Chapter no 15

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

The sound wouldn’t stop. It rang and rang and rang despite all her swallowing to make it daama stop. Zafira had heard of detonations, bundles of fuses and sparks and fire trapped in a box, a Pelusian invention as fascinating as any. She did not appreciate innovation now. Screams echoed as if from leagues away, and the ground quivered from the hundreds of feet pelting across it. Drawing near.

Get up, the Jawarat commanded. GET UP.

Zafira swayed. She stood on shaky legs, hating the Jawarat and hating her stupidity, which had drawn her outdoors. Shadows draped across her, sand clouded her vision, but it was the ringing from that damned explosion that made her blind, for she had always seen with her ears as much as her eyes. Glass shattered. Somewhere else, a woman screamed. Men shouted. Through a bleary gaze, she saw flashes of silver cloaks and drawn scimitars. The Sultan’s Guard.

She could not afford to be seen, let alone caught. Hands gripped her shoulders and she fought against them as she was pulled back into the alcove near Aya’s house.

“Steady,” a small voice said. Zafira had heard that word in the same voice countless times as she hid away in her room while her sister cared for their mother.

She blinked her vision into focus as the ringing dulled. “What are you doing here?”

“I was waiting for you when I heard the explosion,” Lana said, frantic, her gaze slipping to the chaos behind Zafira. “I came as quickly as I could. Go back to the house.”

Lana didn’t move to follow. There was a stubborn set to her jaw that Zafira recognized from the hundreds of times

she’d worn the expression herself. Only then did she see the kit in Lana’s hands, a wooden box barely closed around the tools and bandages and salves within.

“Go, Okhti,” Lana urged, gesturing toward a narrow sliver of space near the fountain. “It’s a shortcut. Aya’s house is on the other end.”

Zafira didn’t know why she hadn’t realized that before. “They’re waiting for you.”

“Are you mad? I’m not leaving you here. It’s dangerous,” Zafira said, shaking her head. She shifted the Jawarat to her other hand and grabbed Lana’s arm.

Her sister wrenched away. Zafira went still.

Lana’s eyes were hard. “You have your duty as I have mine.”

You owe the world nothing, Zafira almost said, but that was not her line. It was Deen’s, when he had tried to stop her from venturing to Sharr. It was meant to stop, to hinder, to cage. Yet she wanted to say it—to say something, for Lana’s unspoken words were as loud and as clear as the screams and shouts just beyond this pocket of space.

Zafira had left her day after day after day, choosing a monstrous forest over the sister who needed her. She had left her again for a villainous island, knowing full well that she might never return to the sister who had no one else.

“Did Aya tell you that? This is not the same as aiding in an infirmary. Aya isn’t even here.”

Lana didn’t reply. People continued to scream. The stubborn set of her sister’s jaw shifted to something else. An expression that looked eerily like Aya’s, too experienced for a child.

Give her a chance, Yasmine said. It had been a while since she’d heard her friend’s voice in her head. It was always the

Jawarat or, even louder, the Jawarat’s silence. Zafira stepped back and the fountain gurgled, an apt audience of one. Stay safe. Be careful. Watch out—all pairings she wanted to say yet knew were wrong for this moment.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered instead, and disappeared down the narrow path.



No one was in the foyer when she returned. As if no one aside from Lana had even bothered to worry about her. She washed her feet and hurried up the stairs, dropping beside her bed and thinking of the hearts, safe with Arawiya’s most dangerous assassin.

All that way to Sharr, and the hearts were just idling within these walls.

All that care to find the Jawarat, and she had committed the terrible mistake of binding it to herself.

All that trouble to keep her sister safe, and the girl marched straight into danger. She didn’t know what kind of confidence Aya had fed her, what kind of spiel about duty and obligation, but Zafira wasn’t certain she approved. Skies, listen to yourself. Zafira had disappeared into the Arz around that same age. Who was she to deny Lana?

A knock sounded on her door, as soft as it had been the night before, as if part of him wanted to see her and the other wanted nothing of it. She shoved the Jawarat beneath her pillow, the vision still plaguing her, and opened the door.

The light streaming through her window caught on Nasir’s scar and reflected in his eyes.

“I wasn’t sure you’d returned. I was training with Aya, and it’s impossible to hear down there.” So that was why he hadn’t come when the explosion struck.

“There was a riot,” she said. “Lana is out there.” She didn’t know why she thought he would care—about Lana, about her dead mother, about any of it. She didn’t know why words just spilled from her without prompting when he looked at her the way he did.

“She was supposed to wait for you in the foyer, but we thought as much when Aya noticed her kit was missing. She’ll find her.” Worry not, his tone said when his tongue refused.

Zafira nodded, reminding herself that this was what Lana had been doing while she was away and today was no different. The hall was empty except for the voices drifting from downstairs. Seif’s drawl and Kifah’s lightning-quick responses.

“Is it my turn to look after the hearts?” she asked.

He looked down at the crate in his hands, and she paused when she saw the way his jaw tightened, the way his gaze shifted to her hands, looking for … the Jawarat.

“I’m delivering them to Seif. It’s his turn.”

He was kind enough to sound apologetic, but that didn’t lessen the sting, the revelation. Words collected on her tongue

Do you not trust me?—before dignity stole them away. She couldn’t truly blame him; the Jawarat had used her to speak. What if it used her for worse? To abuse the hearts?

What if they found that vial of blood and the Jawarat goaded her to do something unspeakable?

Skies, what do you want? she snarled in her head. The book pretended it couldn’t hear.

A line strained at his jaw. “Are you all right?”

No, she wanted to say. “Isn’t that what you always ask?”

His dark brows knitted together. “Isn’t that what I should ask? After what happened?”

“Should, must, need,” she droned, her pulse quickening. It was easy to rile him when he looked so bewildered. “Have you ever thought of what you want, Prince?”

His eyes dropped to her mouth and her neck warmed before he looked away, so perplexed by her question that a laugh crept up her throat and died on her tongue.

“What color do you like most?” His words ran into one another.

This time, her surprised laugh slipped free before she could contain it, and his eyes brightened at the sound before he paused.

“Do people not ask that?” “Children, maybe,” she replied.

Sorrow flitted across his face, and she wanted to take back her words. He was the son of a tyrant. Even when the Silver Witch was sultana, Zafira doubted Nasir’s youth had been any more youthful than after her feigned death. Only safer. Far from the consolation a child should have to seek.

“It’s blue,” she said softly.

A faint smile came and went. “I should have known.”

“My baba’s favorite shade. ‘The waters of the Baransea on the calmest of days beneath the cloudiest of skies.’ He’s gone, too. I’m officially an orphan.” Her hand had slipped to her jambiya, fingers closing around the worn hilt. She knew he was reading her in the silence.


She thought of how best to string the words together before she realized she didn’t need to coat them in honey. Not for him. “He went to the Arz when I couldn’t and returned months later. Mad. So Ummi stabbed him through the heart, because … because she had no choice.”

“Perhaps he wanted to see you one last time.”

She stared at the sheen on the stone floor, at the faint pattern on his robes, the gleam of his onyx-hilted jambiya. She inhaled the homely scent of freshly baked bread. She wasn’t going to cry in front of him. The Jawarat’s vision flashed in her mind and she set her jaw.

“Your turn. What color do you like most?”

His eyes flared before he could mask his surprise. Did he not think she’d ask him in return? It was always a game, capturing the small displays of Nasir Ghameq’s emotions. A game she liked, she realized. One she could play forever and never tire of.

“You,” he said, so softly it was only sound.

The intensity of his gaze stole the air from her lungs. She shook her head. “That—”

“Every color that makes you.”

She held her breath, waiting, wishing. But he closed his mouth, some part of him retreating.

“Tell me more,” she said softly. She stepped closer and his head snapped up, the sun lighting his eyes in gold.

His lips tightened and the mask carefully settled over his features again, gray eyes hardening to stone as the drag of feet up the stairs signaled the end of their solitude.

“Another time,” he said with the voice he used for everyone but her, less promise and more dismissal. He clenched his fist around a flare of shadow, and with one last glance he was gone.

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