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Vast Fields of Light

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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)

1.

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.

"Prince Dastan."

He did not hear her amidst the noise, and she cleared her throat and attempted an amiable smile.

"Prince Dastan!"

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

Chapter Text

'The early breeze at dawn
is the keeper of secrets.'
- Rumi (Persian poet)

1.

Some hours later Tamina's eyes slowly flickered open. She turned over with a sleepy low hum, reaching out an eager arm - only to find that the space beside her in bed was empty, though the newly familiar scent of her husband remained. She sat up and blinked slowly, rubbing her eyes as she looked around the chamber before finally noticing Dastan out on the balcony. He was sitting on the ground and hunched forward, his figure a still shadow behind the white curtain which fluttered in the breeze from the open balcony door.

Tamina quickly located her nightgown on the floor and pulled it on as she crossed over to the balcony. She pulled the curtain aside and smiled softly at her husband who had not yet noticed her. Far in the distance at the mountainous horizon, the sky was shading from dense black to indigo blue.

She tapped a knuckle softly on the balcony door - only to be startled when Dastan inhaled sharply, jerked round in a flash and looked up at her with wild, wide eyes for a split-second. Then his eyes focused on her, he sighed and his brow relaxed a fraction.

"Hey!..." she murmured with a surprised tender smile that fell away as she searched his hooded eyes and noticed the tense hunching of his shoulders.

Dastan's eyes travelled carefully over her for a moment and he reached out a hand, smiling faintly.

"You startled me," he muttered as she took his hand and squeezed it gently.

"Are you all right?" she asked, and allowed herself to pout a little. "I woke up and you were not there..."

Dastan exhaled and let his hand fall from hers; he returned to his earlier posture, sitting on the floor and hunched forward, face down.

"Sorry, I - woke up and couldn't fall asleep again, I came out for some fresh air," he told her in a distant voice she didn't recognise. "I'm fine, go back to bed."

She laid a gentle hand on his head and nestled her fingertips between the strands of his hair.

"Without you?"

Dastan glanced at her and gave the shortest of smiles. "I will be there soon."

Tamina furrowed her brow for a second before kneeling down on the floor next to him, both facing forward. She watched him for a moment but he simply sighed and remained looking down. Leaning close to him, she tipped her head and pressed her lips softly to the top of his shoulder.

"I'm surprised you couldn't sleep, my love," she murmured in a low voice she had never heard herself use before, and her lips curved. "Didn't I make you tired enough last night?"

This made Dastan smile and turn his head to look at her. Her skin tingling, she watched as the focus of his eyes fell from her eyes to her lips - but after a moment he simply looked down again, and she hesitated in confused disappointment.

"Come back to bed," she attempted again.

"You go. I will come soon," was his only response.

She continued to watch him. He had pulled on his trousers before leaving the bed and he sat there bare-chested and barefoot. There was a heaviness to his manner that she did not like, and the moonlight highlighted a greyness in his complexion and a darkness in his normally bright blue eyes.

"Tell me what's wrong, then," she said.

Dastan puffed out a frustrated breath. "Nothing's wrong!"

His irritation focused her concern. She reached out a hand and placed it softly between his shoulder blades - and was astonished to find a cold dampness. She slipped her hand quickly down his muscular back-

"Dastan, you're covered in sweat! What's wrong? Do you feel unwell?"

"No, Tamina," he muttered with some sharpness. "I'm fine." He looked up at her and took in her questioning expression. "Look, I - I just had a bad dream, all right? That's all. It - it's not important, it's nothing to worry about."

"It must have been a very bad dream," she said thoughtfully, watching him. He stayed silent and his reticence started to grate in her stomach.

She looked out briefly at the view. Her balcony looked onto her private garden fringed with pomegranate trees, and the low song of one or two nightingales could be heard.

"Tell me about it," she finally pressed him.

He sighed again and shook his head a little as if trying to clear it.

"There is nothing to tell, it was just a dream, it - it - it wasn't real. Just - forget about it and go back to bed." The steely edge in his voice got stronger with each word.

Tamina merely huffed and made a show of crossing her legs and shifting in order to make herself more comfortable. He looked at her silently with weary exasperation, and she tilted her head a little and eyed him calmly.

"Do you really expect me to follow your orders? You had better just tell me what's wrong."

"Oh, God, Tamina," he groaned as he rubbed a hand over his face and looked down again. "You - how could I have forgotten how infuriating you are?"

Tamina furrowed her brow and the grating sensation in her stomach became sharper. Forgotten? Taking in a breath, she brushed the feeling aside and gathered herself.

"Dastan," she started, reaching out a hand to cover one of his. "We may not have shared a bed until tonight, but we have been sharing a chamber." She paused. "I've heard you, you know. I've heard you get up during the night and come out here - again and again." She watched as he took a slow, uneven breath in and out, though his expression gave nothing away. "You have even spoken in your sleep a few times-"

His head jerked up and he looked at her with startled eyes.

"What have I said?"

She leaned back a fraction in surprise.

"Nothing coherent," she answered, and watched with a coiling suspicion inside her as his worried expression lessened and he looked down again.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, "I thought I'd managed to avoid disturbing you."

"Not a chance, Prince." She paused. "It did not feel like my place to ask you about it, but now…" She leaned in a little. "Tell me what's bothering you."

He exhaled heavily and she waited and let the silence grow, wondering if he was going to answer. Eventually he spoke, in a voice just as quiet as when he had approached her throne and greeted her for the first time - though now his tone was sharp.

"I have - nightmares, all right? That's all. It's not important."

Tamina watched the lines of his expression as his eyes crinkled with discomfort, and her heart began to thud painfully.

"How long has this been going on?"

This time Dastan's sigh was sharp and he shook his head.

"Look-" his voice got louder. "It doesn't matter. All right? For God's sake-" he stopped and exhaled. "Sorry-"

Tamina thought he was going to continue, but he didn't, and she just watched him quietly. The grating sensation in her gut had become overwhelming and she knew what she had to say.

"I had nightmares as a teenage girl, for a while," she started carefully. She watched Dastan but he did not look up at her. She closed her eyes for a moment and remembered those events long ago: the fearfully earnest look on her mother's face as she'd passed her the dagger; the feel of the smooth cool carved jewel against the pad of her young thumb; a sudden click, and lightning coursing through her veins - and then nightmares, nightmares for weeks afterwards.

"It was when my initiation into the High Temple started… there are many powerful rituals that any future High Priestess must go through, and one of them causes nightmares…" Tamina concentrated in order to avoid stumbling on her words. "It involves - using the dagger you returned to me when you proposed-"

In a flash Dastan took in a sharp shuddering breath - and an intense sick feeling lurched inside her.

"You..." she swallowed but her voice remained thick with feeling. "You used it, didn't you? Anyone who uses the dagger has terrible nightmares afterwards-" she watched his face closely as his jaw worked and he blinked repeatedly. "Dastan," she pressed sharply-

He raised his head and his wide, worried eyes met her own.

She stared at him, and finally he dropped his eyes and gave the shortest, slightest nod.

"Ohh-" An explosive impulse caused her to stand quickly and dart inside, vaguely hearing Dastan scramble to his feet and follow her into the chamber-

"Tamina - wait-" It was as if he had finally come to life, and this somehow made her so angry that she whirled around and stared at him, her loose hair swinging around with her.

"You lied to me!" she spat. "I asked you about the dagger and you acted as if you knew nothing. You lied to my face and - and the worst part is that I - I had a feeling, but I-" She stopped to take a breath, feeling as if she was tripping over herself. "I wanted to believe that you were honest, that you were honourable-"

Dastan was staring at her, his eyes growing more agitated. "Tamina, look, I - I - I'm sorry for lying, I - I always intended to tell you-"

"Oh, really?! Then why didn't you?"

He exhaled and dropped his eyes from hers for a second. "It's - complicated-"

"Wait - wait," Tamina interrupted, her mind racing. "Is this how you knew about your uncle's scheme? Something that happened when you used the dagger? Was he there?"

Dastan hesitated for a split-second and the sick feeling in her gut intensified. "Ah - yes. Sort of-"

"What do you mean, sort of?" she demanded.

"Look-" Dastan exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. "It's a long story, so much happened in that other time-"

"What? What does that mean?" she interrupted quickly, confused. "The dagger can only reverse one minute - how much could have-"

The words froze in her throat as she watched him; he was staring at her, his eyes growing more wide as his jaw opened and closed once, and a deafening sense of horror crashed over her.

"Wait-" her stomach clenched so hard she could have doubled over. "Dastan... tell me - you did not put the dagger in the Sand-Glass-"

"I didn't-" he answered hastily - "N-Nizam did, and I managed to-"

Tamina barely recognised that the horrified gasp she heard came from her own mouth. She turned blindly, obeying the lightning instinct in her legs and crossing as fast as she could to the bedchamber door - but Dastan caught up in a flash and he reached a strong arm past her, pressing his palm flat against the door and holding it shut at the exact moment she reached for the handle and tried to pull.

"Let me go," she grated.

Dastan's voice was urgent. "Wait, listen to me-"

"Let me go, Persian-"

With a choked breath he let go of the door; as she started to open it, he raised his other hand and touched her arm just as tenderly as he had done only hours before.

"Just wait, Tamina-" his voice was raw and she stopped in her tracks, closing the door and snapping her head up to look up into a face which no longer seemed familiar.

"How much time did the dagger reverse?" she asked with a dangerous calm.

"I don't know, maybe-" he took a short, tense breath. "A week and a half-"

Her jaw fell open. "And you have been keeping this from me? How dare you?! If you know about the dagger and the Sand-Glass then - you must know that I am the Guardian of the dagger-" Dastan nodded, and she let out an infuriated noise from the back of her throat. "How could you be so stupid? You should have told me every single thing immediately-"

Her rage finally seemed to make him snap as he interrupted her-

"All right, Princess, where shall I start?" he asked in an agitated voice which gradually rose in volume. "Perhaps you'd like to know all about how I - I - watched you die?" His voice cracked on the last word and Tamina stared at him in horror. "How I watched - my entire family be killed? How I - failed to protect everybody I love most in the world, and I had to rely on your precious dagger to do what I could not?!"

Her mouth hung open, and she noticed for the first time the heaving of his chest, the glossy sheen in his eyes, the raggedness in his voice. She grated her jaw, then paced silently back to the centre of the room. Dastan watched as she lowered herself calmly to sit cross-legged on the rug at the foot of the bed.

"Start at the beginning, Prince," she said in an icily neutral tone, "and tell me everything."

2.

Blood orange sunbeams softly separated the dark sky from the mountains at the horizon, as Dastan sat down on the opposite end of the rug from Tamina and started his story. She listened with growing astonishment as he described how he had been accused of his father's murder; how she had helped him escape to the desert, only to attack him, causing him to use the dagger and discover that it could reverse time; how they fought, tricked and stole the dagger from each other again and again as they journeyed through the desert, the Valley of the Slaves and Avrat.

When he described their night in the tent hiding from the sandstorm, and how this other Tamina had told him the full story of the dagger and her sacred duty to protect it, she noticed the faraway look in his eyes and the softening in the corner of his lips, and she interrupted.

"What aren't you telling me?"

Dastan looked at her and blinked several times, taken aback. "What do you mean? I'm telling you everything that happened."

Tamina watched quietly. "You're smiling..."

He puffed out a short breath and looked down. "That night in the tent…" he shook his head a little, and his lips quirked once. "For a while it felt to me as if we were the only two people in the world." He met her eyes cautiously.

Tamina nodded, her expression unresponsive. She pushed herself up slowly and stood, turned her back on him and walked over to the window, the backs of her eyes prickling. She heard Dastan stand and approach her.

"Tamina?"

She cleared her throat. "We fell in love in that other time."

He sighed. "Yes."

She shook her head and wiped at the dampness in her eyes, trying to contain the heavy ache inside. "I knew - I knew there was something strange about the way you behaved with me. You - you - you love me for reasons that have nothing to do with me," she said, turning to face him and tapping her knuckles to her breastbone. "Not me."

He stared at her in consternation, hair falling over his pale, tired face. "Tamina, that's-"

"You love me because of experiences and memories that I don't have," she interrupted, the pain in her heart forcing something brittle and furious to rise within her and push itself out. "How do I even know what you're saying is the truth? I - I don't know what else you might have found out about me in that other time-" she waved an arm in annoyance and her voice rose in volume- "that you could have been using to your advantage, to - to - to manipulate my feelings-"

Dastan had listened to her words with his brow darkening and his breath starting to heave, and finally he interrupted. "Is that what you think of me, Princess?" he demanded in a gruff voice as loud as hers. "That's really what you think I would do?"

His anger stoked her own. "I'm sorry, Prince," she told him cuttingly, "You clearly know everything about me, but I don't seem to know who you are any more-"

"For God's sake!-" he exploded, then stopped and shook his head in overwhelmed annoyance. "Tamina, I've been - courting you even though we are married - I - I've been - sleeping on the floor-"

"I never asked you to do that!" she snapped. "That was your idea, and now, what, you want me to be grateful? Shall I swoon, Prince, and call you my hero? I have never needed a hero-"

"Well, that works out very well, Princess, because I have never claimed to be one," he told her angrily. "You are the heroic one - your - your bravery and persistence in protecting your dagger-" and he stopped suddenly, and Tamina saw his face cloud over and his breathing hitch sharply. A buzzing pressure at her chest made her hesitate; they stood in tense silence and finally she wiped a hand over her face, realising they were getting nowhere.

"Just... continue with your story, Prince."

Dastan started to pace up and down as he recounted how they had teamed up with Sheikh Amar, travelled to the hidden temple in the mountain and then returned to the Palace in Alamut, enduring repeated attacks by the Hassansins and suffering the loss of Dastan's brothers. Tamina felt an ache deep within her when she saw the haunted look on his face as he described what happened – but what he said about their enemies took over her attention.

"The Hassansins," she said with wide eyes. "If what you're saying is true, then - they are still a threat to us. Nizam is dead, but they are still out there!" Her mind reeled with thoughts of all that needed to be done to deal with this terrible news-

"It's all right," Dastan said, holding out his hands with palms facing downwards in reassurance. "I told Tus and Garsiv all about them before they left - nothing about the dagger," he clarified just as she opened her mouth in worry. "I just - told them I believed them to be working with Nizam - and where they might be found..." He tried to nod in a reassuring manner. "They will find them, don't worry."

She stared at him in confusion. "But your brothers left to find Kosh."

"Yes, they did. They can do both. It is a big army," he replied. "And - I also stationed some of my soldiers around the city walls, and the Palace. They are hidden from plain view," he explained. "I do not think the Hassansins would try to attack the city so soon after Nizam's betrayal was exposed. But even if they do, we are ready."

She listened to him explain it all as if it was simple.

"Well... it sounds as if you have taken care of everything," she said with slowly increasing sarcasm. "Clearly I have no role to play in the protection of my own city-"

His eyelids lowered a fraction and his jaw jutted out in annoyance.

"I do not see what is so terrible about doing everything I can to help you, Princess-"

"I never asked for your help!" she argued through gritted teeth. "That other Tamina may have wanted your help - but not me. I am the Guardian of the dagger, Dastan, and these decisions were mine to make, not yours-"

"Tamina, I volunteered to help you in that other time, and I intend to do the same thing now," he told her defiantly. "If I can do anything to prevent our lives ending up as they did in that other time, I will do it - and I make no apology."

"Tell me, then," she snapped back, "tell me how that other time ended."

3.

The golden disc of the sun rose slowly and sweetly in the blue sky as Dastan finished his story, describing their terrifying ordeal in the cavern beneath the Palace as they battled to stop Nizam carrying out his plan at the Sand-Glass. Tamina stood with her arms tensely held around herself, watching him pace up and down; her throat tightened in horror as she heard how he had had to choose between pulling her to safety and rushing to stop Nizam - and how she had let herself fall in order to make the decision for him.

"That is what I meant when I said that you are the heroic one, Princess," he told her quietly, coming to stand facing her and looking into her eyes with a soft intensity. "The sacrifice that you made-" his voice shook as Tamina's heart did the same, and she started to feel faint.

"Then what?" she asked with a dry throat.

Dastan exhaled. "By the time I - I caught up to Nizam, he was already plunging the dagger into the Sand-Glass." His eyes dropped from hers and his gaze darted unseeingly around the floor before him. "We fought - I tried to push him off - and then suddenly I realised that I had-" he hesitated, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I pressed the jewel, and the sands flowed through the handle."

Tamina's breath froze. "You mean you pressed it by accident."

He hesitated again, his eyes dark, and there was silence.

"...No."

"But..." She inhaled, shuddering, and shook her head in a vain attempt to think clearly. "I don't understand... how could you - the exact thing we had been trying so hard to prevent - you - you knew that it was completely forbidden-"

"-By the gods, yes, I know," Dastan answered with rising frustration - "Look, I don't know how to explain it, Tamina. I - I - it was-" he stopped, took a shaky breath and ran a hand through his hair. "The whole thing took place in less than a second. Something just - clicked inside me, and it - it was as if I had to do it... it was like being in battle, and sensing your opponent behind you, and knowing the exact moment to turn and strike him-"

He hesitated and met her gaze again, with a shining expression in his eyes that she could not comprehend. "I pressed the jewel and I prayed harder than I have ever prayed in my life, to go back to the moment I first found that wretched dagger."

Overwhelming shock was causing her to struggle and trip over the import of his words. "You - you endangered everything. That should have destroyed the entire world-"

"But it didn't," he interrupted and stepped closer to her, taking her face in his hands with immediate tenderness. "I've thought about it, Tamina, you... your bravery, you gave your life without even hesitating - and the last thing you said to me - the last thing," he repeated, his voice dropping urgently low, "was that you wished we could be together. And - here we are."

He paused and she desperately searched his eyes without knowing what she was looking for. Dastan continued in the same urgent voice. "Your gods answered your prayers and mine, Tamina, and I am grateful to them every single day."

He stopped and they stared at each other. Tamina's heart pounded so hard it hurt, it felt difficult to inhale, prickles flashed over her skin. She stepped back from him just enough to make his hands fall from her face; a few tears fell from her eyes and she wiped them away quickly, seeing a deep sadness in his eyes as she did so.

"But you did not know they would answer those prayers," she finally insisted, then she swallowed as something dawned on her. "This is why you didn't tell me about that other time, isn't it?" she asked, her tone changing from pained to accusing. "You knew I wouldn't understand, you knew I'd be angry-"

His face clouded with exhausted annoyance. "Isn't it enough that I wanted to just - forget about the living hell we went through? Was I supposed to be keen to go through all those memories, to make you go through them-"

"I can handle some discomfort, Prince-" she snapped, searching for a solid foundation within herself - "I am the High Priestess of Alamut, the Guardian of the dagger, and you had no right-"

"I'm the Prince of Alamut now, Tamina," he interrupted, a defiant challenge in the clear blue sky of his eyes, "and I am not the only one who lies. You told me nothing about the dagger before you married me, even though it is a crucial part of ruling Alamut-"

"It is my responsibility!" she told him angrily. "Traditionally the husband of the High Priestess does not take part in that responsibility-"

Dastan smiled at her with the same smug smile that had infuriated her countless times already in their short marriage. "Well, good luck getting me to follow that tradition, Princess."

Just at that moment a quiet knock came at the bedchamber door and they both started in surprise. Then Dastan quickly turned away and went over to the bed to retrieve his tunic, as Tamina said, "Come in."

Her maidservant entered the chamber carrying a tray with a pot of sweet tea and two cups. Tamina suddenly became aware that the sun was fully up and blasting bright sunlight into the room.

"Good morning, your Highnesses," the young woman said quietly, glancing at the two of them in turn, and looking away from Dastan when she saw a sliver of his bare torso as his tunic came down over his head.

"Good morning, Laleh." Tamina sighed as the maid set the tray down on a side table, and the Princess put one hand on her hip and rubbed the other hand over her pale, drawn face. "See you soon," she said to the maid who nodded and quickly exited the room. Then Tamina looked over to Dastan, who was watching her quietly.

"Laleh will be back very soon to help me get ready for the ceremonies," she said tiredly.

He nodded. "I will leave you in peace," he said in an exhausted voice, making his way over to the door. He opened it, then Tamina said his name and he turned to look back at her with wary eyes.

"Do not come back here tonight," she told him quietly.

His tired face shadowed over, and he nodded silently and left the room.

Chapter Text

"This I feel now in my body
is like an arrow suddenly
released to its moment."
- Rumi

1.

Tamina stopped short at the entrance to the courtyard at the east end of the Palace, and took in the scene in front of her. In the middle of the sparse courtyard, against the backdrop of the back wall of the stables, Dastan and his soldier friend Bis were engaged in spirited combat using lightweight wooden training swords; the pair darted back and forth around the empty space as their swords clashed loudly.

Since their argument two days ago Tamina had only seen Dastan in jewelled formal robes and turbans. They had spoken very little during the celebrations for the goddess Anahita, but he had been constantly nearby as she had conducted endless ceremonies and speeches. Now, she watched as the morning sun blazed down on his sweat-slicked bronze skin, on the dark leather fabric of the padding on his torso and the straps that criss-crossed his muscular arms and held his wrist-guards in place.

Tok... tok... tok... "Hey!"

As she watched, Dastan plunged his sword forward into Bis' shoulder, and the younger man stopped short and yelped indignantly. Dastan stopped and approached his companion, putting an apologetic hand on his shoulder, and the pair chatted amicably for a few moments. Then Bis noticed Tamina standing in the stone archway and he muttered something to the Prince.

Dastan turned around and Tamina took a slow, steady breath in and out as he made eye contact with her, warmth and apprehension flooding his face. He said a few short words to Bis before handing him his wooden sword and patting him on the shoulder, then Bis walked off in the direction of the stables as Tamina stepped forward out of the shadows. Immediately she felt the sharp morning sun slice through the thin silk of her yellow headscarf.

Tamina spoke to break the fizzing silence as they approached each other.

"Laleh said you were looking for me."

They stopped before each other, Dastan's eyes steadily taking her in.

"Yes, ah-" He looked down and lifted a hand to one wrist-guard, then hesitated and glanced up at her again. "Hold on."

He started to walk over to a bench where a basin of water stood next to some cloth rags, and Tamina followed. She stood silently as he quickly loosened and removed the leather guards from his arms and dipped his hands in the water to clean them. The silent moment stretched into tension until Dastan cleared his throat.

"Ah... Laleh was very apologetic that she didn't know where you were." He glanced at her and his lips quirked tentatively. "I told her it was fine, but she insisted on explaining that you often like to go out by yourself, even though your advisers worry for your safety and wish that you would take a guard with you."

Tamina crossed her arms and huffed quietly as he wiped a damp cloth over his face and neck, brushing strands of slick dark hair away from his glowing skin. "I hope you are not going to argue their case. I can take care of myself."

Dastan put down the cloth and turned to focus on her again with a light shrug and another gentle movement in his lips, the look in his eyes bearing down on her like the sun's heat. "I know you can, Princess."

She considered this for a moment with a creased brow. "Yes... you do know."

Dastan's brow furrowed and he opened his mouth to speak. Feeling her jaw tighten against the attentiveness in his eyes, she quickly pre-empted him.

"Besides, I only went to the High Temple to pray." Tamina paused and Dastan seemed to hesitate, so she continued pointedly. "It's what I do when I am in need of clarity."

"And did you find it, this time?" he asked quietly.

She studied him for a moment, sensing countless conflicting impulses inside herself. "I haven't come here intending to fight with you again, if that's what you're wondering."

Dastan shrugged a little and shook his head once. "It would be fine if you had," he said earnestly.

Tamina furrowed her brow and her mouth opened just enough to give a short exhalation in bemused annoyance, causing Dastan to insist, "I mean it! Your calmness is far more troubling than your anger, Princess..."

She huffed out a breath as the familiar depth of his voice rubbed against her brittle composure. "Oh, well, I apologise, Prince, if you are troubled by my behaviour as I try to come to terms with everything you have told me. I should be more considerate..."

Dastan exhaled frustratedly. "You know that is not what I meant."

She sighed and shook her head, feeling a rush of impatience. "Look... I don't have much time. If this is about the messenger that arrived earlier from your brothers, my advisers have already told me everything."

Dastan nodded warily and sat down on the bench, gesturing for her to do the same. "Actually, I didn't tell them everything," he started.

"What?" Tamina remained standing, her eyes widening as suspicion tightened her chest. "Why not?"

He answered quickly. "Because it's sensitive information, and I needed to tell you first."

She pursed her lips, sat down and looked at him expectantly.

"The letter from Tus said that - they found the lair of the Hassansins." Dastan paused and glanced at Tamina, who took in a sharp breath as her mistrustfulness disappeared and was replaced with apprehension about their enemies. "Tus and his company attacked, and... it was difficult, but they managed to defeat them." He stopped again and looked directly at her, leaning forward urgently. "They killed them all, Princess, and now they are combing the area, to make sure-"

He hesitated and silently watched Tamina as her gaze wandered away from him. She leaned back on the bench heavily, staring into the middle distance.

"Good news," she eventually said in a slow, concerned tone, the tightness in her chest changing and deepening.

He furrowed his brow. "Yes. It is good news..."

With a heavy breath, she stood up and walked a few paces before turning back to him with a troubled expression, her arms held loosely around her middle to try to contain her growing unrest.

"Dastan, even if they defeated them all, or even if some Hassansins escaped but they manage to find those and kill them too - we still don't know if they told anyone else about the dagger! And Priest Shahin-" She raised her arms briefly in frustration and her voice rose as she thought of the Priest who had died by his own hand shortly after the Persian invasion; the Priest that she now knew to have betrayed the Temple to Nizam. "Who else might he have told? Anyone could be plotting against us right now-"

"Well - that's true," Dastan responded quickly, standing up and walking over to her. "But we can defend ourselves against any attack. Tamina..." he took another pace towards her and spoke with conviction. "Between you, me, my family - our armies, our diplomats, our spies - we have the resources to withstand anything."

She gazed up into his blue eyes, her skin prickling from being so close to him for the first time in days. "It's that simple," she said sceptically.

He blinked. "It's not simple, but it's do-able. And besides, what choice do we have?"

She pursed her lips. "That's what I'm trying to work out."

He paused, then nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "What can I do to help?"

She sighed and broke eye contact, lifting a hand to rub her forehead as a bubble of frustration rose within her; Dastan quietly continued. "I know you said you don't want my help... but-"

"-But you're going to keep offering it anyway-" She looked back up at him and could not keep the edge from her voice. "Because you love to help, don't you, Prince?" She huffed out a breath as Dastan's jaw tensed. "You could have helped by telling me everything sooner - then I would have had the chance to think through it all properly by now."

Dastan sighed heavily and dropped his eyes from hers, his expression clouding.

"I know, and I - I'm sorry," he said in a troubled tone. "I know I already said that, but... I've been thinking." He glanced up at Tamina and pushed the hair from his eyes. "You were right, what you said - you did have a right to know. I don't even know any more, why I didn't tell you..." He trailed off and shook his head, huffing a little. "Don't get me wrong, Tamina - I stand by everything else that I did. But I should have told you, much sooner."

She gazed at the earnest steadiness in his eyes and after a beat she nodded with a sigh, the tight yoke around her shoulders slowly loosening.

Dastan continued. "But my father always taught me that taking action to make amends is much more important than simply saying sorry. So-" he reached out to take her hand and squeezed it gently before letting go again. "I don't yet know how I will make amends... but I will."

She continued to look up at him and finally opened her mouth, seeing the tense focus in his eyes as he waited for her to speak.

"...Your father taught you that?"

He paused and then nodded. "Yes, ah... whenever I did anything wrong when I was growing up - or my brothers. It was one of his favourite lessons."

Tamina saw the beginning of a smile on his face and followed the tugging feeling inside her. "Tell me more."

He blinked. "You want to know about that now?"

Tamina paused thoughtfully and nodded once. "I want to know who you are. I want to know who I married..."

Dastan's brow furrowed and then cleared, and he took in a breath. "All right, well..." As he spoke he returned to the bench and sat down and Tamina did the same.

"The first time I remember... it was a few months or a year after I first arrived at the Palace." Dastan paused thoughtfully and Tamina waited with curiosity. She already knew he had been adopted, as the Persian royal family made no secret of it, but until now he had spoken very little of his childhood.

"Garsiv and I used to fight all the time. And I mean, constantly." He glanced at her to emphasise the point, and she smiled slightly before realising she was doing so.

"You surprise me."

Dastan half-smiled. "Well... he was a lot stronger than me, but I was faster than him. And one day I threw something at him, and it split his skin wide open, along his shoulder." He reached around himself to run a fingertip over his entire shoulder blade, and Tamina winced. He nodded.

"And after the wound was stitched up - Father decided that I would be the one in charge of cleaning it and dressing it whenever necessary, until it healed." Dastan looked unseeingly into the middle distance as his face broke into a smile and he shook his head at the recollection. "It forced us to sit quietly together and - we started to talk sometimes. And after that, of course we continued fighting, but... we tolerated each other a little better than before."

Tamina watched as he stared into the distance and smiled again, and a feeling she couldn't name flooded her as she saw in her mind's eye the young man who had turned into the warrior beside her.

"King Sharaman is a wise man," she thought aloud.

He nodded without looking at her. "He is the wisest of men," he responded, his eyes crinkling with warmth, and Tamina saw in that pattern of lines the kind of father that he might be some day.

He broke their separate reveries by turning to face her, his blue eyes clearer and calmer than she was expecting.

"You know who I am, Tamina," he said quietly.

She looked back at him silently for as long as she could bear before looking down and readjusting her headscarf, pulling it forward where it had started to fall away and expose her face and hair to the sun's glare.

"There are people waiting for me in the throne room," she said quietly.

She glanced back at him as she stood but he merely watched her, making no complaint nor saying goodbye. Unable to understand the tightness below her diaphragm, she walked away, quickly seeking the shade of the jasmine trees that bordered the courtyard's archway entrance.

2.

Late that night, the moonlight cast soft silver windowpane shapes onto the dark Palace corridor down which Tamina quietly walked. She pulled her cotton shawl more tightly around her shoulders, stopped in front of a wooden door and forced herself not to hesitate before she knocked softly. Adrenaline pulsed steel through the blood vessels of her rib cage as she inhaled and prepared to wait - but the door opened almost immediately to reveal Dastan's alert face.

"Tamina!" he exclaimed quietly. He opened the door properly and a smile started to raise his lips but then fell away, and his brow creased in concern. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she said in surprise, seeing that he was still dressed and that several candles were lit around his bedchamber despite the late hour. "You're up..."

"Ah, yes... I couldn't sleep," he said quietly as he stood aside for her to enter.

"More nightmares," Tamina murmured as she walked a few paces into the room, and Dastan closed the door and turned to face her.

"No, those have lessened. But I still haven't been sleeping much."

She nodded, casting her eyes over his face and seeing a tiredness that she had not noticed earlier.

"Me neither," she said quietly. Dastan's gaze bore into her and she tore her eyes away to look around the room. "So this is your chamber."

He copied her and glanced around, then turned back to her quietly, and she finally met his eyes again.

"I wasn't sure when I would see you again," he said softly. "But I certainly did not expect it to be in the middle of the night."

Tamina looked up at him for a moment and the silence stretched.

"You said you wanted to make amends..." she eventually said quietly.

He furrowed his brow in curiosity and nodded once. "Yes...?"

"I want your help with something."

He stepped towards her with eyes eager and focused. "Anything."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully, then turned and walked a few paces away, stopping to look out of the window by his bed, then back at him.

"I have been praying for guidance, and I've made a decision." She took a slow breath in and out, unconsciously lifting her head and setting her shoulders. "We need to take the dagger to the hidden temple in the mountain, and - return it to the gods forever."

Dastan's eyes widened. "What? No."

Tamina blinked in unsurprised frustration. "Dastan-"

"I know what you're saying," he said with immediate agitation as he took a step towards her. "You want to offer yourself as a sacrifice to the gods. If you think I'm letting that happen, Tamina-"

She huffed as her eyelids lowered in annoyance. "First of all, Prince, if that was what I intended to do, you would have no right to stop me." She paused and Dastan exhaled sharply through his nose, his jaw clenching. "Second of all - that is not what I am saying. All that needs to be done is to take the dagger back to the rock from which it came. I will put it inside, and it will be absorbed, and gone forever."

"'The gods must take back the life that they spared.' That's what you said - the other you - when we were at the hidden temple," he said as he took another step towards her, his eyes wide and insistent.

She let him approach and stared back at him with equal force. "And they did - didn't they? They took my life. It is done."

He blinked uncomprehendingly. "What? You're here."

She shook her head once. "That doesn't matter. It still happened. The gods see all, Dastan... that is the sacred teaching." She paused, arching her eyebrows and widening her eyes, trying to make him understand. "A life given, without any expectation of rescue or survival, is a true sacrifice - no matter what. I will be safe this time."

"Are you sure?" he demanded, then stepped towards her again, looking down at her with agitation. "-No - can you be absolutely certain, Tamina?"

She knew that he saw the tension in her jaw and the flicker in her eyes. "I am as certain as I possibly can be-"

He broke eye contact and half-turned away from her in disgust, exhaling sharply. "And that's supposed to be good enough for me?"

"I have faith in my gods, Dastan," she told him levelly. "For mortals, nothing can be completely certain-"

"You're wrong about that," he interrupted sharply, turning to look at her again. "Because I am completely certain that this is madness. It is totally unnecessary - the Hassansins are defeated, the dagger is safe-"

"-But for how long?" she demanded, tension starting to heave against her ribcage. "We do not know what threats may be coming-"

"-Look, I - I can have more of my men guard the Palace. I can train your army," he told her, gesturing urgently with his arms. "I could go and join my brothers, to ensure the Hassansins are truly gone - we can recruit more spies-"

"-And none of that would change my mind, Prince," she told him sharply, her voice shot through with iron. "There are simply too many risks and uncertainties now. After everything you told me - if the dagger were to fall into the wrong hands again, I could never forgive myself. I must do this."

He stared at her helplessly, his eyes wide and his chest heaving. "No. I - I can't accept this, I-"

"-Fine - then I will just do it without you. Is that what you want?"

Dastan's exasperation pushed a growling groan from his throat as he turned his back on her and walked a few steps away. She sighed, working her jaw in frustration as she watched his broad shoulders curve under invisible weight.

"Dastan... you know me. Better than I realised. Better than I know you," she said, fire tracing through her voice. "Do you really think there is anything you could do or say to change my mind?" She paused, breathing slowly to quieten her voice, though the edge remained. "Are you even truly surprised that this is what I want to do?"

He gave her the briefest weary glance as he turned with a ragged sigh and sank down to sit on the edge of the bed. She watched as he looked unseeingly out of the window; there was a silence as he rubbed his cheek, and she could hear the faintest crackling fuzz of stubble underneath his hand. He finally spoke in a voice so faint she almost missed it.

"I can't lose you again, Tamina."

She sighed, stepped over to him and lowered herself to sit close beside him on the bed. "That will not happen."

Dastan dipped his head and another silence stretched. Slowly, Tamina started to notice the view from the window in front of her. Eventually she took pity on her husband's silence.

"The view from your chamber is not nearly as nice as the view from mine," she murmured.

Dastan puffed out a wryly amused breath, lifting his head. "Well, of course..." he muttered. "The Princess of Alamut must have the best view in the house, after all."

Tamina half-smiled as she stood, walked over to the window and looked outside. In one direction there were pretty gardens and beyond them a small orangery; the rest of the palace building stretched away in the other direction, and she muttered a slight "Hmph!" as she noticed something.

"What is it?" Dastan asked, rising and crossing to join her at the window.

She gestured over to the ornate fountain in the middle distance, lit by the torches on the palace walls, its trickling water just audible in the night-time stillness.

"The spot where I accepted your proposal," she murmured, knitting her brow as she remembered that recent moment which already seemed far in the past. "Or rather, the proposal that Tus made on your behalf..."

"Oh, God, don't remind me," Dastan said with a groan that made Tamina turn her head in surprise. He rested his forearms on the window ledge and dropped his head, shaking it slightly. "I thought that I was about to watch you - agree to become his fourth wife," he murmured in a distant, pained tone.

This made her turn to face him fully. "But... didn't you have any idea what he was going to suggest? Surely you said something, to give him the idea..."

"No, I - I would have, if I'd thought of it, but..." he hesitated and sighed without turning to face her. "My mind was racing. Just seeing you all there in front of me - alive..."

He trailed off and pushed the hair from his eyes, and Tamina saw as if for the first time the shadow on his brow, the crinkling of his lower eyelids as he battled his own thoughts.

Her heart clenched and a soft sigh pushed through her lips. Taking a step closer to him, she reached out a hand to the back of his neck and ran her fingers lightly into his hair, her forearm resting gently against his upper back. He turned his head to look at her with cautious curiosity, and she willed herself to meet the pain in his eyes. She let her hand fall warmly down his shoulder and arm and took his hand in her own.

"I'm sorry for everything you had to suffer in that other time..."

Dastan gazed back at her with sad warmth in his shadowed eyes, and exhaled slowly as his hand squeezed hers.

"It was worth it," he said eventually.

Tamina's lips pursed ruefully, a smile just beyond reach. She looked down for a few moments before looking back at up at him with thoughtful eyes.

"Do you know why I accepted your proposal, Dastan?"

His brow furrowed. "What? Well... it was the dagger, wasn't it? You wanted to protect it, and keep Alamut safe," he said quietly.

"That was only part of it," Tamina said thoughtfully. "Certainly, that's what stopped me from laughing you and your brothers out of my Palace immediately. -Persia committed a grave error when it invaded, and I was not under any real obligation to do anything," she said lightly.

He smiled fractionally and nodded once in recognition. "So... what, then?"

She sighed and looked out again at the view, turning to rest her hands on the ledge.

"Ever since I was a teenager - or even earlier..." she eventually started, "men have tended to give me only two kinds of attention. Either they see only my title, and I am the Princess of Alamut, to be feared or admired from a distance, or mocked for my pride and stubbornness..." She paused and her lip curled in displeasure. "Or, they look at me as if I am a piece of meat strung up on a butcher's hook, and they are trying to guess how much I cost."

Dastan puffed a breath out through his nose and looked down with a wry half-smile, hair falling in his face as he stayed silent and continued to listen. She reached out and placed her hand on his forearm, unable to keep the softness from her voice. "But, from the very beginning, you have always looked at me... as if you see me as your equal."

He looked up and met her eyes with warm concentration, and his lips quirked faintly as she raised her hand to stroke her fingers over his cheek.

"I wouldn't dare to do otherwise," he said in a low voice.

She smiled a little and nodded slowly, leaving a careful silence before gathering her wits again.

"I didn't come here to ask for your permission, Dastan. Only your help."

He sighed heavily again and shook his head softly as if to shake off exhaustion, then wiped a hand over his face before looking up to meet her eyes.

"Of course, you will have it," he finally said with sad certainty. "Of course."

She watched him quietly, and relief slowly caused a sincere smile to edge over her face. "Thank you."

He lifted a hand to gently stroke his thumb across each of her cheeks in turn; a loosening flurry of warmth ribboned over her skin, and suddenly she found herself stepping in close to him and slipping her arms around his waist. She rested her head in the crook of his neck and felt him embrace her quickly, one strong arm pulling her waist close to his and the other encircling her shoulders. Tamina closed her eyes and breathed quietly as the solid warmth of his body slowly made the boundaries of her senses feel hazy. She lifted her head only when he mumbled something she could not hear properly.

"Hmm?" she asked, looking up into his blue eyes.

"I would follow you anywhere," he repeated gruffly.

Her tender smile came easily; she tilted her face upwards without thinking and saw his eyes focus quietly before he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. Sweetness spread through her body until she pulled away with the faintest sigh, and Dastan pulled back a little to look at her carefully.

"I-" Tamina hesitated and exhaled, stepping back from him enough to break their embrace. "I need to get some sleep. There are many arrangements to make tomorrow..."

He furrowed his brow. "You're not leaving now, are you? Sleep here." She watched him thoughtfully, and his lips quirked as the warmth in his eyes carved the ache from the distance between them. "I can take the floor. -I'm used to it..."

Tamina gave a faint smile and finally nodded slowly. "You do not need to sleep on the floor, Dastan... but-" She paused and he tipped his head forward a fraction to indicate he was listening. "This time, we really will just sleep."

He exhaled an amused breath and nodded. "I will behave myself, Princess."

She mirrored his half-smile as he stepped away from her and bent to blow out a candle on a side table. "I suppose there is a first time for everything, Prince," she muttered, and he flicked a smirking look back over his shoulder at her.

Shaking her head, Tamina crossed to the bed and got in, quickly removing her shawl and moving to leave plenty of space beside her as Dastan blew out the candles around the chamber. She lay and watched warily as he approached the bed with a familiar warmth in his eyes and at his lips. Then he blew out the final candle and she blinked in the sudden blackness, not moving as she felt the bedcovers lift and the mattress sink beside her.

Dastan made no attempt to touch her. They exchanged a few brief words about the arrangements for the next day, then said goodnight, and a still silence settled.

Tamina lay on her back, staring unseeingly at the ceiling and wondering what to do with the crackling sensation that was tracing up and down the side of her body nearest to her husband, the sensation of being cliff-edge close to the beginning of a thunderstorm. In her mind's eye she saw another version of herself, sleeping on cold desert sand with a Persian warrior nearby, and she wondered if that Tamina had felt the same sensation.

Heaving a sigh, she turned away from Dastan and shifted onto her side. As his breathing slowed and steadied beside her, she closed her eyes and prayed she was right that the gods would let her survive.

Chapter Text

1.

Tamina was running out of ways to distract herself from the sick, empty feeling which had been gnawing at her gut since dawn.

She and Dastan stood on the cold mountainside, at the entrance to the cavern which led to the hidden sanctuary of the gods. They were waiting for one of the soldiers inside to emerge and tell them if it was safe to enter. A needling impatience was growing inside her with every passing minute.

A high wind whipped through her hair as she glanced at Dastan and saw that he was eyeing her carefully.

"Yes, Prince?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.

He hesitated for half a second. "Your armour. Is it secure?"

"Yes."

He started to reach out to the bindings which secured lightweight padding to her torso. She spoke again with a slight edge to her voice. "We'll be called into the cavern soon."

His hand hovered at her side and he looked at her levelly. "Then you'd better let me check this now."

Tamina looked back at him, and he raised his eyebrows. After a beat, she gave a barely perceptible nod, and he stepped forward and started checking the fastenings along her sides.

"Are you ever going to stop fussing?" she asked quietly so that the soldiers nearby would not hear.

"Are you ever going to stop complaining?"

Tamina hmphed silently and glanced at the cavern entrance. It remained empty, so she looked around at the Persian and Alamutian soldiers dotted along the rocky outcrops, and threw an imperious glance to a soldier nearby who had stopped to stare at her and the Prince. The soldier's cheeks pinked as he turned away.

She looked back at Dastan, torn between annoyance and relief at the distraction he provided. He was bent over slightly and his hair fell in his face as he fixed a knot at her waist. His eyes were dark with total concentration despite the bright sunlight overhead, which glinted off his heavy armour and sheathed weapons.

She bit down on the thought that readiness for battle might be no help at all for whatever problems may lie ahead.

"I know you think you're the greatest warrior in the world, Dastan," she murmured; the Prince did not pause, but she saw a tiny movement in his lips and a brief shot of blue as he glanced up at her. "But I'm quite sure that my servants can fasten bindings just as well as you can."

Dastan pulled firmly on one final knot. "You're welcome, Princess." A breath puffed from her nose, and he stepped back. "There. How does that feel?"

"The same as before."

Dastan's lips quirked wryly and he paused for a second. Her jaw tightened a fraction as she saw that dark look at the back of his eyes; an edge of tenderness and desperation that was always there lately when he looked at her.

"It's not too tight, is it? You can breathe? Because-"

"No, Dastan. I can't breathe - but rather than do anything about it myself, I was just waiting for you to ask me."

Dastan shook his head and looked away. His lips quirked once more but his brow was heavy. Tamina felt a soft pressure in her chest; she reached out to brush the back of her hand against his, the ridges of their knuckles knocking together. He glanced back at her with his eyebrows slightly raised, and she offered him a faint smile which he returned.

The cavern entrance remained silent and empty. Familiar fears threatened to crawl back under Tamina's skin, and she forced herself to think of her duties.

"I- when we get back to Alamut... I'm going to send a formal invitation to the village chief, for a diplomatic visit." Earlier that day they had met the new leader of the mountainside village for the first time. "I don't like not knowing my allies properly."

Dastan nodded. Just as he started to answer, an officer emerged from the cavern and they both looked up sharply.

"There was no-one inside, your Highnesses. It's safe."

Tamina's mind cleared in an instant and her spine straightened with a resolve she saw reflected in Dastan's eyes.

"Let's go."

Inside the dark cavern, a few shafts of fuzzy sunlight picked out treasure chests and more Persian soldiers standing guard. Prince Garsiv stood at the side of the stream at the base of the cavern, in full armour and an iron helmet. Dastan had persuaded her that they should enlist his help in their quest; he now watched as they climbed down the rocks and joined him. Tamina eyed him guardedly, taking in his serious expression and alert posture.

Garsiv nodded to both of them. "Where is the passageway, Princess?"

"Here."

She led them across the shallow stream to reach the rocky wall at the far end of the cavern. Something jarred inside her as she remembered Dastan's account of the 'other time', and their near-kiss here before the Hassansins' attack; she pushed the feeling away and pointed to a particular large boulder. A couple of soldiers came forward and heaved it out of the way, finally revealing the small passageway which led to the hidden sanctuary of the gods.

The two Princes eyed the small entrance.

"Is that it?" Garsiv asked with a curled lip. The tunnel was just a few feet in diameter; an adult could only get through it by crawling.

"I told you it was small." Tamina looked at the passageway. Her voice took on a note of reverence as she pictured the small cavern that lay at its end. "The sanctuary of the gods must be approached with humility... on hands and knees."

She looked back at them. After a moment Dastan's thoughtful expression cleared and he turned to his brother with a slight smirk.

"What's the matter, Garsiv?" he asked as he started to tighten the straps on his armour and make sure his sword was firmly in its sheath. "Worried you're not agile enough?"

After a moment the tension cleared from Garsiv's forehead and he snorted lightly.

"The only thing I'm worried about today is making sure that you do not get into trouble."

Dastan grinned for a moment before turning to Tamina. "Garsiv and I will go in first. Then you, Princess," he said, repeating the plan that had been discussed earlier. He turned to a senior General in the Alamutian army - the man that he had fought and taken the dagger from during the Persian invasion of Alamut. "And you will come in last, General Asoka."

The tall General's eyes flicked to the Princess. She looked back at him steadily, and he stepped forward and nodded to Dastan.

"Yes, Prince."

Dastan nodded and then looked back to Tamina, tilting his head forward. "Ready?"

Something inside Tamina swelled for a moment as she noticed his upright posture, and sensed his buzzing energy which was causing his hands to form loose fists once or twice. With a slight smile she nodded towards the passageway entrance.

"What are you waiting for?"

After a beat a smile flashed across Dastan's face. Then he turned on his heel, dropped to his hands and knees and disappeared into the tunnel, followed by Garsiv.

Tamina's heart started to thud in her ribcage. She quickly checked that her own sword was secure, then touched the place where the sacred dagger lay flat against her abdomen, in a secret pouch in the lining of her clothes. She crouched down, steadied her pinched breathing, and crawled into the dark opening which seemed to lead into the belly of the earth.


2.

Moments later Tamina emerged into the dark cavern and took Dastan's outstretched hand.

"I can stand up by myself," she protested, but she allowed him to help her up.

Dastan's eyes crinkled. "You asked for my help, Princess, and you're getting it."

They and their two companions dusted themselves down and took in their surroundings apprehensively. Unlike the larger cavern they had just quitted, where gold coins and chests of treasure lay strewn around, the sanctuary of the gods was a smallish, plain chamber. It had a high ceiling and four walls made of misshapen boulders and rocks. They stood on a floor of uneven slabs of rock, some covered in moss. A slow trickling stream emerged from one corner and crossed the centre of the chamber.

Tamina inhaled slowly. Her heartbeat seemed to expand as she sensed the indefinable presence which had always permeated the chamber. She had memorised every part of this room as a girl, and knew immediately which rock was the sacred rock that her mother had shown her long ago. But her skin prickled as she turned to examine the whole chamber, and she stepped close to Dastan and spoke in a low voice.

"Something's wrong."

Dastan stopped in his tracks and looked at her with sharp focus.

"What is it?"

Her eyes darted around as she tried to pinpoint the problem. Then something clicked and she took in a breath, pointing to the wall at the opposite end of the chamber from the sacred rock.

"That wall. It's different. The shapes made by the rocks - the outlines..." She took a tiny step back. "And the cavern seems smaller."

She was prepared for Dastan to ask if she was sure or question her memory, but he simply signalled to Garsiv and Asoka and then paced silently over to the wall that she had indicated. Garsiv followed and the two of them inspected the rocks as Tamina waited, barely aware she was holding her breath. She watched as the two Princes started working together to push one of the largest boulders out of position.

There was a strange muffled sound that caused Tamina's breath to lurch. Then the rocks around the Princes suddenly crashed forwards, forcing them to jump out of the way - and over half a dozen men burst forth from behind the rocks, brandishing swords and yelling battle-cries. A loud gasp shuddered through Tamina as her companions drew their weapons as quick as lightning and launched towards their attackers.

The chamber filled with deafening blows and roars. Tamina watched in shock as swords sliced through the air and clashed together with blinding sparks. She saw Dastan attack, dodge and defend with what seemed like twice the speed of Garsiv and Asoka, who were both already astonishing fighters; but they were outnumbered by their attackers and she started in horror as she saw each of them struggle to fight off the other men.

With a jolt her attention snapped to the weight of the dagger hidden in her clothing. She threw a glance to the sacred rock behind them, her mouth falling open as she wondered for a moment - but one of the attackers noticed her and he slipped past the others to advance on her, his eyes narrowed and sword raised.

"Ungh-" Tamina managed to draw her sword just as he reached her. She threw her full power into parrying his blows again and again. Soon her arms began to shake and she realised with rising panic that though she could not feel the pain, her strength was fading. She dodged his sword as he lunged forward hard and drew a faint scarlet line from her arm-

"Tamina!"

The attacker swung around to face Dastan and managed to nick him in the shoulder. But the Prince attacked him with full force, and Tamina jumped out of the way as the pair continued to fight. Finally Dastan struck a vicious blow which made the man collapse. Dastan and Tamina turned quickly to see that Garsiv and Asoka had overcome the other attackers, who lay bleeding and motionless on the floor. Their companions stood over them, their chests heaving, traces of blood trickling from a few small wounds.

"Tamina-"

She turned back to Dastan just as he crossed to her, reached out an arm and crushed her tightly to his body. She held on to his waist for a moment and shut her eyes as her breathing heaved against his torso and her heart thudded painfully. Then, aware of the others' presence, she stepped back and took the opportunity to stare at him.

Dirt and blood were smudged over his body and one of the straps at his side had been torn apart, but he was well. His eyes flitted urgently over her, and with a faint grunt he reached out to wipe the blood from her arm.

"I'm fine," she muttered. She turned to the others, glancing at their fallen opponents. "Are there more?"

Several minutes passed as they meticulously searched the rest of the chamber but found nobody.

"Who were they?" Garsiv finally asked, adjusting his heavy helmet.

"They're from the village on the mountainside. I recognise their tribal markings," the Princess said as she exchanged a troubled look with General Asoka.

"I thought you said they had been loyal to Alamut for generations," Garsiv said.

Dastan's brow lined heavily as he looked at Tamina. "The new chief..."

She nodded with a grimace as her eyes darted around the chamber. Their attackers' blood trickled over the stone flooring and into the stream, turning it red.

"The sanctuary of the gods is the most sacred place on earth," she muttered with quiet rage. "And now these fools have - defiled it..."

Asoka spoke up in a deep voice. "This may be a bad sign."

The three of them looked at him sharply.

Dastan addressed her with tension around his eyes. "It's not too late to go back."

Tamina furrowed her brow, closed her eyes for a moment and returned consciously to the sensation she had first felt on entering the chamber; that indefinable presence.

"No," she said in a low voice. "We came here to return the dagger to the rock, and we can't let anything stop us from doing that. It's the only thing which would make all of this death and destruction worthwhile..." She set her jaw and resisted a shudder. "I will not allow any more blood to be shed because of this dagger."

Dastan stared at her for a long moment and then nodded, straightening his back.

"All right then, Princess."

Tamina exchanged a serious look with each of them. Then she turned and crossed to the large rock that was in the centre of one wall of the chamber, at around shoulder height. With a glance behind her she saw Garsiv and Asoka position themselves in the centre of the chamber, standing tall and alert; Dastan was a couple of paces from her side, watching her like a hawk.

The Princess took a slow breath in and out, then settled her weight through her boots onto the solid rock flooring. She started to murmur the ritual prayer as she gently placed her hands on the outer edges of the sacred rock. It started to heave with a groaning sound and shuddered forward a few inches from the wall, exposing a narrow opening which was just the exact shape and size to fit the sacred dagger. At the same time, a strange quiet whooshing sound crept up around her and she could not tell if it came from the depths of the cavern or the tension of her pounding heart.

Tamina glanced towards Dastan who was still watching her intently. Then she reached into her clothing and removed the dagger from its pouch. She chanted the ritual prayer as she raised the dagger and held it just above the opening in the rock, sensing an irresistible magnetic force which the rock seemed to exert on the dagger.

At the exact moment that she let go of the dagger, several things happened.

The faint trickling sound became a gurgling whoosh, as water suddenly appeared from countless crevices and cracks in the rocky walls and started streaming to the floor. At the same time Garsiv gave a sharp bark-

"Dastan!"

The Princess turned to see one of their attackers suddenly half-raise himself from the floor, wielding his bloody sword. The man made a fierce lunge towards the sacred dagger just as she released it. Dastan yelled, drew his weapon and flicked the attacker's sword from his grip. But he realised just a moment too late that the man held a knife in his other hand. He jerked it towards the Prince with a vengeful grunt.

Icy fingers crushed Tamina's vocal cords and lungs as the blade sunk into Dastan's flesh at the hip where his armour was loose.

Dastan gave a shuddering grunt as blood started to spurt from the wound. He tightened his grip on his sword and slashed it hard across the man's neck, killing him instantly. Tamina watched in a nightmarish, frozen, split-second silence as Dastan dropped to his knees. His weapon slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor as Garsiv yelled and ran to take hold of him. Garsiv helped him to lie on the ground as Asoka darted around the bodies of their attackers and sliced each neck without hesitation.

Water continued to pour from the rocks and pool around their feet. As the rushing sound grew louder and crashed in her ears, a lightning bolt jolted up Tamina's spine and she whirled back to the sacred rock, reaching desperately into the opening.

"Princess!" shouted Garsiv. "The dagger - the dagger!"

"I'm trying-" Her slender fingers scrabbled at the opening, but it was too narrow and she could not gain a hold on the dagger or even reach in to press the jewelled button. "It won't-" she struggled to speak around a sob, and steeled herself. "It won't come out!"

She spun around, eyes wide. Dastan's mouth hung open, his glassy eyes blinking as he tried to stay awake. Asoka had torn a length of fabric from his clothing and was wrapping it tightly around the Prince's midsection, as his blood reddened the cloth and the surrounding waters at a terrifying speed.

Garsiv jumped up and stared at her with an urgent look that she knew well from her husband. "Then we have to leave. Now."

Tamina opened and closed her mouth once as she glanced from Dastan to the sacred rock and then to the chamber itself, which was filling with water fast enough that their ankles were now submerged.

"You go," she told Garsiv. "Take him to the Healer. I have to stay and finish the ritual so the dagger is completely gone."

Garsiv's eyes widened in appalled amazement. He motioned to the water which was rushing faster and faster from the rock crevices. "Princess - there's no time!"

"I am the Guardian of the dagger until the last moment - I have to be absolutely certain it's gone, otherwise I've failed in my mission-"

Garsiv took a step towards her, breaking the unspoken protocols of respect between royals in his desperation.

"Dastan will never forgive me if I leave you here to drown," he yelled angrily, pointing to the tunnel entrance which stood a step lower than the rest of the chamber and was filling dangerously with water.

"And I will never forgive you if you don't get him out of here - right now!" Tamina yelled with the full driving force of every muscle in her body. She jerked her arm out to point insistently at the passageway, then spun back to the sacred rock, not daring to look at her husband again.

The Princess closed her eyes for a moment. Then she raised her hands and placed her palms over the opening in the sacred rock, watching as it started to glow a startling warm orange under her touch. She tried to block out the sounds of scuffling movements, tense voices and splashing, which receded behind her until she was left in silence. Her senses were consumed by the gushing water which had nearly reached her knees.

She chanted the ritual prayers again and again, watching with amazement as the dagger started to melt and turn to rock, filling the opening in which it lay. Her voice grew more strained as the process continued slowly and the rising water reached her waist. As she struggled to engage her thigh muscles and stay still, all trace of the dagger disappeared, and finally she ran her palms over the smooth surface of the ordinary-looking rock.

She had done it. The dagger was gone.

Giving silent thanks, she turned around - and gasped as she saw that the tunnel entrance was now virtually submerged in blood-red water. She grimaced at the sight of their attackers' half-floating bodies, and started to fumble underwater with the straps of her armour. Her hands shook and the straps would not come loose. Suddenly the streaming water started to gush louder and louder, accompanied by heavy rumblings which made the stones under her soles shake. Her jaw dropped open and her hands froze at her side as rocks started to crumble down. The sanctuary of the gods was disappearing around her.

Is this what the gods intended all along? For her to return the dagger to the rock, then sacrifice her life here? Was there even any point in trying to escape?

A sudden image flashed into her mind: herself and Dastan outside on the cold mountain outcrops, his blue eyes dark with concentration as he carefully adjusted the straps that she now struggled with. A wild, urgent noise tore from her throat, and without thinking she pulled off her boots and waded into the water as far as possible. With a deep breath, she plunged underwater and propelled herself towards the tunnel entrance, her heart full of desperate prayers.


3.

The next thing Tamina was aware of was her lungs burning as she burst out of the larger cavern's entrance onto the open mountainside. She stopped in surprise when she saw that the glaring sunlight of earlier had been replaced by heavy, rolling clouds and crashing rain. In front of her, a sheltered area had been constructed with three walls and a roof made of thick cloth. Under the covering, the Healer Priestess of Alamut stood beside a table on which Dastan lay, terrifyingly still and pale.

The Healer was bent over in concentration as she deftly pushed a needle and thread through the flesh above his hip. Tamina's jaw dropped as she felt the bleeding pain of his wound in her own heart, and before she knew it she was by his side, standing opposite the Healer. Her lungs continued to heave as she took Dastan's limp hand in her own and looked at his closed eyes and pale face. Then she placed her palm on his breastbone, swallowing heavily as she shut her eyes. His chest faintly rose and fell.

After several moments she opened her eyes and glanced across to the Healer, Farah. The older woman was deep in concentration and did not look up, so Tamina looked around and noticed Bis and Garsiv both standing nearby. Terrified concern was evident on their haunted faces, though she also saw profound relief in Garsiv's eyes that she had emerged alive.

Farah soon finished her stitching and a servant helped clean and dress the wound before disappearing. The Healer met Tamina's eyes seriously.

"Take heart, Princess. The wound wasn't as deep as it first appeared."

Tamina's tight ribcage could not soften in even the tiniest relief. "But he must have lost so much blood..."

Farah's eyelids creased as she nodded and paused. "I am still hopeful."

The Princess sighed and said nothing further, merely sinking down onto a stool which had been placed next to her. A servant came and draped a cloak around her wet shoulders, and she wrapped its heavy folds around herself to hide her shaking torso from her subjects. She lowered her head, and prayed.

She was not sure how much time passed; the rain eased, servants came and went, the sun reappeared and disappeared behind grey clouds, and she suddenly became aware she had been dozing as the Healer spoke to her in a low voice.

"Princess... Princess."

She jerked her head up and saw that Dastan's eyes were blinking open, his head moving fractionally from one side to the other as he slowly awoke, and her heart jumped into her throat when she saw the trace of colour that was returning to his cheeks.

"Dastan..." she whispered, taking his hand and leaning in close.

He turned his head to look at her and his eyes focused, and her breath hitched when she saw the corner of his lips move upwards. Then she sat back as Farah examined him and administered some medicine before withdrawing. Garsiv came and stood at his brother's side.

"How do you feel?" she asked softly, stroking Dastan's forehead and temple.

"Ughh." He grunted and let his head rest back on the table for a moment, closing his eyes and then opening them again to look at Tamina. "Is it done? -The dagger..."

Tamina and Garsiv both exhaled heavily, and Tamina glanced down before squeezing Dastan's hand and looking back up at him.

"Yes. It's done."

Dastan exhaled in relief and there was a silence before he added, "Those men..."

Garsiv spoke up. "My soldiers are keeping the rest of the villagers captive, including the chief. No doubt Nizam or the Hassansins told them of the dagger. They will have to be questioned."

Tamina did not take her eyes off her husband, but her jaw tightened as she considered Garsiv's words.

"I suppose I will do that later," she muttered. "Although I don't know how on earth I will manage to speak to them calmly after what happened. I cannot believe they could be so foolish and disloyal..." She paused, refocusing on Dastan as he grunted thoughtfully, and she smiled. "Anyway... it doesn't matter now."

"Hmm..." Dastan hummed. He glanced up at his brother. "Garsiv."

"Yes?"

Dastan looked back at Tamina. "Let Garsiv interrogate them. It should be done as soon as possible..."

She opened her mouth to refuse and then hesitated, looking from her husband to her brother-in-law. Garsiv watched her silently, awaiting her answer; something settled inside her and she nodded once.

"Yes. Ah... thank you."

Garsiv nodded slowly in a half-bow. "It's my honour to help, Princess." He turned to Dastan, stepped forward and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "But don't expect me to make a habit of taking orders from you, little brother," he said with a smirk that Dastan slowly mirrored, before he turned and walked away briskly.

Dastan's smile edged towards a chuckle, but it disappeared as he took a sharp breath in through gritted teeth and lifted a hand to the bandage on his side. Tamina's eyes immediately widened and she looked over to where Farah stood tidying up her medical supplies.

"Priestess!" she called out brusquely. "Can't you give him something stronger?"

"No, no..." Dastan protested, waving a hand vaguely. She looked back at him, tension clenching her body tightly as the day's events began to catch up with her.

"Oh! Yes, I see," she snapped, her voice somehow becoming more sharp and more tender at the same time. "Of course the Lion of Persia doesn't need medicine. Far better to risk passing out from the pain - and then I will have the pleasure of waiting once more to see if you will ever wake up."

Dastan rested his head back on the table. "Tamina..." he groaned.

Farah approached and he allowed her to administer a small cup of thick dark liquid that made him grimace as he swallowed it. Then the Healer withdrew, and Dastan looked back at his wife, squeezing her hand gently; Tamina could feel some of his strength returning as he did so.

"Tamina... I'm alive. I'll be fine."

She exhaled with a shudder, closing her eyes and dropping her head for a moment as she lifted his hand and pressed her lips to it, pouring her heart into the gesture. Eventually she raised her head and pinned her intent gaze to his soft blue eyes.

"You'd better be," she told him with feeling. "Because if you're not - I'll kill you."

-End of ch. 4-

Chapter Text


Epilogue

In the late afternoon on the day that they arrived back in Alamut, Tamina found herself knocking once more on Dastan's bedchamber door. She adjusted the belt on her gown, and smoothed a hand over her loose hair in an effort to distract herself from the fluttering in her stomach.

"Yes," she heard the Prince call out flatly from inside.

She entered the room. Dastan was standing by his bed, halfway through pulling on an open-fronted tunic, and the flutter inside her got stronger when his face lit up as he saw her.

"Oh!" He crossed over to her, smiling immediately, and raised a hand towards her before hesitating and letting it fall. "I was just about to come to your chamber."

Tamina noticed his eyes travel over the silk drape of her gown, and she smiled. "Well, you should know by now that I don't like to be kept waiting."

He half-grinned. "I do know that... but, I wasn't running late - was I?"

"Maybe not," Tamina muttered. She could not resist trailing her gaze down his torso as she looked down to the long scar above his hip, just visible at the edge of his tunic. Her brow furrowed and she looked back up to his eyes, doing her best not to react to the intensity of his gaze.

"Does it still hurt?"

After a moment Dastan made a show of smirking and shaking his head. "A scratch like that? -Hurt me?"

Tamina smirked back slowly. "Oh, I see..." She reached out her index finger to give a featherlight touch to the fabric of his tunic, just beside the scar. "So, if I was to press hard - just here..."

Dastan's smirk turned into a grin as he grabbed her hand gently and pulled it away.

"I wouldn't put it past you, Princess..."

She smiled up at him, watching his lips and thinking about bypassing all conversation - when suddenly a knock came at the door. Dastan dropped his head and groaned in frustration, and she snorted lightly and stepped away from him.

"Speak to your staff, Prince Dastan."

He opened the bedchamber door and spoke quietly to a servant. Tamina crossed to the window, sat down on the edge of the ornate sofa, and looked out at the warm haze of sunlight which picked out bright colours in the flowers and fruit trees below. She heard Dastan instruct the servant not to disturb them again. Looking down at her feet in their jewelled sandals, she told herself it was silly for her heart to be beating so fast simply because she was alone with him for the first time since leaving Alamut.

Dastan shut the door and she heard his footsteps approach. With another flutter in her stomach she turned to see him standing by her side and looking down at her, his eyes and the corners of his lips already softening. For a brief silent moment they both hesitated, and her muscles tightened against the nervous pleasure of the crackling air between them.

Her face was level with the scar on his side.

"Does it still hurt?" she repeated.

Dastan exhaled, sat down beside her and shifted until he was leaning back on the sofa. "Only if I twist or stretch suddenly. It really wasn't a deep wound."

Tamina sighed and turned on the edge of the sofa to face him a little better. "Thank the gods," she murmured as she brought a hand up to her breastbone - clutching at air for the hundredth time and giving a brief wry smile.

Dastan quirked his lips. "The vial of sand?"

She nodded. "I am no longer the Guardian of a sacred dagger..."

He smiled a little and nodded. "Hmm. Now you're just a plain old Princess..."

Tamina could not stop herself from smirking. "Oh, I see - you think I'm plain, now, do you?"

"Oh, yes-" he grinned, "I'm quite bored of you, actually..."

Her smirk widened for a moment, enjoying the way the spark in his eyes contradicted his words. "Oh - well then..." She made as if to get up from the sofa. "Maybe I'll just leave-"

"Tamina!" Dastan's grin widened as he quickly circled his arm around her waist, and his voice dropped to a murmur. "Don't go anywhere..."

She paused, smiled and allowed herself to be held in place. "I'll stay - if you will be polite."

"I certainly will, your Highness."

Tamina mirrored his brief grin and watched him for a moment, waiting without being sure what she was waiting for. Then he gently started to pull her closer and she willingly leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. They sat in silence for a moment. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the rise and fall of his chest, praying that one day she would stop associating this sensation with the moment she had watched the Healer stitch his injured body back together.

Eventually Dastan spoke. "How does it feel to be home?"

Tamina paused for a moment. She could tell him of her concerns about the High Council meeting tomorrow and what punishment would be agreed for the village chief who had betrayed them, but for once her duties to Alamut were not at the front of her mind.

She lifted her head and raised herself up to look at him. "I understand better now, why you didn't tell me immediately that you had used the dagger." He knit his brow and she paused and glanced out of the window, taking in the air scented with Alamutian flowers. "We're here. We survived. It's over," she said finally as she looked back at him. "Why dwell on the past?"

He smiled at her slowly, his eyes softening as he nodded once. She touched her palm to his cheek and wondered how long it might be before he kissed her. Then she noticed the lines that remained on his brow, and the small movements in his jaw as it worked silently, and she waited.

"Does that-" He hesitated, then took one of her hands in his own. "You don't want to dwell on the past?"

She shook her head and wondered why his body seemed suddenly stiff and taut.

"So..." Another pause. "Am I forgiven?"

Tamina blinked and tilted her head forward. "What? Of course." She watched as he dropped his head a fraction and breathed in and out, his forehead clearing, and her lips parted. "Dastan..." she murmured. "Of course you are."

He looked up again and she saw a trace of brightness return to his eyes. "I managed to make amends, then. By helping with that wretched dagger." He must have seen the slight indignation that crossed her brow. "I know it was sacred-"

"If it weren't for the dagger, we would not be married," she said pointedly, and he nodded.

"I know."

She shifted as something flared inside her with an urgency she knew she could not avoid forever. "And if you want to know the truth..." she started carefully, and his eyes focused on hers. "I started to forgive you before I thought of taking the dagger back to the sanctuary. In fact, it was soon after you told me everything."

Dastan almost snorted, but he calmed himself as he saw that her serious expression remained unchanged. "Tamina! That can't be possible..."

She raised an eyebrow. "Then you must know my own feelings better than I do."

He hesitated. "You were furious..."

"Yes. But it wore off, didn't it?"

"Yes - and when it wore off, you were cold!"

Tamina puffed a breath from her nose and nodded, looking away from him as she remembered those difficult days. She stood and walked a few paces over to the window. Outside, the near-sunset light was drenching the leaves of the orange trees in a golden haze. Turning back to him, she saw that he was still seated on the sofa, his eyes never leaving her.

"I prayed and prayed in the High Temple. And I thought about the true meaning of the moment when you pressed the jewel on the dagger, while it was in the Sand-Glass." She paused and noticed a trace of apprehension darken his eyes. Her resolve stirred, and the words pushed out of her with quiet fervour. "It was your destiny to do that, Dastan. It's what the gods wanted. And they could only have chosen you-"

"Chosen me?" he interrupted, his voice low with an uneasy edge. "I chose my actions, Tamina. I'm responsible for everything I've done - not the gods." He hesitated. "You can't forgive me just because you think that they-"

"Dastan!" she exclaimed softly. She took a breath to control a flicker of frustration. "I'm not claiming that you were - a helpless vessel for the gods' will..."

He stood and crossed to join her. "Are you sure?" His eyelids crinkled as he looked down at her, and his voice took on a note of strain. "Because... I tried to tell you. It was my instinct that made me do it-"

"Yes - and I am telling you now that it was also your destiny."

He stared at her for a moment, his brow tightly knitted. Then he dropped his head a fraction and exhaled slowly.

"Look, Tam-"

"Dastan-" She barely noticed that she was interrupting him. "After everything you've been through - everything we've both been through... you still can't accept that the gods know your destiny?"

He looked up at her, his eyelids creased. "Are you really surprised?" He paused, then continued with quiet vehemence. "We make our own destiny, Princess. You know that's what I believe, and..." His eyes darted around for a moment, then settled back on her, his lips softening wryly. "I'm not going to change."

They stared at each other. Then Tamina realised that the luminous blue of his eyes was making her smile, and her ribs gently rose in a chuckle. Dastan's eyes narrowed fractionally and he watched as she stepped in close to him and gazed up into his eyes.

"I hope not." She slipped her arms around his waist, touched her lips to the base of his throat, then rested her head against the curve of his neck and closed her eyes. She felt him inhale an uneven breath, then his arms slid around her and pulled her close. They stood in silence for a moment.

"Tamina." His quiet tone had a shadow of uncertainty.

She leaned back just enough to look into his eyes again.

"Listen," she started, "and try to understand, instead of being so stubborn and proud-"

He half-smiled. "You call me stubborn!-"

She resisted rising to the bait. "Listen! I'm not going to change either. I believe the gods know our destiny. But - it's still us that have to make it happen, Dastan." She brought her palm up to his cheek. "And I know that the gods could only have chosen you, to do everything that you have done. Because of - your courage, Persian. And your strength, and determination." The sweet churning in her heart made her move forward to kiss his forehead, and her voice dropped to a low hum. "And your loyalty." Another kiss to his temple and then his cheek, and he closed his eyes. "And your sense of honour."

She stopped with her heart pounding. Dastan opened his eyes to gaze at her intently, and a silence passed. He lifted a hand to stroke her hair.

"That's how you see me?" he asked, a crack opening up in his tone. She nodded. Finally he gave a slow, dazzling smile, and dipped his head to touch his lips gently to hers.

"Hm-" She made a soft noise and held him closer.

He was already smiling again as he pulled away and locked his eyes on hers. "Well... I'd be a fool to think that anything else mattered."

She started to smile. Relief made her movements feel lighter as she traced her palms up his chest and shoulders, interlacing her fingers behind his neck. "Hm. You can be very foolish..."

"Not that foolish," he grinned as he leaned in, and his mouth met hers again. They shared a long kiss, and a tight coil of suppressed desire started to loosen within her.

"So..." he murmured when the kiss finally ended. "I was right."

Tamina blinked and clutched at his back, her concentration shaken. "Hm?"

"When we were in the courtyard that day." He kissed her cheek. "You said you wanted to know who I was, and I told you that you already knew. I was right." He paused and quirked his lips. "So maybe I do know your feelings better than you do."

She shook her head and her shoulders bobbed as she chuckled, unable to resist her amusement at the bright self-satisfaction in his eyes.

"Are you intentionally obnoxious, Prince," she asked, moving a hand to press her fingertips lightly through the soft hairs on his chest, "or does it come naturally?"

He half-sniggered, then suddenly she found herself raised off the floor as he bent and lifted her, with one arm under her knees and the other around her shoulders. She smiled in surprise and held on for the few seconds it took him to cross to the bed and set her down. She reached out and eagerly pulled him close as he climbed onto the bed, his arms sliding around her as they fell into another kiss which deepened slowly and flooded her body with urgent warmth. Then she shifted a little in discomfort and he pulled away to look at her in concern.

"What's wrong?"

"This bed," she grumbled as she fidgeted against the mattress. "I'd forgotten."

A grin broke across his face. "Isn't it the same as yours?"

"Certainly not. Mine is much more comfortable." She shifted again and Dastan started to laugh as he pulled her close again and stroked her back. She stilled, and smiled at him. "From tomorrow, we're staying in my chamber."

Dastan stared at her for a few moments, his grin becoming even wider.

"Does my opinion matter, Princess?" he inquired.

She smiled and began threading her fingers into his hair. "Let me put it this way. From tomorrow, I will stay in my chamber, in my far more comfortable bed, and you may join me if you wish."

He snorted lightly. A kindling warmth traced across her skin as she watched him cast his eyes slowly over her curves, before he met her eyes and smiled.

"Thank you, your Highness," he murmured in a voice so low it was nearly a growl, and he dipped his head to feather kisses to the graceful curve of her neck.

Tamina smiled and let her hands wander over him, learning the muscle and sinew of his torso. "Besides, my chamber has a better view as well..."

"Hm." Dastan continued to trace his lips down her neck and onto her shoulder, pulling her gown gently out of the way.

"And it's more convenient for- ahhh... hmmm." Tamina shut her eyes as he shifted a leg in between hers. "Dastan..." she murmured, her voice dropping to a tender point low in her throat. "Are you trying to shut me up?"

He raised his head to look at her. Even before he grinned, she could see the gleam in his blue eyes.

"I would never attempt anything so futile."

Tamina smirked. She traced her fingertips lightly along his skin at the edge of his trousers' waistband, then hooked a finger inside the fabric.

"That's a pity," she continued in the same low voice. "I was planning to let you succeed."

Dastan's eyes widened with a hungry delight that made her start to giggle. In one movement he slid an arm around her waist, rolled her gently onto her back, and covered her mouth with his own, as sweet late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows.

-End-