Chapter no 19

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

It was a bad idea to invite him to sit on her bed, Zafira knew. The gleam in his eyes made it hard to think and speak and daama breathe. He paused at the apparent change in her thoughts.

“You don’t even have to speak. Your face does it for you.”

He leaned close, brushing his fingers down the side of her face, and she sank into the familiarity of his touch, knowing every moment was stolen. He was the prince. Once this was over, he would remember that there were far more women in existence.

“Should I stop?”

Yes, she thought, but some part of her delighted at the way his voice broke.

“No,” she said, and brazenly turned her lips to his palm. She slid her fingers up the scruff of his jaw before gently threading them in his hair. His lips touched hers, warm and soft, foreign and familiar at once, and nothing existed save for him and her and this.

He eased her back into the pillows, and she fell drunk on the faint sweetness of pomegranates and the weight of him. A sound escaped her when he pulled back with a torn exhale and skimmed his hand down the length of her, lingering at her thigh.

“Wait,” she gasped. She was going to explode. Irritation flitted across his gray eyes, and she felt the sting of it as acutely as a knife.

“What is it?”

“If we do everything now, then—”

She had never seen anyone so still, as if even his heart stopped at his command.

“Then what?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said quickly. Her pulse pounded at her neck. She didn’t feel empowered as she usually did with him. She didn’t feel longing. She felt … debased. Everything felt wrong and she wanted to disappear.

“Interesting,” he murmured. He swept off the bed, and she saw a line of deep mauve on his robes that hadn’t been there before. “I thought you would never make the mistake of falling in love.”

Zafira went cold at the sudden change in his voice. The way it deepened into velvet. Confident in a way only immortality can provide. There was only one to whom she had spoken those words aloud: the Arz. There was only one who had listened from its depths. Who had befriended her as she had him.

His eyes, no longer gray, glinted amber in the lantern light.

A scream clambered to her throat, and she tried, tried, tried to shout, but her voice was swallowed by horror and the dizzying sensation of his mouth. A thousand and one emotions slowed her down: fear, disgust, anger, and—worse—desire.

Before a warning repressed it all: the Jawarat was in plain sight.

“You are every bit as decadent as I imagined, Huntress.” The Lion’s voice was a caress as the room festered with shadows, dark as a hollow grave.

Her pulse pounded in time to her single thought: The Lion.

The Lion. The Lion.

“I missed you, azizi,” he said softly, eyes darkening as they roamed her supine form.

My darling.

She had a terrible, sickening realization: Some twisted part of her had missed him, too. She had never really lived without him. He had always been within reach, his presence exuding from the strange trees and impenetrable darkness, the shadows curling around her limbs, calming her.

A wicked grin contorted his mouth. “Did you not miss me?

We are one, you and I.”

“You’re not the first to say that,” she bit out as she dug her fists into the sheets and forced herself upright and out of bed.

He canted his head, unveiling a lock of white in his dark hair as he neared. Slowly, his features shifted into his own, and the Lion stood before her, golden tattoo glinting in the lantern light. ‘Ilm, it said. Knowledge. For which his hunger could never be sated.

“But it was I who made you what you are, my bladed compass, and because of it, you cleverly bound yourself to the Jawarat, successfully gleaning the knowledge of the Sisters of Old.”

His brows rose at her hesitation.

“You fear it,” he realized with a soft tsk, backing her to the wall.

She allowed it, for it was drawing him away from the Jawarat.

“You fear the doors that knowledge throws open. Embrace it, azizi. There is no greater gift.”

“I will never—”

“Shh,” the Lion murmured, stopping her with a thumb to her mouth, calluses rough across her lips. “Brash promises so quickly take us in directions we don’t like.”

She shivered.

“Now,” he said, no louder than a whisper.

She felt the word, tasted pomegranates when she drew air.

“Give me the Jawarat.”

He hadn’t looked for the hearts, or the safin he hated, or even the Silver Witch, more powerful than he could ever be. He wanted the Jawarat and its wealth of knowledge.

“And?” Her voice was all breath.

“When the Gilded Throne is mine, I will make you my queen as I forge a home for my kin. The world will be ours to shape as we will.”

The throne. For knowledge was power, and power was epitomized by the throne.

“All these years,” she said, and smoothly snatched her jambiya. She would protect that book if it was the last thing she did. “And you failed to notice I was never interested in crowns.”

She pressed the blade to his neck, devouring his flash of surprise. There and gone, trembling her resolve.

“Does the thought of my blood bring you joy?” He tipped his head back and her jambiya caught in the meager light, brilliant against his flesh.

Not joy—power. A remnant of the Jawarat’s vision, the one part of it she craved in some dark corner of her soul.

His voice was a lull in her ear. “Tear me open, azizi. Slit my throat and see if the blood I bleed is black or red.”

What mattered more was the blood he had spilled: that of Baba, Deen, Benyamin, the Sisters of Old, a thousand and one others.

“I will end you,” she whispered.

Her hand shook, succumbing to the rush of something heady and dark. His breath hitched, to her delight, and a bead of black welled from his golden skin where her blade touched him.

Ifrit blood, despite his half-safin descent.

The reason nothing pulsed against her fingers even now, why there was no beat in his chest. He was built like a man, like a safi—bones and tendons and organs—but was as heartless as an ifrit, truly so.

His soft, answering laugh was broken, a drag of cloth across thorns. The first fissure in his effortless composure.

“So you say,” he said, a lion making sense of a mouse. “Yet when I called from the darkness, you answered. Day after day, year after year, long before you ventured into my domain, you stood in the snow and spoke to me. Do you not remember, azizi?”

She had been small and alone then, when she had first stood in front of the Arz and asked what it wanted of her. She knew only that the Arz had spoken back. She simply hadn’t known that the voice belonged to the Lion of the Night, grooming her for what he needed.

“Where’s Altair?” she demanded. She wouldn’t show him a reaction to his words, to the stir of memories. “What have you done with the final heart?”

He ignored her just the same.

But she wouldn’t be brushed aside. “Why are you doing this?”

That was when he froze. The black pearl rolled down the plane of his neck, a dark, dark teardrop. She didn’t understand why he wanted magic, why he was so terribly enamored with knowledge.

“Why?” he repeated, so softly she thought it a sigh. His brow furrowed, confusion and a touch of apprehension in his amber eyes, another break in his careful composure that sent her reeling.

Almost as if … as if he couldn’t remember. His gaze slanted to the corner of her bed.

Both of them lunged for the Jawarat at once. He knocked the dagger from her hand. She slipped beneath his arm, agile as she was, but he knew her as well as she knew herself and avoided her with a deft move.

“It won’t help you,” she gasped out, desperate. It’s mine.

“It can’t be read. It imparts its knowledge to the ones it likes.”

Help, she begged the Jawarat, but when the Lion of the Night closed his fingers around it, slowly morphing into Nasir once more, it did nothing. It was quiet.

Laa, it was exuberant. She felt it buzzing in her own veins, chilling her to the bone. Because she had rejected its chaos and violence. She had rejected it.

She lifted her eyes to the Lion’s, unwilling to let him see her horror.

“I won’t fall for your lies again,” she vowed with halfhearted pride.

The Lion only smiled.

“You will fall, azizi. Mark my words, for it will be my greatest one yet.”

His eyes swept the room, searching for what she blearily realized were the hearts, before he disappeared with what he had coveted, leaving her paralyzed by the emotions he had stirred with a smile and a kiss.

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