Chapter no 11

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

Zafira pressed her head against the smooth wood and heard his heavy sigh on the other side, a reminder of how easily his aloof mask could fall apart.

Then, a long while later, his door slipped closed.

She knew there was more he wanted to say. There was chaos in his eyes and a barricade across his lips. She could have helped him along, but he was the prince. He should be more than capable. Skies, she was as pettish as Seif.

“Who was that?” Lana asked from the bed, wider than any Zafira had ever lain in. She spoke as if Zafira had just returned after a day of wandering through the stalls of the sooq. As if there weren’t a death or two strung between them and a new world cresting the horizon.

Again, Zafira waited for the burn of tears. Instead, there was a strange unraveling in her chest that made it easier to breathe.

Lana tilted her head, silently repeating her question. What could Zafira say—that he was a friend she had made? A boy she had kissed? A prince she must bow to? The assassin whose father was responsible for their mother’s death among hundreds of others?

“Nasir,” Zafira replied, setting aside the Jawarat. There we go. The world was full of Nasirs, wasn’t it?

Lana shot up. “As in the Prince of Death?”

Clearly not enough Nasirs.

“I wouldn’t … call him that,” Zafira said as Lana turned away so she could drop her clothes in a heap and sink into the cool bath.

“I didn’t know he would look nice,” Lana contemplated, and Zafira bit her lower lip, thinking of the crimson linen stretched across his shoulders, the little triangle of skin framed by his unbuttoned collar. The way the fabric of his sirwal clung to his thighs. He didn’t look nice, he looked … Zafira lifted her hands to her cheeks.

Something about knowing he was a short distance away when she wasn’t dressed terrified her more than the Arz ever had. It allured her more than the Arz ever had.

Lana came to the side of the tub. “You’re pretty when you’re happy.”

Zafira leaned her head against the rim. “I’m not.” His soft voice caressed her ears. I didn’t mean it.

Some part of her had known it was a lie, even then. That moment between the marble columns was too real, too raw, filled with too much. It was how easily he spoke the lie that had angered her. How easily he would dismiss her, and himself.

“But you’ve caught the attention of the prince!”

Which was precisely it, wasn’t it? She had been drawn to him as he had been to her, and it wasn’t as if there was an abundance of women on Sharr to rivet him. It would be different now. “Didn’t you just call him the Prince of Death?”

“Prince of Death, Demenhune Hunter. Titles don’t tell you who a person is.”

Zafira sighed. “How can I be happy, Lana? I lost friends on Sharr. Ummi is dead. Our village is gone.”

Lana stared at Zafira’s hands for a beat. “Was Deen one of those friends?”

Zafira jerked, splashing water on her face, and Lana gave her a small, wavering smile.

“I had a feeling when I saw him stepping after you and boarding the ship. He was never as … resilient as you. You would fight your way out of the grave for us. You would kill for us. He was content enough with the chance to die for the ones he loved.”

Zafira studied Lana: the deeper layer of sorrow in her words, the glisten in her gaze. Sweet snow, her sister had loved Deen. Not in the way Zafira had loved him, for he had been one of her dearest friends. Not in the way Deen himself had loved Lana, as a doting older brother. But more.

Deen was soft where Zafira was hard. He was ready to see the best in the world, where Zafira saw darkness. Would it come as any surprise that Lana had fallen in love with him?

“One moment we were safe,” Zafira said softly, “the next there were three bowstrings snapping at once.” She would never forget that sound, or the breathless lack of it that followed. Her fingers closed around the ring hanging at her chest from a golden chain, and Lana’s eyes followed. “I’m sorry.”

Lana’s throat shifted. She struggled to find words, for the grief in books was a mere fraction of what the real world inflicted. “It was meant to happen, even if I wish it weren’t so.”

If Zafira had loved him, perhaps. Accepted his proposal.

Married him.

She shook free from the line of thought and hastened to change the subject. “How did you escape the attack?”

“Misk,” Lana said, still somber. She boxed away her sorrow with a heavy exhale. “He was ready when the soldiers came in. As if he knew before it happened. A few of his friends ushered the caliph and sayyidi Haytham into their caravan.”

Of course he had. Because he was Altair’s spider, sent to spy on the Demenhune Hunter, and he would have received

word as spies were wont to do. Clearly not early enough, if there had only been time to vacate the bigoted caliph and no one else. She felt a needless sense of betrayal, as if by knowing moments before, Misk had somehow played a part in the massacre.

The Jawarat hummed. Water dripped from her hair. Plink, plink, plink.

“I tried to go back for Ummi, but he wouldn’t let me, and when he went back, she was gone. There wasn’t time to keep searching, because we had to leave for the palace.”

There was a kind of sand, rare in the desert, that appeared as harmless as normal sand until it sank beneath one’s feet, swallowing the unsuspecting, worsening the longer they struggled, loosening its grip only when they did the opposite. That was how grief was. The longer one wallowed, the more it hungered.

Zafira tossed her towel onto the chair and tugged on fresh clothes.

“I thought it would hurt more,” Lana said, searching for a way to understand as Zafira pulled her to the bed.

“When we buried Baba five years ago, we buried part of Ummi, too. She’s been dead for as long as Baba has. She loved us, but not the way she loved Baba,” Zafira said carefully, as she herself tried to make sense of why she felt relief more than sorrow, guilt more than pain. “He was her life. We were the reminders of it.”

Lana looked away.

“Don’t,” Zafira said, gripping her chin. “You were steadfast by Ummi’s side, and you did your part. You have no reason to feel guilt.” Unlike Zafira, who had reconciled with her mother only to lose her. “How did you get here? How did you find me?”

Lana toyed with the tiny door on the lantern, twisting shadows across the room. “The Arz erupted back to life just after you left Demenhur. The soldiers came in moments later, and it was chaos, Okhti. People were running and screaming, and then they just … stopped. Some people have that power, don’t they? They only have to exist and everyone around them abandons reason. That was how it was when Ammah Aya came. Tall and beautiful and dreamy.

“I saw her helping people, ushering them to safety. Yasmine dragged me into our cart then, but I saw her through the flaps. She was bent over a boy lying on his back, pumping his still chest and holding something against his nose. When we reached the palace, I found out the boy had lived.”

Zafira blinked. Color bled across Lana’s cheeks. Sweet snow below.

“I was focusing on you and Aya, but maybe I was wrong.

Do I need to be worried about this … boy?”

Lana gave her a look. “He’s a friend. We don’t talk much, because he’s always wearing a mask to protect his lungs, but the company is nice when I’m working.”

“You work in the palace?” Zafira asked. That wasn’t part of the bargain she had made with the caliph when she’d agreed to journey to Sharr.

“I’m getting to that,” Lana said sternly, pulling the covers over her tiny feet. “Once Ammah Aya cured the boy, the palace healers wouldn’t let her go. She tended to everyone they brought in. Soldiers, too. The caliph and most of the palace men frowned at a woman being lauded, but she didn’t care. And there wasn’t much they could do because she is safin.”

Lana glowed with admiration, and Zafira was glad for it, even if it came with a sting of jealousy, for Lana’s awe was usually reserved for Zafira.

“I tried to help her the way I used to with Ummi, and she liked it, I think,” Lana went on. “She liked having someone who knew what she needed before she could ask. We were attuned to each other. Everyone else mostly harassed her with questions upon questions, you know?

“I helped people, Okhti. I finally understood what it was like to be you.”

Zafira tamped down her smile at that, quelling her pride and a flush of embarrassment for thinking she had been replaced.

“Seif claims Ammah Aya is the best healer Arawiya has ever known,” Lana continued, and Zafira remembered Benyamin’s son, Aya’s melancholy tune in the dreamwalk. How skilled a healer could Aya truly be if she couldn’t save her own son? Or perhaps that was the greater evil, having power in your hands but being powerless to alter a reality.

“And she couldn’t have found a better apprentice,” Zafira said honestly.

Lana ducked her head with a shy smile. “Well, I know what half of Ummi’s little cabinet is for now, though I haven’t had a chance to go back home and fetch it. I’ve learned so much, Okhti. Ammah Aya stayed in the Demenhune palace until the Arz fell.”

And that was when Aya would have made her way here, to Sultan’s Keep, to see her beloved again. Only to learn he had died leagues away.

“And Yasmine just … let you leave with her?” “She, er, didn’t.”

Lana didn’t elaborate, but Zafira knew Yasmine.

“I see. If you haven’t already, you do know you’re going to suffer for this, yes?”

“As well as you do when you have to tell her about her brother,” Lana taunted, and Zafira could tell she was trying to make light of something she wasn’t ready to just yet.

Zafira cast her a look. “My point here is that Aya could have been a murderer who had taken a fancy to you. Did you ever consider that?”

Lana laughed before she realized Zafira was serious. “You could have died on Sharr, but that didn’t stop you.” She closed her small hands around Zafira’s. “I had nothing left to lose.”

There was always more to lose.

“Besides,” Lana added with a wrinkle of her nose. “Ammah Aya doesn’t strike me as the murderous type. I trust her.”

Zafira sighed. What mattered was that Lana was safe, and that Aya wasn’t a monster working for the Lion or someone equally terrible. Zafira trusted Aya, too. She was Benyamin’s wife, after all.

“Anyone who can mend a body must find destroying it just as fascinating,” Zafira teased, and when Lana didn’t disagree, she nudged her. “I’m proud of you, Lana. So, so proud.”

She beamed. “You’re the one who took down the Arz. You saved Arawiya.”

Zafira had missed being the focus of her sister’s unhampered admiration.

“I’m afraid I’m not as grand as the heroes in your stories. Nor did I do any of it alone,” Zafira said. And yet she and the others hadn’t saved Arawiya. Not yet. She closed her hand around the Jawarat, meeting Lana’s curious gaze. She deserved to know, didn’t she? That her sister had bound herself to an ancient tome. That her sister lived and breathed with the memories of the Sisters of Old. “Nor have I returned unchanged.”

She told Lana of their journey. Of meeting the Lion of the Night. Of the Jawarat and the ifrit. The Silver Witch. Lana gulped down every last word, and when Zafira finished, she realized there were fates worse than the Arz.

She saw it when the lantern light reflected amber in Lana’s eyes. When a girl as tiny as her knitted a man’s flesh together, undeterred by blood.

Lana was far from her little reading nook in the foyer of their tiny house, deep in the crux of danger, yet it was a blessing, wasn’t it? The Lion had stolen their home, their parents, their village, but Lana was safe, and that meant Zafira could finish what she had started: end him, find Altair, restore magic, and then face Yasmine, which was altogether more frightening than everything else combined.

The very thought of telling her of Deen’s fate filled Zafira with fear and dread and a deep-rooted sorrow that crowded her throat.

Lana was watching her, and Zafira forced a smile. “Is Sultan’s Keep everything you imagined?”

For a moment, she was afraid Lana would push. Needle her about the Jawarat’s whispers, about Benyamin’s dreamwalk. About Baba’s cloak, which she would never see again.

“I was afraid I’d have nothing to do here,” Lana said instead. “It’s the sultan’s city! I’m a village girl with nothing to my name. But you know how weeds grow no matter where they’re planted? That’s me.”

Zafira didn’t point out that she was one of the most beautiful weeds in Arawiya.

“I’ve been keeping busy.” “Oh?”

Lana nodded. “The sultan’s going mad, apparently. People are rioting, and more and more are turning up in infirmaries short of medics. Ammah Aya and I have been helping. She

tutors me in the mornings, and we assist in different infirmaries from noon. They even pay a small sum. Can you believe I’ve earned enough dinars to buy something, Okhti? Money of my own.” Lana leaned forward, remembering something else. She lowered her voice. “Oh, and when I sewed a man’s arm as neatly as a seamstress, Ammah Aya called me a natural. She says that when magic returns, my affinity could be healing. Imagine that!”

Zafira felt both a flood of pride and a small sense of … loss. As if her sister no longer needed her. As if she had found purpose when Zafira had lost hers. What a selfish caravan of thought.

“What about Sukkar? Is he—” She couldn’t finish her question.

Lana smiled gently. “He’s safe. He was with us, remember?”

Another knock sounded at the door before she could press for her horse’s whereabouts, as soft and tentative as earlier.

Lana’s eyes brightened. “It’s him, isn’t it? The prince.” She nudged Zafira. “Aren’t you going to open it?”


Lana hopped off the bed. “Then I wi—”

“No, you won’t. Sit down.” Zafira glared and Lana glared back. She gritted her teeth. “Fine.”

Zafira opened the door with her heart in her throat. Nasir’s eyes touched her damp hair, her wrinkled qamis, and settled on her face. He was still only half-dressed.

“Are you tired?” he asked.

She furrowed her brow. “No? I rested long enough on the ship, I suppose.”

“Come with me.”

He was already turning away, and she would have refused to be ordered if she hadn’t caught the light in his eyes. The hint of diffidence. The flare of shadow escaping his fingers before he stopped it.

“Where?” she asked, ignoring Lana’s whispered “Yalla!” from her perch on the bed. Zafira wasn’t supposed to indulge him. She wasn’t supposed to indulge herself.

“I want to show you something.”

It was rare for him to use the word “want.” Possibly rare for him to do anything he wanted, too.

“But my sister—”

Lana hissed. Skies, the girl didn’t even know him.

Zafira stepped back into the room with a scowl. “I thought you missed me.”

“Of course. And if you don’t get too engrossed,” Lana said with a grin, “you’ll be back in no time.”

“Engrossed?” Zafira asked with a lift of her brows. Either Yasmine had found someone new to share her favorite stories with, or someone’s reading material was no longer limited to adventure.

Lana only shrugged.

Zafira wrapped the Jawarat in a scarf and tucked it into a corner. Take us with you, bint Iskandar. She gritted her teeth against the voice and gave Lana’s curiosity a look. “Don’t touch it.”

“Of course, sayyida,” she replied solemnly.



Zafira followed Nasir to his room. Her eyes slipped from his robes hanging on the back of a chair to his towel stretched neatly with his drying turban on the rack and then to the bed, where the sheets were strewn from a restless attempt at sleep.

“Where are the hearts?” she asked. He’d last had them.

“With Kifah,” he answered, and closed the door behind her, closing away the entire world. Every last worry over Lana and the Lion and the Jawarat faded away, replaced by a burn low in her stomach.

He paused, realizing the same with a shallow breath, and stepped past her.

Before the window, he handed her two pieces of supple calfskin, a cross between socks and shoes. His sleeve shifted with the movement, and when he didn’t bother to conceal the teardrop tattoo as quickly as he once did, she felt … She didn’t know what she felt, but it was stirred with fear.

A kind of fear she craved. “Can you climb?”

She looked out and the desert cold bit at her nose, the stars clear and bright and real enough to grasp. Silhouetted buildings rose into the night, as vigilant as the owls she sometimes saw in the Empty Forest. They were a good two or three stories off the ground, but she shrugged against the thrum in her blood. “Of course. The first rule is don’t look down, laa?”

“Looking down is half the fun,” Nasir scoffed, but there was a strain to his voice that heightened her awareness.

“Fun. You.” She almost laughed.

He turned to her abruptly, caging her between the wall and the heat of his body. Her limbs ceased to function. Myrrh and amber twined when he lowered his head the barest fraction, his mouth so close to hers that her lips buzzed and her head spun.

The right of his mouth lifted. “I can be lots of fun, Zafira.”

She swallowed at the lazy drawl of her name, and his eyes darkened as they traced the shift of her throat. She wanted to fight the wicked grin off his mouth with her own, aware of the

sway in her body, threatening to pitch forward and close the distance between them.

“This is all I’ve been able to think about. You. Us. Those damning words,” he said softly, his voice liquid darkness.

“You said them,” Zafira breathed. “I take them back.”

“Is that how you say you’re sorry?”

“I can get on my knees for you, fair gazelle,” he whispered against her cheek, “if that is what you wish.”

This was not Sharr. This was a room with a locked door and a half-dressed prince and a bed just a small shove away. The air simmered with his dangerous words, with her errant thoughts and the tension making it hard to breathe.

“I measure fun by the pound of my pulse.” His low voice dropped even lower. Rougher. “Do you feel it?”

He trailed the backs of his fingers up her wrist, skeins of shadow following like smoke after a flame, and dipped his head, touching his mouth to the inside of her elbow with a ragged breath.

Her throat was dry. “This isn’t fun. This is … this…”

Skies, what were words? He hummed softly, almost in answer.

What would it be like to let go? To ignore caution and live this moment without restraint?

“You learn to take what you can get,” he murmured, then hefted himself onto the sill and out of sight.

Zafira sagged against the wall.

Sweet snow below.

Her arm was ablaze. How was it that a handful of rough words and a trimming of distance could make her limbs buckle like a newborn fawn’s? She gulped fistfuls of air. What was

the daama point of climbing up there anyway? It took her three tries to tug on the slightly-too-big slippers, and then she pulled herself onto the ledge just in time to catch him crawling spider-like to the top. He leaped, disappearing from view.

She had half a mind to slip back and climb into bed—her bed. She growled.


With a steadying breath, she grabbed the jutting curves of stone and pulled herself up, relieved when her toes found purchase. Don’t look down. She grabbed the next stone and climbed up another notch, nearly losing her grip when Nasir poked his head over the side again.

“Dawn will get here before you do,” he mock-whispered.

She glared at him, finally reaching a ledge wide enough to allow her to rest her cramping toes. Him and his daama idea of fun. She slid her hands along the wall, and panic cut her breath when she found nothing.

Nasir reached down. “You’ll have to jump.”

He was insane. She wasn’t going to leap in the dark, this far off the ground, only to miss his—

“Trust me,” he said softly, a weight to the words. A question behind them.

She was insane. With another glare, she bent her knees, inhaled deep, and jumped. His hands wrapped around her arms almost immediately, warm and sure, and he pulled her up with a heavy huff of air.

His touch lingered an extra beat, and Zafira was so relieved to be on solid stone, she nearly leaned into him before catching herself. Feathery curtains hung from spaced-out posts along the open rooftop. Latticed arches with intricately cut-out shapes cast alluring shadows on the cushions and rugs arranged inside, the moon’s breeze winding through like a coy shawl, the entire layout doing nothing to stop her head from

leaping to the conclusions that it did. Zafira might have been inexperienced, but she wasn’t daft.

“We’re almost there,” he said with a smirk, because, unlike her, he wasn’t daft or inexperienced.

“I’ve had enough of your fun, I think.”

He replied with a slow shrug, catching her lie. The stars crowned his hair. The heavy moon threw everything into a forgery of twilight.

“You know the way back, Huntress.” She growled. “Lead the way, Sultani.”

He melted into the night, his feet barely touching the ground as he sprinted along the edge. Her heart crammed half a croak into her throat when he leaped at the end, arms spreading, a falcon in flight for the barest of moments before he tumbled onto the next rooftop, silhouetted against the night.

If a boy can do it, why can’t I? She was the girl who had conquered the Arz, who had tamed the darkness of Sharr. Leaping across rooftops was child’s play.

Zafira stepped back, the limestone rough beneath her slippers. With a quick inhale, she darted across the expanse, the sharp drop pounding closer with her every heartbeat. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. She pushed off at the very edge, and then she was airborne. Throat-wrenching fear shot through her veins, reminding her of the fragility of life. She savored that moment when fear teetered into adrenaline and hurtled into exhilaration.

His definition of fun.

And then her feet struck the ground, stone scraping her palms, the impact jarring her jaw.

Alive. Even if she’d left her heart back on the other rooftop.

She rose on shaky legs, blood pounding in her ears. They were on a circular rooftop now, with a slender minaret rising from its center. Moonlight bathed the stairs cut into its outer walls, reflecting off the glossy obsidian tiles.

“Fair gazelle,” Nasir said, and the teasing in his tone made her go very still. “We don’t want the people to think a rukh landed.”

She scowled. “One more insult and I will shove you off the edge of this roof.”

He smiled that half smile, and Zafira wondered if it would ever rise higher. If he would ever find joy enough to carry his smile to the gray of his eyes.

“I’ll take you with me.” That tone.

“Then we’ll both die.”

“You seem to have no trouble being the end of me.”

He was watching her in that odd way of his, as if she would be lost among the stars if he looked away. It was reverent, almost. Wishful. She loosed a tight breath and averted her gaze. In the end, when this journey and mission was done, none of it would matter, would it?

He was her future king, and she his subject.

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