket from Magnostadt in your father's study, a water globe filled with miniatures trees and houses that swirled with an imitation snow storm if one shakes it. This is what Asmarakand has become, you think, looking below you. It has become a snowglobe, and you and Judar are far above it all, playing with it.
Your heart is pounding.
"Relax, I'm not gonna let us fall."
You glance up at Judar, who is standing upright, his arms crossed, his voice lazy. Giving him an exasperated look, you retort, "Easy for you to say. You can float if you fall off the rug."
"Yeah, but I won't, and neither will you. Seriously, your eyes are so wide that they look like they're going to fall out of their sockets. It's a real ugly look. Calm down."
"That isn't disgusting at all." Despite your exasperation, you feel the corners of your lips rising, and your smile doesn't fall away when you turn back to look at your lovely, snow laden city.
Lub-dub, lub-dub, you hear within yourself, but your heart feels feather-light.
"It's fine, though, Judar. You don't have to worry about me. I'm excited, not afraid."
"Tch." In your peripheral vision, you can see his shoulders tensing, can see how he looks to the east so that you cannot view his face. "As if I care. I just don't want you to think that I'm stupid enough to let you fall."
He never acted like he cared about you, not even from the start.
Imagine yourself: ten-and-four years old, left cheek red, eyes pink and stinging. The face on your skin was tight from your tears, and your make-up had run off in rivulets. You hated that feeling the most, like the salt had caked onto your cheekbones to create a painting of your cries.
That was what you looked like when you met the Magi of the Kou Empire for the second time. Isma'il had left the room, left you staring at the wall across from the door. You looked down at the carpeted floor, at marble dug up and polished specifically for the home of His Eminence, your father. The imperial bird of the Tamerlan Dynasty, the homa, had been embroidered into this rug, like every other one. Its silk wings were spread proudly, and as you pressed your ear against the wood of the door, listening to his retreating footsteps, you imagined jumping out of the window and taking flight, away from him, away from the king.
But you were not a bird. You were a girl, almost a woman, and you had no wings. Your mother, like all of the concubines, could offer you no protection against the crown prince of the empire, and the Patriarch Ruler was largely dismissive of his son's actions. This you knew. You could still remember Goharshad's words the last time she found you like this, harshly grabbing your wrist and urging you off the floor. "Do you think that crying will help?" she bit at you, roughly wiping your the salt trails from your face. "Do you think that crying will make him stop? He is like this to all of us. This is our life. You must learn to endure it." Endure in the face of political marriages. Endure in the face of a kingdom you would never rule, because you were not born the first son, but as the seventh daughter. Endure after being struck, again and again.
So you endured. You brought a sleeve up to your face and you wiped, and you wiped, and you wiped. Your cheeks burned afterward, and part of you hoped that your skin had come off with your tears, so that no man might ever choose you to be his wife. The thought made your pulse thunder in your ears, making it difficult to listen through the door. You stood up when you heard only silence on the other side, and with your back turned from the window, you pushed through the exit.
You did not expect to see him there, so you jumped.
You wanted to scream, but he flicked his wrist, waved his wand. You knew what magic was supposed to be like, but you'd never been on the receiving end of a spell, and you were surprised when you opened your mouth and felt your throat vibrate, but did not hear your voice. Placing a hand on your neck, you stared at him, wide-eyed. His tired eyes bore into you. You stood, mute, under the judgement of the Magi of the Kou Empire. You might have started to cry, but his gaze was not so different from your brother's, and so you did not run away.
"You're even uglier than before," Judar remarked, tilting his head to the side. "Why don't you kill him?"
You opened your mouth, but found that no sound came out.
"Oh. Sorry. Forgot about that. Didn't want you to scream. I don't like it when people scream, you know. I mean—it is funny, but eventually it makes my head hurt." Another flick of the wrist, and suddenly, you could hear your own breathing again, hear the sound of your sighs. He paid no attention to you even as you stared at him, clutching your throat, wondering what he meant about finding the screams of humans funny. Funny as in strange, or funny as in comedic? Did he laugh at people the same way Isma'il laughed at you? Your eyes grew wide in your worry, but he continued to look at you with his same, disenchanted gaze. "So why didn't you kill him?"
Clearing your throat, you raised your head to look him in the eye. You shouldn't be looking at him directly, most likely: he was one of the three Magi in the world, and the one that served the aggressive empire to the east. You should have cast your gaze to the floor and showed respect, but you felt that not meeting his eyes was more wrong than breaking the rules.
"Who are you talking about?"
"The crown prince," he drawled, the tone of his voice seeping with impatience. "The pathetic guy they wanted to conquer a dungeon." He snorted, as though the statement was a poor joke.
It was confusing. Brows knotting, you worked through what he was implying. Isma'il was pathetic, the Magi said. Isma'il could not conquer a dungeon, you inferred. Earlier, he had Chosen you. It was a strange idea to consider: that the crown prince, destined to inherit the throne, destined to rule the city and empire by his blood, was less fit to wield the power of kings than you. He was terrible, he was small, and he was nothing in comparison to the legend that was your father, but he was still more than you. Such was life, was your role in the world and in the empire. Such had to be endured.
"I could never kill him, even if I had the power to do so," you finally replied, your voice earnest. "He is to take my father's place someday. If I were to kill him, that would be treason. It would mean the death of our empire."
The Magi made a noise, looked disgusted. "Are you stupid? Didn't you hear me in the throne room? You'd rule instead. Conquer a dungeon with me, and become my King Candidate." He lifted an arm, spread out his palm. It took you a moment to realise that he was offering you his hand. "I'm powerful. I could help you do it. You would be powerful too, then. You'd never have to get hit by him again. You would have the power to kill him."
You would never be able to look away from his glare, you began to realise as you studied him. There was something familiar about it, something beyond his mean sulk and the way that he carried his shoulders so similarly to your brother. There was something you did not understand, and it drew you to him, still draws you to him today.
But back then, it did not draw you to him enough.
"I am humbled by your offer, Magi, but I must decline." You smiled at him, and it was not exactly forced, but it wasn't easy, either. The hollows of your cheeks felt tired, and your lips felt foreign on your own face, as if they did not belong in their tired hapiness. Still, you endured. You always endured, just as you were told. "To conquer a dungeon and become a King is not the role I was born into. It is not my destiny, as is written in the books of our fathers. Prince Isma'il will inherit the throne and fulfill his duty as my father's son, may Il Illah bless him. I look forward to the day that I shall marry a prince or lord and fulfill my duties as well."
And that, even back then, was not enough to deter him.
He screwed up his eyes, looked at you for a long moment. Then he turned around, showing you a face full of creases, as though he tasted lemons. "You're stupid," he snarled, breathing out his bitterness all over you. "I'll be back when you've decided to be my King Candidate, you ugly girl."
He doesn't take you to the bazaar, or to the Registan, or anywhere near the city. He takes you to the outskirts, where you can see the fields have been abandoned by the regular shepherds and farmers. Frowning, you wonder how this weather might affect them, but you remember that the sheep are already inside this time of year, and all of the harvests are done. Thank god, you think. If they had to do substantial work today, it would have been disastrous. You only appreciate this more as the carpet drifts downward, and it becomes apparent just how much snow has fallen. The dirt paths have all disappeared, and the trees are heavy with snow and ice, bending over like old women with fragile spines.
"I heard," you tell him, "that once, it became cold enough for a light sprinkling of snow. That was over a hundred years ago, and the history books deemed it a miracle."
Judar shrugs. "Calling me a miracle would be right," he says plainly, immodestly, and it only makes you smile.
"I'd call you more of a curse," you taunt, and it makes him throw you a glare.
"Giving me that kind of attitude after I made the first snowfall in a hundred years? Please! You're a cruel woman. Why on earth did I ask you to be my Queen, again?"
His Queen. There was that blasted wording again. The air was impossibly cold against your cheeks, but you felt them heat up anyway. Shyly, you brought up your hand to further cover your face, tried to feign nonchalance as you continued with your jesting. "Since when were you concerned with cruelty in your kings? Hah! Are you finally beginning to develop a moral conscience, then?" You put a hand to your mouth, make a careless attempt to hide your smile. "Am I finally beginning to have an effect on the great Magi of the Kou Empire?"
The look on Judar's face sours, but it's nothing like the sort of expressions he used to make when he was younger, when he was much more malevolent, much more genuinely cruel. Judar these days, you think, only looks like a wet cat when he glares at you. It makes you giggle more when he crosses his arms and shakes his head. "Wow! Didn't pin you as such an ingrate. Rather than insulting me, why don't you actually get off this carpet and enjoy the weather?" He nods towards the vast, white expanse that stretches endlessly to the horizon. "I'm gonna let it melt soon, you know. Enjoy it while you can."
"You keep telling me to enjoy it, but I'm not sure what you mean." Hesitantly, you shift over until you are sitting at the edge of the carpet, with your body leaning over the edge. The rug is floating a bit of above the snow, and hesitantly, you reach down with a hand. You have to stretch, but you make it there eventually - and you are surprised to see that, for how perfect its surface is, the snow yields easily to your hand, can be scooped up like loose sand. Entranced, you watch as the little, white flakes turn to water at your touch, eroding like rocks in the desert, eroding into a chill that enters your bones.
"Is this what melting is?"
"Yep. Water turns to ice, and ice turns to water. How else would I use magic if it didn't? I thought you'd gotten smarter over the years, Princess."
You barely feel the insult, and it doesn't sting so much as tickle. Humouring him, you turn to look at him, an easy smile still on your lips.
"I suppose you have a lot to teach me, like you said. Why don't begin by telling me how to enjoy the snow?"
Unexpectedly, Judar's bemused expression turns into a smile to match your own, bright and full of unadulterated happiness. Crouching down until his body is level with yours, he says, "Oh, it's easy. You just have to get into it."
"Get into it?" You narrow your eyes at the expression. "I'm not sure whether I understand the expression."
"Oh, it's not slang," he drawls. "I mean it quite literally... like this!"
And just like that, Judar pushes you face-first into the snow.
He hated you.
Upon his first day meeting you, he decided that he hated you. Five years ago, he would have done much worse than push you face-first into the snow. He knew why your Rukh were like his, why they were vigorous and sung resentment in his ears. He knew why the stupid birds were so drawn to his, were so hesitant from playing with the stream of Rukh arcing in the sky, would not join them in their mindless migration toward to some unknown destiny. They were smarter than that, he thought. You were smarter than that. Ithnan had always called him ignorant and petulant and lacking the wisdom of a Magi, but even Judar could tell that much. Any magician worth their salt, as Falan used to say, could see things from looking at a person's soul.
You were like him. You were supposed to be like him. You were supposed to be smart. You were supposed to be strong. You were supposed to be powerful. It was only right. But you bent your neck to those whom climbed over you, and you trembled instead of hitting back. You were not the King Candidate he was supposed to choose, but here you were, anyway.
He hated you.
You were too naive, too patient with others. He disliked the silkiness of your voice, didn't like how it yielded so easily to him. He didn't enjoy your smile, not when your eyes were red and when there were streaks beneath them. If he had acted like that, had cried and smiled and sat there, looking pretty and pathetic, he would not have survived.
He hated you.
Judar felt a dull throb on the inside of his skull, the pulse of an angry vein. It was nothing new. He scowled as he looked out the window of the chambers he had been placed in, frowning at the pale red moon in the dusky sky. Marrkio had been stupid, too, he thought. There was nothing for him in this city of rocks and barbarians, almost nothing but dust and darkness. The King of Pebbles had nothing to offer him in the end, other than the eclectic Rukh of his ugliest daughter, gleaming stubbornly in their shadowy home.
He wanted to leave. He could have, and had contemplated on doing so many times already. His rug was right there, and if he stole enough food from the kitchens, he could fly back to Rakushou alone. The Rukh would carry him even if Marrkio would not; they always did. Judar supposed that he might be punished, but they had stopped starving him long ago, just after he hit puberty, and whipping was becoming too cliché to intimidate him. All he needed was a moment, and he could simultaneously heal himself and kill the fool who was attempting to punish him. He did that by accident sometimes. If he lost control, his borg would act up and deflect the attack too strongly, or the water in his torturer's blood would crystallise, leaving them as one of his icicles. He didn't know how it happened. He didn't care. All of his teachers could die, and the world could end, and probably the most he would do is yawn.
He could leave and never come back, he mused. But he first needed to tell you how much he hated you. And when you understood, he could finally make you a King Candidate, and then the Rukh would leave him alone.
You are freezing. You have never been this cold in your life, and your arms do nothing to keep the warmth in your shivering form. "Judar!" you cry out, appalled. He doubles over, delighting in your misery.
"You look like a wet cat," he remarks.
"You look like an evil one!"
"At least I'm dry."
You scowl at that, and as he steps down from the carpet and joins you on the ground, you pick yourself out of the snow and try the shake the bizarre, fluffy substance off your body. Half of it clings onto your stubbornly, melting on your skin and clinging to your silk. You frown. Your robes will suffer for his audacity.
"Well," he says, as he floats down and lets his feet sink gracefully into the snow, "I guess that means no snowball fights."
You tilt your head to the side, your anger giving way to curiosity. "Snowball fights? What is a snowball?" You frown. "Did you want to fight? That's hardly my idea of leisure, Judar, I thought we were clear on that..."
A hand slaps your back, and you stumble forward. Your feet are covered in white ice, and you hiss, your toes curling with the extreme cold. You glance at him, wondering how he can stand the cold in his shameless attire, but he gives you no hints with his reply.
"Oh, yeah, I guess you wouldn't have ever made a snowball before. Hm... well, it's just a ball made of snow. I usually just use magic to make 'em, but I without it, I guess people just pick it up with their hands and—well, watch."
You observe closely as Judar scoops some of the snow up, patting into a spherical shape.
"That's a snowball."
"So how exactly do you fight with a snowball...?"
You catch a glimpse of his smirk as he replies, and you immediately know that you've asked the wrong question.
It hits you square in the back of your head.
Eventually, something formed between the two of you: definitely not a romance, not really even a friendship. In the future, you'd come to think of it as an alliance. At the time, you simply thought of it as "an acquaintanceship that did not consist of nonstop insults."
It was nighttime, and you were reading yourself for bed. Keeping the windows open in an attempt to escape from the oppressive heat of a Tamerlanian summer, you blew the candles out and bid your handmaid goodnight. Left alone in the darkness, with only a sliver of the sky available to you, your mind wandered to fantasies of leaving the palace and going on great adventures, the kind that was written about in folktales. It was something that you thought about quite often, something that you kept hidden ever since Goharshad had scorned you for voicing such thoughts as a child. ("Your only way out of the palace is to marry a prince—nothing else," she told you, and that was the first time you realised that you were not meant to be the hero of a folktale, but instead the princess locked up in her tower, waiting to be rescued.)
Wistfully, you thought of ways to leave the palace. You could not help but recall the Magi's words from several months earlier—
It can only be her.
I'll be back when you've decided to be my King Candidate, you ugly girl.
You bit your lip. Nothing had come of the whole ordeal, other than Isma'il's scathing remarks. In the end, the Magi had unenthusiastically agreed to allow Isma'il to conquer a dungeon—but then flew off on a magic carpet shortly afterward. (The priest had yelled at him to return, and he only stuck out his tongue. "I'll do it when I fucking feel like it, old man!") He hadn't bid you goodbye, didn't even look back at you as he flew away, free.
You bit your lip. You envied him. You envied that, if he so wanted, he could fly in and out of the window of your prison, allowed to be anywhere at any time.
Then, all of a sudden, cutting through the stillness of the night—
"What the fuck—I'll go deaf, don't do that."
You peered up over your blanket. Crawling through the window frame was the Magi himself, his eyes gleaming red as he approached you in the darkness. You pulled your sheets up to your neck and inched backwards up until you were against the wall. "You aren't allowed to be in here!" you screeched, revoking every single thought you had about his freedom. "Guards!!!"
He snorted, looking down at you like you were a pittance. You recognised the look, somewhat—it was reminiscent of Isma'il's expression, except Isma'il could not maim you too much or else he would caught, and you knew, you just knew, that if the Magician of Creation decided that if he desired to kill you, he would do it and it would have been of little consequence. "Scream all you want," the Magi sneered as he stalked toward your bed, voice full of malevolence. "I've warded this room so that nobody can hear us."
Trembling, you felt your entire body going cold. You went quiet as you contemplated what he could possibly intend—and immediately felt tears welling up in your eyes as soon as you came to the only the most likely conclusion. You were still young, barely a woman at ten-and-four, so you did not know what lust looked like, but you had heard enough horror stories of men coming into the rooms of women during the middle of the night to know what this was.
"Please don't touch me! You can't! I need to be married off, and that can't happen if you do anything to me!"
"Huh?" He halted midstep, staring blankly at you. You squeezed your eyes shut, unwilling to meet his awful, red stare. No human should have eyes like that, you thought; only demons in stories did.
Despite your hesitance to look up, he continued to address you. "Oh—ew, what are you thinking? I don't want to touch you, you're way too plain for that."
"You don't?" Timidly, you looked at him. The matter of beauty was an insecurity for you, as it was for every young girl, and a especially for a princess, whose value was founded almost solely on her appeal to men. You had never imagined a situation where someone's disappointment in your appearance would be cause for celebration, but your heart stopped pounding as soon as you registered his disgusted expression.
"Hell no. I came to tell you to be my King Candidate."
"Oh." Your brow furrowed. "But Isma'il—"
"Eugh, don't mention his name to me. He's never gonna make it out of any dungeon alive, so there's no way in hell that I'm gonna raise one for him. Do you know how much fucking work it is?" Suddenly, he grabbed your arm, yanking you from beneath the covers. You shrieked, looking up at his face, fearful. "But you," he began, tilting his head this way and that as he studied you, "I have a good feeling about you. You look weak as hell, I mean—I could easily kill you right now. Your King probably doesn't know that you exist, and all you ever do is let your brother terrorise you. But... your Rukh are saying something different about you. I kept thinking about it, so I came here." And you don't know when it happened, but you suddenly realised that all of the petulance had left him, leaving only curiosity in his expression. "I don't get why, though. I really could kill you. I guess then it would stop bothering me."
"Please don't," you eked out, and he snorted.
"See? Weak as hell." He threw up his hands. "Look, can't you just make things easier for me? I'll raise a dungeon for you, and we can give it a shot. I'll have a good time running through it, and if things go well, you'll be my King Candidate. If things go sideways, all that'll happen is that you'll die." He shrugged.
"I don't want to die," you interjected. At this, his eyes narrowed.
"Why not?" he snarled. "You know, last time I came here—I couldn't stop thinking about how much I hate your guts. You're alive right now, but all you do is cower at your brother and practice shit like dancing and sewing, or whatever the hell it is that princesses do. Seeing someone live like this—like you—it makes me sick. It's pathetic, so pathetic that I can barely stand to look at you. What's the point, at this rate? You might as well die." He pulled you up by the collar, so close that you could feel his resentment in the heaviness of his breath. "Come on. It's big winnings if you become my King Candidate. You get to do things like conquering a dungeon, stealing treasure, waging wars, becoming a queen." He pointed at himself. "Don't you think you'd rather come with me instead of staying in this stupid desert?"
You pursed your lips. What he was saying—that you should rebel against your father, the Patriarch Ruler, and your brother, the Crown Prince—was treason. As soon as you voiced your agreement, he could easily leave your tower and tell your father, and that would be enough for your exile.
But you did not deny him.
It did seem intriguing to you, you had to admit to yourself. Even though the sound of waging war was not particularly attractive, it was the principle of the matter: the option had never been given to you to wage war, nor had it been to conquer dungeons, win great treasures, or rule a kingdom. Those were all possibilities that fell into the lap of your brother—not you, not beautiful Zummurud, and not even clever Goharshad.
Many years later, the two of you would reminisce about this meeting, and Judar would tell you that it was during this moment of hesitation that he saw something promising in your eyes. He wouldn't tell you what it was he thought he saw, but you could glean that it was something along the lines of ambition, hunger, intelligence, perseverance. All the makings of a King. All the makings of a King that he wanted. And he would never come to know why,—or perhaps he would simply never come to admit it—but he wanted you badly, so badly that he promised himself that he would harass you until you agreed. He wouldn't really care, he later told you, if you died in the attempt to conquer a dungeon, to become a ruling queen. But it would drive him mad if you didn't at least try.
"You're too ugly to be a princess, anyway. What prince would want to marry you?" The comment broke through your meditation on his offer, and you scowled, reddening. He ignored your expression, only drawling, "I bet you'll die an old maid with looks like that. Your best bet is to conquer a dungeon with me, if you want to get out of here." He turned away, retreating to your small window. "I'll be back."
"I don't want you to come back," you shot back, and he glanced back to give you an infuriatingly smug grin.
"I cannot believe your impudence."
"Oooh, Princess getting mad? I'm scared. Y'know, even though you wouldn't be able to hurt me anyway."
You make a face at him. It is a good thing, you think, that no one but Judar is around, because you would never make this expression at anyone else. It is unfitting for royalty: rude, ugly, unbecoming for a woman. But Judar never bothers you about such things the way that the people in the palace do, and he only smiles in return. "You know, if you had the power of a djinn, you could actually do something about it..."
Your lip quirks upward. "Oh, I see now. This is all another attempt to get me to agree to conquer a dungeon with you."
"You know I'm not gonna stop bothering you about it." He leans back, and you think that he is about to fall into the snow, but instead he hovers in the air, lounging above the snow. "Even though you're slow as hell when it comes to these kind of things, I think I've been making progress." He tilts his head, puts a chin on his finger. "I don't think you've ever said no, actually... You spout all this crap about needing to get married, or how you're not suited for dungeons, and sometimes you say that you shouldn't, but those aren't really no's.”
"I'm stating reasons as to why you should choose a different King Candidate," you shoot back, squinting at him through the light. You are not used to the world being so brightly lit, you suddenly notice. The radiance of the sun is reflected in the snow, and everything in sight is coated in ice, shimmering in an otherworldly way and almost blinding you. You recall that Imachukk is a land of eternal snow, and you breathe in at the thought. Their world is this beautiful every day. And despite what you are saying to the Magi, you cannot bring yourself to say the word "no".
"Just because you have reasons against it doesn't mean that you don't want to," Judar replies, almost in sync with your thoughts. "I mean, I have tons of reasons for not wanting you as my queen, but I still do. I want you—a lot." He lets his stare linger on you a little bit, and it's almost like he's watching you for a reaction. You hope that he doesn't catch the way that your cheeks flush—he has consistent wording problems, you think—but from the way he smirks a little bit the minute your face heats up, you can tell that he's noticed.
He's teasing me.
"You're an awful man," you mutter.
"Hmm? What's that? You adore me? You will be forever grateful to me for giving you this experience?"
"Well—I can't say that I'll ever forget the experience of having a snowball flung at my head."
"Oh, that was priceless. Don't lie, it was funny as hell."
You make another face. "I am tiring of this conversation. Show me what else people do with snow."
"Ughh. Yes, your highness." He rolls his eyes. "Um, I don't know—I think people make snowmen. Or—oh, snow sculptures!”
Your brows furrow. "Men made of snow? So—for example, I could make a figure of you out of snow."
He snorts. "Not exactly, but I would love to see that."
"Then I shall try," you declare smartly, and you ignore his immediate mocking.
Your alliance with Judar was a curious thing. The King apparently took notice and didn't quite disprove of it: shortly after his nightly visit to your room, a famed general approached you during the day, led by one of the handmaids. She introduced him to you, and at first he said nothing, only stroking his beard and humming at you. If you had not been so accustomed to Isma'il's judgement stares, you might have shrunk beneath his stare, but as it was, you only bowed and spoke the expected courtesies.
Eventually, he revealed his purpose: at the request of the High Priest of the Kou Empire, you were to begin sword lessons in the coming days, he told you, and if you proved competent enough at that, then you would be subsequently schooled in tactical strategies. The imposing man had looked at you doubtfully, and retrospectively, you imagine that he had been uncertain, that he had expected you to be intimidated.
Instead, you had only returned his stare, considering. And after a beat, there was no hesitation.
"Very well," you said to him, and your voice was so strong with conviction that even you were surprised.
After a moment, General Ahmed recovered from his quiet shock. He regarded you with keen interest, and you met his gaze in kind. You were not used to being looked at in this way: as though the length of your lashes and berth of your hips were irrelevant, as though you were a human being, as though you had a mind that others were interested in unraveling. Up until that point in your life, only two people had ever given you such a look: General Ahmed was one; the Magi of the Kou Empire was the other.
"Do I have permission to speak?" he asked, and you nodded. The general seemed hesitant for a moment, but his curiosity eventually won out: "It is strange," he remarked, "that the Magi of Kou is taking a particular interest in you. I have been training the Crown Prince since birth, yet the Magi is uncooperative regarding him. Have you any knowlege as to why he is so intrigued by you?"
You considered this. Even at your young age, you were acutely aware of the fact that General Ahmed was likely ordered to question you by Isma'il, and even more aware of the fact that Isma'il was likely to bully you depending on the answer. Lips pursed, you considered your responses.
You never got the chance to answer.
"Hey, ugly girl!"
The doors next to you flew open in a gust of unnaturally cold and violent wind, and the handmaid accompanying the two of you screamed. Pressed by instinct, General Ahmed drew his sabre and positioned himself defensively between you and the intruder, but some unseen force quickly knocked him back.
Even before laying eyes on the newcomer, you knew who it was.
"Magi," you whispered, and from his place in the air, he glared at you, petulant.
"Be my King Candidate!" he demanded. "I got you combat lessons, and that's all you really need to conquer a dungeon!"
Beside the two of you, General Ahmed sputtered.
"Magi—" he began, but Judar glared at him before he could continue.
"Shut up, I'm not talking to you. I'll freeze all the water in your body if you interrupt us," he hissed. And you had never seen General Ahmed acquiesce to anyone other than your father so easily, but that was exactly what he did: he quieted, and he bowed his head. It was only then that you realised what kind of political importance the Magi and the Kou Empire held for Tamerlan. It was then that you truly comprehended the kind of person who was demanding you work with them.
Still, you couldn't help but think of Isma'il and his cruel, cutting words. You knew that you could not accept his offer without incurring your brother's wrath.
It was easier talking to him this time. You already had the knowledge that he had not killed you the night that he stormed into your room, and that he didn't seem so interested in murdering you presently either. Rather than cowering before him the way that the maid was, you only bowed your head to him in the respectful way you were taught to present yourself to a man.
"I am flattered, Magi," you spoke, putting on the usual airs to be used in front of your servants and soldiers, "but Isma'il is a trained warrior, and I have not yet begun my lessons."
He gave you a look that made you hesitate—perhaps he would kill you, you thought, looking into those hellish eyes of his, burning with resent.
"Fine," Judar spat. "I'll come back to check up on you. If you don't get decent at swordplay, you'll have no use to me and I'll kill you."
And just like that, he left—storming out as quickly and violently as he had entered.
There were multiple encounters thereafter, all following the same trend. Be it General Ahmed teaching you, a servant fixing your hair, or Isma'il bullying you—no occurrence was important enough to make Judar hesitate from interrupting you with rude calls of, "Ugly girl! Are you ready to be my King Candidate?!" And the people around the two of you would splutter, not expecting the Magi to be in the palace,—or even in the country—but you would simply regard him calmly, deflecting him with different explanations each time he approached you.
"I apologise, Magi, but I am not yet skilled enough with the sword.
"I am sorry, Magi, but I have only just begun learning tactical strategies."
"Perhaps I could survive a dungeon, but what is the use of a King Candidate that does not know how to rule?"
"My studies are progressing well, Judar, but if I am to make war the way that you desire, I need to better teach myself the history of my empire and all the surrounding countries."
"You are being loud, Judar. And you know that you should be talking to the Crown Prince about these matters."
"Be more polite, Judar. You are startling the people around us."
When you think back on it, it is difficult to pinpoint when you started to call him "Judar" rather than "Magi", and exactly when you stopped fearing him, and when you started feeling comfortable enough with him to throw back his insults, to scold him for his behaviour, and to smile at his mean-spirited jokes.
There are other turning points that are easier for you to recall. You remember speaking to him one summer's day and realising, afterward, that he hadn't called you "ugly girl" in a while. The epiphany brought you immense relief. You knew that, most likely, Judar still found you physically repulsive,—and Isma'il made sure that you knew that most men thought of you that way—but you had stopped caring about that a long time ago. Your gleefulness derived entirely from the idea of no longer needing to endure the public humiliation of Judar emphasising this flaw of yours, and so you left the conversation quite happily.
And then there were other, little moments over the years that made you pause and reflect: the time when he interrupted your conversation with a boy servant around your age, spitting more vitriol than usual; the time when he burst through your doors and demanded to know why your father was in the process of making a match for you when you still had to conquer a dungeon with him, you stupid girl; the time when he grabbed you by the wrist and pulled you tightly against him so that he could carry you as he flew away, abducting you from your studies and your audience so that he could yell at you properly.
There was also the time when, like any other one of his impromptu visits, he stormed through the door and ignored every person in the foyer except for you. His harassment of you was a well-known and regular occurrence at that point, but that still did not stop the servants from gasping and flinching at the violent intrusion, at the strong gales and carelessly destroyed ornaments. Unperturbed, you simply turned around, ready to greet him and reject his invitation.
But for the first time that you could remember, you were at a momentary loss of words, startled by his shift in language.
"Hey," he yelled at you as boisterously as usual. "Have you decided to be my queen yet, or are you still being stupid about that?"
You were not ready to be his queen. You were not ready to be anyone's queen: you were not raised for it, you were not trained for it, you were not born for that purpose. But Judar would prove to be right in the future: these were all reasons against the notion, but they were not necessarily no's. None of them meant that you didn't want to.
"God, what is that?"
Judar is too busy laughing at you to listen to your demands. He points to your sad attempt of a snowman—after some degree of struggling, you had managed to mold a sphere on top, which presumably was meant to be his head. (You had drawn in a little angry face, which you had snidely commented was accurate to real life. Judar had replied that his face was better looking even though the idea was pretty much right.) But every single attempt you've made to make his braid—out of a chain of snowballs, you thought made the most sense—isn't taking hold, and eventually the entire thing collapses.
"Ohhh, man, they don't teach princesses any artistic skill, do they?"
You shoot him a look. "Forgive me if my skills aren't up to your standards! This is my first time seeing snow." You purse your lips, reflecting on your sad attempt. "I thought it'd be a lot more like sculpting with sand, but it just doesn't hold together unless it's melted a bit, and it just gets so cold when I try to do that." At the words, you rub your fingers together, trying to regain the warmth in them.
He kicks at the collapsed miniature of himself. "It's still awful! I don't look like that at all!"
"Right, as though you could do any better."
He gives you a scandalised look. "Uh, hello? Magician of Creation over here?" From his robes, he pulls out his wand. "Here, let me show you how it's done."
"Hey! No magic allowed! That's unfair."
"I'm not a fair person," Judar drawled, smirking at your disgruntled expression. "If you keep looking at me like that, I'm gonna make your sculpture have that exact face."
"Haven't you tortured me enough?" Still, you acquiesce, willing your face into a more neutral expression. It is only difficult because it is hard to keep yourself from smiling. You watch with curiosity, with wonder, as the snow in front of the two of you begins to dance of its own according, rising and falling, packing together and taking shape, melting and freezing at Judar's will. You imagine what this must look like from Judar's perspective: little birds surrounding the growing sculpture, holding ice where it is needed and letting it melt where it is not.
Judar sculpts in complete silence, and you do not speak while he works. It is quiet, but you don't mind, too enthralled by the scene in front of you. And besides that, it is not so different from the comfortable silences that ensue between the two of you at times when, in the middle of the night, Judar steals away into your room and realises that he has not much to say.
So used to the quiet, you almost forget to react when he is finished. After a beat, Judar looks at you expectantly, looking irate.
"Hey, hey! I'm done, you better have been paying atten—"
He stops speaking, presumably because he's seen the look on your face.
"What?" you reply faintly, too distracted by the ice sculpture in front of you. You walk around the frozen figure, disbelieving. You know that Judar is capable of great magic: you have seen his icy weapons, his wrathful lightning, his city of snow. But somehow, you are unable to internalize the artistry that comes with these powers, leaning in to inspect the fine detail of your snowy reflection: the folds in your shimmering robes, the snow dusting your cheeks and eyelashes, the gleam in the ice of your eyes. This girl that he has carved so patiently from snow is undoubtedly you, but also undoubtedly more beautiful than you.
You straighten up to glance at the strange boy, wondering if he is trying to be nice or if this is truly his vision of you. Of course, when is Judar ever nice? So you decide to test the waters.
"You know, for someone who calls me ugly so often, you made me look quite lovely here."
The proud smirk falls right off his face. Sputtering, Judar yells, "Well, I had to exaggerate—how can I show off my skills if I'm making something repulsive?! Don't get cocky, you ugly girl!!"
You smile, because Judar has not called you ugly for years, and two can play at this teasing game.
There are many turning points that you don't remember, but you do recall the night you had stopped viewing him as some chaotic force and started, instead, to view him as a very human boy.
It was on a clear and quiet night. You had retired to bed early, having already settled in. The stars of Asmarakand winked at you through your window, and you smiled back, indulging in their out-of-reach beauty. For as long as you could remember, you were fascinated by the night sky. In a wistful sort of way, but lately you'd been wondering what a free man could do with it. Certainly, he could mount a carpet and fly in that great sea of darkness. Certainly, he could sail the world and track the constellations. Perhaps he might even some day solve the mystery of the stars, reveal what they were and how they came into creation.
As always, he interrupted your thoughts rudely and without warning. A dark shadow covered the faint glimmer of the night sky, and you knew immediately who it was.
"Magi," you greeted. "I didn't expect you tonight."
"Tch. You never expect me."
Your lip quirked. "Untrue, my lord. I am no longer surprised by your visits in the day, but I had never expected another nightly visit to happen."
"Huh." Curiously, he did not approach you, seeming to sink down to the floor in a crouch as soon as he entered your room. "Well, don't give me that crap about preserving your honour or whatever. I'm still disgusted at the thought."
It was almost a trained reaction to grimace at the comment, but you were not truly offended: the words tonight held no real vitriol. They seemed muted, a half-hearted insult borne by habit. You knew the tone from your brother: it happened whenever he was rumoured to have been reprimanded by the Patriarch Ruler, or whenever General Ahmed bested him with the sword, when he spouted words of confidence but had plenty of reason to doubt himself. You had never heard it from the Magi. You didn't know it at the time, but you'd never hear it again after tonight, his fleeting vulnerability an accident borne from the tragedy of his circumstance and his very young age.
A moment passed. He said nothing of King Candidacy. He flung no more insults at you. It was then you realised that sonething was wrong.
"Magi," you started, voice faint, "what is your purpose tonight?"
"None of your business," he hissed, and his tone was so sharp that you held your breath for a moment, wondering if he might choose to end it then and there. "I haven't killed you yet, but that's because I haven't felt like it yet and doesn't have anything to do with you. Don't get all familiar with me. Don't forget who the hell I am."
Your lips pursed. This, too, reminded you a little bit of Isma'il: the way he lashed out at you after your failures. It took you several moments to realise how badly your hands were shaking, but you steeled yourself. The Magi was not Isma'il, you reminded yourself. He was someone of greater power and, if his title was to be believed, greater purpose. You wondered what could have happened to Judar to put him in such a strange and volatile mood. Losing in a battle or being reprimanded by a King would not affect Judar the way that such things affected Isma'il: you imagined that the Magi would simply kill whoever bested him in combat, and would similarly maim any King who dared to oppose him.
His bare feet were silent against the stone floors as he approached you. When he came closer, it was easier to see him—and despite the dimness of the moonlight, you were able to see them.
"Why do you do it?"
The bruises on his neck, on his arms.
"Tolerate your brother." His teeth grit together, and you could see from the tick in his jaw just how angry he was. "Why do you do it? You have swordsmanship skills now. Even if you're still terrible—it wouldn't take much to stab him. Or I could kill him, you know. You could make a deal with me any day: 'Kill that weak prince, and I'll be your King Candidate.' Why do you tolerate it?"
The small dots around his eyes, blood vessels that had swollen and burst.
"I have no choice."
"Everyone has a choice!" he nearly screamed at you. "I should just kill you and put you out of your misery!"
He breathed heavily, and you remained completely still—not from calm, but from shock at the outburst. You glanced at his hands, allowing a breath when you noticed that he had not reached for his wand. You considered staying silent—and quickly knew that you could not. Pauses like this were given for answers: you knew as much from your interactions with Isma'il. Giving no answer may just as quickly incur his wrath as giving one that he disliked.
So you gave an answer, and in your fear and inability to think, you gave the only one you knew:
"I could kill him, but that wouldn't solve the problem. There would be his vassals. There would be my brothers. There would be my father. I am worth nothing to any of them. It would be easy to have me killed." You swallowed, never having admit this next part aloud. "If I should endure—if I and any of my sisters should endure—then we will eventually be married and taken away from this place. I do not know to whom I will be matched, but I know that any change in my situation will be better than this. If I am unlucky, I will still be away from Isma'il's grasp. If I am lucky—if I am matched to a kind man with a good position—then I may someday hold influence myself. Perhaps—"
"Greater influence than Isma'il's." Judar paused. "That's a shitty plan, you know. You're banking a lot on luck, and so far your luck's been piss-poor. I'd never leave things up to fate like that."
You smile a little bit. "We can only make do with what we get. Strange that you think that way, though. From the lore, I have always had the impression that Magi were loved by the Rukh, and therefore guided by fate."
He snorted, but it lacked the derision that his voice normally carried. "Yeah, well I certainly don't love it back. Wish these birds had just left me the fuck alone. They're annoying."
Now that was not a response that you had ever expected to hear. Magi, the history books had always told you, were simultaneously driven by Fate and drove Fate themselves. You had always presumed that the workings of a Magi's mind were incomprehensible to normal humans, who were not privy to the whispers of the Rukh. But here, with his knees pulled up to his chest, Judar seemed very little like a Magician of Creation and more like a lost, young boy with lost, young thoughts.
You were familiar with his present pose. For once, he reminded you less of Isma'il and more of yourself. Knees against your chest, arms surrounding your legs, head down: trying to close in on yourself so that nothing else could hurt you. You had also done something like this once a upon a time, you suddenly remembered. You had run to Goharshad's room like this on one occasion, the first time you had ever reached out to anyone. You had wept and wept and wept and lashed out when she scolded you, and at the end of the night, you had still felt an inconsolable sadness, a weight in the centre of your crumpled body. That had been your only time trying to seek help from anyone in the palace.
Perhaps this was his first time trying to seek help from anyone in the world.
Slowly, you lifted yourself off the bed and joined the Magi on the floor. Very gently, you asked him, "Why are you here tonight, Magi?"
He made a face, more sour than murderous. "I told you: none of your fucking business."
"You're on my floor. It is my business."
"I did just tell you that I wouldn't hesitate from killing you."
You smile. "Would a Magi really have interest in a King Candidate who couldn't find the courage to disagree with him a little bit?"
"I have an interest in a King Candidate who doesn't ask me stupid questions."
"Right." You paused. "It is stupid. I'm fairly certain that you came here because you knew that you would be safe here. It is a palace, and no foreigner can enter without explicit permission, including yourself. But you already know that I will not report you, nor will I harm you. But I would report anyone else."
He turned to you so quickly that you were met with surprise when he did not give himself whiplash. "I'm safe anywhere. I'm a fucking Magi. I could kill anyone who so much as tried to touch me. You've seen my magic at work."
"You could kill that person, but that might not solve the problem. There could be others—"
"I would kill them all," he bit back immediately, but he fell silent after that, and you could see his red eyes narrowing, glaring at some spot in the ground as he meditated on the notion. "I could. I could kill them all. There's nothing stopping me. I'm—I'm powerful now. I'm not just some random kid they found. I'm a fucking Magi. I've raised dungeons. I'm stronger than them, than all of them, except for that witch—"
He stopped. He cursed, and you could tell that it was more at himself than anything or anyone else. In his frustration, Judar glanced at you, and then he snarled when his eyes met yours.
"I'm not like you."
"I'm more powerful."
"I wouldn't let this—" He waved at the room, at the oppressive stone walls and the pitifully small window, "—happen to me."
"I would fight—"
"—or at the very least, run."
He paused, taken aback.
"I did," he confirmed.
"Because you're not like me," you continued.
"Yeah. I'm not like you."
The two of you stared at each other, your eyes caught up in his red gaze, entrapped the way that you had been during your first meeting. In private, the two of you studied one another with the same intensity and silence that the two of you had done in the Throne Room, impervious to all outside distraction. The light of the full moon was dimmed by the glow of his eyes; the darkness of the night sky was shallow beside the blackness of his hair; the howl of the wind was barely noticeable in comparison to his quiet breath. You thought: this is a Magi, a maker of kings. This is a boy, and he is scared. This is a scared boy, and he wants to be my kingmaker.
This is a scared boy, and he wants to make me a King.
Judar was the first to break the silence.
"I'm leaving." He rose, immediately placed a foot on the windowsill, body wound up and ready to jump out like a spring. You tried to catch his gaze, but he pointedly looked away. "I didn't come here for any reason. I just felt like it, and I always do as I please."
He lifted his other foot off the ground.
He was ready to leave.
"Everything I said was true. You know I would report anyone but you. You could visit whenever you like."
"I don't want to come back to your shitty little room."
If Judar had looked back, he would have seen you smiling.
"Liar," you whispered softly, just as he took off into the night.
When the adrenaline ebbs away and the cold finally hits you, the afternoon sun is beginning to wane and you are a shivering mess. You don't want to be this cold and you don't want Judar to know just how badly you're quaking beneath your thin robes, woven for Tamerlanian winters and not this Imachakku fantasy that the Magi has constructed for you. You would like to stay out here forever: a white and radiant blanket covering the earth's floor, the tree branches bejewelled with glimmering ice, your footsteps chasing you as you explore the land. You would like the moment to last forever: with Judar at your side, and his magic carpet ready to take you anywhere you please. You are not ready for him to take you back just yet.
But eventually, you cannot hold in the shaking or the numbness. A shudder passing through your body, you raise your hands up to your mouth and blow on them, trying to warm them up.
"Don't get sick on me," Judar whines, and the comment only makes you wrap your arms around yourself, a pitiful attempt to keep out the cold. "Suck it up, princess. It's not even that cold outside. Even I could only lower the temperature so much, you know. It'd take a magoi furnace to make it real winter temperatures out here."
"Q-quiet! I am unused to this weather." You bite your lip, eyes sweeping over his form. Judar seems completely at ease: stretching out like a cat, unperturbed even though his midriff is bare and his bare feet are in the snow. "I don't know how you can stand to be dressed like that. I don't care how 'not bad' it is—it is still cold enough for snow, and therefore freezing."
His mouth curves up into a little Cheshire cat smile, and you know that he will say something smug and self-satisfied—you have come to recognise the look very well over the years. What you are not ready for is the way that his arm suddenly snakes around your waist, pulling you right up against his body, unyielding even when you give a little scream and flinch. It is hot against him—he is burning up more than humanly possible, and when his lips come up to brush against your ear, you do not know whether it is magic or your flushed heart that is causing the heat in your body.
"You're always so slow," he taunts you, his breath on your neck. "It's heat magic. Feel it?"
There's a moment of stillness during which he simply holds you. You're waiting for the punch line, the one where he's only holding you this tightly in order to yell in your ear about following him into a dungeon, or to put you in a headlock and ruin your hair, or to shove you into the snow. You're waiting for your body to react, to push against him and reprimand him and tell him that, Magi or not, he is not allowed to touch you and you will have him castrated. You're waiting for someone to interrupt the two of you: your handmaiden, a soldier, General Ahmed, even Prince Isma'il.
In the past, when the inhabitants of the palace interrupted your heated arguments and strange intimacy, a part of you had always cursed them, but a bigger part of you had always been relieved, glad to ignore your reckless feelings. Now, you cannot escape, and you wonder if Judar had planned this. You are doubtful, because he is many things, but he is certainly not patient.
You try to break the atmosphere.
He doesn't let go.
"And you're indecisive."
There's a moment of stillness, and when your heart slows down, it clenches. It hurts. It hurts more than when Isma'il strikes you, when General Ahmed is disappointed with your swordplay, when Judar berates you for your spinelessness. It hurts so much that you cannot imagine a worse pain in this world, and you do not know if that is because you are a sheltered princess or because parting from this insolent man, so bent on leading you to greatness, is the one thing that you cannot endure.
You clasp a hand around his wrist, intent on wresting his arm away. Instead, it lingers, and you cannot bring yourself to let go of him.
"I am betrothed to an Actian prince. I was given the news yesterday."
His hold on you tightens.
"When have I ever cared," he hisses, "about things like that?"
The Magi of the Kou Empire had seemed, upon first meeting, larger than life. He was cruel to you, harassed you, and constantly berated you. He correctly read you for your weakness, picked at your ugliness, and declared that the Rukh's love for you was a burden.
He still tended to do all those things, but right now, he looked small. Vulnerable, even. He lay atop your sheets, eyes closed, bruises and dirt marring his skin. He was so pale that it was like he had been kept out of sunlight ever since he was born. He was a child abused by circumstance, no different from yourself.
"I'll kill you if you tell anyone about this," he groused.
You sat on the floor next to the bed, arms hugging your knees. It was strange, how relaxed your body was. The palace never let you feel so at peace: it was always tense between your siblings, especially with Isma'il hovering over all of you. It was strained with the servants, who put a wall between you and them. It was like walking on eggshells with your mother, who had so badly wanted to bear a son.
But with this petulant, vulnerable boy, it was different.
"I can't tell anyone anyway. I would be disgraced and accused of carnal relations."
"Still gross. I could never do that with you."
Your lip quirked.
"And you think I could?"
He cracked open a single eye, just to glare at you. His red gaze no longer scared you: now more ruby than blood.
Your repulsion in your youth would end up becoming a great irony. Neither of you could have seen the attraction that would come later, the insistent tug between your hearts, the painful desire for closeness. In the future, you would think on it in passing: of course you wanted to be with someone near whom you could relax. Of course you wanted to be with the only person who saw greatness within you. Of course you would try to push the thoughts away, hiding them in deep in your chest, untouchable by royal obligations.
Of course they would come to a tipping point.
The ride back to the palace is quiet, filled only with the sound of wind rushing past your ears. Judar has put a spell on you, willing the red Rukh to cover your body and shield you from the chill, so you have no explanation for the quaking in your hands. You try to distract yourself with the view from above, with the snowglobe that Judar has so carefully put together for you, but it is beginning to fall apart. You can see golden patches against the melting snow. You can see colours of the madrasah rooftops, no longer cloaked in white. You can see people venturing outside, beginning to mill about in the Registan like any old day. Your moment has come to an end, and you know that the desert will soon suffocate you. You will be back in that room with the narrow window, and your small world outside will be restored to its mundane status quo.
Watching it all slip away makes the pain worse, so you stare at Judar's back instead. He glances back, and the sour, familiar look on his face returns.
"What the hell are you looking at?"
"You." Your voice is shameless, and it makes his expression smooth out. It is mostly unreadable, but it does remind you a little bit of that strange night when he had come to your room, covered up in bruises and holding himself tightly.
"...this is the last time."
He turns away, eyes focused on the path before him.
"You've run out of chances, princess. I'm giving up after this." He shrugs. "Maybe I'll kill you. I did say that you wouldn't have any use to me if you weren't just gonna capture a dungeon."
Your eyes soften. His voice is full of spite, but it is also uncertain and alone.
"And miss out on the opportunity to interrupt my wedding with your dramatic entrances? Please. I've seen him before, and I know you'd find it hilarious watching me get married to that ugly prince."
"No. I wouldn't."
Quiet again. You stare at the designs of the carpet. You notice it is not so different from the one in your room, a homa bird's wings cradling the place where you sit. You run a finger along the design, wondering what it would be like to never again touch the ground, forever in flight. You know the thoughts are foolish. There are a million reasons why you can't, and it doesn't matter what you want.
"I don't have a choice," you whisper, and he gives you the same answer he had yelled at you so violently, so desperately, all those years ago.
"Everybody has a choice."
You couldn't remember when you stopped wanting to only be his queen, and when you started wanting to simply be his.
Judar leaves without fanfare, waving casually as he launches himself from the windowsill one last time. There is no cocky farewell, no 'I'll be back, and I'll get you to be my queen!' His departure blossoms an unmistakable pain in your heart, cleaving your chest down its midline. Here is the only person who has ever seen greatness in you—and he is gone. The only thing you cannot endure is happening.
After his departure, you study the bird sewn into your rug, and you imagine what it would look like in the sky: not as a living beast, but as part of a magic carpet. As a child, you had often wondered what it would be like to fly away with Judar on this very rug, escaping the hands that so much liked to mark your flesh. If nothing else, Judar's insufferable visits could inspire those lovely fantasies in you. But you are not a child any longer, and you will be married off, and you will play your cards right.
And you will endure.
You endure the tears when you foolishly wait for weeks, only to find that Judar has made good on his promise, and will not return.
Near your family and the court, you were careful to keep your desires secret. You only seemed to do the bare minimum during training, and threw yourself into the art of singing and dancing before your teachers. But in the darkness of your room, revealed only by candlelight, your greatest desires were apparent. They were visible in the books and scrolls that were scattered across your floor. They were apparent in the maps that you pored over every night. During one of Judar’s visits, he caught you unmistakably reading a copy of Adventure of Sinbad.
He squatted down so that he was level with you, and plucked the book straight out of your hands.
"Hey!" You glared at him, openly affronted for the first time. Judar paid you no mind, looking disdainfully at the cover.
"Why're you reading this crap?"
"This 'crap'," you said, latching onto the cover and tugging with all your might, "is astounding! King Sinbad has done so much—it is beyond human imagination!"
Judar snorted, rolling his eyes. "I've met that Idiot King, you know. He's not that great." He smiled wickedly, and you recoiled. Judar no longer terrified you at this point, but there were certain moments of open malice that reminded you that he was the Magi of a violent empire, and this was one of them. A shiver ran up your spine, like the fingers of some ghost were dancing along the vertebrae, prying at your skin. "I destroyed his kingdom, you know. His first one. It was hilarious, watching him struggle like that."
You frowned, your chest uneasy.
"...why would you do something like that?"
"Felt like it." He shrugged his shoulders, crossing his arm. "It was just something I wanted to do, so I went for it. You should take a note from my book, y'know." He leaned, face growing unbearably close to yours, and you recoiled. "If you did, you wouldn't need to deal with that shit brother of yours. And you could do all the things you want to do, take the things you want to take."
For a beat, you hesitate. Judar loved to whisper these temptations into your ear, making you imagine rebellions that made your heart pound. Life seemed so easy for him, filled with endless pastries to sample at his leisure. I'm visiting you because I feel like it. You should conquer a dungeon with me because I want you to. I don't want you to marry that boy because I don't want you to be happy. I don't want to stop bothering you because it's fun.
I destroyed that kingdom just because I wanted to.
The forbidden fruit of Adin seemed to come so easily to him, his teeth always sinking in so sweetly and so decadently.
You often wondered how it tasted.
"What would you know of my desires?" you asked.
At this, he laughed derisively. It was so loud that you jumped, fearing that it had seeped through the walls, but Judar seemed to care little for your fear.
"You're dumber than I thought. Your desires are an open book!" he exclaimed, gesturing vaguely at your messy floor. "It's obvious you want to be like that Idiot King. Travel the world. See all the lands. Conquer a dungeon—which you should, by the way. With me."
It was impolite, but you snorted.
"If only it were so simple for me," you remarked, voice distant. Your eyes were on the golden bird beneath the two of you, gaze tracing its wings almost wistfully. "...is there anything you want that you don't take?"
Here, Judar paused. His silence was so lengthy that you found yourself looking up, wondering if he had somehow snuck away. Yet he was there, simply motionless, staring at one of your dancing candle flames. The amber danced across his body, and in the presence of these flames, he looked extraordinarily tired. The flickering shadows beneath his eyes hinted at an oldness that was beyond his years.
After some time, he finally answered you:
"I would go back, if I could. Visit."
Your breath stilled. Here he was again: a young boy, uncertain and unguarded.
"...why don't you?"
He closed his eyes.
"I wouldn’t know where to go."
Nobody in the court sees the message coming: the sudden cancellation of your marriage. When your brother throws the letter in your face, smiling viciously in front of your father and all of your sisters, he looks ready to laugh. It feels like the marble floor beneath you is disappearing, and you cannot find your balance.
"You see this? They know. Actia knows that that Magi has soiled you. You're worthless. You'll never be married."
You stare, heart pounding.
Your face grows hot. Goharshad, in your periphery, shakes her head. Zummurud seems ready to cry with you.
All the waiting. All the planning. I endured for so long.
Isma'il's glee is cut only by his father. When Ulugh Begh raises his hand, his expression remains impassive, but imposing. You cannot help but shrink. For the first time, you look up at him, and with a trembling voice, speak out of turn.
"My King..." You swallow. "My King, I have kept my virtue intact. All relations with the Magi are political. He visits me out of interest in making me a King Candidate—one worthy of this country."
"You'll never be worthy of this country," Isma'il snarls.
His father's eyes narrow.
And the Crown Prince shrinks, his smallness now apparent.
"Such pettiness is unfitting for a prince," the King berates him. "You shame yourself."
Isma'il bows his head. Satisfied with his silence, your father turns his head to look at you.
"I care not whether these rumours are true. The Magi is volatile, and if you keep him under reigns, it is fine enough for me. But the fact is that Actia and other nations have assumed your innocence lost, and consider you sullied by the Oracle."
Your mouth is unbearably tight.
All the waiting. All my plans. I was so close to seeing the world...
He waves his hand, signaling that you should depart.
"I have other daughters. If we cannot find a use for you, it will be fine."
I gave up so much.
And suddenly, Judar’s words come rushing back to you, the haunting of an absent ghost:
I'd never leave things up to fate like that.
Even after the nightly visits started, the Magi of Kou never opened his heart to you: not obviously. He yielded a little bit at times, enough for you to catch fleeting glimpses of his raw feelings: when he spat malice at the person he called 'that witch', when he spat at you for being weak, when he tried to heal his own bruises only to have them stay. Every single he time he did that, he threw his wand against the wall violently, watched it clatter to the floor. "Fuck eighth type magic!" he'd always snap, jaw tight. "Who needs it anyway?" And each time, you just watched him, studying the tremble of his bottom lip.
As the years passed, he never did learn that trick.
You tried to bring it up a few times after the two of you got older, after Judar's anger had dulled a bit.
"You've become so great at other types of magic, Judar," you'd always remark. "Why not healing magic?"
He scowled, but you didn't even flinch. At this point, you knew that most of his threats toward you were empty.
"None of your business."
"No," you conceded. "It's not. But the night is long, and I am curious. Why, Magi?"
An indignant huff left his mouth, and he screwed up his face.
"Eighth type magic is boring."
Your lip quirked.
"Boring, as in too difficult for you?"
"Hey! Nothing's too difficult for me! I'm a Magician of Creation, you know!" He sounded livid, but his chest deflated, and then he looked away. "...it's just not worth focusing on. The Empire has tons of healers, anyway."
A long pause. From his perch on the windowsill, he kicked his legs, leaning back and watching you. You never noticed the intensity of his stare, because your eyes were fixed upon the dark spots on his abdomen. This time, they were accompanied by a disturbing, pink line, trailing from his rib cage to the hem of his pants. It was hard not to wince at the sight: you knew the feeling of bruises, but you could not imagine a gash. Not even Isma'il had ever done that to you.
You glanced back up at his face, watching him evenly.
"There's more to it, isn't there?"
"Well—you just might be onto something."
He smiled, and for all he tried to make it look carefree and malevolent, it simply looked rueful to you.
"I'm just not meant for healing magic. I'm not meant for anything besides destruction."
The stairs are an impossible obstacle for you that night. Isma'il's anger at his father had been unbearable, and his face had been nearly purple as he struck you for your insolence.
For the first time, he had used his sword.
"There will be no value to your body now," he had spat. "I am free to ruin these thighs of yours, since you've spread them for the Oracle."
For the first time in years, you had screamed.
The pain is so great that you find yourself giving up halfway up the tower, resorting to crawling. The wound is shallow, but it is the first cut you have ever received, and the pressure from climbing stings too much for you to walk. You feel your skirts dampening with each motion of your body, sticking to your skin. As if attuned to your bloodied robes, your cheekbones are dewed with tears.
Crawling up the stairs, face lowered and eyes fixed on your struggling hands, you are blind to what's ahead of you. And so, before any other part of his body, you see his feet first. They are barren as usual, his toes lined with Asmarakand dust. You expect his voice to be full of disdain, but instead, it is quiet and hollow.
"You look pathetic right now." A scoff, quiet but bitter. “But your Rukh are still blindingly white… how stupid are you?”
Your voice is too hoarse for you to cry. You only look up at him, surprised to find your fatigue reflected in his eyes. It is as if he, like you, has been forced to cross the limits of his endurance.
He grunts when he leans down to help you up. Judar's hands are surprisingly careful, moving you slowly and allowing your body to lean into his. It is as warm and as solid as it had been among all that snow, when he'd held you and hissed into his ear that he cared little for your fate. But now, his voice lacks that hatred.
"What will you do?"
It takes you some time to answer. Your vocal chords are too knotted up in whimpers, and your mind is devoted to suppressing your bitter cries, and your body is too wracked with pain. The future seems so distant, so irrelevant, when the present is filled with such agony.
You are only able to reply after you make it to your room, able to rest on your bed. You moan in relief when he lowers your body onto the mattress.
"You shouldn't make lewd noises like that, Princess, especially not while you’re in bed with me.” His voice has an edge of its usual playfulness. “People will get the wrong impression about us."
You laugh, and you are surprised to hear how bitter it is.
"People already have the wrong impression about us."
"Hm." He tilts his head, considering. "Then it's fine if I do this?"
He doesn't wait for your reply, simply grabbing the hem of your skirt and tearing it open. You are too tired to protest, and trust him entirely, anyway. Judar's eyes are fixed only on your wound, his gaze running along the raw flesh. After a few moments, this cruel boy, this self-proclaimed harbinger of destruction, brings out his gleaming wand and heals you. You can feel the mythical Rukh tickling at your skin, at the edges of your gash. Your flesh tingles as it stitches itself together.
Beneath the thin layer of drying blood, you see only a scar. As his finger runs along the pink line, Judar grumbles, "It's not supposed to leave a scar."
You find yourself giving a little laugh, exhausted and relieved and so happy at his return.
"Then why don't you fix that?"
"I told you," he whines, "I'm no good at healing magic."
To hell with social contracts, with norms and rules and endurance. Your fingers ghost his chin, touching him as you have fantasized for so long, and you bring his gaze upon your eyes.
"Nobody could heal me better.”
For several moments, the two of you are silent, bodies almost frozen. When Judar begins moving toward you, it is slowly and haltingly, with a hesitance that you have never seen on him. He ends up pressing his forehead against yours, eyes hooded.
"What will you do?" he repeats. "Are you still gonna stay? It'd make you dumb if you do, you know."
"I know." You close your eyes. His breath tickles your mouth, warm and feather-light. "I'm going to leave. Fate does not want me to see the world, so I will take things into my own hands."
"Finally," he snarls, your lips washed in his indignation. "Finally you've learned to take things for yourself. You'll take the world. That's good. What else will you take?"
You press your face even closer, and your lips just miss his, pressed against the corner of his mouth. He does not move away.
"Why did you come back?" you ask, deflecting. His eyelashes sweep against the bridge of your nose, kissing your skin like the wings of a bird.
"Because I felt like it," he says easily. "Because I want you to become my Queen."
"Because I want you," he finally says, his voice a throaty growl, and it is enough for you to finally take.
Judar's kiss is nothing like in the fairy tales. It is rough and greedy and ravenous, but you relish it. And finally, you discard your sense of duty, your desperate plays to ignore your feelings, and you indecently press your body against his. Your teeth sink hungrily into his lips, and he plies open your mouth with his tongue, indulging in your body like a candy. The golden fruit of Adin turns out to be sickly sweet and wonderful.
That night, Judar steals you away from your prison. There is no magic carpet beneath your feet: he simply holds you tight against his body, and the two of you fly as if lifted by invisible wings. You say your farewells to the golden Registan, the vast desert plains. You bid goodbye to beautiful Zummurud, clever Goharshad, the Patriarch Ruler, and the cruel, little man who has terrorized you for years. You say goodbye to beautiful Asmarakand, knowing that you will see even more wondrous sights as a Queen. As you drift across the sky, your cheekbones pressed against the crook of Judar's neck, you close your eyes and imagine that your feet will never again touch the ground.