Chapter no 5

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

The lull that followed the deafening grounding of the ship’s anchor was infinitely worse than any silence Altair had heard before. Worse than the quiet that followed the anointing of a fresh corpse. Worse than the silence after an offer was refused.

Or maybe that was worse. How would he know? No one ever refused someone like him.

He recognized Sarasin’s dark sands and murky skies instantly. Though brighter now and the sands less black, it was the perfect haven for ifritkind, and foreboding laced with the hunger in his stomach. How had his mother felt when she fled Sharr after the Sisters had fallen and the Lion had been trapped, a new burden swelling in her womb? How had it felt to assume a new identity, to tell her sons that they were of safin blood, a heritage leagues beneath that of the rare si’lah?

Altair knotted the thoughts and trunked them.

He followed the Lion down the plank, swinging his arms to and fro and rattling his chains loudly enough to wake the dead all the way down in Zaram. The picture of abandon even as he scoured the decrepit houses looming near the shore, searching for aid while isolation sank into his bones.

Nothing. No one. They hadn’t arrived yet, or they would be here. Wouldn’t they? He knew Nasir and the others were due for Sultan’s Keep, but still. If he had lost one of his own, he would detour the world over to find them.

“They are not here.”

Altair started at the Lion’s voice. A portion of pita rested in his proffered hand. The second half was in his other, saved for himself. Only Nasir halved his food with such perfect

symmetry. “And yet your eyes continue to stray to the horizon for those who will never come.”

Hush, hush, went the water. It lapped at the sands, eager for secrets to carry to new shores.

“I’m a general,” Altair replied finally. He took the food with cautious hesitance, hunger dulling his pride. “Vigilance is habit.”

The Lion hummed. “We will find them, worry not. If they won’t come to you, we will go to them.”

“And how do you expect to do that?” Altair asked tiredly.

“With your blood and mine. Dum sihr. There is a spell that imitates the Huntress’s. I only need to find it.” The Lion frowned at his unintentional pun.

Altair stepped off the plank with relief. The desert was far from solid ground, but it did not sway like the sea or lurch like the waves. It was as barren, however. Nothing spread for miles and miles. The emptiness bludgeoned his chest.

“Why?” the Lion asked him suddenly, curiosity canting his head. The sun stretched a ray, casting the bold lines of his tattoo in iridescence. “You have no name. No throne. Arawiya has given you nothing, and you have given her everything.”

To what end? was what he wanted to know.

Altair had known for quite some time that he would never be king. His mother had kept him in the shadows far too long. Not once did she call the little boy at her side her son. Not once did she share her meals with him, or hold his hand.

He was too painful to look at, too sinful.

Decades later, Ghameq was chosen as her successor, the first mortal with claim to the throne. But Altair’s fate was sealed long before that, when their heir was born: dark-haired and gray-eyed. A boy full of promise and purpose, until he was shaped into a blade.

Altair supposed he might have been jealous, had he been different and cared for the throne, had he not known that the gilded chair came with its own trials and tribulations.

But he was perceptive.

His mother would look to the shadows—not to see that he remained there, but to ensure he was safe. She allowed him the finest of rooms in the palace and the freedom of a prince. She assured his tutelage and training from the very best. They were scraps of love, but every morsel she fed him churned his own heart, taught him the value of the sentiment and its elusiveness.

He loved Arawiya, and because there was no one to love him, he loved himself. Enough that he dedicated his life to earning that love, to ensuring he wasn’t the scourge she saw him as.

“Do you think she meant to hide you from me?” the Lion asked, and the lack of scorn in his tone gave Altair pause.

This time, his she referred to the Silver Witch, but Altair didn’t think she feared the Lion in that way. Not until he sank his claws into Ghameq.

“Some good that did,” Altair answered, leaning back. His heels dug into the sand.

The ghost of a smile crossed the Lion’s features. “True enough. In the end, she only abandoned you as they did. Benyamin, too, to an extent. He chose the prince when he leaped.”

Altair was used to being second in all things. He didn’t mind, he told himself.

Then why did it feel as if knives were tearing at his heart? Why did the veins in his arms strain against his skin with sudden fervor?

“And you chose me?” Altair asked, mocking. “Is that what this is about? If you did, I wouldn’t be fettered like some kind

of beast.”

The Lion dropped his amber eyes to the chains, ruminating. “Perhaps it is time for a new alliance, then.”

Altair cast him a look, ignoring the thrum in his blood, the buzz. The feeling that came with change, with being … needed.

“Vengeance doesn’t suit me, Baba.”

The Lion contemplated his words, considered his son as the sun rose higher and the winds streamed between them.

Then he turned, and Altair barely heard his low order

—“Stand aside”—before a volley of black rushed past him, unleashing themselves upon Sarasin. The horde in their true form. Shifting, shapeless beings of smokeless fire, some of them winged and clawed and unrestrained by human limitations.

The Lion smiled. “Go forth, my kin,” came his soft command.

Altair was not proud of his awe. “Arawiya is ours.”

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