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It’s my wedding day and I have a dagger strapped to my arm. I take a deep breath before I open the door in front of me. The thump of the ceremonial drums hit me in little blasts of cold wind. I shudder once, before descending the icy cobble steps. Intaj, my groom, waits at the bottom, his eyes roving over me. My khussas scuffle as I walk towards his outstretched arm. I know my fate. I know there is no escaping this, and I know that before the next dawn, this dagger will cut through either his neck or mine.
When I reach the bottom of the steps, I take Intaj’s hand. He thinks he has control of the game. He designed the abaya that I wear, its bodice embroidered with threads of gold, woven with sequins. He ordered my face to be painted shades lighter than my natural colour. My lips are blood red and as cold as snow.
“Don’t make me kill you like all the others,” he sneers. His eyes flash green. Dressed in a black thobe, decorated with silver whorls, he looks like adamant. The wings that protrude from his back wrap around my shoulder. I feel a prickle where the too-hot heat emanates from his wing. “Play the game, Harisa.”
“I will win,” I snap.
He points to the sky. The sun in the blank sky is lowering already. “You don’t have much time.”
“I choose when to kill you.”
He smirks. “Whatever you say, my lioness.” I want to scratch the haughty expression off his face. He thinks he has won already. He thinks I’m weak.
I hang on his arm as we walk down the aisle. Guests sit on either side, on cushioned chairs around dozens of tables. Invited by Intaj, they couldn’t say no. They sit frozen, with wide eyes and bated breaths. They won’t help me. I want to scream, He is Intaj! The Fulad-zereh! But they can see the horns upon his head. They can see his wings. They know what he has done to every bride in the past. They don’t care.
The Fulad-zereh has found his new bride. Their women are safe. His new bride will keep him away. At least for a while.
I want to turn and run. But Intaj keeps me close and pulls me forward. He folds his wings as we reach the pavilion, where the imam awaits. There’s an altar where a Kitab is sat. Intaj draws me to the book. I glare. Not even the Lord wishes to save me from the demons he created.
Intaj and I stand facing each other. Strands of hair cover my eyes as I look beyond his shoulders, to see tables stretching far onto the field. As I raise my hand to brush my hair from my face, my bangles clang, a sound so similar to my father shaking his bag of coins only days ago.
“You belong to the Fulad-zereh now,” he said. I inched back towards the rolling pin on the counter.
Mother came towards me with a sweet smile on her face. “You have fulfilled your purpose as a woman.”
Not yet, mother. Not until I win.
My parents sit closest to the pavilion. I’m glad that I can see them from here. I can see the bruise the rolling pin left on my mother’s skin. To them, I’m worth a single bag of coins.
Intaj yanks my wrists, squeezes them hard. “Look at me,” he says, through gritted teeth.
“I’m looking,” I retort. Intaj moves my hand onto the open Kitab, his own placed on top.
Guards stand on our either side. As the imam begins to preach, they lower their shields, like snakes shedding their skins. They will stop any attempt at an escape, have done it many times before. But the brides that tried to escape Intaj were cowards. If only they had killed him, if only I was not next, if only … things were different.
The imam twitches every time Intaj looks at him. But he avoids my gaze altogether. I follow the track of sound his Farsi words leave, they are what will seal our marriage.
When the imam’s prattle ends, Intaj says, “Na’am.” I do.
I can feel the pressure of his hand on mine. The other is clasped around my wrist. His fingers inch closer to the dagger. What will he do to me if he finds it? This man, this thing, has destroyed mountains. He could break me with ease.
“Na’am,” I reply.
Intaj leans down to kiss me. There are whoops of forced laughter and mechanical clapping. He bites my lower lip. I gasp. He swallows the sound. A rush of bile rises up my throat. I push it down and keep my eyes open. He’s so close that I could count his eyelashes. They’re long and curl upwards, almost making him seem like a normal man.
He’s taking control. I can’t let him do that. If he wants me to play the game, I’ll play. I start to kiss him back. His eyes flutter open, black pupils dilating, hiding the green. I hide my smile.
The sarangi begins to play joining the thud of drums. I let Intaj tow me towards our dinner table. He leads me to a table decorated with rose-pink petals, scattered around our plates, and cutlery wrapped in cerise ribbons.
I snort. Loud enough for Intaj to hear, but quiet enough that he doesn’t take offense.
“What?” he asks, fanning his wings out.
I shake my head. “Nothing. There’s just so much pink.” I avert my eyes.
“My mistake,” he drawls. “What would you prefer?” I frown at the question, but he has already raised his left hand, awaiting my answer.
He snaps his fingers. Azure and cobalt replace the pinks. There are freckles of green surrounding them. We take our seats at our table. A little bowl of ceremonial sweets are near us, a little bottle of honey beside them. I grab the sweets, famished.
I feel Intaj sneaking into a slit of my abaya. I almost choke on a sugared pomegranate. “Careful,” I hiss. I reach into my sleeve and unstrap the dagger on my arm. I slam it down onto the table between us.
Emotions flutter across Intaj’s face. It’s like watching a carousel turn, waiting to see what will stop in front of me. His jaw clenches, his eyes squint, I see something like sadness for a moment. In a second, it’s gone. His face contorts into a grin.
“So, you’ve decided to play,” he says. He waves his hand, calling his slaves over with our food. My mouth waters. The smell of biryani is warm and spicy. I can smell the chillies. As they spoon it onto our plates, I stare. I’ve never seen so much meat.
“I thought you would use poison,” he says.
I draw my gaze away from the succulent meat and raise my brows. “Why poison?”
“It’s a woman’s weapon.”
My anger flares. “It’s an idiot’s weapon.”
He shrugs. “You’re more intelligent than I thought.”
He tucks into his food. It seems like he’s enjoying it. The stories say he gnaws bones and drinks blood. But for someone so powerful he seems to eat like any other human would.
I begin to eat, savouring each mouthful as I contemplate the legends about the Fulad-zereh. I watch him carefully. They say he got his powers from his mother before her death. That was when he started to take sacrificial brides. Only they see his monstrous true form. The villagers say he becomes ten feet tall, covered in scales, veins protruding as he draws upon his destructive power. Then, when the first dawn arrives for his bride, he kills her. He does it quickly.
“What does it feel like to have so much power?” I ask, my voice hushed.
“It feels…” he pauses. I can see his throat bob. He’s swallowing words. “It means, they kill me, or I kill them.”
But before I can ask more, he changes the subject. “Why reveal it now?” He gestures towards the dagger, licking his lips as he looks at me.
I raise a brow. It’s better to reveal it to him, then have him find it. “We’re playing a game, aren’t we? Where’s the fun if it’s one-sided?” Laughter rumbles through Intaj. It’s low, only for me. He stares at me.
There is a clatter of china. It’s a welcome distraction from the hunger Intaj is directing at me. I take a deep breath in, realising once again that many people watch us play this game. This is the Fulad-zereh’s stage, not mine. It’ll be difficult to win here.
I push my plate away, the food only half eaten. I wait for him to notice.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“I want them to stop staring,” I mutter, shrinking down into my chair. I expect him to laugh, but when I turn to look, disgust creases his face. He snaps his fingers. Flames flicker on the centre pieces on each table. The guests turn to the warmth, the fire sucking their eyes away from mine for the first time today.
Intaj pushes his own plate away and nods at the slaves. Some meaning conveyed, they walk away.
“Where are they going?”
Intaj grins. “They’re bringing dessert.”
“We’re having dessert?” I ask, incredulous.
“That depends. What else did you have in mind?”
Holding his gaze, I bite my lip and reach for the bottle of honey. Dipping my little finger into it, I offer it to Intaj. He pulls my wrist towards him. His tongue flicks around my finger, licking the sweetness away with excruciating slowness. I keep my face steady, but it’s impossible. I’m sure I’m blushing deeply.
I edge closer to him, running my free hand down his arm. I reach his fingers and curl my own around them. I meet those green eyes of his, and say, “I’d prefer something a little more private.”
With dinner over, we enter the manor and Intaj walks me to his room. To our marriage bed. It’ll be the easiest place to keep control. I pat the dagger which has retaken its place on my arm.
Intaj stops at a modest door. “Here,” he says.
I raise my eyebrows, unimpressed.
He barks a laugh. “Just because the door isn’t impressive, doesn’t mean the inside won’t be.”
“So, I guess seeing as the thobe you’re wearing is so impressive, the part you hide won’t be?” I give a pointed look at his crotch, and I might be smiling.
“Should I assume the same?” There is no malice on his face. He’s amused.
He’s different to what I expected. But that won’t change how I feel. I will win this game.
“You shouldn’t assume anything, Intaj.” I gesture towards the door handle. He opens it and bows, welcoming me in.
The room lights up, the chandelier flickering with candles. The bed is crisp, a rosy pink to match the blush of more dubious brides. The curtains at the other end of the room are ivory, cascading from ceiling to floor, masking the view of the garden beyond. There is a three-legged table near the end of the bed. Upon it a bottle awaits. I walk towards it, Intaj slow on my heels. It’s a strange shape, a faceted star, with a swirling, smoking liquid inside. I lift the lid and sniff.
My body becomes hot, my cheeks flush. My eyelids flicker shut, and I begin to relax. With shaking hands, I put the bottle down. I whirl around, trying to glare through the haze in my mind. My hand twitches towards the dagger, but no. Not yet. My teeth are gritted. “An aphrodisiac?”
Something like approval sparks in those eyes. I want to bare my teeth.
“If you need it,” he says.
I take a deep breath. The pit of my stomach feels hollow despite how much I’ve eaten. I’m ruined already. I’m the Fulad-zereh’s bride. But this is my game now. Here in this room, in that pink rosy bed, I will win.
“I need a couple minutes in the bathroom.” I storm away, not worried about what he might say for the first time today. I strip off my abaya. I rub my arms, trying to brush away the goose bumps on my skin, and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I seem strange, alien to myself. My cheeks are flushed, my eyes glittering with excitement. There is no evidence of the simple village girl on my face. I release my curls from their braid and watch them fall onto my shoulders. I wash the white powder off my skin and rub off the lipstick. Adorned by a henna pattern that creeps up my fingertips, lace lingerie and a dagger, I walk out.
The sweet smell of rose swirls around me, the incense stick standing straight in a censer next to the aphrodisiac.
Intaj is still dressed. He’s pacing. He stops when he hears the click of the door closing behind me. The smirk returns, lightening his face. His eyes are locked on me now. I walk to the bedside table and put the dagger down. I run my finger along its length and then beckon my husband to come towards me. He’s there in an instant. In his hands he holds the faceted star bottle. “If you need it,” he croaks.
As I reach for the bottle, my fingers touch the edges of his. A tremor passes from him to me. I grab the bottle and down the contents in one gulp. It tastes like rose syrup. I drop it to the ground and begin to fiddle with his buttons. He helps by pulling the thobe up and over his shoulders. The salwar comes next. His hands are roaming around my waist, tucking me in. His hand sneaks down the lace pants that I’m wearing. My arms are jerky, they move to wrap around his torso. I run my fingers along his spine, brushing against his feathered wings.
I push him onto the bed and straddle him. Intaj groans. His fingers knead against my flesh. He tears the seams of the pants apart. His hands seek the apex of my legs.
Flipping us over, he takes the lead. Our joining is fast and hard. I squeal. It is the only sound I can let out before he’s kissing me. There’s little pain, overpowered by the white space in my mind. My fingers clutch the sheets under me. I count each thrust he makes, every time he says, “Harisa” and “My lioness”. With each thrust my eyes open a little wider. I bite my lip, fighting the urge to call his name.
But I can’t. “Intaj,” I groan. I can feel my body convulsing around him, pulling him tighter towards me. He teases and coaxes every reaction out of me, until finally, I’m splintering around him. He follows, shuddering as he releases his seed in me. He stays there for a long moment before he plants a kiss upon my sticky forehead and pulls himself out and away.
I’m gasping, too tired to move. Too tired to do anything other than clench the satin sheets, that he turned from pink to blue. My eyes close, and soon darkness comes.
I’m awake. It’s still dark outside. There are still a few candles lit in the chandelier, for ease of movement. There’s a pounding between my legs. I curse, it must have been numbed by the aphrodisiac earlier. I spread my legs to see a small bloodstain. I reach towards the bedside table and unsheathe the dagger with ease. It zings as I pull it free.
I can kill the Fulad-zereh. And yet I pause. He looks peaceful sleeping, nothing like the monster he’s supposed to be. His lips are parted, and he snores softly. Like a child. I don’t strike. Adrenaline courses through my veins, but my body won’t move. I can kill the Fulad-zereh, but can I kill Intaj?
Victory is so close. There is nothing to the game if I don’t win now. I have to do this. I climb on top of Intaj, straddling his hips, just like I did a couple hours ago. My knees rest on his soft feathers. There’s nothing else left to do. I raise the dagger up above my head and bring it down hard.
Warm fingers wrap around my hands. His eyes are bleary with sleep. “Almost there,” he coos. He laughs. It’s hollow. Bitter, full of pain. I push against his hands. But he’s stronger than I am. He could break me. Hasn’t he already?
“It’s my win,” I spit.
Intaj’s eyes open wide, flickering against the candle light. I’m so close I can see his pupils dilating. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. Veins protrude from his neck, the power to kill welling up.
Why does he look like he’s about to cry? I want to scream, make him stop. He looks back at me with those green eyes. But where they were bright and clear before, now sparks of red circle his pupil. “Why? Why do this? Why play the game?” My voice is nothing more than a breathless quiver.
“End it, Harisa.” His muscles are taut. He’s trying to pull his hands away. But the power still surges through his veins. “You have to kill me. No more brides. No more death. My mother gave me this power. It’s a curse!” The words tumble out his mouth. His face drains of colour as he finishes.
He lifts his head and slams it down onto the pillow. His eyes are changing. The red smokes around his pupils, evaporating the green.
I shake my head. “Why are you telling me this?”
He looks towards the window and sighs. “Because when the dawn comes, I will be overpowered. I will kill you.” Emotion ripples through his eyes. Sparks flicker from his fingers. They explode against my skin. I flinch. “I don’t want to kill you.”
There’s a little speck of light in the distance. The battle is almost over. But who is it between? I haven’t fought to live, Intaj has just fought to die.
“Why me?” Why, why, why!
“Because I think you can do it. You’re a fighter. If I bite, you bite back.” Tears trickle out of his eyes.
I’m convulsing, listening to him. The candles snuff out. The dawn is almost here.
“You deserve more.” No. “I want you to win!”
“Do you want to die?” I shout.
“Yes,” he says.
“I want you to live.” His hands spring away from the pommel. His muscles are still strained. He grits his teeth, folds his arms under his head and lies back.
“You never planned on winning,” I say. Intaj planned everything up until this point. For his freedom. He knew. I never had a chance, or a choice. There is no escaping this. This is my fate. He can feel me tremble. He can hear me swallow. I close my eyes, my head shaking. I raise the dagger up. “You killed your brides because they didn’t play the game.”
“Harisa, my lioness, end it.”
“You didn’t play the game.” My voice is hoarse. My tears fall onto his cheeks, mingling with his. “You were supposed to play the game.”
I plunge the dagger deep into his neck and wait until his blood gurgles over my knuckles to twist the blade. Relief is engraved in those glossy, lifeless eyes. But those are not my Intaj’s eyes. They won’t flash green again. He won’t grin again. He won’t speak. Or laugh. Or kill. He won’t play the game.
I wrench the blade out and watch the blood drip down onto the pommel. I don’t want to be what he’s made me. I don’t want the freedom that he bought for me. The room sways as I climb off of him. Blood drips from my dagger as I head to the door.
A rush of brittle air prickles my cheeks as I open the door. Guards outside swarm around me. Some peer over my shoulder. I turn the dagger around and offer the hilt to the nearest person.
“Keep this,” I say. “It will be used later.”
I am the Fulad-zereh’s last bride. But he is only my first groom.