Chapter no 4

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

Death began with a rattle before dawn. It was soon deafening, the hold quivering so fiercely that Zafira’s teeth were in danger of falling out. The swaying lanterns showed her shadows that looked like the zumra stumbling to their deaths. The hearts, crumbling to dust.

She tossed the Jawarat into her satchel, gathered her arrows into her sling, and darted up the steps, nearly tripping on her way. It was almost as if she could think clearly only when the book wasn’t in her hands.

Zafira had spent the past three days thumbing its worn pages, struggling and failing to focus on the old Safaitic, which made her think the book didn’t want to be read. It wanted to be held, for its pages to be parted, for the swift curves and trailing i’jam dotting the letters to be seen. It was a notion she found herself able to understand, as absurd as it was for a book to want such a thing. As absurd as an object being able to speak.

And influence.

She wasn’t daft; the Jawarat’s whispers toyed with her, she knew, and the more she listened to discern what it wanted, the more dangerous her every action would become. It made her wary, for she held more than a bow in her hands now: not just the fate of an unlucky deer or a hare, but the future of Arawiya. The hearts that once belonged to the daama Sisters of Old.

The problem was, she couldn’t stop listening.

On deck, the rough Zaramese shouts weren’t heightened by chaos or fear, and when the vibrations ground to a stop, she frowned at the abundance of beaming faces and tired grins.

“What was that noise?” she asked over the wind.

“The anchor,” Nasir said distantly as she set eyes on the reason for it.

The hem of the sea wended lazily along an umber coast. Dunes billowed inland, sand painting the awakening horizon in strokes of gold that reminded her of Deen’s curls and Yasmine’s locks, ebbing and flowing with the breeze.

She swallowed a mix of fear and longing at the reminder of her friends. She wanted to see Yasmine, to tell her she was sorry she could not save her brother. To say she was sorry she didn’t love him enough. But as desperately as she wanted to see her again—and Umm and Lana—she couldn’t deny her trepidation.

“Sultan’s Keep. The city that belongs to none yet commands all,” Jinan announced.

Every Arawiyan child knew of Sultan’s Keep. They studied maps in school, history from papyrus. Before the Arz had emerged, a bustling harbor bordered the city and life unfolded from the shores—stalls topped by colorful fabrics, windows arching one after the other, minarets spearing the skies.

It was all there still, but duller and lifeless. Aside from the lazy falcon circling above, only ghosts lived here now.

“The people chose fear of the Arz over fear of the sultan,” Nasir explained.

Zafira could see it up ahead, life signified by the stir of sand far, far in the distance, where hazy minarets rose, the bustle of the day drifting on the breeze.

“It won’t be long before the population drifts back here,” Kifah said as the Silver Witch joined them. “Now that the Arz is gone.”

The Arz was indeed gone.

It had left disorder in its wake—brambles and twigs, rocks and carcasses. Barely a week had passed since Arawiya’s curse had lifted, but sand was already swallowing the remains of the forest. The dark trees were nowhere to be seen, almost as if they had retreated into the ground, Sharr’s claws—or perhaps the Lion’s—now gone.

“Not an animal in sight, Huntress,” Kifah teased. “I’m beginning to think you were a myth.”

“They would have fled inland,” said the Silver Witch.

Zafira had known the Arz was gone ever since they’d lifted the five hearts from within the great trees of Sharr. Ever since the Lion had stolen one and the zumra had fled, leaving Altair behind. Every forward surge of their ship had been a reminder that the Arz, that ever-encroaching tomb, that dark, untamable forest that had made Zafira who she was, had fallen.

Seeing its absence was different. The finality carved a hollow somewhere inside her. The knife of the Silver Witch’s words dug deeper, and she shivered at the stillness in the air. The change.

Who am I? she asked the sea. It whispered an answer she couldn’t comprehend, and she recalled another moment like this, when she had stood on the shore, amid smooth black stones.

She saw Yasmine in her pale blue dress, waving her off. Precious Lana, glued to her side. Misk nodding in farewell, a spy not one of them had thought to suspect and wouldn’t still, if Zafira hadn’t learned of it from Benyamin upon Sharr. The safi’s ominous words about Demenhur echoed in her thoughts. About the sultan eyeing Arawiya’s second-largest army and taking it under his control the way he had done in Sarasin.

“We should have gone to Demenhur first,” she said for the thousandth time as Nasir followed her to the longboat with the hearts, and because she didn’t want to sound as selfish as she

felt, she added, “And sought the caliph’s aid. Who knows where the Lion is?”

She looked away from the little crate with a surge of guilt. Was it selfish to think of her family? To want to see if they were safe? Was it selfish to choose the restoration of the dying hearts over her family?

“He who pays the coin turns the wheel,” Jinan recited, “and Effendi Haadi’s instructions were to come here.”

He’s also dead, Zafira didn’t say. She stepped into the boat with a sigh, and every bit of her came alert when Nasir’s knee brushed hers as he settled across from her. Pull yourself together.

They were going to Sultan’s Keep, where people would bow at his feet and a crown would sit at his brow. There was death at his hip and darkness at his command.

Still, her breath caught when the tender sun glossed his hair, when he gripped the oar as a lost memory ticked the left of his mouth up, crinkling his skin like the wrapper of a sweet.

And then he was looking at her and she was looking away, a flash of silver drawing her eye from the deck of Jinan’s ship as the boat began its descent into the sea. This was where they would part ways with the Silver Witch, she realized.

Anadil inclined her head, and Zafira was surprised to find she would miss her. Only a little.

The Silver Witch met her son’s eyes in farewell and Nasir seized, his mouth hardening. He kept every emotion on a tight leash, hidden behind the ashes of his eyes.

The longboat touched the gentle sea in the shadow of the ship’s figurehead. It basked in the sun, the curved beak of a bird drenched in gold, feathered wings curling into flames. A phoenix. Above the sails flew a sea-green banner, marked with Zaram’s emblem of a golden ax and three drops of blood. The oars turned rhythmically in the azure waters, lulling them until

Jinan started up a chatter, her crew as eager as she was to talk about everything and nothing at all.

“How can someone so small talk so much?” Kifah finally asked with almost-comical exhaustion.

Zafira didn’t hear Jinan’s answer. As they crept toward land, a finger trailed down her spine. There was a heaviness in the air, a warning, and a hunter—a huntress—always listened to the signs of the earth.

“Something’s not right,” she murmured.

Kifah drummed her spear against her thigh and shook her head. “What have we to fear? We are specters, righting wrongs. We’ll let nothing stand in our way.”

“Fancy words never kept anyone alive,” Jinan pointed out when the boat lodged into the sand at shore.

“It’s a shame you’ve never met Altair,” Kifah replied.

Zafira stepped out first, but her unease only worsened with a smattering of goose bumps down her arms. She tugged her foot out of the sand with a wet pop as the crew began rowing back to the ship, their farewells loud. Jinan, as oblivious as her sailors, stretched her legs.

“There’s nothing I love more than the sea beneath my legs, but I’d be lying if I said this isn’t nice.”

“Akhh, little firebird. You sound like an old man,” Kifah said. There was an eagerness to her voice now that she was free of the ship’s confines. “Oi, why aren’t you going back with the rest of them?”

“I’m afraid you’ll be seeing a great deal of my vertically challenged self until I collect my silver. In the meantime, my crew will take the witch to the Hessa Isles and circle back. Not sure if a witch’s coin can be trusted, but the offer was too good to pass up.”

“What do you plan to do with so much silver? Buy yourself a stool?”

“Quiet,” Nasir said, and Zafira drew her bow in an instant, the taut string familiar and welcome. Kifah pivoted her spear as Nasir precariously hefted the crate under one arm and drew his scimitar with the other.

Sunlight winked through the shifting sands and abandoned edifices. Zafira didn’t see the hooded figures until something stung her neck, and the world fell dark.

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