Chapter no 27

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

“Marhaba,” said the leader of the five silver-cloaked guards.

He was vaguely familiar, likely an acolyte who had run missives from one master to another a moon or two ago and now had a retinue of his own. Positions shifted as quickly as the sands in the Sultan’s Palace.

Nasir met his gaze and grasped fleeting satisfaction when the man looked away.

Monster. Altair’s laugh rang in his head.

I’ve a reputation to uphold. Rimaal, they needed to find the oaf quickly, or Nasir would go insane, speaking to him when he wasn’t there.

Laa, it was the emptiness that was doing this. He had been given a taste of the opposite, of contentment and satisfaction and fulfillment, and he had started to forget the feel of nothing. The way it made him exist outside of himself. The way it made him cease to exist at all.

Life was a dance to a tune he could not hear. Around him, the world rushed like a stream while he remained unmoving, a core that was not needed in the grand scale of anything. These were not new feelings, but subsided ones. Harsh truths that had quieted when there was someone who sought him out.

It was a feeling unmatched, to be sought by another.

The guard stepped aside. “The sultan awaits the amir’s presence.”

Nasir lifted his brows at the semblance of respect. “The sultan, or the Lion?”

Aya stiffened. The guard only blinked. “The sultan, sayyidi. We were told the amir’s party would be larger.”

“Is that why he sent armed men to greet us?” Nasir asked, and the man grew flustered.

Aya took pity on him. “The rest of our party did not wish to come.”

Five pairs of eyes assessed her and her tattoo. Very few knew of the High Circle, and Nasir wondered if they could tell she was not human despite the ivory shawl shrouding her ears. Their scrutiny dropped to the staff in her hand.

“For my balance,” she said.

The guard nodded, appeased by her dreamy smile, and led them across the foyer, up the twenty-three steps of the winding staircase, and across six paces to the wide double doors carved from alabaster and framed in polished limestone. Nasir knew the layout of the palace as well as the back of his hand— better, perhaps. He never inspected the hands he used for killing.

They paused before the doors and Nasir glanced back at Lana. “All right?”

She nodded, fear flaring her eyes, and Nasir regretted his decision to bring her. He should have left her down in the kitchens, where mopping the floors would be the worst of it.

Too soon, the guards heaved open the groaning doors.

Nasir blinked back against the unexpected spill of brightness. Nearly every dark curtain in the throne room was open, light carving ominous shadows into the ornate walls. The windows were designed to illuminate the Gilded Throne, and illuminate they did, framing the Sultan of Arawiya in an ironic halo.

Five hooded men stood to the right of the dais, another five to the left. They were fitted with gauntlets and contoured robes, as unmoving as statues. Hashashins.

Nasir entered. His steps were whisper-soft along the black carpet that cut a swath of darkness across the alabaster, and he

was painfully aware of Ghameq watching his every breath. Aya and Lana flanked him, the rhythmic tap of the safi’s staff a pounding in his skull.

At the foot of the white dais, he stopped. A faint whiff of bakhour rose to his senses, the musk and jasmine familiar. Three steps up, and he would stand at throne level.

Sultan Ghameq stared at him down the bridge of his nose. The gray eyes Nasir had inherited were full of scorn, distaste furrowing his mouth.

It’s not him, Nasir reminded himself.

Two men shared the throne: one mortal, one ancient. One who had fathered him, and one who had stolen Altair. Laa, the Lion had stolen far more than that.

“I did not think you would come,” Ghameq said.

No greetings. No smirk. Nothing at all. The medallion hung between the folds of his gold-edged cloak, the leash by which the Lion held him. Nasir knew how to fix this. How to ensure the dignitaries’ safety.

He lifted his gaze back to his father’s.

Sultans don’t wear turbans, his mother had once teased.

I am Sarasin first, sultan second, his father had replied. A keffiyah and a circlet might make for a royal display, but never a pragmatic one. The exchange was forever ago, when those gray eyes hadn’t hidden amber ones. When his father still carried the pride of his heritage like a bannerman in war.

“I suppose I should be flattered you invited me,” Nasir replied.

The derision that rolled from his father’s throat was so familiar that he could have mimicked it. But for once, he didn’t feel the overwhelming desire to rein in his words. He would not cower before the Lion.

“Sharr gave you a tongue.” Ghameq stood. “Or was it the girl?”

Nasir stilled.

He heard the hitch of Aya’s breath. Felt the distress rolling off Lana in waves.

“You forget, boy. I am your father.”

Even Ghameq’s laugh was poised to belittle, and a roaring started in Nasir’s head.

“There are few men as witless as you. I saw the Demenhune Hunter with my own eyes. Did you think to protect her by not bringing her here?”

Nasir went very, very cold when Ghameq’s gaze fell on Lana. His father would not know the girl, but the Lion would

—in the same way he had known Zafira before Sharr. Danger sparked the air. The roaring grew louder.

“Your orders were to kill her. Your orders were to kill them all, yet you disobeyed. You uncovered someone’s misplaced mettle and dared to show your face here.”

As if Nasir had no right to stand in this throne room. As if he had no right to sit upon the Gilded Throne forged by the Sisters of Old, whose blood burned in his own veins. As if he had not been asked to come here.

Breathe, Nasir told himself. He was not petty. Insults were letters festooned into words that could not inflict pain. A lie and a losing battle.

“You brought me here to mock me,” Nasir seethed, barely restraining the emotion that threatened to bleed into his words.

The sultan scoffed. “Did you expect gratification, mutt?”

Something inside him snapped.

Darkness erupted from his fingers like ravens taking flight. Distantly, he heard Lana’s surprised cry. The hashashins came alert, and Nasir fought to control the mass. Pressure built in his chest as Aya attempted to placate him. He could fight ten hashashins—he couldn’t keep Lana safe, too.

It’s not him. It’s not your father.

The voice lilted through his ears, wrapped around his limbs. Calming him. Reasoning with him, even when she was somewhere far, far from here. His heart wept. The shadows froze like a fog.

You are not the sum of his disparagement.

It was the Lion, Zafira’s words reminded him. The Lion was baiting him, as he had done and continued to do—every bit the animal of his namesake toying with his prey.

Nasir calmed the chorus in his blood and found it: the vessel that bled black. He cinched it closed, and the shadows disappeared, and satisfaction gave way to pride. Pride lifted his gaze to his father’s in time to see a flicker of surprise cross his face.

“Get out, mu—”

“Yes, Father,” Nasir replied.

It was a powerful feeling, cutting his father off, but he knew better than most that it was easier not to feel than to rely on the highs of emotion. Behind him, the throne room doors groaned open in wordless dismissal. In moments, the hashashins were back in their neat rows. The medallion swayed, enticing. The lingering shadows had vanished, burned by the light. It looked as if nothing had changed. As if they hadn’t been on the brink of an irreversible chaos.

Ghameq smiled, and in it, Nasir saw the Lion.

Nasir smiled back, imagining the medallion in his hands.

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