So, yep. I have not finished with Prince of Persia yet. This one is more angsty than the others and, to my great sadness, does not feature Garsiv or his helmet. In other news, I am about to eat a bowl of frozen custard, and I am very, very pleased about this.
these things were promises
On her eleventh birthday, Tamina's mother wakes her up at midnight, blanketed in a silk white robe. She leads Tamina wordlessly through passages the girl had never known existed: incredible, torch-lit hallways behind the walls and within them. They walk downwards, forever nearly, and with each step the dark becomes thicker and the firelight weaker. They come to a small, cubed room where twelve of her mother's handmaidens and her father's favorite general stand waiting in a circle, faces tilted down and hoods drawn.
Tamina is not afraid as long as her mother's hand is in her own. They walk to the center of the circle and Tamina's mother pulls back her hood.
"When I was eleven, my mother came for me just as I have come for you," her mother murmurs, kneeling. "Just as, one day, you will go to your daughter. For it is only in the pure heart of a child that the promise can be written and upheld, the sacrifice guaranteed."
She tells Tamina of the dagger, of the covenant, of the Sands and of Time. One of the handmaidens paints a vaguely sun-shaped symbol on both of her feet and Tamina's mother kisses her forehead. "Don't cry, darling," she whispers as a large needle is presented. "The pain fades more quickly than you can imagine."
The tattoo on her palm seems to take hours, burning and searing her skin, but Tamina bites her lip and does not cry.
After, when her hand burns bitterly and her eyes sting from unshed tears, her mother kneels before her and kisses her forehead. "Your intent must always be pure, and never selfish," she murmurs. "If it is otherwise, may the Gods stay your hand."
Then she plunges the dagger into her own heart and the caved room echoes with Tamina's desperate screams. She fumbles with the dagger's hilt: it drops. Its clatter on the ground is almost too loud to be real, and she hopes for a moment that she might be dreaming.
But no: the pain in her hand is too insistent, the picture to vivid, the impassive faces of the women around her too shadowed. "Tell me what to do," she begs, but they say nothing. She closes her eyes and cries again, this time silently, this time to the Gods: tell me what to do.
Her hands move of their own accord, fingers wrapping around the cold glass hilt and thumb nudging the ruby. She keeps her eyes closed until she feels the dagger leave her hand, and when she finally opens them, her mother is whispering, "Your intent must always be pure."
Men are not allowed to touch her. As the High Priestess of Alamut, contact with the opposite sex is expressly forbidden. Which was fine when Tamina was eleven, twelve, thirteen, but two days ago she celebrated her seventeenth birthday. And it's not as if sex is banned from the castle; it's not as if she doesn't know of her handmaiden's liaisons, spoken of in hushed, giggly whispers. Adiva has just recently lost her virginity to somebody named Azeem; Hessa has begun dating a boy from the market, Ra-something, who likes to kiss her neck until it bruises. Tamina is a priestess, not a prude; when the servants sit together and murmur with pink faces about boys and their hands, she hides her face behind a book so that they cannot tell that she is listening.
She dreams, vividly (the only way a priestess ever dreams), of a man with long hair looking at her with dark eyes that spell secrets in them. She dreams of his jaw: sharp, firm, a solid podium for the grin that always twists his mouth. She dreams of his hands: callused, strong, large and everywhere, in her hair on her face on her skin.
In her dreams, she calls him Prince. He says that he is no such thing, really, but she does it anyway. They all start the same way: she is on her bed when she wakes into the dream, and goes to the terrace. He is there, waiting for her. She asks how he got to her rooms without anyone seeing, and he smiles that devastating smile and teases, "I flew."
Then she kisses him, chastely but with invitation, and he smiles against her mouth. Often this is where the dream ends, with his hands running down her arms and her lips pressed against his, but not always. Sometimes she clings to sleep until she can snake her arms around his neck and push his clothing off in stages, first the vest, then the shirt, running her mouth down his neck to his chest as they stumble into her room. He kicks off his sandals.
"Easy, Princess," he says, laughing at her impatience. She is frustrated when he catches both her hands in one of his and holds them firm, slowing her down, laying her gently on the bed and leaning over her with a half-grin that makes her heart ache. "They stumble who run fast."
"They stumble who get stabbed in the knee for being too slow," she growls back, arching her neck up so that her mouth can take his, and he laughs against her, fingers working at the laces on her night dress. She whimpers at him, half-plead and half-demand, as he pulls away and lets her go so that he can use both hands to work on her laces.
After a few moments, he gives up. Sits back. Smiles, a little. "Who needs a tall tower when they've got laces like these?" he asks dryly.
"Go up under," she instructs, but it is then that her dress changes into pants, and she flops back against the pillow.
The Prince rolls to lie beside her and joins their hands. "Someday," he promises. And this is where she wakes.
She wakes, her body tense and frustrated and shaking and she sinks deep into her covers because the art of sacrifice is simple but it hurts.
But tonight is different.
Tonight he paws at her laces and she feels them loosen, feels the sharp shiver and breath of heat that shoots all the way through her when he hand meets her bare stomach, thumb brushing across her hip. She gasps, sitting up, and he begins to pull away, the heat sapping out of her as it follows his fingers.
"No-no-no-no-no, I'm okay I'm okay come back come back come back," she babbles, grasping his neck and dragging him against her, pulling him down as she lays back against the bed, releasing him only once his hand falls back to its preferred position and pushes her nightgown open. He pulls back, but his hands stay where they are. His eyes are dark as he looks down at her, at his own hands as they skim across her skin.
"You're beautiful," he whispers.
"Yes, yes, I know, shut up and kiss me," she laughs impatiently, fondly, wondering suddenly if this man is a dream or a promise.
He leans down and presses a kiss just above her belly button. Heat flares and she squirms as her muscles tighten with thrill and ache and want, and his hands slip lower, lower—
He stops. She is panting and glares down at him. "If you say 'someday' to me right now, Prince, I swear to God I will kill you."
The Prince shakes his head. "You are the realest dream I have ever had," he murmurs. "What is your name?"
There is a yellow light glowing from his necklace, and Tamina sits up again, nightdress falling off her shoulders. He is still looking at her, doesn't notice the light in the room, and she says without thinking, "Tamina."
She asks, "Your necklace. What does it mean?"
He cannot see or does not notice its light. He smiles. "It means 'promise,'" he says.
And she understands, in that moment, what the Gods are telling her, as the dagger materializes in her hand. She wants to throw it across the room and claim him hungrily with her mouth, she wants his hands to finish what they had promised, she wants to wake up without aching anymore.
But the art of sacrifice is simple, and so she kisses him fiercely and murmurs, "Someday," before pressing down on the ruby and waking up.
Years later, when he shows up in her ruined temple with the sacred dagger tucked into his belt, she will not recognize him. She will call him Persian.
She is brave when the Persians come. Of course she is brave. She has been trained her whole life to be nothing but brave when it comes to the dagger. She keeps her expression impassive and goes into the temple to pray, leaving all her guards and handmaids outside, anxiously twisting their hands.
Tamina kneels before the altar and bows her head. She can hear the shouts and rumbles of her city on fire; she can hear the frantic whispers in the hallway. Time is moving too fast, and Tamina is brave but frozen in the shadow of her own promises. She can feel sacrifice creeping upon her like winter or nighttime or sickness, peering around corners and seeping into her bones.
Her mother had said "your intent must be pure," and as Tamina raises the dagger and closes her eyes, she prays: give me a minute for weakness, just one minute to be afraid.
The seconds pass and she trembles through them, thick fear passing through her body like sludge, beginning in her toes. It trudges up through her shaking knees, her knotted, nauseous stomach, her galloping heart, her corked throat, and then her mouth. She spits it out with a scream, thinks, thank you, and jams the ruby into the hilt.
When it is done, she opens her eyes. Her fear was sold for a minute of weakness, and so she does not falter. She is brave, of course she is brave; she has been trained her whole life to be nothing but brave.
She says, "I am ready for this."
Dastan murmurs, "Well, I'm not."
Her breath hitches. He is looking at her with dark eyes, and for a moment she thinks he looks familiar, like something out of a dream. Her arm is already reaching for the stone the dagger came from, but something in her pauses as her eyes fall on a small medallion hanging around his neck.
"Promise," she murmurs, reaching out with her free hand to press her fingers to it. The way the light falls in the cave makes it light up, as if it were glowing. She curls her hand around it and suddenly drags him to her, smiling at his surprise yelp. She kisses him fiercely, firmly, knowing exactly how much time she has to make him understand.
She loves him. She thinks this should be obvious by now.
His hand comes automatically to her cheek and his stubble tickles against her skin. She wants to curl into him and never shake free. She wants to throw the dagger as far away from her as she can get it and let herself be Dastan's, for whatever time is left. She is ready to give the whole world for one hour, just one, without sacrifice sewn into her shadow, one hour to belong exclusively to someone and not something.
The pendant is burning against the tattoo on her palm, a promise, yes, but of what she has no idea.
She keeps two vials of sand, one on the necklace Dastan stole and one in a ring she never takes off. After she is gone, if the dagger is still here, she knows that Dastan will find it.
She feels rather than hears him mumble her name against her mouth, mumble Tamina and I love you and don't do this.
She presses the ruby.
She wakes to find Prince Dastan on her terrace. This afternoon, she had agreed to become his wife, because he had looked at her with dark eyes that were a thousand times familiar. He had spoken to her in a soft voice, a voice that made promises, and voice that whispered someday is today.
She does not think of that when she sits up and sees him leaning against the railing. She thinks of calling her guards and having him arrested. "How did you get here?" she asks cautiously, reaching under her pillow for the dagger. It is supposed to be in the temple, but that dagger is only a replica.
He steps into the light and smiles. "I flew," he says.
"Charming. And is it Persian habit to use this remarkable ability to spy on defenseless women?"
Prince Dastan's smile turns wry. "It's all we ever use it for," he laughs. "Though, in this particularly instance, I wasn't spying. I was . . . checking up."
"You know. Making sure you were all right. Isn't it a husband's duty to protect his wife?"
She feels oddly charmed, despite herself, and she hides a smile as she turns from him and walks over to the little table by the window. She pours a cup of wine and hands it to him. "You were watching me sleep," she accuses gently.
The way he looks at her lets her know that she is right, and a pleased tingle runs down her spine like water.
"Yes, but that's not why I came," he admits shamelessly. "In fact, your lights were burning, so I actually assumed you were awake. And then I didn't know what kind of weaponry you kept under your pillow, so I didn't want to wake you up in case you attempted once again to kill me."
"To my quite thorough knowledge of the subject, I've never tried to kill you," she answers, puzzled, suddenly suspicious, her hand floating to the dagger tucked into her skirts.
Prince Dastan shrugs. He puts the cup of wine back on the table and takes her hand, leading her to the bed. "Listen. I will only say this once, and I will never speak of it again, never, no matter what you or anyone else does to me. Do you understand?"
Her breath catches and she nods. Tamina's whole body tenses and she curls her fingers around the dagger. Dastan rolls his eyes and catches her wrist, pulling both arms to the front and holding them with one hand while the other reached around to grab the dagger. She starts to struggle, but he presses his lips to her temple as he pulls back and she stills, oddly calmed.
"I won't try to take it," he promises. "I just need you to understand something if we are going to be married. I've been awake all night thinking about it. I wasn't going to tell you; the plan was to keep silent about it forever, but I know that somewhere along the lines something will slip out and it will be worse than if I tell you now and you have me killed or whatever. So."
She waits. He runs his hands through his too-long hair and takes a shaky breath. "My uncle was a traitor. I know he was a traitor because once, in a world that has been erased, he murdered my father and framed me for it, and I spent weeks as an outlaw, and despite every impossibility, the gods somehow allowed me to make the wrong things right, not just a minute worth of wrongs, but weeks of them, more than ten horses could carry. I know what the dagger does, and I know what you have promised, and I have seen you die for your promise so I am begging you: do not do it again."
She has never been speechless before, not truly. It does not feel as she imagined: words are not crammed against the back of her teeth, choking her; they are not jumbled and too frantic to organize and voice. There is simply nothing. Her mind is blank of everything but his words and the soft grip of his fingers around her wrist.
She hears herself ask, "Is that all?"
"No," he says, and places the dagger at her side. "There is also this."
And then he leans in and kisses her, fiercely, mumbling her own name against her lips and pressing her back against the bed. She thinks about reaching for the dagger, undoing this moment and instead calling for her guards, but there is a necklace around his neck that bumps against her heart and the contact reads promise.
She knocks the dagger off the bed. She pushes his clothing off in pieces, the vest then the shirt, moving in muscle memory. It occurs to her as his mouth presses kisses on her jaw, then her neck, then her collarbone and fingers work at the laces on her nightdress: "I've dreamed of you."
He laughs against her skin and his hands still on the knots tying her dress together. For a moment she is afraid that he is going to stop, that those lovely hands are going to leave, but instead they whisper down her stomach and her legs and begin to climb again, this time underneath. She breathes his name: "Prince."
He looks up, and his smile makes her whole body ache. "Dastan," he corrects.
She sits up and pulls him to her, running her fingers along his chin and down his neck until she has clasped the promise there. "Dastan," she whispers.
The name sounds like a prayer. It sounds like thank you.