Title: The Moth & The Flame
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Novella
What’s it About: Despina was supposed to be the handmaiden to the Calipha, but instead she was made the Guardian of the Garments as the Calipha has brought her own handmaids. The cloth that she was working had been ripped, so she went to a room with better lighting to take a look at the cloth. There, Jalal Al-Khoury, the Captain of the Royal Guard, encounters her, and they have a little back-and forth banter.
Despina continues to come and go from the Calipha’s room, dropping off items that the Calipha would like, such as perfume. In fact, during one trip to the Calipha’s room, Despina encounters the Calipha and they chat, with Despina telling the Calipha that she should give the Caliph the calligraphy that she has been working on. Jalal encounters her again after her encounter with the Calipha, and Despina challenges him to a wager, since he claims to know everything about women. Despina asks him to tell her her name, but he doesn’t know, and so Jalal tells her to choose her prize. They meet up later that evening at the discussed location, and Despina tells Jalal that she wants this Jessamine flower, the one closest to the top of the tree, so despite his fear of heights, he goes up to get it and ends up falling down onto the floor. Despina, fearing that he’s dead, runs to him and tries to shake him awake. He tells her to stop yelling into his ears as he comes to his senses. They share a moment in which Despina kisses Jalal and tells him her name.
For the next three days Despina waits for the Calipha to call her, while avoiding Jalal, and telling herself to move on, not letting her heart betray her into falling in love with Jalal. Several months go by and the Calipha never calls on Despina, who just continues to do what she has to do. Then the Calipha dies under mysterious circumstances. During all this time, Despina kept encountering Jalal, who requested that she stay the night with him, but she never did. She let herself lose herself in kisses, but she refused to be the mistress of a rich man, like her mother. Even though the Calipha had been buried in the afternoon, darkening shadows fell across the palace, and the Royal Guard had went with the Caliph to visit the late Calipha’s father, so she hadn’t seen Jalal in a while.
She couldn’t deny herself and went in search of Jalal, only to find him on the floor of his room, covered in blood. Jalal admits that it isn’t his blood, but the blood of the former Calipha’s father. He admits that he didn’t kill the father, but doesn’t say more except to ask her to stay. Despina removes his clothes and washes the blood from his hands.
Sometime later, Despina rushes into her own servant’s room, locking the door behind, and stripping all the clothes to look at herself in the looking glass. She studies herself in the looking glass and realizes that no one can tell yet that she is pregnant, but it won’t be the case for much longer. She has only a few months left to keep this a secret, and chastises herself for being her mother, carrying the child of a man who is not her husband, and one with whom Despina had fallen in love. She made the decision to not tell Jalal about his child, because he could never know how much this means to her and how much she loved him. She will not give him any power over her, and make sure that the child will grow up in a place full of hate, made to feel like a lesser person.
She then dresses again, because she has a job to do: She needs to prepare wedding garments for yet another marriage. The Caliph was marrying again at dusk, something that he had been doing every day and Despina has lost count how many young women were married to him only to die in the morning of the following day. She had decided to stay away after the first few deaths, because she could not stomach the destruction. Despina picks out the cloths, and drops it with the servants who will be dressing the new Calipha, and they gossip, telling Despina that this Calipha volunteered to marry the caliph. They all agree that she had to be crazy to do such a thing as volunteer to marry the Caliph
My Verdict: I enjoyed this prequel introducing two of the characters in the Wrath and the Dawn series. I really love how Despina has such a sharp wit around her, and how she’s able to challenge Jalal with it, keeping him on his toes. That said, there’s not much to uncover here because it’s just a little story before the story, but I wonder how this relationship will work out between them in the main book.