Read an Excerpt From Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

On a planet on the brink of revolution, Amani has been forced into isolation…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Court of Lions, the sequel to Somaiya Daud’s Mirage—available August 4th from Flatiron Books. Be sure to also check out an audio clip from an interview with the author, after the excerpt!

On a planet on the brink of revolution, Amani has been forced into isolation. She’s been torn from the boy she loves and has given up contact with her fellow rebels to protect her family. In taking risks for the rebel cause, Amani may have lost Maram’s trust forever. But the princess is more complex than she seems, and now Amani is once more at her capricious nature. One wrong move could see her executed for high treason.

On the eve of Maram’s marriage to Idris comes an unexpected proposal: in exchange for taking her place in the festivities, Maram will keep Amani’s rebel associations a secret. Alone and desperate, Amani is thrust into the center of the court, navigating the dangerous factions on the princess’s behalf. But the court is not what she expects. As a risky plan grows in her mind, and with the rebels poised to make their stand, Amani begins to believe her world might have a future. But every choice she makes comes with a cost. Can Amani risk the ones she loves the most for a war she’s not sure she can win?


 

PROLOGUE

Once upon a time, there was a girl—a nestling—and she was a glorious creature. Born of sacred fire, cloaked in jeweled feathers, she could pass from one realm to another, could cross the space between stars as easy as breathing. She was raised in a crystalline palace wreathed in sacred flame.

When the nestling was a child, long before she’d ever been sent out into the world, her mother told her the story of her long-ago ancestor, Tayreet.

Fi youm minal ayaam…

Once upon a time…

Like the nestling, Tayreet had grown to strength in the heart of their sacred city, and like the nestling, she’d been sent down to their lost kin as a symbol of strength and war. High above a battlefield an arrow pierced Tayreet’s breast and knocked her from the sky. When the prince hunting her found her, her body had loosed its natural bird shape and taken on a human one.

The prince loved her from the first, and Tayreet him.

The nestling was always astonished that anyone might fall in love with their hunter, and her cousin had scoffed and tugged on a white braid.

“Not a real arrow, nestling,” her cousin said. “Love. Love knocked her from her lofty perch.”

How awful, the nestling remembered thinking.

 

In the center of the palace was a room with nothing but windows and mirrors. From there the nestling could see everything. They showed her life far away, across galaxies and in places hidden away by star dust. In the far corner of the room, wreathed in shadow, was a great mirror, many times as tall as she was. Consigned to shadows but for the great crack that ran through its center, she nonetheless sat in front of it for hours. Its gilt frame was carved with images of birds and lions and spears, and any time she stepped close she felt a pulse of life.

Until at last, one day, it woke and showed her the image of another girl. A princess.

She was young and stone-faced, cloaked in black. Around her forehead was a gold coronet, studded with a single green gem. Her small hand was engulfed by an elder woman’s larger one, and she didn’t move—she seemed to not breathe at all. A moment later, a procession passed in front of her bearing a coffin draped in green.

She didn’t see the princess again, not for many years, though she went to the mirror nearly every day. It showed her other things: the cost of war on the princess’s planet, loss of life, rebellion and the rebellion’s end. The nestling thought that, perhaps, the stone-faced girl had died. And then one day the nestling returned to the mirror, a woman grown, and found that the princess had grown too, and that she had a twin. Somehow, she knew which was the princess she’d seen all those years ago at the funeral and which was her double.

Please, the double said. Let me explain.

Nothing you say will fix this, the princess said, and though her expression was as stone-faced as it had been at the funeral, the nestling could hear a world of grief buried in that single sentence.

I was sincere, the double said.

A viper is never sincere.

Please, Maram. I took your place and risked my life for you.

Maram, the nestling repeated softly to herself, tasting the name for the first time.

And then a woman with silver hair entered.

She saved a rebel, the woman said, and laid her hand on the princess’s shoulder. A person hired to kill you.

Her heart skipped a beat, startled at the idea that the princess might have died, and she never would have known. Would the mirror have shown her? Would it have revealed a second funeral procession?

 

Fate intervened as it always did, and for the first time the nestling was commanded from her sacred city and into the war-ravaged world below. It should have surprised her that she was directed to the double she’d seen instead of Maram herself—it didn’t. Despite her fascination, there was something about the double—even as she’d begged she’d seemed regal.

The double had saved someone’s life. She’d taken the princess’s place in the line of fire.

Sacred fire only ever came to the brave and courageous. Hope was given to a person who might reshape the world. The nestling watched it take root in the double, watched the way light returned slowly and chased out the shadows that lived in her now. Saw the double draw in the heat that was a matter of course for someone like her, saw it give strength to her spine and speed to her will.

And from His first creatures He made stars, glowing hot with their fire and warmth.

All may see the stars, but few will see their forbears. And those whose eyes see golden fire We say heed Us and listen.

For We have sent unto you a Sign. See it and take heed.

The nestling’s wings unfurled and the double gasped as she cried
out and launched herself up and into the sky.

She was meant to return to her sacred city.

She did not.

 

1

In a city in the heart of the world, in a palace in its very center, was a slave—a girl. Once upon a time the girl had borne ancestral markings on her face and danced happily among family and friends. She’d been kidnapped, as all girls in stories were, and brought against her will to the royal palace to serve as body double to a princess. Once upon a time, the girl—I—had been a rebel, and forced to make a choice between the rebellion and a princess who had undergone a spell of transformation herself. I’d chosen the princess and saved her life. The price had been high—my family was beaten, and I was threatened with their lives.

On ancient maps of Andala, Walili was the center of the world—all the world on the map was oriented to it, and all roads led to it. The palace had once been its exact center. The “center” was, of course, relative. The world was a globe, and unless Walili had once lived in its core, it was no more central than Shafaqaat or Al Hoceima. And yet it had become the center of my world, cut off as I was from the rest of it. Six weeks had passed in the center of the world. Six weeks of being cut off from the rest of it, being cut off from news, from everyone and everything, save Tala. Tala, my first friend, who even now in the shadow of my greatest mistake, remained with me. Remained
kind.

A near impossible feat in a place like the Ziyaana.

In my isolation I’d requested a loom and wool to weave. I’d missed the old comforts of my village, and though as a child I’d resented turning wool to yarn, and yarn into tapestry, my days in the Ziyaana were empty unless I was called upon to serve. Tala obliged me and sometimes joined me when I offered to teach her.

In Tanajir, the village of my childhood, I would have made the loom myself, would have heckled my brothers Husnain and Aziz as they attempted to shear sheep the next village over, would have helped in spinning and dying it. Here, all those steps were taken care of by someone else, so I could begin designing the tapestry almost immediately. In the last six weeks I’d managed to produce a tapestry of Massinia, the prophet of Dihya, with her tesleet companion behind her. It was a poor replica of the mural on Ouzdad, but I’d done the best rendering I could.

If I could, I would have worked on the tapestry all day. But the third bell of the morning roused me from my reverie, and despite the enclosure of this wing, the desert chill still managed to seep in early in the morning and late at night. The autumn months were finally here. On Cadiz the first frost would be appearing, coating windows and whatever was left in the orchards and rose fields. I would be darning my winter cloaks, and likely arguing with Husnain over whether we wanted to risk poaching the small foxes that lived at the foot of the mountains. A small crime that I would have gladly gone along with in the past, but with the burning of the orchards before my abduction, would have seemed foolhardy—tempting the Vath soldiers for more trouble.

A small smile stole across my features, then faded. I was lucky he yet lived—Aziz had likely had to tie him up to keep him from reaching out to the rebels the Vath suspected of hiding on our small moon.

I was still thinking of him and the rest of my family when Tala came to collect me.

“The high stewardess has commanded your presence,” she said softly.

I set the loom down, throat dry.

“Now?” I asked. She nodded.

“Come. Let’s get you dressed quickly.”

I dressed, and once done, Tala draped a hooded mantle over my shoulders and drew the hood over my hair. Our walk was short and quiet, and at last we returned to the aviary where I’d held my first audience with Nadine. The high stewardess sat on a chair as she had on our first meeting, flanked by four droids and with Maram to her right. Maram didn’t acknowledge our entrance, but the droids came to attention and Nadine smiled.

All these weeks I’d dreaded my next meeting with Nadine. She was the shadow cast over my internment, my jailer and kidnapper, determined to break me by any means. I expected to feel small and afraid as I sank to my knees before her.

I didn’t.

A hot anger sat in the pit of my belly, churning. Anger at the stewardess and everything she represented, and anger at myself for my ignorance. She was an adversary I’d never accounted for, the hand on Maram’s cradle, the snake in the grass, the whisper in her ear. If not for Nadine, perhaps, I might have convinced Maram of the truth: that I was her friend, her sister. Nadine’s arrogance and hatred had stolen my home, hurt my family, and finally turned my friend away from me.

“How penitent you seem,” she drawled, coming to stand over me.

“My lady,” I murmured, then raised my head a little. “Your Highness.”

Maram did not meet my gaze. There was a dazed look to her, as if she had slipped somewhere deep inside herself. She had no desire to be here, I realized with a start. Did she not want to see me? What had transpired in the six weeks since we’d seen each other last? I knew her, though Nadine, I was sure, wished I didn’t. I knew greatness and kindness lay in her. I knew that if given the chance, she would be a great queen. That if given the strength, she would stand up for what was right. Maram understood the weight of her mother’s legacy, as much as she had shied from it in the end. If she were out of Nadine’s shadow, I knew

“Do you know why you are alive?” Nadine said.

“I am Maram’s only twin,” I said, rather than hold my tongue.

“The penitence was a ruse, then?” Nadine said. The droids raised their arms as one. “Some contrition would be worth your while, girl.”

“I have done my duty,” I replied, still looking at Maram. “She is alive.”
Maram stared at me, her eyes blank, her chin propped up on the heel of her hand. She looked as a traumatized child might—she had endured this particular horror before, and today she had shut down and refused to engage.

“She’s right,” she said dully and made a gesture with her hand. The droids retracted their weapons and returned to standing attention. “Get on with it, Nadine.”

I frowned in confusion. It?

“In a week,” Nadine said—was that glee?—and returned to her seat, “Her Highness will be getting married. The wedding is a public affair. You will take her place.”

My eyes widened in horror. Never would I have imagined that I would have to go through her marriage on her behalf.

I had given Idris up after seeing what Nadine would do to my family. Like my connection to the rebels, the cost of our relationship was too high. I loved him—Dihya knew how much I loved him—but there was no world in which we could be together.

“It’s a sacred rite,” I gasped out. “For the Vath and the Kushaila. You cannot mean to have me proxy for you?”

Proxy marriages were an old and antiquated tradition. In the past they were the product of distance and necessity. In some places, parents proxied for their children. But we all of us understood that regardless of who went through the ritual, it was the people on whose behalf we enacted those rituals that were married. And so, though
it would be me standing there, Maram and Idris would be the ones who were wed.

She raised an eyebrow, and the Maram I’d known at the beginning of my sojourn in the Ziyaana appeared.

“Yes,” she drawled. “It is entirely reasonable that I should allow Idris, my political shield among your people, to marry my shield, a farmer’s daughter.”

I struggled to not lower my gaze, even as I flushed hot with embarrassment. “Then why?” I whispered.

“Sending a proxy in place is perfectly legal. It will not take away from its sanctity and legitimacy. He will still be married to me.” Her face was now entirely blank, her voice flat. I was in the grip of a panic, my chest tight with anxiety. I did not want to see him again, to watch those feelings rise up, to have a hand in giving him to someone else.

“But—” I started.

“It is public,” Nadine repeated. “And this is why you yet live. If you will shirk your duty, then I will march you to the executioner.”

I almost reached for Maram, almost begged. The intervening weeks had healed the wound of letting him go, of tearing him out of my heart. This—going through the motions of a marriage to him for someone else—would undo it all.

Maram stood from her chair as silent as a ghost and walked to me. The hems of her skirts brushed over my knees.

“Is there a problem?” she asked softly. “Or are all your words hollow?”

I drew in a shuddering breath and closed my eyes.

“No, Your Highness,” I said. “I am capable of fulfilling my duty.”

Her hand came beneath my chin, the hold gentle, as if she were cradling a child. As if the look in her eye—that she might take my head at any moment—was not there.

“Understand, Amani,” she said softly, “I would do anything just to spite you.”

And then her hand was gone, and she swept out of the room, an orchestra of fluttering skirts and the chime of jewelry following in her wake.

 

Excerpted from Court of Lions, copyright © 2020 by Somaiya Daud.


 

Earlier this year, author Somaiya Daud appeared on First Draft Pod with Sarah Enni. Listen to a clip below!

 Transcript follows, edited for clarity.

Sarah Enni: So let’s end with a question that I think will tie into Mirage and also Court of Lions. This is a really great question I got on Instagram for you. Lost culture is a theme in Mirage. How does this relate to today? I mean, how did you think about loss culture in the world of Mirage? How is that going to play into Court of Lions? And what’s interesting to you about that, as a theme?

Somaiya Daud: So my mother is an immigrant from Morocco. I think everybody knows this. And I speak some Darija which is the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco. And I was trained in Fusha, which is classical Arabic, as a kid because I went to religious school and that’s part of the curriculum. But up until, I don’t know how old I was, I thought of my mother as Arab cause she spoke Arabic obviously. And I thought she spoke three languages, English, French, and Arabic. And then at some point in the last 10 years, I realized that she was not Arab. She was Amazigh, which is the collective term for indigenous peoples in North Africa. She was Schlouhi. Her mother was Schlouhi and her father was Sahrawi, which are two groups in Morocco—I’m not going to get into that divergence. She also spoke a fourth language, Teschilhit, which is the indigenous language of her mother’s people. And I found out she spoke Teschilhit because I asked her about it. Me and my sisters had all asked her about it for years. And she was like, I don’t remember. I don’t remember. I don’t remember. And then my sister went with her to Morocco a few years ago and she and her high school best friend were talking.

The thing about Darija Arabic is that it’s only considered Arabic for sociopolitical reasons. Linguistically, the proportion of indigenous languages in Darija should take it out of the running as an Arabic language. It is incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t speak a version of Dariija. Right? People from the Levant and the Gulf are like, that’s not Arabic. We don’t know what you’re saying. For the most part. And so when my sister heard her talk to her best friend, it sounds like Darija but she couldn’t understand anything that they were saying. And it was such a weird—can you imagine hearing someone speak English and being like, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Why don’t I understand what you’re saying? And it’s because they were speaking Teschilhit. And so we realized that our mother had either forgotten Teschilhit for our entire lives or she had pretended not to know it because there was legislation in Morocco about speaking indigenous languages in the classroom. Which is changing, but she grew up in the sixties, which is also like a really difficult political time in Morocco, which I’ve talked about extensively.

I think for all kids of immigrants, they’re in this weird place because not all immigrants to the United States, like their parents didn’t necessarily flee war. My mom came to the United States because she got married to an American. And there is a sense of like, you can’t inherit everything cause you’re not living there. And there’s also a disconnect. My mother understands conversations with cultural appropriation, but the stakes for her are nonexistent because she grew up in a place where you can’t appropriate Moroccan culture in Morocco because everyone is Moroccan. And the power dynamics are entirely different. Whereas for me, my mother does not understand me and my sisters’ like frustration with like how pop culture loves the Hamsa. She’s like, whatever ’cause you go to Morocco and it’s like stitched into all the clothing, you know. And we’re like, white people don’t like—. This is not, you know.

Talking to a lot of my friends who are first- or second-generation immigrants, we all have these same experiences of having these weird moments where you learn this new thing about your parent that there’s no context in their new life in America where you would have learned that about them.

Right? Like, I don’t go to protests because it freaks my mother out because when she was in college, you got arrested at protests. ‘Cause Morocco had a socialist communist movement, and the government did not like that. And if you were a woman and you got arrested, you got a particular form of violence. And so my mother has a real anxiety about us going to protests. So I don’t go to protests, ’cause it’s just easier. And that sort of thing. So when I sat down to write Mirage, the frame story is that this girl has grown up in a world where her moon and and the mother planet have been colonized. And she doesn’t remember the occupation or the conquest wave. She’s just living in the after, but she’s living with her mother and her father who do [remember], who lived prior to the conquest, survived the conquest and now have to live in the after and they can see the shadows.

How do you write about that honestly and authentically? What is that like? What is the hunger for the gaps that you can see? There’s a lot of poetry in Mirage and there’s more poetry in Court of Lions. And my mom and I talked about it a lot cause she helped me with the translation and she was just very fascinated by how much I really liked it. And I was like, this is a window into, and there’s not like, um, some of the, all of the poetry is medieval. So like what we think of as Morocco didn’t actually exist in that time. And so the sort of cultural language borders that we think of as defining where poetry comes from don’t exist. Um, but in Arabic speaking countries, you learn all of the old Arabic poetry. And so she was familiar with all of the people that I was translating to some extent. And she was just fascinated by how much I loved it. Yeah.

Sarah Enni: Mmm, okay.

Somaiya Daud: Which I found interesting because she was a literature major in college and this was the stuff that she loved. Yeah. But I think like it, like it would be if, I guess like I had a kid and they were fascinated by Tennyson and I’d be like, well, I just, you know, I know Tennyson super intimately. It’s super strange to me that you find this so fascinating or whatever. Um, and so I think, I think that there is a sense in some ways, or there was a sense prior to this presidency and administration of like we have moved past, uh, the gaps of colonial trauma or whatever, or, and obviously no one who has a history in a colonized space would agree, would have ever agreed with that. But the popular narrative is we’re post-colonial, like that’s an entire field. Right. And I say that as a post-colonial scholar. Like we’re post-colonial. Um, and it’s like we’re only post-colonial because colonialism won. Right, right. And so like how do you live in that and…

Sarah Enni: Hm.

Somaiya Daud: And that, I mean, I think that’s the very obvious like analog to Mirage. Like how do you live in the after of colonialism and is there a way to win against colonialism and how do you move past the difficulty of the after? Because colonialism is not like a limb you can chop off, right? I mean, you know, it’s got, it gets its tentacles into everything and it makes everything more complicated so that if you’re a biracial citizen living post-colonialism: pre colonialism, it’s just that your mom and dad crossed borders to be with each other. But post-colonialism that becomes…your biracial identity becomes bound up in all of the different sort of power structures that like mobilize or enable you to move through particular spaces and prevent other people from moving through those spaces. Um, and so I wanted, I wanted to ask those questions and I wanted, I wanted to feel my way through them.

I don’t know that I answered anything because I don’t know how to solve colonialism.

Sarah Enni: Yeah, I was going to say an answer would be pretty presumptuous.

Somaiya Daud: Right. Yeah. The answer is chop off the head.

Sarah Enni: Revolution!

Somaiya Daud: Um, but so, so yeah, so like, so I did, I did it, it was interesting to do research for it because I did a lot of research of like post-colonial Morocco, which was a super interesting time because Morocco was trying to assert sort of a national identity and that manifests in like fascist ways.

Sarah Enni: Right.

Somaiya Daud: Um, and so I think some people found…some people found the research confusing because I wasn’t researching like French colonial Morocco. I was researching what comes after, but because how Morocco thought about indigenous identity and how that got legislated happened in post-colonial Morocco. The French just wanted to kill everybody. Right?

Sarah Enni: Yeah. They’re not great.

Somaiya Daud: Yeah.

Sarah Enni: Um, but you, you did that, I feel like you were able to access narratively, you allowed yourself to talk about a lot of these things because, um, the two characters are such, they’re so different in class. They’re so different in perspective.

Somaiya Daud: Yeah. Yeah. And I wanted, I got, I heard a review from a youth from like a very young person. I think so like, I, I’m compassionate to this person. I’m glad that like they enjoyed the book, but their…they came away from the book being….saying that or believing that the, the, the point of the book was to, to convince people that if people from both sides just talk to each other then, then we would come to a better understanding of each other’s humanity. Um, and first of all, no, I’m so sorry the world is not that kind. But second of all, it’s really important to remember that Maram is a child. She’s 17 or 18, but that’s not a person that has power in the system.

Sarah Enni: Right.

Somaiya Daud: And her core conflict is realizing that she’s about to become an adult with power.

And how does she use that power? And that conflict only happens for her because she’s straddling the race line, right? Because on a level she understands that her father’s people will never fully respect her because they view her as a diluted version of the pure thing that they want. And so the conversation that Amani and Maram have would not have happened if Maram was fully Vathek and also would not have happened if Maram, if Amani had not been able to intercede prior to her becoming an adult. Right? Because when you become an adult, then your decisions are your own and you are and you are forced to make decisions. Right? And those decisions reflect on you. And the conversation that happens between Maram and Amani is about youth, right? Being kids under empire and trying to figure out how you’re going to be as an adult and what are the, what are, what is, how do you emerge from your trial by fire?

Right? Um, and again, that only becomes possible because Maram is biracial. Um, and I feel, I think I’ve gotten the sense from some readers that they’re like, well, she’s one of the Vath, but she’s really complicated. And I think if you talk to any biracial person, of which I am one, um, it’s such a complicated identity because you are always both. It’s not a percentage thing. You’re always fully both. But also you encounter all of the time, people who think that you are neither.

Sarah Enni: Oh.

Somaiya Daud: Um, from both sides. Like not people outside of those sides, but I have had, you know, Moroccans be like, when you’re black and black people say, well, you’re Arab, which I’m not. Okay. You know? Um, and that’s a really complicated position that in a person who wants to creates a level of empathy that Maram is able to, or is attempting to articulate, like the sad robot she is. She’s having a time.

Somaiya Daud: Yeah. But she, her position is her position and I think the empathy that readers feel to her is only possible because she’s in this difficult position. If she was just a Vathek person, she could, she could be compassionate, obviously, right? Um, but then the, the demands that we made on her as readers, I think her inability or her fear to fulfill them then are just cowardice. There’s no stakes to being a colonial oppressor.

Sarah Enni: Right.

Somaiya Daud: That is not in any way tied to the conquered population and being afraid to make a choice. Right. You’re just a coward. And Maram is a scared girl who is trying to, to who, who is haunted by the legacy of her mother and also understands that she has–that like the consequences of displeasing her father are catastrophic.

Sarah Enni: Right.

Somaiya Daud: And that’s really difficult anyway. I feel like we’ve gotten far away from the question.

Sarah Enni: Well it’s, I mean I was kind of diving into what Court of Lions is exploring and what throughout the series.

Somaiya Daud: Oh yeah. Court of Lions, I really, I’m really proud of Court of Lions. I’m actually, I’m really excited for readers to read it. Mom has a POV.

Sarah Enni: Yay! Um, so that’s right. I guess I should have established, that’s part of why this is so interesting is because we do get way more perspective.

Somaiya Daud: You get way more time with Maram. Um, if, if you read the Star Wars comics, um, or any of the Star Wars comics, there’s one, there’s a Leia comic, which I haven’t read, but I’ve seen this panel and I remember I put it, I think I, I like, I made it like my laptop wallpaper or something. And so it’s Leia, she’s on Naboo and it’s before, it’s after she realizes that she’s not an Organa, she’s a Skywalker, um, spoiler. But she’s going through the Naboo Royal Palace in Theed and she sees, it’s like a, um, a colored glass mosaic of Amidala. And there was like a force moment where the portrait looks at her. Right. And that was the guiding principle for Marams chapters.

Sarah Enni: Aw, I love that. It’s really cool that you found like a visual touchstone.

Somaiya Daud: George Lucas just gives me shit that he doesn’t know what to do with. And I’m like, I’ll fix it.

Sarah Enni: I’ll take it from here.

Somaiya Daud: [laughing] Don’t sue me, George Lucas.

Sarah Enni: He can only go so far. You know what I mean? That’s okay. He did a lot. This has been so, so fun. I really appreciate you weighing in on all this stuff. Thanks for joining me.

 

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