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I began to avoid both of them. Because what Kithia had said about him still lingered awkwardly between us, and talking to her meant figuring out a roundabout way to admit that she might have been right.
Because princes everywhere were those hot-headed spoiled little things that I had come to know weren't they? It wouldn't have made much sense that the world would have decided to make this one any different. To think I almost fell for his siren call that easily. And for what? Because he acknowledged me? It was almost shameful. Nothing but trouble with this one. Best to stay away from him, I had decided.
Easier said than done.
Gozdarz's palace might have looked fine, and some of the more cultured ones might even call it tasteful, but no one marvelled at its size. You could run along the entire property end to end without breaking a sweat. The whole thing was nothing more than an old tower where everyone slept and a small hall jutting off to its side where everything else happened.
So one day I would find him sun-drenched by the olive groves, the next he would be riding up the dusty tree-lined path from a hunt with the others. Always, his face would turn from that characteristic boredom of his to greet me, and always I ignored him before he had the chance. There was no need for any fancy footwork with this one, I thought. A curt, soft-spoken 'pardon me' would be enough to keep the distance between us.
And I would have been happy for it if it meant I could go back to being left alone. Because the both of us could not have been more different, and that certainty carries with it the dangerous fact that he was a prince and that his world was composed in a complex web of things incomprehensible to the likes of me, who was who I am.
Then one day we met at the stairs when I belatedly realised that he was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs as I was climbing down. In a sudden twist of panic and because avoiding him for the past two weeks had become an instinct, I turned to hurry back up as if he hadn’t already seen me.
"You can go first if you're in a hurry." That voice again. Soft, curt, and totally oozing with a veiled sense of smugness.
"I'm not in a hurry" I replied, trying to match his confidence as I turned my head back to peer at him over my shoulder.
"Neither am I."
“I forgot something in my room then.”
A pause between us, then he nodded as if he were privy to some secret that we shared between us.
"So you did." he said as he climbed up to join me in the landing.
I could have left him there as I had always done then. It had been easy when he was in the company of others to slip past him, but it was another matter entirely when we were in the company of ourselves. I just stood there instead, staring in the manner an animal would when they caught scent of their own death in the sudden crack of a dead branch.
“Are we not on speaking terms, then?” he asked that dreaded question. He had stopped just two steps below me, far enough away that I wouldn't have instinctively backed away from the sudden closeness between us two.
How courteous of him
"If Agha needs me-"
"Don't call me that." He cut me off, and his face was suddenly all too serious for me to ignore.
He hesitated for a moment, avoiding my gaze as if I had been the one who ambushed and interrogated him. “Because... I don’t deserve it.” He finally said, and I realised then that up until that moment he had never once hesitated to say anything to me, and that I almost wanted to know why.
Royalty and their web of mists, I reminded myself. So be it if he suddenly wanted to look like the brooding type, but I had no time to play code-breaker with him. "What do you want from me then." I asked, never having been known to be the patient one throughout my life.
He looked at me in silence, hesitating once again. His eyes had the look that could answer anything without uttering a single word. A patrician's habit. But I wanted him to put it into words the same way a blood-letting would have sealed an oath.
"I want you to tell me if I ever wronged you once."
Silence again. There were many silences between us, I realised. Even when we had enjoyed the company of ourselves. But the few sparse words shared between us now were already too much for me to handle.
"The Valide has requested me for the markets, Mazha.” I answered. A non-answer. It was totally unrelated to what he wanted to know from me, but it was an out.
He didn’t quite respond to that, which was a response enough for me to push past him and leave him there alone on the landing.
Had he wronged me? No. But you didn't wait for a leopard to bite you to know that you should keep your distance. Because the problem with him was never that he would ever harm me, but that he could. And what would have been lost in that? Hardly anyone ever wonders about such things so trivial to them, much less care for it.
I had been walking for nearly an hour when I reached the small market-town backed up against the steep cliffs of the mountainside, hardly caring for the views and colours and the sound of the hawkers as I kept dwelling on what Khoroush had asked me, and nearly dying for it when a rickshaw almost ran me over.
“Watch where you’re going, cripple!” the driver spat, though in a moment a small smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he realised who I was, amused at the thought that running me over would have done him no harm at all.
“Fuck you.” I muttered under my breath, averting my eyes from him in a veiled attempt to conceal bubbling rage as I began to move around him.
“What did you say, Bendaga?” the driver called out again, the rage in his voice gone now to make way for amusement.
That smug voice.
“Fuck your children, cuntling!” I cried out, turning to see the driver already approaching me with a horse crop in his hands.
“You’ll sing your sorries, boy” he hissed, raising it above his head to strike me.
What else was someone to do in that situation but to be humiliated, to be punished, and to be pained for something unjust and undeserved. You could resist and be put to death, or you could accept it and risk death anyways. I had chosen to accept that many times, but I chose myself then, and to pick up a rock as he struck me down into the dirt, and to bash his head in until he stopped trying to hurt me.