*Tag-On to Persian Nights; just a little something that has been mulling around in my mind since I finished Persian Nights.
The Sacred Path
The young princess rode along on horseback gazing out at the barren country they passed. It was a huge difference from the desert she was used to, with patches of snow to mark their way. Their small group made slow progress, not because of the treacherous path that lay ahead, but because it was her duty, nay her sacred calling, to memorize this path, like her mother and grandmother before her. Like all the young princesses that had been destined to become High Priestess.
Her brother rode ahead with father, as Neelam stayed back with mother. She would pout and complain, wanting to be up alongside her father. Neelam had always thought she looked more like father than mother… mother even said so. She had her father's eyes, which was why they had named her Neelam, and her father would call her "my little sapphire."
Neelam bit her lower lip, knowing it was not her place to complain to the High Priestess, especially when that High Priestess was her mother, but she wanted to ride up ahead with Rustam and father. Their cousin Anushiravan got to ride up ahead with father and Rustam, and she wanted to be there to here his tales of court life in Nasaf, but Neelam's mother told her that her place was with the acolytes and that her attention should be focused on the path, not on Anushiravan's wildly exaggerated stories.
Her mother brought her horse up along side her and gave her a look. "Are you paying attention to the path, Neelam?" she asked, looking disapprovingly at her.
"Yes, mother," whined Neelam.
"You should take this seriously, my daughter," her mother said, giving her the same fierce glare she often gave father and Rustam when they misbehaved. "I was not as old as you when your grandmother and grandfather brought me on this path."
"I miss Alamut," complained Neelam. "It's so cold here."
Her mother shook her head. "This is your sacred calling, daughter," her mother said. "As it was mine, and your grandmother's… as it was all the woman of our line."
"Yes, I know, because of the pact our ancestor made with the gods," Neelam was bored with hearing the same story over and over again.
Her mother brought her horse closer and reached out, placing a hand on Neelam's shoulder. "I know this may seem pointless and trivial," her mother said with a sympathetic look. "But believe me when I tell you that you never know what the future may hold."
Neelam knitted her eyebrows together and looked up at her mother. She had always thought her mother was the most beautiful woman in the Empire, even more beautiful than Queen Astera, who many said was the most beautiful woman in the world. Yet Neelam never saw that beauty. The Queen always seemed bitter and angry, and it was clear she hated the King.
Her mother's beauty never seemed to wane and father always seemed so enamored around mother that Neelam and Rustam would always giggle and laugh when they kissed. Neelam may not be a woman yet, but she could tell that her father loved her mother and that her mother loved her father. The look in their eyes said so, and the way they kissed was not like how her uncle would kiss the Queen.
"Mother?" Neelam broached cautiously, she had always known that something had happened before that her mother never told her about, something that had been one of the key factors behind why their parents had been wed.
"Have you ever had to walk the sacred path?" she asked, looking down, afraid she had asked too much.
Her mother slowed her horse and looked out into the distance, her mind far away as she thought. "Not in this lifetime," she answered. "But in another, yes."
Neelam furrowed her brow, confused. "In another?"
Her mother looked over at her and smiled. "Yes," she replied. "In another life." She turned and looked longingly up the line to where father rode with Rustam and Anushiravan. "As a young priestess of our order, you know of the Sands of Time, Neelam."
"Of course, mother," Neelam nodded, remembering the many times her mother and the High Priest Azim had told her the tale of the young girl who had offered up her life to the gods to spare mankind from their wrath.
"Well, a long time ago, before you were born," her mother said, smiling at the memory of something. "You're father and I had an adventure that I don't remember, because for me, it never happened."
Neelam's raised her eyebrows and her eyes grew wide. "Father used the Dagger of Time in the Hourglass to turn back time?"
"Yes," her mother smiled. "And he saved the world."
Neelam laughed. She found it amusing that her father could have saved the world. He was a joker and prankster and he'd often help her and Rustam pull pranks on the priests. It was fun, but when she had turned ten, he had stopped. And now that she was approaching womanhood, her father had been paying more attention to Rustam. She missed him and the time they'd spend playing in the palace halls and running through the streets of Alamut.
Seeming to sense her mood, her mother reached out and placed a hand on Neelam's arm, reassuringly. "Do not fret, my daughter," she said. "Your father still loves you, but the time to run and play have past. It is time for you to become a woman and devote yourself to the higher calling."
Neelam gave a reluctant nod and held back her tears at the thought of the end of her childhood. A shout came from up ahead and she looked up to see her father riding back to meet them.
"Tamina!" his blue eyes sparkled as he looked at her mother.
Her mother gave her father that special smile that she only gave him, as he brought his horse up alongside them. Her father briefly looked over at her, before pulling his mount up close to her mother.
"We are almost there, my princess," he said, holding up one hand from the reins to caress her mother's cheek lovingly. "Should we walk from here?"
"Well, my Lion," her mother replied. "If you think it best."
"Oh… it is not my decision, now is it, princess," Neelam rolled her eyes as her father gave a boyish smirk. "It is yours, my love."
Her father leaned across the gap between them and captured her mother's lips in a fierce passionate kiss. Neelam looked away and blushed at seeing such love, wondering if she would ever have a man kiss her like that. When she looked back they were still kissing and she had to clear her throat to get their attention.
Her parents chuckled softly as they backed away, and her father moved his horse to come alongside his daughter. "Well, my little sapphire," he said, grinning down at her. "Have you been paying attention to the path that all your ancestors have had to memorize, or will we have to go back and start at the beginning?"
Neelam knitted her eyebrows together and glared up at her father. "No, I'm fine."
He laughed and looked over at her mother and laughed again. "I think she's got your fierceness, Tamina," he said.
"Dastan, please focus on your daughter, she needs you now," her mother chided him.
"Right you are," he turned back to Neelam. "Now, let us test your memory, little sapphire," he said. "From this point on, do we ride… or do we walk?"
Neelam pursed her lips together and looked around, trying to remember what she had been told. "We walk," she said.
Her father looked back at mother, who gave a nod. They then halted their horses and dismounted. Neelam smiled when her father raised his hands up to help her dismount. She had missed his contact since her birthday and took advantaged of the situation and hugged on to him fiercely.
"Oh, father, how I've missed you," she murmured into his ear as he hugged her back.
Slowly, he eased her onto her feet and knelt before her, brushing her dark hair away from her face. "I know, my little sapphire, and I am sorry, but you will soon blossom into a woman, and it is time for you to grow up. I know it is hard, but I have faith that you shall become a noble and strong woman, just like your mother."
Neelam frowned. "But will I ever be as beautiful as mother?"
"Oh, Neelam," her father cupped her little face in his big hands and caressed her tenderly with love. "You are beautiful. And some day, you'll wrap some man around your little finger."
That made Neelam laugh. "Like mother has with you?"
Her father's lips curled into a grin. "Yes… like mother has with me."
"Dastan!" her mother called out giving the back of her father's head her famous fierce glare. "Enough chatting. I'd like to reach the Temple before dusk." But then her glare softened, when she saw how father was talking with Neelam. "It is time," she added, more gently.
Her father stood and held out his hand. "If you'd like, little sapphire, I can hold your hand on our final climb up to the Temple."
Neelam smiled and took his hand. "Yes, father, I'd like that very much."
Her mother came back over and knelt besides her, running her fingers through Neelam's hair, and adjusted her robes. "Are you ready, my sweet daughter?" she asked.
Neelam gave a nod and reached out for her mother's hand. "Will you hold my hand as well, mother?" she asked, a little afraid her mother would deny her request. But her mother only smiled and took up her hand.
"Of course, my sweet little one," she said, giving her cheek a kiss, and then standing.
Neelam tightened her grip on her parents' hands and took a deep breath and looked up to the rocky slopes that held the temple where the sacred promise had been made. And with both her parents at her side, Neelam walked the final leg of the sacred path that all her ancestors had done before, ready to embrace her destiny.