Foundations of Sand
(for Star, as always)
There were no torches lit in the outer catacombs, and Tamina carried none, walking in thick darkness with her left hand resting on the wall. She had walked this way with her mother a hundred times and more, and the cool stone was as familiar as the hilt of the Dagger that rested in her belt. The main passageways with their smooth floors and intricate stonework were gone now, collapsed at her own order, but the ancient Guardians who had built the tunnels to collapse at need had wanted their descendants to have an access to the Sandglass even if such dire necessity arose. She blessed them silently for their wisdom as she passed their sealed tombs.
Her feet, clad in soft slippers, barely echoed in the stone of the catacombs. Tamina paused in the dark for a long moment, eyes closed, holding her breath and letting the sound die away. No other footstep or sigh of air came to her, no crash of Persian armor. She was alone.
The Persian army still defiled the walls of Alamut, for all the pretty words their princes could offer of mistakes and amends. Though the main body of the army with its cavalry had pulled out to camp on the western hills where there was some grass for their mounts, Persian archers had taken the places of the dead Alamutian guards and Persian warriors flocked around any building the princes entered. For the city's protection, Prince Tus had said. Until the marriage treaty was formalized. At which point it would be her new husband's troops who guarded the walls. Of course.
Tamina gripped the Dagger more tightly, the smooth glass a comfort in spite of all else. As long as she carried it, she had not yet failed in her sacred duty.
Not this time, at least...
The icy knot below her heart had not faded since the moment when Prince Dastan offered her the Dagger, with halting words that did not match the terrible satisfaction in his eyes. Whatever the Persian prince knew, he had not shared it with his family; no one in the room had lifted an eyebrow at his gift. But the Dagger was empty, its sand spent, as was the vial Tamina wore for emergencies. For that to happen without her knowledge, time had turned back far past the limits of safety.
It was Dastan who had used the Dagger. The knowledge was too clear in his face, in his smug words, for any other conclusion. Somehow, he had breached the Sandglass. She had to see the damage for herself-to judge just how badly her otherself had failed, and how much time there was to do what must be done.
She paused to blink as a fresher draft of air brushed her face. A faint glimmer of moonlight lined the steps of the small temple beneath the city-the ancient place was covered in dust and the work of spiders, purposely neglected, and no one but Tamina herself knew that it hid passages in the catacombs both to the High Temple and to the Chamber of the Sandglass. She let go of the dagger's hilt to greet the smooth metal of the waiting statue, and pressed the hidden trigger.
The stone wall ground slowly apart, and as the opening grew Tamina gasped aloud and raised an arm to shield her watering eyes. On the other side, where there should have been no light at all save for the distant moon, a torch flickered fierce and red.
"I was starting to think I'd be waiting all night, Princess," a voice greeted her, with the tone of satisfaction she thought she could quickly come to hate.
Tamina scrubbed her white sleeve across her eyes and glared, heedless of the pain as the torchlight struck her. "There are more appropriate places to speak with me, Prince Dastan. You can, of course, command my presence at any time."
"Maybe so, but I couldn't be sure who might overhear," the Persian said, more seriously. He was sitting against the wall of the passage, Tamina saw as her vision cleared, his torch propped up on a convenient bit of stone. More importantly, he was alone. No guards, no servants, no other Persians, just the man she had agreed to wed with his hands spread empty on his knees. He frowned suddenly, looking at her, an oddly concerned expression. "Did you actually come down here without a torch? At night? You don't even have a candle."
She studied him, feeling again an unwilling pang of what could have been friendship, if not for her duty and his actions. "If I brought a torch, someone could follow me."
The prince cast a glance toward the Hidden Bridge. The spark of fear in his eyes spoke of too much knowledge, but the worry in his face was no act. Tamina hardened her heart against that look. What was it that kept calling her to trust this man, when all her duty spoke otherwise?
"The path is easier in the dark, for me," she said honestly. There was no use pretending that he did not know the danger. "I have practiced the pattern elsewhere till I could walk it in my sleep, so that I would not hesitate in an emergency, and a torch puts me off balance."
He shook his head, and scooped up the torch as he stood, in one fluid motion. "You'll have to put up with me lighting your way this time, Princess."
Fear sparked again, stronger. "Why should I lead you to the Sandglass?" she demanded, stepping back, her feet seeking better purchase for defense. "I will not let you take the Dagger again."
Prince Dastan looked at her, torchlight shadowing a face lined with a weariness deeper than her own for the moment before he forced a smile. "Oh, believe me, if I never have to touch that thing again no one will be happier than me," he promised. "But you're going to check the Sandglass, aren't you? I can tell you what happened."
Tamina desperately needed to know just that, though whether she could believe anything from the Persian who'd stolen the Dagger was an open question. Still, she hadn't expected the offer. Dastan seemed the kind of person who would keep his secrets and laugh about them. "Then tell me here."
With a quiet sigh, he leaned back against the wall, the torch guttering in his hand. "I don't mind that, but you're still not going alone."
Her hand tightened reflexively on the Dagger's hilt. Still, for all that her mind wanted to see the declaration as a threat, the fear in his eyes was too personal and focused squarely on her. Of course he would want her to believe he had grown fond of her, she reminded herself firmly. It might yet be an act. Perhaps he only wanted to know the safe path...though he demonstrably already knew where the Sandglass lay, and there were easier ways down for a man who could command the Persian army to dig for him.
At least the most important answer was one that Dastan should see no need to lie about. "When did you release the sands?"
The prince passed his free hand across his hair in thought. It left a smear of pale dust in dark tangles already sticky with sweat. "It was a very busy few weeks...the night before the end was the next full moon, if that helps." He raised his eyebrows in query. "Why is that important?"
So she had time to spare yet. A moment's relief washed over her like a sudden desert rain, and evaporated as quickly as Tamina looked at Dastan. "Didn't you know it was forbidden?" she demanded.
"Yes, of course I knew," the Persian growled, frustration finally overcoming the delicacy he had shown toward her so far. "You told me. I got the whole speech, glass breaking, wrath of the gods unleashed, end of the world-that's why we had to stop my uncle." He advanced a step, and Tamina reflexively backed away as he leaned in. "Trust me, I know exactly how important it was to you to get the Dagger away from him. I watched you-" The words stopped, and Dastan turned and stalked away, but not before Tamina saw his haunted eyes glimmer with tears in the torchlight.
He might be lying, duty insisted still, but she could not force her heart to believe it. Tamina gritted her teeth, pain seizing her breath for a long instant. "You shouldn't have used the Dagger."
Dastan shook his head, tangled hair hiding his face as he stared toward the floor. "In the end I'd lost everyone I...maybe I would have used it, I don't know. But it was mostly an accident, to be honest. I was too slow. My uncle had already put the blade inside, I had to stop him. I didn't intend to open the glass. Too many hands on the Dagger, I suppose." He sighed, guiltily. "But then I thought, if I could just stop him earlier."
Her shell of hard-fought suspicion cracked irreparably at the pain in his voice, leaving her heart undefended. Tamina closed her eyes, tears pricking the darkness for reasons entirely unrelated to the glare of the torch. "You fool," she whispered, and did not know whether she meant the Persian stupid enough to fall in love with her, the Tamina who had let him fall in love and then failed to protect the Sandglass, or her present self. Fool, for letting him explain his reasons. The reasons made no difference.
"Well, the world didn't end," Dastan said defensively, lifting his head to gesture vaguely downward with the torch.
"Have you forgotten already what you did?" she snarled, and fled past him, down the stairs and into the shadows.
The light followed her. "Tamina!" he called, that terrible worry breaking his voice again.
She didn't want to hear it. She couldn't afford so much as a moment's pity, much less the treacherous mire of pain that her heart was quickly becoming. "Follow if you must," she said curtly, and bent to assure herself of the trigger point, then stepped on it. The supports fell into place with reassuring thuds.
She counted the steps and the sharp turns in silence, not bothering to slow down for the prince. If Dastan had come this way before, as he must have, he knew the danger well enough. Tamina half-slid down the spiral stairs, nearly blind with the tears she would not acknowledge.
The light of the Sandglass broke over her, a dim and angry red pierced through with flickers of its usual golden glow. Wind full of sand swirled across her face and hissed against the rocks, thick with warning. A lacework of cracks ran across the Sandglass itself, appearing and disappearing, the light of the sand glowing through them and then vanishing. Tamina could see the central wound, where the Dagger had pierced the protection of the gods.
Dastan came down the stairs in an equal rush, and stopped, a solid warmth at her back. "Well," he breathed, uneasy surprise. "That's different."
"You turned back time," Tamina said, her voice harsh as the wind. "The world hasn't ended yet."