Chapter no 6

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

Death commands the tremor in the living.

Live as if you are death himself. Command him as if you are his master. Depend on no one, for even your shadow will forsake you in the darkest hour.

In the end, it wasn’t death that roused fear in Nasir, for his mother had taught him well. It was the darkness. The isolation it brought, reminding him that he was always alone. The way it thieved his sight, an abyss with a nightmare to tell:

A boy, silver circling his brow, shackled by shadows. A sun, swallowed whole by gaping jaws.

A girl, hair crowned as regal as a queen’s, the fire in the ice of her eyes bringing him to his knees.

And a voice, saying: You needn’t fear the darkness when you could become it.

Nasir came to with the evening’s light in his eyes, dust frenzying at his exhale and the dull throb of a needle prick at his neck. He dug his fingers into the rug beneath him—woven of the finest sheep’s wool—and noted the high sheen of the stone floor. None of it was familiar, but wherever he was, dinars were not in shortage.

Neither was audacity, clearly. Kidnapping the Prince of Death was no act to be taken lightly. He hadn’t expected to be welcomed with open arms in Sultan’s Keep, but he hadn’t expected to find himself in trouble this early.

Zafira stirred with a rustle of clothes. Her hair was coming undone upon the pale wool, and the rise and fall of her chest drove him to the brink. The rug beneath her became qutn sheets within the Sultan’s Palace. Her crowned hair became a

circlet of silver and a shawl of silk. He drew a wavering breath.

It wasn’t like him, to dream. To wish.

It was barely a handful of heartbeats, but she stared back with fire in her hooded gaze as if she knew what plagued him. As if she had a thousand and one questions to ask, but it was his fault silence held them captive. Those three words had grown to a day, stretched to the moon’s rising, on and on, an ugly thing festering as the days wove past. This means nothing.

He had never been good with words, but he had never expected to lament the fact.

Kifah groaned from his other side, and Nasir looked away first as she sat up, unsure why he was so irritated. He flexed his unbound wrists. His boots were gone, as were the rest of theirs. It was customary to remove one’s shoes indoors, but less so to have them removed by someone else.

“The hearts!” Zafira uttered suddenly, sitting up.

Nasir jerked, jamming his elbow against a box beside him. The crate. He shoved open the lid, releasing a bated breath when he saw all four organs pulsing inside. His suspicion tripled.

“Oi. Where’s Jinan?” Kifah asked, taking in the ample room with growing trepidation: the majlis seating flush against the floor, cushions barely worn, as if the inhabitants of this construction never sat for long. A scattering of maps and old papyrus, reed pens, an astrolabe, and unfinished notes. Shelves lined the opposite wall, sagging with books and aging artifacts that looked in danger of crumbling. A single door stood to the side, closed.

The Zaramese captain was nowhere to be seen.

“This place.” Kifah’s voice dropped. Slowed. “It reminds me of home.” Her discomfort was a reminder of why the ink

of the Pelusian erudites didn’t span both her arms.

Zafira rose with the agility that always made Nasir’s throat tighten, and he noted the quickness with which she reached for her bag to ensure the Jawarat was still inside. Lucky book.

He parted the curtains at one of the narrow windows and looked out: date palms, tended gardens, the ornate edging of a sprawling building. He couldn’t see much, but these were no slums. The palace couldn’t be far from here. His father couldn’t be far from here, controlled by a medallion and a monster.

“Kidnapped,” Kifah said, her voice a tad high. “Of everything that could have happened in Sultan’s Keep.”

“Do you know where we are?” Zafira asked.

It took him a moment to realize the question was directed at him, icy eyes catching him off guard. Rimaal, he was going soft.

“I don’t know the inside of every house in Sultan’s Keep,” he said a little too harshly.

“If you did, I would question whether you were the prince or an ambitious housekeeper.”

He clenched his fist around a flare of shadow. “No, I don’t know where we are.”

“That wasn’t too hard, now, was it?” There was a satisfied smirk on her mouth and a crackling in his chest.

“Men are like fish,” Kifah said, the break in her voice giving away her unease.

“Shiny, and of little brain?” Zafira replied.

Kifah hefted the crate after a beat. “I half expected a response from Altair.”

That was his cue, his jolting reminder: They’d wasted enough time. Nasir tried the door’s bronze handle, pausing when he found it unlocked.

“The Lion could be out there,” Zafira warned. She lifted her bow and gestured to his sword and Kifah’s spear. “Jinan’s gone. We’re unbound, unharmed, and still armed. Whoever’s out there doesn’t fear us.”

Nasir ignored the chill of her words.

The short hall opened to a room drenched in evening light. The aroma of herbed venison and warm bread assaulted his senses, rumbling through his stomach before the distant hum of a terribly depressing tune dampened the air. Zafira stiffened, shoulders bunching.

And the air shifted as someone unfamiliar drew breath. Nasir pivoted, shoving the tip of his gauntlet blade against the stranger’s throat in the span of two heartbeats.

“Apologies for taking the liberties precautions necessitate.”

Benyamin, said the drowsed part of his brain, conjuring umber eyes and a feline grin, but though the words were unnecessarily languorous and markedly safin, the tone wasn’t as genial.

Nor was the stranger deterred by the blade at his throat. He didn’t seem to notice it at all, and Nasir felt a fool as the light caught the two rings glittering from the peak of one elongated ear.

His skin was as dark as Kifah’s, a smooth brown accented by the gold tattoo curling around his left eye. Nasir relaxed slightly at the sight of it, before he made out the tattoo itself: “nuqi.” Pure. A reminder that not all safin were as amicable as Benyamin. Many valued the so-called purity of their race and their perfection, looking down upon everyone else. As if his tattoo weren’t prideful enough, the safi’s high-collared thobe boasted panels in shades of cream and gold, most of the buttons undone to expose his torso.

“Might as well unbutton the rest of it,” Kifah murmured behind Nasir, too low to be heard. By a human.

“I can, if you’d like,” the safi drawled, and Nasir nearly risked his dignity to see her obvious mortification. “A prince goes off to Sharr and returns a savage. I cannot say I’m surprised. Is this any way to treat your host?”

“A host doesn’t imprison his guests,” Zafira pointed out.

“Yet here you are, mortal. Unbound and unharmed,” he said, echoing her earlier words. He touched the back of two fingers to the cord knotting the center of his dark beard; it was the same shade as his ivory turban.

“Then where’s the Zaramese girl who was with us?” Kifah asked.

“Back at sea, if I am to guess. Once she pocketed the ridiculous amount of silver promised, she left without a backward glance. Did you expect any more from a Zaramese?”

Nasir knew how people eager for coin worked. They lined their pockets and turned tail, regardless of whether or not their employer had died on a villainous island.

“Who are you again?” Kifah asked.

“Seif bin Uqub,” he replied. With that, his almost nonexistent amiability disappeared altogether. “Step back, Prince. You may have royal blood in your veins, but I’ve decapitated worse.”

The silence pounded with the promise of bloodshed. And bloodshed there would have been, had Nasir not trekked to Sharr. Had he not found himself a brother there, and friends, and a certain blue-eyed huntress, who stared at him with a command in her gaze. He gritted his teeth and lowered his blade, giving the safi one last glare before stepping back between Kifah and Zafira.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Where is Altair al-Badawi bin Laa Shayy?” Son of none.

What did a safi want from Altair?

“You mean Benyamin?” Kifah asked, finally drawing a reaction in his unnerving eyes. They were the palest gold, so light that they eerily blended into the surrounding whites. “The tattoo,” she explained, spear still raised. “Benyamin had one, too. You’re part of his circle of safin.”

High safin,” he corrected as if any of them cared about Arawiya’s oldest families—rich, influential, and knowledgeable. “We are of old blood. Headed by Benyamin, we protected Arawiya’s secrets and counseled Alderamin and beyond, until we disbanded when he brought a traitor to our fold. The High Circle formed once more, quite recently, at Altair al-Badawi’s behest.”

Something stuttered in Nasir’s chest.

Altair had brought them together? That meant Benyamin had gone to Sharr because of Altair, not the other way around as Nasir had assumed. That meant Benyamin was Altair’s spider. As was the girl in the tavern, Kulsum—possibly even Jinan.

For a moment, Nasir’s mind blanked, making way for memories of Altair acting like no more than an inebriate and philanderer. He almost laughed at his ignorance, at these feelings crushing his lungs.

Of course it was Altair. No one else had a prime position beside Arawiya’s throne. No one else was a general with the freedom to traverse the caliphates. Altair had been pulling the strings from the very beginning. He had spun a meticulous web of secrets and lies under carefree grins and silver-tongued words. There was no one else whose every exhale was deliberate.

Altair had planned it all, down to being a thorn in the sultan’s side to ensure he was sent with Nasir to Sharr. Nasir fought the surge in his throat—who was he to feel pride for an

oaf such as his half brother? You love him. He rent that thought in two.

Rimaal, and they had left Altair and his endless volley of secrets with the Lion of the Night.

“Even so, neither are present, and you, Prince, are not a welcome sight.”

“Last I recall, you attacked me and brought me here. So spare me your hate,” Nasir said, voice low.

“Seif,” a new voice warned.

A second safi swept into the room in a flurry of pale pink. “Marhaba, my loves,” she said with a small smile. “I am

happy to have you.” Her voice was something out of a dream, abstract and melodious. Her wide brown gaze would have looked innocent, if her elongated ears and the defining tattoo around her left eye hadn’t spoken of her ancientness. Sharp cheekbones framed her face, unbound bronze hair threaded with pearls. She was the most beautiful being Nasir had ever seen. “Your little companion left once we had paid her dues. She journeys for the Hessa Isles now, with Anadil.”

Someone had changed plans, it seemed, but Nasir admitted he could breathe easier knowing the ship’s captain would be taking his injured mother to the Isles.

“It is unfortunate that I do not have the resources on hand to cure an injury inflicted by cursed ore, or I would have performed the recovery myself,” she added.

Nasir lifted his brows, but there wasn’t a hint of pride to her voice, only a pragmatism uncharacteristic of safin.

“Forgive us for the way you were received. The city is no longer safe, and discretion is of utmost importance.”

“Was Sultan’s Keep ever safe?” Kifah asked, and Nasir shot her a look. Ghameq was many things, but never a fearmonger. It was why an assassin like himself was so useful.

“Safer than this,” the safi ceded. “The sultan has announced a sharp increase in taxes, and there is talk of rebellion as people grow restless. The Sultan’s Guard loiter, and the city holds its breath. Even Sarasin fares better as of late.”

Before Nasir could ask why they should trust her, he saw it: the simple circlet of black at her temple. He’d seen it before, on a safi with a feline grin and sage umber eyes.

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