Shahzad woke up slowly, breathing in the smell of the horses, feeling the sun's heat on his skin. His back was hunched over his horse, and he straightened slowly, arching back and moving his neck from side to side. Finally, he looked up and started at what he saw. There, just up ahead, was the city. There were the light-colored adobe buildings lining the streets, full of people going about their morning business. And there, farthest away was the palace with its golden dome and front walls of marble, shining brilliantly in the sun. It was there; it was real, and they had almost reached it! They were almost home!
He glanced around him at his men and the desert people and all of the Thieves. Most of them were still bent over their horses, sound asleep, though a few of the desert people around him were looking with curiosity at the looming buildings in front of them, then glancing quickly at each other and murmuring remarks in their own language.
"Sit—ee?" one of them asked, turning towards him. It was Dimah, a young woman that Nadim was trying to teach how to speak in the common tongue. She seemed to be picking it up fairly quickly, though her pronunciations of the words were often forced and awkward.
He nodded with a slight smile. "Yes, this is the city. This is my home. I grew up here." He looked back at the great marble palace, standing out more than any of the other buildings, and he remembered the years of growing up there, playing in the courtyard, running through the halls, just...living, with his father always there. His father wouldn't be there anymore, but he owed it to the man to take over his rule, and rule it as well as he possibly could. His set his jaw determinedly; he wanted to be the sort of man his father would have respected, would have been proud of.
When he glanced back at Dimah, she was smiling at him, without much comprehension. He laughed then, the entire situation suddenly striking him as odd and a bit humorous, and he looked around him again. More of his men were waking up now, pointing toward the city, grinning, and practically shouting in jubilance.
"It's the city!"
"We've made it. I didn't think I'd ever see my family again..."
He reined in his horse, slowing down, twisting around in his saddle to face them all. "Men—" he started, then amended, "people of Arabia, we've reached the city. We're almost home now. Let's get there quickly!" With that, he turned again, grinning himself now, and kicked his heels into the sides of his horse. It started off running, galloping through the sand, the quick clip-clop of its hooves reverberating against the ground. He heard the rest of his men following, with a pounding like a stampede of horses behind him.
He felt like he was flying then, hot air rushing through his hair and all around him, with the sleek black horse beneath him, racing across the desert. They would arrive in the city in a blazing cloud of gold, he thought with a small smile. It might be a bit shocking to the people in the city, to see so many riders pounding into their city. Hopefully, though, they would be glad to see him returning.
In short manner, they had reached the beginnings of the city, the place where the sand blew up hard against the buildings and the street ended abruptly, giving way to the miles of sand dunes spread before it. Here, they slowed down, first to a calmer trot, then into a mere walk, compacting closer together and stretching out into a long line in order to fit within the confines of the street.
Shahzad found himself at the front of the procession, something that would have frightened him in earlier days—still did frighten him a little, as he saw the people in the streets stop what they were doing and turn to stare—but he knew it was his rightful place as sultan. The people needed to see that he was alive still, and that he cared about them, not only himself.
Tahir and Xavia wound up riding next to him, Tahir holding the reins of the horse and Xavia sitting in front of him. Xavia smiled at Shahzad, and he smiled back. He was happy for them, together and in love, not jealous of Tahir. He'd never loved Xavia in that way; he'd only been...confused, about so much. Now, he was simply happy to have them both as friends, some of the best people he knew.
"Shahzad," Tahir said as they reached him, "we're here. We're home."
He smiled again. "Yes, we are," he replied. This city, these people, and this part of the world. It was...everything he loved, everything he'd grown up with and known since he was born. He felt comfortable here, even with all the people dropping what they were doing and turning to stare at him.
Although...there was something odd about the way they were staring. They were all healthy, something he was glad to see, but they looked at him with disbelief, as if they thought he was a ghost. And they were quiet, too quiet—he pulled his horse to a step and as soon as everyone behind him had also shuffled to a stop, he listened. There was barely a sound—only the wind and a few quiet whispers murmuring among the people.
He stared back at them, before realizing that he was probably only prolonging the awkwardness of the moment. He ought to say something. He pursed his lips, thinking. What could he say after leaving them for so long? He glanced nervously at Tahir and Xavia next to him. Xavia was looking around at the people, but Tahir was turned toward him, his head inclined slightly. "Shahzad," he whispered, with a small nod.
Shahzad swallowed and took a breath, preparing to speak. "Arabians," he began at last, trying to project his voice over the expanse of them. "I have returned from my journey through the desert. I..." he paused, thinking. None of these people knew anything about what had happened out there in the desert. They would never find out unless...he told them, and there was no reason for him to tell them. But...he felt like...he couldn't rule over them if they didn't know what he'd been, what he was.
"You might have noticed, at my father's funeral, two months ago now, that I was...not quite ready to rule. I went into the desert looking for power and revenge. I wanted to find the Sands of Time to use them to my advantage. I'm sure you've heard legends of them, and they're real. We found them, and," he turned to his right, towards Tahir, "this man spilled them and cured Arabia of the plague. You owe him your lives. I, on the other hand, you owe nothing to. But I owe something to you, and I want to lead you, to help you in any way I can. I saw my life in the desert for what it was, and it wasn't what it should have been. I left you as a selfish man. I return as your servant."
He looked at the people, trying to gauge their reactions. They were a bit louder now, discussing amongst themselves, but still staring at him. He swallowed. He hoped—what if they didn't trust him now, after learning that? What if they refused to listen to anything he said, tried to overthrow him? Maybe he deserved that, but...he didn't want it! He wanted to do the best for them, now.
He heard a voice in the crowd, picking out one of the voices. "I wish he'd say something like that. But he's never been good for us, and he never will be."
Shahzad frowned, puzzled, wondering who he was. He spurred his horse forward slightly, towards the man who'd spoken, a burly, middle-aged man. "Sir," Shahzad started, "who do you speak of? Who is he? And why are you all so...silent?" He asked the last question in a quieter, less authoritative voice, trailing off in his confusion.
"I mean the sultan—well, begging your pardon, sir, not if you're here—that is if you can wrest it from him...anyway, I mean Khalid. He told us you were dead more than a month ago—almost two months in fact. He said one of your men came back, riding straight to the back of the palace, and said you and the rest of them had been killed by...something poisonous, I don't remember quite what it was. Since you didn't have any heirs, he was next in line for the throne, and his coronation was the day after your funeral."
"My funeral?" Shahzad repeated dazedly. They'd had his funeral? He...wasn't entirely sure what to think of that. But...somehow, he wasn't surprised. He should have known—he did know—what Khalid was capable of. The man was power-hungry, and he had taken the easiest route to the power he wanted. Afzal had been right in warning him not to leave the country in the hands of that man. Now he wasn't even the sultan anymore.
"Khalid—has he been treating you well?" he asked at last, looking back at the man he'd spoken to. That was the most important thing, really. If Khalid had done nothing but sit in his palace on his throne, well...he'd have to be punished for it as was his due as a traitor, but if he'd actually done wrong to the Arabian people, that was...far worse. He would not tolerant his people suffering.
"Well, he hasn't been too bad," the man said with a shrug. "He hasn't...killed us or anything, but...he took some of our gold and jewels to be put into palace furnishings and statues. The market's suffered because of it—nobody has the money to buy anything. We trade, but we can't buy from the ships coming in, and he takes a lot of our food to put into palace storehouses. We get on, but we can't do much of anything anymore."
Shahzad nodded, frowning slightly. Well, at least it hadn't been...too bad. They weren't being tortured or...made into slaves or anything of that sort. They just...weren't doing as well as they could be. He glanced to his right again, towards Tahir. "We'll have to take him off the throne," he said in a low voice.
He saw Tahir nod, almost invisibly. "I think we can do that," he replied after a moment. "He's only one man, after all."
Shahzad glanced behind him, at the desert people and the Thieves and the Royal Guard. He...hoped they supported him. He knew some of them did, but most of them had little reason to. He hadn't been a good leader in the past, but he wanted to be one now. He hoped they would see that, that they would help him.
"Are you going to go vanquish Khalid?" a younger boy standing beside the older man posed the question, with wide eyes and an eager expression. Shahzad smiled at his enthusiasm, but noticed that the rest of the people were watching him seriously, solemn black eyes waiting for an answer. They wanted him to fight for them, and by the desert, he would.
"Yes," he said shortly. "I'm going to reclaim my throne, and I assure you, things will go back to the way they were under my father—or better if I can improve upon them at all. You'll have your gold and jewels back, and you'll have your free market." He turned around again, looking at his men, hoping they would back him. They'd followed all of his orders in trying to get out of the desert, but...that was in order to get home alive. Now they were already home. Would they follow him any farther?
"Men," he started, just loud enough for them all to hear. "I hope you'll all come with me to help me take back my throne from Khalid. I would be honored to have you all come with me. However...you were employed under my father, and I will not force you to serve me as you have served him. You've seen the way I ruled in the desert, on the journey out and on the journey in. I trust you will make your decision based on what you've seen."
He looked at the desert people then, realizing that they needed some direction. They might choose to come with him, but they might not want to, and they certainly weren't all warriors. He searched through the crowd, finding Nadim not too far behind him, in between Jalal and Dimah. "Nadim, will you tell the desert people that they may stay in the city for now, or they may come with me to the palace, though they are under no obligation to help. Accommodations will be made for them later."
Nadim nodded and relayed in the information in rapid speech. He was quickly replied to by the old man, and turned back to Shahzad. "They're coming with us. They want to be sure you regain your throne."
Shahzad nodded, finding the eyes of the old man, with his crinkled, leathery skin and dark eyes. He smiled. "Alright, then we go on to the palace." He spurred his horse forward, heard the slow clip-clop of the horses following him. He glanced behind him and saw that all of the men were following him, not a single one had disappear, or begun to travel a different way throughout the city, to their own homes. He smiled, suddenly confident. These were his men. He respected them, and...they respected him as well. It was a good feeling.
Abruptly, he stopped again, after several feet forward, recalling something he'd done in the desert. He remembered the man, the older man he'd ordered killed. He remembered the pleading look in the man's eyes, his voice saying he had a wife, he had children at home, and to please, please let him live. But he'd ordered him to be killed, and he'd been killed, a saber stabbed through him. Shahzad swallowed.
"Tahir," he said, "where did Dawud live?"
"Dawud?" Tahir asked in what sounded like confusion, but Shahzad knew Tahir remembered the man, likely knew him well. Tahir knew each of the Thieves by name and where they all lived, who their families were.
"Yes, Dawud," he repeated. "The man I killed in the desert. I want to apologize to his wife."
There was a slight pause before Tahir spoke. Shahzad watched various emotions cross his face, pain in the memory, stretching his face, tightening his lips, and the straining as he weighed things out, considering. "Shahzad, I admire your intentions, but I'm not sure that's really..."
"Tahir, please," Shahzad cut in. "I...I need to do this. She might not accept my apology, and there's no reason for her to accept it, but...I need to apologize." He was practically pleading now, but it was all true. He needed to apologize to this woman, whoever she was. He'd ordered her husband's death, as good as killed the man himself. And she likely wouldn't want to speak to him, but he couldn't rule his country with pride knowing what he'd done and never taken responsibility for.
Tahir sighed next to him, shaking his head slightly. "Alright," he replied at last, relenting. "Where are we, exactly?"
"Five streets down from the edge of the city, opposite the palace," Shahzad answered, glancing around at his surroundings. The buildings were all the light-colored tan and pinkish ones, from adobe bricks. The roofs were somewhat flat with a slight dome, and the doorways were all arched. They were simple houses, but they worked well. The ones on his right side looked better maintained than the ones on his left. The left-side ones looked...crumbling almost, not quite falling apart, but definitely cracked.
"To the left, two streets down, first house."
Shahzad swallowed, then nodded and turned his horse to his left, towards those houses. They trotted down a ways, going quickly, as he wanted to get his throne back as quickly as possible, but he knew he needed to do this first. Soon they were crossing the first street, and then the next. Finally, Shahzad dismounted from his horse, swiftly swinging his left leg over and hopping down from the stirrup.
As he walked toward the house, a woman came out with two boys, evidently noticing the commotion in the street. The boys both looked around ten years old, watching the spectacle with wide-eyes and occasionally grinning or playfully pushing each other. The woman was straight-backed and very calm, eyes scanning over Shahzad and the crowd of mounted men behind him. He noticed her eyes lingered on the Thieves, searching through them for her husband, most likely.
He met the woman halfway up to the house, swallowing as she stopped in front of him, eyes locked on him. She had one hand resting on the shoulders of each of her boys, forcing them to stand still next to her. She looked at him with a set jaw, waiting for him to speak.
He pursed his lips, then took a breath. "Madam," he began, realizing he didn't even know her name. He should have asked Tahir, perhaps, to seem more personal, but it was too late now. "Are you the wife of...Dawud?"
"I am," she replied steadily, looking him unflinchingly in the eye.
He nodded, a bit too quickly, he thought, as he tried to think of what to say next. How did you tell a woman you killed her husband? It...it wasn't something he was proud of, certainly not something he wanted her to know. But she deserved to know. "I...I want to...apologize. In the desert, I...I ordered your husband...killed. It was wrong. I made many mistakes, and I know that was one of the chief ones, taking away a man's life without reason, but I—I want to start over now. I thought I should let you—"
She had not looked away from him the entire time he was speaking, but now her eyes left him, just briefly to rest on her boys who were looking up at him in stunned silence, not entirely comprehending, but understanding that something was wrong well enough to begin to cry. Her eyes darted back up to his. "Get away from me and my boys," she spoke levelly, not rising or shouting at all, but with an underlying intensity.
Shahzad took a step back, startled. He...he hadn't wanted to upset her. And if she had gotten upset, he'd expected her to...to cry or scream at him, but instead she stood so calm, even as her eyes flashed at him, her cheeks flared red. She was angry. And she had every right to be angry, but he...he—were there no second chances? Couldn't he—couldn't he—but...no, there was no getting that man's life back. He looked at the woman again, beginning to raise his palms up as she glared at him. "I...I'm sorry," was all he could manage.
"I don't care," she said, and this time her voice broke in the middle of her words, and he saw her eyes looking glassy, filled with unshed tears. She struggled against them for a few seconds, then took a moment and had a deep breath, shutting her eyes tight against him. When she opened them again, her face was once again calm. "You might be sorry, and you might live better now, and you might rule better than anyone has. But that doesn't change the fact that..." she broke off, biting her lip hard, then went on, "I don't want to look at your face right now. Just—leave. And don't come back."
Shahzad looked at her a moment, observing her calm but angry face, masking her struggling emotions within. He realized then that there was nothing he could do. He had told her, and...that was all he could do. He wasn't entirely sure if it was the right choice or not, but he felt better letting out the truth. He turned and went back to his horse quietly, swung himself up and immediately started the horse trotting forward.
"Shahzad, are you alright?" Tahir asked, catching up to him as they turned at the end of the street, facing back towards the palace.
Shahzad glanced at the man beside him and Xavia in front of him. They both looked concerned for him, Xavia with her eyes, Tahir with the set line of his jaw, his tight lips. He smiled slightly at them. They were his friends. He'd betrayed them, and they'd forgiven them. Now he realized suddenly just how much that meant, appreciated anew the fact that they had been able to forgive them at all.
"Yes," he said. "I'm alright. I just...want to get to the palace now and get Khalid out of my throne." He turned, glancing behind him again to find Mahmud in the crowd. He was riding close to the front, speaking to a few of his men. "Captain Mahmud," Shahzad called to him, "do you know if Khalid has many men with him? Will it be difficult to get to him?"
The captain shook his head. "He doesn't have many, sir. I don't think he thought we'd be back, so he sent most everyone who would oppose him away. He has a few men to guard him—I don't know where their loyalties lie—but not enough to cause much trouble."
"Good," Shahzad replied steadily, "then we'll enter through the front, go straight through, and meet him in the throne room." With that, he spurred his pace, making his horse take a faster gait until the rhythmic beat of its hooves blurred into an almost hum beneath him, a prolonged reverberation. They went down the long streets, past people, a few turning in surprise, most already knowing from neighbors who'd seen him come in. Some of them cheered him on, and he smiled at them and went on.
Within a few minutes, they reached the palace gates. They were wide open, carelessly open, Shahzad thought. Khalid wouldn't expect any sort of uprising from the people he lorded over. He was the sultan. No one could hurt the sultan, after all. Except, perhaps, another sultan.
He got off his horse slowly and walked inside the gate, standing in the long drive leading up to the steps. He glanced behind him and saw his men following him, somewhat hesitantly. The Thieves were the closest to him, the Royal Guard behind them, and the desert people following with curiosity. All who carried sabers had their hands resting on the hilts.
"Let's go," he said simply and started walking. He took long, quick strides down the drive, keeping his eyes firmly set on the marble steps ahead of them. When he reached them, he kept the same easy pace, but made his strides long again, climbing up several stairs at once. Then there were the thick bronze doors with the huge, curved handles. He gripped one, pulled with all his might, and flung it open. He walked inside.
He knew the palace so well. The big windows letting in the sunlight, the rich crimson and gold furnishings, the statues of bronze and gold, the pools of water to cool the air—this was his home, and he felt an immediate sense of ease at being in it again. He felt safe and confident and...in his place in the world. This was where he belonged.
Abruptly, he started for the throne room, taking the quickest path he knew. Through the entry hall, taking two rights, past the dining hall and the entertaining hall, then one left, down the wide corridor, and there was the doorway, tall and arched with the doors carved into pictures of heroes and glory. He pulled on the handle, flinging this door open as well and walked through.
A moment after he was inside, he was grabbed from his left side and trapped in a headlock. The arms around his neck were tight and choking. He felt his throat constrict as he began to gag, the strong arms tightening more and more. His head felt light and airy, and all he could do was stare, wondering just what had happened. There was fighting, blades of sabers ringing as they smacked against each other. Khalid did have men, he could see that, and he could see his own men fighting. It looked like more than they'd accounted for, but he still thought he had more men, if he could just stop choking...
Then suddenly, the arms were thrown off of him, and he turned to see Tahir and the man who'd grabbed him fighting with on the floor with their bare fists. Quickly, he bent down beside them, first punching the man he didn't know hard in the face and watching him fall back to the ground, then grabbing Tahir's arm and pulling him to his feet. "Thank you," he said, when they were both standing again.
"And thank you," Tahir replied with a nod. "They seem to be rather vicious fighters."
"Yes, they do," Shahzad affirmed, glancing around him to take things in from a better scope. Khalid's men, who appeared to be some small faction of the Royal Guard were fighting brutally with the Thieves, Royal Guard, and desert people alike. They were doing well, but not so well. There seemed to be fifty of them at most, and he had more than a hundred men altogether. They weren't even all through the door yet. They had been taken by surprise, but they were gaining the upper hand again.
Tahir was suddenly pulled into fighting another man, blocking the swift slice of a saber and counterattacking with a move of his own. Shahzad scooted out of the way, and looked around a bit more. He didn't see anyone for himself to fight. They were all engaged with his men, and several of his men were grouped at the door, trying to push themselves in.
He turned his gaze to the far side of the room, past the long red and gold carpet, up the dais. There was the throne, large and straight-backed, with its golden hues and crimson designs engraved into it. And there, sitting in it, was Khalid, tall and erect, watching the situation with that expression he always bore, what could best be described as a haughty sneer.
Shahzad swallowed then, as he took a step towards the man and another step and another. This was his battle to fight, for his father, for his throne, for the way he'd been betrayed and poisoned against his friends. He walked the entire way, leisurely down the carpeted walkway, unstopped by any men. He walked until the edge of the dais, then stood silently, staring at the man in his throne.
Khalid smirked, as he always did, looking amused. In his eyes, though, Shahzad noticed was a dimness, not as bright as they should have been; they held a sense of failure. He glanced backward at the men still fighting. Only a few of Khalid's remained standing. The man might have been good at appearing calm, but hestill knew he was losing. It would be over for him in moments.
"Shahzad," Khalid spoke at length with his smooth, syrupy voice. "I see you've returned from your journey. And tell me, did you find the Sands of Time and bring them back with you?"
Shahzad blinked, then glared. That the man could even discuss this, when he knew as well as all of them that he'd stolen the throne! "I found them, but I didn't bring them back. They were spilled out for Arabia, as they ought to have been."
Khalid gave another smooth smile, stretching slowly across his thin lips and gave a slight nod. "Yes, I did notice that the plague suddenly disappeared a while back. It caused quite an uproar." He said nothing more, only watched Shahzad, amusedly, with eyes like a snake.
"You stole my throne while I was away, Khalid. And I'm going to take it back now." He said this with as much authority and determination as he could muster, straightening his back as he stood, pulling himself to his full height with his head lifted high. Khalid had seen him as a weak man, easy to manipulate, but he would not be weak anymore. He would take his country back for his people.
"Stole your throne?" Khalid replied with a laugh and a look of mock surprise. "Shahzad, I assure you, I would never dream of such a thing. It's only...you were gone so long, and with the limited supplies you took with you...well, I had to assume the worst, and someone had to take over ruling."
Shahzad shook his head impatiently. He wouldn't listen to lies again. He'd heard from his people what had happened, and he'd trust them over Khalid any day. "You told the people I was dead almost two months ago. I've been gone for barely two months. I wouldn't have died that soon, Khalid, and certainly not by the specifics you told them."
At this, all mock pleasantries dropped from the man's face. Khalid looked him over seriously, with cold, cruel eyes and a malice in his jeering expression. "Well, that's that, isn't it?" he said in a low voice. "But Shahzad, I want you to think for a moment. Do you really think you can rule alone? You don't have the Sands of Time to help you; without me you won't have anyone. It will you be just you, frightened out of your wits. Nobody will respect you on your own. You haven't studied under your father how to rule. You couldn't even go into the desert and return with what you went out for. You need someone to help you."
Shahzad stared at the man for a moment, and he suddenly felt hot rage flaring up within in for this man. Khalid had been the source of so many of his troubles. If it wasn't for Khalid, he never would have come up with that idea of going out into the desert, killing the Thieves when they didn't take him where he wanted to go. This was the man who had poisoned him against everyone who cared for him. He was a traitor to the throne and a traitor to Arabia.
As fast as he could, he pulled his saber from its sheath and leaped onto the dais, swinging at Khalid with a ferocity. The man, weaponless, darted out of the way. He jumped up from his seat on the throne and moved to the left, trying to get away from the wildly attacking blade. Shahzad swung again, stabbing out as he lunged at the man.
In Khalid's attempts to move, this time he tripped over himself, falling down each of the carpeted stairs as he tumbled down the dais. Shahzad reached him quickly, pressing the tip of his saber against the man's throat before he could manage to get up. He prepared himself to stab through—and do it gladly! This was the man who had stolen his throne and treated his people poorly. This was the man who had killed his father with no mercy at all. This was the man who had betrayed him, when he'd trusted the man, for nothing more than power.
Shahzad stopped then, for the first time taking in the man's eyes, watching him with a sense of dread and inevitability. His hand was shaking, and the saber wavered in the air, visibly moving back and forth. Suddenly, he threw it down to the floor beside him. He couldn't kill this man in front of him, on the ground, defenseless. He—he'd done almost all of the same things Khalid had done. He'd killed a man, mercilessly. He'd betrayed his friends when they'd trusted him. He hadn't stolen anyone's throne, but that didn't matter, he—they were too much the same. The only difference was...he would never let himself become that way again.
He turned to the people crowded in the throne room. It was silent now, as they all watched him, waiting for his next move. "Men," he began in a trembling voice, "take Khalid and all of his men to the dungeons. I...cannot be the one to kill him, or any of them, though they may be sentenced death—after a trial. Take them and unlock the rest of the Forty Thieves that remain there. And...Khalid," he turned then, to face the man on the ground, recalling that he'd left Afazal here, Afzal, the friend always loyal to his father, loyal to Arabia. The man had been here when Shahzad had left, but he had not seen him yet.
He was about to speak, but Khalid wasn't there—he was scrambling on the ground, reaching for the saber Shahzad had dropped. Before Shahzad could react, the man had it held tightly in his hand, and he got to his feet, lunging forward and stabbing straight for Shahzad's chest.
He couldn't think. He could only see the steel blade coming at him, straight for him, and he shut his eyes tightly. He didn't want to see it stab him. He couldn't watch; he could only...listen to the shouting and the sound of the saber cutting through the air. And maybe...he deserved this. He knew that he did, and he couldn't move.
But then, it didn't come. There was no stabbing, no rush of air passing out of him, no death clouding his mind. He was alive, and the saber was not coming anymore.
He heard Xavia call out, "Afzal!" in an excited tone and the sound of her footsteps running to him.
He opened his eyes to see the old man had knocked the saber from Khalid's hand and stood now, struggling to restrain him. A few of the men—both Thieves and Royal Guard—came forward quickly, to help the older man, taking Khalid more firmly in hand. "We'll take him to the dungeons now," one of the men said, nodding to Shahzad.
Shahzad nodded back at them, and they began to pull the man away, even as he spat at them, muttering curses. Shahzad watched them go, the rest of the men taking the disarmed men who had served under Khalid with them. He turned back to Afzal then, as Xavia crowded around the man, pulling Tahir along with her. He observed the man, with his bright colored clothing, leathery skin, and slow, kind smile. This man had saved his life. And he was the man that he should have been listening to all along, instead of Khalid.
"Afzal, we spilled the Sands of Time!" Xavia was exclaiming as she dropped Tahir's hand to embrace the man.
Afzal patted her back, smiling widely. "Yes, I know. I'm very proud of you. All of you," he said, as she pulled away. He looked at her for a moment, then at Tahir, and finally at Shahzad, his eyes lingering on him the longest. Shahzad looked down, feeling like—it was as if the man knew...everything. What he'd become out in the desert, all that he'd done. It was unnerving.
"But what have you been doing while we were away, Afzal?" Xavia asked eagerly, her green eyes fixated upon the grandfatherly man.
Afzal turned his eyes back to, smiling again. "I told Khalid that I was returning to my home, but in secret I remained here, watching him and awaiting your return." He turned to Shahzad again. "I knew he lied about your death, and I wanted to be sure he did not treat Arabia badly. When you approached, he called his men all in here, to fight you when you came. I stayed behind the curtains on the dais, waiting. I knew Khalid would jump when you least expected it."
Shahzad nodded, swallowing. "Thank you," he said gratefully, knowing full well he owed this man his life. He could have been killed twice now, by Tahir in the desert, by Khalid here. Both times, he would have deserved it, but both times he had received mercy. It was something he could scarcely comprehend. Why him—why was he still living, when others more deserving had died?
Afzal was watching him still, and when Shahzad turned his eyes back to the man, he nodded slightly. Then he turned towards the dais, raising his hand out towards the large, engraved throne sitting upon it. "The throne is yours now, Shahzad," he said. "You are our sultan." He gave a low bow then, bending at the waist and crossing one arm over his chest.
Shahzad watched him, until he straightened himself again, thinking how...it wasn't right. "I—I don't think I deserve it," he said honestly, his voice close to stuttering. "I know I don't deserve it." He swallowed again, wondering if those words would lose him his throne. He did want to rule, but...it wouldn't bother him to step down—because he knew he ought to step down. He didn't deserve his country, not truly.
"That," Afzal began with a slight nod, "is the first step towards deserving it, my boy. Now take your throne."
Shahzad bit his lip, wondering how and why and...he just didn't understand any of it. But he looked at the throne, sitting there upon the dais, and slowly he began to walk towards it, taking long, steady steps. He reached the top step of the dais and looked at the chair, where he'd seen his father sit so many times. Taking a slow, shaky breath, he turned and sat upon it, knowing full well how little he deserved it, but how it had been bestowed upon him, by some grace and mercy he couldn't understand.
He looked back down at his people, scattered all throughout the room, and they—all of them together—bowed down on one knee, acknowledging him as sultan. He felt his throat tighten as a tear dripped down his cheek. "Thank you," he whispered to grace.
The scales of the fish sparkled orange and gold in the sunlight. She watched them dart through the cool water, the surface of the pool glimmering as it reflected the sun. Occasionally, she dipped her hands in the water, felt the wetness on her fingertips, watched the surprised reaction from the fish. She liked gold fish, she decided, very much.
Then she looked back up at Tahir, who was still staring at her with intensely blue eyes, staring at her with an odd sort of determination that she found amusing. She wondered how much longer she was going to sit here beside the pool, waiting for him to speak. He'd asked her to go walk with him through the courtyard, privately, and she had agreed, but he'd said very little this entire time.
He ran his hand through his thick black hair, for perhaps the hundredth time in the past couple of minutes, and then took a deep breath. "Xavia," he began at last, speaking her name in a low voice, with the utmost sincerity.
"Yes, Tahir?" she asked brightly, straightening her back and looking up at him eagerly. Perhaps now he would finally ask her what she'd been waiting to hear him ask. She knew he was going to ask her sometime; she was only wondering when.
"I love you," he said abruptly, staring at her with concentration.
"I know," she replied simply, smiling at him again. "I love you, too."
He did not look entirely heartened by this, but instead ran his hand through his hair yet again and seemed to twist his mouth into an odd shape. He was awkwardly trying to look somewhere besides her, but always his eyes returned to her own.
Each time, she smiled brilliantly at him, begging him to go on, but he wouldn't. Finally, she sighed, as she felt sweat beginning to form on her forehead. The temperature today was very warm. "Tahir, if you're not going to ask me anything else, I'm going to return inside. It's getting hot out here in the sun, and I don't want to spend all day waiting."
He looked even more discomfited at this, but finally with a sudden burst confidence, he straightened to his full height and walked determinedly closer to her, until he was a mere two paces away. He took one more step, grabbed her hand fiercely in his own, and bent down on one knee in front of her.
She raised her eyebrows at him, flashing a smile and tilting her head slightly, willing him to go on.
"Xavia," he said again, and before she could ask, "Yes?" again, he spoke more with energy and strength. "I'm in love with you, and...in the desert, I realized that you mean everything to me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me, be with me forever?"
She smiled then, even wider than before, and she felt happy. Happier than she'd ever felt, in her whole life, and she loved Tahir so, so much. "Yes," she said, pursing her lips together as they involuntarily curved upward. "Yes."
He stood up then, pressing forward on one foot and grabbing her around the waist. He pulled her to her feet and then swung her around in circles, her feet flying out behind her. Laughing, she slipped her arms around her neck and kissed him on the lips, closing her eyes, and the entire sensation was so, so sweet, and she loved him, and she was getting dizzy, but she didn't care, because she was going to marry Tahir, and she'd never been happier.
Finally, they stopped spinning and stopped kissing, and stood a short distance from each other, just smiling. Then a loud cheer went up from behind them, and they turned to see Shahzad, Nadim, Jalal—most of the Thieves in general—emerging from the courtyard entrance along with Afzal. They were all laughing and smiling, raising their eyebrows at each other as they walked toward them both.
"So you finally asked the question!" Nadim exclaimed, as the men all approached them. "We've been watching you two for some time now, and we were wondering when it was ever going to happen."
"Well, I...had to...work up to that point," Tahir replied, stumbling for an explanation. The rest of the men just laughed.
"Did you get tired of sitting there, Xavia?" Nadim asked, turning to her now.
She laughed, glancing at Tahir next to her, who had turned to look her in the eye. She smiled at him and grabbed his hand beside hers, squeezing it tightly. She felt him squeeze it back gently, and she looked back at Nadim. "A little," she replied, "but it was worth it." She looked back at Tahir, feeling warm all over, like her heart could burst open from happiness.
"So when's the wedding?" Jalal asked, looking quizzically at both of them, raising one eyebrow.
Xavia turned to Tahir, shrugging slightly. "Well," she began, "I don't know. It'll take some planning. I'll have to get a dress, you know, and the ceremony has to be just right..." She laughed when she saw the men beginning to roll their eyes at her. "Well, it's my wedding, and I'm going to have it just the way I want to have it!"
The men laughed again, and Shahzad came forward to Tahir then, looking at him seriously. "Tahir, I had something to ask you myself," he began, taking another step forward through Jalal and Nadim. "I was wondering if you would be my vizier. I need a new one, since Khalid...can't exactly do the job anymore."
She glanced up at Tahir, seeing him considering, differing thoughts flickering across his face, smiling slightly towards his friend. "I would love to," he said, "though I'll have to speak to my fiancée." He said the word with a twitch in the corner of his mouth and turned towards her. "Xavia, where do you want to live? I'll go wherever you want. Here, or your own home."
She smiled a little, pursing her lips, thinking. She...missed her own country. She missed her father and their palace and the land around their palace and weather there. But on the other hand, she knew if she went there, she'd miss Arabia even more. This was where she'd made her best friends, where she'd fallen in love, where she'd...grown up, more than she ever had at home. This was where she'd realized what love really meant, what sacrifice meant, and...she loved Arabia. She loved the hot sun and the sand dunes stretching to the horizon.
"I want to live here," she said, looking back at Tahir, tightening her hold on his hand. "I want to visit home first, though. I think...I want to get married there, with my father at the ceremony and my sisters, and then come back here to live."
"Are you sure?" Tahir asked, looking at her earnestly. "I want you to be happy."
She nodded, smiling. "Yes, I'm sure. I will be happy. I'll be with you," she said the last with another bright, teasing smile at him, and she heard some of the men snickering, but she didn't care. She loved him.
He nodded at her. "Alright, that sounds good to me. I would be honored to be your vizier, Shahzad," he said, turning back to the man in front of him, extending his hand out.
The man took it and shook it firmly, with a smile and a nod in her direction. "Good," he said. "And thank you, Tahir. For everything."
"You're welcome," Tahir replied.
Xavia looked between the two men, seeing their ease with each other. She was happy for them, for both of them. They'd patched things up, and...they all got along so well now. Everything had worked out, for all of them. The plague was cured. She'd had an adventure, though it had certainly been much different from what she'd imagined. It was much harder, but...she didn't regret it. The journey had changed them all, but in good ways.
"Well, let's go inside," Afzal suggested, glancing at all of them. "It's quite hot out here, if I do say so myself. Perhaps we could have some refreshments," he said, glancing at Shahzad questioningly.
Shahzad nodded. "Yes, let's. A celebration of your engagement," he said, nodding at Xavia, smiling. "And...a celebration that we're all here together, and we're...alright."
There was a murmur of approval from the rest of the men, and they began to head back to the courtyard entrance, slowly, shuffling together. Xavia and Tahir brought up the rear, along with Shahzad next to them. Three friends, Xavia thought, similar to how they had been, she supposed, with Tahir and Shahzad and Faiza together. She looked at Shahzad, and his eyes looked slightly far away. She wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
It was a new start, though, for Shahzad. He'd lost a lot, but he'd gained things too, in their journey. They'd all gained things. Mostly, they had each other now, closer than ever before. She looked up at Tahir, at his blue eyes and determined jaw, and she smiled. She squeezed his hand tighter and felt the response from his own hand as he glanced down at her. She was at home here, she realized, more than she could ever be anywhere else. They all were.
It is finished! A day later than I wanted, but at least now it's done without waiting long, and I should still have time to get enough done on my NaNo. I'm a bit sad it's over though...I really loved this story, and I hope you did, too.
I want to thank everyone who has read and reviewed it. I probably never would have finished it without you. I especially want to thank those of you on the Christian Writer's Forum who encouraged me and gave me virtual food when I lost the climax chapter...I think Billi and EVA would be the main two actually reading this, and I also want to thank ZKS for being an awesome reviewer and friend. And finally I would like to thank my sister for all the story therapy you gave me. :D
In time, I will probably be editing this story, as it needs some major revisions in the beginning, and I'd like to add in more accurate Arabian culture to it. I would like to publish it in time, too...I'm not sure if that's even possible, but if it ever disappears from the site, look for it in print! And finally, I'd like to invite you all to read my next major fic I'm undertaking...I'm doing it for my NaNoWriMo, and I'll begin posting it here in December. It is called Paper Faces. The summary is on my profile (although...it's not a very good summary), and I'm really excited about it! And once again, leave a final review! :D