A 'Prince of Persia : Sands of Time' tale

By Allegra

Rating : M I think, for violence

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters or places described. They are mostly the property of Disney. I'm just borrowing them from the toy box and will put them back exactly where I found them at the end!

Author's note: I do like a bit of hurt/comfort, which the film was lacking, so I have rewritten a portion with a different outcome. I have only seen the film once so I apologise for any discrepancies or errors herein – I will iron out any creases when I can spend many hours rewatching it on DVD! I hope you enjoy it & please, please review because that's the best motivation a girl can ask for!

Dastan had entered the city gates of Alamut with a heavy heart. Mere days ago, he would have felt relief and joy at seeing the conquered minarets and glowing domes that promised sanctuary and the warm embrace of those who loved him. Now, all that had been cruelly wrenched from him and the young prince had no choice but to fight back with a truth only he knew. It tore at Dastan's soul to know that his adopted brothers felt such hatred towards him, believing him the assassin of their own father, King Sharaman. Determined to set the record straight and prove it was no less than their beloved advisor and uncle, Nizam, who was responsible, he had dared to return from whence he had been banished.

The dagger was once again in Dastan and Tamina's possession, with no little debt owed to Sheikh Amar and his loyal men. Now, the prince had to convince his brother, Tus, of the dagger's power and the very real danger looming ahead should Nizam lay his hands on the sands of time hidden below the hallowed city. Dastan swallowed, his throat parched with anxiety as he considered the welcome he would receive at his brother's hands. Tus was no longer Crown Prince of Persia but King, a king surrounded by guards and counsellors who would do everything to stand in the way of Dastan.

He had left Tamina with Sheikh Amar, who had promised to ensure her safety, although Dastan doubted even the smooth entrepreneur had the estimate of the beautiful princess. Still, the prince could not afford to allow his concern for her to overshadow the business he attended to now. He knew that he would need his wits about him at all times if he were going to make it to Tus alive.

Dastan slid like a shadow through the bustling courtyards, deftly lifting himself up onto sloping rooftops and leaping effortlessly from one to the next, until finally he saw Tus sitting at a desk beside the window in one of the larger turrets. As he approached the roof edge, Dastan realised the jump was too great even for him, he would have to drop down into the corridor leading towards the tower and enter directly through the main door. From the angle he was at, it was impossible to see how well guarded the young king's room was, so Dastan decided he must prepare for the worst.

Swinging down onto the wooden poles protruding from the roof, he jumped silently onto the cool tiles of the corridor floor. Quickly jumping up from his crouching position, Dastan's hands went to the curved scimitar at his side, surveying the space around him. There was no sign of anyone, not even one sleepy guard at his brother's door. Although it served his purpose, the prince couldn't help swearing under his breath at the lax efforts to care and protect the new monarch. To his left, the corridor looked down over a peaceful courtyard with a bubbling fountain in its centre and his eyes tracked above to where another set of outer corridors ran parallel. Dastan could sense nothing and not a footstep sounded above his own breathing, which he noticed was growing heavier with each step he took towards Tus' door. He desperately needed his brother's redemption and alliance, but, even with the dagger of time in his possession, ready as proof of Nizam's plans, the prince feared the outcome. What future did he have if no one would believe him?

"So the bastard prince returns?" A voice slithered to Dastan's ear and he whirled on his feet to confront his uncle, momentarily perplexed as to where Nizam had appeared from. "You dare to enter here? A traitor and a murderer?"

"You know that they are lies, born of your own poisoned mind, uncle." Dastan surveyed the cold, hard face where he had once found a smile. "Do you have so little care for your own family...that you would see us all dead in exchange for such unenviable power?"

A cruel smile twitched at Nizam's lips. "Aah, you may take the urchin from rags to riches, but you can never clean his gutter blood. That has always been your problem, Dastan, you have no ambition. You do not see that wielding the power of an empire is every nobleman's dream. It was not always a dream for me, it was once a very real future. But my strength failed me when the time came, I saved my brother when I should have left him. I will not make the same mistake twice. This kingdom is my right, it is my destiny."

Dastan's hand gripped tighter to his scimitar as Nizam moved towards him, even if the older man appeared to be unarmed. He fixed his uncle with blue eyes, struggling with the sudden clench in his heart as he recognised that the family he held so dear was rotting from the core. "I fear I have lost the uncle I loved and respected."

Nizam's face suddenly fell, drawing into lines of severity. "And that pains me to know," he replied.

Before Dastan could register whether the words were spoken in truth or mockery, he heard the sharp crack of a whip behind him. A fraction of a second later, the prince felt the burning rawness of leather wrapped around his throat. His hands went to his neck, scrabbling at the tightening whip as his scimitar clattered to the floor. The harder he tugged, the worse the constriction. Dastan's eyes looked fearfully into those of his uncle, who had barely moved an inch, and opened his mouth to speak. "Uncle...please..." he managed before realising how little breath his body was able to take in. His chest heaved in an effort to draw in air but Nizam simply stood by and watched the young man struggle against his inevitable demise. Dastan's lungs burned like fire, sapping his strength with each passing second. Finally, in an act of thoughtless act of helplessness, one hand reached lazily for Nizam's robe as his vision began to dim, grey tinging the edges of the world. Dastan tried desperately to swallow but something sharp seemed to be obstructing his windpipe. He gasped, a futile motion, and withdrew his hands as he realised that they were growing wet. Focusing his hazy vision, the prince saw that it was not sweat slicked on his palms but blood. The whip was barbed and embedded in the tender flesh of his neck. Panic took hold and Dastan could not resist the strong arms pressed against his shoulders, pushing him down to his knees.

Nizam cupped a scarred hand to his nephew's cheek, watching with interest as the young prince's face contorted through shock, panic, fear and headed into the dazed confusion of near unconsciousness. "Oh, Dastan, my dear boy. You should not have come back, I had hoped you possessed sense enough..."

Dastan coughed weakly, his body shuddering against his uncle's firm grip. Unable to hold his head up anymore, he allowed himself to fall forwards, his forehead rolling drunkenly against Nizam's shoulder. He coughed again, feeling the warm splash of blood against his face and his uncle's robes. The coughs subsided into wet hiccups, each one bringing the tangy, metallic taste of blood up into his mouth. His hands slowly released their grip on Nizam, slipping lifelessly to his side as his uncle cradled him against him in a mockery of affection. Dastan could just make out a gentle whisper in his ear, a last moment of comfort before death took him. The prince's eyes locked lazily onto the tiled floor and the droplets of his own blood set in stark relief against the white marble. Gradually, the world lost its colour and darkness brought an end to his suffering.

Nizam pushed his nephew's inert body up and away from his own, watching intently for any sign of trickery. Dastan's breath came in short, shallow rasps, his face ashen as a thin rivulet of blood ran down his chin. Remorselessly, the vizier nodded curtly to the hassansin who roughly stepped forwards and disentangled his precious whip from the mangled flesh of Dastan's neck. "Bring him," Nizam instructed, pausing only to grasp the dagger of time from the young man's belt then letting the young man's body fall to the floor.

Coiling his blood stained whip over one shoulder, the hassansin dragged Dastan up by his arms before hoisting the prince over the other then followed his master into the hidden shadows of the palace. As far as the royal household was aware, Dastan had never been here, exiled a traitor and no more than a stain in the minds of his adopted family.

Hundreds of camels, loaded with wares, rambled in and out of the city, their owners plying trade across the Persian desert. Anything under the sun could be found if one was willing to trawl through enough money grubbing merchants and their incessant badgering as you walked the narrow streets. The day was hot and people were irritable, desperate to get out of the bustle and heat of the market place and make their way back to the cool and relative peace of their homes. So, another camel, bearing a single rolled up carpet was nothing of note. Not even the hooded man in black who accompanied the beast and glanced shiftily around was a source of interest. The city was in upheaval, unsure of its destiny now that Princess Tamina was missing and the new King of Persia had set up residence there. He had ordered all able bodied men to dig deep into the sand beneath the palace, rumour said he was searching for the fabled sands of time. Were they being ruled by a madman? Or was there some truth to the rumours? If the dagger and the sand truly existed, the people of Alamut did not rejoice at the notion. Tales handed down over countless generations told of the gods' wrath when any man tried to raise themselves beyond the status of mortals. Should the king find what he was looking for, they might all be doomed to die at the hands of the heavens and their unlimited anger.

With everyone lost in their own thoughts, nobody spared much time for the comings and goings of wandering merchants. Had anyone looked closer at the dark man and his load, they might have made out the contours of a man beneath the carpet shroud and even spied a tangle of dark hair protruding from one end. The camel made its way dutifully behind the hussansin's impressive black horse and out into the desert.

The hussansin took his oath seriously. Whatever task he had been charged with must be carried out exactly as commanded. Some might say this particular task was easier than most – there was no fighting to be expected, no peril to take his life, indeed even no stealth was required once the city gates had closed behind him. His job was simple – take the bastard prince into the most unforgiving region of the Persian desert, far away from any civilisation, and leave him there to rot under the savage sun, carrion until all that was left were bleached bones. Nobody would know the fate of Dastan, the orphan raised from the slums to the palace, his blood tainted but his heart as noble as a king's.

It was the hussansin's devout promise from the first day of training that he would ask no questions, nor brook thoughts or actions that might divert the intent of his employer. No man of virtue had ever asked for his services; the hussansin knew that he was doomed to suffer a terrible fate when his time came for the cruel deeds he had performed in this life. It did not matter that they had been in another man's name. He had given up his honour for the assurance that he would never go hungry again and always have a roof over his head. They seemed such simple needs, surely the right of any man, but this hussansin had found himself staring into the face of death at a prison on the outermost reaches of the empire. The scarred man who had found him and brought him back into the daylight and poured salve on his wounds had seemed an angel, a saviour then. He had committed to the assassin's life without question, a child raised in the house of a monster.

Prepared for the arduous journey with countless water skins, plenty of firewood to endure the cold nights and a light tent should a sandstorm creep up on him, the hassansin spurred his horse on with a note of joy in his heart. This mission was as close to freedom as he was likely to get.

Tamina had suffered the dull chatter of Sheik Amar for hours and her temper was fraying. She did not like to admit it, even to herself, but her concern for Dastan was growing with each passing minute. He was walking into the enemy lair with nothing but a dagger many would kill to possess and his blind faith that a brother's love cannot be so easily lost. The princess drowned out Amar's ramblings with her own thoughts, the soft curve of Dastan's smile, those deep pools of blue that stared back at her with an intensity that took her breath away. The recollection of his strong hands on her arm sent a shiver through her body and she quickly drew herself upright, flashing a glare at Amar in case he had seen her wistful expression as she daydreamed. So self absorbed was he, she was relieved to find that he was still lost in his own ruminations about advances in emu racing.

"We cannot sit around here any longer. I am going to find Dastan, this is taking much too long." She stood up and looked around her, considering her best course of action.

Amar caught her hand, pleadingly. "No, no, princess! You must stay here with me. I promised Dastan I would protect you and I am not about to break that promise. He will return in good time, do not fear."

"Spoken like a true coward," Tamina spat back. "You know as well as I the dangers he faces with Tus and Nizam. I was a fool to let him go alone in the first place." Drawing her headscarf across the lower half of her face, she stepped forwards in the crowd.

As expected, Amar was immediately at her side. "Then I must come with you." Without acknowledging him, Tamina strode towards the palace goods' entrance. Considering that Tus must be furnishing himself in the royal suite, she knew she could access the secret passages that few knew about. Fortunately for her, the princess had a good memory for faces and names, so could recognise her own people and those from Nasaf. She only hoped they still had enough loyalty to their princess that they would allow her to slip past into the heart of the palace.

It did not take long before she was halfway to her goal but, with each step further from the bustle of the serving areas, Amar stood out more and more like a sore thumb. Tamina knew she would be better off alone and took cruel advantage of his lardy shape by moving faster and faster until the sheik was panting and sweating like a pig. "Amar, we must jump from here to there," she said, pointing to a balcony several feet away from them. "Are you ready?"

Amar waved his hands in surrender. "Aah, princess, I am not...I mean I cannot..."

"Wait here for me," she said softly. "I cannot go back now."

The sheik paused in thought for a moment, torn between his promise to Dastan and the wilfulness of the princess. Finally, realising he was of no use here at all, he rummaged at his heaving belly and produced a jewelled knife. Passing it to Tamina by its shining hilt, he pressed her hand, "Take this for protection. Be careful, princess. Dastan, I, will never forgive myself in anything befalls you."

Tamina smiled warmly. "I know this palace like the back of my hand. It is my enemies who should fear me. I will see you soon," she promised, tucking the knife into her waistband and gauging the leap to the balcony.

Amar watched with equal measure of horror and admiration as she sailed through the air like a feather and landed just as lightly on the balcony ledge. With a final smile of reassurance, Tamina disappeared down a darkened corridor, leaving Amar to find his own way back to their meeting spot.

Tamina could feel a prickle of sweat breaking out across her upper lip as she left behind the last of the civilians who pottered good naturedly around the palace. Now, the people were few and far between, each one more important and familiar to the other, where she had more chance of being recognised as an intruder. Hearing voices ahead of her, she quickly pressed herself flat against the wall of a nearby alcove, waiting for their owners to pass. To her horror, they stopped mere metres away from where she was hidden. She tried to even out her breathing but her heart was pounding so fast, it was near impossible to regulate anything in her body. All she could do was unsheathe the dagger Amar had given her and lie in wait for the moment she was discovered.

One of the voices sounded familiar and Tamina strained her memory to place it. She daren't poke her head further forwards to see who the owner was, the risk was too great. Then, as the man continued speaking, pieces of the puzzle fell into place and her heart sank with it. "When he returns, I want you to bring him directly to me – no waiting. I do not care what you are interrupting –I must hear from the elected hussansin himself that the bastard son is truly dead, if I have not already done the job. I will keep the dagger at my side at all times but I want one of your men nearby every moment of every day until Dastan is dead. It cannot slip through our fingers again, do you understand me?"

So the dagger had been returned to Nizam. That meant only one thing, that Dastan had failed in his endeavour to seek counsel with Tus and set the world to rights. The mention of the Hussansin could only mean one thing – Dastan had been killed or worse. The footsteps moved closer to Tamina's hiding place and she squeezed the dagger more tightly to her. Nizam swept past her, accompanied by a horribly scarred man, draped in dark cloth. Neither man caught sight of Tamina yet she remained frozen to the spot for minutes afterwards, unable to move in case her shaking legs gave way beneath her.

What now? She had to find Tus and seek absolution for Dastan herself. Without the dagger as proof, she could only hope that he would believe her in good faith. What did she serve to gain by lying or returning to the palace when she knew the fate that awaited her? Steadying herself as best she could, Tamina set her course to the royal chamber.

The hussansin squinted up at the glaring sun, a giant ball of fire raining its heat upon him. His training had prepared him for many hardships, including unbearable desert heat, but he knew it would be wise to rest for a few minutes before he passed the final outpost that bordered the dangerous desert depths. Dismounting the horse, he led it to a water trough, pulling the camel along with it, and used an old rag hanging nearby it to gently wash the sweating flanks of his magnificent steed. He had been given the best horse Nizam could offer, one that possessed unsurpassed stamina to enable the hassansin to carry out his job without trouble. The assassin was grateful, even if the animal drew more attention than he was accustomed to. Once he was sure the animals were well catered for with food and plenty of shade, the hassansin attended to his own needs. Secreting himself far from the other travellers who had stopped there, he settled under an awning propped against a dry stone wall. It provided a little shade and just enough privacy for the assassin to drink and eat without disturbance.

Once he was full, the hassansin tethered his animals beside him and darted a glance around him to check he was not being watched before sliding the rolled up carpet from the camel's back. It hit the ground with a thud and the man unceremoniously flicked at it with his foot until it unrolled to reveal Dastan. He knelt beside the young prince and reached for his wrist, pressing calloused fingers to the inside until he felt the thud of life blood pulsing, albeit slowly, through the man's veins. He was not dead and that had been Nizam's instructions. The vizier wanted the death to look natural, a slow painful torture of dehydration and sun exposure. The wounds to his neck were bad but not severe enough to cause death. If that had been the prince's fate, it would have happened the moment the spikes of the whip had impaled themselves in his neck, probably directly into his jugular.

Carefully, he pressed one of the water skins to the young man's parched lips. At first, the water simply trickled down his neck but then Dastan took an involuntary gulp of the fresh liquid, swallowing it with a cough. The water caught in his chest, causing his cough to morph into hacks as it slid down the wrong way. Keen not to draw attention to himself, the hassansin propped the prince up against the stone wall, giving him a hearty thump on the back as he did so. For a moment a little colour returned to the young man's cheeks before fading away as he cracked open his eyes. They stared ahead as he slowly tried to orientate himself, then found the shadowy form of the hassansin beside him.

Dastan's vision was blurry, everything around him distorted and bright. He knew he was not alone and it took a few minutes for him to remember the details of what had happened to him. So he wasn't dead. At least that was something to be grateful for...perhaps. The hassansin sitting close by on his haunches told him there might be worse things than death to follow. Such men were not hired unless the job required bloody hands, no witnesses and no one to point the finger at. Nizam would not have spared his life. "What..?" Dastan's voice was nothing more than a faint rumbling whisper in his throat and, try as he might, he could not speak the question that burned in his brain.

"Drink," was all the hassansin would say. He proffered a fresh water skin, watching the prince intently.

Dastan would have liked nothing more than to defy the man's wishes but the sweet promise of more water was too great to resist. He took the skin in both hands and tilted his head back, taking as much of the cold liquid as his injured throat would allow. He could feel it snaking a cool path through his insides, coming to rest in his empty stomach.

Idly he wondered whether Tamina had noticed his absence yet or if she even cared. Suddenly, Dastan found it strangely difficult to focus on one coherent thought. He knew he needed to escape but his mind must have been addled by the heat because he couldn't find the energy to care much about anything. The world was so bright he just needed to close his eyes for a few minutes and then he would feel refreshed. He let his eyelids droop, forcing them open once more before succumbing to darkness again.

The hassansin watched the prince's body give in to the drug he had dispersed into the water. It would not do to have a struggling captive for the rest of the journey. He was still a solid day's ride from the drop-off region and he knew he should not inflict more damage on Dastan if he was to carry out his task to the utmost.

He roughly dragged Dastan by the arm until he was lying the right way up on the carpet and tightly rolled the heavy woven fabric back up. The hassansin pulled it upright and forced it up onto the camel's back once more. The animal protested in surprise before settling down once more. Ensuring all his skins were replenished, the assassin mounted the stallion and spurred it out of the outpost into more and more forbidding territory.

Tamina pressed her ear against the door to Tus' chamber, listening to the sound of voices inside. She knew from when she had occupied the rooms herself that any advisors would leave by another door, towards the council chambers. This was the domestic entrance, unlikely to be used by anyone beyond immediate family and household servants. She was counting on the latter being loyal subjects of Alamut who might take pity on her plight and leave her be.

Finally, the voices were raised in jolly farewells and Tamina waited patiently for a few minutes longer to be sure Tus was alone. Taking a deep breath, she lay her hand against the golden door. It was now or never.

She pushed the door open and quickly stepped inside, allowing it to close silently behind her. At first, Tus did not seem aware of her presence, his head bent over some scrolls scattered across the table. Tamina did not want to startle him in case instincts told him to call the guards without a second thought. On the other hand, she did not know how to present herself without doing so. It turned out that she did not need to.

Still with his back turned to her, Tus spoke quietly, warning dripping from every pronounced syllable. "Take one more step and this fine floor will be the last thing you see." He whirled, his expression deadly, until it registered who stood before him. "Princess Tamina?" The venom left his voice and the princess was certain she could not have given him more of a shock had she been a dancing bear in his midst. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"I have wondered the same thing several times today," she said, pleased that her voice did not betray the trembling she felt inside. "But I am left with no choice, sire."

Tus seemed taken aback by this new version of the princess he had met days before, now humble and subservient in her manner and voice. It melted his resistance a little. The desert was a dangerous, uninviting place for a woman alone. Perhaps she had discovered that the hard way and had returned to take up a place as another dutiful wife to the King of the Persian Empire. "No choice? Dastan has become a stranger to me in many ways but I thought his manners still extended to ensuring a lady of royal birth was safe before abandoning her."

"No, you misunderstand me, sire. It is for Prince Dastan that I have come." Unbidden tears welled in Tamina's eyes, surprising them both.

His heart softened by the plight of the princess, helped along by his lack of female company these past weeks, Tus guided her to the seats beside the window. "I am afraid you have wasted your time, princess. Dastan is a fugitive from the law. He would not dare return here for fear of the penalty he will face."

"Your Highness, Dastan did indeed return here, knowing he had no choice but to seek audience with you...to clear his name." Tamina wished she had taken more time to consider what she would say to sway Tus' poisoned mind. It seemed she was doing nothing more than weeping like a hysterical woman and sounding increasingly like someone who understood nothing of the predicament she had thrown herself into.

Tus listened politely, but she could sense he was stiffening against her tears. "Madam, there is nothing Dastan can say to..." He broke off, not trusting his voice to continue without breaking. "Dastan is dead to me. In my mercy as his brother once, I hope he never returns, and that he can live with the decisions he has made, far from here."

Tamina felt her chance to change his mind slipping away from her and, in her desperation, she threw herself to the floor at the young king's feet, reaching to him in supplication. "In the short time that I have spent with Prince Dastan, I have learned many things, Your Highness. He is all the things that you thought him to be before the untimely death of your father. He has been dishonourably set up for a crime he did not commit."

Tus leaned forward, gripping her arms tightly, his eyes flashing angrily. "You grow too bold, princess. What can you know about the struggles of my family?"

"Have you heard of the dagger of time and the sands which fill it, Sire?"

"Ridiculous tales, handed down by one illiterate fool to another. There is no truth to the stories," Tus stated, impatiently.

"What if I told you the tales were true, every last bit of them? That there is indeed a dagger now in your uncle's possession with the power to reverse time, far enough back that Sharaman's view of the throne was not so certain." Tamina poured every ounce of her energy into the intent gaze she fixed on the relentless Tus. "Why does your uncle dig so deep into the sands with such fanatical fervour? Can it truly be weapons he seeks so far beneath the ground? Please, Your Highness, I beg if you will, listen to what I have to say..."

Tus was still, his whole body as frozen as a statue. Tamina could see the battle raging deep within his soul, the cold, unbendable will of a king fighting against the fearsome tide of emotion which bound him to Dastan and the fraternal love they had been forced to abandon. At first, the princess was unsure that Tus, the man, would win against Tus, the king, but finally the man's eyes softened and he drew away from her. Gesturing to the seat opposite him, he cleared his throat. "If you will lift yourself from the floor, I will listen."

The sun set, bleeding red through the windows of the chambers and casting a glow over every glittering surface. Still Tamina spoke, her voice animated first with pain then with joy at the memories of everything the dagger and its powers had meant to her, her guardianship, her role as Matriarch of the Guardians. Tus remained silent throughout, occasionally asking prompting questions, probing every gap in her story, looking for a mistake that would mark her out to be a traitor like his brother. Even as the sun sank, passing the stage to the eloquent moon, her starry dress spread across the night sky, so Tamina continued with her life story and the events that had led her here.

Finally, Tus raised his hand to stop Tamina. "I have heard enough. If what you say is true, then my uncle has the dagger. Seeing it with my own two eyes will tell me the truth."

"Your uncle will not let it out of his sight now, not after all that has befallen it so far. You only need to see Nizam to find the dagger," Tamina promised.

"Then I will seek audience with him immediately," Tus asserted, standing suddenly and straightening his robes. The princess wished she could stop him, afraid that he too would suffer the same fate that had taken Dastan. But surely even Nizam would not be foolish enough to assassinate the king so rashly? "You must remain here, Princess. I will instruct my chamber to be guarded and no one allowed in until I return. You will not be discovered."

Tamina opened her mouth to protest but caught herself, suddenly acutely aware of how much footing she had already gained. She dare not jeopardise it by playing the diva. Tus was on the cusp of accepting her version of events, she had to allow him this last wish to convince himself. She nodded and bowed her head submissively. Their eyes met fleetingly and Tamina saw a new emotion reflected in the king – hope.

Nizam happily received his nephew, heartily embracing Tus as if he had not seen him for months. "My dear child and, indeed, sovereign. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Tus managed a smile, his eyes immediately lighting on his uncle's embellished belt. To his dissatisfaction, there was no knife. "I have need of your counsel, uncle. I am worried that Dastan will return, that once his courage has been twisted for a new purpose, he will stop at nothing to wreak havoc here...to try and take my crown."

Nizam smiled, his eyes twinkling, then the smile broke into a laugh, deep and hearty. He clapped a hand to Tus' back, "Dear nephew, dismiss that whelp from your thoughts. Do not forget that we know his heart and mind better than any, there is no surprise we will not have foreseen. Besides, what trouble do you think he can cause when he is but one man against an army?"

"He is a resourceful man. It does not take an army to stab at the heart of a man," Tus asserted.

Nizam's smile faded and he drew Tus towards the wall, conspiratorially. "If it will ease your mind, then I have news that I have not shared with a soul."

Tus felt his stomach tighten in grim anticipation. "Then you share your secret with no less than a king, uncle."

"Indeed, indeed," Nizam whispered, his eyes bright with intensity. "Dastan was here." Tus feigned surprise but his uncle continued, "I did not want to tell you, distract you from your royal duties when there is so much to be done in searching for these weapons. I found him when he was on his way to your rooms, stealthy weasel that he has always been. Now, Your Highness, do not be alarmed, but I had recently hired the expertise of the Hassansin, purely as a precautionary measure in case of any such eventuality. Thank the gods that I did!"

Tus swallowed dryly, hoping his face did not betray his fear for what he was certain he was about to hear. "Did you dispatch the traitor?"

Nizam smiled, secure in his belief that Tus shared his hatred for the bastard prince. "The Hassansin have taken him far from here, to a place so arid and uninhabitable, he will not last more than a day. It is the perfect solution. No one can be blamed for his death and no trial can divide the people of Persia. He will be the traitor who fled to save his life and died at the hands of nature."

Tus forced a grin to his face, mustering every positive thought he could to mask the deep pit of horror mounting inside him. "I am indebted to you, uncle."

"Do not think of it, Your Highness. The only gift I would ask is that you keep this information between us. The fewer who are involved with this vile business the better, eh?" His eyes bored into Tus, daring the young man to defy him. Tus nodded tersely. "Now, would you care to join me for a drink?" Nizam moved to the gilt table, set out with fruit, sweet delicacies and flagons of Alamut's finest wine.

Tus wanted nothing more than to flee his uncle's presence but he knew it would only arouse suspicion and he had not yet received the evidence that he had come for. "That sounds a fine idea, uncle." He flopped down onto the cushioned seat and picked at the dish of delights beside him. All the while, he scoped the room for some sign of the dagger. The room was adorned with so much finery it was difficult to make out each individual object in the candlelight which reflected off almost every surface.

At last, as Nizam turned away from him to find the goblets, Tus caught sight of a knife protruding from the waistband at his uncle's back. Remembering that his uncle firmly believed his nephew to be an ignorant ally, Tus tempted fate. "That is a very fine dagger, uncle. Where did it come from?"

The king saw how the vizier stiffened at the question. If Tus has been able to see his uncle's face, he was sure it would be drawn into lines of deceit. "It was a spoil when the city was taken. It is not as precious as it appears, gaudy and of little value." He whirled back towards his nephew, concealing the weapon from view.

"Might I see it more closely?" Tus asked.

"As king, you have the finest jewels the world possesses. What interest is one silly knife?" Nizam's voice edged towards a tone of caution, as if challenging Tus to proceed with this line of enquiry.

"But, as you so rightly say, I am indeed King of Persia. What is yours is mine...and I would like to see it." Tus knew only too well that he should take care how he stepped next, but he could not leave without holding this famed dagger in his own two hands.

Eyes flashing darkly, Nizam fumbled with the fastening that held the dagger firmly against his body and handed it reverently over to his nephew. As Tus turned it over in his hands, he felt his uncle's eyes upon him. He tried to remain calm and treat the knife as he would any spoil of war. "You are right, it is a strange, gaudy little thing. What is this impracticality? A glass handle? Too tight a grip and you would have a handful of shards embedded in your flesh! But what is this?" He gestured to the curious bauble atop the dagger's hilt.

Nizam all but grabbed the knife back from Tus. "It is not even ruby, nothing more than polished glass I suspect."

Tus pretended he had not noticed his uncle's strange and somewhat insubordinate behaviour. "Well, it does not befit a king's uncle, but if you like it so much..." He shrugged and reached for the wine flagon, pouring them both a generous glass.

The conversation turned to more pleasant topics, the different foods on offer in Alamut than at Nasaf, the beauty of some of the court women and the views from different vantage points of the palace. After some time had passed in companiable silence, Tus ventured another probe at what had happened to Dastan. "Uncle, I cannot thank you enough for saving my life today. I make wild assumptions...was it today that my brother was here?"

Nizam nodded quietly. "Indeed it was," then tilted his head towards the starlit window, "almost a day ago now. You are safe, my King." He raised his goblet in a toast and knocked back the dregs. "Aaah, but now we must get some rest. There is much to be achieved here and we must not neglect our bodies and minds in pursuit of it."

"Of course you are right, uncle, my ever steadfast counsel." Tus stood up and embraced his uncle as tenderly as he could muster. "I bid you goodnight." Nizam bowed his head and watched his nephew sweep from the room.

Tus hastened to his room, wishing he could run without drawing attention to himself. He marched past the guards appointed at his room without a glance. He was relieved to find that Tamina had done as she was bidden and had succumbed to sleep on the couch. Tus did not want to wake her but time was of the essence if they were to find Dastan alive. Gently shaking her by the shoulder, he waited for the princess to orient herself and open her eyes. "Your Highness! Did you...?"

"Yes, yes I did. But the Hassansin have Dastan. My uncle instructed them to leave him somewhere in the remotest part of the desert and leave him to the birds." Tus stalked across the room, unravelling one scroll after another.

"What are you looking for?" Tamina asked.

"We need a map of the realm. This is not the first time the Hassansin have resorted to such methods. They always head south, about a day's ride beyond the furthermost outpost before the border."

Tamina jumped up and began helping him search, her knowledge of the royal quarters much better than his. Her mind struggled to digest the new information. "Here!" she called, bringing a large map to the table where Tus had swept aside a space. "But even if we have the right region, to find one man in the desert will be like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Tus ignored her, moving his finger from one outpost to another until he came to rest in the south east corner of the empire. "There. I am sure of it. As a child, my father used to tell us stories of the dreaded Hassansin and the unfortunate victims that were found long after their souls had departed." He looked up into Tamina's distraught face. "But we will not let Dastan become one of them. We must leave immediately."


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