This day is unlike any other.
I can feel that as I watch one of my father’s advisors climb the steps, a rolled up scroll in his hand. He places the paper on the top of the podium, unrolling it, and clearing his throat. My father has waited three days to give everyone in the kingdom time to arrive, so they can all hear these words. My curiosity increases along with my anxiety over what is to be said. My father’s announcements are rarely about anything good. I find myself wondering where all these people will sleep since my father only had rooms prepared for the nobles, but even at my young age, I know that my father doesn’t care for the commoners. He never has. He is the king over all that I can see, and yet, he only cares for those in our kingdom who can increase his wealth.
“By royal decree, from this day forward, The Unspoken One is banished from the Kingdom of Nur. He is an enemy to your king, and therefore an enemy to you. Anyone who so much as speaks this enemy’s true name shall receive a punishment of no less than twenty lashes and the loss of a year’s wages.”
The nobility and commoners alike gasp at the words, looking at each other with wide, shocked eyes. But my own confusion dampens my shock. Who is being banished? Who is The Unspoken One? How are the people supposed to know who is banished and an enemy, if his name is not spoken? And what harm could there be in saying his name? What power can it possibly have? My mind reels with the many questions racing through it.
“The Unspoken One shall not be remembered in any aspect. It shall be as if he never lived or existed at all. So orders our sovereign, King Qarun.”
The advisor faces the paper outward, and raises it high, as if anyone can actually see my father’s signature on the decree. But I can, and I swallow, knowing it seals someone’s fate. For my father holds the power to elevate or destroy someone’s life, and I’ve rarely seen him use it for the former.
The people below us grumble as the advisors gather into a half-circle near the podium. I try to listen to them discreetly, too fearful to ask anything of them or the man sitting next to me. But I want to plead so badly for the answer to what horrible thing this person has done to be banished. For his very name to be erased from our history. It must have been something unspeakable to deserve such a punishment.
I peek at my father out the corner of my eye and find him watching me with the usual disgust shown on his face whenever his gaze settles upon me. His top lip curls up on one side, eyes full of downright contempt. I’ve become sure over the years that when he looks at me he only sees that, while he got the daughter he wanted, he did not get the daughter he hoped for. I am not powerful like my mother, like he thought his union with her would produce.
But now, I am his only hope.
Everyone ceases speaking all at once, and I don’t have to look behind me to know she’s here. The witch. The very air vibrates with darkness and something that makes the hairs on my arms stand up. Soon she’s beside me, so close her dark cloak brushes against the arm of my chair. I’m unable to suppress my shiver at her proximity. I never knew my mother, but I cannot look at her portrait in the halls and imagine her ever seeming so ominous. Cannot imagine that her magic felt so violent and cold.
I see my father gesture impatiently at the witch, and she steps forward to the podium. Although I tell myself not to look up at her, my neck cranes of its own accord, and I regret it the moment I meet her eyes. They are completely white, devoid of any color, and yet still frightening in the way that they seem to see all. They have no irises to tell me what she’s looking at and still I can feel her staring right back at me, so intently I have to swallow to keep the fear from crawling up my throat and making me scream. The hard set of her thin lips and the sharp point of her nose makes her face just as unwelcoming as her eyes. Her skin is stretched too thin, like it wants to peel away from her face, and she refuses to allow it. I shudder to even think of how old she is.
Her power calls to the spark of my own. I look at Maryam out the corner of my eye, and she discreetly shakes her head, a reminder to control myself. If my father ever knew there was even an ounce of my mother’s magic flowing through my veins, I know that I would and could never be free of him. I grip the arms of my chair, suppressing the magic trying to rise from the base of my abdomen. The witch’s head turns slightly, her eyebrows furrowing, while her eyes fervently seek out the magic she senses.
Although she has lived in the palace since my mother’s death, this is only the third time I’ve seen her. The first was when she presided over my older brother’s funeral two weeks ago. He’d been stabbed, why and by whom, no one knows, but there he laid, lifeless, his once bronze skin pale and ghostly. I could not bring myself to spill any tears for him as I barely knew him. A little sister was of no significance to him, and so my dead brother was of no importance to me.
The second time I saw her was when my father signed the decree naming me his new heir, I’m sure purely because I am his blood, and not because he has any actual desire for me to rule. Even as the crown of the heir was placed on my head, he could not stop himself from laying out my flaws. Too weak, too compassionate, too merciful. His hands balled into fists at his sides as the witch sealed the decree, making it so none could change the wording after my father’s death. And now, seeing her for the third time, I am no less afraid of her than I was before.
I sink further into my seat as I watch her dig her too sharp nail into her pointer finger. Once she’s broken through the skin, she tilts her head back and brings her finger to the space above her open mouth, and I watch as a single drop of blood slowly falls onto her outstretched tongue. The moment the blood makes contact with it, the skies darken, clouds rushing in like they herald a storm to end all storms. When I look back at the witch, her eyes are completely black, and I shrink back in my seat in fear. If I thought her white eyes were frightening, seeing them all black now is terrifying.
She exhales and smoke releases from her mouth like breath on a cold day. I’ve never seen a spell the likes of this. Not in any of the books Maryam managed to hide away for me to study. The books with pages full of words that only call out to those with magic in their blood.
The sky begins to crackle, lightning flashing through the gray clouds, but no thunder sounds, no rain falls. There is only a violence in the air, a feeling that whatever the witch is doing should not be done.
But she proceeds, ignoring the warning that makes my eyes constantly dart between her and the sky, not knowing which to watch or where the danger lies. The witch steps closer to the podium, touching her bloody finger to the decree, leaving a red fingerprint behind when she removes it. She raises her arms high, her wide sleeves falling back and revealing pale, frail arms. A low grunt leaves her, as if the effort this takes is more than she can bear. Even that sound is gravelly, like her voice is rarely used. And why would it be? My father only permits her to speak to him and other witches. But there are only a few witches left, and the ones who remain have good reason to avoid her. She has killed almost all of witches in the kingdom, consuming their power for herself, using their deaths to prolong her life. But now there are hardly any left to kill, hardly any to use to preserve her youth. Her greed will be her downfall.
She brings her hands to her chest, and her air cuts off with a sharp intake of breath. Even the sky silences, as if it’s waiting to see if she will truly finish this spell, to carry on with this foreboding deed. Her eyes close, and her head dips until her chin touches her chest. Then she spreads her arms wide, and a spark too bright to look at without squinting emanates from her chest. It stretches between her hands until it passes from her, racing towards the sky, growing wider and covering all as it progresses. The people on the balcony and below scream as it passes over them, but it doesn’t harm them, simply continuing on, traveling until I can no longer see it’s glow.
“It is done,” the witch says hoarsely, her body now sagging against the podium, exhaustion clear on her weathered face. “He is banished.”
I scrunch my eyebrows at her sudden old and haggard appearance. When she did the spells at my brother’s funeral and the heir decree signing, they did not take such a toll on her. In fact, they didn’t appear to take anything from her at all. But this spell, this banishment, seems to have used every ounce of power she has.
And she’s searching for more. She inhales deeply, and I feel a pull at my center. Her cold, now white-again eyes are searching once more, snapping from one face to the next until they settle on mine. They narrow, her head tilting as the pull inside of me turns in to a painful tug, then a tight, crushing grip. My chest begins heaving with the effort of me using what little training I have to resist her, all while trying not to prove that her suspicions that the magic she senses is coming from me are correct. Maryam must realize something is wrong because she comes to stand between me and the witch, placing her hand on my shoulder and squeezing. Without the witch’s gaze on me, I feel her power release from within me. I slump back into the chair, a bead of sweat trailing over my temple.
My father simply grunts as he raises, the sound he usually makes when someone has done his bidding. Oblivious to his fatigued daughter beside him, he passes me and walks towards the door of the balcony. The others standing near us slowly follow him, and the witch staggers back into the palace. Her footsteps are slow, her feet dragging as she uses her hand on the wall to keep her upright. Only then does Maryam remove her hand from my shoulder and go inside as well.
The people below begin to slowly filter out of the courtyard and beyond, casting worried glances over their shoulders as they go. I stay in my seat, content to look over the balcony, not wanting to return to the uncertainties of the palace just yet. And although my eyes glance up at the sky, wondering if that spark has faded yet, at the courtyard, and the guards directing the people out, my mind keeps whispering to me.
Who was banished? Who is The Unspoken One?
I could never have known how much the answer to that question would change my life.
I used to think one would get used to things after experiencing them so many times. But I know now I was wrong. I have seen and heard countless people lashed for speaking of The Unspoken One since he was banished thirteen years ago. My father forces me to be present for each and every punishment carried out. But I have never gotten used to seeing the guard inflict such pain on another person. Never been able to stop the way I flinch at the first strike. Never been able to stop my stomach from rolling as I see the first piece of skin split open under the whip. Never been able to stop my jaw from clenching at the screams of anguish.
My father makes me watch, trying to harden me, but it only drives to strengthen me never to be like him. A tyrant, unforgiving and hard-hearted. It only increases my hatred for him with each lash. As the whip falls for the last time, the man being punished sags in the chains that prevent him from collapsing to the ground. My father approaches me, and I close my eyes, making sure all emotion bleeds from them before I look at him. And when I do, his eyes bore into mine as he towers over me.
“You’ve stopped crying at the lashings. That’s something at least,” he says.
I stay silent, only looking at him with dead eyes, refusing to give him the satisfaction of my emotions. His face, pockmarked from a sickness in his youth, and now a pale brown from how little he leaves the palace walls, fills my vision. Black eyes that always look tired and half-lidded, narrow even more with his disdain for me. His nostrils flare before his lip curls on one side, and he speaks again.
“Nothing to say, Ameera?”
“What is it you’d like me to say?” I ask with a monotone voice.
He glares at me. “Oh, we’re being the dutiful daughter today, are we? Okay then, I’d like you to say that you agree to marry King Azar.”
My eyes cast to the side now. I should have expected that to be his response. It’s all he cares about now. It is the point of every discussion we have, the few we have. I have not agreed to marry King Azar since my father promised him my hand a year ago. Azar is king of the cold and foreboding Sameer Kingdom. The only kingdom with a bigger army than ours, and stronger. The only true threat to Nur, and my father would have me marry Azar to be secure that he won’t cross our borders and take his crown…and his head along with it.
The laws of our kingdom dictate that should an heir be forced to marry against their will, without signing their consent on the marriage agreement, when they become the king or queen, they can have the marriage dissolved. My father knows that is exactly what I will do should he force me to marry Azar. And I will not agree because, although my father has chosen to ignore Azar’s reputation, I have not. He has had two wives suddenly die, under circumstances no one ever seems to really know the details of. Only that they are alive one day and dead the next. I will not be the next bride he kills, taking my kingdom after my death.
“It could be you next time,” my father whispers menacingly, stepping closer to me until his broad shoulders block out the sun. “You can be chained to the posts and lashed until you agree.”
Like always, when he threatens me, my magic surges inside of me, tearing at my center to be released, wanting to protect me from a man I should not need protection from. But I have trained with Maryam for years to gain self-control, to increase my self-restraint. The few times it has slipped over the years, something breaking in a room for seemingly no reason, the wind howling through a room it shouldn’t, have only caused him to watch me closer, salivating for proof that his marrying my mother was worth it, that my existence can still be of some benefit to him.
I quell the magic within me, having expected the threat this time. He’s been escalating in his attempts to make me sign the marriage agreement. First, three months ago, he took away my ladies-in-waiting. When he saw that didn’t affect me enough to sign, he had me contained to the palace, unable to leave its walls for any reason. This has hit me hard since I enjoy being out in the village much more than in the palace, but it isn’t enough to make me even consider signing the agreement. The last time we spoke of this and I once again refused to sign, he backhanded me so hard, I saw stars before I tasted the blood filling my mouth. Still, I would not sign. But I am anxious over what he will do next, and apparently I’m right to be.
“I will not marry him.” I grit out, even as fear makes my muscles lock, bracing against another hit.
“I don’t think you understand just what lengths I’m willing to go to for a simple signature.”
Oh, I do. I really do. But he doesn’t comprehend the lengths I would go to for my people. Because I know it is them who would suffer the most. My father will die, and I would become queen, but a queen married to a king even more corrupt than my father. Azar would make my kingdom like his own, or worse, and that I will never allow. The people need change, now more than ever, and I can only give it to them if I can rule the way they deserve when I sit upon the throne.
I don’t even know if Azar would let me live long enough to become queen. And it’s not a chance I’m willing to take just to protect myself from my father and whatever evil thing he thinks of doing to me next.
“Get out of my sight before I lock you in the dungeons.” My father waves me off.
I am glad to be dismissed, having never wanted to be on this balcony in the first place, watching people be punished for nothing more than uttering a name. But it is exactly that name that has me heading towards the library instead of returning to my room. My gown swishes behind me with my movements, the only sound in the empty hallways of the palace. All others stay far away from the courtyard when someone is being punished, whereas I am given no choice in whether I wish to witness the horrors that take place there or not.
I turn down hallway after hallway of the mostly one level palace. It would be easy to get lost in the maze of hallways if I had not been walking them all my life. The lower level is much simpler, only having two rooms, the hot springs for bathing, and the dark, dank dungeons.
I push the double doors of the library open, creaky with its rare use when I first started coming here, but opening silently now. The darkness and quiet of the library comfort me. It’s kept hotter here, fires burning to keep any moisture from affecting the books. It’s the only place where my long-sleeved, high-necked gowns and hair wraps make me feel the heat of their presence. The rest of our kingdom is always perpetually autumn. Not too hot, not too cold. Always cool.
I sigh as I walk into the library, feeling a freedom that’s nonexistent in the rest of the palace, where I feel eyes on me at all times. Either those of spies my father has told to watch me, or the eyes of the people, judging if I will be just like my father or if I am more like my mother was rumored to be. My father never comes here, and it feels untainted for that very reason. A room, more or less, to myself. Well, me and the librarian. He smiles at me as I walk over to him.
“I left the books you were reading yesterday on the table for you, Your Highness,” he tells me.
“Thank you Imran.” I smile, looking over at the stack of books beckoning me.
“I do wish you would tell me what you’re looking for. I’m sure I could help you if I knew.”
“I know you could, but I like the search. Something to fill my time.”
He nods and sits back down in his chair, head bending over the book in front of him. I would never ask for his help. Not with this. The thought of him in the courtyard, getting lashed because he helped me search for anything involving The Unspoken One would be too much to bear. I walk over to the table and light the candle Imran left for me. Setting it a good distance away from me, I reach for the book at the top of the stack and open it.
Just like all the other books about the histories of our kingdom, a name is blotted out again and again, black ink placed over whatever letters had once been there. It’s been the same thing for weeks as I’ve searched for any information about The Unspoken One. Blotted words, black ink telling me I shouldn’t be looking for him, but he’s my last hope now. With each day, my marriage to Azar draws nearer. My refusal to sign the marriage agreement has not at all deterred my father from continuing to promise Azar that our wedding will take place and end the tensions between our kingdoms. More and more I’m realizing that I have nowhere to turn. A father who cares so little for me, he’d hand me over to a, by all accounts, brutal killer. Advisors who have tried to intervene on my behalf, but can do very little to convince my father to call off trying to force the marriage. So now I look for the name of the only one I know is an enemy to my father, hoping he can save me somehow. It’s a foolish thing to hang my future on, I know, but it’s all I have right now.
All I’ve found so far is that The Unspoken one is summoned by his true name. That people call upon him in times of desperation, but what kind of desperation, I don’t know. And can he even still be summoned, since he was banished? The witch who cast the spell died years ago, but I don’t for a second believe the spell died with her. And if so, my father would have had the current witch cast the same spell the moment she was found and brought to the palace. Such is his hate for The Unspoken One.
I glance through book after book, placing them in another stack on the left side of me once I decide they’re useless. I’m on the last book when I see a word that makes me pause, my body going still in my seat. I know I have never seen this word in any of the books before, have never heard it said before. That tells me of its importance, and the first letter being capitalized tells me it’s not just a word, but a name. A name that should not be spoken in this kingdom, lest you end up like the man I just witnessed in the courtyard.
I purse my lips to say the name, but stop myself, remembering what I read about his name summoning him. I can’t do that here. It would put Imran in danger and myself as well. No, later, when the palace is asleep, I will find somewhere to say this name.
“How did I know I would find you here?” A voice asks from behind me.
I know who is it before I even turn my head to look at her. Maryam. The light from the candle flame shimmers against her ebony skin as she approaches me, her lean frame and tall stature giving her grace that few can ever learn. The way they usually are when she walks, her hands are behind her back. Her tan tunic makes her brown eyes stand out more. Just like every other time I see her, happiness fills me.
She is one of my father’s advisors, but even more than that, she is the woman who has raised me. Before I was named his heir, and my father had no concern for me being educated in the ways of our people, she was the one to teach me politics and our kingdom’s history. And when my brother died and my father started sending me for lessons, she began teaching me other things he would never have me learn.
She was the one to take the time to show and tell me what good character looked like. Even if she was teaching me that my father was the very opposite of that. She taught me what it will take for me to be a just and fair queen. Even how to use what weakness people think I have simply because I was a woman to my advantage.
And when I grew older, she taught me how to fight and defend myself. To use a sword, knife, and bow. To control myself so my emotions didn’t get the better of me, so my feelings didn’t dictate my mind. She taught me to think for myself, to question what doesn’t sound or feel right. She taught me to be fierce.
And beyond lessons, she was the one the guards brought to my room when I was younger and wept from a bad dream. She nursed me herself when I was sick, intent on making me healthy and then making me strong. My mother was taken from me, but Maryam was the one to fill that void when no one else would.
“Were you looking for me?” I ask her as she reaches me.
Her locks, styled to come to the left side of her head and over her shoulder, swing as she sits down across from me.
“Yes. I wanted to know if you’d eat lunch with me, but since it’s now night, I’ll amend that to dinner.”
My eyes widen. Night? Sure enough I look out the windows behind Maryam, and somehow the sun has begun to set without me ever noticing. And although I really just want to go to my room and think of how I’ll be able to summon Hamza, I wouldn’t turn Maryam’s invitation down. Not after all she’s risked for me before, and even more so lately.
“I would love to. Where are we eating?”
“My office, if you don’t mind. I don’t have much patience for seeing your father in the hall tonight.”
“You and me both,” I say through clenched teeth.
We begin to walk towards her office, approaching one of the few remaining portraits of my mother in the palace. I can already hear Maryam’s words before she says them.
“You look more and more like her with each day.”
I smile to myself at the statement Maryam has made more times than I can count. She’s the only one who’s taught me anything about my mother, what she was like, the mother she would have been to me had she not passed away. Even knowing every detail of the portrait, I still look at it when we reach it. At the woman I resemble in almost every way. Her curly hair, high cheekbones, lips, nose, and eyes. Especially her eyes. The gray color that no one else in the kingdom has except the women in my mother’s family. The witches in my mother’s family. They were what kept my father watching me for any signs of magic throughout my childhood, until he finally gave up. I often wondered if his disappointment was renewed each time he looked into my eyes, at the reminder that, as far as he knew, I had the eyes of a witch without the magic to match.
I looked so little like my father that when I was younger, I used to pretend he could treat me with so little regard or kindness because I was not truly his. That my mother had loved and been loved by someone else, and I was the product of it. The only thing I’d inherited from my father was his dark brown skin color joining with my mother’s light color, giving me my reddish brown complexion. Still, as a child I clung to the idea that that small part of me that wasn’t from my mother, also wasn’t from him. But I could no longer hold onto that belief when he named me this heir. I knew then that I had to be his because there was no way he would pass his kingdom on to me unless he had no other choice to keep it in his bloodline.
No, then I knew for sure I was the product of my father marrying a witch in the hopes that she would provide him with a powerful daughter, but alas, he got me instead. Witches are bound to serve Nur, as my mother was bound to serve my grandmother and then my father when he became king. She’d grown up in the palace, using her magic even before she had been commanded to, healing my father of the sickness that marred his face. When her mother died and she became bound to Nur, my father asked her to marry him. He wanted to end the kingdom’s reliance on witches, and the way he sought to do that was to have a daughter who would be bound to him more than Nur, loyal to the king beyond duty.
They had my brother first. Still a win for my father, a king to rule after him instead of a queen. Then they had me. The daughter he wanted. But I contained none of the magic he hoped for. Or so it seemed for many years to me, and still now to him.
Maryam sighs as we continue past the portrait, softly saying, “I wish she could have seen the woman you’ve become.”
There’s always a note of sadness when she speaks of my mother, her very dear friend that she had to watch die. Maryam was right at my mother’s side when she gave birth to me, smiled down at me, and breathed one word.
Then Maryam has told me how her eyes closed for the last time. She had to witness her friend’s arms fall to her body as the life drained out of her. My father burst into the room then, paying no mind to the nurses telling him his wife had just died. He picked up his daughter, expecting to feel some power emanating off of her as newborn witches do. Only to find a calm, cooing baby staring back at him. He handed me to Maryam and left the room, his howl of rage being heard and perceived as grief for his now dead wife, who was known to everyone as kind, giving, and always had a smile for whomever saw her. But everyone in the room knew the real reason for it.
“Are you going to stand there forever?” Maryam’s chuckle snaps me from my dark thoughts.
I look up to see her standing inside her office, holding the heavy door open for me. Then I notice the smell wafting out of it, and my smile grows. Maryam’s eyebrows wiggle as I pass her, and I giggle in delight when I see the layout of food spread across her desk. The pastries from the bakery I love in the village. The roasted meat from my favorite cook. On and on until I can no longer just look, my mouth salivating too much.
“I know you haven’t been able to have anything from the village in a long time, so I thought I would bring some to you.”
“Thank you,” I say softly.
“Well, what are you waiting for? The food won’t eat itself.”
At that, I rush to the desk and although I should go for the meat first, I go for the pastry. The strawberry leaking out the side of it calls to me, and I answer. When I’ve eaten something from each tray and am leaning back in my chair wishing there was room for the rest, Maryam clears her throat.
“Your father gathered us for a meeting today.”
And just like that, everything in my stomach sours. The food leaves a taste like ash in my mouth as my eyes meet Maryam’s. My father would only gather them together after seeing me for one reason. The council of advisors, Maryam, Hunayn, Zayd, Bilal, and Medinah, are meant to advise my father, but most of them just simply agree to whatever he wants. All but Maryam. She holds the most power, her family always has, as much as my father hates it. It gives her the ability to oppose my father where the other advisors are too fearful to do the same.
“I can guess for what,” I murmur.
She nods. “King Azar. Your father wants us to review the law saying he needs your consent for the marriage. To find any loophole in it.”
My hands tighten into fists in my lap. Of course he does, because if he cannot make me agree, he will try and find a way around me having to agree.
“And did you find anything?”
She grins. “You know as well as I do when that law was made and by whom. The moment your great grandmother was crowned queen, she made it so no one could ever be forced into a marriage and made to suffer like she had. There’s no way around that law.”
“I guess there’s some sick satisfaction in knowing her own horrible marriage is protecting me from one now.”
She nods, even as her mouth curves down into a frown. “But he will not stop. This just shows how desperate he’s getting. The wood and foods we send to the Sameer Kingdom aren’t enough to keep them from bringing war to us anymore. Azar sends a letter almost every week now asking why the marriage agreement has not been signed and returned to him. Your father grows more angry with each one.”
“When is Father ever not angry?” I roll my eyes.
“I’m trying to warn you, Ameera. I fear what he will do next if he thinks it would make you sign.”
“He threatened to have me lashed today,” I tell her.
A small gasp escapes her. “He wouldn’t dare.”
“You and I both know he would. Who could stop him?”
“He would have me lashed and in the dungeon before any of you even knew what happened. He plans much too far in the future. The only thing he didn’t plan for was having a stubborn daughter who wouldn’t follow his every command. And we all know what happens when people disobey him. He crushes them.”
“I have been speaking to the council…without the king present.”
My eyebrows raise at that. “Do go on.”
“We get reports day in and day out about the conditions beyond these walls, the poverty, the conditions our people should not have to live in. Your father refuses to even hear of anything that does not affect the nobility, and the lands will not improve because the rich choose to hoard money instead of spending it to make things better.”
I shake my head, my heart aching at what my people have to endure under my father. Our kingdom was once great, looked at by others as a just and respectable nation, where all prospered and were treated fairly. But now, in the thirty years of my father’s reign, the rich have grown richer, and the people who before weren’t poor but now are, continue to lose what little they have. They’re forced to pay unfair taxes to nobles who don’t need the funds. To a king who doesn’t need the money.
“I don’t understand how he could possibly let our kingdom rot like this.”
“Greed blinds many, and your father lost his sight a long time ago. All we can do now is wait for you to become queen and restore us to what we were.”
My eyes snap to hers. “Is that what the council plans to do? Wait, and let our kingdom lose everything we’ve built in the meantime?”
She smiles at me, not a nice smile. No, it holds all the viciousness she’s tried to instill in me.
“There’s that fire. I cannot tell you how much it pleases me when I see it.” I narrow my eyes at her and she continues. “No, we do not plan to wait. Medinah and I are ready for change, ready to be free of your father’s rule, but the rest treat our words as if we are just women overacting over the concerns of a few people. They talk as if we are not fit for the position of advisors. As if we did not all come into these position the same way.”
The role of advisor, like the crown, is passed down to the eldest child, whether that be man or woman. They are all trained in how best to advise the king or queen they will serve from an early age. I scoff at the very idea that the male advisors would look down on their female counterparts when every queen we’ve had has ruled ten times better than the current king. Maryam’s family is so powerful because of the women in her line. They brought up land from the crown over the past century until they owned more than any other family. And because they govern that land with fairness, the people love them. And that love makes them a threat in my father’s eyes. And apparently, the source of envy to the other advisors.
“And you and Medinah, what do you discuss concerning change?”
“Nothing I wish to tell you about Princess. Only for your own safety. You cannot be made to tell what you do not know.”
“I would never betray you.” I’m quick to argue.
Her eyes bore into mine. “If it were ever to save your own life, I would wish for you to betray me as quickly as you could. For you are this kingdom’s last hope. Advisors can be replaced. Heirs cannot.”
“I replaced my brother easily enough,” I grumble.
“Your brother was never fit to be a ruler over this land. There was nothing to replace because he was not a fit heir.”
My eyebrows scrunch. She’s said things like this before, but I already know if I ask her why he was unfit, she will not tell me. Although it’s clear she holds no affection for my brother, he was still my mother’s son. So she will not speak ill of him. I don’t know much about him, really. He was born and all but whisked away from my mother, raised solely by my father. He wasn’t a witch who needed my mother’s guidance in how to use magic, so my father saw no reason for her to be a part of his life. She only saw him when she was allowed in the throne room because her power was needed. Maryam has told me that my mother’s heartbreak was easy to see when she looked at the son she could never really have.
But beyond that, people speak of my brother in hushed tones, afraid to say his name too loudly and upset the king. When I do hear stories of him, they always make my brother sound like he was every inch my father’s son; arrogant, mean, and a bully. But these stories are only whispered when people get too drunk to hold their tongues. Sometimes it seems as though his name has almost been erased as much as The Unspoken One’s name has. And that snaps my mind back to what I learned in the library. I know his name now.
“Well in that case,” I say. “I hope you can bring the other advisors around to seeing things from your point of view. Although from the way Zayd, Hunayn, and Bilal bend and bow to my father’s every whim, I don’t think it’s likely.”
“I never thought Medinah would come to my side, and here she is, so.” She shrugs. “I will see you tomorrow, for our lesson.”
I nod as I stand, seeing her words for what they are. Dismissal. She hates to say goodbye. Sees it as much too final a statement.
I walk back to my bedroom, the torches lit now, casting my shadow along the walls as I go. When I reach my room, I light a candle before sitting on the bed, but the energy rushing through me makes it too much for me to remain there. I pace the length of my room, wringing my hands, trying to decide a safe place to go to summon him. If I am found or heard, I have no doubt my father will make an example of me. He wouldn’t hesitate to show that not even his daughter is above reproach when it comes to The Unspoken One.
And I still don’t even know if it’s safe. I have no idea what he was banished for or what he’s capable of, and the thought of summoning him, having to be alone with him, terrifies me. I am more sure than ever that he has magic in him. The fact that he can be summoned tells me that. The amount of energy the former witch had to use to banish him tells me that whatever magic is in him must be powerful, but he’s not a witch. Men cannot be witches. So what magic does he possess? And is my own magic any challenge to his? Would any training I’ve had be enough to battle him if there was a need to?
I jump when I hear a knock at my door, as if my very thoughts brought the guards upon me. Walking to it slowly, I open it to find Hud standing there and widen the door. He, out of the many guards in the palace, is one of the very few I trust.
“I am sorry to come so late, Your Highness,” he apologizes. “Your father sent me with a gift…from your fiancé.”
My lip curls at the word, and Hud has to tuck his lips into his mouth not to smile.
“It is strange to see you with this look. It only comes when I mention King Azar.”
This is not the first time Hud has been sent with a gift from Azar for me. And every time, my face changes of its own volition at the reminder of him. At the audacity of him sending me gifts, so sure of our pending marriage. I hold my hand out, and he gives me the package.
“I have to go. I am guarding the dungeon tonight.”
“Is the man who was punished today still down there?”
His eyes sadden as he nods. “He is still unconscious.”
“I will come there later.”
He looks behind him. “Are you sure that’s wise?” he asks low.
“I will be careful.”
He gives me a hesitant nod before walking away. I close my door and set the package on my desk. It’s like a living, breathing thing, like Azar somehow came into my room without my permission. I stare at it for a few minutes before finally opening it. The dress is beautiful, a vibrant purple made in the heavier materials needed for the cold of Sameer. But the person who sent it sullies the beauty of it. Then I look for the card he’s included with every other gift. While the others have told me of his wanting to marry me, how anxious he is to have me as his queen, this one is different and makes my stomach roll as I read the words.
I cannot wait to have you in my kingdom, and my bed.
What has emboldened him to write such a thing? Has my father told him I’m close to agreeing to marrying him? I wouldn’t put the lie above him. And then my spine straightens as all hesitation concerning summoning The Unspoken One fades away. And I know just where to do it. A place safe from my father, but that also provides an element of safety for me.
Exchanging my shoes for slippers, I blow out the candle in my room and open my door slowly, peeking into the hallway to make sure it’s empty. When I’m sure it is, I step out of my room and close the door behind me before hiking up my dress and tiptoeing away. I hurry down the hallways until I reach the door to the dungeon. Hud looks around before letting me pass him to descend down the dark stairs. This is something we’ve done time and time again, but this time, I need the privacy of the dungeon for my own purposes.
I pass the man who was lashed earlier, laying on his stomach on a cot. The cell door isn’t even closed for they have no fear of him waking up, let alone leaving. He’s still shirtless, the skin on his back flayed, dried blood mixing with the wet drops still dripping down his sides. Fear overwhelms me. He was lashed for the very thing I came down here to do. I waver for a second, picturing myself laying where he is, groaning in agony for simply stating a name. But then I remember the only way to stop more people from being in this very position is for me to rule this kingdom, to change the laws that cause so many, so much pain. I shake the fear away, knowing I have to do this. I have no other choice, and I’m running out of time, especially if Azar’s note is any indication.
I walk down to the last cell, the door open and darkness filling the space inside. Recalling the very first lesson in magic I learned, I picture a flame igniting on the candle placed on the wall. I wave my hand over it and the wick lights. I step slowly into the cell, looking at the door, hoping if The Unspoken One is dangerous and my magic fails me, I can still rush from the cell and lock him in…if he can even be locked in. I take a deep breath and stand in the middle of the cell, closing my eyes for a second before they open as determination fills me.
I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek into Unspoken. Find out what happens next when it releases on 4/12/21. Now available for pre-order: https://books2read.com/unspokenarireavis