this is a disclaimer.
AN: post movie!fic; something of a sequel to "stand a thousand trials". pretensions to plot. Gyanbazi is the earliest name for the game of Snakes and Ladders, from ancient India. Nard was the Greek word for lavender in ancient times. kaf is the Arabic/Persian name for the letter pronounced as "k".
sacred mission's bane
Dastan, Prince of Persia, who took the sacred city without shedding a single drop of blood! Dastan, to whom surely God in His wisdom must have spoken, that he could reveal the traitor Nizam and stop him before he could bring further dishonour to the King's House! Dastan, who returned the greatest Treasure in Alamut to the hands of its Princess, and took her hand in marriage as a reward.
"No," Dastan says when Tamina finishes, looking up at him expectantly. "No, no, no, no and absolutely not. No one is writing any songs about me. Or poetry. Or anything else. Don't even think about it. Your court chroniclers can go back to their dusty scrolls and their tale of years and scrap their stupid plans."
"They'll be so disappointed. I think they've written up half the lyrics already."
"I don't care! It's ridiculous."
"But you're a legend," Tamina teases.
"I'd rather not be," he says honestly. "Just being a Prince gets me into enough trouble."
And then, in that exasperating way he has of completely switching subjects halfway through a conversation, Dastan adds, "Speaking of trouble, I meant to tell you – I've been thinking that I should get in touch with my father. We should try and do something about the Hassansin. Just in case."
Tamina arches an eyebrow. "And how, my Prince, do you propose to talk your father into a campaign against a society of assassins he believes long disbanded whom you have no way of tracking down and of whose existence you have no direct proof?"
Dastan waves a hand dismissively. "I didn't say I'd worked out all the details," he says, and she laughs at him, delighted. Their marriage is a month old by now, and they are walking in the gardens, close to the same spot where she took his hand for the first time – that she remembers.
It pains her sometimes, that they went through so much together but only he recalls it. Other times she thinks she's grateful: Tamina knows herself too well, knows the kind of anger and resentment that she is capable of, and she doesn't want her memories of him tainted with those things.
Dastan wraps an arm around her. "I can tell when you're brooding about it, Princess."
There is only one 'it' in this marriage.
She shrugs and grins a bit. "You can't tell me you never think about her."
"You are her, my love."
"But I don't remember," she pouts.
He stops by their fountain, draws her into his arms. "Probably just as well. I'd hate for you to remember the part where I sold you to tax-evading ostrich racers."
Tamina leans up on tiptoe. "I don't doubt I got you back for it."
"Actually, that was me getting you back for hitting me over the head and leaving me for dead in the desert," Dastan admits, and his lips stretch into a smile when she kisses him, quick and firm.
"Hmm. Is that all I get?"
"I have to be – there is business to –"
Business, even the business of ruling this city, shrinks away under his touch, burning through her dress, under the way his other hand cups the back of her head, the brush of his long hair against her face as they kiss slow and deep. Tamina rests a hand over his heart, tucks the fingers of the other into the waistband of his trousers and smiles herself when he shudders a little, his skin warm and smooth against the backs of her fingers.
They stay like that for what might be hours, kissing as if, as Bis would say, they had just invented it, breathing each other's breath, irresistible, irreplaceable. There's passion in it, yes, but also warmth, and comfort, and something they've both come to recognise as the other half of themselves.
Just as Dastan is getting to the point of sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her back to their bedchambers and damn whoever sees him do it, someone clears his throat behind them.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, little brother," Garsiv says, and no he damn well is not.
Reluctantly, they draw apart.
"Garsiv, I had no idea you were coming," Dastan says, trying for a smile and failing miserably.
His brother grins, slightly strained, a valiant attempt. "It was a spur of the moment decision," he says flippantly, but Garsiv does not do flippant very well, and both Dastan and Tamina know then that whatever it is he's come here to tell them, it is not good news.
"Prince Garsiv, we're honoured you would think of us," she says, smiling, and he bows to her.
"Just Garsiv, please. We're family now."
Dastan opens his mouth to make some silly remark and Tamina digs her nails into his arm. "That being the case, please, join us in our chambers for evening meal. We'll be very informal, I give you my word."
Garsiv does not have Tus' intellectual bent, or Dastan's lightning-quick, instinctive understanding of things, but he is no fool, and no stranger to a court, and he knows what she is not saying. He bows to her again.
"Gladly. Tamina. Brother."
Dastan clasps his arm as he passes him, wrist-to-wrist in that warrior way, and their eyes meet. Tamina can't tell what passes between them, but she guesses it's reassurance on Garsiv's part, as Dastan relaxes again once he's left them.
"Well, this should be interesting."
"Tell me, did you say that about our adventure with the Dagger?" Tamina says.
"Absolutely not," Dastan says, straight-faced. "I was busy being smitten by you."
"No wonder I hit you over the head and left you for dead in the desert."
He laughs out loud, and it makes her feel better about it, that she can talk about what she doesn't remember and make him laugh like that in doing so.
They speak of inconsequential things all through the meal: the patrols on the northern borders, the weather, the King's well-being, Tus' third wife Marja and her pregnancy.
That last is a topic which makes Tamina hide a grimace, makes her look up and fix her eyes on Dastan, watching his smile and his movements, every nuance of him familiar to her by now. He's only hinted at how close she came to being Tus' wife and not his, but she can guess and she hates the thought. Another wife in a string of them, a conquered Princess who is just barely valued as a flimsy veneer of legitimacy to the wrongful invasion and desecration of a holy city, a ruler in her own right demoted to the status of brood mare, her home disappearing into the greedy open jaws of the Persian Empire forevermore... no, thank you. Not ever.
It was nothing but good fortune – or destiny – that the man Tamina fell in love with also happened to be a suitable candidate for the role of Consort of the High Priestess of Alamut, a third son unfettered by the prospect of inheriting his father's Empire and free to come to her, rather than expecting that she come to him.
Dastan glances over at her, meeting her eyes, gaze steady as ever, and she smiles at him. So few people here in Alamut have those pale Frankish eyes – they are not uncommon in Persia, she knows, nor is his fairer skin, but they are here, in her sacred city, and Tamina seldom tires of looking at them.
Garsiv clears his throat. "It was bad enough having to watch you both make calf-eyes at each other during your betrothal," he says pointedly.
"There's the door, you can leave if you like," Dastan says, laughing.
But Garsiv does in fact glance over at it. "Speaking of which..."
Dastan stands up and crosses the room in a few quick strides, poking his head out to say something to Bis, standing guard there with a few of their most loyal and trustworthy men. Then he closes the door gently and wanders back to the table.
"Tell me, brother," he says.
Garsiv leans forward and rests his elbows on the table. "We have a problem. I've been in Nirsab the last few weeks with a regiment, tearing our dear Uncle's personal retreat apart. Father ordered it cleared and all important information brought to him. Anyway, we're in the last stages –"
"Why wasn't I told about this?" Dastan interrupts.
"Father decided the alliance with Alamut was too important for you to sabotage by throwing everything over and running off to Nisab to take over the search yourself in defiance of orders and without a clue what you were doing," Garsiv snaps.
"You would have, Dast, and you know it," Tamina says. "Just sit down and hear him out."
Dastan drops back into his seat with a slightly sulky twist of his mouth.
"As I was saying, we have come across some disturbing information," Garsiv says. "It would appear the Hassansin are not as disbanded as Father had believed."
Somewhere, a key turns in a lock, bolts falling into place.
Tamina and Dastan look at each other silently.
"Go on," Dastan says.
"Father means to make a declaration. Name them outlaws."
"Now that will certainly endear him to them," Tamina says. Garsiv gives her a sharp look, almost surprised, and she realises he hadn't been expecting her to actually contribute to the conversation beyond offering them more tea and maybe defusing an argument or two.
Dammit, she thought she'd sorted that misconception out during the negotiations for the marriage contract.
"Public announcements are dangerous," she says, ignoring his surprise. "It would be quicker and quieter to track them down and wipe them out before you go declaring their continued existence to the easily frightened masses of the peoples of Persia. Make the declarations when their heads are on your gates, not before."
Garsiv is staring. "And you married this woman?" he says in disbelief to Dastan.
"She's right," Dastan says. "If Father won't give them a chance to swear to him, they need to go."
"And you'd do that how?"
"Tell me where they are, and I'll plan a raid."
"Says my little brother."
"Says the man responsible for delivering the sacred city of Alamut into enemy hands for the first time in centuries," Tamina reminds him. "If Nizam kept the organisation intact then it's only logical to assume they were loyal to him personally, and may still be."
Dastan shakes his head. "No, with Nizam gone their only interest is themselves. They were always difficult to control, more concerned with their own religion than the King's orders. They stayed loyal only as long as he protected them and allowed them to follow their path."
"So if they are declared outlaws..."
"Father disbanded them in the first place because he wanted the secrecy and the killing to stop," Garsiv breaks in once more. "He's not going to stoop to that same bag of tricks to eliminate them – all the more because it's exactly the sort of thing Nizam would have suggested."
"He has to," Tamina says harshly. "Gods, Garsiv, if I were the leader of the Hassansin, I'd start by killing Marja and her babe and moving my way up the ladder of succession until the King was the only one left alive. It would be the most effective way to destroy you, so that no heirs of your house remain."
Garsiv shrugs. "He won't be party to more assassinations," he says. "Not after Nizam. And frankly Princess, neither Tus nor I have the stomach for it, either. Hasn't there been enough of lies and treachery in this Empire? We will move against them openly, according to our laws, or not at all unless in self-defence."
Later, much later, the breeze rustling the gauzy bedcurtains and the room full of shadows, Tamina's hand is tracing back and forth over the scar along Dastan's ribs, and her head is ringing with Garsiv's words: I don't have the stomach for this.
The question is: does she? She's certainly always thought so. From what Dastan has told her she has a fairly good idea of what she's capable of for the greater good: lying, cheating, stealing, striking down the man she (now) loves and leaving him to die, self-sacrifice on the grandest, most melodramatic scale.
And tonight she got the distinct impression that Tamina of Alamut is prepared to commit an act that the bloodthirsty King of Persia himself refuses to condone.
They were evil in a way that went beyond my uncle's mere greed and resentment, Dastan had told her. There was something in them, Tamina... they let him use them. For their own ends. It's no wonder my Father wanted them disbanded. It was as if they carried darkness with them, wherever they went...
"First wound I ever received in battle," Dastan says quietly. Jolted out of her thoughts, it takes her a moment to realise that he means the scar she's still rubbing her thumb along.
"You told me. On our wedding night."
"I remember other things about that night."
"Like the fireworks?" innocently.
"Like those, yes." More tired than amused.
She sighs. "Nisab is not far from here, is it?"
"A day's ride on a fast horse. Nizam rarely used it – not more than once a year. It's a good hiding place."
"And a good place from which to plan an attack on Alamut."
Silence for several long, comfortable minutes. His breathing is slow and steady, his chest hair rough against her more sensitive skin. She closes her eyes and waits for him to have that moment of his, that sudden insight into things that is so very Dastan. Illogical, inexplicable even, but undeniable.
Tamina pictures his thought process like this: Dastan standing in her study, glancing over a pile of papers and scrolls, reaching down to pick one up and turn it the right way up and suddenly understanding, everything she's thinking. All he has to do is tilt his head, and he sees whole pictures laid out before him in vivid colour, complete in ways it isn't always for the rest of them.
She wonders how he pictures hers, and makes a mental note to remember to ask.
Finally: "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
Tamina laughs. "Tell me, Prince Dastan. As my consort, to whom do you owe your first allegiance?"
He's smiling, she knows it. "To you, Princess."
"And to whom do I owe allegiance?"
"No man or woman born. Alamut is a polis in a similar manner to the old Greek cities we once warred with, entirely independent of the Persian Empire, although as of a month ago..." and his hand is at her thigh now, tucking her more snugly against him, "more closely allied with said Empire than ever before."
She sits up, her hair falling over her shoulders and trailing across his chest. It's impossible to see his face clearly in the dark, but she can make out jaw and nose and forehead, and everything else fills itself in from memory.
"So if your Princess were to order you to go to Nisab and conduct your own... investigations, shall we say, into the possibility of the continued existence of the Hassansin, with orders to root them out and destroy them if you find them, then you would be compelled to go, yes? After all, their leader was killed here in Alamut, scheming to gain control of our treasures. The news that their cult still exists presents an honest threat to our continued freedom, does it not?"
She hears rather than sees Dastan shake his head against the pillow. "Regretfully, Princess, I must object," he says. "I could not in good conscience leave my ruler and my wife here alone, unprotected, while I went adventuring."
"Dastan, it's been over three months since any of my own captains made the necessary arrangements for my safety," Tamina points out. "Even before you told me the truth of us you had your most trusted men surrounding me day and night. You of all people know how well protected I am."
"As consort, your safety is my responsibility – like the defence of this city."
"The defence of this city is best served by destroying the Hassansin," she rejoins, angry that he's refusing to go along with her plan. "Proximity to Alamut means an easier attack on Alamut means they know about the Dagger. They may even have been the ones to tell Nizam in the first place."
"But your safety is best served by my continued presence at your side," Dastan says mischievously, and then she sees what he means.
She should hesitate. She should insist on her original plan. She should cite duties and dangers and countless other reasons to stay.
She's lost, already, so much of what they are together. Of what they could should might still be.
Tamina grins. "Then I suppose, my Prince, I had best stay by your side," bending over him. Her hair curtains their faces and his hands shift to her hips, drawing her closer.
"I suppose you had," he says, and then, so low it's almost a whisper, "my Queen."
They leave just before sunrise with an escort of twenty soldiers, ten each from Dastan's company and Tamina's guard. Bis is not happy about being left behind to ward off Garsiv's suspicions as long as he can, but Dastan is his friend and his Prince, so he doesn't complain too much, and besides, that boy Meren could use some toughening up. If he can stand running around in the desert for a few days with no other officer to serve as a buffer between him, the exasperating quicksilver troublemaking Prince that he's sworn to, and the even more exasperating short-tempered deceitful Priestess said Prince is married to, he'll make a brilliant Captain, Bis decides.
"I'm just worried the King will blame it all on me when you turn up dead in the cellars under Nisab," he says to Tamina, who grins, tugging at her tunic with one hand and trying to readjust her armour with the other.
"I'm sure we'll be fine, Bis."
She had changed into her hunting clothes – sturdy boots and loose trousers – of her own accord earlier, but had been horrified when Dastan had handed her a less ornate, smaller version of his own breastplate.
"I am not burdening myself with that!"
"Then you're staying here."
"You can't make me!"
"You said it yourself. All your guards these days are my men."
"But it's so heavy."
"Better chafed shoulders and sore breasts than an arrow in your ribs. And you should probably bind your breasts with cloth, by the way..."
"How am I supposed to move in it?"
"The same way you do without it, but more safely."
Taking no for an answer has never been one of Dastan's strengths. The entire argument had been held in whispers over the course of almost an hour while they made their preparations, and now her voice feels hoarse.
"Stop tugging at it," Bis says. "Just let yourself get used to it."
Tamina gives him a grateful smile just as Dastan emerges from the stables. He's leading a lovely black charger his wife is absolutely positive he doesn't own.
"Are you stealing Garsiv's horse?"
"Naturally. He's a fawning goody-goody tattle-tale and the first thing he'll do when he realises we've gone is run straight to Father."
"And you think stealing his horse is going to stop him."
"No," Dastan says and grins. "I'm stealing his horse because it'll annoy him, and he doesn't think well when he's annoyed."
Tamina sighs. "Sometimes, Dast, I swear you see the entire Persian Empire and everything in it or on its borders as nothing more than a board with set pieces to help you along in this eternal game of one-upmanship that you and your brothers insist on playing."
"It's not one-upmanship," he says innocently. "It's more like... Gyanbazi."
Bis snorts. "Well, you're at the head of a snake right now, my Prince."
The reference to snakes makes Dastan look grim. "In more ways than one," he says. "Tamina?" holding out a hand to her.
She frowns. "We have enough horses."
"We'll lead yours. Ride with me?"
We rode the length of my Father's Empire together to come to your Secret Temple in the Hindu Kush, and then we had to travel all the way back again.
All of a sudden, Tamina knows exactly which horse this is and why he's stealing it.
She smiles up at him and takes his hand.
Steel gray predawn light quickly becomes redgold as the sun rises over the mountains. The air is still cold, but that won't last for very long, and Dastan pushes them faster, meaning to get as much speed out of them all as he can before the heat of day bears down on them. They ride in silence, only the noises of the horses and the jingle of bridles or the clatter of a scabbard against a saddle to interrupt the quiet. The hills around them are steep and unwelcoming; the patches of grass scattered among the rocks and stretches of sand look sharp as knives. Alamutian lands stretch off to the west and the south; they are in Persian border territory here, unpredictable, often lawless. It would be a strange place for a Vizier to have a retreat if that Vizier were anyone but Nizam.
Tamina has pinned her hair back, but already it's beginning to come undone thanks to the wind in her face. Her arms are wound around Dastan's waist and his hair is tickling her nose and face. It's her own fault for pressing so close to him. Every now and then he turns his head back towards her a little, and she taps a finger on his breastplate to reassure him: I'm fine. Don't you dare stop.
He notices when she yawns, of course. What with one thing and another, they didn't get much sleep last night.
"Do I need to tie your hands to the saddlebow?"
"Why, Prince Dastan. I hadn't realised you enjoyed that sort of thing."
He laughs. "There's a stream that comes down from the hills not far ahead. It's a pathetic excuse for an oasis, but we can sit out the midday heat there."
"Your definition of not far ahead usually means several hours away."
"Less than two at this pace."
"All right then."
A few minutes later, cantering alongside a dried-up streambed, Dastan says, "How would you know what my definition of not far ahead usually means?"
"Oh, the last time you said that it took us half the day to reach Tabriz," Tamina says, yawning again.
Dastan stays silent while he guides their horse down the steepest part of the trail, glancing over the top of her head to check on the men. Meren, riding behind them, nods reassuringly, and Dastan nods back, picking up the pace again when the track levels out once more, winding further into the hills and away from the open desert.
"You mean," he says gently, "that time when we were escaping from Alamut and trying to reach Tabriz in time for my father's funeral so that I could speak to Nizam?"
"That –" Tamina says, and stops. "I. Yes. But –"
"You're starting to remember."
"Is that possible?"
"Well, if it wasn't, you wouldn't be doing it," he points out reasonably.
She groans. He can be so simplistic sometimes.
The fortress of Nisab is not large, tucked away against a cliffside inside a roughly bowl-shaped formation of the hills, so that its gates open out into a fairly small half-circle of 'courtyard' before the sloping road down to the valley below begins. It's unapproachable on two sides, unless the advancing army is made up of extremely good climbers, and even the trail they're standing at the top of now zigzags alarmingly across the steep southern cliff-face of the courtyard.
"We used to chase each other up here, as boys," Dastan says, dismounting. "I usually won."
Tamina hides a smile. "We're leading the horses?"
"I think we'd better. They're tired, and it's almost sundown."
By the time they reach the courtyard before Nizam's gates, the sun has sunk behind the hills, and the stars are out. It's beginning to get cold again. Tamina wraps a scarf from her saddlebag around her head and shoulders while Dastan and his men light the torches they brought. They picket the horses just outside the gates of the fortress that are yawning wide open, the archway in the thick wall like a black mouth waiting to swallow them.
Tamina stops in front of it.
"Dastan," she says quietly. "Why haven't we been challenged yet?"
Behind her, some of the men shift, uneasy, realising for the first time how deserted the place seems.
"I don't know," Dastan says quietly, but there's a note in his voice that means he suspects.
They find the first body in the tunnel under the fortress wall, just before they pass out into the courtyard. The boy – for boy he still was, soldier or no – was struck down with an axe, by the looks of things, or one of those heavy broadswords that the Franks used to use in the wars at Jerusalem.
Death in itself is no stranger to the High Priestess of Alamut, but the savagery with which this boy was killed is, and Tamina clenches her jaw as she moves past him, stepping around the blood and brains pooled in the sand.
There are more bodies in the courtyard. Two before the heavy doors of the fortress that are standing open as the gates were. At least three fell from various points on the walkway of the fortress walls. A dead horse sprawls in the doorway of the stables. The flies are buzzing on its carcase. In here, the stench of blood is very strong.
When Dastan turns from the carnage to look at his men, Tamina barely recognises her husband. She's seen him betrayed, grieving, lost, determined, without hope, triumphant, awed, in love, in pain. She's seen the masks he wears to push all those things aside and do what needs to be done in order to win.
She's never seen him angry. Not like this.
"Spread out," he says hoarsely. "Search the fortress. Find me survivors; if you can't do that, find me something to tell me who's responsible for this. Navid, take Tamina's horse and head back to Alamut the way we came. Tell my brother what we've found, and get him to wait for word from me before he comes here. Make sure word is sent to Father and Tus."
"My Prince," Navid says, bowing before he leaves. The others spread out immediately, towards stables and walkways and the doors to the fortress.
Tamina puts a hand on Dastan's arm.
"I'd thought we were safe," he says, meeting her eyes. Bark of laughter. "Naive of me."
"The Hassansin did this?" more a statement than a question.
Still, Dastan shakes his head. "No. I don't think so."
Tamina looks around the courtyard again, thinking. That boy was not the only one to have had his head cleaved open; what did it? A single stroke with a heavy weapon, two-handed, from overhead, like chopping wood.
Too overt for an assassin.
And there is the horse. Who kills a horse? Someone who has disturbed it, panicked it accidentally.
Too clumsy for an assassin.
"They let the killers into the fortress?"
"Gave them directions, at the very least."
He looks away, frowning. "So they would stay hidden. I think they've fled, Tamina. With Nizam dead, I think they've just... left."
Cold fear grips her. "To steal the Dagger?"
Dastan shakes his head again and pushes his hair out of his face. "No. What for? What would they change? Nizam wanted the Dagger, remember. The Hassansin did his work in exchange for his protection."
"You're not suggesting they're afraid of us?"
"No. But they might not want a war with us all the same."
That does make sense.
One of the men steps out of the doors of the fortress, face slightly pale – a member of Tamina's own guard. She thinks his name is Behnam. There is blood on his hands, as if he's been moving a body, and his mouth twitches, throat working to swallow before he speaks.
"My Princess," he says. "Prince Dastan. We've found something."
Dastan takes Tamina's hand as they cross the courtyard, although which of them he thinks he's comforting with the gesture she does not know. They tread lightly up the steps even though the blood on the stones is long dry by now and follow Behnam into the fortress. The men lit torches when they first went inside, casting a dim light in the corridor – thankfully, there are no more bodies here.
"A survivor?" Dastan asks.
"No, my Lord – the corpse of one of the attackers."
Tamina grips Dastan's hand more tightly. "Only one?"
"Yes, Princess; he had fallen behind a hanging when he was stabbed. The attackers must have taken any other dead members of their company with them when they left."
They enter what was once Nizam's main hall, little brighter than the corridor and once more rank with the stench of blood and bodies. There are maybe ten of them here; Garsiv was probably using the hall as his headquarters, and the long table is piled with scrolls at one end.
At the other lies a corpse.
"Our attacker, my Prince," Meren says. "If I could suggest sending some men out to search for any other corpses that may have been dumped after they left the fortress?"
"Next time, don't wait for my permission," Dastan says absently, drawing his hand out of Tamina's and walking over to the dead... what? He was not an assassin. That much is plain: his clothes are brown instead of black, of poor weave, and there is rust on his breastplate. Meren, poor boy, can't quite tell if he's just been complimented or reprimanded or both, but he nods respectfully to Tamina and leaves to give his orders.
She joins Dastan at the table.
"Almost certainly," he agrees, drawing his knife and proceeding to cut off the man's breastplate. The leather straps part easily, old and worn. "Not too successful a one, either."
"Plainly not, he's dead."
Dastan chokes back a laugh, examining the man's tunic for pockets. His hands are quick and careful, trying to avoid the bloodstains. "Well, I can't see anything that would identify him."
Tamina has to force herself to look at the corpse, at the sword-thrust in its chest.
"Wait," she says. "What's that?"
It's a strange scar, carved into the skin above the mercenary's hip; if the flesh weren't raised, slightly twisted, she never would have spotted it under the blood and dirt. A horizontal line, with two stalks of sorts connected to it, one going diagonally up, the other diagonally down.
"Dastan, what is it?"
"It's a letter," he says. "A Latin letter, that the Franks use, for kaf. It marks this man as a former slave of the warlord Kosh."
Garsiv arrives not long after dawn, plainly having ridden through the night. He's furious, but Tamina steps in, her authority as ruler of Alamut quelling any brotherly arguments before they start.
"I ordered it," she says flatly. "Alamut is mine to safeguard."
Technically, under the marriage contract, Dastan is her High General, leader of the Alamutian armies, such as they are. But he is unquestionably under her command, so it counts.
Garsiv glares. "You should have said something."
Tamina raises an eyebrow. "And then what, Prince Garsiv? Oh, don't worry your pretty head about it, Tamina, I'm sure we can manage?"
"You nothing. Nizam wanted control of Alamut. I am charged with guarding a city sacred beyond the understanding of you Persian barbarians, and I will not risk it for your pride and your father's fine feelings."
"This is Persian territory –"
"My consort is a Prince of Persia. Are you refusing him passage in the Empire of his birth?"
"That's not –"
"Then what, Prince Garsiv? I was well within my rights to come here, and it is in my capacity as ruler of Alamut to order the destruction of the Hassansin – a deadly force created by you Persians which apparently you no longer have the ability to control! The Gods help those who help themselves. I will not sit behind my walls and trust in your Armies to protect me when you weren't even aware of the existence of the threat to my city!"
Garsiv, apparently, is stumped. Behind her, Dastan is standing with legs apart, hands clasped behind his back, the very picture of a respectful consort, but Tamina is absolutely positive that he's fighting a grin, because Bis, coming up behind Garsiv, is smirking like the cat that got into the cream.
He catches her eye and hastily rearranges his face into something suitably subdued and respectful.
Finally, Garsiv gives up. "You two," he says, "deserve each other. Very well, Princess Tamina, we'll say no more of your outing –"
"How gracious of you," Tamina interjects.
"Or of your original intentions in planning it," Garsiv adds, meeting her glare without flinching.
She arches an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything. He's right, really: if the King finds out that she and Dastan came here to discover the location of the Hassansin so they could plan a raid that would destroy them once and for all, the man would probably lose one or two of his pious illusions about the sacred city and the woman who rules it. There'd be uproar.
But the Hassansin would be gone.
"Kosh," Garsiv says, looking down at the body. The stench seems to have increased by the minute, thick and sickly. Tamina draws a scarf over her mouth and nose, but she's determined she won't throw up.
"Kosh," Dastan agrees. They are standing by the grave of the soldiers who died here, good men all. Their rites were rushed, as they have to move on by nightfall, but hopefully that will not matter to them.
Tamina wouldn't know; in Alamut, the dead are burned and their ashes entombed.
Garsiv sighs. "What are you thinking?"
Dastan frowns at the body thoughtfully. "Well, we've had no word that they're moving against us. The Hassansin, I mean."
"Maybe Kosh is paying them now."
"Maybe they're paying Kosh," Dastan says.
Garsiv pauses. "To mislead us."
"So they can make a clean getaway."
"It's not as if we have any way of tracking them."
"Kosh might know something."
Garsiv meets his brother's eyes. Something fierce and savage passes between them, a conversation Tamina can't follow, a decision she has no part in.
One of the dead was the Captain of the Guard at the Palace in Tabriz for many years, a grizzled veteran who would tell the young Princes far-fetched tales and turn a blind eye to the gap in the palace wall that Dastan would use to climb through and go visit his friends in the city when the pressures of the palace got too much to bear.
Finally Garsiv grins. "Well, we were supposed to be subduing him in the first place." He glances over at Tamina. "Before we got distracted."
It's Dastan's eyes she meets. He needs the permission of his ruler for this.
There is little question in her mind that the Hassansin know more about the Sands of Time than they should. There is equally little question that allowing them to escape with that knowledge is foolish and naive and will put her city, and possibly all the world, in unimaginable danger. They have no way to tell what information was removed from Nisab in the attack, how much Kosh may have inadvertently learned.
Tamina watches the battle from the encampment on the clifftop, seated on her horse still as a statue. She strains her eyes in the dark and pictures Dastan moving through the darkness on the walls, swift and silent as a shadow. A flicker of movement by a watchtower that might be Bis, dropping a guard. A fire blazes up in a brazier for an instant, and that's him surely, but it's too far away for her to make out his features. Low voices, sally port opening, whisper of soft Persian boots in the sand, on the stones. They move through the courtyard like the wind, killing as they go, one man after another dropping silently dead, cutting their way through to the hall where the warlord enjoys the fruits of his labours for the Hassansin –
But of course it doesn't happen like that, because there is a cry and a crash, and suddenly fire springs up in the courtyard, lighting up the night, and even from this distance Tamina can see the shadows battling one another in its glow. An alarm is sounded then, the courtyard filling up with enemies from inside the fort, but Dastan, Garsiv and Bis are holding the gates with ease and skill of long practice. Tamina thinks she can hear the creak of the hinges, the whine as the portcullis inches upwards so slowly that surely dawn will come before it's open.
And the King is come, perfectly on time just as Garsiv said he would be, the Persian armies melting out of the darkness and flooding into the fortress their Princes have opened for them like water into an empty vessel.
Truth be told, Tamina had expected it to take longer than this. Alamut fell within hours, but Alamut is a peaceful city, home of craftsmen and traders, not warriors. She'd expected the forces of a warlord to be better able to resist an attack.
She could go to Dastan, run into the fortress to search for him and make sure he lives, reassure herself he is unhurt. But she is High Priestess of Alamut, and one of her many duties is to be a healer of the sick, so she goes instead to the tents, and the King's physicians are glad of her help.
"The Prince Dastan cut Kosh down in the man's own hall in single combat," one of the men tells her. "I saw it with my own eyes, Lady. They will make songs of it!"
Dastan would hate that.
Later in the day when the sun is beating down on them and her hands want to shake with weariness, after the very last pocket of Kosh's men, hiding deep in the twisting halls of the fortress, is either disarmed or dead, Dastan comes to find her.
"Kosh knew nothing," he says harshly. "He did it for the gold."
Night has fallen again by the time Shahraman King of Kings Lord of Persia takes his seat in the great hall of the fortress of Kosh, but even though he has ordered a feast be brought, and even though the celebrations are joyful and the rooms offered them are spacious, neither Dastan nor Tamina have the stomach to set foot in that place.
"I might throw up," she says honestly to Dastan.
He pulls a grimace. "So might I," he admits.
They retire to the pavilion on the cliff top from whence Tamina watched the battle. The servants have been and gone, lighting the braziers and leaving two large basins of scented water, cloths to wash with, food and wine, and a little bottle that Tamina picks up and studies interestedly. It's plain green glass, unremarkable, and when she removes the stopper the contents smell of nard.
She puts it down again when Dastan's breastplate clatters to the ground and turns to look at him. He's unwinding the leather strap from around his arm, blinking with weariness. Tamina goes to him and takes it out of his hand, pushing him back a step to lean on the table.
"I don't know why you wear this thing," she says gently. Removing it paints pale strips across his dirt-encrusted skin. His torso is still wet with the sweat of battle, and she makes a mental note to take the padding out of his breastplate and have it washed. Somehow she doubts he ever remembers. Bis has probably been doing it all these years.
It makes her feel oddly virtuous, doing this for him.
"It's come in useful, once or twice," he says.
"Let me guess. To truss up captured Princesses –"
"To lower bags of loot – "
"To leave a signal for Bis –"
"To tie back a curtain, once."
Tamina snorts with laughter. "Food first, or a wash?" she asks.
"Food," Dastan says. "Or I might just pass out."
They eat in companionable silence, standing up lest they both fall asleep at the table. Dastan has kicked his boots off, bare feet sunk into the rich carpets. Tamina hasn't removed any of her clothing – not even her breastplate, although she discarded her unused sword when she went to the healer's tents. Her shoulders are aching with the weight of the breastplate and her muscles are burning with weariness and the cloth binding her breasts might as well be bandaging a single great, continuous open wound across her chest by now, but somehow she can't take any of it off.
She wasn't even in the battle, but it's with her far more than it is with Dastan, she thinks.
Of course, he's had more practice.
They wash in silence, too, the water in Dastan's basin quickly turning black as he scrubs at his skin with a wet cloth. Tamina walks over to hers with a slow, awkward gait; her knees are shaking suddenly, and she grips the edge of the basin and sighs.
The reflection gazing up at her is not one her mother would have approved of – or any member of her retinue or her Council in Alamut. Tired, haggard even, hair a filthy mess, those damnable freckles standing out clearer than ever against her skin.
Dastan's hands, still wet, touch her shoulders gently, and then he starts unlacing her breastplate. She shifts her arms to give him better access to the lacings up her sides, and when he's undone them, he touches the underside of her arms to get her to lift them up so he can draw it over her head and off.
Tamina turns to look at him. He looks far better now he's clean, his wet hair slicked back, but there are still deep rings stamped underneath his eyes, and his smile is shadowed.
She lets her heavy belt drop and then strips her tunic off. He unwinds the bindings covering her breasts and she can't help but moan when the cloth comes away: blessed freedom, warm air on her skin. Boots off next, and then she takes a cloth and washes as quickly as he had, scrubbing sweat and sand away, unbinding her hair and soaking it.
Dastan picks up the glass bottle she noticed earlier, and taps her nose with it.
"And the rest," meaning her trousers.
"What's that?" she asks instead.
"Oil, for sore muscles and sorer heads."
"The Lion of Persia uses nard oil after a battle," she teases.
He grins. "The High Priestess of Alamut has been known to snore."
Tamina gasps. "Liar!"
"Frequently, and rather well," he agrees, laughing with her. "Come on, off with them."
She steps out of her trousers with a covert sigh of relief, rubs the washcloth over her legs briefly, but the heavy material stopped most of the dirt. Dastan propels her towards the pile of cushions that will make up their bed and gets her to lie down on her back, rubbing the oil into his palms. He bends to kiss the red marks on her skin left by breastplate and bindings and belt first, lips chapped and dry against her. His hands are warm and smooth with oil, and the scent rises up around them to soothe Tamina's aching head as her husband touches her.
Dastan gets her to roll over, gently, uncaring about the oil staining their cushions, and digs his thumbs into stiff muscles unused to the unremitting labour of the last few days. She mutters something that might be a prayer into the cushions and tries to keep up with what he's doing to her, intent on returning the favour afterwards.
When he's done, she sits up and makes him swap positions with her, pouring oil on her own hands. Slowly at first, watching his face to make sure she's not pressing on any bruises received in the battle, she rubs it into his skin, smiling when he closes his eyes and relaxes under her hands. Tamina traces an almost-circle around the amulet lying on his chest and kisses his chin gently before she makes him roll over, straddling his thighs. His trousers are rough against the inside of her legs.
"You'll have to tell me if it hurts," she says. "Bis told me you took a fall..."
It is nothing short of a miracle that that is all he took.
"I'll kill him for that later," Dastan says blearily. "I don't care if it hurts. Don't stop."
She laughs at him gently and goes back to work, working out how to dig her thumbs into the knots in his shoulders the way he did for her, the firm stroke up on either side of his spine that she enjoyed so much, and watches him writhe contentedly, like a great cat – like the lion they're naming him – into the cushions.
When she's done, she lies down beside him, smiling faintly.
"Much. Thank you."
"Always. Thank you."
He smiles at her lopsidedly, and then reaches out to touch his fingertips to her skin, just over her heart. "I love you."
"I love you too," she says.
Those quick fingers of his trace up, brushing over her throat and chin, before curling gently around her neck and tugging her close for a kiss.
"You're exhausted," she murmurs reprovingly when it turns passionate.
"Never that exhausted," he promises.
"When we're fifty, I'll be holding you to that."
He props himself up on his elbow. "Are we going to live that long?"
(He could have died today. They both could have died today, at any time. They could have died when they first arrived at Nisab three days ago. They could have died yesterday; all it would have taken was a single Hassansin lying in wait along the trail here, and a lucky arrow. They travelled all the way to the Hindu Kush and back together, and she couldn't be bothered to kiss him until it was almost too late.)
Tamina tucks a stray strand of hair behind his ear, drags her finger along his jaw. "Yes."
"All right then." Dastan leans over and kisses her again, firm and brief, goes back to those angry red marks on her shoulders and sides and the tops of her breasts. Tamina hums with contentment and slides her hands into his hair, but he pulls away almost immediately, urges her hips up so he can skim her linen undergarment off her legs. Tamina props herself on her elbows to watch him when he stands and strips his own trousers off, the firelight glinting on his skin, and holds out a hand to him.
Dastan takes it, pressing his palm to hers, their fingers twining for a moment, still slippery with oil. Then she closes her hand around his and tugs him down into her arms.
They breakfast with the King and Garsiv in the morning, and the latter retells Dastan's exploits of yesterday to Tamina and her father-in-law, gesticulating with a piece of bread and using the most outrageous descriptions he can think of just to annoy his little brother – he still hasn't forgiven them for slipping off to Nisab like that. The King looks delighted, but Dastan seems vaguely irritated.
Tamina can almost hear his thoughts from her seat at his father's left, on the other side of the table. I only did what I had to do.
A far cry from the arrogant boy who'd taken her city with such easy flamboyance and counselled her to be sweetly submissive to his father.
He catches her eye, and they grin at each other ruefully.
Garsiv sighs. "It's really not decent, you know," he says, looking between them.
"Let them be, Garsiv," the King says, eyes twinkling. "At this rate, I may have another grandson by next year."
Tamina absolutely refuses to blush.
"I think a girl first, for the rule of Alamut," Dastan says, mouth curving.
"It might do your nephews good to have a girl-child to spoil," Shahraman agrees.
"Father, I promise you, Raman is perfectly capable of misbehaving all on his own," Garsiv says. "Now Tus' boys..."
"Are soon to have a baby of their own. How is Marja?"
"In perfect health, Tus assures me. You know how he dotes on his babes."
Tamina finds she's staring through the tent flap in front of her at the open sky beyond, the knife in her hand stuck unmoving in the cheese she'd been slicing. All this talk of Tus and babes and bearing a child of her own...
She remembers, with frightening clarity, the sword-tip at her face, pushing her hood off her hair, the look in his eyes like a man enchanted. Me or death, he'd said, and she would have been only too happy to say death rather than have this invader touch her use her violate her but then he had walked in, a thoroughly unremarkable Persian commander with the Dagger of Time stuck in his sash, and so there had been more important things than the barbarian Prince who thought to take by force what was not his.
Yet still, that sword-tip by her face. What had Dastan said, that first night in the desert?
I promised my brother I'd kill you if he couldn't have you.
Suddenly Dastan is kneeling in front of her, taking her hands in his and easing the cheese knife out of her fingers.
She blinks, and the world comes back into focus, and the worry in his pale gaze is like a caress to her bare skin.
That other time is gone, and though Tus may be unchanged, Dastan is not.
"I'm well," she says, pressing a hand to his cheek. "Just. Lightheaded. I should probably have more food."
He nods, slowly, rising and releasing her other hand. "If you're sure."
"Anyone would think I was the one who had fought in a battle yesterday," Tamina says, putting as much of the familiar teasing lilt into her voice as she can.
Dastan grins. "Well, I'm sure the waiting put a significant strain on your nerves. You're not exactly very good at it."
She glares at him, but doesn't answer. Both Garsiv and the King are watching her with expressions she might almost call worried. The King puts a hand to her shoulder, an improper gesture with genuine concern behind it.
"Perhaps I should not have requested your presence here so early, Princess," he says gently.
It is a briefest glimpse of all the reasons why Dastan loves this man.
She smiles at him. "It's a pleasure," Tamina says, and thinks that one day she might be able to mean it, and not just for Dastan's sake.
In the bright noon daylight, the conquered fortress of the warlord Kosh is a pitiable sight. Smoke is still rising from the ashes of the bonfires that consumed the corpses of the dead yesterday, and the fallen gates are a twisted heap of metal and charred wood in the courtyard. Somewhere, a child is crying. The shouts of the Persian Captains and the calls of their men echo off the soot-stained walls, and a woman is crouched by the well, hair undone, clothing torn and filthy, scrubbing tears out of her eyes with the back of her hand and trembling like a child.
Tamina starts to go to her, but Dastan takes her wrist and pulls her close to his side.
"Don't," he says quietly, looking over at his father.
"How can you be a party to this?" she hisses, furious.
"How can you be so naive?" he hisses back. "What, Tamina, you can order me out to bring you the Hassansin's heads on silver platters while we're safe and cosseted in our bed, but you've got no stomach for the reality of an honourable victory?"
"What honour is there in that?" she snarls, pointing surreptitiously at the woman by the well.
"Welcome to the real world, Princess Tamina," he says. "Now for God's sake, hold your tongue. Please."
She wants to shout at him: wants to slap his face and blame him for everything and make him see the damage his precious Father is doing here, rub his face in the misery they've brought, force him to see things differently.
But: she wanted a campaign against the Hassansin. She ordered them destroyed. They were a threat to her, she realises – not to the Dagger, nor to the Sands of Time. Dastan was right when he said they have no reason to use it: they follow their own Gods.
They were and are a threat to her, personally, to her husband and her happiness, and so she decided they had to go.
She did this. This destruction. This carnage. She, who has seen firsthand what the Persian Army does to those it conquers, allowed this.
Suddenly, Tamina feels sick.
"Gather your men, Prince Dastan," she says harshly. "Take me home."
He raises her hand to his lips, eyes dark for once, inscrutable. "As my lady commands."
Shahraman bids them farewell, clasping his son's hand wrist to wrist and kissing his daughter-in-law's forehead.
"Be on your guard, Dastan," he says. "The Hassansin are not defeated yet."
"If they attack my city they will be," Dastan says flatly.
They ride in silence for the most part. Dastan doesn't even try to talk to her, for which Tamina is absurdly grateful. All her thoughts are a mess of contradictions and hypocrisies, of old fears and new, of her long-harboured disdain for the man whose son she is now married to and the awful sense that she was betraying some fundamental part of herself in beginning to like that man.
But above all a knee-jerk, visceral horror at the thought of becoming a ruler like Shahraman: quick to anger, quick to demand retribution, first to draw a sword, last to walk away from a battlefield.
My city, Dastan said of Alamut.
On the second night, she leaves their tent and joins him by the fire with Bis, Meren and the men.
An awkward tension lays itself over the group. Bis was handing the wineskin to Dastan when Tamina stepped between them, and it hovers in the air in front of her, his outstretched arm very black against the firelight.
Tamina takes the wineskin from him and takes a few long swallows.
"Don't let me stop you," she says, handing the skin to Dastan and leaning against his shoulder.
There's a moment's slightly perplexed silence, a shifting and shuffling as everyone wraps their heads around the idea of a woman joining them – their Princess, no less.
Well, if they can put up with Dastan...
Then Meren makes some joke she doesn't quite hear, and several people laugh, the tension broken. Dastan looks down at her.
"I've been thinking," she says, staring into the flames. "A sacred city should be a neutral force in the squabbles of the world, wouldn't you say? Officially. Legally."
"I wouldn't disband the armies entirely," he says gently. "Legal neutrality will not stop an attack."
She pats his chest. "I suppose you need something to occupy your days. We can't have you lying around in the gardens for another few decades with nothing to do but gamble with Bis and play with our babies."
He smiles faintly. "Tamina..."
"Dastan." She swallows. "I love you, Dastan. You're my husband and my consort and unless something goes very wrong somewhere soon you'll be the father of my heir. I can learn to live with your father's politics for your sake. But I will not – I cannot – condone that. That butchery."
There's another burst of laughter all around them as another story comes to a close. Bis is studiously pretending he's not eavesdropping on their every word. The wineskin is headed back their way already, and the firelight is a comfort and a source of strength in the empty desert. It'll be another day of riding before they reach Alamut.
Tamina tilts her head back to look Dastan in the eyes.
"What you ask of me, I'll do," he says.
She grins, relief and love making a bubble of giddiness in her chest. "Pass the wineskin, then."
"Tell me, Princess," Bis says. "Has our great hero ever told you the story of the time we were invited to the Ottoman court in Istanbul?"
"Oh, no," Dastan groans. "Not that story, Bis. I'm begging you, not that story."
"Oh, if it's that bad, I have to hear it!"
Bis clears his throat officiously. "Well, we'd been on the campaigns with Tus in the North when the King sent word that we needed an envoy to the Sultan's court. And so his Highness Prince Tus decided in his wisdom that Prince Dastan's diplomatic skills could use a little polishing, lest they become rusty..."
"Rusty as your sword," Dastan cuts in, laughing. Tamina takes another swallow of wine and smiles. The wine is good, the fire warm; there is a platter to Dastan's right, piled with mutton and bread. Bis always spins the most entertaining tales.
The chaos in her mind has quietened, a little. Doubtlessly an announcement of Alamutian neutrality will cause a few eyebrows to rise in the Persian court. King Shahraman will accept it for no other reason than his respect for the sacred city – his piety will always give Tamina the edge she needs to combat his superior strength in arms and monetary power. (She's just lucky there was no mention made of an obligation to give military aid in her marriage contract cum peace treaty.) Tus might be indignant, she supposes, but she'll leave him to Dastan. Garsiv...
Tamina has a sneaking suspicion that she is beginning to genuinely like Garsiv.
Dastan puts his arms around her. Tamina presses back against his solid chest, soaking up his body heat. Maybe she should invite Garsiv and his boy to Alamut for a stay; after all, Dastan is rather fond of his nephews.
On the other hand, if they don't produce an heir within the first year of this marriage someone on her Council is sure to start complaining. Maybe a visit can wait a while.
"Surely those logs are not that fascinating," Dastan says into her ear. She realises with a start that she's missed half the story – Bis is currently expounding on the charms of a harem girl in Istanbul, apparently a necessary build-up to the climax of the story.
"I was planning our future," Tamina says.
He hands her the wineskin for the third time: there's barely a swallow left.
"Well, stop planning, and we'll just muddle through it. Your plans never work out well."
Tamina chokes on her wine in indignation, but privately she has to admit he has a point.
After all, there was a time when she was planning, quite sincerely, to kill him.