Excerpt from The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Opium Prince

by Jasmine Aimaq

The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq X
The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq
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  • Published:
    Dec 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Daniela Schofield
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PROLOGUE

The girl lies crumpled and still in the road, like a thing thrown away. It cannot be that I am the one who has done this to her. Just a moment ago, she ran across the road, lively, smiling, and quick. Beside me, my wife is screaming. I cannot move, but I do, my hands heavy as I take them from the steering wheel and step into the desolate road. My legs protest, but I walk. I fall to my knees and take the girl's hand. A small whimper. She is alive.

"Please, don't move. You're going to be all right." My voice breaks, sounding alien, each word between a quiver and a sob. The girl's limbs are tangled, her head tilted at an impossible angle. A bruise blackens her neck. Her red dress grows darker, blood blooming through the cotton, which rises in the breeze and settles back onto her body a shroud.

The endless desert, the Afghan sun, the silent sky. They watch. The road is the only thing in motion. The asphalt ripples in the heat, as if ready to open up and engulf us, making the sands of Kabul Province our tomb. I stroke her hair as her pain threads its way into me. Into places I didn't know existed. I let out a sob, but it sounds far away.

As she tries to sit up, blood spills from her brow, streaming down her face and throat. Her bare feet are wrapped in a film of dust and sand. I try to steady myself, but my hand slips in something greasy and slick, a rainbow of engine oil and blood. The asphalt buckles again.

"Where are your people?" I say. "Tell me. I'll find help." I squeeze her fingers gently, afraid to break another thing.

Her lips barely move when she asks, "Am I dying?"

"No. You're going to be all right," I lie.

She starts to speak. "Don't talk anymore," I beg, fearing the words will end her, take the last energy that could keep her alive. Where are her parents? Sewn on her dress are little round mirrors, and I see a hundred fractured close-ups of my face.

She struggles again to raise her head and say something. I cradle her in my slippery hand. In the car, the music plays on. Beethoven's chords shred the air into shards. Rebecca is crying, fumbling at the buttons and dials in vain, plucking at the cassette that won't stop.

With shocking force, the girl grasps my arm and hisses, "I'm only ten. Maybe nine. It's not fair." She tries to point to something. "My doll," she says. Her eyes close.

"No. Stay awake, please. Please try. I'll find help." I say these words, but I understand for the first time what it means to be helpless. I hear what will be her last breath, air drawn in sharply as she dies. I watch her face for a single sign, wondering if maybe I believe in miracles after all. I swear to a god I don't believe in that I will be faithful if he shows his power now, just this once. I will never ask for anything else.

I wish I could say that I didn't see her at all. That she whipped into view from nowhere, an apparition out of the desert. But it isn't true. I saw her, but only as a blur of color trailed by a playful tangle of long, dark hair. The music stops at last. Then Rebecca is there, bending over the sunbaked road. She has something in her hand: a yellow-haired doll with a mirror-dotted dress. Sweat and tears trickle from my face, salting my lips. I gather the child in my arms and hold her close, rocking her back and forth. Her form is so small, bones hollow like a bird's. Still, her weight nearly breaks me. I must find her people. I rise, afraid I might drop her.

Rebecca insists she will go with me, her tears flecking the girl's feet, and I am a mere echo when I respond, No. Please, wait in the car and lock the doors. I have never been so alone, the gates in my mind clicking shut, walls closing in until everything is crushed but my unbreakable guilt. I look up. No clouds, no birds, no god. Only sun, hitting the desert like acid rain.

I walk in the middle of the road, counting my steps, turning the rhythm into a two-note lullaby. One-two. Three-four. In 108 steps I reach the steep incline in the road. I climb, knowing what I will find on the other side.

Excerpted from The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq. Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine Aimaq. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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