The Crown and the Arrow

By: Renee Ahdieh

A Wrath & the Dawn Short Story


JUST ONE GIRL

STRANGE THAT IT HAD COME TO THIS. Strange and fitting.

A life ruled by the rising and setting of the sun.

In these moments of quiet reflection, Khalid would often think back to the things his mother had said to him as a child. A child who’d feared the dark and its many shadows.

“Do not fear what the setting sun may bring. Where there is a setting sun, there is also a rising one.”

How well he knew this now. So many years later.

Khalid forced himself to look in the mirror.

Just as he’d done for the last seventy-two days.

Seventy-two dawns and seventy-two dusks.

Khalid hated the sight of his father’s eyes staring back at him. Hated the reminder of who he was and why these terrible things had come to be.

The son of a monster. The blood of a madman.

Blood begets blood.

The lines on his face darkened. Khalid exhaled. His brows gathered, then smoothed.

It was not anyone’s fault but his own. His and his alone.

“Sayyidi?” A gruff voice split through the gloom at Khalid’s back. “It is time.”

When Khalid turned, he found his uncle standing in the entrance to his antechamber. The Shahrban of Rey’s features were grizzled, his expression resigned.

He studied Khalid’s countenance. “It will be over soon.” His tone was quiet. Meant to sound soothing. But—as always—it was too gravelly to have its desired effect.

“No,” Khalid said softly. “This—will never be over.”

The shahrban sighed, his shoulders bunching. “Forgive me, sayyidi. I did not mean to make light of the situation.”

“I know.”

A moment passed in awkward silence. The shahrban made a motion as though to extend a hand, then stopped himself, his fingers curling through empty air. Without another word, he stepped aside to allow Khalid passage.

Khalid steeled himself before moving into the alabaster corridor beyond his chambers. “Where is Jalal?”

“The captain of the guard is already assembled in the throne room, sayyidi.”

Almost absentmindedly, Khalid nodded.

It never ceased to give him pause. How they returned to their posts with such stilted ease. The ease of many unsaid thoughts. A king and his general.

They were soon flanked by Khalid’s normal retinue of bodyguards. The soldiers marched in unison, four at each side. Grim-faced. Determined. The Rajput stood close by, ever vigilant. For all of these men knew it was impossible to be too careful, not with the steady rise in threats levied at Khorasan’s young caliph.

Khorasan’s murderous boy-king.

As though he could sense Khalid’s thoughts, the Rajput’s hand fell upon the hilt of his talwar, his gaze roving every which way. Danger often lurked in the same shadows Khalid had feared as a boy. Lived in the dark he’d always avoided.

The dark where Khalid was now most comfortable.

For a time, the only sounds around him were the shuffling of leather sandals against polished stone. The occasional clank of a sword.

Khalid took to studying the rays of sun shifting through the carved screens. The way the light danced and folded on itself.

“What is her name?” he finally asked his uncle.

“Shahrzad al-Khayzuran.”

Khalid committed the name to memory. Another life lost. Another family shattered.

The seventy-second one.

His uncle seemed to waver a moment. To hesitate, as though he meant to say or do something more. It did not escape Khalid’s notice.

He looked to his uncle. Pointedly.

This time, the shahrban’s sigh was one of exasperation. “The captain of the guard wished for me to tell you. Though I advised against it.”

“Tell me what?”

“This girl—this Shahrzad al-Khayzuran—” His uncle faltered once more. “She . . . volunteered.”

Khalid stopped in his tracks. The swords around him jangled in a chorus of scraping metal, the soldiers poised to strike at his word.

Why would this young girl volunteer to die?

Just as quickly as the question rose in his throat, Khalid forced it down. Tamped down his curiosity. His interest. It was impossible for him to fathom the girl’s reasons. And he would not do her the dishonor of speculating. The dishonor of presumption.

Despite the low thrum of his thoughts.

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