21. Esfandar

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Esfandar and Gita walked through the winding alleyways of Shiraz, passing by merchants and beggars of all sorts. They wore the clothes of the common people, dull, worn robes of inexpensive cloth, as unassuming as possible.

Esfandar wore a turban that half wrapped around his face in order to conceal his identity. There was really almost no possibility that anyone would have been able to recognize him regardless, but Gita had insisted upon the extra precaution.

Gita herself wore a simple dress in a dark red hue, the fabric fluttering prettily as she walked. Her hair flowed freely over her shoulders, not tied into a perfect braid as it always was. Esfandar tried to remember if he'd ever seen her with her hair loose before and couldn't recall. Perhaps he'd never seen it before.

If Gita was in any way uncomfortable without her usual clothes, she didn't show it. She walked with the utmost confidence, blending in completely with the other men and women on the street. She glanced at him and caught him looking at her. He quickly looked away.

It was on the cusp of nightfall, and people began closing their stalls, calling their children, and making their way to their homes. Esfandar envied them.

He saw a thin woman dressed in dark blue cloth whispering to a crying infant, trying to soothe it. The baby only continued to cry, its whines growing louder, but its mother only brought him closer to comfort him.

Esfandar's thoughts drifted again. However much he trained himself not to think about his family, not to think about what was happening back at the palace, he invariably failed. He thought of Kasra, that child who had been born into misfortune and horror.

Esfandar had only met his younger brother once, but merely to see Kasra was to love him with fierce pride and happiness. He was the calmest baby Esfandar had ever seen, his fat cheeks looking perpetually pursed in curiosity and his eyes wide and bright. He was already an intelligent child. It would be his luck, if he lived long enough to get the chance to use it.

Kasra would still be an infant now, but getting to the age when he'd begin to talk and then walk. A rage boiled in Esfandar's blood as he imagined his brother growing up in captivity, forever Roshani's prisoner. And under that rage, an undercurrent of deep sorrow.

However miserable Esfandar felt about the situation, Homeira must have been in despair. The Shah's third and youngest wife, she was closer to an older sister to Esfandar than a mother, but she had always been kind and generous to all of the shah's children. Certainly she didn't deserve to suffer in this way.

Esfandar jumped when a hand grasped his shoulder. He turned to see Gita peering up at him, her brow furrowed.

"What's wrong?" She asked him.

He only shook his head, though he cast one last wistful look to the woman and her baby. Gita followed his gaze and her expression softened. He imagined that she understood the direction of his thoughts.

"Come," she said, walking ahead of him on the path. "It's getting late."

The meaning of her words weren't spoken so as not to give themselves away, but he heard it: our guard of the well begins now.

The winding alley they had been following suddenly opened up into a wide square. It was more crowded there than in the alley, but was growing emptier as people drifted off to their homes, to warm beds and peaceful rest.

In the center of the flat, old stones was the well. It was old and worn down, the bricks of it crumbling and filthy with dust, but it functioned well enough. They both eyed the well carefully out of the corners of their eyes, while taking care not to stare at it. So far, no one had given them a second glance and they intended to keep it that way.

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