Chapter no 29

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

It was both a gift and a curse, to feel as deeply as she did. To see Alderamin in the lucidity of a dreamwalk was entirely different from seeing it in person. To believe that the realness would not affect her was a mistake on her part.

A sore, sore mistake.

The outskirts of the caliphate were as grand as the capital itself. It was the beauty of Sultan’s Keep tenfold. Like in the dreamwalk, she couldn’t shake off the feeling of it being more alive than anywhere else. The pulse of life was everywhere, from the spiny-tailed lizards darting up the date palms to the children shouting and laughing as they chased one another beneath an arch, circling back from the ledge of a low roof to leap into a blue-green pool of water. From the colors of the clothes on the backs of men to the medley of shawls suspended across zigzagging ropes swaying in the gentle breeze.

As much as she had scowled and groused over the safin tucked away within their walls, she had to admit the miscellany of people was greater than elsewhere. In Demenhur, the sight of anyone a shade darker than the snow- cursed made everyone stop and stare. In Sarasin, safin were rare, if not impossible, to encounter. In Alderamin, Pelusian and safin walked side by side. A Demenhune stepped through her bright green door with her Zaramese husband.

It wasn’t that safin weren’t welcome elsewhere. They simply had no reason to live anywhere but their perfect haven of Alderamin. Unlike everyone else, who believed Alderamin was where they’d find the life Arawiya had once provided freely and equitably. They believed it enough to traverse the

uncultivated Wastes for a chance to live here. Deen had seen proof, when he’d visited years ago.

Here was a sea of people with different shades of skin, different lilts to their tongue, different cadences that built the wholeness that was Arawiya.

And yet, despite the way the very ground seemed to live and breathe, Zafira felt strangely lonely. For a part of her had grown accustomed, she realized with some diffidence, to observing the world in awe and being observed in turn.

As if he could glean the same wonder just by looking at her.

Her fingers fluttered at her side. Skies, she missed him.

“This is where we part ways,” Seif said, holding the heart with care. “See that caravanserai with the stained-glass window? We’ll meet there at sundown.”

The window was impossible to miss: it was massive, more akin to an entrance for a giant, florals made of stone holding the arching glass within interlacing clutches. Kifah brought the horse to a stop. “Is that all the time it’ll take for you to restore the heart in Almas and return?”

“Safin,” was all Seif said as he mounted the horse and turned in the direction of Alderamin’s capital. He had recovered every last drop of his vanity now that his robes were dried, and he eyed the road ahead with such indifference, it felt offensive. Safin were quick, but that quick?

“And Bait ul-Ahlaam?” Zafira asked as the locals began to take interest. The people here might hail from around the kingdom, but they lived here. She knew the ferocity with which a village looked after their own. She respected it.

Seif pursed his lips. “It must find you.” And then the bastard left them.

“Oi! What does that mean? Come back!” Kifah snarled. More people had wandered out of their houses to watch them, curiosity torching the air. They had lived near the border, near the encroaching Arz. Visitors were rare, if any. Kifah noticed them and turned a slow circle, baring her teeth. “What?

Mothers tucked children into their skirts. Fathers eyed the spear in Kifah’s hand and the arrows slung on Zafira’s back, Baba’s jambiya with its worn hilt at her waist.

“Maybe we should start moving,” Zafira said gently. Kifah glared at her. “Oh? Where?”

Zafira looked about, as if the elusive shop would wave a hand and beckon her over. Wherever it was, they’d have to find it on foot, since their horses had been devoured by the marids. Skies, couldn’t Lana have told them more? Even a descriptor from the book she had found it in would have helped.

“The sooq,” a man said, stepping forward and gesturing up the road. He was human, his wide-knuckled hands gripping a bucket of water from the well the houses were clustered around. The woman with him, shrewd-eyed with a basket of wrung-out clothes clutched to her side, glared at him, as if there were ill to be had in aiding two weary travelers. Her eyes narrowed on Zafira, straying to her jambiya and then, strangely, to Deen’s ring.

“It calls to those who need it,” the man said, setting his bucket on a ledge.

“To those willing to pay the price,” the woman added sharply.

Several others clucked their tongues and murmured, whether in agreement to her words or in protest of her hostility, Zafira did not know.

She inclined her head, ignoring the cold fingers down her spine. “Shukrun.”



Kifah grew less enthused the longer they walked. The town was called Zawia, for the way it curved around the splendor of Almas. It was a charming place unlike the slums that typically surrounded capitals and other major cities. As Zafira gaped at every new street, structure, and scene, uncaring of the burn in her tired calves, Kifah’s gaze turned pensive, trained on the sands they stirred with their footfalls. She didn’t even look up when a girl in an abaya as red as her hair ran up to them with a shy smile and handed Zafira a white-petaled flower. The child’s ears were elongated, the points tender and precious, and Zafira stared as she skipped away.

“Did you see her?” she breathed. Sunlight lit the little safi’s hair aflame before she disappeared between two houses.

Kifah replied with a distracted grunt. “What is it?” Zafira asked.

“If it calls to those who need it, I’m not sure it’s so great a place anymore,” Kifah replied without preamble.

Zafira paused, twirling the flower’s thin stem between her fingers. The petals cupped morsels of the sun. She had never encountered this Kifah before, weighted by uncertainty and quick to refute.

“Is this about your father?” Zafira asked.

The whip of her spear quickened, answer enough. Zafira remembered that Bait ul-Ahlaam was a place Kifah’s father had frequented. Did it call to monsters in need of its wares?

“I know how they work, people like him. They win the hearts of men, eat the souls of women. Flash a smile as sweet as milk here, rip fragile limbs apart there. Dote on one daughter outside, ruin another inside.” Kifah’s exhale stuttered.

As lonely as Zafira felt, she could not even begin to understand the depths of Kifah’s loneliness. To be abused by

her father. To have her brother punished to death for protecting her. To own nothing but the spear in her hands and the desire for vengeance in her veins.

“Forgive me,” Kifah murmured.

“No,” Zafira whispered harshly. “You said you’re beginning to love our zumra the way you loved Tamim. Tell me.”

Kifah’s brow smoothed at the words. Her spear stopped moving. “That’s all there is.”

Zafira smiled, but she understood Kifah’s apprehension. It was why she’d felt a chill down her spine at the Alder woman’s ominous words. “I don’t think we’ll leave the shop describing it as ethical or virtuous. You can’t believe the Sisters filled vials with blood and labeled them for sale.” She gripped Deen’s chain and remembered the Silver Witch’s anger, Seif’s trepidation. “I have a feeling it calls to those ready to pay the price.”

Kifah was silent, and Zafira felt the sting of perspiration along her brow. Had she been callous? Too quick to brush away Kifah’s heavy words?

“You know what I hate?” Kifah asked, giving her a look. “When other people make sense.”

Zafira swallowed her relief, pulse still drumming in her ears. “A simple ‘Yes, my queen, you’re right,’ would suffice.”

Kifah cracked a laugh. “Already wearing the crown, I see.” “What do you—”


They reached the top of the street, where reed-thin buildings rose neatly to the cloud-dusted skies, windows cut in alluring latticework, stone shaped in eight-pointed stars. Beyond them, the sooq stretched in a patchwork of color and bustle as far as she could see.

Zafira hurried beneath the slanting shadows of the buildings to hide the burn of her skin. Whoever said Demenhune didn’t blush was a terrible liar. “I didn’t—that wasn’t what—” She gave up.

“I didn’t think you were serious,” Kifah assured, loping beside her. “But don’t tell me it’s as impossible a future as it was two moons ago. Being queen.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“He’s the prince,” Kifah reminded her, though not unkindly. “And quite the eyeful at that. Tall, dark, brooding. Very fit.”

Zafira closed her fingers around Baba’s jambiya, knuckles white. “Do you think I’d abandon my life and my family for a jeweled chair?”

What life? a voice in her head asked. What family?

“That’s for you to answer,” Kifah said, grinning and unaware. “I’m not the one falling in love with him.”

“I’m not either,” Zafira said, looking away with a barely restrained groan.

A safi narrowed her eyes as she passed them by; then another pair in turbans paused a heavy conversation to look at Kifah from head to toe, likely realizing that one of the Nine Elite of Pelusia was ambling down to the Zawia sooq.

Even if Zafira’s jambiya was nothing out of the ordinary— for nearly every Arawiyan carried one—the rest of their weapons weren’t as subtle. While others toted baskets of fruit and sacks of grain and fresh folds of bread, Kifah gripped her spear, the fire-forged point flashing. Zafira’s arrows knocked together lightly in a familiar song.

“Akhh, it’s not as simple as that, hmm?” Kifah said when Zafira didn’t speak. “I’ve never known love, but it’s hard enough between blood. Carving out one’s heart for a stranger and wishing for theirs in return is no easy feat.”

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? It wasn’t hard. She could open her mouth and words would fall as freely as sand from a loose fist. She would open her door and welcome him without a second thought. Talking to him was easy, even when he was silent. Touching him, tasting him, sharing a slant of shadow with him felt like the most natural acts in the world.

It frustrated her.

How could she explain it to Kifah when she could make no sense of it herself?

It came with another thought: Had she acted too rashly, leaving without letting him explain himself? Had she destroyed whatever fragile thing they had begun to shape between them?

They paused at a crossroads, and a man coming from the opposite direction slowed his march, eyeing Zafira. Ever since she had lost Baba’s cloak on Sharr, the difference between stepping out as the Hunter, thought to be a boy, and stepping out as herself, a girl, was glaring. A man could be out alone on any number of business pursuits. A woman? Likely something salacious.

“Smile, fair one.” The man was beardless in a way that said he couldn’t grow hair on his face despite his best efforts.

Kifah scowled in his direction.

“Anything else, while I’m in a good mood?” Zafira called back. His watery grin left a bad taste in her mouth. “Should I sing prettily while I slit your throat?”

He took a few cautious steps back, and hurried down the street.

“Men,” Kifah said, snorting a laugh. They paused at the top of the road.

“Well,” she said with some wonder, for it seemed everyone believed the perfect time to visit the sooq was just after the

noon’s heat had begun to wane. Rickety stalls filled the center of the cobbled square, bustling with safin and humans alike and an array of smells that made Zafira increasingly aware of how little food she’d had since departing Sultan’s Keep.

Shops ran along either side of the jumu’a, each one vastly different from the one beside it, as if they had built one and then another, and then couldn’t stop. Curtains flanked their entrances, bright and lively, many drawn and pinned in welcome.

One moment Zafira was following Kifah’s sure-footed lead, and the next, the other girl had disappeared only to return with several neat squares of mutabaq. The combined aroma of juicy mutton and the crispy pancake holding it together made Zafira salivate.

“Could use a bit more sumac,” Kifah mused, making a face. “And less pepper. What? I know my food.”

Zafira expected nothing less from a stoic warrior who packed her own spices for a life-and-death journey.

“Where did you get that?”

“I bought it.” Kifah lifted a brow. “Not all of us are penniless villagers.”

Indeed. But Kifah rarely acted like the snobs who lived in Arawiya’s lavish capitals, so it was easy to overlook the fact. Zafira’s shoulders curled. She had left behind their dwindling purse with Lana, for they and the Ra’ads had always shared what they earned from the skins of Zafira’s hunts, and she hadn’t needed money. Not on Sharr, where there was game to be hunted. Not even in Sultan’s Keep, where Aya provided without asking for anything in return.

“It was a joke.”

Zafira looked away. Mockery, she could take, but it was sympathy she loathed. Pity led to embarrassment, and that led

to anger, always. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her stomach growled audibly, forever at war with her will.

“Oi,” Kifah said around a mouthful. “Have you had nothing to eat all day?”

Zafira shrugged, pointedly glancing in the direction they’d been heading. Kifah ignored her and extended a hand. Three coins sat in her palm. Two paces away, a poet climbed a crate and bemoaned the poison of love.

“Keep them,” Zafira said, hating the bite to her words. “I’m not hungry.”

Kifah shoved the coins into Zafira’s hand. “They’re Seif’s.

To pay for the rooms.”

Seif hadn’t given her a dinar, and they both knew it.

The lie made it easier, somehow. Or perhaps it was her hunger. Zafira took them without meeting Kifah’s eyes and ducked into the thick of the sooq. The prospect of food made her stomach yawn anew, the gaping emptiness stretching up her throat and making her light-headed. Coin did this. Penniless, she could ignore the hunger, stave it away. Such was the oddity of a conscience.

She stopped at the first stall she found, where a safi stoked a fire, slowly turning a spit with her other hand. She was far less elegant than the safin Zafira was acquainted with.

“Two dinars fifty,” the safi said before Zafira could speak, eyeing her like an urchin come for scraps.

Zafira straightened her shoulders and clinked her coins softly, like a fool. Two and a half dinars was far too much. She should have bargained, should have thrown together a ploy as customers were wont to do, but it was Deen who had done all their marketing.

“What about the flatbread alone?” “One dinar.”

For a single flatbread? A line began to form behind her. “I—I’ll take the flatbread.”

The safi grunted and snatched a fold from the stack keeping warm beside the spit. Zafira carefully set one coin on her worn cart, feeling a childish lick of power as she pocketed the other two dinars. They were a comforting weight. A promise sewn into her clothes, a guarantee of sustenance. The safi saw, and after a beat of hesitation, lathered a spoonful of the warm fat that had collected beneath the spit across the bread, folding the neat round in half before handing it to Zafira.

She was already looking to her next customer, and Zafira was too hungry and too grateful to be proud.

Kifah was waiting for her, gaze hunting the crowds. Her foot tapped a beat. “What’s in it?”

“Nothing,” Zafira said, tearing off a piece.

Kifah’s brow furrowed. “You bought … plain flatbread.”

Zafira shrugged, but it wasn’t careless enough. Skies, why couldn’t she be more aloof? Why did she suddenly wish her cloak shielded the stiff set of her shoulders?

She dropped her gaze when Kifah’s softened. It felt vile to even think of spending three dinars on a single meal, but it was clear she and Kifah saw a coin differently.

The flatbread filled her, and that was enough. The coins clinked in her pocket. It was more than enough.

“There,” Zafira said as she regained some semblance of strength, some scrap of dignity. She pointed to the narrow alleys between some of the shops, her vision clear again. “If Bait ul-Ahlaam is bound to be anywhere, it’ll be down one of those. You take the left, I’ll take the right.”

“I want the right,” Kifah said.

“Be my guest, sayyida. Don’t get lost.”

“Hold my hand, mother,” Kifah called, and disappeared into the crowd.

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