Foundations of Sand
(for my sister, as always)
The Sandglass shed its blood-red light over Dastan, as he blinked up at the point of the Dagger. Tamina closed her eyes for a long moment.
She could not now reinforce the walls of her heart, and it was too late even to try; Dastan had slipped inside, as easily as he had opened Alamut's gates.
Her duty had not changed, would not, though it might destroy them both. Dastan's life, or the world. She was a Guardian.
"I will undo it if I can," she pledged, a feeble promise against the roar of the wind, stepped closer, and knelt with him.
Dastan smiled at her, with no smugness, no attempts at charm or sarcasm to shield him from her now. "I know you will," he said, and reached to grip the Dagger, his fingers warm between hers. "Let's make this quick—"
It happened before she was ready, though she would never have been ready. The Dagger's point, never sharpened by human hands, held an edge fine enough that Tamina barely felt the first impact. A jarring scrape told her that the angle had been just a fraction off. But by the time it registered, the warmth that covered her hands was not from living skin, and the crimson staining her sleeves was not the light.
Heart's blood, and Tamina moved. There was no time for guilt or grief, not now.
His eyes should never look so empty.
But the Dagger was buried in the fractured glass before Dastan's last breath escaped.
The hilt of the dagger was red, with a dull glow like heated glass, full of something like blood or sand or both. The color inside began to slip away as she watched, entering the Sandglass.
She had ten breaths, Tamina knew, the Dagger could undo at least ten breaths of time, but past that measure lay uncertainty. Impossible not to count them, gasping and half-choked; surely they came faster than the usual count, surely there was yet time, but as the tenth slipped from her she felt tears tracing cold paths down her face.
The sands flared a deep, molten red in the cracks of the glass, red that matched the stains on her sleeves. She could see the damaged glass mending, working back toward the first impact and the Dagger, but so slowly! Twelve breaths, thirteen, and still the cracks reached thrice her height and the hilt was empty.
Eighteen, and at last the glass sealed over, light glimmering pure and golden. Sand began to filter, glittering, into the Dagger—not enough yet, not enough, though her heart and her hands ached to free themselves of Dastan's blood. She would need the full count, no half-measure.
On the gasp of her twenty-first breath, the sands filled the hilt, their swirl frozen by their own weight, and Tamina jerked the Dagger free and clicked its release in the same motion. The Sands caught her up, whirling about her in tame mimicry of the Great Storm.
Tamina watched the Sandglass, not quite strong enough to turn her gaze to Dastan yet. She had been almost certain that the mending would not be affected by the unwinding of time, that the damage would remain healed just as the sands themselves did not return. Almost certain, but this was a thing never attempted before, and if she were wrong...
The Sandglass bathed the Chamber in gold light, strong and unchanging, as though it never had been cracked. Her otherself stood with the Dagger embedded, bitter tears rolling swiftly up her cheeks.
Merciful gods, let there be no reason to shed them a second time.
The other Tamina sprang back to one knee, blood on her hands—and then Dastan's hand lifted with hers on the shining, unstained Dagger, and Tamina could breathe again.
In the same moment that the sand vanished, she snatched away the Dagger, spinning violently away before Dastan could catch the hilt again.
He blinked at her, a moment's pained confusion melting to joy. "It worked?" Dastan looked up, the light of the sealed Sandglass catching in his eyes.
Tamina returned the Dagger to her belt, and dared to smile at the Persian. "The damage is gone." She hesitated, still wary of giving away too much, but what secrets had she now? "I am—pleased that the gods did not demand your life."
Dastan grinned, bouncing easily back to his feet. "Me too, Princess, me too." He offered an open hand, and she gladly accepted, the press of calloused skin driving away the remembrance of hot blood.
The bridge from the Chamber was slightly awkward to maneuver hand-in-hand, but Tamina did not let go, and Dastan's grip showed no sign of slackening.
The torch Dastan had dropped earlier still flickered on the stairway, and he scooped it up with his free hand. "I've been meaning to ask," he said, as though searching for any subject besides what had just passed between them, "your priests probably aren't going to be too happy about this marriage thing, are they?"
Tamina's steps slowed, bringing Dastan perforce to pause with her, because she was not letting him go.
The marriage. She had forgotten, having agreed to it with the sole intention of getting close enough to the Persian prince to kill him and mend the Sandglass.
That done, and no Persians seeking revenge, the only reason to let the marriage-treaty go forward was Dastan himself.
She thought perhaps it was reason enough.
But that was not what Dastan had asked.
"I think," Tamina answered, tasting each word for truth as she released it, "that once I declare you a Guardian, no one will have any cause at all to object."
Now it was Dastan who halted in his tracks. "A Guardian?" he demanded incredulously. "Me? Tamina, meaning no offense, and of course I'm grateful to be alive, but I don't actually like your gods. At all."
"Ah, well," Tamina said lightly. "Fortunately for us both, liking the gods has never been required of the Guardians. The first Guardian was rather emphatic on the subject."
Most religions had behind them all the eloquence of the philosophers and poets. Alamut's first Guardian had been an unschooled girl not yet twelve, who had invented her own symbols to record what the gods had told her, and eloquence had little part in the holiest writing.
The gods laughed at me, the Guardian-child had written, charcoal-figures on a cave wall, and I lived.
If I return the Dagger and my life, the Sands count twice every day I guarded it, and then the world dies.
If the Sands are unsealed, the world dies.
The gods wait for me to fail.
Guard the Dagger. Guard the Sands.
Tamina, like every Guardian before her, had entered the secret chambers of the Temple of the Stone and learned to read the symbols. The fact that they were childish caricature made the message all the more personal, one child to another, down the centuries.
She wondered what Dastan would think of the ancient message. It had been a very long time since anyone joined the Guardians as an adult, but Dastan had given his life to protect the Sandglass and the world, and the Dagger had accepted and given it back. No matter how her priests would argue, he was by definition a Guardian.
Though his idea of strategy seemed to be finding where the most danger was, and throwing himself there. She would have to break him of that. Guardians could not risk themselves so recklessly.
Complementary nightmares of death and a shared sacred duty were not, perhaps, the best foundation on which to build a marriage, but a tower of sand that occasionally ate away at the stone surrounding it was certainly not the best foundation for a city. One built where one must, and repaired as necessary.
He was still staring at her, in bewildered dismay. "Tamina, are you sure you've thought about this? I'm not exactly the holy temple type."
There were going to be some unhappy people in Alamut, not least her cousin Varil. But if anyone was fit to make the gods laugh, it was certainly Dastan. "You do want to be my husband, don't you?" Tamina asked, and didn't wait for him to answer. "This way." She moved forward, onto the well-memorized safe path back to the surface passages.
"All right," Dastan surrendered, and followed in her footsteps. "But I hope you know what kind of Guardian you're getting."
Her feet were as certain of their path as ever, but she was nevertheless dizzy with relief—and joy. Tamina's laughter echoed off the stone, carefree as it has not sounded since her mother's death. "I would accept no other, Dastan."