It was the third night that Tamina had woken, gasping for breath, heart pounding and mind clouded with people and places she had never seen. The first night it had happened, she had dismissed the dreams as a product of the day's events. Her city had been both conquered and freed in one day, and she had taken the hand of a Persian prince, pledging to wed him in a week's time. She would have been a fool to assume she would sleep soundly after such a day.
The second night, it had happened again. She had spent a trying day, meeting with the three princes and their advisors as they worked out the details of the marriage contract. Not every man in the room had been willing to believe that no one spoke for the Princess of Alamut. And so she had spent many long hours striving to ensure her city did not come second to the needs of the Persian Empire, mighty though it may be. She was Princess, and once married, would be Queen. She would accept no less than was her due as ruler.
And after long hours of tedium broken by the occasional harsh word or muttered insult from both sides of the table, she had sought her bed, exhausted. It was again, not to be surprised that her sleep was troubled. What had surprised her, however, was what her dreams were again filled with.
And now. The third night in a row. The documents were signed, the wedding preparations underway, and the day comparatively calm. And tonight the dreams had been the worst yet. Tonight she had woken with tears on her lashes, and a scream caught in her throat.
But that was not what truly had brought her to this door. Tamina stood and silently stared at the closed wooden panels of her husband-to-be's room.
The first night she had awakened from dreams of betrayal, of sand and skeletons, of ostriches and great grief and anger. And as she had come awake, heart pounding, head aching, she had sensed more than seen a movement at her window. The curtains had fluttered just a bit more than the cool desert breeze should have stirred them.
The second night, she had dreamt of the hidden temple, of stone and water and a long, toothed whip, of death raining from the sky and fear of failure. When she had come awake, this time she had opened her eyes just in time to see a dark figure move through her curtains and pass away through her window. Her body had moved before her mind, as her window was many feet above the ground and someone had certainly just fallen to their death. She had gazed out just in time to see someone move along the wall, leaping and twisting and landing finally on a balcony far below. She had stood there for many long minutes, thinking. Wondering.
And now tonight. She had dreamt of the Sandglass, of death in the palace above and a man in black below. Of vipers and a desperate race through the hidden tunnels. Of a hand clinging to hers and then a long, terrifying fall… and when she had woken, tears were on her face and a scream in her throat and she had laid in her bed, unable to move or speak, so great was her fear and grief.
While she had lain there, trembling from the force of the dream, her curtains had parted, and a soft thump told her that her visitor had returned. One of the gods must have whispered in her ear to lay still, for she had not moved, and had kept her eyes closed. Soft footfalls had come towards her bed, and she had sensed a warm body near. And then, almost too much for her to bear as she lay as if asleep, someone had reached out and wiped ever so gently the tears that laid on her cheek. Their fingertips had been rough, calloused against her skin but very gentle, almost feather-light in their task. There had been a shaky exhale of breath, and then he had been gone. Back through the window and away into the cool night.
And now here she stood.
Tamina looked at the door and thought of the past three days. Why had she taken the hand of the youngest Persian prince? Certainly, she could have made peace and alliance with the Persians without marriage. Alamut had existed for centuries without the Persian Empire. It would continue, one way or another. Its secrets would always be protected, no matter who ruled.
Yet she had stood in the garden, the Dagger clutched in her hand and stared up into the crystal blue eyes of Dastan, youngest prince of Persia. He had smiled down at her and his eyes had been… soft. Warm. Tender. Full of something that no man had ever shown her. His eyes had promised many things, and she feared that he would not be able to give her all those unspoken promises.
When she had laid her hand in his, he had lifted it to his lips, eyes still soft and warm on hers, and kissed her fingertips before leading her back inside to announce the marriage. From there, events had whirled out of her control in many ways. The ceremonies and rituals, the marriage contract and the negotiations, the myriad of details that came with a royal wedding of two houses… so much time had to be spent seeing to them. She had met with the Council, with the Guardians. She had barely had time to thank the Gods for what she hoped was the right decision.
It had been the right one, she was nearly certain. Prince Dastan had presented her with the Daggar, and her heart had stopped. And then he had looked at her with those soft, knowing eyes as he knelt before her, and somehow she had known that this man was already aware of the deep secrets that lay concealed within the palace walls.
Tamina sighed and again looked at the door. Marriage was a serious thing for the Princess of Alamut. Not only was it politically important, but given the secrets of her city and the duties of the Temple… her royal house married very carefully. Her husband would be King, and would be tasked the protection and defense of the city. And he would have to share the power of rule with the Queen. It had always been so in Alamut, and always would be. She knew some of the Persians in the marriage negotiations had been appalled at the role Prince Dastan would be asked to play… anything less than full control by a man was unheard of. Unseemly.
But she was Princess. She had ruled her city for the past 6 years alone, and it had continued to thrive as it had under the rule of her parents. She would accept no less than the partnership that past Kings and Queens had held.
She had looked across the ornate table, past the generals and advisors and the other two princes and had seen Prince Dastan watching her again. Soft eyes in a strong face. He had finally raised his hand and cut off the advisor who had been arguing vehemently with one of the Council, and had said it would be his privilege and pleasure to rule along side of her.
Talk had ceased at that, even his brothers looking to him in surprise. Prince Dastan had then looked at her and questioned if she would be able to share the power with him, to truly allow him to rule with her and not under her.
Tamina had raised her chin at that, and coolly told him that the King and Queen of Alamut had always done so, and she would not change the way her city had survived for the past thousand years.
He had smiled at her again, and then looked at his brothers. "The traditions and beliefs of Alamut are as important as Persia's," he had said. "Father would agree, I'm sure."
His brother Tus, the Crown Prince, had studied him with thoughtful eyes, and then nodded. "You are right," he had said, and it had been decided. The Prince would still have his responsibilities to the Persian crown, would still serve as one of their leaders, but would do so from Alamut. He would share the rule of his city with his Queen.
Talk had wound on, and more details decided. Alamut would not send troops to fight with the Persians, risking their position as a holy, peaceful city. Instead they would provide healers to the armies, skilled men who had no equal in the known world. Such a contribution was valuable to a fighting force. How many more men would live to fight again, with Alamutian medicine to save them, Tamina had pointed out.
Prince Tus had again nodded thoughtfully, and the second brother, Garsiv, had agreed. Prince Dastan had asked that the Persians undertake the training of the Palace Guards, to better prepared the defenses of the city. One of the council had told him that as King, all matters of defense of the city would fall to him, and he could order the training as he wished. The prince had sat back, and Tamina had been startled to realize that relief had flashed through his eyes. He had been fearful of the lack of training of the troops. She had wondered why.
But all these things fell away and to the side of her mind as she stared at the closed door. It was the sense of knowing, that her future husband knew far too much that had her standing now in the dark corridor.
Tamina took a deep breath and quietly opened the door, slipping inside.
It was dark inside the room, and her eyes first sought the bed. The coverlet was tossed about, the sheets empty and cold. Clearly there was no one sleeping soundly in it.
Her eyes went next to the balcony beyond. Thin gauzy curtains fluttered in the moonlight and cool breeze, but she could see no dark figure standing in the night.
And then she felt the cool of a metal blade against her throat, and a hissed whisper in her ear.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" The prince's voice was dark and harsh.
Tamina held very still. "I believe we need to speak, Prince," she said softly. She felt him tense at her side, and then the hood of her robe, hastily thrown on as she had left her bedchamber, was pushed back.
Prince Dastan stood in front of her, and looked at her with surprise and something unknown on his face. "Princess," he said. His blade had been lowered to his side, and he turned away to lay it on a table near the bed. "This is a surprise," he said.
Tamina studied him, the tautness of his body, the tension in his face. He was clad in his trousers and boots, but wore only a light linen robe over his bare chest. He was such a handsome man, she realized, not for the first time. She forced herself not to look again. "You and I, we need to speak," she repeated.
The prince smiled at her, face relaxing a touch. "Come, sit," he said, and she allowed him to draw her to a chair. He brought another chair and sat opposite her, and smiled again. "We have not really spoken since our marriage was announced," he said. "I have to admit, I wondered if we would ever be allowed to do so before the ceremony."
Tamina resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Such childish impulses always simmered under her skin, and only her years of training kept them from making themselves known at the most inconvenient times. A princess was not allowed into the high temple until she could control her emotions. "Marriage is generally a matter of politics, not people," she said. And she watched his face change, stiffen.
"You are right," he said. His voice was… blank, she decided.
"But not, I think," she said softly, leaning forward, "for us." She looked directly into his eyes, those eyes that had first convinced her to join Alamut to Persia. "Tell me of your nightmares, Prince."
The prince had no such training such as her own. His face was not nearly the controlled tool that she possessed. Shock, denial and sadness all flashed over it, and he got up from the chair to walk away from her.
"I do not know what you speak of," he said, pouring a glass of water from the carafe resting by his bedside.
Tamina sighed. "Prince Dastan," she began.
He turned. "Dastan," he said, almost urgently. "Just Dastan. We will be married. Please, use my name."
Tamina nodded slowly. "Dastan," she said, slowly, savoring the taste and sound of a man's name, her man's name on her lips. "Dastan, did you know that in this holy city, dreams come more often to the citizens than in other cities? The gods gave us dreams as a gift, as a reminder of our place in the world."
Dastan snorted softly. "Wonderful," he muttered. "Just what I had always wanted. More dreams."
"Here in Alamut," she went on, watching him as he ran a hand through his hair. "We know much about dreams. There are dreams of prophesy, of what is to come. There are dreams of foreboding, dreams that are meant to make the dreamer question himself. There are dreams of memory, dreams that bring back the past. And then there are dreams of indigestion."
He was startled into a laugh at that one, as she had intended. She let a sly little smile creep out, it was too hard to hold it in with him. "Those usually come after feasting," she said dryly.
"I am well acquainted with those," he said, lips still curved. "We have them in Persia, too."
"Those are not, I think, what has brought you to my bedchamber window for the past three nights," she said softly, and watched as the laughter fled from his eyes. Now they had come to it. "Tell me what did."
He prowled away from her, boots softly pacing the floor nearly noiselessly, robe flutering just a bit behind him. The Lion of Persia, she thought, gazing on the bent head, the thick hair, the nearly feline grace with which he moved his large body. He was silent.
She rose and took a step toward him. "Dastan," she said quietly. "Shall I tell what I have dreamt the past three nights?" He turned to look at her, surprise in his eyes. "Three nights ago," she began, taking a single step toward him where he stood in the center of the room. "Three nights ago, I dreamt of a betrayal in my palace. Of my city laid to waste and the most precious secrets in the hands of my enemies. I dreamt of a flight through the desert," she said, watching him. His eyes were widening, betraying his knowledge of what she said. She had thought that would be so. "I dreamt of a dark-skinned man named Seso, and of skeletons hanging bleached in the sun." She suddenly smiled. "I dreamt of ostriches."
Instead of smiling, as she had thought, his eyes seemed to tighten in pain, and he turned from her, striding toward the balcony. She followed.
"When I woke from this dream," she said, "I saw my curtains fluttering in the breeze and thought nothing of it." She went on, taking another few steps closer. "Two nights ago, I slept and dreamt of a sacred temple in the mountains, a place that only few in my city would know. I dreamt of an attack, of my people lying dead when I thought to find them living. I dreamt of terror raining from the sky, men with weapons I did not expect. I dreamt of trying to fulfill my duty as a Guardian of this city," she watched him carefully at that. He leaned forward on the balcony, gripping the railing with white-knuckled hands. "I dreamt of a man with a spiked whip and of the hope of the world taken from my hands."
She came another few steps closer. "When I woke this time," she said, nearly to his side, a little behind him, "I saw someone leap out my window. I hurried to look out," she said, turning her gaze away from his face and looking over the silent, dark city before them as she stepped next to him at the railing. "But instead of a body lying below on the courtyard as I expected, I saw the shape of a man leaping down the walls of my palace as I have never seen one do before."
She looked over at him. A humorless smirk was on his face now, and he stared straight ahead, out into the black night. The moon was on his face, and the shadows were deep about his eyes.
"And then tonight," she said very softly. "Tonight I dreamt of my own city. Of your brother lying with his throat slit in my palace, of racing through secret underground passages to stop time. Of a man in black trying to kill you, and of his snake. I dreamt," to her shame, she could not stop the tremble in her voice, "I dreamt of clinging to your hand, and of letting go." His hands were so white, his eyes so dark and his body so tense, she almost thought he would tear the stone railing in two. "I dreamt of my death," she managed, and took a deep breath.
"And when I awoke, there were tears on my face, and a scream caught in my throat. Your name was echoing through my head, and I could not have moved even had the Gods come down and ordered it." She breathed deeply.
"And while I lay there, my curtains moved," she said, turning to face him. He would not look at her, but still stared out beyond the city, out into the darkness of the desert. "Someone entered my room, and came to my bed. They wiped the tears from my cheeks, and then left as silently as they came."
Cautiously, she reached out and laid a hand on his as it gripped the railing. She could feel the jolt that ran through him as her touch, and truthfully her own body shivered at the contact. "Won't you tell me, Dastan," she said very softly, "what it is you dream that sends you to my bedside each night? Why it is you look at me as if you know me? Why you knelt in front of me three days ago and gave to me something that every other Persian thought to be just another knife, yet you knew was much more?"
He shuddered. Feeling very daring, for this was the most physical contact she'd had with a man since her father had died, she reached up and gently placed her other hand on his cheek. "Tell me," she said.
For a moment, he was still beneath her hands. She could feel the tension in his hand, hard and tight. She could feel the stubble of his beard against the smoothness of her palm. The heat of his body near her own seemed to ward off the cool night breeze.
And then he shuddered again. "Tamina," he said painfully, and he turned. His arms came about her, gripping tightly, the muscles hard and banded as she was pulled unceremoniously against his chest, clutched as if she was all that was holding him together. His skin was bare beneath the robe, the heat of his chest searing her face as she pressed close, instinctively trying to comfort.
He was a strong man, she had seen it as she had watched him train with his soldiers earlier that day. It was there in the carriage of his body, the muscle and the bone that moved so sinuously. She had stood hidden at a window and gazed down, watching as he fought with his men, blades flashing in the sunlight. He had whirled and clashed with first one, then two of his men. And she'd watched the muscles of his body ripple and work as they gleamed with sweat in the sunlight, watched them bunch and gather as he'd leaped the walls of the small courtyard like some kind of acrobat, twisting and somersaulting to land behind his own men and win the match.
And yet he trembled as he held her tightly, too tightly.
She did not try to ease back, realizing that this would be futile. After all, she had asked him to share with her. True, she had not expected to be pulled against him this way, but… they were to be wed. She would have felt this press of skin to skin in a few short days, regardless. Her cheeks flushed at the thought and her heart quickened, and she set herself to try and calm the agitated man in her arms.
"I am here," she said quietly, reaching around him to stroke his back through the robe. "I am here, and I will be here." She rubbed circles slowly against his lower back, memories of her mother soothing childhood nightmares flitting through her mind.
Slowly the tension in his body eased. His arms did not clutch so desperately. She was still held tightly, firmly. Possessively. But he was no longer near to breaking apart. Tamina did not stop her touch. "Tell me," she said again, cheek pressed to his bare chest. His heart thudded beneath her ear.
She felt the sigh before she heard it, and then he was moving away. She felt chilled and shivered, oddly missing the tight embrace. It had been… more than she had expected to feel. It was something she wanted to feel again.
Dastan took several steps backward. "Come," he said, fingers sliding down her arm to catch her own. She watched as he lifted them to his lips, pressing a kiss to the tips. She shivered, and could not hide it. To her surprise, her reaction eased the tension in him more. She let him lead her into the room, back to the chairs.
He seated her in her chair once more, but kept a hold of her hand, and drew his own much closer. They were nearly knee to knee.
Dastan took a deep breath, and then exhaled on a sigh. "More than two weeks ago," he began, "I stood with my brothers outside your walls and listened as my uncle detailed the treachery of Alamut. He showed us weapons that had been intercepted on the way to Koshkahn. Told us of the hidden forges his spy had found. Nizam urged my brother to waste no time, but to attack the city and cut off Kosh's supplies."
Tamina could not stop the tensing of her hand in his. She knew well this part of the story, for all his claim of it occurring several weeks ago. It still rankled that Alamut should have been targeted by the king's brother in such a way.
Dastan looked down at her hand in his, and gently smoothed his other hand over her captive one, soothing the tense fingers.
"We attacked," he said. "We won. Your city was ours, and the palace was stormed. During the battle, I slew a man on horseback, and took as spoils a dagger, a pretty but rather useless looking weapon. It was tucked in my belt as we three brothers came before you, the captive princess."
"Tus offered you a choice," he continued. "Marriage to him, or death." He smiled rather humorlessly down at her hand between his. "You were going to choose death," he said. "Then you saw me, and the dagger in my belt. You chose marriage."
"That night, there was a celebration. My father came from Nasaf, and I presented him with a gift as the son who had drawn first blood. The prayer robe of Alamut," he said, looking up, and seeing her nod in recognition. "Tus had given it to me, knowing that I did not have anything ready as a gift. I gave it to my father, and he put it on. A few minutes later, he was dead."
Dastan shuddered. "The robe had been poisoned, and my father killed. I found myself seconds later accused of murder. My brothers turned on me, my uncle. My best friend died to allow my escape, and you took me from the palace. I thought you were fleeing from the marriage, but you knew what I carried in my belt, and sought to protect your Dagger."
He raised his eyes to hers. Those crystal eyes, eyes that had been so soft and warm on hers in the garden were pained and shadowed. "We fled Alamut," he said. "Made for the Valley of the Slaves. You tried to kill me a few times," his smile was twisted and almost fond, "I thought about leaving you in the desert. We argued and fought the whole way there." He smiled a bit more. "I sold you as an ostrich girl once we arrived."
Tamina couldn't help it, he had done what? She glared.
That produced a weak chuckle from him, and his hand on top of hers lifted to her face to gently brush her cheek. "There's that look I remember so well," he murmured. His hand dropped back down again.
"I was recognized, and we escaped again. We were caught in a sandstorm, and you told me the truth of the Dagger."
He sighed. "My family, my kingdom thought me a traitor. I believed my brother had framed me. You asked me to give you the Dagger and let you take it to the hidden temple. So we went."
He looked down again. "It was a long journey, and there were many things I will not speak of. But when we arrived, the guardians of the temple were all dead. The enemy had arrived first." He looked up. "Hassansins," he said. "They had been disbanded by my father, but secretly maintained by the traitor. They slew the village, and were waiting for us. Before they could attack, my brother Garsiv arrived and tried to capture me." His face twisted in pain. "He was killed by the Hassansins."
Tamina saw the grief in his eyes. "Did he still believe you a traitor?" she asked. She had see the three brothers together. There was great love, great respect between them. They acted like idiot men when they thought they were alone, as they had this morning in the courtyard, but showed a united front to those that opposed them.
Dastan shook his head. "He believed me, moments before his death," he said quietly. He took another deep breath. "You attempted to give the Dagger back to the stone inside the temple, but I delayed you. I…" he seemed to struggle for words. "I could not believe that your death would save the world."
It was Tamina's turn to lay her free hand over his, soothing the tension. She had been raised with the knowledge that she might be called to sacrifice for the Dagger. It seemed to horrify him in a way that it did not her.
"Before you could do it, we were attacked by another Hassansin," he went on. "The dagger was taken, and we were left behind."
"We went to my father's funeral," Dastan continued, looking back up at her. "We slipped in with the foreign dignitaries and I got a message to my uncle. Nizam met with me and I told him of Tus' betrayal." His face twisted. "Instead I found that Nizam was the traitor. He sought to use the Dagger to turn back time, back to his childhood and to an incident where he had saved my father's life. My father would die, and Nizam would be king."
Tamina shivered, knowing full well what would have had to occur for that to happen. Dastan gently turned his second hand beneath hers, clasping both her hands in his now.
"We escaped again, and sought Alamut once more. We knew Nizam would search for the Sandglass beneath the city for his plan to work. My brother Tus was still here, and I thought there was hope to convince him of my innocence. I did," he smiled sadly, "but Nizam slit his throat."
Tamina's fingers tightened on his. "You killed yourself," she said. Her throat was tight. "I saw you in my dreams, you killed yourself with the Dagger."
Dastan nodded. "Tus used the Dagger and realized the truth of what I told him," he said. "But it was all for naught, as Nizam killed him moments later. "
He breathed deep. They were coming to the end of the tale, she knew. "It was then a race to get to the Sandglass. We went through passages below the palace. You led me. Nizam went down a cleared tunnel that his men had been digging. I fought a Hassansin and you saved my life by turning his own snake upon him."
Now his hands began to tense and tighten, fingers gripping hers. "Nizam and I fought before the Sandglass. He tried to throw me from the rock. You tried to stop him, and he threw you instead. Your hand was in mine," his grip was so tight it was hurting her, "and I could not pull you up. You let go."
Tamina could not stop the catch of breath. She had seen it in her dream that very night, yet it was still terrifying to hear. "You let go of my hand," he said, agonized eyes raising to her own. His pain echoed in his voice. "You let go, and fell. I could not stop you."
Tamina did not know what made her move so, but she lifted his fingers to her face and pressed her lips to them. He shuddered and continued with a visible effort. "Nizam had pierced the glass, and the sand was flowing through the Dagger. We fought, and I finally managed to wrench the thing closed and away. Time swirled about me, and I found myself back at the moment of claiming the Dagger in battle."
His smile was pained. "That time never happened. I know this. But for me, it was all real."
Tamina knew his story would have to be gone over again, in much more detail. She would need to know exactly what had happened and it would need to be set down in the books of the Guardians as a lesson to future Guardians. But at the moment, she did not care to hear more.
She was caught in the pained crystal gaze of the man across from her, the man she was sworn to marry in a few days. Tamina let go of her control, and let her instincts guide her.
She moved quickly, surprising him. Her hands released his, and she stood, but only to sit in his lap, and her arms to wrap about his shoulders. His arms came up to clutch at her again, and Dastan buried his face against her neck.
"You did well," she said quietly, fingers stroking his hair. "You saved the world, turned back time, and I am grateful."
"Please don't be grateful," he said, face still lowered. "Please. Of all things, I do not want your gratitude."
Tamina sighed, feeling his hair stir from her breath. "I know," she said quietly. "It is in your eyes." She leaned back and lifted his head, her hands on his cheeks.
It was time to confess, to tell him what she had suspected from that first moment. Time to admit why she had accepted the awkward proposal of a youngest Prince of Persia.
"Dastan," she said quietly, looking him in the eyes. Those wonderful eyes, that made so much inside her warm, and feel. "Did you know that here in Alamut, we believe that certain souls are joined across time? Destined for each other throughout many lifetimes?"
She watched those eyes warm, soften. Heat. "Tamina," he said. His voice was raw.
She smiled, and stroked her fingers over his face. "I think that no matter the time," she said, savoring the feel of his skin against hers, "that we were destined to find each other. And no matter what comes here after, we will find each other again."
"Tamina," he said again, and then he reached up, and his lips were upon hers. Her heart pounded, her blood sang, and the world stopped moving. There was just him and her and the feeling of their two bodies pressed so close. His lips caressed and teased at hers, his mouth opening on her own to taste and draw even closer. Her arms tightened about him, fingers clutching deep in his hair as his own buried in her loose tresses, winding them tight about his hand. His arm was an iron band at her back, pressing her closer, ever closer to himself.
When his mouth finally lifted from hers, they were both breathing hard. And those eyes, those wonderful eyes were bright and brilliant and hot and warm and soft and all those things that they had silently promised three days ago in the garden. And Tamina smiled, a big brilliant, free smile. She could feel the chains of her position slipping away. She could see her future stretching out farther in front of her, joined to this man. She could feel the heat of his body, feel the stirrings in her own, and knew that they would hold each other so until they were parted by death.
And she laughed and reached down to kiss him again.