Awake, my dear.
Be kind to your sleeping heart.
Take it out into the vast fields of Light
and let it breathe.
- Hafiz (Persian poet, trans. Ladinsky)
As the wedding banquet drew to a close, Tamina found herself wondering once more if she had been unwise to agree to marry the youngest Prince of Persia.
The wedding day had been long and the moon was now high in the night sky. The Princess sat in her carved wooden throne at the head of the top table in the large palace dining hall, and stifled a yawn as the senior members of Alamut's High Council droned on around her. She silently watched her new husband, the Persian warrior who had both invaded and saved her city; he was not speaking quietly with dignitaries or Alamutian noblemen. No, he was at the far end of the dining hall, talking and joking loudly with his brothers, a grin on his face and his eyes lit up as they raised their voices in amused disagreement and pushed each other playfully. The Persian warriors' voices carried easily in the stone dining hall and pricked the bubble of silence around her.
King Sharaman was near her and must have noticed her line of vision, as he smiled at her.
"I have always tried to teach my sons about the importance of family."
"Very wise, your Highness," Tamina murmured politely, unwilling to meet the kindness in the King's eyes. He was seated in the place where her parents would be, if they had not departed the earth ten years earlier – leaving the teenage girl alone to bear the weight of the heavy jewelled headpiece that she wore as the Princess and High Priestess of Alamut.
Tamina stood carefully, her torso tensing with more than the effort of bearing the jewels in her headpiece and gown. The King nodded and the councilmen stood and bowed deferentially as she excused herself. A maid appeared and followed from a polite distance as she walked steady and tall through the throng to her husband.
He did not hear her amidst the noise, and she cleared her throat and attempted an amiable smile.
He whirled about, withdrawing his arm from around Garsiv's shoulders, his eyes fixing on her immediately and a wide smile on his lips. Once more she was reminded how handsome he was: tall with a soldier's build, dark hair, bright eyes and a boyish grin.
"Yes – my Princess!" he exclaimed loudly, and reached his fingertips to her cheek tenderly. Her skin prickled under his keen gaze, her eyes widened – and he quickly withdrew his hand. "I was, ah, just about to come back to our table."
"Of course you were," she said drily. From the corner of her eye she noticed Garsiv stifling a smirk and Tus shaking his head abashedly before they turned away.
"I was!" Dastan insisted. "I'm sorry I was called away." He glanced back over to the head table and smiled playfully. "Are they still discussing the extension of the trade route to Lamasar? I thought I might die of boredom."
A spark of indignation straightened her back. She knew it was a joke - but - "Those gentlemen have served this city loyally for longer than you or I have been alive, and they deserve your respect."
"Yes, I saw you yawning at them very respectfully," Dastan smirked.
All attempt at sweetness to her groom was forgotten. "And I saw you running over here to drink with your brothers and your idiot officer friends, when you should have been doing your duty and speaking to all the dignitaries who have come a long way to pay their respects," she retorted.
Dastan opened his mouth to reply, but just then a few young officers tumbled loudly past him and called out "Goodnight, Lion of Persia!" He smiled warmly at his comrades, staggering a little under their lively slaps on his back. He seemed unable to resist the odd happy grin, though his eyes darted uncomfortably to his new wife.
Tamina watched the display with increasing displeasure and lifted her chin. "I see you are still proud of the name you were given for destroying Alamut!"
But Dastan's eyes fell immediately and his head dropped a little. "N-no, Tamina," he said seriously. "I am - not proud of what we did. You know that."
He looked up at her again with earnest eyes. She sighed, the serious line of her lips softening. "Yes."
"Listen -" Dastan cleared his throat. "My brothers have decided to take the army west in search of Koshkhan - but - some of my company will stay here with me to continue to help with the rebuilding efforts."
She took the information on board for a moment. "You do not wish to go with them."
He furrowed his brow and smiled as if the answer was obvious. "No."
She watched him. "You can go if you want. This city hardly needs any more help from your army."
Dastan smirked and he ran a hand through his hair. "Oh, come now, Princess," he said sweetly, "you do not need to pretend. I am sure you would miss me far too much if I left..."
"I have asked you not to mock me, Prince," Tamina said wearily.
"I'm sorry," he grinned, not seeming sorry at all, but his face became more serious when the weary look did not leave her own face. "I am sorry," he repeated, a more sincere edge to his voice, and he took her hand in his own and raised it to his lips. "Although..." he smirked again. "You are beautiful when you're angry."
She tilted her head to the side disbelievingly. "Am I supposed to find this charming?"
Dastan's eyes widened a fraction and he chuckled, shaking his head slightly and letting her hand fall from his. Watching him, the Princess suddenly noticed from the corner of her eye that wedding guests nearby were observing them discreetly, and she saw what they must see: the new royal couple deep in conversation, the young groom kissing his bride's hand. A prickle shot up her spine and she stiffened. Had she ever before found herself among her subjects without being keenly aware of their attention on her at all times?
"Look." She paused, smoothing down her gown, and spoke evenly. "I came over here to tell you that I am retiring for the evening. You may come to my chamber when you are ready."
He furrowed his brow a little. "Um- are- are you sure?"
"What?" she asked sharply, taken aback. There was an awkward pause. "Of course, why would–"
"I- I will be there," he interrupted quickly. "I will come soon." He smiled and nodded reassuringly, but she caught the uncertainty which remained in his eyes. Not wishing to prolong the moment any further, she simply nodded and withdrew quickly from the palace dining hall and the enormous wedding banquet, her maid following obediently behind her.
The knock at the Princess' bedchamber door came sooner than she had expected. She had only had time for her maid to help her remove her jewels, brush her long dark hair and change into her wedding nightgown; then the maid had left, and Tamina had gone out to stand on her small private balcony. She thought about the dagger; she had already asked Dastan how he came into possession of it, and he had given a vague answer suggesting he knew nothing of its power. She was not sure whether to trust him, but at least the dagger was back where it should be again. The rest could wait.
"Come in," she said while turning, and Prince Dastan entered the room and approached her slowly. He had changed out of his ceremonial wedding outfit into a simple white tunic and trousers. He stopped a few feet away from her, his eyes taking her in with the intensity she'd come to expect from him.
"I hope I am not too early, Princess."
She smiled knowingly. She had been pondering his earlier hesitation, and was sure she had found the reason. "Not at all, although perhaps it is too early for you," she said pointedly.
Dastan merely furrowed his brow.
"You have drunk too much, haven't you?" she accused. "That's why you hesitated to come to my chamber tonight. You were worried the alcohol would make the Lion of Persia soft." Tamina flicked her eyes down and upwards over his body to emphasise her point, resisting the distraction presented by his figure. She shook her head and laid scorn into her voice. "It's a pitiful way for a Prince to act on his own wedding day, but I suppose I should not be surprised at such behaviour from a Persian warrior."
But his only response was a half-smile, and his eyes seemed almost delighted. "I have not been drinking, Princess," he told her simply.
She furrowed her brow. "Of course you have. I saw you with your brothers, I saw all the wine being poured."
Dastan smirked. "Then you are not as observant as you think you are. Yes, there was wine being poured, but not for me. I only had one glass of wine, at the very beginning of the banquet."
She narrowed her eyes silently; after a pause, he stepped forward, closing the gap between them and dipping his face towards hers. He kissed her once, softly, on each cheek, then on the forehead and finally the tip of her nose. Her heartbeat quickened and she was sure that finally he would touch his lips to hers; but he simply stopped, his face inches from hers, and looked into her eyes.
"Is there alcohol on my breath?" he asked in a low voice.
She exhaled, but didn't drop her eyes. "No."
His lips quirked a fraction and he stepped back away from her with satisfied eyes. Tamina kept her chin proudly raised.
"Even if you were not drunk, your carousing was still foolish. I saw Priest Baraz staring."
He shrugged. "Well, I certainly apologise for wanting to share my good mood with my family on my wedding day," he told her, grinning.
Tamina puffed out an irritated breath; her jaw clenched, and she stepped away from him and moved around the room quickly blowing out candles. Finally she reached the side of the bed and nearly leaned down to blow out the final lit candle which stood on a bedside table, before changing her mind and turning to face the Prince instead.
She was surprised to see that, rather than advancing towards her as she had expected, he remained exactly where she had left him; he had only turned to watch her, and now stood with his eyes fixed on her.
"Well?" she finally asked impatiently.
"Well, what?" Dastan replied, seeming thoughtful.
"Well… you are not drunk… it is our wedding night, and we are alone," she said pointedly; but he still made no move to come towards her. She smirked. "Is the Lion of Persia really such a meek kitten that he cannot approach his own wife on his wedding night?"
But rather than responding with pride or irritation, Dastan's brow suddenly cleared, and he surprised her again by smiling. "Actually... yes."
She stared. "What?"
"Princess, I don't wish to consummate our marriage tonight."
Again she stared, incredulous. "What? Are you ill?"
He ran a hand through his messy hair. "No."
"Then - what on earth is this? Do I not please you, Prince Dastan?"
Tamina turned a slow circle, sure that this would make his coolness come undone. She knew the candlelight cast a warm glow on her henna-patterned skin, and the delicate wedding nightgown flowed flatteringly over the curves of her body. When she finished turning to reveal herself and looked in his eyes again, the smile had indeed fallen from his lips and his mouth hung half-open.
"O- of course y- you do, Princess…" he muttered, his eyes darkening. "But..." And still he did not move.
"But nothing!" Tamina exclaimed, wrongfooted and startled. "What is the meaning of this insult?"
"Oh no, I do not mean to insult you –"
"Well, you have! This makes no sense – I – I see the way you are always looking at me–"
Her frustration had made her tongue run away with her, and Dastan's lips quirked as he interrupted her – "How do I look at you, Princess?"
"– As if you love me!" she exclaimed, then stopped short. She had not meant to say something so intimate; but he seemed perfectly happy with her words, and he smiled.
"Well - and I do!" he answered. Tamina simply stared, unable to make any sense of him. "And that's why I cannot–" he hesitated, shook his head and then stepped towards her again, touching his fingertips to her cheek just as he had in the dining hall.
"I know you do not feel the same," Dastan said quietly, "and that is why I've made my decision. When you invite me to share your bed, it must be because you love me, not just because I am your husband... I cannot have it any other way."
Her face was tilted upwards and she gazed into his eyes. His face was clear of any indication of malice or teasing.
"You are being serious," she realised slowly, and he smiled.
"Yes. Is that so hard to believe?"
A tug at the corner of her lips. "Yes."
At that, Dastan chuckled, and stepped away from her to sit down on an ornate chair by the wall. Casually he raised a foot onto his knee and started to undo his sandals.
"You don't think much of Persian men, do you?" he asked, still smiling. "You think we are simpletons, only interested in one thing."
"I think that of all men, not just Persians," she retorted quickly, eliciting a surprised, deep, genuine laugh from the Prince. A sudden warmth uncoiled inside her.
"Well, Princess," he said as he put his sandals down beside the chair. He stood up and gestured to the large thick patterned rug which lay at the foot of the bed. "I will sleep here tonight. If I did not sleep in your chamber, the Palace staff might all be passed out by morning from the excitement of the gossip."
She looked at the rug doubtfully, still trying to understand her new husband. "I cannot expect the new Prince of Alamut to sleep on the floor..."
"That's true, it is rather disrespectful," he copied her serious expression and then smiled boyishly. She was too immersed in thought to give him the satisfaction of smiling in response. "Don't worry," he continued, "I have slept on far worse, more times than I can count."
"All right." Tamina turned to pick up two pillows and a coverlet from the bed. Then she approached him and gave them to him, standing close, wanting to test his resolve but only finding a warmth trace across her own skin. She studied his face, the spark in his eyes.
"How can you love me?" she puzzled. "We barely know each other. We have only had a few conversations, and most of them were about marriage arrangements."
A dark look crossed his brow, then he dropped the pillows and blankets on the rug without taking his eyes from hers. "I know enough," he said finally. "I can see that you are a principled and devoted High Priestess, and that you would do anything for Alamut. You are strong-willed, you have a sharp mind and a sharper tongue," he grinned. "But, more than anything... it's your eyes."
"My eyes?" she repeated doubtfully. Did he merely think she had pretty eyes, as boring suitors had told her before?
"Yes. They are sharp, bright, proud – and I have a feeling they will never let me get away with anything." The candlelight flickered in his own blue eyes as he smiled at her with a searching intimacy she didn't understand, and she realised she was staring.
"Well - yes - you can be sure of that," Tamina muttered quietly, lapsing into thoughtful silence as she stepped away. Then she turned back after a beat.
"What if I never love you?" she wondered aloud.
Dastan had picked up a blanket and at her words he simply grinned, unfolding the heavy blanket and shaking it out easily with his strong arms.
"Oh, don't worry about that, Tamina," he answered in a velvety voice, grinning flirtatiously. "You will. Didn't you know? I'm extremely loveable."
She rolled her eyes, then answered him by turning and blowing out the candle without waiting for him to get comfortable. Certainly, it would be hard to fall in love with someone as arrogant as him.
Tamina huffed impatiently for the thousandth time that night and strained once more to hear her husband's footsteps approach her chamber, with no success. She turned over in bed again, trying to get comfortable. She knew that Prince Dastan had just returned from his two-day visit to the nearby city of Bisitun – that much was obvious from the scurrying and hushed voices she could hear from the palace staff.
It was only two weeks since the wedding, but the Prince had had to leave the previous morning on urgent Persian state business; his father was unexpectedly too ill to make the visit to Bisitun, and his brothers had left the region. Last night had been the first night since their wedding that Dastan had not been able to come to her chamber, to talk with her quietly before sleeping on the rug at the foot of her bed.
Finally the knock came at her door and she sat up immediately, lighting a candle and pushing her long loose hair behind her shoulders. "Yes."
The door opened slowly and the Prince cautiously poked his head around it. "Did I wake you, Princess? I wasn't sure whether to come." His dark hair was messy as usual and he had not trimmed his stubble; he looked tired, with a pale face and heavy eyelids. He wore a creased, smudged undershirt and plain trousers.
"Of course you woke me," she lied irritably, "but that was half an hour ago when you and your party arrived at the palace. The damage is done now. Come in, come in." He smiled and entered the room properly, closing the door and approaching the bed.
"Why are you so late?" she demanded. "We expected you at sundown."
He leaned down a little slowly to brush a kiss to her cheek. "Anyone would think you had missed me, Princess," he murmured.
"Don't be silly, you were only gone for one night," she retorted. "By arriving late you have inconvenienced the entire palace, and it is the feast of the Goddess Anahita tomorrow. We will all be very busy."
"I know," he said in a slightly apologetic tone, as he sat down on the edge of the bed and turned to face her. "One of my officers was taken ill and we had to find a healer for him urgently."
She eyed him carefully, ignoring the steady warmth of his closeness. "And is that why you moved stiffly just now when you leaned down to kiss me, and why you have a cut on the inside of your wrist?"
Startled, his eyes widened a little at her, but she just stared back at him levelly and raised her eyebrows. Huffing a soft chuckle, he shook his head and looked down. "No, that's because one of the council guards in Bisitun went rogue and tried to attack me."
"What? Why?" Her brow furrowed.
He shrugged and glanced at her awkwardly. "Apparently some sort of personal grudge against the Persian army - due to a war in his native land a long time ago – before I was even a soldier."
She pursed her lips. "Clearly you Persians are in the habit of going to war first and only trying peace later."
He tilted his head and gave her a softly reproachful look. "Anyway," he continued with a tired sigh, "it's not important. He was disarmed very quickly. He was no match for this mighty warrior." He gave a cheeky quirk of his lips and tried to puff up his chest comically, but she simply sighed, reaching out her fingers to graze the small cut on his wrist gently. He looked down at the gesture in slight surprise.
"I did not think I would have a husband who would make me worry by getting into fights at the drop of a hat," she muttered.
At this, he grinned. "You worry about me?"
Tamina rolled her eyes, starting to fidget and pulling at the bedcovers underneath him so that he had to stand up. "Oh shut up, Prince-"
As he stood he interrupted her, still grinning. "No, no, I think we need to talk about this a lot more, in great detail. Tell me again how you worry about me?"
She merely fixed him with a serious stare. "Look. It's very late, I am tired and you look exhausted, and tomorrow is a busy day. We need to rest." She pulled back the bedcovers, shifted a little so there was space at the side of the bed, and resisted the trace of a tremor in her vocal cords. "Lie down with me."
He stared at her for a moment, blinking, then gestured half-heartedly to the rug at the foot of the bed. "Um, I – I can –"
"Dastan." She spoke gently but firmly. "Just –" and she paused. "Lie down with me."
A warm delight lit his eyes slowly, and the faintest smile pulled at his lips. He leaned over to blow out the candle, then silently got into the bed, awkwardly shifting around, watching Tamina in the moonlight with some uncertainty. Finally he lay on his back only to freeze in surprise for a split second when Tamina came to nestle against his side, her head on his chest and her fingers spread softly against his breastbone.
She heard his contented exhalation as he wrapped his arms quickly around her and they lay silently for a moment. Dastan stroked his fingers along her upper arm. Slowly, an intense warmth spiderwebbed across her skin, her heartbeat spreading to fill her whole ribcage.
"Are you comfortable?" he murmured.
After a pause, she spoke abruptly.
"Actually, no." He watched in surprise as she sat up a little. "Your breathing is too heavy and loud, and your – shoulder is far too – thick with muscles. I have to – crane my neck to rest my head on your chest, it is very uncomfortable," she complained and started shifting grumpily until she was lying on her side facing away from him. She tried to ignore the amused look that had been in his eyes as he watched her, and she sensed him staring straight ahead for a moment towards the foot of the bed.
"Should I –" he started.
"No," Tamina interrupted firmly, and heard a short puff of breath escape him in a chuckle. Then she heard him shift and suddenly felt the solid warmth of his body pressed the entire way along her back, as he curved his body against hers completely. He rested a heavy, tired arm over her body, his hand resting on the bed just before her face.
"Is this all right?" he murmured.
"Yes," she muttered quickly and he relaxed with a sigh.
She took a slow breath to calm herself, blinking and refocusing on the moonlight through the window on the far side of the room. She moved her smaller hand to cover his, and a few silent moments passed as she fidgeted against his body a little to get comfortable.
Then suddenly there was a coldness at her back as Dastan moved away. She turned around and looked at him, confused, half sitting up as he did the same.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"N– nothing is wrong, it's–"
He stopped short as he saw her expression change. The moonlight was bright and illuminated the room well, and Tamina could see the evidence of his arousal in the way the sheets draped against his lap.
In the silence, heat drenched her skin.
"Sorry," he muttered quietly.
"Dastan," she said in a voice suddenly soft, "do not apologise for– feeling desire for–"
He interrupted her. "No, I'm – I'm not apologising for that," he corrected her, rubbing a hand over his face. "You know how I feel about you. I'm apologising because – you only wanted me to lie down beside you, not –"
And suddenly she couldn't take it anymore, and she leaned forward and kissed him.
It was an awkward kiss – their lips smashed together suddenly at an odd angle, her body pressed gracelessly against his as she lunged forward and fell off her own centre of gravity, and in his surprise he fell backwards an inch before righting himself and responding to her by touching a palm to her waist.
She pulled back after a moment, heart beating wildly, feeling like she was standing on the edge of a cliff as she stared at him and he stared back with wide eyes in utter amazement. The tender desire in his eyes pushed her over the edge, and she fell.
"I did miss you," she told him reproachfully. "Very much."
His lips quirked in a lopsided slow smile. "I missed you too," he said softly. Blood thundered in her ears till she almost felt dizzy; the coiled springs inside of her unwound themselves, and she fell back against her pillow.
"You're a fool," she told him simply.
Still sitting up a little, propping himself up with his arm, Dastan watched her with curiosity. She closed her eyes for a moment, flinging her arm across her forehead, then removed it and looked back at him. He was still watching her. The urgency of his desire seemed to have faded in the silent stillness of the room.
"You are stubborn, and smug, and – inexplicable," Tamina started. "I am the High Priestess of a holy city but you don't show me the deference that everybody else shows me. You act like you're not listening to me, and make me annoyed, and then it turns out you were listening all along. You try to show off and impress me with your strength and your physical prowess, but all that your - muscular body really means –" she waved an arm at him dismissively – "is that you have spent your entire life with your blood raised in fighting and wars, and you have spent no time at all in learning, or prayer, or quiet contemplation."
She paused and glanced at him, completely unsurprised to see that he was just watching her quietly with his eyes alight and the faintest of smiles on his lips.
"You have no appreciation of diplomacy," she continued. "Trying to make me laugh by pulling faces at me when I was talking to the ambassador last week!" She shuddered at the memory even as Dastan sniggered softly.
"Is there a point to all of this, my Princess," he asked agreeably, "or are you simply soothing yourself to sleep by insulting me?"
She paused and just looked at him. "And that's another thing. You have so little self-respect that you don't even mind that I insult you so much."
"I would mind if I thought you meant it," he said sweetly, brushing his hair out of his face as it fell in his eyes.
"I do mean it," Tamina protested with feeling.
"All right, all right," he chuckled, then watched her for a moment, waiting. "That's all you got?"
A long pause, and finally she looked at him again and spoke accusingly. "I love you."
Expressions flickered across Dastan's face quicker than she could keep up. He fell back against the pillows, his eyes not leaving hers, and took her face in his hands gently. She willed herself not to look away under the intensity of his gaze. Finally he closed the distance between them and pressed his lips to her softly.
"Do you really mean that?" he asked gruffly.
"Of course I do," she protested, trying to hang on to her agitation though it had drained from her soft voice. "Do you really think I would say something so ridiculous if it wasn't true?"
He half-chuckled, kissed her again and then wrapped his arms around her. She reciprocated the gesture, finally allowing herself to feel the warmth of his body and accept it as a blessing.
"How did I become so lucky as to find such a sweet wife?" he murmured teasingly in her ear.
At long last her lips pulled into a smile, a laugh bubbled out of her and she let it shake her body. He pulled back to look at her, grinning in delight as she gave him a full wide smile for the first time. One of her arms was wrapped around him and with the other she reached up and touched his bearded cheek gently.
"I know I am difficult," she said softly. He shrugged and shook his head, pulling a comically confused face as if to indicate that he had not noticed this trait of hers. She smiled again. "It's just because–" and she hesitated and looked down.
He used his finger to tip her chin upwards, and she met his eyes again.
"What is it?" he asked softly. "Tell me."
"You don't understand what it's like," she confessed finally, her heart clenching. "You have your brothers and father. I have no one. I've been alone for a long time – of course there are many people here who care about me, but..." She watched more and more pain gradually etch itself onto his face as he listened to her. "You don't know what it's like to feel - completely alone in the world, and then suddenly to find somebody and care for them so deeply – it's –"
"Overwhelming?" he asked in a raw voice.
"Yes," she answered immediately. Dastan's eyes were so full of pain that his empathy for her situation almost concerned her.
"I do know what that's like," he told her with quiet fierceness. He pressed kisses urgently to her forehead, cheek, jawline. "I do know, Tamina," he insisted. Barely noticing that the tightness around her heart had dissipated into vast fields of light, she watched him as his jaw worked intensely, though he did not speak for a while. Finally he whispered, "Listen to me. You're not alone any more. I'm here."
Tamina knew it had been true since the moment he'd approached her to propose. Nodding with a tiny smile and her heart pounding, she leaned forward and kissed him. She pressed the tip of her tongue to his lips and he opened his mouth against hers. As the kiss deepened, he ran a hand up and down her back, over her bottom and down her thigh, pulling her leg forward slightly to go over his hips and crush her body fully against his. She moaned into his mouth as he kissed her more fervently, and for a while at least, all arguments ceased.