Tamina dreams about dying, the mute howl of air past her body, mouth shaping an unknown name before she wakes with a jolt on her bed. Heart pounding, she stares wide-eyed at the canopy, the white material gleaming ghostly pale in the moonlight.
"I am not afraid," she whispers. In her mind's eye the light is a warm churning glow, favor lifting away as her bones plunge deeper into the darkness. Sleep is a long time coming again.
Dastan materializes at her elbow when she finishes dressing for the banquet the next evening, giving her handmaidens a start. Tamina inhales and for a split second the girls' bodies grow and multiply, hemming her in on all sides, smelling of sweat and dirt and the metallic tinge of spilled blood. She blinks and everything is back to normal, except the persistent feeling of entrapment, so she lifts her face to Dastan's and snaps,
"So you are to be my escort?"
His expression flickers. "Only if you wish it."
"I do not."
"My lady," one of the girls murmurs reproachfully. A hiss escapes Tamina, the fragile beginnings of the tranquility a day spent in prayer had afforded her shattering like a glass pitcher across the marble floors of the palace.
"Very well," she says. Dastan's eyes hold hers, uncertain, before he drops them and offers his arm. She gathers her robes around herself, knowing that at the very least she will have the satisfaction of watching him cut himself on her jagged edges.
Death does not frighten her; she is ready for it, has been ready for her entire life. It is the first thing she remembers, the first thing she ever learned: Your life is no longer your own, girl, the old woman had said, sliding the gold-tipped brush against Tamina's palms for the first time. Her gnarled hands dwarfed Tamina's fat ones, steady with the strength of her convictions.
I understand, priestess, Tamina said. The old woman's next words are lost in a roar of sand; they are sand, streaming out of her mouth, from her fingers, from her eyes, whirling around Tamina's feet and stinging at her face. In here, a voice says and then she is inside a makeshift tent with a sandstorm raging outside.
At the first sign of blood she had taken a journey like this, three weeks in the desert until it had stripped everything from her, hunger and thirst and desire, individuality falling away and consciousness expanding. I am, she had thought back then, buoyed by the winds that blasted across the sands and into the mountains, over the seas and back again. I am, she thinks now, not alone here, realization jarring enough that it brings her back to herself, crouched in a small, enclosed space, the smell of horse and man assaulting her nostrils. Her hand slides over pelt and runs into someone else's.
"Who is—" she asks out loud, waking herself up. The window in her chambers flaps open.
"You are angry," Dastan says, taking a seat next to her.
"My lady," the treasurer says. She waves him off.
"I can finish up here, thank you." In the resulting quiet, she can hear Dastan breathing, soft steady puffs of air she has to struggle not to synchronize her own to. His sprawl is affectedly casual and she knows he is observing her as carefully as she is observing him. "I have spent the last seven hours writing letters and arranging for reparations to be sent to the families of all the men yours killed."
He sucks in a breath. "I'm sorry."
"Along with," she continues, "budgeting for the repairs to the city, in addition to paying for this farce of a wedding."
"You don't have to marry me," he tries, and the absurdity of that statement startles a laugh from her.
"Actually, I really do. Your brother—" She closes her eyes briefly. "The political traps of earnest fools are often the hardest to maneuver out of."
"It wasn't meant to be a trap."
He swears, leaning his elbows on the table and running hands through his hair. The ink in the well in front of Tamina quivers. "We aren't—we aren't bad people. Don't you believe in second chances?"
"I am sorry about your uncle," Tamina says, gathering the papers. She doesn't know what to make of the helplessness on his face. "Thank you for returning the sacred dagger."
The dagger has never been used, not in living memory, except once at the initiation of every new priestess—not at the official initiation, but at the one in the secret places below the city, the paths that even the priests don't know about. It is like this, the old woman said, turning the dagger inward and spilling her intestines down the dusty stone steps. A miniature eternity passed before Tamina could fumble it out of her lax fingers and press the bloody jewel on the end, time swirling backwards and life returning to the corpse at her feet.
But it is not the old priestess dying in front of her this time, it is someone else; Stupid! she wants to shout, How can you know—
What kind of tool is this? Tamina asks hoarsely, palms sweaty with adrenaline but no longer covered in blood. Awake, she pants, twisting her bedsheets in her hands before getting up and shrugging on a robe. Her bare feet make no sound on the cool stone as she makes her way to the altar in the highest tower.
It is not a tool; it is a covenant, she remembers as she kneels in front of it. A reminder of a promise.
The servants tell her that Dastan is fighting with his brothers; their raised voices echo down the hallways as she steps to the door and pushes it open.
"Even if they did still exist," Garsiv shouts, "what do you think you are going to accomplish by mounting an expedition into the lair of the hassansins?"
"I didn't say expedition," Dastan says.
"Oh, so what would it be?"
"A solitary suicide mission, no doubt," Tamina interjects. They all stop and gape at her before Tus finds his voice.
"You know my brother well, princess," he says.
Do I? Tamina thinks vaguely, but says aloud: "I just know idiocy when I see it."
"Can I have a word?" Dastan asks through his teeth. When they are alone in the hall he paces for a moment, mouthing words to himself while Tamina stares. "The hassansins were supposed to have been disbanded years ago, but I know—I know they were loyal to my uncle," he says finally. "He had planned to use them to—they know about. The dagger."
"They know about the dagger," Tamina repeats, air suddenly thin in her lungs.
"I didn't want to tell my brothers, because—"
"And how do you know about the dagger—" Tamina chokes. "Of course. Of course. I am so stupid."
Stupid with relief, when she had heard of his uncle's treachery and he had bowed in front of her with the dagger in his open hands, eyes guileless and startlingly blue.
"How long were you planning on keeping this from me?"
"Tamina—" His fingers circle her upper arm, hot through the gauzy layers of her sleeves. He is standing far too close, close enough that a single step forward would bring her flush against him, close enough that she can smell him, musk and bath oils and sweat.
"Out," she says, yanking her arm away, "Get out of my sight!"
Veins of water flow through the passages below the city; they were Tamina's favorite place as a child and she loves them still, the sensation of stepping into the stream and letting everything wash away, the dust of the day and the dust in her mind, the distillation of impermanence. In her dream she stands knee-deep in water and someone else is there with her, kissing her upturned lips: I can allow myself this, she thinks, because I am going to die, and kisses back, twining her fingers through long, thick hair.
Teeth scrape down her neck and she gasps when his hands skim down her sides to grip her thighs, hitching them up around his waist. His armor digs into her breastbone and stone digs into her back but it doesn't matter, none of it matters except winding herself around him as tightly as possible, feeling his hips stutter against her belly and his harsh breaths against her collarbone. Tamina, he groans, and she says, she says—
"Dastan," into the quiet darkness of the room, except it is not quiet; she hears a clattering and a bitten-off curse. "Dastan," she says again, and he rights the vase.
She searches herself for the outrage she went to bed with but can't find any, thoughts still sluggish with sleep and heat. "This isn't the first time you've been here."
"I haven't been sleeping. I mean, I needed to see—" He scrubs a hand across his face and grimaces; it's the truth, the shadows under his eyes are visible even in the dim light. He looks tired.
"What happened?" No answer, so she repeats herself, sharper: "What happened?"
"Everybody died," he says after a pause. A chill chases the rest of the lingering warmth from Tamina's limbs and she sits up straighter.
"Tell me," she says.
When the king arrives there is a formal ceremony in the banquet hall, all three of his sons kneeling in front of him, their dark heads bent together. Dastan is the only one who can't keep still and when he is announced he surges forward, catching his father around the shoulders and pressing his face into his father's neck. Sharaman's hands come up tentatively, surprised, then grip harder. Regret weighs heavily on him; Tamina sees it in the haggard cast of his face when she is presented to him as Dastan's future wife:
"I am honored," he says, "by your willingness to forgive my sons and myself." He bends to kiss her hands and the room erupts in confused murmurs. Tamina feels her will faltering as she bows in return. It is stifling in the banquet hall, the shifting press of too many bodies, and she escapes as soon as she can.
Dastan finds her in a little under an hour; he staggers into the the main temple and slurs, "Are you praying?"
"Oh." He sits down with a thump. "You left so fast I didn't even get the chance to ask for a dance."
"I don't think you are in any shape for a dance."
"For a priestess you don't really have a lot of faith." Tamina bites her lip, tugging the train of her skirts out from underneath him.
"For a prince you don't have very much dignity." Dastan rolls to his side and grins at her, the intensity of his gaze unsettling. He'd delivered the entire story to her the night before while staring at the floor, until the first pale streaks of dawn painted the sky at which point he'd bowed jerkily and left through the window.
"It's such a, a relief knowing I'm not the only one who knows what happened."
"But I don't remember," Tamina whispers, reaching for him before she can stop herself, which is the moment he leans forward and passes out.
What frightens Tamina is not death but the unknowable, the inexplicable, not being able to understand. Faith forms the foundation of her being and she has always found it to be eminently logical, a plain set of rules manifest in action and thought. The rules for death are the clearest, the ones for catastrophe and sacrifice, a selflessness she has more or less adhered to (with only a few minor slips) since the day of her choosing.
"Are you sure you are supposed to be here unsupervised?" Dastan asks the next evening when she knocks on the door to his chambers. She brushes past him and sets the decanter of wine on the table.
"Do you even hear the nonsense that comes out of your mouth?" She pours two goblets and sits, swirling the golden liquid in her own before taking a long pull and licking her lips. In the candlelight Dastan's skin is several shades darker than the wine. "You don't have any understanding of what it means to be high priestess of Alamut. You said," she continues before he can retort, "that the hassansins were once guardians of the dagger?"
"You told me," he says. Tamina frowns.
"But it is your uncle who wanted it. There is no guarantee that it is what they want."
"They want death," Dastan says, gulping his own wine.
"They have not yet struck."
"Are we supposed to wait?"
"And these are the frustrations," Tamina murmurs, "of knowledge you were not supposed to have." Her goblet is just empty but she has been fasting all day, one last attempt to reach clarity, so her head swims and her balance falters when she stands.
"Something has to be done," Dastan says. His eyes widen when Tamina makes a noise of agreement and pushes him sprawling over the embroidered cushions on the floor. She swings a leg over his hips and settles there.
"What other kinds of things do you know about me?"
"I don't—" he manages before Tamina kisses him hard. He makes a noise like a dying man, hands coming up to cup her face and mouth opening. She kisses him so he doesn't make a liar of himself; there are still secrets he carries like open wounds, visible every time he looks at her. She doesn't know how she hadn't seen it before, and a part of her regrets—she regrets—her initial impulse to wound him further when this particular failure is all her own.
His mouth tastes like the wine he has been drinking, heady and intoxicating. Heat blooms over Tamina's skin and she pushes forward more aggressively, yanking at the laces on Dastan's shirt until his chest is bare and heaving in front of her. Scars criss-cross it, old ones, and she follows them with her fingers; there would be no visible scars from this last battle.
"We shouldn't—" he gasps when she undoes the ties on her own robe, letting it slither off her shoulders. She aligns herself against him and tugs him over, so he is on top, hand splayed across her ribs.
"Your fingers, I want your fingers," she says and he makes the noise again, dropping his face into her hair. His thumb brushes her nipple and she shivers. "Come on."
"Tamina," he says but obeys, sliding his hands down her belly and beneath the loose linen of her trousers. She bucks her hips into his palm and he noses at her ear, shifting to drop kisses on her face like rain. Impatient, she pushes up again and he takes the hint, slipping one finger inside while she grinds against the heel of his hand.
"Another," she orders. It doesn't make sense, this desperation thrumming through her veins, intensifying with every twist of Dastan's wrist. By the third it is almost too much, too full, his fingers so much longer and wider than her own, reaching for something inside of her that she has been taught to be careful to never give to anyone.
She keens when her orgasm shakes her apart, convulsing around Dastan's hand. Dastan's breath comes in shallow pants, the blue in his eyes a barely visible ring around the pupils. "Please," he says when Tamina worms her hand inside his trousers and wraps it around his cock, "God—" It takes no more than three stokes before he is coming too, curling into her shoulder with her name on his lips.
"Nothing," Dastan says when his breathing evens out. "I didn't know anything about you."
Buildings rise from the ruins by the eastern gate, their walls two shades lighter than those closer to the center of the city. The market reopens: vendors hang colored silks from their stalls, others put out baubles, still others fruit and pastries that fill the air with their scents. The worst part is how much they all like him, Tamina thinks as she watches Dastan demonstrate a one-handed handstand to a group of wide-eyed children; after a few seconds of furious whispering one little girl darts forward to tip him over, making the whole lot break out in giggles. When he jumps up and bows, dirt smeared all down one side, Tamina catches herself laughing with them.
I wish we had more time, she tells the chasm in her dream. It is both a truth and a lie; with time there is too much potential, too much potentiality. A shift in priorities could make everything crumble, undermining a lifetime of devotion. She could fall in love with him; what then?
The night before the wedding a hassansin with a steel-barbed whip sneaks into the palace and tries to kill Dastan: "I'm fine, I'm fine," Dastan insists as the physician winds a white bandage around the gouge in his chest, oblivious to the thundering of Tamina's pulse. In the prison, the hassansin lifts his head, uncowled, and the hairs on the back of Tamina's neck rise.
"I know you," she says.
"Little priestess." Head inclined. She remembers: a tall, solemn young man, one of many. Skin that was once smooth is now puckered, lines of poison traveling up his neck to curl over his jaw. Gray flecks the hair at his temples. "You have changed."
"Why are you here? Why now?" she asks.
"To kill him. Because—" Turning his head, he spits in the dirt in front of Dastan, a vibrant smear on pale sand. Bowing again to Tamina, a grin splits his face, red with the blood that is gushing through his teeth. "You feel it, too," he says, "how close we came to grace."
"The hell," Dastan mutters; Tamina watches the hassansin die in silence. The promise she has made still rests heavy on her chest, but the weight has changed: she takes a deep breath, air filling her ribs, sweet with vitality. A second chance, she thinks, to do things differently.
Her hand finds Dastan's and grips it. "Come with me," she says.