Surrounded by so much sadness, we must not succumb ourselves.
-The Prince, The Two Thrones
If I am selfish, Prince, it is because you are. If I am ruthless and reckless and lacking in morals, it is because you are! I did not spin myself out of the ether; I was not conjured by some mad Vizier. I am you!
-The Dark Prince, The Two Thrones
If I could set you free
and give you what you need
then all my energy is lost
If I divide our time
and give you half of mine
then all my energy is lost
and I keep seeing spirals at my feet
-Thirteen Senses – Spirals
I used to think of it at the strangest of times. Sometimes, it would hit me mid-run, mid-jump, as I scrambled for some balcony or another on the rooftops of Babylon, and I would falter and fumble for the dagger as I dropped, disoriented and desperate. Other times, it would be less dangerous but no less painful, slipping in between my ears as I lay down to sleep, protected by a crumbling wall, Farah curled within my arms. Those years I had spent running, fleeing, fighting to stay alive…they had marked me. They had planted the seed of the creature that lived within me now, the voice that would occasionally interrupt my life with sarcasm and mockery or, more rarely, valuable advice. I would wonder when he had first awoken in me—when I had made that critical mistake that had allowed for his creation. When had I been too greedy, too proud, too selfish? When I struck that final, fatal blow against Kaileena, when I had killed her…had that been the moment he coiled into existence, hidden and voiceless, but alert, aware, biding his time? Or had it been when I donned the mask of the Sandwraith? After all, I had been quite content at the time to run around wrapped in bandages, life-force dwindling, veins filled with sand, merely to save my own skin. Had my life been worth it, such self-mutilation? Valid questions. I had already erred so greatly, so grievously, costing so many lives, that it was only natural that I would try and trace my latest mistake back to a specific moment. Never once did it cross my mind that I was searching for the moment only to rewind time to that point and undo my error, but I am certain now that this hope lingered within me. In trying to undo my mistakes, then, I was most selfish of all; but this realization, like all others, comes too late.
It took us days to reach the Vizier, not hours. The palace was an intricate mess of traps, guards, and hard-to-reach-places, and the tyrant's forces were united in their attempts to bar the way to us. Farah and I progressed as swiftly as we could, confronted as we were with dead-ends and detours, but each of those days contained an eternity; ironic, when in reality the sands of time were trickling faster than ever.
I thought of Kaileena often. Odd as it may seem, Farah was usually the catalyst: her hands over mine would remind me of another, softer touch. Kaileena, the Empress of Time, had been proud, selfish, ruthless, and yet, she had come to me in the end, unfighting, soft; she had made herself malleable in my hands, dark eyes wide and wanting. Farah, on the other hand, was quite the opposite: caring, sharp-edged, capable, holding not a single thing back; a stranger to the concept of restraint, never wanting, never waiting. And yet, the differences only served to accentuate the similarities: sometimes, when Farah combed hair back from my face, I would think of Kaileena's slightly protuberant jaw, her round cheeks and red dress, and close my eyes.
I was not in mourning, and yet, what I felt was similar. I had only known Kaileena briefly, in darkness, and our tryst had been accidental, unplanned—almost involuntary in its inevitability. Certainly, I had feelings for her…but they were complex, unlike what I felt for Farah, which was clear as the surface of a pool. And yet, Kaileena and I had shared so much together. We were achingly similar, burdened by identical fates, and both unique in escaping those fates—lonely and alone in defying destiny. Perhaps this is why her death marked me as strongly as it did: it was proof undeniable that the Dahaka won in the end, and that we had done nothing but delay the inevitable. In death, Kaileena became another casualty of my existence, another life lost by my foolishness, when I had first unleashed the Sands of Time all those years ago. What had we shared, the Empress of Time and I, the time evader? How could we be so alike, and yet so fundamentally opposed? She was as much of a mystery in death as in life; her passing provided no answers to my questions. Kaileena remained immortal and unsolved within my mind.
Now, after so much time has passed, I can at last begin to understand my reaction to her death. Certainly, my counterpart did nothing to assuage any guilt I felt; if anything he was especially scathing when I dwelt on her. You failed to protect her, he would murmur accusingly. The Empress of Time! Can you imagine the power? The possibilities? And you let her die? His words, barbed as they were, could not reach me, such was the degree of numbness I felt, and after a time, no doubt sensing my lack of response, he fell silent on the subject. Farah, however, was less inclined to leave me be; unlike him, she could not know my thoughts, and she disliked what she perceived as my 'brooding'.
"We don't have time for this," she would say with open frustration, classically beautiful with her hand-on-hip posture. "Don't you understand what is at stake? These are your people, Prince! They are suffering! Are you are too busy wallowing in self-pity to lift an arm to save them?"
Usually, I would try to ignore her outbursts, but this time, her words were harsher than usual, and I felt compelled to defend myself.
"No, Farah! I simply need some—time."
"We have no—" she reminded me instantly, breaking off at the expression on my face. After a moment she continued, in a softer tone, "Every hour we delay…every day we waste because you cannot focus…these are your people."
"My people!" I replied, suddenly fierce. "My people—and I am not fit to rule them, Farah!" Anguish forced its way up my throat. "How will I ever heal?"
She came closer to me then, her bow still held loosely in her arms—closer than comfort allowed. We were standing in the mouth of a passageway to one of the many balconies of Babylon, hidden from sight by the small frame of the doorway. A whole army of sand-soldiers could have marched the streets below and never guessed our proximity. The other end of the passageway, meanwhile, was protected by a generous scattering of traps that I did not anticipate crossing. These two factors made the area ideal for stopping, and so here, we had laid down our arms for a time and shared what little food and water we had managed to procure. Somehow, a single, solitary ray of sunlight had managed to reach us from around the doorway, colouring the walls a pale white, timeless.
As Farah moved towards me, I backed away hesitantly. The width of the passage was not great, and soon enough I was flush against the wall, the coolness of the shaded stones and the warmth of those reached by the sunlight filtering through the material of my shirt. Farah's hand on my shoulder was merely another patch of warmth, but it seemed hotter than the others.
"How…" she began, and I found myself disappointed by her continuation, "…do you know my name?"
I shook my head. "Farah…it is…complicated. A long story; one you would never believe—"
At this, she pulled her head back so sharply she almost hit my jaw. Her eyes regarded me accusingly. "How can you say that? After all we have seen together?"
At loss for words, I repeated those I had used earlier: "I need time."
This response should have rightly infuriated her, but instead, Farah's expression softened. Her capacity for compassion stunned me, and she took advantage of my momentary stillness, easing forward again, forehead only just shy of my mouth, almost a head shorter than me.
"You keep saying that." Over the course of our conversation, we had quietened, and now her words were a bare whisper, only audible due to our proximity. I could feel her breath on my neck with every word. "I think you are using it as an excuse to not try…"
"Farah," I replied, unintentionally ducking my head. "I promise you, I am trying."
For a long time, she did not answer. Watching her, I felt as though my heart would burst from my chest. The feeling was acutely painful until she kissed my mouth.
"Try harder," she suggested.
"I promise," I repeated, blindly. I could feel the arch of her bow against my leg; her quiver filled my vision as I pressed my lips to the side of her neck. "I am so weary…" Her skin tasted like pomegranates. She helped me uncoil the long, elegant braid of her hair. In that moment, nothing else existed but the slopes of her body, the ripeness of her mouth. The traps just around the corridor were quiet and unmoving; the streets of Babylon below us spread-eagled and empty. Kaileena was gone, nothing more than a powerless spirit in a physical world; my guilt, my anger, my despair, all gone…reduced to dust by a hand over mine, an ankle against my shin. The abstract and amorphous had no place here, and Farah skilfully and efficiently plucked every lingering thought from my head.
When I awoke, she lay across my chest, hair fanned out over her bare back. Her quiver and bow lay on the floor beside us, a single stray arrow escaped from the others. I turned my head to the side and regarded the discarded weapon for a long moment. Would that she would never have to stir, never have to rise and sling death over her shoulder again!
She is already useless enough, a cold voice informed me curtly, like a shock through my body. Please do not make it worse.
I was silent, but only because I could not find words to express the powerful welling of hatred I felt at that moment—how deeply I resented that he should come here, to this perfect place, and taint it. He heard my thoughts and chuckled. Goodnight, he bid me sarcastically, for he rightly guessed sleep would be long in coming, and so we lay awake awhile together, in silence, struggling for balance at opposing ends of some invisible scale.
Distanced as I am now from these events, two things only surprise me about what I have just recounted: firstly, the remarkable restraint my other half showed in keeping silent until then, and secondly, his unexpected kindness in allowing me to believe Farah and I were alone for even the shortest of moments. Whatever flicker of humanity this demonstrated, however, was immediately rescinded, and thenceforth obscured by his sudden, relentless outpouring of malice. As the days wore on, he tirelessly and irreverently secured a bruising stranglehold over every moment I shared with Farah. Worryingly, his interference did not make Farah any less desirable to me, and it certainly did not reduce her potency as my nepenthe, a role she adopted with surprising enthusiasm. I do not doubt that it was her plan from the very beginning: to reduce my grief to nothing with the warmth of her arms; and confronted with the love I had for her, and the temptation of her relief, I could not resist her open embrace, watched although we were.
If not for Farah, I fear I would have lost my life in my pursuit of the Vizier, or worse, my sanity. Traversing Babylon was a torment to me: the devastation crowded my vision, buildings in ruins, bodies piling up in the streets, filling the alleyways with the stench of decay and death. And all of this, my doing! To be confronted daily, hourly, with the inconceivably horrific consequences of my mistakes—every mutilated body we saw, every child's toy that lay broken and blood-spattered amongst the ruins…my doing! My doing! It was unbearable.
I do not know how Farah remained unaffected by the things we saw; in retrospect, she was probably merely more discreet with her distress. I know only that it was impossible to walk through that place untouched by misery. One day, for example, we came across the body of a slender woman with long dark hair lying amongst the splinters of a market-stall. She had been tortured; her limbs were grotesquely contorted, and at certain places it was possible to see the milky whiteness of bone splitting through skin. It was only my previous experience with battle that kept me from heaving: face-down, she looked unbearably like Kaileena. Perhaps this explains the clumsy, foolhardy way I proceeded, misjudging jumps, mistiming traps, and freely resorting to the sand in my dagger to skirt death. Eventually, Farah grew impatient with my distraction, and at the mouth of an alleyway, she surprised me by kissing me. It was a kiss that did not belong in the light of day, and when she pushed me away my heart was racing.
"Go!" she commanded me as she reached for her quiver. "On your guard! I am right behind you."
Thoughtlessly, I obeyed. Together we turned the corner of the alleyway and skidded out into the open. The sight that met our eyes was one of total and utter devastation. The central plaza of the market district, once home to a thrumming city life, was now completely empty. Spoiled fruits tumbled from overturned crates; soft, expensive material pooled at our feet, bloodied; spits that had once held meat now impaled their merchants; and a dog prowled near one of the collapsed stalls, lapping water stained reddish. The glow of fire was reflected in the liquid.
Farah's voice was strangely low and flat beside me, and I dragged my eyes away from the ruin to look at her. There was no expression whatsoever on her face, and it ignited a sharp, sudden pain in my chest. Before I could speak, however, Farah suddenly raised her bow, and I instinctively spun around, drawing my sword and dagger just in time—as I raised them defensively before my face, an arrow suddenly ricocheted off the blade. Standing a distance from us, a sizable group of sand creatures was slowly advancing across the square, weapons readied. The archer whose attack I had just deflected had barely nocked another arrow when one of Farah's pierced into his neck; he fell dead instantly, and was trampled by his companions.
The archers! Kill the archers first!
That he would speak without mockery reflected the direness of the situation. Although Farah's arrows killed several more soldiers as they approached, they had been numerous to begin with, and remained sizable by the time I reached them. Thus, loath as I was to take his advice, I did as my counterpart suggested, leaping over the swordsmen to reach the archers. I killed the first quickly, easily, still in the process of reaching for his quiver; the second knocked me back with his bow and I experienced a moment of panic as I barely managed to block his second blow. Once I found my feet again, he was easy enough to dispatch, and I did so in a few swift cuts of my sword before turning to engage the remaining enemies, still reeling slightly from the wound the second archer had inflicted. The swordsmen proved a more challenging fight, and here, Farah's arrows were an invaluable aid, if not killing many outright, at the very least distracting them and allowing me to break through their guard.
I did not question him, turning with a cry to discover a swordsman before me. I leapt back, barely evading the swipe of his weapon, and surprised at being thwarted, he did not react quickly enough to block the dagger I plunged into his belly. His sword slipped from his grasp, disintegrating into sand along with his body. He was the last of the group, the others having been dispatched by Farah's arrows, and with his death I found myself frozen, panting, suddenly unable to move as Farah slipped away to check the perimeter.
He began to speak inside my head as we waited, almost conversationally.
So she is not useless after all, he conceded pleasantly. She makes you able to fight.
I was taken aback and offended by this concession on his behalf. Oh? Have I finally managed to impress you, then?
He ignored me. You were a pitiable thing before she came, Prince. Ready to fling yourself off rooftops after the Vizier like some rabid dog, with no thought for plan, no thought for your own safety. Your guilt had rendered you half-mad! Did you think it callous when I advised you to set the past aside? On the Island of Time you were selfish, but you survived. For that is what survival takes—selfishness! Accept it!
No, I responded, No!, but I believe he felt my sudden indecision.
It is true and you know it. Think about it! His voice hardened; he commanded me, again: Accept it! Admit it!
I know not what I might have answered if Farah had not placed a hand on my arm at that very moment. Instantly, whatever spell of inertia I suffered was broken, and I was suddenly able to lower my arms and sheath my weapons. Her touch, warm, broke the icy grip of his words. No, I was able to repeat, fiercely. Farah is proof that what you say is not true.
Fool! he cursed me sharply, but I pushed his voice aside, determined at that moment to hear naught but Farah.
"The area is clear. Prince?"
"Good," I replied, as calmly as I could. "Good. Let us continue, then." Her hand dropped from my arm and I straightened, casting another quick glance around the marketplace. "Gods…the Vizier will pay for the damage he has wreaked."
I spoke under my breath, to myself, but Farah heard, and something unreadable replaced the concern on her face. "Yes," she agreed softly, almost reluctantly. "Yes, he must pay…but killing him will not bring those merchants back to life, Prince."
"I know!" I responded, defensive. "Do you think I do not? But I must do something!"
Are you collecting sand, Prince? the voice in my head asked wryly. Can you repair this latest misstep? I ignored him and appealed to Farah instead.
"Revenge aside, I must find the Vizier, Farah. He has not left Babylon yet, and I doubt he intends to do good here. I must stop him. I will not bring more destruction to my city."
Now her expression was more recognizable: frustration. "This is not your fault, Prince!" she protested furiously, eyes sharp. "You are not responsible for that madman's actions!"
She could not know—as I had not told her—the inaccuracy of her statement. I used Kaileena's death as a shield for my other, greater guilt; Farah believed it was mourning that distracted me, and I doubted if I could ever admit to her otherwise. I did not meet her gaze as I answered.
"Perhaps. Either way, we should continue. As you reminded me so recently, we have no time."
The line of her mouth hardened, but she followed me from the square, and we did not speak of it again.
One night, as I lay awaiting sleep, he surprised me by speaking.
You once accused me of being jealous.
Lying there, I wondered if he knew the shaky ground he trod with such a question. Yes?
I am, he admitted. She can make you fight when I cannot. I tried, Prince. But no matter how I encouraged, no matter how I taunted…you could not, would not care about my words. You stumbled onwards the way a blind man does, foolish and brave and suicidal!
The depth of his regret astonished me. He must have sensed my surprise, for his voice turned acerbic: Your death means mine, he reminded me, bitingly. A fact you continue to completely ignore. What about my right to survive?
What is this conversation in aid of? I demanded angrily, unwilling to let him know how his words had wounded me. He was right, and I struggled to refute it: I had never considered him a living thing, never stopped to think that he would be attached to his existence. You condemn me for my guilt and then seek to exacerbate it!
There are certain things you ought to feel guilty for, he answered sarcastically. But have I not condemned you sufficiently for your arrogance and naivety in unleashing the Sands all that time ago? I have never denied your guilt—merely suggested you cast it aside. For what good is it doing you?
It is not so easy! New pain made itself known, suddenly, and with a hiss I unclenched by fist, shocked to see my fingernails had drawn blood. I cannot simply…forget that I am responsible for these deaths!
You have not even tried. Instead you run to Farah, a child seeking instruction. You are weak and she is strong, and so you leech off her like some spider, a baby outgrown nursing yet still suckling on his mother's teat. And still you claim you are better than me? More righteous, more honourable, more human than me?
A horrible silence filled my head. I could not think of anything to defend myself, and, thankfully, for reasons I could not understand, he did not attack me further, though he must have felt the severity of the wound he had just inflicted. So we stayed for a long moment in silence, cramped inside a space designed to fit one mind, struggling to think and yet keep our thoughts from the other, until I rolled onto my side and reached for Farah with a blindness that should have alarmed me. I felt I could not breathe; I felt the distance between us, though in reality little, was vast, and too great for me to bear. My fingers were trembling as I stroked them down her neck, struggling to keep my touch light. She did not wake, and so after a moment I dared inch myself closer. An icy coldness steeped my bones and Farah seemed to radiate heat. With every brush of my fingers, her warmth travelled down my fingertips and up my arm in a slow, rhythmic pulse, washing over me, freeing my lungs and stomach of some great, stone weight.
Inside my head, he was silent. Sleep still evaded me, but all concept of time had vanished, and I know not how long I lay there, warming myself with her skin. With Farah in my arms, my mind was quiet, and I knew a small measure of peace. She is mine, I found myself thinking, gloriously, easing fingers into her matted hair. I knew Farah would be furious if she knew that I considered her so, but I could not help myself; indeed, this thought only made me smile, suffused with her warmth, and think more strongly, more fiercely, Farah, my Indian Princess.
His voice reached from within to correct me, polite and disembodied. Ours.
I shuddered. Farah had distracted me; I had not thought of him for what felt like hours, had almost forgotten he was there. Now that I was paying attention, however, I could feel him quite strongly. His feelings were curled closely to mine, his possessiveness and protectiveness effortless echoes of what my own heart was filled with. I knew from my previous experiences as a mind deprived of a body that he felt touch and sensation just as I did; but while he, too, could feel the fineness of Farah's hair, my emotional response to it should not have affected him. Indeed, it did not—what he was feeling was his own, but I would not be aware of this for a long while. All I thought to do at the time was respond with indignation to his presumptuous claim.
You despise Farah! You say that only to spite me!
I could feel his amusement, but it was less marked than usual. He seemed distracted. If so, it worked beautifully, wouldn't you say? But you are wrong, Prince. I say it as a simple fact. What's mine is yours. If she is yours, then she is also mine.
No, I answered, fingers tightening. She will never be yours.
My grip was too tight. I felt Farah shift against me, and a moment later she rolled over, big dark eyes fluttering open, limbs fitting themselves around mine easily.
Ah, sighed my counterpart with blatant satisfaction. I gathered he liked the feel of Farah's legs against mine as much as I did, and the realization filled me with anger. I made to pull away, but Farah reached for me, pulling my face down to hers with sleepy affection. What nonsense, he continued, picking up the thread of our argument effortlessly, eerily contented. How can you say that, when I know the feel of her lips just as intimately as you…?
It was too much. I broke away, gasping, apologizing, cursing. Farah glared at me sleepily as I slipped away from her, drawing my dagger as a precaution and swinging down from our ledge. He laughed as I fled, unperturbed and perfectly content to lie in wait. He knew, after all, that I could not resist Farah for long, and with this assurance, he curled up languorously inside my mind, quiet and astonishingly friendly, only speaking to warn me of a misstep or a beam I had not seen. He was pliant and affable as a child who knows his play has only been delayed, not denied. It was sickening, and infuriating, and it was some time before my anger had burnt itself out. When I finally wearied of my physical exertion, too exhausted to distract myself further, I returned to where Farah slept. She was where I had left her, splayed on the ground, graceful even so, and after a moment I found a space beside her, a little distance away, and closed my own eyes as well. He was silent, and I was grateful, and so we both finally slept.
The next morning, he was as talkative as ever, and infuriating although it was, I knew better than to attempt to ignore him. Previous experience had taught me that he would not suffer my silence, and that if I refused to respond to him for any lengthy period of time, he would needle me endlessly, driving me to distraction and seemingly uncaring of the danger he placed both our lives in by doing so.
You have the days, he said to me that morning, at a crucial moment. Let me have the nights. At the time, I assumed he was insinuating something lewd about my trysts with Farah, and though I should have been used to such comments, it still made me fumble and misstep. Pain flared across my shoulder; I grabbed at my dagger and moved more carefully, inching past the offending blade. I had barely recovered when he spoke again, sharply. After all this time, I see you still persist in using the sands to fix your errors. Haven't you yet realized that it only leads to trouble? It is your inability to accept your mistakes that doomed Babylon!
Our inability, I corrected him. Loath as I was to acknowledge our duality, it galled that he only claimed my strengths, and accused me of being the source of his weaknesses. Or are you my better half? My sarcasm was obvious, but he chose to ignore it.
Be reasonable, Prince, he admonished instead. If you don't let me out occasionally, I'll eventually emerge with Farah about. Speak of the devil!
"Are you alright?" My Indian princess gave me a long look, a hand on her slender hip. "For a moment, I thought you'd been hurt." Her confusion and concern made me smile.
"Absolutely not," I assured her. "I am as healthy as an ox."
"Well, good," she replied, businesslike now that she knew I was unharmed. "As we still have some distance to travel. Where to next?"
"The Promenade," I answered, pointing upward. "If we can reach that ledge, we should find a passage to lead us inside the Royal City."
We did. That night, as I lay once again sleepless, I felt frustration coursing through me. I knew we were getting closer, and yet, I also felt, in some abstract sense, that an hourglass somewhere was running out. Tick tock, Prince, as my doppelganger would say; at this thought he stirred from where he dozed within me to prod first sleepily, then disdainfully at my thoughts.
I believe you promised me to-night, Prince. When I did not answer, he went on, a little irritable but too sleepy still to sting: Come on, let me stretch my limbs! Rest for a change and let me take over. My eyes moved to Farah instinctively, and he gave a groan of understanding. Oh, now I see the source of your reservations.
If you harm her, I will kill us both, I told him sincerely. I swear it.
My promise only irritated him further. Your paranoia is absurd, he snapped, rousing properly now. I have absolutely no intention of harming your "Indian princess". Much as I hate to admit it, she seems to be the only thing preventing you from harming yourself on the way to the Vizier.
A sudden thought struck me. Then she is your saviour also.
He did not respond instantly, and I could sense an odd stillness in his silence. My thought had surprised him. Yes, Prince. That is precisely what I've been trying to tell you.
The concept was strange, and his admission was even stranger. Still, I sensed a surprising honesty in his words, and my resolve not to let him out was weakening. I was tired, and I began to wonder: would it truly hurt to let him keep guard for once? For I had no doubt that it was the barrier I struggled to hold around my mind that kept me awake and alert when my body was exhausted, and the sudden temptation to drop it was irresistible.
Very well, I conceded. Do as you like, so long as you do not hurt Farah.
Have you been listening to me? he answered, but he was too pleased with my response to be overly sharp. Now will you let me out, or must I fight you for it?
In response, I closed my eyes, and for the first time in many long days and nights, lowered my guard against him. His reaction was instantaneous; he flowed into me, filling me from head to toe, every limb glowing with darkness as I transformed. Once it had passed, he sighed, and gulped in lungfuls of air as though I had somehow been keeping him asphyxiated all this time. After flexing his fingers, he brushed them down his body appreciatively. I could tell the coiled blackness pleased him.
Feeling better? I asked sarcastically, if only because his show was irritating me.
You cannot imagine how much, he answered, equally derisive but with unmistakable triumph. A moment later he rolled over onto his stomach, propping us up with his elbows. I was surprised; I had thought he would rise to stretch his limbs, but he seemed quite content to lie exactly where I had. It was only when he reached for the dark shape that was Farah that I suddenly understood.
What are you doing? I demanded. Do not touch her!
He made us smile. You said I could do what I liked, so long as I did not harm her, he reminded me languorously, plucking a curl from behind Farah's ear and twisting in between his fingers. Well, this is what I like.
Get away from her! I hissed, horrified. And yet, at the same time, I could feel the texture of Farah's hair on his rough, soot-black fingers, and the rush of warmth that always accompanied it. It was simultaneously sickening and alluring. I will force you out! It was an empty threat, thrown out in desperation, for I had tried before without success, but I felt him tense slightly.
If you so much as try, I will wake her. Let her see us for what we really are! His tone was triumphant, and rightfully so, as I could not see a way around this dilemma, but my anger engulfed my common sense. Enough that I did not make a conscious decision to needle him out; indeed, I doubt I would have succeeded, and the thought of Farah seeing us haunted me, but he must have sensed something for he suddenly scurried back, holding his hands aloft in a gesture of surrender.
Calm yourself. I said I would not hurt her. He sounded less playful, now. Nor will I wake her, obviously. What worries you so, Prince? That I might touch her hair and feel a little softness myself, for once?
I couldn't answer, for, truthfully, I did not know why his actions angered me so greatly. Perhaps because I did not understand his motives: had he not felt the softness of Farah's hair with me? Had he not tasted her mouth many times already? Though I could not express it, I sensed the danger of his actions; and yet, unable to justify this feeling, and still fearing, despite his words, that Farah might wake and see him, I did nothing. After a moment, he crawled back to where I had lain earlier. I watched him coil a lock of her unbound hair around our gnarled fingers in silence, teetering on the brink of action but unsure of what that action would be. Sensation and confusion overwhelmed me: the texture of Farah's hair, of our fingers against it, of the troubling, ragged tenderness of his movements. I watched and felt and did not understand, and eventually I slipped, dazed and disturbed, into a fitful sleep, the unfolding scene nothing more than dull pinpricks on the inside of my eyelids.
For quite some time, Farah and I travelled together effortlessly, but when we reached the Hanging Gardens, this became increasingly difficult. Farah, after all, was not always capable of imitating my gymnastics and was often forced to find an alternate route to our goal that did not involve use of the decorated shutters that crowded the walls. Other times, we were separated by the ill-timed use of a lever, or cracked passages that would allow entrance only to Farah's slender frame. In these cases, I was forced to continue onwards alone, until we found each other again, crossing paths at unlikely junctures, sometimes still separated by a gate or raised platform. The inner palace was deliberately labyrinthine, after all, full of small passages, dead-ends, and high-balconies: an intricate weaving of winding paths and deadly traps. Thankfully, these were made easier to traverse by my knowledge of the area; in my youth I had spent entire days in the Hanging Gardens, hidden by the greenery and the mountainous stairs, idling away the hours the way only childhood can allow.
Seeing them again, with more jaded eyes, the gardens were not so beautiful as I remembered them. The Vizier had tainted all of Babylon, and the Hanging Gardens were no exception. Ivy still crept the walls in elegant spirals, but quite often I would find the greenery stained reddish and the scene marred by a human corpse propped near the base of a tree or impaled against a stone wall. Torches lit these ghastly tableaus with a soft yellow glow that transformed the Hanging Gardens from the secret, sacred realm of my youth into a nightmare, plucked directly from the mind of a frightened child.
Plucked from your mind, I should think. You are imagining things, Prince.
I was not glad to hear his voice. Despite the fear I experienced, complete solitude, although horrific, would have been preferable to his company. He refused to fall silent, however, lapsing instead into a comfortable monologue when he realized a response would not be forthcoming. Finally, I was forced to stop walking, furious with distraction, and confront him.
Oh! He broke off mid-sentence, sounding pleased and faintly sarcastic, as though he had not expected my interjection. Are you speaking to me at last, then?
I find myself forced to, I replied, reluctantly, tentatively resuming my onwards march. If you continue thus you endanger both our lives.
Both our lives? How kind of you remember me for a change, Prince! Perhaps I was imagining things, but for a moment, I thought some small degree of sincerity underlay his sarcastic words. It offended me beyond belief.
I shall not forget it again soon, for my death to provoke yours is a bargain I would gladly make! But for now I am trying to stay alive; for Farah's sake, and the sake of the Babylon I have destroyed, if not yours, so stay silent and let me concentrate!
Inside my mind, he made a sound like a caged animal. More martyrdom, Prince? More of your blind, senseless hatred? I am doing you a favour, you fool! Perhaps you did not notice, but your fear of this place was distracting you far more than my words could hope to.
His words strung of truth, but I pushed them aside, tilting my head back to identify the source of a rope that dangled before me, a few metres from the platform I occupied. As I examined it, I realized I was slightly comforted by our jousting; for all that it had awakened an uncomfortable realization in me. The Gardens were unsettling, at best, and it was true that travelling alone was unnerving me to a shameful degree.
That's right, my doppelganger agreed, only partly taunting. On the Island of Time, you travelled alone, and fought all the better for it. But the Empress's death has left you weak, in need of an ally. I fear Farah plays that part all too well.
I seized hold of the rope before me and hoisted myself up. Then what do you suggest I do?
There was a pause, then, as though my reply had surprised him. Perhaps he had been expecting something more heated; certainly, a dozen barbed remarks had crossed my mind in response to his comments. But to what avail? Cruel and selfish and deceptive as he was, he had yet to accuse me wrongly. Deny it as I might, some part of me knew he spoke the truth.
I am not entirely sure, Prince. Here he paused again, letting me register my own surprise at his unexpected courteousness. As you know, I place certain…value on staying alive, and Farah seems the only thing capable of making you value it also.
So you would not have me leave her, after all? I had meant the comment light-heartedly, partly in jest, partly in victorious reminder of all the times he had condemned Farah's presence by my side, but I think, now, that he must have seen in my words the seeds of my plan, before I had even thought of it myself.
Leave her? he railed. His anger surprised me and my fingers weakened; I slid, hissing, some inches down the rope. Your weaknesses will cost us everything, Prince, and you see fit to jest? Without Farah, we will never reach the Vizier and kill him! Never reclaim our Kingdom!
Kingdom, he had said. Our Kingdom. I must have guessed it then, what he dreamt of, and although I could not name it, I knew it sickened me. My response came quickly.
Know that these are your ambitions, not mine. I seek only to undo the damage I have caused.
By the time he spoke, I had given up expecting a reply, clinging to the very top of the rope with the knot spinning lazy circles at my feet.
Yes, that is all too clear to me. And in time, Prince, it shall be equally clear to you.
At the time, I did not question his meaning, and I wish now that I had. But together, somehow, we had cleared the Hanging Gardens: the nightmares were gone, and I did not care to dwell on them. Some part of me knew, as he did, that I could not sleep peaceful forever. But that part itself lay asleep within me, deep-buried and so quiet I heard only silence, and it remained so almost until the very end.
I did not find Farah again until I reached the Royal Kitchens, and it was there that I experienced the first moment of earth-shattering clarity since our first tryst. His grip on me had been weakening after our discussion in the gardens; he had mostly retreated from my mind, out of caution, although at the time I suspected an uncharacteristic kindness in his motives. Whatever the case, our thoughts were almost separate by the time I reached the Kitchens, and Farah's dark silhouette was the shock that ruptured our connection completely. It was as though I had been held under water all this time, and I reeled to see her standing there, fingers laced around the metallic bars that kept us apart, calling out to me.
"Farah!" Saying her name was like tasting the sweetest wine; her fingers, brushing my neck as I moved closer, were like a blanket offered to a man freezing. I looked past her, inspecting the space she occupied. It was a little courtyard, lined with stone benches and cluttered with pottery. In the very centre, directly behind her, there was a small, decorative fountain, its water trickling into an ornate metallic grate. A sudden longing to be with Farah, in that courtyard, nothing impeding our touch, washed over me with unusual violence. I clutched onto her as best I could, my heart suddenly so full I could barely speak. It was then, somehow, in the shock of that powerful moment, that I knew what I had to do. Our Kingdom.
"Farah," I said again, and something in my voice must have alerted her, for she straightened and pulled her limbs slowly from my aching fingers. "Farah, you must leave. You must not travel with me any longer."
Her beautiful face was creased with confusion; her dark eyes, beacons of clarity that went through me like a knife point, somehow clouded, muddied. Now they did nothing to me at all, levelled at my chin instead of my face, and all the warmth Farah had once given out dissipated harmlessly into the air. In that moment, I felt colder than I have ever felt.
"Leave," I repeated, harsher now, though struggling. "Leave me! Go!"
"No," Farah countered suddenly, surprising me. Her dark face was flushed, but she raised her eyes to meet my gaze as she continued, firmly: "No, Prince. What are you saying? We will do this together—we are so close, now—"
"You do not understand!" I forced myself to turn away from her, a plant turning from the sun. "Travelling so long alone, Farah, I came to realize how much swifter I progressed unhindered by your presence." I heard her intake of breath and it spurred me to continue, ruthless: "Yes! A hindrance; I did not see it before, but that is what your company has become. You slow me down, Farah. Even now, you would have me waste time rejoining you, when I should push on instead, to where the Vizier waits, before it is too late."
I heard her beat at the bars that separated us, then, and when she spoke her voice was filled with fury. "Ungrateful little princeling! I thought you cared about the wellbeing of your people, but I see now you are motivated solely by your own selfish revenge. Be gone, then! Travel alone! Seek out your vengeance; you will find it cold, Prince, and empty, and it will leave you hungry. You will see."
I had no doubt that I would. But not with Farah's death on my hands.
"Farewell, Prince," she said, voice laced with anger and the barest traces of regret. "I hope you succeed in your quest, for the sake of this city, although I fear it will destroy you in the process. Be on your guard."
Somehow, I was able to speak the words she expected of me. "I always am. Farewell, Farah."
In the silence that followed, I heard her depart. A brief numbness washed over me then, a moment I spent seated, inert, the back of my head resting against ivy, praying I would be able to move again soon. The Vizier was but a faint thought in my mind, one I tried repeatedly to drag to the forefront, longing for it to consume me as it had done before. Vengeance, Babylon—meaningless themes. My mind lingered instead on the loss of Farah, and the loss of Kaileena to which it harkened: the accumulated failures that rendered me speechless. My heart was frozen with regret, beyond thawing. I think I would never have risen again, had it not been for him, whose voice rose gradually within me, a crescendo of panic that jolted me from my stillness.
No! Inside my mind, he was frantic and infuriated. No, no, no, what have you done? You sabotage yourself! We need her, you fool!
I did not answer. From the fog was emerging a plan for continuation, the barest sketch that I clung to with both hands. I would not see Farah again; I would reach the Vizier at all costs and kill him. And after? I gave no thoughts to after. I think this is what horrified him the most.
That was my plan, as it surfaced in my sudden instance of clarity, and as I set out, I had every intention of seeing it to completion. Now, however, I doubt I would have survived long enough to do so, for I was foolhardy as I had ever been; worse, even, for despite my efforts, Farah plagued my thoughts—so much so that when I first glimpsed her standing with her back to me on the balcony opposite, I believed her a figment of my mind. It was only when she moved backward, and the familiar, menacing figure of a sand-soldier came into view that I realized that this was not my conscience tormenting me.
My solitary journey had taken me all the way to the Tower of Babel, and this was the structure I climbed now, using the scaffolding and stone platforms that circled it to scale my way to the top. I had cleared most of the fog that had previously blocked the upper reaches of the tower from me, and the terrace was now quite visible, hanging just beyond my reach, yet enticingly close. Inexorably drawn to my destination, I had begun to move faster, less cautiously, and death, I think, awaited me around the corner, but the sight of Farah stopped me in my tracks. A shout froze on its way to my lips; I dared not call to her, for fear it would distract her. To see her again was akin to being plunged into a basin of cold water: it awoke a sharp, tingling sensation in every limb, like a slap to the face, and in my shell-shocked silence, the voice in my head decided to speak. His voice was soft, coaxing; he had given up expecting a response from me a while ago, and given up speaking entirely even more recently, and I suspect he spoke quietly so as not to startle me.
She's in danger, Prince. One more step and she will fall.
In an instant, I saw he was right, and suddenly I was running, leaping, to cross the distance to her. My eyes darted faster than ever before, searching ahead for footing, for any structure that could support my weight and that would bring me that small bit closer to Farah. Soon enough, I was sufficiently close to hear the sound of her battle: she was out of breath, panicked, and this was all I needed to bridge the gap between us. I drew my sword mid-jump, staggering onto the platform she occupied a moment later.
Both Farah and the soldier turned to look at me. I will never forget Farah's expression. Her lips were a wide, beautiful o, her eyes were arrows, betrayal and fury mixed together in the set of her jaw, the crooked line of her brows. And then, suddenly, the expression shifted; shock replaced it, and she turned her face away from me to stare first at the sand-soldier before her and then down, where a slash across her midriff was slowly darkening. Without thought, I moved towards her and she fell into my arms. My heart surged in my chest, but whatever weight her warmth had lifted from my soul was transferred onto my body; I stumbled, took two staggering steps back, overbalanced over the banister, and together, we fell.
Even as I reached one-handed for my dagger, knowing that it was too late yet trying desperately to unsheathe it all the same, I could feel his sudden roaring to life; to me, it felt more like a death, shoved aside into a corner of my mind, mouth distorting as I cursed, "No! No, no, a thousand times no!" Farah shuddered against me, lithe, strong, her arms thrown around a neck that was shadowed in black tendrils, clutching trustingly to me even as I transformed. She was right to do so, for a second later, his chain spiralled through the air, and we were suddenly flung to the ground: he had swung us onto an outcropping platform in order to break our fall. Pain flared instantly, sharply, demanding attention, but I had no air in my lungs with which to cry out. I do not know how long I lay there, gasping harshly, unable to think for fear and relief, before I realized the pain was more intense than it should be, and that the back of my shirt felt warm and wet.
It was at least another minute before I dared to move, and even then it was only a turn of the head to confirm that it was Farah's body weighting down my outstretched right arm. As I laid eyes on her, she moaned softly and stirred, struggling upright with some difficulty, expression disoriented. At length her eyes met mine. Then there was another long moment of stillness before she scrambled to her feet far quicker than I thought possible and nocked an arrow in her bow.
It was only then that I realized I was not myself. He controlled me; he had saved me, yes, but now he lingered, lighting up my eyes and poisoning my skin. He forced my body upright, somehow ignoring the pain it arched through us, and returned Farah's horrified stare with amusement.
"Is this how you repay me for saving your life?" he asked in his guttural voice. Just to hear it made Farah flinch and draw her bowstring tauter.
"Give him back," she spat in response, and I felt my eyes widening in surprise.
"Can it be?" he said slowly, getting to his feet, and I suddenly realized he was somehow pushing the pain of our wounds onto me alone, and using it to hold me under and maintain his control. "Do you finally understand?" To me, he added, wryly, all gentleness gone, It certainly took her long enough.
Farah did not dignify his question with a response. "Give—him—back!" she demanded again, the threat of violence implicit in the way her voice rose.
Should I make her kill us? He asked me sardonically, still holding me down with the pain of our injuries. She wouldn't, you know—I wouldn't have to give you back at all—I could keep you forever, and she wouldn't dare kill us. Perhaps you do have a way with women after all.
It was difficult to form a response. I thought that we had—an understanding—
About Farah? His voice had changed, softened; I sensed in him a burgeoning awareness of the extent of my disorientation. Yes. I understand, now, why you think she is worth the trouble. Sending her away was…idiocy. You came so close to death without her by your side that I had given up, but fortune has delivered her into our hands again, Prince, so have heart! It was only partly sarcastic. You may not have ruined everything after all—only, you must allow me to do the talking.
Beneath his unusual gentleness, there was jubilance. He knew I was cornered as well as I did. I hardly…have a choice…
That's right, he coaxed, as though my concession had been willing. Let me do this, Prince. Stay quiet and do not fight me, and we may yet have a chance. Perhaps I shall even alleviate you some.
His words struck me as odd, but they succeeded in pacifying me. Disoriented and pained as I was, I had no other alternative than to fall quiet, and watch, and after a moment he kept his promise, distributing the stabbing hurt of our back wound more evenly between us, such that I was left with a dull ache that disrupted my concentration sufficiently without reducing me to staggering incoherence. It was bearable, although hardly pleasant, and so I watched without interfering as he returned Farah's gaze brazenly until she lowered her weapon, hesitation fracturing over her face.
"Prince?" she called suddenly, tentative. I stirred hopefully, but my wound spiked warningly, and I desisted. "Are you—there?"
"He's there," my counterpart confirmed. "Rather, he's here," he amended, and touched his gnarled fingers delicately to the centre of his chest. "So you should avoid harming me, Princess, if you ever hope to see him again."
After a moment, Farah shrugged her bow back onto her shoulder and replaced the arrow in her quiver. "What do you want?" Her words were hard, but I heard her surrender as loudly as he did.
"Some company." He outstretched his hand, and whatever expression he wore, Farah flinched away from it. "Yours."
"No," she answered, quickly, emphatically. "Never."
Some part of me surged in relief and triumph to hear her words, but that part of me was smaller than it had ever been. In truth I was more frustrated than elated; an emotion as much my own as my doppelganger's, for I did not have the strength to deny Farah anymore, and the prospect of facing the numbness of her departure filled with me terror. As though sensing my feelings, he turned towards me, suddenly attentive. Make her see sense, Prince! His tone was almost plaintive. Explain that if she does not come with us, we will likely die. Surely that will be enough to sway her?
I don't know. The lifting pain had restored some of my usual sarcasm. If you would just allow me use of my mouth, I could attempt to communicate as much—
Suddenly, I felt some degree of movement returning to me and the end of my sentence emerged through stiff lips, startling both Farah and myself: "—to the Princess directly!"
Inside, he made a smug sound, obviously pleased by my surprise. Your wish is my command. But be careful, Prince. Do not forget that it is I, not you, who is in control.
That much was abundant to me. Although I could speak, and move the muscles of my face, this was the limit of the control he extended to me, and I still wore his form, a fact that filled me with dismay, as I feared it would make Farah considerably harder to convince of my identity.
"What?" The object of my preoccupation looked towards me now, caution warring with curiosity on her face. Although she did not recognize me, she took a step closer, and I thought I sensed some subconscious awareness of my presence. "What has happened to you?"
"Farah, it's me." The words rushed from my lips before I could think of rephrasing them, and by some miracle, she understood. At that moment, I could not believe I had ever doubted her; had she not proved, countless times, her ability to find me against all odds? Her mouth dropped comically wide, and for a moment I thought she would rush towards me and embrace me; certainly I could see her struggling with the urge. Instead, she took several deep breaths, chest heaving, and uncrossed her arms.
"Prince," she said then, with a magnificent attempt at calm. "Are you…here to stay?"
I shook my head, wishing I could do otherwise. "No. I cannot, I…I have no time to explain, but you must come with me, Farah. With…" My mouth twisted with distaste. "…us. Without your help, we will never reach the Vizier; never defeat him. Babylon will remain as it is…" I searched for the words. "Blood-bathed. Until, I fear, sand-soldiers shall be the only beings left in the City. Regardless of the cost, you know I cannot let that happen, Farah."
For a moment, I feared she would not speak, and when she did, her words were cold. "You claim to need me, but you, Prince, are the one who sent me away."
"I feared for your safety," I defended. "But now…I daren't. Please, Farah. I will not say he means no harm, for that is not true, but I do not think that he does not mean any to us. We…I…need you."
"But why should I trust you?" Without arrogance, she arched an eyebrow, set a hand upon her angled hip. "You have lied to me once already."
"Oh, enough of the lovers' spat!" The words were not mine: impatiently, my counterpart jostled me aside. "Princess, you will trust us because you have no other option. Indeed, your Prince sent you away, and yet here you are, and why is that? Is it perhaps that you, too, are hunting the Vizier, seeking to restore Babylon to its former glory? An admirable task…but one you cannot hope to complete alone."
If I had believed Farah to be angry before, it was nothing compared to the expression she wore now. "We were in the middle of a conversation," she seethed, crossing her arms defensively over her chest once more. "I should like to have finished it!"
He made a noise of disgust. "Oh, set aside your futile anger! Am I truly your enemy, Princess? Do we not, all three, have the same goal? Do we not all seek to kill the mad Vizier who so corrupted this City; the Vizier who imprisoned you, Farah, and enslaved your people? And yet, you propose to set this aside to wage a meaningless war against me! Have I enslaved your people, Princess? Have I imprisoned you?"
"You are imprisoning the Prince," she countered, but I could see her waver.
"Perhaps you have not noticed, but one body ill befits two minds. I do this in order to exist, but if you know of an alternative, I would gladly hear it."
She was hunting the Vizier from the beginning. His words had jogged my memory; I was appalled I had ever, in my self-centredness, forgotten. What else could have been her purpose when we met her on the rooftops? She even said as much! After all, Farah has her own people to protect and avenge.
Of course, he replied absent-mindedly, watching Farah's features transform as she struggled with her indecision. But I think she seeks to protect, rather than avenge. She is quite a curious creature. Such strength, coupled with such compassion.
His affability unnerved me. You once found that distasteful.
Once, he agreed. But so long as it does not hinder our progress, why deny the girl her paltry shows of kindness?
Suddenly, Farah interrupted our silent discussion with a steely note I recognized all too well.
"Very well. I will travel with you, if it will help bring about that traitor's demise. But make no mistake: that is as long as our alliance will last."
"Excellent," my doppelgänger answered, briskly. His voice betrayed none of his internal satisfaction; I alone was privy to that. "Then perhaps we might continue? We have wasted enough time already."
And so they set off together, navigating the shadowed corridors back to the point from which we had fallen with a silent, matter-of-fact efficiency that chilled me. It happened so easily: two enemies in unspoken complicity while I remained mired and voiceless, a pain and longing seven years in the making shoring up in my throat.
You do not trust her,I questioned him as they climbed, unsure of which answer I wished to hear. Out of some arrogant over-confidence, he had chosen to lead the way through the structure's internal passageways, and Farah's eyes were burning a hole into the back of our neck.
Why not? He replied, easily, though he must have felt her gaze as I did. She would never betray her Prince.
It was a strange reversal, to plague his mind the way he had plagued mind. Initially, I was much too disoriented to attempt to turn the situation to my advantage, and thus for some time they travelled unhindered, and I watched their progress with unseeing eyes. As they came closer and closer to the tower, however, tendrils of awareness began to interrupt my detachment, jerking me from numbness to alertness in a manner not dissimilar to being plunged into cold water. In these moments of awareness, I chose to attempt a discreet perusal of the mind so close to mine. He was quick to notice my intrusion.
Prince? What are you doing? He sounded surprised; I had not bothered him in almost an hour. As soon as he realized my intention, his curiosity gave way to a panicked irritation. Stop that!
All too swiftly, he had fashioned a barrier against me, no doubt copying my earlier defences, and I was thrust suddenly, unceremoniously, backward. I was dismayed: in the few seconds available to me, I had learnt very little of use, gleaning primarily ambition, ruthlessness—things that came as no surprise but overwhelmed me nonetheless with their vicarious intensity. Even his affection for Farah, the small silver spark she had unwittingly planted within all that darkness, did not truly surprise me; some part of me had known, had witnessed it develop: the way his mirrored emotion had fractured, split, formed an obsessive, protective characteristic of its own.
Are you surprised, Prince? he asked me wryly, unworried, but pulling his thoughts further from mine as he spoke. It must shock you, that a creature such as I should have thoughts so filled with…what is it you reproached me of lacking? Humanity?
When I didn't answer, I felt him shift from amusement to annoyance, his emotions of late unusually volatile. Very well, he snapped. Stay silent! But do not forget that this is your doing, Prince. I offered you a fair alliance; we could have destroyed the Vizier together, brought Babylon to greatness. What Kings we would have been! But if you prefer anger and denial to allegiance, that is not my concern—so be it.
Again, I did not answer. There was nothing I could say to counter his accusations, and although I did not regret my decision to resist him, I had begun to doubt its rightfulness.
"There it is. The last staircase." Turning back to Farah, my doppelgänger extended a blackened arm outward. I had not noted our surroundings, but at his announcement both Farah and I looked on together. I recognized the stairs he designated instantly: they were indeed the final approach, carpeted and winding sharply upwards before opening to the highest balcony of the tower. "Shall we climb it, Princess? It may not reach heaven, but at the very top, we shall kill a God and reclaim a throne."
"We?" Farah said, sceptically, turning towards him with a sound of contemptuous disbelief. He did not say anything. "You are as terrible a liar as he," she said then, full of disgust, and he laughed.
"You wound me, Princess!"
"You have no heart to wound, monster." Nevertheless, her tone had changed. I could not tell if she was tempted by his offer, or if it was something else that distracted her, but she looked towards the staircase a long moment before continuing. "And the Prince? What of him?"
"What of him?" He agreed, affably. "He is quite alive, quite conscious, Princess; you needn't fear otherwise." I felt the briefest flicker of doubt in him before he continued, as though my silences perturbed him. "Our victory shall also be his. Three minds to a single throne; what rulers we shall make!"
This time Farah was the one to laugh, and he smiled mock-politely at her scepticism. When he spoke, his voice was dismissive. "For now, however, we should rest; gather our strength for the morrow: the climb, and what awaits us at the summit."
"If you think it necessary," Farah acquiesced, curtly. He inclined his head, as though grateful for the concession.
"Won't you lie down beside me to-night, Princess? It may be our last, after all."
"Remove your hand from my shoulder, creature, before I nock an arrow."
I watched them dazedly, well accustomed, now, to their banter. His brief contact with Farah had ignited coals under my fingertips, but when she pushed him away the feeling fled, and I longed after it with a full heart that echoed his.
"Be reasonable, Princess." It was some time later, I think; we had lain down, at least, and Farah was curled some distance from us, facing determinedly away. I saw her braid sway slightly at his words.
"What do you take me for?" I was surprised she had responded at all, and my doppelgänger flare of emotion indicated I was not alone. "If you value your limbs you will keep your hands to yourself tonight, wretch."
My doppelgänger forced an irritated sound through his lips and rolled onto his back, folding his arms beneath his head. We had both settled into a light doze when Farah spoke again, hesitantly, but in a clear voice.
"But to a certain point…I find you are right. This may indeed be our last night. That being the case, I should like to speak to the Prince, if you would give him to me for a time." The next part emerged quieter: "A—all of him. His body, as well as his mind."
The request surprised both of us. Prince! Are you awake? I did not reply, grown too accustomed to my silence, and he in turn was too occupied with Farah to plague me long. After a moment he turned his gaze outwards again and propped himself up on his elbows, staring fixedly at Farah's curled form.
"Perhaps I would, Princess," he admitted eventually. There was an odd, nervous teasing that underlay his words. "It all depends."
At this, Farah suddenly sat up and turned to face us, breathless. Her eyes were wide and clear, belying her earlier pretence at slumber.
"On what?" she demanded immediately, searching his face for some clues as to his intention.
He hesitated before answering; I give him that.
"On whether all you plan to do is speak."
Farah made an outraged noise which did not surprise either of us.
"You are despicable!" She pounded the ground beside her to punctuate this statement. "Disgusting creature! Is that all you think of?"
"Not all," he defended, sounding slightly offended.
"And should I say no," she continued, ignoring his protestation, "you will not give him to me at all, is that correct?"
Once again, I felt him hesitate. "Very astute, Princess: correct."
At this, my Indian Princess made another indistinct sound of fury, her lips a stark white against her darker skin, and suddenly, he was poking at my consciousness again, relentless. Prince! Are you there? Once more I gave him no answer, but this time he did not leave off so easily. Fool, do you not care? We may die tomorrow; the time is passed to be stoic! Answer me!
Farah's cool voice jolted him from his remonstrations and his gaze refocused outwards, on the strong set of my Princess' jaw. I felt his mingled hope and confusion.
Another sound of disgust; she shook her head angrily and I noticed that her lips were red once more. "I am saying yes, monster! Now give him back."
It happened without a warning. I did not even feel him relinquish his hold; rather, the transformation lifted us into the air with a violent speed, and shook us, or so it felt, until his form became my own. I fell to my knees when it was done, trembling, stunned by the sudden control over my limbs. Elation, rightly, should have consumed me, but my mind was far too overwhelmed to reach such pure simplicity of feeling. Instead I was fractured as ever, great tides of rage, joy, and sorrow coursing through me in dizzying waves.
"Prince! Prince!" Gradually, I became aware of Farah's voice, close by, and raised my head to see she had come to kneel before me and was clasping me by the shoulders. "It's truly you!" she exclaimed as my eyes met her hers, and quite suddenly, she folded me into her arms. This embrace reawakened me, abruptly, to my limbs and sensations of feeling: reciprocating automatically, I was flooded with the warmth I had come to expect, and buried my face into her neck.
What came to pass thereafter I need not, I think, relate. Suffice to say that Farah offered me warmth, and comfort, and armed thus, she drew me back to myself with touches and words. But there was a new awareness in her eyes as she did so that I had never seen before. She knew what lurked within me now; knew it, and reviled it, and yet I saw nothing but love in that steely dark gaze.
He saw it too. Although he tried to suppress his feelings, I felt his fluttering of hope when Farah kissed my mouth; felt, rather than heard, his long, exhaled hiss as warm fingers tapered down my back, dangerously close to our unhealed wound. To his credit, he tried, I believe, to stay silent, but his thoughts were too loud. It was the strangest sensation imaginable, to experience a thing—a multitude of things, of warmths—vicariously and immediately, all at once. I had never been so aware of him before, and his thoughts and feelings, instead of distracting me, formed fragmented echoes of my own that tripled in intensity every one of Farah's tender assaults to my senses.
Princess, Princess, he muttered feverishly inside my mind.
Aloud, I said, simply, "Farah."
After, we slept some, finding ourselves finally able to slip into that welcome oblivion from thought, and although little sleep was had that night, we felt rested when we awoke. At the foot of the staircase, before our ascension, Farah met my eyes squarely for a single moment, as though searching for something; I know not what. Then she bowed her head and gestured upwards, voice warm and unreadable.
Farah must stay safe; always, safe, I pleaded as we climbed. At all costs, please.
What are you saying? His voice was scornful and, beneath the surface, frantic. What are you saying?
Somehow, we walked out onto the balcony together, all three of us. I did not know, at that point, which of us was controlling my limbs: myself, my other half, Farah—it hardly mattered: from this height, the entirety of Babylon was framed by marble railings, spread-eagled at our feet. Our feet. And at the very edge of the platform, nestled in a cluster rain-clouds, the City's tyrant was waiting with hands full of lightning.
The first drop of water hit the balcony undetected. Quietly, it escalated into a deluge that came and went without notice. By the end of the rainfall, the battle was over.
We both awoke at the same time to the sound of a fallen object's landing.
There was a weight on my chest, and I turned my head to the side to confirm the presence I suspected, as I had done once before. Her hair tickled my mouth and cheek as I did so, forcing a smile to my lips. Spreading across my chest, there was a warm, sticky wetness that was also familiar, and persuaded me to remain perfectly still as I took in my surroundings. I was on my back, and the sky above me was dark. Looming in the corner of my vision was the summit of the structure we had struggled so desperately to reach: the tower of Babel, its apex spiralling further and further upwards, lost in stars. We looked towards it, and my chest rose unsteadily, Farah's weight restricting my breathing. I suddenly longed to roll her off, but remained, for the moment, perfectly supine, lost in thought.
We made it, he murmured, voice strangely low and controlled. We have it. To think, all this time, Prince… and in the end it fell so easily.
Easily? I closed my eyes and laced my black fingers into Farah's hair. The heavy weight of her chest against mine was making my heart race. For a moment, I felt his resolve flicker. What is it that you want?
All that is yours, Prince. With an iron strength, he pushed Farah's still body off us. She rolled onto the floor face-down, her serpentine braid winding its way down her back, her only remaining identifying marker. Her bow, arrows and quiver were all gone; the weapon rendered useless after she had run out of arrows, had reached back for them to find her quiver empty, tried to use the heavy, useless wood instead for a shield, to no avail…I could not think. I could not remember. His hand was a tightening vice around my heart, a poison in my veins that had at some point become my blood.
I could not breathe.
In silence, he reached towards the thing which had fallen. The thing which was golden. It had hit the ground with such a small sound.
All that is ours.